Considerations of Humanity and Expediency: The Slave Trades and African Colonization in the Early National Antislavery Movement

Wood, Nicholas, History - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Onuf, Peter, Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, University of Virginia
Edelson, Scott, Department of History, University of Virginia
Varon, Elizabeth, Department of History, University of Virginia
Greeson, Jennifer, Department of English, University of Virginia

This dissertation examines the early antislavery movement, from the American Revolution into the 1820s. I argue that during these decades abolitionists pursued a coherent national agenda, worked closely with black activists, and exerted considerable political influence. I challenge the common assumptions that after the Revolution most contemporaries believed slavery would “wither away” on its own and that organized abolitionism did not become politically significant until the 1830s. The early generations of abolitionists fully recognized the obstacles to universal emancipation presented by the Constitution, economic self-interest, and racial prejudice. In response they focused on suppressing the Atlantic and domestic slave trades as the most expedient tactic for achieving the greatest humanitarian good while paving the way for state-based emancipation. In conjunction with free blacks, some white abolitionists also sought to establish a program of voluntary black emigration to Africa or the West Indies. The majority of abolitionists and free blacks later repudiated colonizationism after slaveholders and white supremacists appeared to co-opt the movement, but supporters initially hoped colonization would facilitate emancipation while creating a base from which to suppress the African slave trade. Although rarely studied together by historians, contemporaries viewed these policies as closely linked and they represented the sites of greatest cross-sectional cooperation in regard to slavery. Congress’s Slave Trade Act of 1819 implemented a program some abolitionists and black activists had encouraged since the 1770s, connecting slave trade suppression with the creation of an African colony (Liberia) which would also receive African-American emigrants and freed slaves. However, the Missouri Crisis soon destroyed the sectional trust necessary for future cross-sectional cooperation. My work illustrates the complex interconnectedness, in tactics and aims, of gradual abolitionism, the African colonization movement, and immediatist abolitionism, thus countering historians’ tendency to overstate distinctions between these elements of the antislavery movement. Looking back from the Civil War, scholars often highlight abolitionism’s growth in the 1830s; but from the perspective of the early republic, the decade is better understood as the moment when anti-abolitionism supplanted moderate antislavery as the most prominent form of cross-sectional cooperation in regards to slavery.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
American Colonization Society, Abolition Movement, Slavery and Politics, African American History, Antislavery Movement
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