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Slavery and the Abolitionist Movement: Milestones Special Issue

Milestones Vol 30. No. 2

by Peggy Townsend


The great social movements of the nineteenth century changed the character of this nation. Among these movements were abolition, women's suffrage, temperance, improved labor conditions, cooperative communities (association), educational and prison reform.

Of these the most dramatically successful in that century was the effort to free the slaves. Antislavery organizations provided lecturers such as William Lloyd Garrison, Abby Kelley, Stephen S. Foster, Frederick Douglass, Charles Lenox Remond, and Wendel Phillips.

The importation of slaves from Africa to the United States had become illegal in 1808. The invention of the cotton gin in 1793 by Eli Whitney increased production tenfold and thus the need of more slaves. The number of slaves increased from about 1.5 million in 1820 to more than 2 million or almost one-sixth of the population in this country by 1830. At the same time there was a free black population numbering about 320,000 by the end of the 1820s. Three-quarters of the world's cotton was produced in the South by slave labor in 1860. Cotton and the attendant cotton mills in the North were the driving forces of slavery. At this time a cotton mill was operating in Beaver Falls.

In the earlier years of the movement the abolitionists believed that the churches as well as respectable and influential people and leaders of communities would support them in the North and shame the South into abolishing slavery, and they suffered intense disillusionment when this help did not materialize. Not only did the church, businessmen, and other leaders refuse to support the cause in any way, but they opposed it vigorously. Opposition to the antislavery movement became violent.

In the 1830s much of this violence, especially the well orchestrated riots against the antislavery press and leaders, spread across the northern states as its organizers sought to destroy printing presses that supported the movement and to intimidate free blacks. The leaders and organizers of these riots were the very people from whom the abolitionists had expected support, such respected citizens as lawyers, bankers, doctors, and political leaders from both parties.

In 1835 introduction of the steam press and other new technology decreased the cost of publication and made greater volume possible, enabling abolitionist newspaper editors, writers, and lecturers to take advantage of mass communication. That year the Anti-Slavery Society was able to distribute 1.1 million pieces of literature in contrast to 122,000 the previous year. One result was that antislavery societies in the United States increased from about 200 in 1835 to 527 in 1836.

In 1850 the Fugitive Slave Law, which required federal agents to find escaped slaves in the North and return them to their Southern owners, was passed. It provided a penalty of $1,000 to anyone aiding in a slave's escape. As a result Federal agents kidnaped blacks who appeared in the streets of Northern cities. Bounty hunting became a lucrative business. Those actively involved in helping runaway slaves were forced into civil disobedience in defiance of this law.

There is an interesting local story of a fugitive slave living in Beaver County. Mr. Richard Gardner(aka Woodson), formerly owned by Rhoda B. Byers of Louisville, Kentucky, settled in Beaver and lived there for two years. Gardner, a well-respected black man, built a house in Beaver and was preaching to a Methodist congregation.

He and his wife would walk to Bridgewater to the hotels at the steamboat landings to pick up laundry.

He was lured one day to a landing where he was arrested by a federal agent and two residents of Beaver. He was not allowed to say farewell to his family but was taken to a boat waiting on the Ohio River and taken to Pittsburgh for trial. There he was tried, found guilty of being a fugitive slave, and returned to Rhoda Byers.

Citizens of Beaver were so outraged by these acts that they started a fund to buy his freedom. It took $600 and two years to bring Mr. Woodson back to his family. He returned to Beaver in 1851 and lived a free man until his death in 1876.

Abolitionists pointed out to all who would listen or read that slavery was a moral problem. This viewpoint increasingly found its way into the consciousness and consciences of many who listened to antislavery speakers, read their publications, and discussed the issue with family and friends. In 1850 such awareness was also helped forward by the enormity of the Fugitive Slave Law. The movement grew.

The name, Underground Railroad, is itself deceptive. It was neither underground (with some exceptions), nor was it a railroad. The name alluded to the clandestine arrangement made by those who helped slaves escape from the South to freedom in Canada.