The Fortunate Heirs of Freedom: Abolition & Republican Thought

By Daniel J. McInerney | Go to book overview

1
THE FINE THREAD
THE PROBLEM OF REPUBLICAN SLAVERY

THOSE WHO PRESSED for immediate emancipation and racial equality recoiled at the injustice, immorality, and barbarism of bondage. Their explanations for the necessity of abolition, however, commonly focused on a more distinct and specific set of problems posed by slavery: in the eyes of reformers, the chattel system represented the terrifying inversion of all republican values. As they defined, defended, and promoted their campaign against slavery, reformers expressed the belief that the cause of abolition embodied the core concepts of republicanism.

Advocates commonly spoke of the relationship between abolition and republicanism. In 1841, a leader of New York reformers, Gerrit Smith, stated: "We deny that any but an anti-slavery man is a republican, or fit to make laws for republicans." One year later, Smith extended the argument, bemoaning political efforts "to fill our highest offices with actual republicans, or abolitionists, whilst we were filling our least ones, with pro-slavery or anti-republican men." Lydia Maria Child, a Garrisonian abolitionist and editor, appealed to the "republican good sense" of her readers when asking them to judge the status of slaves and freemen. The 1855 Radical Abolitionist Convention argued that all who called themselves "republican citizens" had, by definition, a responsibility to carry out antislavery work. And a New England Anti-Slavery Society convention reminded members that "if you are republicans, not by birth only, but from principle, then let the avenues, all the avenues of light and liberty, of truth and love, be opened wide to every soul within the nation." The convention condemned the chattel system by arguing that "the natural effects of slavery on the mind and disposition of the master and the slave" challenged the principles of

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