Discussion ECW: Brown, Douglass, and the Radicals

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“But his soul goes marching on.” Brown, Douglass, and the Radicals

Posted on October 21, 2019 by SeanMichaelChick


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Today abolitionism is praised with few reservations, but it was a fringe movement in the 1830s. Its followers took a lonely moral stand. William Lloyd Garrison in 1831 declared “I am in earnest. I will not equivocate – I will not excuse – I will not retreat a single inch – AND I WILL BE HEARD!” John Brown in 1839 said “Here, before God, in the presence of these witnesses, from this time, I consecrate my life to the destruction of slavery!” These were not men for compromise, and increasingly nor was the emerging ideology in the South that saw slavery not as a necessary evil but instead a “positive good” in the words of John C. Calhoun.
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Over time, these fringe beliefs became more widespread. They had both considerable financial backing and eloquent proponents. At the same time, both sections became suspicious of each other. Even if one did not care about freeing slaves, Northerners had a general dislike for the aristocrats of the antebellum South and their disproportionate control of national politics, while any Southern could see the North was growing in political and economic power. Added to the mix was America itself, forged in rebellion over a defense of an Englishman’s rights that was then wrapped in an emerging egalitarian rhetoric. The strain of abolitionism that would eventually destroy slavery was also born of the radical energy created in the Second Great Awakening, a religious revival that embraced social reform and experimentation. In this age experiments in free love, animal rights, vegetarianism, and prohibition were undertaken alongside reforms to prisons, mental wards, and schools. The glue connecting them all was general opposition to slavery. To make the situation more volatile, James Madison had conceived of a government where change was possible but slow. It was a system designed to subvert majority will. To remove any of these ingredients might have avoided the American Civil War, and yet the combination needed a spark to unleash violence.
 
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