Last Updated on September 6, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3267
American abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison arrived in Boston in 1826 and in 1829 was asked by the American Colonization Society to give its Independence Day address. He had grown up poor and pious, had educated himself, and had learned the printing trade. In 1828, he met Benjamin Lundy, whose speeches for emancipation inflamed Garrison in favor of the anti-slavery cause. Garrison’s ACS speech demanded a “gradual abolition of slavery” rather than colonization. Shortly afterwards, his interactions with Black Baptists convinced him that there was no reason not to push for immediate emancipation.
Garrison’s calls for swift emancipation in his anti-slavery newspaper were echoed by the writings of Black activist David Walker. Walker appealed to Black people to prepare for another revolution, although he had imbibed ideas about Black inferiority caused by slavery. Garrison decried the violent undertones of Walker’s piece but largely agreed with it. Although Walker died weeks after publishing his pamphlet, his demands lived on, especially in the works and lectures of abolitionist and feminist Maria Stewart. Meanwhile, Garrison embarked on a lecture tour, where he was largely mocked.
In 1831, Garrison founded the newspaper The Liberator and published a recant of his previous suggestion that abolition should be gradual. He felt that although equality should be gradual, emancipation must be immediate. Many Blacks subscribed to the newspaper, and Garrison urged them to acquire money and respect—but largely by acquiring white habits. Black activists also tended to push for “improvement,” with a focus on education and knowledge.
By the 1830s, racist ideas about Blacks living in poverty and committing crime were already common, and as a result, many whites did not want to live next to Black people. The vast number of European immigrants entering around this time also made it difficult for Black Americans to acquire good housing. In addition, criticism of Irish people by Americans led the Irish to become stringently racist against Blacks. Minstrel shows were also on the rise, as were “Sambo” and “Mammy” caricatures in literature.
In Southampton County, Virginia, in 1831, enslaved preacher Nat Turner and a group of followers killed their master’s family and began a crusade across a twenty-mile area, picking up support and killing at least fifty-seven enslavers. Turner claimed he had been called by God. Garrison was “horror-struck” by this violence, but he did not realize that many Black Americans felt genuinely compelled to violence, given the intractability of the institution of slavery. Moreover, many Blacks felt their actions would always be misjudged: if they resisted, they were considered “barbaric” and if they did not, they were considered “naturally servile.”
This rebellion prompted anxiety in Virginia, but pro-slavery legislators dismissed all moves towards freedom, further restricting Black Americans’ rights to education and freedom. In 1832, Garrison published a book of anticolonial proclamations which was used to declare war on the ACS. Pro-slavery groups also engaged in this war, because colonization would take away their cheap workforce.
In 1833, the American Anti-Slavery Society was formed with the goal of “immediate emancipation, without expatriation.” The AASS was also geared towards “uplift suasion,” an appeal for Black improvement. Lewis and Benjamin Tappan used their platform to encourage Blacks towards “domestic order” and “correct habits.” The AASS resolved to use the new railroads and efficient postal service to promulgate their ideas and convey widely the evils of slavery.
This postal campaign was viewed by enslavers as an act of war. Black neighborhoods were looted by white thugs proclaiming an intention to protect white women from hypersexual Black men. Senator John Calhoun, twice a vice president, insisted that slavery...
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was a positive good for society and for Black people. Nevertheless, nearly 300,000 people joined the abolitionist movement in the 1830s. Garrisonians refused to participate in “corrupt” partisan politics, while others felt they should bring the movement to those parties. Black activists were split between those who tolerated “uplift suasion” and those who did not.
Dr Samuel Morton’s 1839 book argued that because white skulls he had measured were bigger than Black ones, white people had greater intellects than other races. Other medical papers were used to push racist causes, such as Edward Jarvis’s observation that because free Blacks were more likely to be classified insane than enslaved ones, slavery must have a positive effect. Revisiting his notes, however, he saw that the census he had worked from must have been wrong—some towns reported more Black people exhibiting mental illness than Black residents. Jarvis’s request for an investigation landed on the desk of John Calhoun, alongside an anti-slavery letter from British foreign secretary Lord Aberdeen that requested universal emancipation and independence for (slave-holding) Texas. Calhoun told Aberdeen that the annexation of Texas was a done deal and never did correct the 1840 census.
In Nantucket, Garrison heard runaway slave Frederick Douglass speak. Douglass spoke all across America on the brutality of slavery. Although he understood the importance of his rhetoric, he disliked the way he was introduced to audiences as “chattel” for shock effect. He was encouraged to have a “plantation manner” lest his audience disbelieve he had ever been a slave. It was Garrison’s printing office which published Douglass’s first autobiography; the book became a bestseller and had a profound effect on public opinion. Many other slave narratives followed. But Garrison’s preface to Douglass’s work continued to suggest that the enslaved Black was “degraded” and thus many white racists were still not persuaded. Adding to such unfavorable opinions, pseudoscience about cranial capacity was on the rise at this time.
With the rise of the telegraph, the newspaper De Bow’s Review also grew in the South as a pro-slavery magazine which aired racist Southern medical experiments. Douglass, now vulnerable to recapture due to his prestige, traveled to lecture in Britain. The same year, 1845, Texas was annexed; in 1846, President Polk ordered troops across the disputed boundary and into Mexico. Northerners and southerners alike favored expansion but did not know if it would mean the expansion of slavery. Meanwhile, “gradual emancipation” was kept alive in Richmond when enslaved Blacks were placed in skilled positions, to the fury of white workers. But the Richmond elites would never put the interests of either poor whites or enslaved Blacks above their own potential earnings.
By this point, three schools of thought on the topic of slavery had formed: the abolitionists, who wanted immediate emancipation; the Free Soilers, who took the middle ground of gradual emancipation; and the enslavers, who wanted stricter controls on the Underground Railroad and its conductors. The enslavers in particular convinced that polygenesis was the correct interpretation and that Blacks and whites were of different species. In 1850, to Garrison’s horror, the Fugitive Slave Act was passed, criminalizing abettors of fugitives, incentivizing those who captured runaways, and denying Blacks jury trials.
Opposed to the bill were women’s rights activists, including Harriet Beecher Stowe and Frances Gage, who encouraged Sojourner Truth to speak to her women’s group. Stowe wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin in 1852 to suggest that white America could only become truly Christian through antislavery. Garrison and Douglass both liked the novel, although had their concerns with its colonization ideas. Meanwhile, a number of rival novels emerged from Southern states.
In 1853, AASS refused to accept Franklin Pierce as President and celebrated Garrison instead. Meanwhile, as polygenesis spread—perhaps most famously in Josiah Nott’s book Types of Mankind—novelists such as Herman Melville satirized the theory. Garrison’s review of this racist book was cutting. While Douglass agreed with him here, he was becoming tired with Garrison’s paternalism and the two began to grow apart, until Stowe stepped in to resolve the quarrel.
Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois wanted to give statehood to Nebraska and Kansas in order to build a railroad through them. To secure southern support, in 1854 he passed an act which left the question of slavery up to the settlers. Abraham Lincoln spoke against this, finding the idea impractical. The act killed the Whig party, making way for the Republicans and the Know Nothings, neither of whom could outweigh the pro-slavery Democrats. James Buchanan, a Democrat, came to power and decreed that Blacks could not become equal in this country or be citizens, to the joy of Republican Steven Douglas, whom Lincoln then debated in a series of lectures. Douglas was reelected in 1858, having successfully branded Lincoln as an advocate for Black Americans.
An 1857 book by Hinton Rowan Helper suggested that slavery was hampering economic progress and oppressing poor whites in the South. This helped to unite Free Soilers, abolitionists and ex-slaves against the enslavers, leading to the Brown rebellion in West Virginia in 1859. The rebellion was suppressed, but it deeply unsettled whites.
In 1860, Mississippi’s Jefferson Davis presented the Southern platform of unlimited rights for states and enslavers, foregrounding the possibility of the South leaving the Union. He spoke as if polygenesis were an accepted fact, even though Darwin had just published his On the Origin of Species, which suggested otherwise. Despite Darwin’s theory disproving the validity of such racist ideas, many tried to argue that through “natural selection,” whites were superior to Blacks.
Abraham Lincoln was nominated to run for president in 1860, and Garrison scoffed that Lincoln would do nothing to offend the south. As the election approached, it was clear that the question of slavery fundamentally separated North and South.
In December 1860, South Carolina seceded, arguing against Blacks ever becoming citizens. The rest of the Deep South followed in January and February, with Jefferson Davis becoming president of the Confederacy.
In his Inaugural Address, Lincoln swore that he would never allow the extension of slavery. In response, Alexander Stephens, vice president of the Confederacy, identified the “cornerstone” of the Confederacy as the “truth” that slavery was the correct condition for the “subordinate” Black race.
The Confederates argued that many Black runaways returned and that many heroic Black Confederates defended slavery; however, these assertions were either erroneous or exaggerated. In April of 1861, Lincoln’s Union Army had to put down an insurrection in Fort Sumter, after which thousands of slaves fled to join the Union Army—only to be turned back by Union soldiers enforcing the Fugitive Slave Act. A bill was passed stating that any Black slave used by the Confederate Military could be captured by Union forces and would become “contraband”: the resulting camps housed many Blacks who could then work for the Union army, but conditions were terrible and deaths common.
Still, huge numbers of slaves fled for the North. A number of political and legal developments occurred during this time: slavery was prohibited in the territories; the slave trade was suppressed; Union soliders were not to return fugitives to the South; and abolition had passed in Washington, DC. The Second Confiscation Act in July of 1862 declared that all enslaved Blacks who reached Union lines from the Confederacy would be free. In late July, Lincoln submitted the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. Support for colonization rose again, which infuriated Garrison. In January, the Proclamation came into effect, declaring that any state pledging to abolish slavery before 1900 could return to the Union. Garrison was critical of Lincoln’s delays but was cautiously optimistic.
Opponents of equality began attacking Black soldiers in new ways, accusing them of receiving favoritism when, for example, they were praised for returning with their weapons from battle. Blacks were attacked as being brutish, whereas previously they had been called naturally docile. When the Black 54th Massachusetts was defeated in South Carolina, this inflamed the debate over Blacks’ capacity to fight.
By 1864, Garrison feared that war-weariness would turn more voters toward the Democrats and that slavery would be maintained, even as Maryland began to plan to reconstruct their state without slavery. Lincoln acted as the great emancipator to Maryland’s newly freed population, but some felt the change was superficial: Blacks could not vote or attend public schools. But Garrison thought it not “practicable” to give the vote to former slaves not yet “developed.”
However, the tide of the war changed, and Lincoln was reelected. The March to the Sea saw the Confederacy scorched and many runaways joining Union troops. General Sherman met with a number of Black leaders, who told him that they needed land to be truly free. Sherman accordingly promised forty-acre plots of land for freed Blacks. This incensed racist whites.
When Lincoln arrived in Richmond in 1865, newly freed Black people hailed him as a Messiah. Upon Robert E. Lee’s surrender, slavery was declared “dead.” Meanwhile Lincoln, defending the readmission of Louisiana amid complaints about the lack of Black suffrage offered, suggested that “intelligent” Blacks should be allowed to vote. This inflamed John Wilkes Booth, who on Good Friday shot Lincoln in the head.
After Lincoln’s death, President Andrew Johnson’s Reconstruction proclamations offered amnesty, property rights, and voting rights to all Confederate officials except the highest; Confederates therefore elected their own, banned Blacks from voting, and instituted racist codes that forced Blacks into labor contracts and barred their movements. In the summer and fall of 1865, Blacks were evicted from the plots they had been given by Sherman. When Thaddeus Stevens tried to encourage redistribution of land owned by the wealthiest, Congress forced only Native American slaveholders in the South to do this.
Meanwhile, Black educators in the South were hard at work teaching former slaves. Frederick Douglass headed a delegation to Johnson petitioning for Black male suffrage, and Johnson expressed his true fear—that Black voters would look down on poor whites and ally with planters to ruin them.
Senator Lyman Trumbull of Illinois, out of a desire to keep Blacks from fleeing Southern policies for the North, extended the Freedmen’s Bureau and moved to pass the Civil Rights Act, which did not include voting as a right of citizenship. Johnson vetoed this, but something had to be done: white mobs in the South were killing Blacks and indigenous communities, and yet this was being described as a Black crime wave resulting from the removal of masters.
Republicans pushing for removal of the most stringent Black codes in the South felt that suffrage was too divisive an issue, so it was removed from the Fourteenth Amendment. But the American Equal Rights Association, founded in 1866, joined female suffragists with Black ones. Suffragists argued that only by granting white women the vote could the nation truly be secured.
Racist capitalists continued to pay Black workers lower rates of pay. Meanwhile, Blacks and Black allies continued to create their own opportunities by founding Black colleges and universities, the idea being that Blacks could then go back and “lift up” their own people with education. Racism, however, meant that these institutions were largely attended by light-skinned Black Americans; darker skinned Black Americans were left to be educated in industrial schools.
The Reconstruction Acts of 1867 and 1868 forced Confederates to accept Black male suffrage—while the north did not do so, which enraged the South. Millions of Blacks voted and swung the 1868 election towards General Ulysses S. Grant. They also voted for Black politicians. Seeing that Blacks in “loyal” states would vote for them, Republicans in congress pushed through the Fifteenth Amendment, which gave the vote to all citizens. This stung suffragists like Susan B. Anthony, who disliked that women were given a lower status than Black men.
Garrison was invited to celebrate the passing of the Fifteenth Amendment, which he called a “miracle.” However, Klan violence was on the rise. The Klan deplored upwardly mobile Black people and the idea that Black men might have contact with white women. Congress sought to dissolve the Klan, because it terrorized Black voters and landowners, but it survived under other names.
Black politicians in the south helped institute the South’s first public education programs, penitentiaries, orphanages, and protections for Black rights. However, Reconstruction’s economic policies disfavored Blacks and favored corporations: railroad companies received huge grants to expand, which increased their reliance on cheap labor.
Frederick Douglass was sent to investigate whether the Dominican Republic could be a suitable place for Blacks to relocate to, should they so wish. Douglass was impressed. Douglass, an assimilationist, wanted to expand but also to remain an American in the event that Blacks chose to move beyond the current borders.
Republican dissidents, tired of Grant’s Black-friendly policies, broke away from the main party. Horace Greeley, who had once campaigned for emancipation, encouraged Southerners to segregate themselves and employ each other. Grant was reelected in 1872. In 1873, the US fell into a major depression which had a particular impact on poor southern Blacks. Blacks retreated into sharecropping, and crooked landowners maneuvered sharecroppers into debt while preventing them from leaving. Essentially, they were slaves again.
Garrison wrote tirelessly about the “tragedy” of Reconstruction, which he felt had failed entirely. Every time Grant tried to protect Blacks, he alienated more and more white Republicans. The Civil Rights Act of 1875 outlawed racial discrimination in jury selection, public transport, and accommodation, but it meant that Blacks would have to seek redress in the racist public courts. Garrison felt that Reconstruction had failed because Blacks had been emancipated for military reasons rather than out of “repentance.” When in 1877 the Republicans won the presidency, the nation was so inflamed that a new Civil War seemed near. But both parties were united in their agreement that Blacks must quell their “new kindled ambition” and recognize white superiority. When Rutherford Hayes took the presidency, he ended Reconstruction, withdrew troops from the South, and endorsed the idea that power must be taken back again from Southern Blacks. A spate of lynchings began.
Many Southern Blacks fled the South for Kansas or the North. Garrison raised funds for this group, and in April of 1879, he issued a statement that Blacks should be given freedom, representation, and the right to vote. Four weeks later, he was dead.
This section covers perhaps the most crucial period in the history of American racism: the run up to the American Civil War, the Civil War itself, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the beginnings of Reconstruction. Garrison is an interesting viewpoint character, because Kendi focuses so tightly upon his changing views about race relations and the condition of Black Americans. While Garrison is always in favor of abolition, his ideas about Black “improvement” and what political policy should be are shown to change in response to circumstances.
It is also notable that this section of the book underlines the inextricable ties between capitalism and enslavement, which will continue far beyond the Civil War and its aftermath. Just as, in the era after the American Revolution, abolition was unthinkable because America needed a free labor force to help build the country, abolition is unthinkable for those in the South because Southern whites relied on slave labor for their wealth. In such a context, money and economic concerns are more important than the lives of Black people, and it is racist ideas and racist science which enabled these slaveholders to justify their use and abuse of people as slaves, for financial reasons. It is unclear whether they truly believed what they said or if science was simply developed in order to fit the necessary agenda.
This section also illustrates the ease with which class distinctions can separate groups: the Black elites did not help their poverty-stricken Black counterparts any more than white elites helped the poor whites who often suffered from the same policies that hampered poor Blacks. On the contrary, the working classes were encouraged to fight among themselves, rather than shifting the blame to the feet of politicians and lawmakers.