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Modern Voices
William Scarborough on the South and the abolitionist movement
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Q: What is the effect of the abolitionist movement on the South
William Scarborough

A: Well, after the radical Abolition Movement picked up full steam in the early [18]30s, there is a severe curtailment of civil liberties in the South with respect to freedom of speech, freedom of the press, the right of petition. Very few people publicly will challenge the rectitude, the moral rectitude of slavery after the mid-thirties.

There's also a profound change in sentiment with respect to slavery. Prior to 1835, approximately the mid-1830s, prior to the launching of the Weld campaign by Theodore Dwight Weld, petitions to Congress flooding the mails with abolitionist literature, prior to that, the general attitude in the South had been one of apology. You know. As Jefferson said, we've got a wolf by the ears and we can't let go. They admitted that slavery was basically morally wrong, morally an evil. But what can we do about it? That was their position. The numbers are huge -- there is money to be made from the raising of cotton, and so we go on. And they also believed that slavery was the best condition for blacks. I mean, this is a very racist society, as we all know, and their belief was that blacks could not manage their own affairs for themselves, and therefore slavery was good for them as well as for everybody else. But there is a severe curtailment of civil liberties, and that remains in effect until the time of the Civil War.

For example, there's no free flow of abolitionist literature in the mail. There's no rational discussion of slavery. No rational discussion of the evils or merits of slavery is permitted. In 1835, a mob led by Robert Y. Hayne, former governor of South Carolina, ransacked the Charleston Post Office and destroyed sacks of abolitionist literature, abolitionist mail sent to correspondents in the South. And from that time on, from 1835 until the time of the Civil War, there was an unofficial policy agreed to by Postmasters General of the United States from the Jackson to the Buchanan Administrations, to keep anti-slavery literature out of the mail. So you obviously have no freedom of speech. There was mob violence directed against those who attempted to distribute abolitionist literature. Amos Dresser, for example, a minister in Memphis, Tennessee, was whipped by a mob for this.

This is not to say that there would have been a great many voices speaking out in opposition to slavery in the South. In other words, I don't think the majority of the population regarded these as infringements upon their own particular liberties, because they agreed with the general position on the subject.
William Scarborough
Professor of History
University of Southern Mississippi at Hattiesburg

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