“Who here would have been against slavery if you suddenly found yourself living in those times?”
I’ve asked a version of this question to many U.S. history classes over the years. Every student raises a hand.
“So what exactly would you have done to end slavery?”
Puzzled looks are generally the response to this question. What should we do, what can we do, when we are confronted by the enormity of an injustice like slavery? It’s not an easy question for my students, and it wasn’t an easy question for the people who opposed slavery in those times. The answers were struggled over in the abolition movement, one of the most significant social movements in U.S. history, but underappreciated in today’s history curriculum.
A few summers ago, my wife, Linda, and I vacationed in upstate New York. We went to visit John Brown’s grave site at North Elba, near Lake Placid. Brown was executed Dec. 2, 1859, by the state of Virginia shortly after leading a raid on the Harpers Ferry arsenal, hoping to trigger an antislavery rebellion.
In a nearby town, we went to a talk, part of a lecture series on abolitionism, by scholar Eric Foner. Foner’s thesis was that the abolition movement was the foundation of virtually all social justice movements in the United States. It led to the first antiwar movement, against the U.S. invasion and occupation of Mexico (1846–48), which abolitionists saw as a landgrab to expand slavery. (Henry David Thoreau coined the term “civil disobedience” in defending his willingness to go to jail for his refusal to pay taxes to support the war.) The abolition movement seeded the movement for women’s rights in the United States: The leaders of the first gathering of women to demand rights as women, at Seneca Falls, N.Y., in 1848, were abolitionists like Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. For all its imperfections, the abolition movement was this country’s first multiracial movement.