Abolition, Word by Word
The long battle of ideas that defeated slavery
With the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment in December 1865, a ban on slavery became the law of the land. Fitting, then, that the Library of America’s sweeping new anthology of antislavery literature – a compilation of 216 works by 158 different authors –ends with the two-sentence addition to the Constitution that proscribed slavery in the United States once and for all.
Much more revealing than where it ends is where the anthology begins. American Antislavery Writings opens with the earliest known public statement of opposition to slavery in the colonies – a resolution adopted in 1688 by the Quakers of Germantown, Penn. “What thing in the world can be done worse towarts us then if men should robb or steal us away & sell us for slaves to strange Countries,” the document argues, denouncing slavery as cruel and hypocritical at a time when the American Revolution lay nearly nine decades in the future.
Generations before there was a Declaration of Independence to proclaim that “all men are created equal,” there were Americans who were forcefully condemning slavery as an indefensible crime against human dignity. The first abolitionist pamphlet published in New England, The Selling of Joseph, was written in 1700 by Samuel Sewall, an eminent Boston Puritan who later became chief justice of Massachusetts. “Man Stealing is ranked amongst the most atrocious of Capital Crimes,” wrote Sewall as he excoriated the African slave trade that violently tore “Men from their Country, Husbands from their Wives, Parents from their Children.”
When Abraham Lincoln met Harriet Beecher Stowe in 1862, he is said to have asked: “Is this the little woman who made this great war?” The anecdote may be apocryphal, as Columbia University historian James Basker notes in his introduction to the new anthology, but it remains “the most famous tribute to the power of antislavery literature in American history.” Stowe’s 1852 novel, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” had been an international sensation – a searing bestseller that made confirmed abolitionists out of countless readers. Nonetheless, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was only the most celebrated antislavery work in a body of writing that by then was already more than 150 years old.
In the struggle against slavery, writers made use of every literary form – not only essays and novels, but poems, plays, songs, memoirs, letters, speeches, editorials. Some of the most striking pieces in the Library of America volume were written for children. The Anti-Slavery Alphabet, composed in Philadelphia in 1847, used nursery rhymes to introduce beginning readers to the slavery’s dreadful realities:
W is the Whipping post,
To which the slave is bound,
While on his naked back, the lash
Makes many a bleeding wound.
Over and over, opponents of slavery decried the glaring double standard of white Americans who extolled liberty as an inalienable right, while denying it to millions held in bondage. “What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?” demanded Frederick Douglass, the foremost black abolitionist of the 19th century, in a famous 1852 address. “To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery…. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.”
Other writers resorted to irony, like the 24 “Truisms” published in The Liberator in 1831 by the prolific Boston abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. “The color of the skin determines whether a man has a soul or not,” read one. “If white, he has an immortal essence; if black, he is altogether beastly. Mulattoes, however, derive no benefit from this rule.”
Even more scathing was Jairus Lincoln’s “Hymn 17,” an abolitionist parody of “My country, ‘tis of thee”:
My country! 'tis of thee,
Strong hold of slavery,
Of thee I sing:
Land where my fathers died,
Where men man’s rights deride,
From every mountain-side,
Thy deeds shall ring.
Eulogizing Abraham Lincoln in 1865, Massachusetts’ Charles Sumner declared: “It is by ideas that we have conquered, more than by armies.” That was surely a jarring thing to say in the wake of a Civil War that had killed 750,000 Americans. Yet the extraordinary array assembled in American Antislavery Writings is cogent evidence that Sumner was right. The long campaign for freedom was indeed a battle of ideas – a battle that transformed slavery into the central moral issue in American life, and eventually made its abolition the highest national priority.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).