Narrator: As the daughter of one of South Carolina's first families, Angelina Grimké lived in almost unimaginable luxury. In the 1820s, Charleston's aristocracy was one of the wealthiest societies on earth. But Angelina found it almost unbearable -- an empire of sin.
Carol Berkin, Historian: The story goes that each of them in the family had their own personal slave behind them when they ate dinner. And if the salt and pepper were next to the person sitting next to you, you didn't ask them to pass it. Your slave got it from his slave and gave it to you. There was nothing that you had to do that there wasn't a slave who took care of it for you.
Angelina Grimké (Jeanine Serralles): Did you hear last night?
Mrs. Grimké (Crystal Cupp): Hear what?
Angelina Grimké (Jeanine Serralles): Really?
Mrs. Grimké (Crystal Cupp): Angelina, what are you talking about?
Angelina Grimké (Jeanine Serralles): You know! Henry! He whipped John again!
Mrs. Grimké (Crystal Cupp): I've told you before, dear -- that's Henry's business.
Carol Berkin, Historian: Angelina attacked slavery not in the beginning because she cared about the slaves.
Mrs. Grimké (Crystal Cupp): ... It is Henry's business.
Carol Berkin, Historian: She was really concerned about the fate of their white masters.
Mrs. Grimké (Crystal Cupp): I ask you to leave him alone.
Angelina Grimké (Jeanine Serralles): He's my brother!
Mrs. Grimké (Crystal Cupp): Yes. I know.
Carol Berkin, Historian: She believed slavery was a sin and that God would punish people who had slaves.
Angelina Grimké (Jeanine Serralles): Mother, it is my duty to bear testimony against ...
Mrs. Grimké (Crystal Cupp): Angelina, mind your own business. Can you do that?
Angelina Grimké (Jeanine Serralles): It is my business! And it's your business too! How can you stand in church every week...
Mrs. Grimké (Crystal Cupp): You must let it be!
Angelina Grimké (Jeanine Serralles): I can't let it be! Have you no Christian feelings?
Mrs. Grimké (Crystal Cupp): Yes, Angelina, I have Christian feelings, and you are putting them to the test right now. My soul will be judged by the Lord, and not by you or anyone else.
Angelina Grimké (Jeanine Serralles): It is my duty...
Mrs. Grimké (Crystal Cupp): It is not your duty, Angelina! I am glad -- I suppose -- that you are so diligent about your faith. But leave my soul to me, and Henry's to Henry.
Angelina Grimké (Jeanine Serralles): I speak the truth in love.
Mrs. Grimké (Crystal Cupp): Enough!
Angelina Grimké (Jeanine Serralles): Mother? Mother. Mother, listen to me! Mother!
Julie Roy Jeffrey, Historian: Angelina's religious search was tortured, tortured, tortured. She was more or less on her own as she struggled with very deep and troubling issues about herself and her relationship to God.
Narrator: In the fall of 1829, Grimké resolved to leave Charleston and the pollutions of slavery, for an uncertain future in the North.
Lois Brown, Historian: There's a kind of fearlessness about Angelina Grimké. Women did not strike out, white women did not strike out on their own in this way, and Southern white women certainly did not. This is disobedience to proper society, to the South, to the church.
Narrator: Frederick Douglass was alone in a terrifying new world. A few weeks earlier, the six-year-old had been delivered to his master's home on Maryland's eastern shore, to begin his life as a slave. His first experience of slavery would haunt him to his grave.
Frederick Douglass (Richard Brooks, audio): Aunt Hester went out one night, and happened to be absent when the master desired her presence.
Overseer (Scott Carter): Bitch!
Aunt Hester (Ingrid Alli): Oh please, please ...
Frederick Douglass (Richard Brooks, audio): No words, no tears, no prayers, seemed to move his iron heart. The louder she screamed, the harder he whipped -- and where the blood ran fastest, there he whipped longest. He would whip to make her scream, and whip to make her hush. I dared not venture out till long after it was over. It was the bloodstained gate, the entrance to the hell of slavery.
Narrator: Frederick Douglass and Angelina Grimké lived at opposite poles of one of the largest slave societies in history. In the late 1820s there were two million men, women, and children living in bondage in the United States.
In the 50 years since the Revolution, every Northern state had outlawed slavery. It had once seemed likely that it would disappear in the South as well, but no more. The invention of the cotton gin had led to a massive increase in cotton production, making slavery indispensable to both the South and the North.
Manisha Sinha, Historian: It's actually quite astounding how deeply entrenched it was in the nation's political and economic life. What is seen as this sort of idiosyncratic, peculiar Southern institution actually had an enormous economic significance in the national economy of the United States.
David W. Blight, Historian: Slaves were the single largest financial asset in the entire American economy, worth more than all manufacturing, all railroad, steamship lines, and other transportation systems, put together. The only thing in the American economy worth more as simply a financial asset was the land itself, and no one really quite knows how to value North America.
Narrator: The only voices advocating the abolition of slavery were black. Their frustration was growing, and some of them were becoming more militant, but no one in power was listening. As of yet, no white Americans could imagine turning millions of dollars worth of slaves into millions of black compatriots. But scattered around the country, a few lonely souls were convinced that slavery was a crime against God and man. And in Boston, one of them was coming to understand that God intended he do something about it.
William Lloyd Garrison felt that he was destined to do great things, but he had no idea how to get there. In 1828 he was 22 years old, newly arrived in the city from his hometown of Newburyport. Garrison's father, a seaman and a drunk, had abandoned the family when Garrison was two years old. Plunged into poverty, Garrison's mother left her children for years on end as she looked for work. But in their time together, she managed to drum a fierce Christian conscience into her son.
James Brewer Stewart, Historian: William Lloyd Garrison's religious background was not just a background, it was at the core of who he was. It was an indwelling spirit inside of him that constantly thought about making God's will come into being on this earth.
Narrator: Shortly after arriving in Boston, Garrison happened to meet an itinerant publisher who was raising money for his one-man anti-slavery newspaper. Garrison was horrified by descriptions of the slave pens where men, women, and children were held, awaiting shipment further South, and he began to think that ending slavery was the cause that could give meaning to his life.
In the summer of 1829, Garrison moved to Baltimore, to take a job at the publisher's newspaper. He brought new life to the struggling operation, which had long been urging slaveholders to free their slaves so that they could be shipped back to Africa, leaving the United States a single-race country. But as Garrison came into contact with Baltimore's large free black population, he began to embrace a far more radical vision of America's future.
Choir (Actors): ... to mansions in the skies, / I bid farewell to every fear, / And wipe my weeping eyes. / Should earth against my soul engage ...
James Brewer Stewart, Historian: Garrison went to Baltimore and there boarded with free blacks. Had to share the table with them, had to break bread with them, had to sleep in the same quarters with them. And suddenly he had an idea that he had a much expanded mission that did not simply speak to the question of slavery but spoke to the question of race.
Choir (Actors): ... and face a frowning world. / Let cares, like a wild deluge come ...
Narrator: Garrison lost interest in gradual emancipation. He wanted immediate abolition -- the complete eradication of the institution, everywhere and forever. He even envisioned a future in which black Americans could share in their country's promise of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Garrison was making powerful enemies. Within months, he was thrown in prison for vilifying a slave trader. A New York sympathizer bailed him out in the spring of 1830. He had no job to return to. Neither did he have a home, or a family. He had few friends or allies. He did, however, have a plan -- a newspaper of his own, to promote immediate abolition.
William Lloyd Garrison (Neal Huff, audio): I am willing to be persecuted, imprisoned, and bound for advocating African rights, and I should deserve to be a slave myself, if I shrunk from that duty or danger.
Narrator: By the fall of 1830, William Lloyd Garrison was back in Boston, doggedly pursuing his dream of an abolitionist newspaper. He scrounged around for printing supplies and convinced a colleague to loan him a few reams of paper. He traveled around the Northeast, gathering a handful of allies among white reformers, but not enough to support his venture.
Julie Roy Jeffrey, Historian: Garrison meets with a group of black abolitionists and he receives very positive support. In that first year, the financial help of black Bostonians was absolutely critical. He had many more black supporters than white supporters.
Lois Brown, Historian: He uses his time in African American communities and churches, in meetings, to think very deliberately about how to organize his own abolitionist campaign. There is a true partnership that can go forward. There is a kind of work that Garrison can do, precisely because he is a white man in America in the 1830s.
Narrator: On January 1st, 1831, Garrison's long-awaited day arrived. On the first page of the first issue of his newspaper, Garrison declared, "There shall be no neutrals; men shall either like or dislike me."
William Lloyd Garrison (Neal Huff, audio): Let Southern oppressors tremble, let their Northern apologists tremble -- let all the enemies of the persecuted blacks tremble. On the subject of slavery, I do not wish to write with moderation. I am in earnest -- I will not equivocate -- I will not excuse -- I will not retreat a single inch -- and I WILL BE HEARD.
Narrator: For eight months, Garrison toiled away in almost complete obscurity. Then, an explosion of violence halfway across the country suddenly propelled him to national prominence. On a hot August night in 1831, a band of armed slaves rode through the Virginia countryside, killing the white occupants of one farmhouse after another. Nat Turner, the man who led the rebellion, would elude a massive search party for 68 days before he, too, was caught and executed.
James Brewer Stewart, Historian: Nat Turner's rebellion is a tremendous point of departure. The sudden explosion of black anger, black wrath, is so jarring that the ramifications of the rebellion go far beyond Virginia.
W. Caleb McDaniel, Historian: There's no evidence that Garrison's Liberator had any influence on Nat Turner. But very quickly in the Southern press, Garrison's name started to be associated with Nat Turner's revolt.
James Brewer Stewart, Historian: The South Carolina legislature put a bounty on Garrison's head: $15,000 if you deliver his body, I think more if you delivered the whole man alive.
Narrator: Garrison welcomed the notoriety.
William Lloyd Garrison (Neal Huff, audio):The Liberator is causing extraordinary agitation among whites in the slave states. I am constantly receiving anonymous letters filled with abominable and bloody sentiments. These trouble me less than the wind. I was never so happy and confident as I am at the present time.
Narrator: Over the next two years, Garrison gradually won adherents to the anti-slavery cause. Almost 50 abolitionist groups formed in 10 states. Their influence extended from urban centers like Philadelphia and New York to remote settlements like Cincinnati, a boomtown on the Western Frontier. There, Lyman Beecher, one of the country's most famous preachers, had recently moved his family.
Beecher opposed slavery in principle, but distrusted activists who "recklessly" advocated immediate abolition. His 22-year-old daughter, Harriet, had inherited his views. There is "a class of professed abolitionists in Cincinnati," she wrote, but they are "unfashionable" and are "regarded as a species of moral mono-maniacs."
Male Passerby (Actor): Ladies.
Mary Dutton (Virginia Fields): He wants to be noticed!
Harriet Beecher Stowe (Kate Lyn Sheil): Don't they all?
Narrator: In the spring of 1833, Harriet and two friends crossed over the river into neighboring Kentucky. She had never before visited a slave state.
Slave Auctioneer (Brian Elder): We have this fine specimen here. What'll you give?
First Bidder (Actor): Twenty-five.
Slave Auctioneer (Brian Elder): Twenty-five.
Second Bidder (Actor): Fifty.
Slave Auctioneer (Brian Elder): Fifty. We've got 50 going once! Fifty going twice. Fifty! Sold to the gentleman here. How're you gentleman doing this nice, warm Kentucky day? We're gonna keep this thing going.
Slave Auction Mother (Montrece Hill): No! My baby.
R. Blakeslee Gilpin, Historian: What Stowe sees there is a human thing. She sees these people, I mean they are human beings.
Slave Auctioneer (Brian Elder): What will you give for this woman? Twenty-five?
R. Blakeslee Gilpin, Historian: She's confronted with it in such an intimate way, and I think that never leaves her.
Narrator: In 1833, two years after William Lloyd Garrison launched The Liberator, abolitionists from all over the North gathered for the first time. They could feel the strength of their growing numbers -- the time had come to unify their far-flung groups into one national anti-slavery society.
Garrison was chosen to draw up the organization's charter. He worked through the night, producing a radical document that crystallized his own beliefs, especially his faith in the power of nonviolence.
William Lloyd Garrison (Neal Huff, audio): Our measures shall be the opposition of moral purity to moral corruption, the destruction of error by the potency of truth, the overthrow of prejudice by the power of love, and the abolition of slavery by the spirit of repentance.
Narrator: The American Anti-Slavery Society came to life the next day, when 63 people signed Garrison's manifesto. They vowed to spread the anti-slavery gospel to every city, town, and village, and they agreed to use what they called "moral suasion" to convert slaveholders to the cause.
David W. Blight, Historian: The heart of the evangelical Christian's worldview was this idea that the individual can be converted almost immediately. So why not the society too?
James Brewer Stewart, Historian: They had seen through their own religious culture the conversion of people from the condition of being a sinner to being sanctified. And so the original intention of the abolitionists was to tell the slaveholders to repent and that they would.
John Stauffer, Historian: Abolitionists never waver in their faith or their hope that any day, any moment, slavery can end.
Narrator: Word of the abolitionists' efforts spread, even reaching the slave Frederick Douglass. Douglass had spent much of his youth as a house slave in Baltimore. There his horizons had widened. He had lived among free blacks, had secretly learned to read, and there he had come to hope that slavery might not be eternal.
Frederick Douglass (Richard Brooks, audio): Every once in a while, I could hear my master speaking angrily about "abolitionists." I had no idea who or what these were. I soon found, however, that they were soundly hated by slaveholders. I realized with deep satisfaction that I was not alone in abhorring slavery.
Erica Armstrong Dunbar, Historian: This thought makes him question, it makes him hopeful, it makes him angry, so that when there is a need for Douglass to be beaten back into submission, to erase the experiences of Baltimore, he's sent to Covey for this.
Narrator: Edward Covey was a farmer back on Maryland's eastern shore who traded on his reputation as a slave breaker.
John Stauffer, Historian: He was truly sadistic. He whipped Douglass mercilessly at least once a week for the first six months, for no reason at all.
Edward Covey (Jeffrey Wilhelm): Come on, boy. Come on, boy.
Erica Armstrong Dunbar, Historian: Douglass knew that by physically assaulting a white man his life was in danger. But he's made this decision that it matters not. And he isn't punished, in part because Douglass standing up to Covey ruins, or at least jeopardizes, Covey's reputation.
Narrator: Covey never laid a hand on Douglass again.
Frederick Douglass (Richard Brooks, audio): I was a changed being after that fight. I was nothing before. I was a man now.
Narrator: By 1835, two years after the formation of the American Anti-Slavery Society, there were over 300 chapters throughout the free states, with tens of thousands of members. Garrison and New York businessman Lewis Tappan hoped to build on this momentum with a bold plan to directly confront Southern slaveholders and their supporters. They proposed printing 20 to 50,000 pamphlets a week, and mailing them to ministers, elected officials, and newspaper editors in each state, especially in the South.
The postal campaign became a phenomenon. Within a year the Anti-Slavery Society had flooded the nation with over a million pieces of abolitionist literature, along with medals, emblems, bandanas, chocolate wrappers, songs, and readers for small children. The great postal campaign did not bring about the end of what Southerners called "our peculiar institution." Instead, it triggered a wave of repression throughout the slave states. In Charleston, 3,000 people destroyed anti-slavery materials, and then burned Garrison in effigy.
Lois Brown, Historian: Southerners decide we're being attacked and you need to bring these scoundrels to justice, they must be kidnapped, they must be assassinated -- I mean, it's incredible uproar.
Manisha Sinha, Historian: This is when the South sort of closes itself completely on the issue of slavery. Earlier on you were not putting your life into danger if you criticized slavery. But by that time in the South, if you did you were taking a serious risk.
Narrator: The vehemence of the reaction in the South took the abolitionists by surprise. But they were even more alarmed when the violence moved north. In some cases, abolitionists themselves were the targets, as when a New York mob burned Lewis Tappan's house to the ground. But all too often, African Americans were the victims of racist violence, from isolated beatings to the expulsion of entire black communities. The mobs shattered every abolitionist assumption: that righteousness would triumph over evil, that their fellow Americans would listen to reason, that their Northern neighbors would support the abolitionist cause. Garrison was stunned.
William Lloyd Garrison (Neal Huff, audio): When we first unfurled the banner of The Liberator, we did not anticipate that to protect Southern slavery the free states would voluntarily trample underfoot all law, order, and government.
Narrator: Garrison and his fellow abolitionists had roused an enemy far more tenacious, entrenched, and violent than they had ever imagined.
In the years since Angelina Grimké left her home in Charleston, she had moved to Philadelphia and joined her like-minded sister, Sarah. There, Angelina discreetly followed reports of the abolitionist movement. She was reluctant to get involved, fearing that would bring disgrace to her mother back in Charleston. But as she read reports of the rising tide of pro-slavery violence, Grimké finally decided that she could remain silent no more.
Angelina Grimké (Jeanine Serralles, audio): "Respected Friend: It seems as if I was compelled at this time to address you. I can hardly express the deep and solemn interest with which I have viewed the violent proceedings of the last few weeks ..."
William Lloyd Garrison (Neal Huff): "... The ground upon which you stand is holy ground: never, never surrender it. It is my deep, solemn, deliberate conviction that this is a cause worth dying for. Angelina Grimké." William, she's the daughter of one of the most famous families in South Carolina.
W. Caleb McDaniel, Historian: When Garrison receives Angelina Grimké's letter, he sees a Southern woman who is confirming everything that the abolitionists have been saying about slavery's evils. It's a Godsend.
Narrator: Garrison's publication of the letter horrified Angelina's friends and even her sister Sarah. They pleaded with her to renounce it. But Grimké refused. Instead, she committed herself to the cause. She had a weapon that no other abolitionist could claim: a pedigree among the slaveholding aristocracy. Grimké set about writing An Appeal to the Women of the South, urging them to work for the downfall of slavery.
Angelina Grimké (Jeanine Serralles, audio): I know you do not make the laws but I also know that you are the wives and mothers, sisters and daughters of those who do. Let the Christian women of the South arise, and salvation is certain.
Narrator: Grimké's appeal met the same reception as Garrison's pamphlets. In Charleston, copies were publicly burned, and the mayor warned her mother that if Angelina ever dared visit Charleston again she would be thrown in jail. But Grimké had no intention of returning to the South. She had made up her mind to take up the banner of abolition.
Mob (Actors): We'll take care of them ... I'm going to lose ... You're not going to lose nothing ... I got this figured out ... I'm not afraid of you ... We're not fighting each other, we're fighting the God-damned abolitionists ... Just relax ... You back off of me ... Don't you mess with me, boy.
Narrator: By the fall of 1835, anti-abolitionist violence was closing in on Boston. A stone-throwing crowd had recently forced one of Garrison's allies to abandon a speech. Garrison himself woke one morning to find a gallows on his front lawn. He ignored the warnings. On the morning of October 21st, 1835, he made his way across town to deliver yet another anti-slavery lecture.
Mob (Actors): That was Garrison! That was Garrison! We'll get him ... Hey, we'll get him on the way back out!
Narrator: Garrison fled into a back alley, and hid away in a carpenter shop.
First Assailant (Actor): Well, well, here's our little rabbit.
Second Assailant (Actor): Oh, we've got him! He's up here!
First Assailant (Actor): You're mine.
Third Assailant (Actor): Come on, let's take him down to the others.
First Assailant (Actor): All right. We'll tar the nigger-loving son of a bitch. Get the rope.
Narrator: Fortunately for Garrison, two burly men in the crowd took pity on him, and rushed him to the town hall. With the mob still calling for Garrison's blood, the mayor put the terrified printer in jail for the night, for his own protection.
Reeling from his brush with death, Garrison retreated to the Connecticut countryside with his wife Helen, who was pregnant with their first child. Garrison told colleagues that he needed to stay with Helen and the new baby. In fact, he had been shaken to his core, his faith in his fellow man poisoned, his hope for his country undermined.
James Brewer Stewart, Historian: Garrison begins to suspect that every part of American society is infected by a deep moral disease. And he starts to say, "The churches are pro-slavery -- we're coming out of all the churches. Politics are pro-slavery -- abolitionists should never vote." He becomes far more radical and far more anti-institutional.
Narrator: For years, John Brown had been trying to divine God's purpose, to make sense of his afflictions. He had once been a successful merchant and tanner, a good provider to his family. But then, suddenly, his life collapsed: a series of business disasters plunged him deep into debt.
R. Blakeslee Gilpin, Historian: Brown is drifting just further and further into a very deep and dark relationship with God. He's always trying to discern what God wants for him. That's really what Calvinism is all about. You’re eternally in sin. You're just constantly trying to get out of it like a drowning man.
Narrator: In November of 1837, news came that an anti-slavery printer had been murdered by a mob in Illinois. Elijah Lovejoy's death struck at something deep within John Brown, conjuring up a memory that had haunted him for years.
John Brown (T. Ryder Smith, audio): When I was a child, I stayed for a short time with a very gentlemanly landlord who held a slave boy near my own age. The master made a great pet of me, while the Negro boy was badly clothed, poorly fed, and beaten before my eyes with iron shovels or any other thing that came first to hand.
Narrator: For Brown, Lovejoy's death was a sign from God: He must never again stand helpless in the face of evil. As he dressed for a prayer meeting a few days after the killing, John Brown knew what God meant for him. He sat silently at the back of the room as one speaker after another fired up the congregation with accounts of Lovejoy's death. Finally, John Brown stood up and raised his right hand. "Here before God," he announced, "in the presence of these witnesses, from this time, I consecrate my life to the destruction of slavery."
A few months earlier, scores of abolitionists had descended on New York for a training session. William Lloyd Garrison came, as did Angelina and Sarah Grimké. Though Garrison gave a rousing speech, Angelina's head was turned by a striking young theologian who ran most of the sessions. Theodore Weld had committed himself totally to the anti-slavery cause, and had even pledged not to marry until the slaves were free.
Carol Berkin, Historian: Angelina thinks he walks on water. She thinks he is the most amazing man, that he is filled with a passion of abolition. He trains them, teaches them, and sends them off to give talks.
Angelina Grimké (Jeanine Serralles): I stand before you as a Southerner, exiled from the land of my birth by the sound of the lash, and the piteous cry of the slave. I stand before you as a repentant slaveholder. I feel that I owe it to the suffering slave, and the deluded master, to do all that I can to overturn a system built up upon the bodies of my countrymen, and cemented by the blood and sweat and tears of my sisters in bonds.
Carol Berkin, Historian: Of course, since they're women, to speak in front of a mixed -- or as they called it, promiscuous -- audience of men and women was absolutely forbidden. The abolitionists are ardent desirers of respectability for their movement. So when men start to come to her talks, their antennae go up. And when they tell her to stop talking to men, she says, "No, I have a right."
Narrator: The Grimkés quickly found themselves at the center of a storm. Ministers condemned them, and warned of the dangers that loomed if women moved away from their assigned sphere. Many abolitionists agreed. As the arguments escalated, Angelina began linking the rights of enslaved people to the rights of women. Garrison stood by the embattled sisters, but Weld did not. "Women's rights should not be your preoccupation," he told Angelina, "at least not until the slaves are free." Grimké's pain and anger came through in her reply.
Angelina Grimké (Jeanine Serralles, audio): Can't you just stand here side-by-side with us? Can you not see that women could do, and would do, a hundred times more for the slave if she were not shackled?
Narrator: By the time their six-month tour finally ended in the fall of 1837, Angelina could go no further. She collapsed with typhoid fever. As she was recovering, Angelina wrote to Theodore, saying she hadn't realized how much he disliked her.
Carol Berkin, Historian: And he writes back to her, "You're young and you have too much pride, and you're not helping the cause." And then in great big letters, three times the size of the rest of the letter, he writes, "I have loved you from the first moment I met you." And I'm sure Angelina had the same response I had in reading, "You're terrible. You're prideful. I love -- I, I what?"
Sarah Grimké (Wendy Carter): My dear, look at you. You're beautiful.
Angelina Grimké (Jeanine Serralles, audio): Your letter was indeed a great surprise, my brother, and yet it was no surprise at all. I feel, my Theodore, that we are the two halves of one whole, two bodies animated by one soul, and that the Lord has given us to each other.
Narrator: In the spring of 1838, Angelina and Theodore's friends received a wedding invitation adorned with an engraving of a slave in chains. It would be a ceremony unlike any other. The couple improvised their vows, denounced a man's authority over his wife, and, to cap it all off, they had a black minister and a white minister lead the congregation in prayer.
Theodore Weld (Steve Annan): And I reject all authority, all government, save the influence which love gives us over each other.
Angelina Grimké (Jeanine Serralles): May the sun continue to shine as it now does, and may our Father guide us in love through the rest of our pilgrimage.
William Lloyd Garrison (Neal Huff): Brothers and sisters, Mr. and Mrs. Weld have chosen to solemnize their union not by the illegitimate authority of state or church, but by your witness. On this ...
Julie Roy Jeffrey, Historian: All kinds of rumors had been flying around Philadelphia about the wedding and the guest list and the social amalgamation, or mixing, that had gone on.
Narrator: As news of the event filtered out, the city grew tense. By the time Angelina and Theodore attended an anti-slavery convention two days after the wedding, Philadelphia was seething with racial tension. The meeting was held in Pennsylvania Hall, which had been constructed as a haven for free speech.
Carol Berkin, Historian: The leaders of the movement are on the stage, and as they're speaking, as they're holding their meeting, they begin to hear noise outside, and the noise grows and grows and grows. And then they begin to see the rocks hitting the windows. And they realize that they're in danger.
Narrator: Angelina Weld kept speaking as showers of stones pelted the windows. Shattered glass cascaded to the floor.
Angelina Grimké (Jeanine Serralles, audio): What is the mob? What would the breaking of every window be -- any evidence that we are wrong, or that slavery is a good and wholesome institution? What if that mob should burst in upon us and commit violence on our persons? Would this be anything compared with what the slaves endure?
Narrator: The following night, a crowd broke into the empty hall and set fire to the building. Firemen stood aside and watched it burn. Soon, Philadelphia's monument to free speech lay in ruins.
Only days after the burning of Pennsylvania Hall, a shaken Angelina moved with Theodore to a rustic farm in New Jersey. There, far from the violence and upheaval of abolition's front lines, they would take up their most influential work. American Slavery As It Is was a book made up of first-hand accounts of slavery, handbills for runaway slaves, court records, and the words of slave owners themselves. A mammoth undertaking, it was an irrefutable answer to the argument that slavery was a necessary and benevolent institution. Grimké was unflinching in her own account.
Angelina Grimké (Jeanine Serralles, audio): I saw slavery in the city, among the fashionable and the honorable. There, everything cruel and revolting is carefully concealed from strangers. I have known the mistress of a family borrow servants to wait on company, because their own slaves had been so cruelly flogged, that they could not walk without limping at every step, and their putrefied flesh emitted such an intolerable smell that they were not fit to be in the presence of company.
Narrator:American Slavery As It Is became the best-selling book in the country. But with its publication, Angelina Grimké's public career was over. Her health had been severely weakened by her public ordeals, leaving her barely able to cope with the demands of motherhood. For all that, Angelina Grimké never surrendered the vision of a more perfect society in which black and white, men and women, walked together in the ways of God.
Carol Berkin, Historian: She's exhausted from fighting, and yet, she really never lets go of doing what is morally right. But she's not the same know-it-all obnoxious girl she was when she was younger. Now she's genuinely a humanist, she's genuinely a person with great empathy for people who suffer, and great sensitivity to the inequalities in society.
Narrator: By 1840, after 10 years of struggle, William Lloyd Garrison was drifting away from many of his old allies, alienating them with what they considered irrelevant heresies. Rather than backing down, Garrison upped the ante: Because the Constitution itself was corrupt, he charged, the Union was fatally flawed. Garrison insisted that abolitionists renounce their government, that they withdraw from citizenship and refuse to vote.
William Lloyd Garrison (Neal Huff, audio): The American Union was effected by a guilty compromise between the free and slave-holding states -- in other words, by incorporating the slave system into the government. In the language of scripture, it was "a covenant with death, and an agreement with Hell."
David W. Blight, Historian: The first American Republic, the one invented in the Revolution in the late 18th century, had to die. It is so deeply flawed by the fact that human beings are property, that that Republic is doomed. It must be crushed, it must be changed and reinvented.
Narrator: Many of Garrison's old friends had had enough. Some of them were deeply offended by his support of women's rights. Others thought it lunacy for a reform movement to ignore politics, or to insist that supporters refrain from voting. And a few were quietly wondering whether nonviolence could ever free the slaves. In May of 1840, they quit the American Anti-Slavery Society. The organization remained, with Garrison at its head, but membership and income plummeted.
The infighting left the abolition movement fragmented and disheartened. Many wondered whether it would disappear altogether. Time and again Garrison, Grimké, Weld, and their kindred spirits had sounded the warning: the Republic couldn't forever encompass the ideal of liberty and the reality of slavery. For their beliefs they had been reviled, mocked, beaten, and imprisoned. But they had exposed the fatal weakness in the Union, and set the nation on course to the gravest crisis in its history.
Narrator: Frederick Douglass had heard the stories -- every slave had. Whispered accounts of fugitives running from the slave catchers for nights on end, coming within sight of freedom, only to hear the hounds closing in. Fugitives starving, freezing to death, being torn apart by wild animals. Everyone knew what would happen if you were caught: flogging, branding, elaborate tortures to strike terror into any other would-be runaways. Some lost hope and returned to their masters. Others killed themselves rather than go back to slavery.
But, some made it. In the fall of 1838, Frederick Douglass leapt aboard a train in Baltimore, slipped through the gauntlet of slave catchers prowling the border between slave and free states, and finally boarded a ferry bound for New York City. Only 24 hours removed from slavery, Douglass found himself wandering among the dazzling wonders of Broadway.
Frederick Douglass (Richard Brooks, audio): A free state around me, and the free earth under my feet! What a moment this was to me! A whole year was pressed into a single day. A new world burst upon my agitated vision.
Narrator: Douglass had planned his escape with the help of Anna Murray, a free black woman he had met in Baltimore. Anna had sewn his sailor disguise, and sold her featherbed to give him the money he needed. As soon as she joined him in New York, they were married in a safe house by a fellow runaway. There was no time to rest -- New York was crawling with bounty hunters. With five dollars to their names, Frederick and Anna headed further north.
Their destination was New Bedford, Massachusetts, a whaling town known as an abolitionist stronghold, with a large population of free blacks and runaway slaves. Frederick and Anna clawed their way out of desperate poverty, and built a life for their growing family. For three years Douglass shoveled coal, cut wood, and loaded ships, often working two shifts a day. He did make time to attend anti-slavery gatherings, and was an avid reader of the most prominent abolitionist newspaper of the day, William Lloyd Garrison's The Liberator.
Frederick Douglass (Richard Brooks, audio): I not only liked, I loved this paper, and its editor. He seemed a match for all the opponents of emancipation. Its words were few, and full of holy fire.
Narrator: When Douglass heard that Garrison was going to address an anti-slavery convention in Nantucket, he took a rare few days off and boarded a ferry for the island. As Douglass listened to the proceedings, a friend from New Bedford unexpectedly called on him to speak. "As I made my way to the stage," Douglass recalled, "I was shaking in every limb."
Frederick Douglass (Richard Brooks): My mother was named Harriet Bailey. I can’t recollect of ever seeing her by the light of day. We were separated when I was but an infant. My father was a white man -- it was whispered that my master was my father, but of this I know nothing. What I do know is that my master was a very cruel man. I was just a boy -- hushed, terrified, stunned. That is slavery.
William Lloyd Garrison (Neal Huff): Mr. Douglass! I have never seen an audience so captivated. I myself was carried away, as you saw.
Frederick Douglass (Richard Brooks): I was so nervous I could barely stand.
William Lloyd Garrison (Neal Huff): You were wonderful. If you don't mind my asking -- how did you first realize that you were a slave?
Frederick Douglass (Richard Brooks): Slowly. I was raised by my grandmother. We lived far from the slave quarters, and so I didn't know what went on there. And one day, when I was six years old, my grandmother was told to walk me to the workhouse near the master's place. She sent me over to play with the other children, and abandoned me there.
William Lloyd Garrison (Neal Huff): Dear Lord.
Frederick Douglass (Richard Brooks): She loved me, but -- she had no choice.
William Lloyd Garrison (Neal Huff): What a horrible, horrible crime. An innocent child. Why were you raised by your grandmother -- what about your mother?
Frederick Douglass (Richard Brooks): My mother? I only saw her a few times, at night. She was taken away after I was born, to work as a field hand 12 miles away. She walked all the way back a handful of times, but even so, they never let me know her enough to really love her. That left a hole -- I can't express it.
William Lloyd Garrison (Neal Huff): My mother left me too. I was five. She worked in another town for a few years. I missed her terribly. But that was nothing compared with ...
Frederick Douglass (Richard Brooks): It is never nothing.
William Lloyd Garrison (Neal Huff): My dear Mr. Douglass -- join me. I urge you. You have a gift, sir, you really do.
Frederick Douglass (Richard Brooks): You flatter me.
William Lloyd Garrison (Neal Huff): No, no I don't.
Frederick Douglass (Richard Brooks): Mr. Garrison, you must understand how unexpected this is. I never imagined ...
William Lloyd Garrison (Neal Huff): You have an opportunity to strike a blow for the slaves who continue to suffer as we speak. Did the Lord give you these gifts so that you could spend your life working in the shipyards?
Frederick Douglass (Richard Brooks): I see now why you are such an effective advocate.
William Lloyd Garrison (Neal Huff): You'll do it then?
Frederick Douglass (Richard Brooks): I think I will.
William Lloyd Garrison (Neal Huff): Put on the whole armor of God ...
Narrator: Douglass's new life was fraught with danger. He was a fugitive. By speaking out in public, he risked capture by bounty hunter. But he understood that his personal testimony could help transform the struggle. Garrison and his followers had failed to convert the slaveholders. Now, they hoped to deprive them of their financial and political support in the North. Douglass and his fellow agents were sent out to recruit the foot soldiers for this campaign: the men and women who would organize boycotts, raise money, and petition Congress.
William Lloyd Garrison (Neal Huff): ... You must not give or take any quarter. You must cleave slavery to the ground!
Thank you. Now, I would like to introduce to you a graduate from the "peculiar institution." He can bear witness to the true nature of that institution. His diploma is written on his back. Mr. Frederick Douglass.
James Brewer Stewart, Historian: Douglass is something really, really special.
William Lloyd Garrison (Neal Huff): Tell your story, Frederick.
James Brewer Stewart, Historian: And Garrison can sense that this is a way to really make the abolitionist cause incarnate.
Erica Armstrong Dunbar, Historian: Many of the audience members had never, ever seen a slave, let alone been to the slave South. So to have a person like Douglass gave the anti-slavery cause teeth; it gave it authenticity; it gave it a new voice.
Narrator: Over the course of a few months, Douglass traveled three and a half thousand miles. The campaign was bearing fruit. Northerners were flooding Congress with anti-slavery petitions. When the House passed a gag rule forbidding their consideration, it added to Northern suspicions that the government was operating for the benefit of slaveholders. Abolitionists had driven another wedge into the fractures of the Union. But for Douglass, that wasn’t enough. He wanted to effect change directly. When he heard that a fellow runaway had been captured, he saw a chance to enlist Garrison and his followers.
Frederick Douglass (Richard Brooks, audio): Dear Friend Garrison: Slavery, our enemy, has landed in our very midst. George Latimer has been hunted down like a wild beast and imprisoned in Leverett Street jail.
Narrator: George Latimer had arrived in Boston in the fall of 1842, only to be thrown in jail at the request of a Virginia planter.
Frederick Douglass (Richard Brooks, audio): Boston has become the hunting ground of merciless man-stealers. We need not point to the sugar fields of Louisiana or to the rice swamps of Alabama for the bloody deeds of this soul-crushing system, but to the city of pilgrims.
Narrator: Garrison and the other abolitionists took up the call. Soon, Boston was in an uproar. Fearing an assault on the jail, the sheriff released Latimer, and his master had no choice but to set him free. For abolitionists, it was a stunning victory, but they weren't done. In a show of strength, they collected 65,000 signatures, bound the documents together, and rolled them like barrels into the state house.
In March of 1843, Massachusetts complied with their demands by passing the Personal Liberty Act. State officials could never again take part in the recapture of a fugitive slave. Within a few years, almost every other Northern state had followed suit. The personal liberty laws set alarm bells ringing throughout the South.
R. Blakeslee Gilpin, Historian: Southerners have a right to be outraged. Here we have proof positive that there is an utter disregard for the compromises that have been made to found this American republic, to try to keep this thing running.
Lois Brown, Historian: You see the South rising to say, "This is yet another assault on our way of life. This cannot be."
Narrator: With every headline, every petition, every controversy, the abolitionists were dragging the fight over slavery to the center of national life. And that fight was starting to tear the country apart.
By the winter of 1845, Frederick Douglass had been touring the anti-slavery circuit for four years. As he contemplated his future, Douglass could imagine himself traveling forever in the shadow of his white mentors, repeating his story to small gatherings of the curious and the converted.
Frederick Douglass (Richard Brooks, audio): "Tell your story, Frederick," would whisper my friend, William Lloyd Garrison, as we stepped upon the platform. I could not always obey, for it did not satisfy me to simply narrate wrongs; I felt like denouncing them. Besides, I was growing, and needed room.
Narrator: That winter, Douglass decided to reach out to a vast new audience. Throwing caution to the winds, he published the story of his life.
Frederick Douglass (Richard Brooks, audio): I was born in Tuckahoe, in Talbot County, Maryland. I have no accurate knowledge of my age. By far the larger part of the slaves know as little of their age as horses know of theirs, and it is the wish of most masters to keep their slaves thus ignorant.
Erica Armstrong Dunbar, Historian: It's an exposé about, of course, the horrible treatment of slaves. It's also an example of how the institution of slavery not only degrades slaves, but it degrades the master.
Narrator: Douglass listed dates, places, and, most dangerous of all, his owner's name. One white friend read the document and advised Douglass to burn it. Should Douglass's owners want to reclaim their property, he warned, there was nothing anyone could do to protect him. Douglass would have none of it.
John Stauffer, Historian: It was truly a cultural event when he did publish it. It was an immediate and an immense bestseller. That narrative was published in 1845. By 1846 to 1847, Douglass was a household name in the United States.
Narrator: Among those who read the book was Douglass's owner, Thomas Auld. He called Douglass a liar, and vowed to track him down and send him to the cotton fields of the Deep South. Douglass fled the country for Great Britain. There, he could carry on Garrison's campaign to isolate the South, by urging Britons to cut ties with American slaveholders. The experience would change his life.
John Stauffer, Historian: Douglass's time in Britain was the first time in his life where he experienced a dearth of racism. He could walk anywhere. It was the first time where he could walk down the street and not have someone spit at him, not have someone scowl and call him a nigger. It was the first time he could walk into any public establishment and not have someone kick him out.
Narrator: As Douglass's Narrative became a bestseller, he was treated by his British hosts not just as an equal, but as a celebrity. Most important of all, for the first time in his life, Douglass was free.
John Stauffer, Historian: His British sympathizers sent Thomas Auld a note saying, "We have your slave. Let's negotiate. He's probably worth $1,500-2,000. We'll give you $800. Try to recover him." The Aulds agreed to it. So when Douglass returns to the United States he's legally free. Douglass loved England and Ireland and Scotland so much that he almost stayed there. The only reason that he decided to return to the United States is because he felt a sense of responsibility and obligation to his fellow blacks.
Narrator: Douglass had fled the United States alone, a fugitive running for his life. When he left London to return home in the spring of 1847, 1,400 people came to see him off.
Shortly after landing in Boston, Douglass joined Garrison for a speaking tour of Ohio. "I seem to have undergone a transformation," Douglass told his old mentor. "I live a new life." At each stop, Garrison was reminded that his protégé was coming to eclipse him. At one of their first appearances, Garrison couldn't even finish his speech as the audience drowned him out with chants of “Douglass! Douglass!” And Douglass had a secret. His friends in Britain had raised money so that he could launch his own anti-slavery newspaper. He quickly realized that Garrison and his allies were vehemently opposed to the notion, so Douglass kept his old mentor in the dark.
A few weeks into the tour, the relentless pace and grueling conditions began to tell on Garrison. In Cleveland, he spoke to three large rallies in a single day, standing for hours in a cold rain. That evening, Garrison collapsed. For three days, he was lost in a terrifying haze of fever and delirium.
William Lloyd Garrison (Neal Huff, audio): My Dear Wife: I am going to try to write you a few lines with my own hand. I have lost 20 pounds, and am quite thin and weak ...
Narrator: Douglass reluctantly left Garrison in Cleveland, to finish the speaking tour on his own. His secret leaked out shortly after he left Garrison on his sickbed.
John Stauffer, Historian: Garrison has to learn that his, this man that he mentored and his close friend, is leaving him, abandoning him. And Douglass doesn't even tell him first-hand. He saw himself as responsible as anyone for Douglass's success, for Douglass's fame, for Douglass's popularity. He never forgives Douglass.
William Lloyd Garrison (Neal Huff, audio): My Dear Wife: Is it not strange that Douglass has not written a single line to me since he left me on a bed of illness? In regard to his project for establishing a paper, he never spoke a word to me on the subject, nor asked my advice in any particular whatsoever. Such conduct grieves me to the heart.
Narrator: In the fall of 1847, a few weeks after leaving Garrison, Douglass moved to Rochester, New York. Just over the border from Canada, Rochester was the last stop on the Underground Railroad, the network of safe houses used by slaves fleeing north to safety. The city's vibrant abolitionist community welcomed Douglass with open arms. As soon as he arrived, Douglass set about producing his own paper, naming it after the most potent symbol of the Underground Railroad.
Erica Armstrong Dunbar, Historian: Most fugitives, if they knew anything about the route to freedom, it was follow the North Star. Douglass's location allows him to be very involved in the Underground Railroad. He wrote that in the mornings he would come and find 10 or 11 fugitive slaves sitting on the doorstep waiting for him to arrive in his office so that he could help shuttle them to Canada.
Narrator: For the first few months, Douglass's newspaper hemorrhaged money. He had few subscribers, and no experience as either a printer or a businessman. He mortgaged his house to pay his debts and looked about to give up when a friend arrived from Britain to help.
Julia Griffiths' editorial skills and business savvy kept The North Star afloat. But her appearance in Rochester sparked rumors, and when she moved into Douglass's home those rumors blossomed into a full-blown scandal. Douglass brushed the talk aside. He was invigorated in his new surroundings. Far from Garrison's Boston headquarters, Douglass was free to explore the political, and even militant, anti-slavery strategies that were circulating in Rochester. As he did so, he made the acquaintance of a man whose name he had heard in whispers, failed tanner and fervent abolitionist John Brown.
Mary Brown (Denise Ellington): May I get you anything else, Mr. Douglass?
Frederick Douglass (Richard Brooks): Thank you, no, Mrs. Brown. A meal like this is a rare pleasure these days.
John Brown (T. Ryder Smith): The pleasure is ours, Mr. Douglass. I'd hoped to meet you long before this.
Frederick Douglass (Richard Brooks): I am flattered, sir.
John Brown (T. Ryder Smith): Your speeches have been an inspiration to us. I do wonder, though, whether speeches will ever be enough.
Frederick Douglass (Richard Brooks): What do you mean, sir?
John Brown (T. Ryder Smith): You've been at this for years.
Frederick Douglass (Richard Brooks): Freedom is a long road, Mr. Brown. I don't know any shortcuts.
John Brown (T. Ryder Smith): I do, Douglass. I do. Sir -- God has placed these mountains here for a reason.
Frederick Douglass (Richard Brooks): You know God's thinking?
John Brown (T. Ryder Smith): I know these mountains. From here, we can strike a blow against the slave masters. The mountains are full of natural fords. One good man could hold off a hundred soldiers. My plan is to take handpicked men and post them in squads of fives on a line here. They come down off the mountains, raid the plantations, bring off the slaves, offer them a chance to fight.
Frederick Douglass (Richard Brooks): Sir, you have no idea -- the entire state of Virginia will rise up against you. They will fight you tooth and claw.
John Brown (T. Ryder Smith): The colored people must fight back. They will never respect themselves otherwise, nor will they be respected. I read your book, sir. You said yourself, you became a man when you fought Mr. Covey.
Frederick Douglass (Richard Brooks): I did. But I was young and this is very different. We must follow in our Savior's footsteps. We must convert the sinner.
John Brown (T. Ryder Smith): This is the sin, right here! We sit here, all of us, debating this point of law, whether the Constitution says this or that, and in the meantime, day after day, year after year, the slaveholders are free to do their worst.
Frederick Douglass (Richard Brooks): But if we stoop to bloodshed, we are no better than they are.
John Brown (T. Ryder Smith): You can preach for all eternity and nothing will change. Mr. Douglass, how many slaveholders have you converted? How many slaves have you freed?
David W. Blight, Historian: John Brown had a very beguiling personality. He was a stunning man. His sense of moral commitment was vivid and overwhelming. He was the real thing, and to a Frederick Douglass, he was also the real thing in terms of actually believing, about as deeply as anybody Douglass had ever met, in racial equality.
Narrator: Soon after their meeting, Douglass described Brown in The North Star as someone who, "though a white gentleman, is as deeply interested in our cause as though his own soul had been pierced with the iron of slavery."
Frederick Douglass (Richard Brooks, audio): Slaveholders have forfeited even the right to live. And if the slave should put every one of them to the sword tomorrow, who would say that they deserve anything less than death?
Narrator: As Douglass was meeting with John Brown, a chain of events was being set in motion that would transform the future of slavery, and of America. In the spring of 1846 the United States went to war with Mexico, hoping to gain vast territories in the Southwest. Abolitionists bitterly opposed the war as an attempt to expand slave territory, but they were swept away by a national tide of patriotic enthusiasm.
John Stauffer, Historian: The Mexican War ultimately increases the size of the United States by virtually 100 percent. It almost doubles the size. And the big question is, "What are we gonna do with all this land acquired from Mexico?" Slave owners wanted it all to be slave territory. Anti-slavery Northerners all wanted it to be free territory.
David W. Blight, Historian: The Mexican War unshucked slavery. It just took it out of its shell. All those efforts to contain this issue couldn't work any more.
Narrator: While Southerners saw the expansion of slave territory as a guarantee that the institution would continue to thrive, Northerners viewed those plans as a conspiracy to build a true slave empire.
R. Blakeslee Gilpin, Historian: Northerners become convinced that Southerners are hell-bent on moving slavery to every part of the country. And now you have this political fight going on over what's gonna happen with that land. And that becomes very, very divisive very quickly.
Narrator: Through 1847 and 1848, the question of the new territories festered. In the answer to that question lay the country's destiny.
In the summer of 1849, the fight over slavery was suddenly eclipsed as cholera swept through cities across the country. Incessant rains flooded the streets with sewage that spread the epidemic with terrifying speed. Outside Cincinnati, Harriet Beecher Stowe followed reports of the disease as it swept through the slums downtown. Stowe had hoped to become a writer, but now she was too busy raising six young children on very little money. It was all she could do to send accounts of home life to her husband, who was working out of town for the summer.
Harriet Beecher Stowe (Kate Lyn Sheil, audio): Yesterday, I went downtown and found all gloomy and discouraged. A universal panic seems to be drawing nearer than ever before. Hearse drivers have scarce been allowed to unharness their horses. Furniture carts and common vehicles are being employed for the removal of the dead.
Narrator: Stowe had every reason to hope that her family would be spared -- they lived far from the tenements where the poor were being decimated. She kept the children close to home, and maintained a cheerful disposition. But at the beginning of July, Charley, Stowe's beloved little boy, was taken ill.
Joan D. Hedrick, Historian: She called him her summer child. Harriet wrote such glowing praise of Charley that her husband was actually disturbed by it. She said she never had such an easy time with a baby, and indeed it was the first baby she was able to nurse herself.
Harriet Beecher Stowe (Kate Lyn Sheil, audio): I could not help, nor soothe, nor do one thing to mitigate his cruel suffering -- do nothing but pray that he might die soon.
Joan D. Hedrick, Historian: It was a terrible disease. You lost all the fluids in your body, you were wracked by convulsions, and there was nothing that anybody could do.
Harriet Beecher Stowe (Kate Lyn Sheil, audio): At last, it is over and our dear little one is gone from us. My Charley -- my baby, so loving and sweet, so full of life and hope and strength -- now lies shrouded, pale, and cold in the room below.
Joan D. Hedrick, Historian: In the Calvinist scheme of things, if God sent you suffering it was because he loved you and he wanted to teach you something. Stowe later wrote that there were circumstances of such great bitterness about the manner of his death that she didn't think she could ever be reconciled for it unless his death allowed her to do the some great good to others.
Narrator: For Harriet Beecher Stowe, the wound of Charley's death would never heal. Rather, she came to understand the pain of mothers she would never know.
Harriet Beecher Stowe (Kate Lyn Sheil, audio): It was at his dying bed, and at his grave, that I learned what a poor slave mother may feel when her child is torn away from her.
Joan D. Hedrick, Historian: She was really fueled by the grief for her baby, but I suspect, too, perhaps, anger at a Calvinist God. The writing of Uncle Tom's Cabin would be Harriet's way of making her baby's short life mean something.
Narrator: In the spring of 1850, the question of the territories seized in the Mexican War finally exploded in the gravest crisis in the nation's history. California wanted to be admitted to the Union as a free state. If that happened, the balance of power in Washington would shift against the slave states. Southerners perceived a mortal threat, and talked openly of secession. Representatives brandished revolvers in the halls of Congress, and the nation contemplated the imminent collapse of the Union. For Garrison and many other abolitionists, it seemed that the Slave Power might finally suffer a fatal blow.
But in the fall of 1850, the country stepped back from the brink, when Congress adopted what became known as "The Great Compromise." In return for allowing California to join the Union as a free state, Southerners were granted the prospect of someday forming slave states in Utah and New Mexico. But for Northerners, the most galling provision in the Compromise was the Fugitive Slave Law. The law stipulated that any citizen, North or South, could be rounded up and forced to catch a suspected runaway.
John Stauffer, Historian: Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 virtually legitimates the kidnapping of free blacks. It means that a Southerner can hunt down any black in free soil and say, "You're my slave." And most significantly, in one sense, any white can be deputized at any moment, day or night, and is required to help round up the suspected fugitive slave.
An evangelist, abolitionist, and feminist, Sojourner Truth (c. 1797-1883) is remembered for her unschooled but remarkable voice raised in support of abolitionism, the freedmen, and women’s rights. Tales of her aggressive platform style, of her challenge to Frederick Douglass on the issue of violence against slavery (“Frederick! Is God dead?”), and of her baring her breasts before a crude audience who had challenged her womanhood grace the pages of abolitionist lore.
Did You Know?
Sojourner Truth once traveled to Washington, D.C., where she met with Abraham Lincoln at the White House.
Truth was six feet tall, blessed with a powerful voice (she spoke English with a Dutch accent), and driven by deep religious conviction. Harriet Beecher Stowe attested to Truth’s personal magnetism, saying that she had never “been conversant with anyone who had more of that silent and subtle power which we call personal presence than this woman.” Truth was born of slave parents owned by a wealthy Dutch patroon in Ulster County, New York. Details of her early life remain cloudy. What is clear is that her name was Isabella and she served a household in New Paltz, New York, from 1810 to 1827, where she bore some five children by a fellow slave. At least two of her daughters and one son were sold away from her during these years.
Isabella escaped slavery in 1827, one year before mandatory emancipation in New York State, by fleeing to a Quaker family, the Van Wageners, whose name she took. She moved to New York City, worked as a domestic, became involved in moral reform, embraced evangelical religion, started her street-corner preaching career, and eventually joined a utopian community in Sing Sing, New York. Illiterate and a mystic, Isabella nevertheless acquired a wide knowledge of the Bible and emerged in the 1840s in Massachusetts, working among the Garrisonian abolitionists. A popular platform figure, she told stories and sang gospel songs that instructed and entertained. Adopting the name “Sojourner Truth” in 1843, she became a wandering orator. In the mid-1850s she settled in Battle Creek, Michigan, her base of operations for the rest of her life.
During the Civil War, Truth tramped the roads of Michigan collecting food and clothing for black regiments. She traveled to Washington, D.C., where she met with Abraham Lincoln at the White House, and immersed herself in relief work for the freedpeople. During Reconstruction, Truth barely supported herself by selling a narrative of her life as well as her “shadows,” photographs of herself. She lent her unique skills to the women’s suffrage movement and initiated a petition drive to obtain land for the freedpeople, even suggesting the idea of a “Negro state” in the West. She preached cleanliness and godliness among the freedpeople and dictated many letters about the land question, which provide rich details about that aspect of Reconstruction.
Truth’s most important legacy is the tone and substance of her language. As an old woman she stumped the country providing emancipation with an eloquent epigraph: “Give ’em land and an outset, and hab teachers learn ’em to read. Den they can be somebody.” Few modern activists have better described politicians or the purpose of a petition drive than Truth did: “Send tons of paper down to Washington for them spouters to chaw on.” And when she was brutally knocked off of Washington’s segregated streetcars, she denounced racism: “It is hard for the old slaveholding spirit to die, but die it must.” She herself died of old age and ulcerated legs in 1883; her funeral and burial in Battle Creek was the largest that town had ever seen, testimony to her hold on America’s historical imagination.
The Reader’s Companion to American History. Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, Editors. Copyright © 1991 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
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