Jacksonian Antislavery and the Politics of Free Soil, 1824-1854

By Jonathan H. Earle | Go to book overview

CHAPTER FOUR
Marcus Morton and the
Dilemma of Jacksonian Antislavery
in Massachusetts

Massachusetts justly earned a reputation as the historical center of the movement to end slavery in the United States. Bay State abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison, David Walker, and Theodore Parker demanded immediate emancipation for slaves and, oftentimes, equal rights for blacks. They kept the issue of slavery squarely before a skeptical American voting public in the decades before the Civil War and never wavered in their attack on the South's (and, it could be argued, the nation's) central institution. Nonetheless, at the movement's height abolitionists accounted for only the tiniest minority of voters, even among the middle-class evangelicals who provided the lion's share of their financial and numerical support. The overwhelming majority of antislavery partisans—those Americans who eventually stood up to slavery and its extension—never belonged to any antislavery organization.

In other words, it took far more than professed agitators to overthrow slavery in the United States. Hundreds of thousands of Americans of many stripes—black and white, rich and poor, Whig and Democrat—came to oppose slavery and its expansion in the second quarter of the nineteenth century. They reached this position for a variety of reasons. Exemplifying this complexity was the career of one Massachusetts antislavery politician, jurist and two-time Democratic governor Marcus Morton. The story of how Morton defended his antislavery position—as well as the often tortuous path he followed into the Free Soil and Republican parties—encapsulates the social and political transformation of northern politics and public opinion on the greatest issue of the day. Far removed from the righteous abolitionists of Cambridge's Brattle Street, Morton's career in rough-and-tumble Democratic politics brings to life a vital moment in antebellum U.S. his-

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