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Building the struggle against slavery
The abolitionists and their papers

September 14, 2001 | Page 13

People fighting to change society have always relied on newspapers and other publications, both to put forward their views and to organize the fight.

Socialists like the Russian revolutionary Lenin are famous for insisting on the importance of newspapers. But the tradition of publishing fighting papers runs deep in the history of American radicalism. Here, ASHLEY SMITH tells the story of the abolitionists' fight against slavery--and the papers they published.

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THE TERRIBLE crime of slavery in the U.S. South is at least taught in high school history classes. But the struggle to end slavery--launched decades before the Civil War began--gets little attention.

In fact, the abolitionist movement against slavery played a crucial role in exposing the horrors of the Southern system--and pressuring the North into the 1861-65 Civil War that finally smashed slavery.

Slavery was built into the foundation of the U.S. The Constitution, for example, celebrates human liberty and equality in its preamble--while a later clause counts Blacks as three-fifths of a person.

But as the 19th century drew on, the Southern system came into increasing conflict with the North, which was developing in a different economic direction, based on industry and free wage labor.

Karl Marx, writing after the Civil War began, said that the conflict "has broken out because the two systems can no longer liver peacefully side by side on the North American Continent." Yet for decades, the Northern elite had compromised with the Southern slaveocracy. Abolitionists faced a long struggle to force the issue to the center of national politics.

Blacks were pivotal in the development of the abolitionists. Slaves like Denmark Vescey, Gabriel Prosser and Nat Turner led rebellions for emancipation. And more than 2,000 slaves escaped each year between 1830 and 1863 to bring their tale of torment to the North.

Outraged by the expansion of slavery in the early years of the century, William Lloyd Garrison and other abolitionists realized that they needed a newspaper to put forward the principles of their movement, answer the questions it confronted and lay the foundation for abolitionist organization.

In 1831, Garrison launched The Liberator. In its first editorial, Garrison declared, "I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice. On this subject, I do not wish to think or speak or write, with moderation. No! No! Tell a man whose house is on fire to give a moderate alarm...but urge me not to use moderation in a case like the present...I am in earnest--I will not equivocate--I will not excuse--I will not retreat a single inch--AND I WILL BE HEARD."

The Liberator was a radical shift away from the more moderate movement that came before it. Garrison denounced all schemes to colonize freed Blacks in other countries, attacked the idea of gradual emancipation, argued for Black and white unity, supported women's rights and attacked the Constitution as a "covenant with death and an agreement with Hell."

Free Blacks in the North responded to The Liberator by embracing it as their paper, providing it with financial support and becoming the majority of its early subscribers. "The paper became my meat and my drink," the great Black abolitionist Frederick Douglass recalled.

"My soul was set all on fire. Its sympathy for my brethren in bonds--its scathing denunciations of slaveholders--its faithful exposures of slavery--its powerful attacks upon the upholders of the institution--sent a thrill of joy through my soul, such as I had never felt before." Douglass joined Garrison's organization, where he quickly established himself as a main leader of the abolitionist movement.

Over time, Douglass came to see limitations in Garrison's ideas. He challenged Garrison's belief that the movement should hope that moral pressure alone could end slavery. Abolitionists, he argued, had to build a political party that could use state power to attack slavery. In 1847, he marked his break with Garrison by founding his own newspaper, the North Star.

In its pages, he supported anti-slavery parties like the Liberty Party, the Free Soil Party, and eventually, the newly born Republican Party. The election of Republican Abraham Lincoln as president in 1860 was the final straw that broke the union.

Radical abolitionists had mixed feelings about the Republicans, who were against the extension of slavery but not for its abolition. But Lincoln's election pushed the South to secede--and sparked the Civil War.

Douglass saw this as decisive. "The American people and the government at Washington may refuse to recognize it for a time," Douglass wrote in the North Star, "but the inexorable logic of events will force it upon them in the end; that the war now being waged in this land is a war for and against slavery."

Driven by the agitation of the abolitionists and the logic of the war itself, a reluctant Lincoln finally emancipated Southern slaves in 1863. From that point on, he pursued the war relentlessly, making no concessions that would allow slavery to survive.

The Civil War became what Douglass had predicted--"a war for and against slavery." As Lincoln later admitted, "The logical and moral power of Garrison and the anti-slavery people of the country and the army have done it all."

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