Civil War History 52.1 (2006) 5-40
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The Tennessee Antislavery Movement and the Market Revolution, 1815–1835
Caitlin A. Fitz
Historians have usually portrayed Tennessee's antislavery activists of the early republic and Jacksonian era as unpopular dissidents. The state's first antislavery societies, these scholars argue, were based on a thin band of support among East Tennessee Quakers and their Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian allies. When these societies decayed in the late 1820s, it was supposedly because slavery had grown so lucrative that profits trumped principle. The thousands of antislavery Tennesseans who unsuccessfully petitioned the state's second constitutional convention in 1834, the story goes, were merely refighting a battle that had already been lost.1 [End Page 5]
This traditional account is unsatisfactory. The Tennessee antislavery movement did decline in the 1820s, its arguments and tactics rendered obsolete by the spread of the cotton plantation economy. But the antislavery upsurge of the 1830s was a powerful and distinct movement, based less on Christianity and natural rights for blacks and more on the social tensions between planters and nonslaveholders that accompanied the rise of the cotton slavery regime. With its frank class appeals and strong emphasis on racial tensions, the Tennessee antislavery movement reemerged stronger than ever. And although proslavery forces eked out a victory in the 1834 state constitutional convention, the reconstituted antislavery legacy of the Jacksonian era endured over the next three decades and came to inform the views of Tennessee Unionists like Andrew Johnson.
By failing to distinguish between these two phases of antislavery activism, historians have obscured how debates over slavery were adapting to the so-called market revolution.2 Far from the last gasp of a discredited movement, Tennessee antislavery activity of the 1830s was undergoing a renaissance. That renaissance drew on nonslaveholders' fears that the emerging planter elite was establishing undemocratic control over the state's political and economic life, and those fears would play an important role in Tennessee politics long after 1834.
The organized antislavery movement emerged in Tennessee after the War of 1812, which initially helped to galvanize its supporters. The Tennessee Manumission Society, the state's first antislavery organization, was founded in 1815 following favorite son Andrew Jackson's victory in New Orleans. The year marked the triumph of a new republicanism as well as a new nationalism, a time for Americans to recommit themselves to the nation's founding ideals.3 "Freedom is the natural right of all mankind," the Manumission Society's [End Page 6] constitution proclaimed, demanding nothing less than for the new nation to live up to the principles expressed in its Declaration of Independence.4
It seemed like a perfect time for the antislavery societies to start. Over the next decade, the Tennessee Manumission Society established twenty-five branches with over a thousand total members, second in number only to North Carolina.5 The state led the antislavery press as well. During the Missouri Crisis of 1819–20, an East Tennessee Quaker named Elihu Embree established the nation's first newspaper devoted exclusively to ending slavery. Almost immediately, his Emancipator became the most widely circulated publication in Tennessee and Kentucky and had subscribers in nearly every state of the Union.6 When Embree died unexpectedly in late 1820, one of his admirers, Benjamin Lundy, took up the cause by moving to Tennessee and establishing The Genius of Universal Emancipation. In 1821, one East Tennessean lauded the state's increased antislavery consciousness. "Is not the veil which avarice and cupidity have drawn around our senses, gradually vanishing?" he asked. "Is not the monster of cruelty beheld more generally in his native form? We hail the increase of this sentiment as the beginning of auspicious consequences both to ourselves and to the unfortunate sons of Africa."7
The early activists' main arguments stemmed from two strands of thought. First, they drew on Christian idealism. Most Manumission Society leaders were ministers in the Quaker, Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian churches, and they regularly framed antislavery arguments in Christian language. "Are not Africans and their descendants...