The Power of Moral Suasion

C. Bradley Thompson’s sixteen page history of the abolitionist movement — comprising the introduction to Antislavery Political Writings, 1833-1860, which Thompson edited — makes for fascinating reading.

Prior to the 1830s, Thompson points out, arguments against slavery tended toward pessimism and compromise. “Like most Americans at the time, [Thomas] Jefferson favored gradual emancipation and the expatriation of the slaves to Africa” (page xv).

During the early 1830s, antislavery thought took a radical turn. Inspired by the Enlightenment natural-rights philosophy of the Declaration of Independence and the religious revivals of the Second Great Awakening, a new moral sensibility — indeed, a moral revolution — swept over the American landscape that promoted an uncompromising vision of good and evil. (page xv)

However, within the decade, the abolitionist movement fell into schisms. Is political action necessary to achieve results, or does it compromise and water down the core principles? Thompson reviews the history of the Liberty Party, founded in 1840, and the continued debate over political strategy. Thompson also summarizes the debate over the Constitution: was it fundamentally a proslavery or antislavery document?

What emerges from Thompson’s overview is that abolition inspired various tactics, from apoliticism to electoral politics to outright violence. In the end, historical circumstances determined what tactics won out. But those circumstances were made possible only because of the fundamental moral vision of the abolitionists: slavery is immoral and a great evil, and it should be done away with. And it was done away with, within just a few decades of the inception of the movement.