Academic journal article Journal of the Early Republic

"To Raise Them to an Equal Participation": Early National Abolitionism, Gradual Emancipation, and the Promise of African American Citizenship

Academic journal article Journal of the Early Republic

"To Raise Them to an Equal Participation": Early National Abolitionism, Gradual Emancipation, and the Promise of African American Citizenship

Article excerpt

In the winter of 1805 the New York Manumission Society (NYMS) issued its annual report to the American Convention of Abolition Societies. Laying out the principal aims of its efforts at organized antislavery reform, the NYMS pledged to the American Convention that it would continue with "unabated zeal" its attempts to "promote the gradual emancipation of the unhappy race of Africans who are enslaved amongst us" and work to "raise" newly emancipated slaves and free blacks "to an equal participation in the rights and benefits of political society." The report expressed confidence that "the enlightened and sincere friends to the happiness of human kind" would applaud the joint goals of slavery's gradual abolition and the integration of freed slaves into civil society. The NYMS revealed that it felt heartened by the "evidence of the industry, sobriety, and economy" of New York's free blacks and remained hopeful that former slaves would "gradually emerge from their degraded condition" and take their place as virtuous citizens of the early republic.1

Evidence of this virtuousness was readily available to the abolition societies of early national America. A year after the NYMS penned its report, Peter Williams, Jr., a former pupil of the NYMS school for free blacks, presented the Convention with a learned report of his own. Williams endorsed the abolition societies that he believed had helped "rescue" black Americans from the "evil consequences" of slavery and had "inculcated by precept and example, the lessons of morality, industry and economy" in former bondsmen. Williams understood the program of black education and uplift advocated by antislavery activists as resulting in the "gradual discardment of the illiberal opinions entertained against part of the human family" by the majority of white Americans. He looked forward to a bright future in which America would eliminate "all the distinctions between the inalienable rights of black men, and white." Written soon after the 1804 New Jersey gradual emancipation act completed the passage of gradual emancipation laws in the postRevolutionary North, these two documents capture the philosophy of the early national abolitionist movement.2

Early national abolitionism was designed to break apart American bondage through a progressive enlightenment for black and white Americans together. As gradual abolition laws gave time for former slaves to make the transition into republican citizens, displaying their aptitude for freedom and virtue, antislavery activists aimed to persuade a skeptical and prejudiced white American public to extend the egalitarian promises of Revolutionary ideology to the nation's African Americans.

Yet the dominant narrative of recent studies on early national antislavery has downplayed the challenge posed to chattel bondage and white prejudice. This interpretation depicts the process of gradual emancipation in the New England and Middle Atlantic states between 1780 and 1804 as a conservative compromise forged out of the dueling American revolutionary doctrines of property rights and natural rights that sought to balance the claims of slaveholders to their property in slaves on the one hand and the rights of the enslaved to their freedom on the other. The antislavery activists who agitated for gradual emancipation are likewise presented by many historians in this same paradoxical vein. They held fast to natural-rights doctrines even as they recognized the rights of slaveholders to property in persons. They argued for the innate equality of all persons even as they doubted the suitability of the very slaves whose bondage they protested to a state of freedom. Their program of antislavery reform, though driven by theoretically egalitarian dictates, at best projected a well-intentioned but narrowly elitist paternalism and at worst repressively perpetuated proslavery principles by establishing an "informal servitude" for both the free blacks and emancipated slaves who fell under their moral and intellectual guidance. …

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