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here had been opponents to the enslavement of blacks in America ever since colonial days. Slavery had been mostly abolished in the North before 1800. Slave uprisings in the South, most notably Nat Turner's rebellion in Virginia in 1831, dramatically underscored the risks slaves would incur themselves to break their chains of bondage. But it was not until the 1820s and 1830s, when the rising prosperity of the South’s cotton plantations began making slavery more lucrative, that Americans in significant numbers started to raise objections to this “peculiar institution.” In its early stages, the movement to abolish slavery focused largely on schemes for gradual colonization of ex-slaves in Africa. As time passed, however, the abolitionists became more critical of slavery’s inhumanity and more pressing in their demands for quick emancipation.

This mounting combativeness strengthened the cause in the North, but below the Mason-Dixon line, where anti-slave sentiment had once been fairly strong, it inspired defensiveness. By the 1850s the spokesmen for this region were countering the pleas of abolitionists with discourses proclaiming the unalloyed virtues of slaveholding and the sins of free labor. Although it would be problematic to single out the debate over slavery and its expansion into the western territories as the sole causes of the Civil War, there is no doubt that these bitterly divisive issues kindled the secession movement that made that conflict inevitable.

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