Abolitionism Road Trip

Illustrating abolitionism's effect on the U.S.

By: Keshav Krishnan and Sunnie Liu

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Get Ready to Hit the Road!

Welcome! We are so excited that you are joining our fun historical road trip! As we travel from place to place in chronological order of U.S. history, we plan to explore how different sites illustrate the development of distinct regional identities during the first half of the nineteenth century. Because the North had plenty of natural resources for manufacturing as well as soil and climate that suited small farms, it established an economy based on small-scale agriculture and industry, resulting in little need for slaves. In contrast, since the South’s fertile soil and warm climate was ideal for large-scale farms that produced cash crops, which was so lucrative that the South had no need for industrial development, it fostered an economy based on plantation agriculture, which required many slaves. Therefore, the North was anti-slavery while the South was pro-slavery, leading to opposing views on abolitionism. The following itinerary will demonstrate how abolitionism exacerbated regional differences between the North and the South circa 1800 to 1850. Buckle in your seatbelt and let’s hit the road!

1. South Carolina

Our first stop is at South Carolina, representing the bigger region of the South. In 1800, the southern states redefined republicanism to restrict legal equality and individual liberty to white citizens only. In contrast, the northern states kept the original definition of republicanism. To uphold John Locke’s Enlightenment philosophy that all people, regardless of race, are entitled to natural rights and legal equality, every single northern state had enacted laws to emancipate slaves by 1804. While the North sustained an Enlightenment-based republic to include African-Americans as citizens, the South created a herrenvolk, or “master race,” aristocratic republic to prevent slaves from being seen as property instead of as people (much less citizens). This difference in the type of republic and the status of African-Americans illustrated the distinct regional identities of the anti-slavery North versus the pro-slavery South. Onto our next destination!
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2. Missouri

Our second stop is at Missouri, a territory that applied for statehood in 1819, threatening the balance of the U.S. having the same number of slave and free states. The northern majority in the House of Representatives blocked its admission; in response, the southern majority in the Senate withheld statehood from Maine, which wanted to separate from Massachusetts. This stalemate in Congress caused by conflicting opinions on the expansion of slavery exemplified the regional differences between the pro-slavery South and the anti-slavery North. Fortunately, the Missouri Compromise of 1820 resolved this debate by allowing Maine to enter as a free state and Missouri to enter as a slave state, as well as by prohibiting slavery in the West north of the 36°30’ N latitude line in the future. However, it took two long years to finally pass this compromise, and even afterwards, controversy over abolitionism in new states remained strong, further demonstrating the conflict between the North and the South due to their distinct regional identities. Now, it’s time to drive up north!
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3. West New York

Our third stop is at “the burned-over district,” the nickname for west New York, where the Second Great Awakening was especially influential. Although abolitionists had criticized slavery for contradicting the principles of republicanism and liberty since 1800, as the Second Great Awakening made Americans more aware of the moral issues surrounding slavery in the 1830s, abolitionists started criticizing slavery as a sin instead. In contrast, southern slaveholders began using religion to justify slavery, claiming that God approved it. As the issue of slavery grew to involve religion, the North and the South became more adamant in their anti- and pro-slavery stances respectively. In fact, the northerners even demanded immediate emancipation without compensation, which the southerners vehemently refused because they believed that it was their God-given right to own slaves. These uncompromising, opposing stances regarding slavery and religion showed the strong regional differences between the North and the South. Now, let’s go back down to the South!

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4. Southampton County, Virginia

Our fourth stop is at Southampton County, Virginia, where in 1830, a slave named Nat Turner led the most violent slave revolt in the history of the U.S. Shaken by Turner’s Rebellion, Virginia refused to pass a law for the gradual emancipation and colonization of slaves, a bill over which its legislature had been debating. Thus, the possibility that southern planters would voluntarily end slavery was completely gone, confirming the South’s pro-slavery stance once and for all, solidifying the South’s distinct regional identity. In fact, the southern states instead toughened slave codes, limited black movement, and prohibited teaching slaves to read, further confirming the South as the pro-slavery region in contrast to the North as the anti-slavery region. Therefore, these southern laws illustrated the regional differences in the U.S. This trip is now over halfway completed--only three more stops to go!

5. Boston, Massachusetts

Our fifth stop is back up north in Boston, Massachusetts, where The Liberator was published. William Lloyd Garrison was the editor or this radical abolitionist newspaper, in which he called for “immediate and uncompensated emancipation of the slaves” because he believed that slavery was morally wrong. Along with other New England abolitionists, he founded the American Anti-Slavery Society, which printed a million pamphlets to win support for abolitionism and bombarded Congress with anti-slavery petitions. Garrison led the northern abolitionists and convinced more northerners to join his cause, solidifying the North’s anti-slavery stance. He exacerbated the divide between the anti-slavery North and the pro-slavery South; in fact, the Georgian legislature even offered a five thousand dollar reward for kidnapping him to be tried or lynched in the South for inciting rebellion. Thus, Garrison both represented the distinct northern identity and intensified the regional differences. Now, back to the car for a six and a half hour drive to our next destination!
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6. Baltimore, Maryland

Our sixth stop is at Baltimore, one of the many towns in the Underground Railroad, an informal network of whites and free blacks that illegally assisted fugitive slaves to escape to the North. While southern slaveholders condemned this act as the northerners stealing their property, the northerners celebrated it as freeing the slaves from their oppressive southern masters. This contrast between the two regions’ viewpoints demonstrated their distinct regional identities. Moreover, although the North had always opposed slavery, the Underground Railroad was one of their first direct actions against slavery, whereas their usual pamphlets and campaigns merely raised awareness about abolitionism and sparked anti-slavery sentiment. This time, the South believed that the North was going too far by violating their property rights without compensation. Therefore, the Underground Railroad also intensified the tensions between the two regions, exacerbating their regional differences. Just one more stop in our itinerary!

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7. California

Our seventh and final stop is at California, which in 1850 ratified a state constitution that outlawed slavery and applied for statehood, instigating another Congressional debate over the western expansion of slavery. John C. Calhoun of South Carolina asserted that Congress violated property rights in its attempts to regulate slavery, so southern planters had the right to take their slave property into the new territories, illustrating the distinct pro-slavery southern regional identity. In contrast, William H. Seward of New York insisted that the U.S. should restrict slavery within its current boundaries and eventually emancipate all slaves because human bondage is “morally unjust, politically unwise, and socially pernicious,” exemplifying the distinct anti-slavery northern regional identity. These contrasting opinions demonstrated the regional differences between the North and the South. Furthermore, Calhoun went as far as to suggest a dual presidency to permanently divide executive power between the North and the South, and even after passing the Compromise of 1850, some southerners threatened secession. Thus, the regional differences between the North and the South were so extreme that their opposing stances on abolitionism jeopardized the unity of the nation. Wow, time flew by--we cannot believe that we already finished our road trip!

Thanks and see you!

Thank you for joining us on this educational yet fun road trip. We hope you enjoyed the itinerary and learned a thing or two about how abolitionism intensified regional differences between the North and the South during the first half of the nineteenth century. See you next time!