Antislavery: The Crusade for Freedom in America

By Dwight Lowell Dumond | Go to book overview

Chapter 44
THE ROAD TO FREEDOM

Abolition of slavery was a long, slow, agonizing process, achieved in a manner contrary to the best judgment of antislavery men, and never fully completed. Freedom by manumission was commonplace. Individual slaves, from early colonial days, were given certificates of freedom as a reward for long and faithful service in return for some particular acts of devotion, because they were children of the master, because they had passed the age of productive labor, and probably for many other reasons in individual cases. Many slaveholders also freed their slaves because of a conviction that slavery was morally wrong, and many more, not because of a sense of moral obligation, but because they could afford to indulge in generous humanitarianism. These acts of manumission sometimes were completed during a man's lifetime, but more often by his last will and testament.

Freedom was very often obtained by purchase. There is not very much room here for commendation of the master, but, considering the high percentage of slaves who were hired out by their owners and the wretched state of their existence, there was a degree of contrition in the heart of the man who permitted all or a portion of the slave's earnings to count for his redemption. Sometimes, as we have seen, such slaves were allowed to go over into a free state to work. A great many, having bought themselves, then turned to the purchase of their wives and children or other relations, giving a lifetime of hard labor to secure that which, as a nation, we had said was a gift of God to every man.

A third way to freedom was by perilous flight. The slave system was designed to prevent escape. Slaves inclined to brood over their bondage or to show a spirit of resistance sooner or later were sold into the deep South, from whence the road to free soil was long and tortuous. It required great endurance and skill to outdistance the hound dogs and the armed hounds of hell who took them out for a sporting venture or a piece of silver. It required rare discernment to know whom to approach for aid when it seemed that every man's hand was against you. It required extreme wariness to move in secret where every white man was invested with legal authority to search, to chastise, and perhaps to kill, and every road might well be patrolled by armed men.

Escape from bondage, but not to freedom, could be obtained also by suicide. An enormous number of slaves took this way out. Official and unofficial accounts of the African slave trade and of slavery in the West Indies dwell at length upon it, and newspaper accounts prove it to have been a common occurrence in the United States. Slaves killed themselves and their children so frequently that the total number who were killed in flight or committed suicide equaled the number who escaped, and the two combined was five times the number who were freed by manumission.

Society never encouraged manumission. State laws were not uniform, except in the sense of discouraging the practice. They forbade manumission except by special consent of the state legislature. They required bond by the grantor that the manumitted slave would never become a public

-364-

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