Abolitionist Movement
Forward to a friend
Add me to your mailing list
Print this document
Cite this document



The United States in the three decades before the Civil War was flooded with various reform movements. Inspired by the religious revivals of the Second Great Awakening, these reform movements sought to improve or perfect human society by eliminating any evil the reformers believed was an affront to the moral and spiritual health of the nation. Reformers attacked such issues as failure to observe the Sabbath, poor treatment of the mentally ill, crime and punishment, temperance, women's rights, and the abolition of slavery. General antislavery sentiment had developed in both the North and the South during and immediately after the American Revolution. Ironically, by the mid-1820s, there were more antislavery societies in the South, more than 100, than in the North, where there were just 24. However, by 1830, Southern antislavery sentiment had largely disappeared. The larger antislavery movement included advocates of the colonization movement; gradualists who believed in a slow move toward emancipation through voluntary manumission; free-soil advocates who simply opposed further extension of slavery; and abolitionists who pursued an immediate compulsory end to slavery. It was not until the late 1820s and 1830s, as part of the massive push to reform society, that immediate abolition came to dominate the antislavery movement.

As late as the mid-1700s, most organized Western religions or denominations had failed to discourage their congregations from practicing slavery. Many European governments were actively engaged in the slave trade. Slaves could be found in all of the 13 British North American colonies, and throughout the American Revolution, many of the founding fathers were slaveholders. Antislavery sentiment, prior to 1787, was largely limited to those practicing the Quaker faith. Quakers would continue to be leaders of the movement until slavery was eventually abolished. In 1787, as the nation took its first steps, Congress barred slavery from the Old Northwest territory, the area north of the Ohio River, and included in the U.S. Constitution the provision that the Atlantic slave trade would be outlawed in 1808. Most believed that the institution of slavery was destined to die out.

The first large-scale, organized emancipation movement appeared in 1817 with the creation of the American Colonization Society (ACS). A major hurdle for those who supported emancipation was the pervasive view that blacks and whites could not coexist equally within one nation. Thus, any plan for emancipation required the separation of the two. The colonization movement pushed for voluntary manumission and gradual emancipation, along with the return of blacks to Africa. Supporters of the American Colonization Society included Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Marshall, and James Monroe. To encourage this process, the ACS helped establish the country of Liberia in 1820. Its capital, Monrovia, was named in honor of President James Monroe. Within 10 years, the society had brought a little more than 1,400 free blacks to Liberia. American free blacks thus founded the nation of Liberia, located south of Sierra Leone. Nevertheless, most African Americans rejected the notion of colonization and saw the process as nothing more than a program for ridding the United States of its growing free black population. By the 1830s, colonization was seen as an unrealistic way to end slavery.

As stated previously, the evangelical fervor and reform-mindedness of the Second Great Awakening helped to bring about the rise of abolitionism. During the 1820s, the preaching of Lyman Beecher in New England and the revivals that began in western New York led by Charles Granderson Finney swept through much of the North, creating a powerful impulse toward social reform. Emancipation of the slaves was chief among the reform movements, and among Charles Finney's converts were leading abolitionists Theodore Dwight Weld and the brothers Arthur Tappan and Lewis Tappan. Weld became a leading antislavery lecturer and author of American Slavery as It Is: Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses (1839), which exhibited the horrors of slavery and became the abolitionist's handbook for more than a decade. Arthur and Lewis Tappan, two wealthy New York philanthropists, were greatly influenced by Finney's revivalism and threw themselves headlong into support of the abolitionist cause. Other leading abolitionists included New Englander William Lloyd Garrison and the former slave Frederick Douglass.

The nation's most famous abolitionist was William Lloyd Garrison of Massachusetts. In 1831, he began publication in Boston of a new antislavery newspaper, the Liberator, and organized the New England Anti-Slavery Society. Garrison grew up in poverty and educated himself while an apprentice to a newspaper publisher. Early in his career, Garrison edited a number of antislavery papers, but he soon became impatient with the strategies of gradualism and colonization. In the first issue of the Liberator, he renounced the doctrine of gradualism and vowed to be uncompromising in his assault on the institution of slavery. Throughout the 1830s, Garrison became the nation's most passionate and uncompromising opponent of slavery.

In December 1833, Garrison and the Tappan brothers were the chief organizers of the American Anti-Slavery Society. At a convention held in Philadelphia, along with 60 other delegates, they denounced slavery as a moral evil and demanded immediate abolition without compensation for slaveholders. The most radical demand emerging from the convention was the one for legal equality of the races. They hoped to use the publicity created when the British antislavery movement persuaded Parliament, also in 1833, to end slavery throughout the entire British Empire. However, they did not follow the British lead in providing compensation for slaveholders. In 1835, the society initiated an enormous propaganda campaign. It inundated the slave states with abolitionist literature, sent representatives all over the Northern states to organize state and local antislavery societies, and sent numerous petitions to Congress calling for the abolition of slavery in the nation's capital.

By 1834, 200 antislavery societies had been formed in the North. Support for these organizations came from evangelical reformers and Quakers, middle-class merchants and artisans, and most of all from women. Within two years, the number of societies had grown to over 500, and within four years, there were nearly 1,300 active antislavery societies. A petition campaign in 1838–1839 gathered more than 2 million signatures proclaiming the sinfulness of slavery.

Initially, the abolitionists were generally condemned and mistreated. Mobs attacked them in the North; Garrison was a frequent target and was physically assaulted several times after speeches in Boston, and anti-abolition riots plagued Northern cities. Southerners burned antislavery pamphlets and blamed Nat Turner's Revolt in August 1831 on abolitionist agitation. There is no evidence that Turner had read any antislavery pamphlets or the Liberator, yet Southerners were convinced that the new, more aggressive abolitionist rhetoric was the cause. These events, and the mob attack and murder of Illinois abolitionist Elijah Lovejoy in 1837, led many abolitionists to fear that the approach taken by the more radical abolitionists such as Garrison was detrimental to the cause.

As the abolition movement grew, debates over strategy increased. At the beginning of the 1840s, two clear and disparate camps had emerged within the abolitionist movement: one, often referred to as "radical abolitionists," led by Garrison; and another, the "political abolitionists," led by New Yorkers Arthur and Lewis Tappan, wealthy New Yorker Gerrit Smith, and James G. Birney of Alabama, a former slaveholder.

Garrison and his more radical followers, often called Garrisonians, embraced nearly every important reform of the day: abolition, pacifism, temperance, and women's rights. Additionally, these radicals believed that American society was corrupted from top to bottom and should be reformed. Their primary mode of protest was that of moral persuasion, aiming to convince their adversaries of the sinfulness of slavery. As part of their protest, they removed themselves from all corrupted institutions, including religion and government. Garrison broke with the organized church and along with his followers refused to vote, hold public office, or file lawsuits. He also burned a copy of the Constitution in protest. The schism in the movement came at the 1840 meeting of the American Anti-Slavery Society in New York. Two issues tore the movement asunder: whether women should be allowed to participate in the organization as equal members, and whether the society should nominate abolitionists to run as independent political candidates.

The issue of women's rights was particularly controversial. Women had, of course, been active in the abolitionist movement from its inception, but primarily in female-only societies. In the late 1830s, however, activists Sarah and Angelina Grimké brought the issue of women's rights to the forefront. The Grimké sisters were daughters of a South Carolina slaveholder but disagreed with their parents' slaveholding practices and left for the North. Both converted to Quakerism and became abolitionists and women's rights activists. After attending numerous training conferences for abolition activists, they began publicly speaking against slavery, first to female audiences and later to those of mixed gender. Their activities brought condemnation from ministers in other denominations for taking part in unfeminine activities. At the 1840 American Anti-Slavery Society meeting, the radicals insisted on the right of women to participate equally in the organization, and eventually won this point. The Tappans' New York delegation, however, argued that women's rights and abolition should remain separate issues and broke away from the American Anti-Slavery Society to form the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society.

One result of this split was the growth of the women's rights movement out of the radical abolitionist cause. Another result of the split was that those favoring a political solution to end slavery formed political parties. The Tappans, Gerrit Smith, and James Birney created the Liberty Party in 1840. The party petitioned Congress to end the slave trade in Washington, D.C., repeal local and state "black codes," end the interstate slave trade, and discontinue admitting slave states to the Union. The Liberty Party nominated Birney for president in the 1840. He received just over 7,000 votes, and Garrisonians assailed the results of his candidacy as foolish. Nevertheless, the Liberty Party persisted and nominated Birney again in 1844. This time, however, he garnered over 61,000 votes and captured enough votes to deny the Whig Party candidate, Henry Clay, the presidency.

Between 1844 and 1848, political abolitionists suffered a number of setbacks. The annexation of Texas in 1844 as a slave state and the acquisition of half of Mexico's territory after the 1846 Mexican-American War threatened to further expand the institution of slavery. However, they did persuade some Northern Democrats and Whigs that there was a compelling need to end slavery. These factions, along with the Liberty Party, formed the Free Soil Party in 1848 and nominated Martin Van Buren for president. In many ways, this new party was seen as a softer version of the Liberty Party. The Free Soil Party limited its attack on slavery to abolition of the slave trade in Washington, D.C., and the prohibition of slavery from any new states. No longer was there a political call for abolition or equal rights for free blacks, as there had been with the Liberty Party. The Free Soil Party garnered over 290,000 votes for Van Buren and thus helped elect Zachary Taylor (Whig) as president. They also placed a number of Free Soil candidates in Congress. Support for the Free Soil Party waned, and their 1852 presidential candidate, John P. Hale, gained less than 160,000 votes.

Radical critics of the Free-Soil Party denounced the organization as racist because the party declined to renounce racial discrimination, and many held overtly racist views. Yet for most Free-Soilers, avoiding abolition and the rights of free blacks was wholly a political decision to gain further support. For this reason, most black abolitionists could be counted with the more radical branch of abolitionism.

Abolitionism held a specific allure for free blacks in the North. Poor living conditions and racial oppression, which at times could be as bad for them as for their slave counterparts, were facts of life for the nearly 500,000 free blacks in the antebellum period. Nonetheless, they were proud of their freedom and never forgot their brothers and sisters in bondage. Although many in the 1830s came to support Garrison and his goals, they also backed leaders from the black community.

Many black abolitionist leaders were either Baptist or Methodist ministers; however, the most famous black abolitionists were such former slaves as Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, and Frederick Douglass. William Lloyd Garrison claimed that Douglass and other former slaves were the best qualified to inform the public of the horrors of slavery. Douglass's autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, was published in 1845. While a slave, he had learned to read and write as a servant for a kind mistress in Baltimore. After the Narrative was published, he feared being captured. Thus, as a fugitive slave, he spent several years in England before returning in 1847, after abolitionist friends purchased his freedom. Upon his return to the United States, he established the antislavery newspaper the North Star. Living in Rochester, New York, he edited the North Star (under various names) for nearly two decades in support of the abolitionist cause.

Early in his abolitionist career, Douglass aligned himself with Garrison and the radicals. However, after his time in England with British abolitionists, Douglass began to see the advantages of political action. He used the North Star to support political parties and candidates, such as James Birney and the Liberty Party. During the 1850s, Douglass backed the Republican Party, even though their platform called only for an end to the expansion of slavery. In many ways Douglass was a pragmatist, who envisioned a future where all American racial and cultural differences were blended to create a single American nationality. Through his writings and speeches, Douglass was the one of the nation's most eloquent critics of racial inequality.

During the 1850s, as Douglass, Garrison, and other abolitionists struggled to end slavery through moral suasion and protest, the political system became unable to contain the sectional disputes surrounding slavery. Possibly the most significant event to bolster the abolitionist cause was the passage of the Compromise of 1850. The most threatening provision of the Compromise was that it implemented vigorous enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law, first passed in 1793. The new version of this law stripped runaway slaves of the right to trial and the right to testify in their own defense. Additionally, it required Northern citizens to assist in the recovery of fugitive slaves. In essence, this measure forced even antislavery Northerners into the service of the slave-hunters. It brought more people into the fold of the abolitionist camp, people such as the essayist and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, who previously had held antislavery sentiments but had avoided concerted action. Emerson saw the passage of the compromise as a call to arms, a call all men of conscience must answer. Using his fame as a lecturer and writer, Emerson took to the antislavery lecture circuit, calling on everyone to fight or at the very least ignore the new Fugitive Slave Law.

Mob riots against the Fugitive Slave Law broke out in a number of Northern states, including Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Massachusetts. In most cases, the aim of the mob was to free a fugitive slave captured by slave catchers. After several fugitives were rescued by abolitionist mobs, the state and federal governments stepped in to help the slave catchers. In Boston, federal marshals and 22 companies of state troopers were needed to prevent a crowd, estimated at 50,000, from storming a courthouse to free Anthony Burns, a fugitive slave.

As the furor over the Fugitive Slave Law grew, the most persuasive item of abolitionist propaganda was published in 1852. Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe presented a fictionalized account of slavery, which through Stowe's eyes was an abominable sin. Within a year of publication, the book had sold over 300,000 copies and was reissued numerous times. The abolitionist message was brought to an enormous new audience, not only through those who read the book but also through those who saw dramatizations of the book in local theaters across the nation.

In response to the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, some critics of slavery determined that more drastic measures should be taken, and a few began to advocate violence. Essentially, the act nullified the Missouri Compromise of 1820 that forbade slavery in the northern portions of the Louisiana Purchase. The Kansas and Nebraska territories would determine if they were slave or free through popular sovereignty. Everyone generally agreed that Nebraska would be free; however, Kansas was up for grabs. Both proslavery and abolition supporters sent "settlers" to Kansas to assure their side won the vote. In the end, two separate territorial governments, one proslavery and the other antislavery, were created. As the tension escalated, violence ensued.

Among the most fervent abolitionists in Kansas was John Brown, a 56-year-old Connecticut native. Brown's antislavery zeal had prompted him to move to Kansas with his sons in order to fight to make sure Kansas was a free state. After a proslavery mob attacked and burned the free-state town of Lawrence, Kansas, Brown and seven other men, including four of his sons, went on the offensive. In May 1856, they targeted the proslavery town of Pottawatomie and murdered five proslavery settlers. Known as the Pottawatomie Massacre, Brown's actions set off a guerrilla war in Kansas that lasted through the fall.

Up until the Kansas-Nebraska Act, most abolitionists had been averse to the use of violence. But by the late 1850s, this aversion had faded, and some began to openly court armed conflict. After returning from Kansas, John Brown began to seek northeastern support for his cause, making visits to Massachusetts, establishing there his Secret Six, who would help fund his planned invasion of the South. He gained financial support from prominent abolitionists, including Samuel Gridley Howe, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Theodore Parker, Franklin B. Sanborn, Gerrit Smith, and George L. Stearns. Brown also discussed his plans with Frederick Douglass and asked the former slave to join him. Douglass declined, considering the plan hopeless and suicidal. On October 16, 1859, Brown and a group of 18 followers attacked and won control of a federal arsenal in Harpers Ferry, Virginia (in present-day West Virginia). The slave uprising Brown hoped to spark did not occur, and he very quickly found himself pinned down in the arsenal by citizens and the local militia. U.S. troops under the command of Robert E. Lee eventually forced Brown to surrender.

John Brown was tried in a Virginia court for treason and sentenced to death. He and six of his followers were hanged. Throughout the North on December 2, 1859, Brown's execution date, church bells rang out, flags were flown at half-mast, and buildings were draped in black. William Lloyd Garrison, a longtime advocate of nonviolent measures to end slavery, proclaimed that Brown's death had shown him that violence was needed to destroy slavery.

Even after the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 and the beginning of the Civil War in 1861, abolitionists continued their struggle to end slavery and to promote the civil rights of African Americans. During the Civil War, abolitionists, including Frederick Douglass, encouraged President Abraham Lincoln to make ending slavery a goal of the war and pressured him to deliver the Emancipation Proclamation. Many abolitionists joined the Union army and personally took active roles in military operations to ensure the success of the Union cause. After the war, abolitionists were in the forefront of the fight for black suffrage and protection of freedmen's civil rights. Abolitionists in Congress advocated the creation of the Freedmen's Bureau and brought forward the constitutional amendments that abolished slavery, guaranteed citizenship, and gave suffrage to black men.

It is true that some abolitionists held racist views and adopted paternalistic attitudes toward African Americans. Additionally, abolitionism failed to change society's fundamental inequalities and injustices faced by blacks in America. Yet the movement that Garrison and others launched, and that thousands of activists kept alive for over 30 years, was instrumental in the fight to end slavery and in the eventual passage of the Thirteenth Amendment.

Ira Lee Berlet


MLA Citation

"Abolitionist Movement." Inside 12 Years a Slave: The Incredible Story of Solomon Northup. ABC-CLIO, 2019. Web. 22 March 2019.

View all citation styles.
 
back to top
Entry ID: 1832892
Privacy Policy | Terms of Use | Feedback | ABC-CLIO.com

©2019 ABC-CLIO, LLC. All rights reserved.