The issue of slavery served as the basis of many debates throughout the United
States. Those who supported slavery would argue that slavery was needed in order to
keep the agriculture industry going. Those who opposed slavery would argue, that while
slave labor may be the reason that the agriculture industry was booming in the United
States, it did not justify holding a human being in captivity under such cruel conditions.
Being opposed to slavery, granted the title of abolitionist to the person. Abolitionists
made their case against slavery in a variety of ways. They used religion to argue for the
abolition of slavery, they played on the emotions of the people, and used the past
experiences of the pro-slavery colonists against them.
Those who supported slavery would sometimes use the Bible in support of their
actions. Claiming that the bible sanctioned slavery in many verses, slaveholders claimed
that this therefore justified their actions as slaveholders. They often referred to the story
of Canaan being prophesized to become enslaved to his brothers.
However, abolitionists also used religion to point out their own side of the
argument. One abolitionist who did so quite eloquently was Angeline Grimke. While
also commenting on the story of Canaan, she instead says that while the Bible may have
prophesized the enslavement of Canaan; it did not prophesize the enslavement of human
beings in the future. (pg 1). Grimke also makes the case that if slaveholders were to use
the Bible to justify their actions in this way, then the actions of the slaveholding
Egyptians would also be justified through the story of Canaan. Even if something is
foretold in the Bible, it does not necessarily make it just. (Angeline Grimke 1). Those
who had a part in the crucifying of Jesus were heavily persecuted even though it was
foretold in the Bible. The Egyptians, as well were punished for their actions against their
The reasons for enslaving someone in the Bible and according to Hebrew law are
very different than the reasons for the slaveholders of the South enslaving people.
(Grimke 1). According to Hebrew law people became enslaved when they were severely
in debt, had committed a crime, or were sold into slavery because their parents were in
debt. (Grimke 1). Slaves in the South however, were enslaved merely to produce more
profit to the agriculture industry. Also according to Hebrew law, the masters were
supposed to protect their slaves and treat them with decency as well as letting them go
after their period of servitude without conflict. (Grimke 1). Law did not protect slaves in
the 1800’s. Not being able to testify against their masters in court, or protect themselves
against the harmful will of their masters, slaves were utterly helpless under the law. This
is in complete contradiction to the laws of slavery described in the Bible. Abolitionists
also made the case that while religious people believed themselves to be righteous, they
were in fact the opposite of righteous. The Bible says that people should treat others, as
they would wish to be treated and that every person should love their neighbor as they
love themselves. The institution of slavery goes against these very simple principals.
Therefore, by using religion, and the word of the Bible abolitionists were able to convey
the fact that human being were not to be treated in the horrible ways that slaves were
being treated under the institution of slavery.
Not only did abolitionists shake the very foundations of religion through their
arguments, the shook the emotions of the people. By using the life stories of many slaves,
and exposing the horrors these slaves had to endure, the abolitionists hoped that people
would begin to see the evils of slavery. Fredrick Douglass, who was a former slave,
gives an account of his trials during the course of his enslavement through his book
Narrative of the Life of Fredrick Douglass, An American Slave. Describing what it was
like for him to witness the sever whippings of other slaves owned by his first master,
Douglass evokes an emphatic emotion from his readers. This was the main goal when the
narrative was first published as well. The “dehumanizing character of slavery” made the
slaves feel like animals as they were made to sleep on cold damp floors and beaten at the
masters’ discrepancy. (Fredrick Douglass 14). After seeing a slave brutally murdered by
an overseer and the only result being a master becoming frustrated for having to pay for
the grave, Fredrick Douglass soon learned of the dehumanizing and “soul killing” effects
of slavery. (Douglass 25-26). “Slaves are reared for market as horses, sheep and swine”.
(Douglass 1). Slaves were not only sold like animals, they were also branded like
animals so they could be more easily recognized if they were to run away. (Douglass 1).
Abolitionists also often pointed out the fact that slaves could not protect themselves from
the brutality of their masters without being punished. This fact becomes clear in an
account from Josiah Henson. He explains seeing his father come home with his ear cut
off and having gashes all over his back, covered in dried blood for trying to protect his
mother from the cruelties of their master. (Pg 1). Henson also recounts his sleeping
quarters while in enslavement; he describes them as being little better than the horse
stables and cold when they were only given minimal clothing. By using stories such as
these, abolitionists hope to use the emotions of the people to ignite anti-slavery sentiment
among the masses.
Some of the worst horror stories of slavery came from female slaves. Female
slaves were subject to the very common sexual abuse of their masters. Harriet Jacobs
describes the fear and shame she experienced while he master was sexually abusing her.
This fear and shame was common among most female slaves. Masters instilled fear in
their female slaves to make them subdue to their will, while other slaves may look at
them in shame because they had now been damaged. (Harriet Jacobs 1). Jacobs gives an
account of how her master, and many others thought of their power over their female
slaves: “He told me I was his property; that I must be subject to his will in all things”.
This exact sentiment is the kind of sentiment that abolitionists were trying to fight. A
slave owner should not be able to sexually abuse his slave and try to justify it by calling
her property. By exposing this kind of act committed by slaveholders, the abolitionists
were hoping that the masses would feel the injustice and call fro the emancipation of
The story of Celia could have been used in the same was as the story of Harriet
Jacobs was used. Celia’s story exposed the actions of the masters for what they truly were
horrible, cruel and gruesome. Being subjected to repeated sexual abuse by her master,
Celia was driven to kill her master through the pleadings of her lover and out of her own
fear. Abolitionists could have used this case to state that slave women were human beings
too and did not deserve the treatment they were receiving. Celia’s case could call out to
all women in country and tug at their emotions to hopefully get more people involved in
the antislavery movement. The case of Celia could even be used as a cautionary tale to
slave masters if abolitionists so wished to turn it into one. They could make the case that
actions such as sexual abuse could cause an uprising among the slave community. Instead
of waiting for the inevitable, abolitionists could have said that slaves should be
emancipated and treated like human beings before the effects become violent on both
sides. By using cases like Celia’s, and Harriet Jacobs, abolitionists are tugging on the
heartstrings of society making slaves human again in the face of enslavement.
While calling on the experiences of slaves to make their case, abolitionists also
call on the past experiences of the colonists. Benjamin Banneker asks Thomas Jefferson
to look back to when he was under the tyrannical rule of the British. The colonists often
referred to their treatment by the British as enslavement. (Banneker 1). The colonists
sought freedom and therefore should know what their slaves were going through.
Because Jefferson had written the line that “all men are created equal”, many abolitionists
sought to have him on their side as a powerful voice to the people. By having such an
influential person as Jefferson calling out to the people to remind them of their own past
and telling them why they should end slavery, the abolitionists would have had more
power in their actions.
Abolitionists used many different strategies to create their case against slavery.
They used religion for their case to counteract those using it as an argument for slavery,
they played on the emotions of society to make slaves human in the face of all the
conflict and used the past experiences of the colonists to make them see how their past
related to the future of slavery. By using different strategies the abolitionists were able to
reach a good amount of people.