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Modern Voices
Eric Foner on the abolitionist vision
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Q: What was the abolitionist vision?
Eric Foner

A: The Abolitionist Movement was concerned not only with the specific issue of abolishing slavery as an institution, but the even broader issue of what kind of a country America was going to be. And you might say that the Abolitionists invented an idea which in the 20th century, of course, became very prominent: that this is a multi-racial society in which all Americans ought to enjoy equal rights, equal treatment before the law. The abolitionists, you might say, invented a new and different Constitution, a different reading of the Constitution, very much informed by the Declaration of Independence and its affirmation of human equality; and posited it as an alternative to the dominant vision of America as a white society, which was so prominent in this period.

You know, [in] the first Naturalization Law, 1790, Congress stated that any person from abroad could migrate and become an American citizen, as long as they were white. The vast majority of the world's population (Africans, Asians) were ineligible to become naturalized citizens of the United States. For much of the 19th century, free blacks were not considered citizens, even though they were born here. The Dred Scott decision of 1857 makes that the law of the land. But long before it was widely debated whether free blacks could be citizens at all.

The abolitionists put forward this definition of birthright citizenship: "Anybody born in America is a citizen, black or white, doesn't matter. And they are citizens of the nation, not just of the state, and are entitled to the same equal rights as all other citizens of the nation." Frederick Douglass, one of the greatest exponents of this view, extended it also to Asians. In a wonderful speech right after the Civil War, called "The Composite Nation", he said discrimination against Asian immigrants also violates the essence of what America ought to be.

So that the abolitionists, you might say, reinvigorated the rhetoric of the American Revolution, which stated that this was an asylum for liberty for all mankind. But that rhetoric had not been put into reality by the founding fathers. They had created a society of white entitlement. And the abolitionists challenged this and called for a different vision of what America ought to be.
Eric Foner
Professor of History
Columbia University

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