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Perception and Portrayal of the Abolitionist

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Societal values have changed so much since a hundred years ago. The development of science and the introduction of many intellectual movements have contributed much to these changes. Ideals which were deemed erroneous or immoral can be accepted and welcomed, and those widely accepted as scientific truths and fact can be debunked and proved wrong as well. But it is wrong to assume that every pillar in society can be changed. Several values and ideals have stood the test of time and were deemed universally and chronologically constant, because this is how society wants them to remain.

These values, standards and norms therefore could be likened to a lens, since society uses these things to assess situations and the environmental factors they are exposed to. Everything that happens can be processed differently by different individuals, depending on the lens that he or she uses. There are some who manage to deviate from the norm and use unconventional “lenses” to view their environments and act upon situations differently than the usual. Similarly, how these people are viewed by the rest of society depend on the current value system.

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Usually, many of these revolutionaries become ostracized or even killed for their beliefs, as the changes they want to bring about may not agree or even violate some of the accepted norms and ideologies. John Brown is one such revolutionary, proposing change in the midst of pro-slavery America. His unconventional ideas and methods went against many standards of pro-slavery society that many saw threatening. However, as times changed and some values and ideologies were revolutionized, society’s views on John Brown’s life also changed.

Some viewed him as a brilliant man who saw through American society’s fault, or a hero who died for the freedom of men who were stripped of liberty. Some also viewed him as a madman, a crazy zealot and one of America’s first terrorists. John Brown is also portrayed in various ways in popular culture, as his life and words are used in songs, plays and TV shows. Statement of the Problem As a prominent American historical figure, society’s opinion on John Brown is highly influenced by culture and value systems. However, it is a given that some of these values continuously fluctuate and some remain throughout time.

With the changes in time and values from the time of John Brown’s active action and his death, how did public perception of him change? If so, what are the factors that affect these changes? Objectives This paper seeks to shed some light on how John Brown was viewed throughout history and time and what factors affected these perceptions of his character. An analysis of information regarding his portrayal in popular culture and a discussion on how these portrayals came about shall be included in this paper. Significance of the Study

This study is geared towards looking at and analyzing John Brown’s life and seeing how society viewed him while he was alive and after his death. Since it has been established that there has been a conflicting public opinion regarding John Brown, this study will help shed some light on the reasons for this differing public opinion and analyze the factors that contribute to these differences. Using John Brown as a base, sociological dynamics can be more fully understood. Scope and Limitations This study shall only be using online articles, journals and some books as its reference.

Data shall be gathered from these materials and a suitable data analysis by the author shall be the basis of the conclusions made in this paper. REVIEW OF RELATED LITERATURE A. Abolitionism and Slavery in the United States The Roots of Slavery Slavery in the United States involved the selling, purchase, ownership of African or even Native American slaves. It first began when the English built their community in Virginia in 1607 and ended up being widely-accepted tradition until 1865. Many of the slaves were gathered from pagan countries and this was written into law by 1705.

In Columbia, a slave is defined in law as a human being who is “deprived of his or her liberty for life and is the property of another. ” It was legal to own and keep slaves for as long as they were still alive from 1654 to 1865. By 1860, ownership of slaves has become so widespread that a fourth of the population during that time are comprised of slaves. Disease, famine and damages caused by the war against Native Americans have kept available labor down, and this made importation of slaves more palatable for many business men. The slaves were treated as capital for labor intensive commerce such as the cash crop industry of tobacco.

They were considered as the life line of the south’s agricultural industry. A large proportion of the slaves were owned by farmers from the south, as a single farmer there owned an average of 20 slaves. Labor intensive commerce was mostly found in the south as these regions grew tobacco, cotton and sugar as primary exports. Many of the slaves were found in these farms, and here they contributed much to the economic welfare of the country. Racial basis of slavery were not only applied to Africans and Native Americans, but also to some members of the Caucasian race.

Some Europeans were also utilized as slaves under a contract to pay debts. These white slaves were only held for a limited amount of time and not fully owned like African slaves. Westward Expansion The westward expansionist tradition of the country not only brought about territory, but it also spread both the tradition of slavery. Many of the cotton farmers moved west and brought their slaves with them. Historians call this period the Second Middle Passage. Many of the slaves were forcefully removed from their families and communities to work for new farms in the west.

This slave exodus marked one of the most significant periods in African slavery. African slaves were subjected to psychological stress due to their forceful exclusion from their families and familiar environments. The westward movement was extremely difficult. Aside from the psychological hardship that being away from their families presented, they were also subjected to physical difficulties. Most of them were forced to travel on foot, only stopping in temporary holding pens for slaves where further slave trade was performed. The slaves were mobilized in shackles and chains as traders feared violence ensuing from the slaves.

In their destination, extremely difficult work was waiting for them. Many of the areas in the west were still undeveloped, and so the burden of clearing forests, building barns and pioneer-planting crops in the fields were placed on the slaves’ shoulders. Alongside the exhaustion from the intense labor, unfavourable working conditions and amenities contributed to the high mortality rate of newly arrived slaves. This condition was so economically unfavourable for the slave owners that many of them resorted to temporarily renting slaves than using their own to complete the work.

Many of the slaves resisted after being exposed to such dreadful conditions which ultimately gave the farmers and their overseers more reason to resort to cruelty and aggression to control slaves. Brutalities towards the slaves were institutionalized by the court. Overseers can physically harm slaves and in some cases, even kill the dissenting slave. The owners were authorized by court to use the slaves and their families at his disposal. Members of the family can be used by the owner to pay-off debts or increase income by selling them as slaves.

It is common to find slave families broken and hurt from the separation of husbands, wives and children from one another. The slaves were given amenities and benefits like food, health care and clothing but only to a bare minimum. Disabling slaves by maiming them and executions for fugitive slaves were allowed by law. Sexual abuse and rape of the slaves was also rampant. In court, slaves were considered sub-human. If one does commit a crime, however, he is considered as an entity capable of thought and act, and thus is regarded as a rational being.

With all these brutalities toward slaves, it is important to note that the treatment of slaves is dependent on skin color. Light-skinned slaves were dressed, fed and treated better than the dark-skinned ones who worked mostly in the fields. Anti-slavery supporters coming from the north knew of the brutalities and abuses inflicted on the slaves of the south. They sought to stop the institution of slavery, and this produced much tension between the two parties. The north’s movement to abolish slavery went against the economic favourability of slavery during that time.

The economy dictated the increasing value of labor intensive industries in the south, and so labourers are needed more than ever. Abolitionist movement With the enlightenment and awareness of people regarding human rights came the abolitionist movement. Slavery was something that violated the basic tenet of human rights and dignity, and so it had to be abolished. Northern states have begun to pass acts which declared that all men were born free and equal. Several movements that involved religion and political movements highly influenced the strength and expanse of abolitionist ideals throughout the country.

The movements that supported abolitionism varied in method and degree. Some were pacifist, as they tried to use the legal system and passed legislation seeking to make slavery illegal. Others utilized literature and the press like Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of the famous novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Religious movements declared slavery to be sinful and un-Christian, to discourage believers from keeping and owning slaves. Only a minority of abolitionists used to armed revolt and instigation of unrest and anger among the slaves as the main machinery to further their cause.

The movement continued its stride to abolish slavery, but its strongest anchor point came with the election of a known contester of slavery, Abraham Lincoln, as president. With the head of state holding this position of opposition of slavery, the south felt that their way of life was endangered and threatened. Economic repercussions will be felt by their planters in the cotton, tobacco and sugar farms if the hands that worked in the plantations were to be set free. The zenith of the tensions between the south and the north was the American Civil war.

It broke out when the south organized and removed themselves from the control of the American government. Rise of Abolitionism Historian James McPherson defined an abolitionist as a person who has fought for the abolition of slavery in the United States before the Civil war. American abolition started early on, as there were several groups already fighting for the liberation of slaves, such as the Society of Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage, and there were several institutions which prohibited slavery already.

Several states had passed laws that completely prohibited slavery in their territories. Those who joined the American Anti-Slavery Society or other groups were abolitionists. These movements were not unified, and so could not boast a unified strength. Vermont was the first territory to make slavery illegal, and Pennsylvania was the first state to abolish slavery in 1780. Then several states followed Pennsylvania’s example while some states chose to limit slave trading. Many of the states in the south retained the institution of slavery as it was the region’s life line in their plantations.

Their strong adherence to the institution drove them to take a defensive stance against the rising popularity of the abolitionist movement. Many abolitionist writers distributed many anti-slavery writings and literature to the south to help spread the ideologies. Novels, pamphlets and other forms of writing began to circulate not just in the north, but also in the southern region. Southern officials were enraged at the act, and thus moved to ban all types of literature that might instigate rebellion and changes in the south. Violence was even employed to stop the circulation of antislavery media in the south.

Elijah Parish Lovejoy, the editor of an abolitionist newspaper was murdered by a mob of pro-slavery southerners. His printing press was also destroyed. Abolitionists recognized the fact that slavery needed to be abolished everywhere in the country, but the north cannot interfere with the affairs of the south because of federal ruling. Because of this, many abolitionists focused on liberating the north and skipping the southern states. Some abolitionists were frustrated and did not like this idea, as they believed that every state should be free of slavery.

The movement was further fortified by the support of free African-Americans and their church. With the issue of the constitution, the American Abolitionist movement split up into two groups, the Garrisonians, led by William Garrison and Wendell Phillips and another camp led by Spooner and Gerrit Smith. The Garrisonians believed that the constitution promoted slavery while Spooner’s group believed the constitution to be antislavery. Since slavery was unconstitutional, it could be abolished with the blessing of the law.

More divisions in the abolitionist movement arose, but because of the social classes of the abolitionists themselves. The artisans and elites divided themselves on the issue of slavery as well. The Underground Railroad was used as a venue by many abolitionists to become more active in the cause for abolition of slavery. Many of the fugitive slaves were illegally transported away from their masters to be free men via this rail. But the railroad was made illegal by the passing of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. But this did not stop the abolitionists from providing shelter and transporting slaves to freedom.

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Perception and Portrayal of the Abolitionist. (2016, Aug 09). Retrieved from

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