The Great Crusade: 1830-63

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Before the year 1830, when Theodore Weld began preaching the gospel of abolitionism—a crusade in which the Grimké sisters would soon join him—hardly a single noted American advocated the prompt abolition of slavery within the United States. It was not that the slave system had many ardent defenders, but that it had few ardent enemies. Conscientious men expected it to die out naturally, while the majority of Americans hardly thought about it at all. The South’s “peculiar institution,” it was felt, was no one’s concern but the South’s.

A few years later, a quarter of a million Americans, organized in two thousand chapters of the American Anti-Slavery Society, had come to believe that slavery was a sin, a crime, an abomination so loathsome that nothing but its immediate extirpation could save the nation’s soul. This was the achievement of the abolitionists, a small, fervent band of men and women incredibly brave, righteous to a fault, and disliked by most of their countrymen.

At first they were jeered at and beaten. They were despised for offering no plan or program for the enormous task of emancipation. But they were indifferent to plans; they had only one aim: to force Americans to look upon the face of slavery—upon the mute misery of such as the woman shown opposite—and repent. The most eloquent and tireless agitators America had ever seen, the abolitionists made themselves heard, even by the politicians and men of power.

As the cause became more and more a northern cause, the two halves of the nation drew tragically apart. They little knew, these abolition zealots, what forces they had set in motion by their simple evangelical appeal, or how long and bloody the road to full emancipation would be.