A website from the Massachusetts Historical Society; founded 1791.

Historical Overview

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The likelihood of both those results declined in the first part of the nineteenth century, due in part to a worldwide Market Revolution, which altered the economy. In the Southern states, slave-grown staples like cotton, tobacco, and sugar created astounding profits that discouraged diversification as well as emancipation. Most white Northerners continued to grow food on small family farms, but the presence of slavery in the United States continued to affect all Americans. Cheap, slave-produced cotton enticed investors with access to water power to establish textile factories in the Northeast, especially Massachusetts, which in turn produced inexpensive goods that encouraged Americans everywhere to shift from self-sufficiency to participation in a market economy: they grew surplus crops, sold them, and bought other goods. In short, Americans' economic lives were affected by the existence of slavery, even as the presence of slaves shifted to one region of the country.

Social and political change also occurred. As states dropped property requirements for voting, emphasis on equality grew. The Second Great Awakening, a religious revival, spread evangelical fervor. Devout Southerners believed that religion should focus on personal salvation, not social issues like slavery, but evangelicalism in the North inspired reform movements, including an American outgrowth of a transatlantic abolition movement. William Lloyd Garrison began publishing The Liberator, an abolitionist newspaper, in Boston in 1831, but even before that, black abolitionists like David Walker had begun to criticize slavery more openly. Some white Bay Staters began to raise vocal protest through the New England Anti-Slavery Society (founded 1831), and later the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society, founded in 1835. Throughout the 1840s and 1850s, the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society issued publications, commissioned public speakers, and held fundraisers like concerts and fairs to help bring about a peaceful end to slavery throughout the United States. Yet despite such efforts, the slave population grew from eight hundred thousand to four million in just two generations as white Southerners' commitment to slavery grew stronger and tolerance of criticism declined.

Despite black Northerners' strong views, and despite groups like the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society, most white Northerners preferred to avoid discussing slavery for fear that the explosive issue would sever the Union. In fact, William Lloyd Garrison was mobbed in the streets of Boston in 1835! But beginning in the 1840s, a series of events made slavery increasingly difficult to ignore. Massachusetts figured prominently in several of these events.