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Modern Voices
Eric Foner on the abolitionist movement
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Q: What obstacles did the Abolitionist Movement face?
Eric Foner

A: One might say that the greatest obstacle facing the Abolitionist Movement as it develops in the 1830's was not so much the heated hostility of the white South -- everybody would understand that the white South would be bitterly opposed to a movement demanding the abolition of slavery -- but the indifference, you might say, in the North. There was a conspiracy of silence about the issue of slavery. Both major political parties, Whigs and Democrats, basically agreed to keep this out of politics. You just were not allowed to raise this question in a public forum. And when abolitionists did begin to talk about slavery publicly, in the North, mobs would break up their meetings; their printing presses were destroyed. Elijah Lovejoy, an editor in Illinois, was murdered by a mob, trying to defend his printing press.

Why was this? I think it's because so many northerners were deeply implicated in the institution of slavery itself -- the trade of cotton, the financing of cotton. Then there were racist fears that the abolition of slavery would unleash a flood of black migrants into the North, competing for jobs and things like this. And there were those who felt, "Well, if we raise the slavery question, it's going to destroy the American Union." For those and other reasons, as I say, there was this conspiracy of silence.
And the first thing abolitionists had to do was just put the issue on the table, in a way that it couldn't be ignored. Or as Wendell Phillips, the great abolitionist orator, said: We must divide public opinion. Our enemy is not the slaveowner only. It's also the person of good will who simply doesn't want to talk about slavery and wants to keep it off the national agenda. I think the greatest achievement of the Abolitionist Movement in its first decade was to make slavery a public issue, to destroy the conspiracy of silence on slavery.
Eric Foner
Professor of History
Columbia University

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