During the antebellum period, the issue of slavery held the nation’s attention. Pro- and antislavery advocates wrestled with the realities of slavery in a time when independence and liberty were fundamental national principals. The voices of former slaves, abolitionists, and leaders in free black communities were instrumental in focusing the attention of the nation on the issue.
Slave narratives, first-person accounts of enslaved life, proved particularly effective in counteracting the proslavery argument that slavery was a beneficent, paternalistic institution designed to provide slaves with safety and guidance in exchange for their labor. Slave narratives did often include descriptions of kind masters, but these only served to highlight the capricious, arbitrary nature of the institution overall. They also described physical brutality and sexual violence. In “Twelve Years a Slave,” a free black man describes being kidnapped and sold, another example of African Americans’ precarious status and vulnerability. These narratives bolstered the abolitionist cause, and provided proof of the suffering of millions of people in the United States. The slave narratives of Sojourner Truth and Fredrick Douglass were key to their place as leaders of the abolitionist movement, and gave credibility to their activism. Douglass provided a particularly compelling image of an eloquent, literate former slave who risked his life to fight for the freedom of others.
Beginning with the abolition of the overseas slave trade in 1808, religious leaders of black communities made powerful arguments both for free blacks to become upstanding citizens who would be worthy of a larger share of American freedom, and for an end to slavery, described as a savage and cruel institution that separated families and made masters and enslaved people alike behave like beasts. Black leaders used the Christianity of their people as an example of their suitability for freedom and respect as fellow children of God, worthy of the protection of fellow Christians.
By contrast, when Nat Turner led a violent slave revolt, his confession was widely read as a warning about the mortal threat to the white social order posed by the end of slavery, encouraged by Northern abolitionists, and was used to justify savage repression. White fear of the potential violence of millions of newly freed slaves sparked a debate about what would happen if slavery were abolished. Though abolitionists all agreed that the institution was reprehensible, some believed that free people of African descent should be returned to Africa, for the good of both blacks and whites.
Though fiction, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin shared many characteristics of a slave narrative. Its characters were sympathetic and their voices compelling. Stowe wrote about slaves who experienced both cruelty and kindness, but her novel culminated in an impassioned plea for the end of slavery. The overwhelming popularity of the book, and its condemnation and praise by pro- and antislavery activists, respectively, served to raise the conversation about abolition in the United States to a fever pitch.