Abolition as Obedience to the Higher Law

Date of Graduation

Spring 1975


Master of Arts in History



Committee Chair

Mary Ann Jennings


The purpose of this paper is to trace the idea of the higher law as the warp thread running throughout the whole fabric of the history of the anti-slavery movement. To be sure it assumed different emphases and applications at different times, but it remained the "root" idea of abolition. The concept of the higher law, by whatever name it was called, embraced at the minimum a complex of ideas. God, Creator of the universe, had established laws by which His creation was to be governed. These included the physical laws of nature of which man was a part and therefore subject to and moral laws which man, made in God's image, was answerable to. God had endowed all races of men with equal natural rights, among which were life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Government was approved by God as a means of protecting the natural rights of men. If government failed in the end, the allegiance and obedience that citizens ordinarily owed to it were abrogated. Government never had the right to legislate contrary to God's law. If a conflict did arise in the minds of men over whether or not a law of man stood in contradiction to a law of God, the matter was to rest with the individual conscience because it was the individual who was answerable to his Creator. The abolitionist, so called because the object he sought was the abolition of slavery, judged that state, though upheld by man's law, to be one in which those rights and duties assigned by the Creator to his creation were incapable of being carried out, therefore contrary to the higher law. The temper evident, the measures sought, the means employed in the pursuit of abolition varied with personality and period. This writer believes that the words of the abolitionists should be listened to. Attention to the 'idea" of abolition has been neglected. This thesis has been an attempt to rectify that lack. The body of this paper has been replete with the words of the abolitionists.

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© Glenda B Stevens