There appear to be two opposing theories, implicit in how various historians have thought about the ending of slavery, for explaining the process whereby substantial numbers, perhaps a majority, of people in the Northern states were converted to an antislavery frame of mind during the thirty years or so prior to the Civil War. According to one, the conversion occurred for the most part in indirect ways, and resulted as much in a detestation of the “Slave Power”—the planter class and its supporters—as in an abomination of the condition of slavery itself. The proslavery forces’ insistence on pushing their system into the newly opened western territories, and demanding perpetual federal protection for it there and everywhere else, along with their disregard for such venerated civil liberties as freedom of speech, freedom of debate, freedom of the press, and the right of petition in their determination to stifle all discussion of slavery in Congress and at home, had all but worn away Northern patience by 1860.
The result was a strain of antislavery feeling that had certainly not been there thirty years earlier. But although there seems to have been a widespread presentiment, to judge from the outcome of the 1860 election, that slavery, as Lincoln had put it in his “House Divided” speech, was “in course of ultimate extinction,” this hardly signified a general determination to do away with slavery then and there. It came well short of the direct and uncomplicated demand abolitionists had all along been making for immediate and unqualified emancipation.
The other theory, simpler and more direct, cuts through all this. It assumes that the predominant force that brought Northern sentiment as close as it did to a perception of slavery as a poison in the nation’s body was generated by three decades of unrelenting abolitionist agitation. There was, in other words, a direct correlation between the advance of antislavery attitudes and the abolitionists’ continued insistence—through their lectures, their tracts and newspapers, their exposures of plantation life, and their revival meetings—that slavery was a mortal sin polluting not only those who actively kept it in being but also those who simply tolerated its continued existence. The process was one of dogged, persevering, earnest instruction and persuasion.
My own inclination is to favor the first theory, which seems better suited to account for the steady hardening of hostile Northern feeling toward the slaveholding South. Such a view makes fuller room for responses to Southerners’ words and actions in which slavery was an issue but not the only issue. It also accommodates a variety of opinions increasingly antagonistic in some way to slavery as a social system yet not carried to the point of an abolitionist remedy for it.
It could well be, for instance, that the critical turn in Northern sentiment really came with regard to the issue not of slavery—at least not directly—but of the right of petition. The aging ex-president John Quincy Adams led a ferocious nine-year …