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Abolition of Slavery

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Today it seems incredible that powerful people once seized weaker people and kept them as possessions, to be work animals like livestock or sex servants like concubines. But it's a major part of history, dating back before the earliest written records. Slavery flowered through the Agricultural Age.

The Bible supports slavery. Leviticus 25 says: "Both thy bondmen, and thy bondmaids, which thou shalt have, shall be of the heathen that are round about you; of them shall ye buy bondmen and bondmaids... And ye shall take them as an inheritance for your children after you, to inherit them for a possession; they shall be your bondmen forever."

In Exodus 21, the Bible even instructs men about selling their daughters into slavery.

Ancient Greece and Rome thrived on slave labor, with unpaid captives comprising perhaps one-fourth of the population. The word slave evidently derived from Slav, because multitudes of Slavs were seized by invaders and kept in bondage. Europe in the Dark Ages teemed with slavery. Russian serfs were slaves by a different name.

The story of abolition is a complex, tumultuous, liberal saga covering about ten centuries. Starting in the third century BCE, various Chinese and Indian rulers halted slavery, but their decrees later were reversed. From the 11th to 18th centuries, dozens of countries and city-states halted human enslavement -- often for the home state, while letting it continue in colonies. France abolished slavery in 1794, but Napoleon reinstated it in 1802. Britain mostly ceased holding slaves, but fought a long struggle over British ships that hauled chained Africans to the Americas.

In the United States, President Thomas Jefferson sent an 1806 message to Congress calling for criminalization of slave-dealers for "those violations of human rights... which the morality, the reputation and the best of our country have long been eager to proscribe."

The abolition movement snowballed across New England and northern states -- while the south remained a stubborn bastion of human slavery. Events and hostilities grew increasingly bitter and violent. Here's an example:


Thousands of rebellious southern slaves swam across rivers or fled into forests at night to escape through the Underground Railroad, in which sympathetic whites hid and fed them, then transported them north to free territory.

To halt this loss of southern property, Congress passed a new Fugitive Slave Act in 1850 requiring all federal officials to help capture runaways and send them back to slavery. Abolitionists called it the "Bloodhound Law" because dogs often were used to track the escapees.

In Syracuse, New York, some liberal-minded residents gathered in a protest group called the Liberty Party and vowed civil disobedience against the law. Leaders said they would hide fugitives in their own homes and fight federal agents, if necessary.

In 1851 a black Syracuse barrel maker named Jerry McHenry was seized by marshals and dragged in manacles before a magistrate for extradition southward. He was painfully beaten. Liberty Party members rang church bells and summoned hundreds of protesters to jam the courtroom. Emotional chaos overwhelmed the proceeding, and white sympathizers rushed McHenry down a stairwell for a brief escape. Police soon caught him on a bridge with his helpers.

McHenry was locked in a police room with armed guards. Thousands of angry townspeople surrounded the courthouse and threw stones through windows. Hard-line Liberty Party members plotted a second escape. They didn't use guns, but employed a battering ram in the night to smash into the police quarters. Police panicked and shoved their prisoner out the door, into welcoming hands.

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James A. Haught is editor emeritus of West Virginia's largest newspaper, The Charleston Gazette-Mail.  Mr. Haught has won two dozen national news writing awards. He has written 12 books and hundreds of magazine essays and blog posts. Around 450 of his essays are online. He is a senior editor of Free Inquiry magazine, a weekly blogger at Daylight Atheism, (more...)

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