History of Slavery Used by Abolitionists

Updated on April 24, 2020
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Rebecca Graf is a seasoned writer with nearly a decade of experience and degrees in accounting, history, and creative writing.

The power of the written word was embraced by those who opposed slavery. Through the work of abolitionists, anti-slavery material exploded onto the scene and became the most prominent. It was numerous, but that was not what gave it a voice. The old adage of the squeakiest wheel gets the grease applied here.

The abolitionists shouted as loud as they could through political speeches, the Underground Railroad, and the written word. They flooded the public with written political speeches, scientific works, and fiction novels. Many of these became weapons in debates in the political arena and over the family dinner table.


Argument for a Different Kind of Slavery

Historically, the anti-slave supporters could find little to support their stance as history was riddled with examples of slavery in every society. As it existed throughout history, abolitionists had to take a different approach when they were faced with the arguments of pro-slave voices of the validity of slavery throughout history.

The main argument was that the slavery being debated in America was not the same as the slavery that had existed in Africa prior to the transatlantic slave development or that of the slavery described in history. The form of slavery practiced by the African tribes resulted from conflict. The ones taken into slavery by other tribes "were usually prisoners of war or victims of political or judicial punishment" and typically could "keep their name and identity and slavery did not extend to future generations." Even that of the Roman empires and other great historical civilizations was based solely on conflict and not as a means to develop and enhance economies. Man was not put into slavery to line pockets but to punish the conquered. The American version of slavery was a deliberate enslavement of a race with no intention of granting freedom to them or their descendants.

It was pointed out in one essay that "Negro slavery, as existing in the United States and British West Indies, appears to be creature sui generis, unknown to the ancients; and, though drawn from the least cultivated quarter of the globe, unknown even there, except in passing state" as it is a peculiar institution that "finds no counterpart in the annals of the most barbarous nation on earth." Even the basest of nations could not claim such an institution.


Roman Slavery

The slavery of the ancient cultures allowed those in servitude a chance for a brighter future. Money could be earned and kept. Slaves could petition for protection from the state. Masters could not exact cruelty on those they protected and guided. Under the Roman slavery system, “the authority of the master over the servant was regulated by the same laws as that of the father over this son, with this difference in favour of the servant, that if he were once manumitted, he ever afterwards remained free; while the father might sell his son, a second and third time into slavery.†Laws were in place to where servants were treated well and many times were seen as part of the family and treated as so. Examples of slaves being adopted abound in Roman historical documents.


It Wasn't Slavery as the Issue

Essays put forth the status of slaves in the ancient civilizations the pro-slavery activists used to support their claims. Slaves in most cultures, including Rome, were not only fed and clothed but educated as well. In many cases, "the servile class among the ancients were often superior in intellectual attainments to their masters" as they were not prohibited by law or society "from the acquisition of knowledge."

This was something unheard of the American slave structure as laws were in place to stop the advancements of the enslaved African. Even the historical support pro-slavery voices used could be argued against the American institution of slavery. It was never argued by the abolitionists that slavery was an old practice and had served many purposes. They argued the current institution.


"Arguments and Justifications." The Abolition Project. http://abolition.e2bn.org/slavery_112.html

Berlin, Ira. Many Thousands Gone: the first two centuries of slavery in North America. Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1998.

Helper, Hinton Rowan. "Why the North Has Surpassed the South."

"History of Slavery." History World. http://www.historyworld.net/wrldhis/plaintexthistories.asp?historyid=ac41.

Ingersoll, Charles Jared. "African Slavery in America.â"Antislavery Literature. http://antislavery.eserver.org/proslavery/african-slavery-in-america/, 1856.

Wilson, William. :The Great American Question". http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/r?ammem/rbaapc:@gield(DOCID+@lit(rbappc34000div0)), 1848.


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