Pro- and Antislavery Arguments and Conflicts (1840-1851)
  1. The Political Argument
  2. Anti-Slavery Political Arguments
  3. The Free Soil Movement
  4. Pro-Slavery Political Arguments
  5. The Economic Debate
  6. The Religious Argument
  7. The Religious Argument: The Pro-Slavery Position
  8. The Religious Argument: The Anti-Slavery Position
  9. Slavery and the Women's Movement
  10. The Anti-Slavery Argument from Former Slaves
  11. Frederick Douglass
The Political ArgumentTop
Historical Context
The 1840's saw the continuing debate over the issue of slavery. This debate ushered in an era of politicization over the heated topic with the creation of several political parties and the proposal of slavery-related legislation. The political debate over slavery centered around the newly acquired territories-should slavery be permitted in the new territories? The country's politicians were divided over the issue with both sides fervently defending their stance.
Anti-Slavery Political ArgumentsTop
Historical Context
Anti-slavery organizations had existed in America for some time, yet until the 1840's such organizations were not political by nature. This was to change in 1840 with the creation of the Liberty Party. Born out of a discontent with the famed abolitionist organization, the American Anti-Slavery Society, the Liberty Party was determined to fight slavery through political means.

The expansion of the American territories grew considerably after the War with Mexico. Concerned with ensuring prohibition of slavery in the newly acquired territories, David Wilmot, a politician from Pennsylvania proposed before Congress the Wilmot Proviso. This provision called for a prohibition in the territories recently acquired from Mexico.

Attached Documents
Participating in presidential elections in both 1840 and 1844, the Liberty Party prominently placed the issue of slavery in the new territories in the forefront of American politics. The first document contains excerpts from the Liberty Party Platform of 1844.

While the Wilmot Proviso was passed by the House in 1846, it was rejected by the Senate. Proposed again in 1847, the Proviso was yet again rejected by the Senate.

Daniel Webster, U.S. Senator from Massachusetts, also spearheaded a movement against slavery in Congress. In 1848, Webster, discomforted by the idea of slavery extending into the new territories, issued a statement before the Senate in which he claimed that slavery laws, while legally binding in the states in which they were enacted, are merely local laws and have no bearing or legality in the new territories. In this way, Webster hoped to rally others behind his essentially legal argument. Provided below are Webster's remarks.

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Liberty Party Platform:
Wilmot Proviso:
Webster Remarks:
Daniel Webster Picture:
The Free Soil MovementTop
Historical Context
While successful as the first entirely anti-slavery political party, the Liberty Party lost both the 1840 and the 1844 elections. Determined to rally more people to their cause, the Liberty Party joined forces in 1848 with anti-slavery Democrats and Conscience Whigs to form a new political party, the Free Soil Party. While certainly abolitionists, the Free Soil Party more narrowly defined their goals. The new party pushed strongly for the abolition of slavery in the new territories, rather than advocating for a general abolition of slavery throughout the country.

Attached Documents
The first document below provides excerpts from the Free Soil Party Platform of 1848 in which the new party outlines their anti-slavery arguments.

Frederick Douglass, the famed former slave and abolitionist, attended in 1848 the Free Soil Party national convention. Provided below is Douglass' account of the convention.

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Free Party Platform:
Douglass on Free Soilers:
Pro-Slavery Political ArgumentsTop
Historical Context
The pro-slavery political argument, like the anti-slavery argument, was essentially a legal and territorial one. Concerned with the new territories, pro-slavery political leaders pushed for legislation which would permit slavery in said territories. Focusing their argument on the rights of slave-holders to transfer their "property" (in other words, their slaves), to the new territories, the debates were heated. Such arguments were born out of earlier political thought, provided largely by the influential Senator from South Carolina, John Calhoun.

Pro-slavery political debates during this time were led largely by an outspoken Senator from Illinois, Stephen Douglas. Douglas, like his colleagues, viewed the question from a geographical and territorial standpoint. The issue, argued Douglas, was one that should ultimately be decided by the people within that particular region, and not an issue to be decided by Congress. This notion, coined "popular sovereignty" placed slavery into the hands of the residents of the new territories.

Attached Documents
Provided below are excerpts from two speeches given by Calhoun in the 1830's which provided background on the pro-slavery political debate.

The anti-slavery political sentiment growing within Congress was a cause for alarm amongst the pro-slavery political figures, particularly the Southern Democrats. Southerners were especially enraged with the growing abolitionist sentiment embodied in the Wilmot Proviso. In reaction, the outspoken and Senator from South Carolina, John Calhoun issued his "Southern Address". The address, in defense of slavery, calls for a uniting of the southern states in order to defend what Calhoun deemed their "right" to own slaves. The address seems to indicate that Calhoun, representing Southern interests, viewed the southern slave states as the actual victims of the northern abolitionists. Calhoun claimed the Proviso unconstitutional, ushering in debate concerning the constitutionality of anti-slavery laws in the new territories.

The last document below provides excerpts from an address given by Douglas expounding his views on slavery in the new territories.

Questions to Consider
1) What role did the new territories play in the political debate surrounding slavery?
2) Although never passed by Congress, the Wilmot Proviso opened the door to much debate. In what ways did the it address the issue of the territorial expansion of slavery? What points did it not address?

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     Douglas on Slavery in New Territories.rtf  
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Full Version of "Slavery a Positive Good":
Full Version of "Disquisition on Government":
Calhoun's Southern Address:
John Calhoun Picture:
Full Version of Douglas on Slavery:
Stephen Douglas Picture:
The Economic DebateTop
Historical Context
Economic debates over slavery abounded during the 1840's. As abolitionist sentiment grew, much attention began to be focused on whether slavery was beneficial or detrimental to the American economy. The argument was based largely on the concept of free versus slave labor. Free labor, argued anti-slavery groups, would be more economically sound in that it would encourage competition and foreign investment, as well as acting as a lure for immigrants. Slave labor, countered the pro-slavery groups, was the crux of the American economy, and without it, the economy was likely doomed to failure.

The anti-slavery economic debate largely centered around the notion that slavery was actually a detriment to the economy of Southern states. In this way, slavery discouraged competition and did not allow for free and open trade with northern, anti-slavery states and businesses.

The pro-slavery economic argument focused on the criticism of free labor. Free labor, slavery advocates argued, resulted in high costs, costs farmers would not be able to afford.

Attached Documents
Hinton Rowan Helper, a southern writer disparaged the institution of slavery in the south in his book entitled "The Impending Crisis of the South". In the book, Helper argues that the South need abolish the practice of slavery in order to further the economy of the southern states. Provided below are excerpts from Helper's book, including a statistical chart outlining his argument.

A notable proponent of slavery from an economic standpoint was Edmund Ruffin, a farmer from Virginia. In his work entitled "Slavery and Free Labor Described and Compared", Ruffin concedes the long-term benefits of free labor, yet insists that the immediate shock would be too much for farmers to bear. Thus, the transition from slave to free labor would not be worth the initial impact it would cast on the economy. In his work, Ruffin discusses the anti-slavery argument that the abolition of slavery and the enactment of free labor would proved attractive to immigrants. Such an argument, posits Ruffin, is moot considering the high prices the initial immigrant surge would cost farmers, followed by the saturation of workers, which would eventually be detrimental to the working people. Provided below are excerpts from Ruffin's work.

Questions to Consider
1) The arguments provided above present conflicting views. In what ways could an historian ascertain which version is more accurate?
2) Consider the slave labor argument. How were racism and elitism implanted into a seemingly economic argument?

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Helper Anti Slavery Argument:
Ruffin Pro Slavery Argument:

The Religious ArgumentTop
Historical Context
Religious arguments against and for the institution of slavery have existed for some time. Questions concerning the morality of slavery have plagued many an American; the undercurrent of every slavery debate seems to actually be centered on the moral ramifications of the institution. The following sections are devoted to the often sensitive discussion of religious arguments for and against slavery.
The Religious Argument: The Pro-Slavery PositionTop
Historical Context
The pro-slavery religious position is mired in biblical interpretation which proponents see as a defense for the forced servitude of fellow human beings. While biblical interpretation has long been debated, the pro-slavery position asserted that because the Christian Bible lacked a clear and concise admonition against slavery, the institution was surely deemed appropriate. Advocates also argued based on precedence; ancient biblical texts contained passages in which religious leaders in antiquity owned slaves, thus contemporary forced servitude was deemed acceptable.

Attached Documents
The first document provides excerpts from a sermon given by George Freeman, a Protestant minister and pro-slavery advocate. The words used by Freeman offer insight into the argument used by religious leaders to advocate for slavery.

The next document provided comes from an essay by Thornton Stringfellow called "A Brief Examination of Scripture Testimony on the Institution of Slavery". Stringfellow, a Baptist pastor from Virginia, provided in his essay actual scriptural reference to what he perceived to be God's approval of slavery. The excerpts below also provide insight into the commonly used religious argument as to the "Christian mercy" bestowed on slaves by their slave-holders. Slavery, the argument goes, provided the Africans forced into America with exposure to Christianity. In this way, Christian slave-holders were saving the souls of their slaves.

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George Freeman Argument:
Stringfellow Essay:
The Religious Argument: The Anti-Slavery PositionTop
Historical Context
Protestant dissent to the institution of slavery came to prominence after the Second Great Awakening. This Protestant revival, while not exclusively anti-slavery by nature, did act as a catalyst for many anti-slavery Protestant voices to emerge.

Attached Documents
One such advocate of abolition was William Wilson, Chancellor of the Protestant University of the United States. Wilson, in the "The Great American Question", calls for an abolitionist movement to take the 1848 election, thus cleverly linking politics and religion. Claiming that "slavery is irreconcilably at war", Wilson calls on his fellow Protestants to practice the basic tenets of their Christian faith. Slavery, argued Wilson, goes directly against all that is taught in the Christian Bible. His words, provided below, act as a counter to the words of slavery advocates provided above.

"An Anti-Slavery Manual", published in 1851 and written by John Fee, admonishes the institution of slavery, yet provides a slightly different religious argument. Fee, the son of slave-holders, argues against slavery in terms of sin. Like Wilson, Fee felt that slavery was an affront to Christianity, yet asserted that slave-holders need abolish the institution of slavery for fear for their souls. Hell awaits those that do not renounce slavery, an argument used by many fundamentals within the Christian faith.

Questions to Consider
1) How did the interpretation of Christian scripture further the pro-slavery cause.
2) Consider other times throughout history when religion has been used to justify horrendous acts.

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     An Anti Slavery Manual.rtf  
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Wilson Letter:
An Anti Slavery Manual:
John Fee Picture:

Slavery and the Women's MovementTop
Historical Context
The women's movement at this time was beginning to grow in prominence. Often partnered with the anti-slavery movement, the women's movement shared many tenets with abolitionists. Basic human rights and the notions of equality and equity were expounded, and many of the most famous figures of the women's movement were outspoken abolitionists.

Attached Documents
Elizabeth Cady Stanton, outspoken social activist and framer of the famed "Declaration of Sentiments", issued at the Seneca Falls Women's Rights Conference in 1848 was one such abolitionist who linked the anti-slavery and women's movement. Provided below is the "Declaration of Sentiments" issued in 1848. This document, while not directly referring to slaves, surely displays the contention of the major players in the women's movement concerning the forced servitude of human beings.

Lucretia Mott, another outspoken abolitionist within the women's movement addressed many groups, forging a connection between the women's movement and the anti-slavery movement. The connection, asserted Mott, centered around the subjugation of both women and Africans by the white man, a subjugation that was both unfair and immoral. In 1849, Mott addressed a group of medical students. The sermon, poorly received by many in the audience, espoused the need for the abolition of slavery. Mott reminded her listeners of their responsibilities as care-givers, admonishing those medical-providers who refuse service to Africans. Slavery, like the poor treatment of women, argued Mott, was immoral and it was up to the new generation to combat the evil.

Questions to Consider
1) What were the major connections between the women's movement and the anti-slavery movement?
2) Not all abolitionists supported the women's movement. Consider the implications for both movements.

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     A Sermon to Medical Students.rtf  
Declaration of Sentiments:
Elizabeth Cady Stanton Picture:
Sermon to Medical Students:
Lucretia Mott Picture:

The Anti-Slavery Argument from Former SlavesTop
Historical Context
The anti-slavery debate consisted of many elements, none more compelling than the arguments provided by former slaves. Former slaves provided realistic accounts of the institution of slavery by shedding light on the plight of those bound to servitude.

Attached Documents
Henry Highland Garnet, a former slave from Maryland who escaped to Pennsylvania in 1824 went on to receive an education and began work as a pastor in New York. Garnet was an outspoken abolitionist and orator who delivered moving speeches on the inhumanity of slavery. The speech provided below displays Garnet's views on slavery and those who defend it.

William Wells Brown, a former slave from Kentucky, was a prolific writer and abolitionist as well. The preface from Brown's monumental "Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave", written by J.C. Hathaway, expounds the anti-slavery views of Brown. Slavery, argues the author, was a disreputable institution and should be immediately abolished, based on the very nature of forced labor. Brown's work describes an extremely difficult life, illuminating for the country the corrupt nature of slavery.
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Garnet Speech:
Henry Highland Garnet Picture:
Brown Narrative:
William Wells Brown Picture:
Frederick DouglassTop
Historical Context
Perhaps the most well-known of all former slave abolitionists was Frederick Douglass. A former slave from Maryland, Douglass escaped from slavery to become one of the most famous writer, orator, and abolitionist.

Attached Documents
In the letter provided below to William Loyd Garrison of the American Anti-Slavery Society, Douglass describes his visit to England. The letter displays an interesting argument; the treatment Douglass received in England became a model for how American attitudes need evolve.

The primary argument provided by Douglass was that slavery was inhumane, as asserted in his 1850 lecture "The Inhumanity of Slavery". Douglass' position as a former slave lent to his credibility, and his brilliant writing and convincing oration attributed to his fame.

Questions to Consider
1) In presenting a unique perspective on the anti-slavery argument, former slaves were revered by many. Determine in which ways pro-slavery forces used the opinions and anecdotes of these former slaves-turned-abolitionists against their cause.
2) Frederick Douglass. as well as other former slaves, worked tirelessly for the abolition of slavery, yet not all former slaves were motivated in the same way. Discuss possible explanations.

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Douglass to Garrison:
Inhumanity of Slavery:
Frederick Douglass Picture:

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