"To Raise Them to an Equal Participation": Early National Abolitionism, Gradual Emancipation, and the Promise of African American Citizenship
- Journal of the Early Republic
- University of Pennsylvania Press
- Volume 31, Number 2, Summer 2011
- pp. 229-258
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The first organized abolition movement in America championed black citizenship and incorporation into the greater body politic instead of colonization or exclusion from the civic sphere of the fledgling nation. The same natural rights Revolutionary ideology that made American antislavery possible also presented slaves themselves as the very antithesis of the independent, virtuous citizenry necessary to uphold representative government and maintain the new nation's experiment in republicanism; therefore making abolition itself a problematic process.
Out of their quest to solve this paradox, early national abolition society members advocated gradual emancipation coupled with a program of free black uplift based on the tenets of environmentalism and the diffusion of republican educational mores. Through these reformist initiatives, abolition societies sought to prove black capacity for freedom by gradually integrating African Americans into the American republic and making them virtuous and independent citizens, fully capable of productively exercising their liberty within greater white society. Predicated on an enlightenment idealism that viewed white prejudices towards blacks as conquerable, antislavery societies believed that their abolitionist program would disprove a principle argument against slave emancipation: African Americans' alleged incapacity for freedom. Thus for early national antislavery activists the movement to abolish slavery and the cultivation of African American citizenship were inextricably interwoven.
Although abolition societies of this period ultimately failed in overturning white prejudice and integrating former slaves into American society as equal citizens, they did establish several guiding principles of antislavery reform that later abolitionists would inherit long after Northern emancipation was achieved.