Antislavery: The Crusade for Freedom in America

By Dwight Lowell Dumond | Go to book overview

Chapter 24
CIVIL RIGHTS

James G. Birney, writing to Gerrit Smith on September 13, 1835, said that it was time for Christians to leave the slave states because there was no longer hope for redemption of that section, then went on to say: "It is as much as all the patriotism in our country can do, to keep alive the spirit of liberty in the free states. The contest is becoming -- has become -- one, not alone of freedom for the black, but of freedom for the white. It has now become absolutely necessary, that Slavery should cease in order that freedom may be preserved to any portion of our land. The antagonist principles of liberty and slavery have been roused into action and one or the other must be victorious. There will be no cessation of the strife until Slavery shall be exterminated, or liberty destroyed."1

The contest over civil rights was far advanced when Birney made this observation. He himself had experienced the loneliness of a man condemned by his former friends and neighbors: unable to publish, denied his mail, shunned by professional men as though a carrier of the plague. He was one of many. Free enquiry and discussion can not be said to have existed anywhere in the country in 1835.

The slave power threatened everyone with mob violence who spoke against slavery; imposed extreme legal penalties of life imprisonment and death upon anyone circulating antislavery literature in the slave states; invaded post offices and censured the mails; denied the right of petition and for a time suppressed all discussion of slavery in Congress; devised an ingenious philosophy of silence which it sought to engraft upon the fundamental law of the nation; demanded suppression by the federal and northern state governments of all antislavery activities; sought to restrain churches and schools from their normal processes of mental and moral improvement of society; incited mob violence against free Negroes and antislavery men; and dug down deep into the relies of barbarism for three ideas: charging the guilt of mob violence upon the victim of the mob; subordinating individual rights to social interests as determined at any time by public sentiment; and allowing law enforcement officials to protect persons and property at their own discretion.

No part of this arbitrary and proscriptive action can be separated out from the rest. Slaveholders and colonizationists were back of the whole of it. Slaveholders were defending a system of racial adjustment, a large capital investment, and the basis of excessive political power. Colonizationists, who believed implicitly in the doctrine of biological inequality and racial inferiority of the Negro, were the right arm in the North of the slave system.2 They controlled in the North the newspapers, the general church associations, the political parties and the professions, as the slaveholders did in the South. They were not interested in emancipation of the slaves, nor in the elevation of the free Negroes, but in ridding their communities of what was regarded as an undesirable and permanently degraded element. They hated the Negroes and their white friends because all of these opposed expatriation. They encouraged outrages against them to force them out. The mass of

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