In a society in which the rights of citizenship had become more and more closely associated with whiteness, the antislavery movement sought to reinvigorate the idea of freedom as a truly universal entitlement. The origins of the idea of an American people unbounded by race lies not with the founders, who by and large made their peace with slavery, but with the abolitionists. The antislavery crusade viewed slaves and free blacks as members of the national community, a position summarized in the title of Lydia Maria Child’s popular treatise of 1833, An Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called Africans. Child’s text insisted that blacks were fellow countrymen, not foreigners or a permanently inferior caste. They should no more be considered Africans than whites were Englishmen. The idea that birthplace alone, not race, should determine who was an American, later enshrined in the Fourteenth Amendment, represented a radical departure from the traditions of American life. “We do not admit,” declared the New England Magazine in 1832, “that America is as much the country of the blacks, bound and free, as it is ours.” But abolitionists maintained that the slaves, once freed, should be empowered to participate fully in the public life of the United States. Abolitionists also pioneered the modern idea that human rights took precedence over national sovereignty. They urged the United States to participate in the courts that brought together judges from Britain and other countries to punish those who violated the ban on the Atlantic slave trade. These courts were perhaps the first example of transnational human rights enforcement. But with southerners exerting powerful influence in Washington, the United States did not join the court system until 1862, in the midst of the Civil War.
The crusade against slavery, wrote Angelina Grimke, who became a leading abolitionist speaker, was the nation’s preeminent “school in which human rights are... investigated.” Abolitionists debated the Constitution’s relationship to slavery. William Lloyd Garrison burned the document, calling it a covenant with the devil; Frederick Douglass came to believe that it offered no national protection to slavery. But despite this difference of opinion, abolitionists developed an alternative, rights-oriented view of constitutional law, grounded in their universalistic understanding of liberty. Seeking to define the core rights to which all Americans were entitled—the meaning of freedom in concrete legal terms—abolitionists invented the concept of equality before the law regardless of race, one all but unknown in American life before the Civil War. Abolitionist literature also helped to expand the definition of cruelty. The graphic descriptions of the beatings, brandings, and other physical sufferings of the slaves helped to popularize the idea of bodily integrity as a basic right that slavery violated.
One of many popular lithographs illustrating scenes from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the most widely read of all antislavery writings. This depicts the slave Eliza escaping with her child across the icefloes of the Ohio River.
Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of the abolitionist novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Despite being denounced by their opponents as enemies of American principles, abolitionists consciously identified their movement with the revolutionary heritage. The Declaration of Independence was not as fundamental to public oratory in the early republic as it would later become. Abolitionists seized upon it, interpreting the document’s preamble as a condemnation of slavery. The Liberty Bell, later one of the nation’s most venerated emblems of freedom, did not achieve that status until abolitionists adopted it as a symbol and gave it its name, as part of an effort to identify their principles with those of the founders. (Prior to the 1830s, it was simply the Old State House Bell, used at various times to mark the death of prominent citizens, summon students at the University of Pennsylvania to their classes, and celebrate patriotic holidays.) Of course, Americans of all regions and political beliefs claimed the Revolution’s legacy. Mobs that disrupted abolitionist meetings invoked the “spirit of ’76,” as did southern defenders of slavery. Abolitionists never represented more than a small part of the North’s population. But as the slavery controversy intensified, the belief spread far beyond abolitionist circles that slavery contradicted the nation’s heritage of freedom.