Abolition Movement

The abolition, or antislavery, movement emerged as a national concern in America in the 1830s, but its genesis dates back to colonial times. Philadelphia Quakers were the first to widely denounce slaveholding, calling it a sin. They created the first abolition society in America in 1775 and led Pennsylvania to become the first state to outlaw slavery in 1780. Within a generation, all other northern states had abolished slavery as well, mostly for religious reasons. No southern state did so, however, and antislavery preachers in the South were eventually driven out. Abolitionism thus remained a local, or at most regional, phenomenon until the 1820s. Meanwhile, northern and southern congressmen reached multiple compromises that relegated slavery to a backburner political issue prior to the Missouri controversy of 1819–1820, which thrust it to the fore.


In the aftermath of the public debate over the Missouri Compromise reached between proslavery and antislavery factions in the US Congress, Benjamin Lundy ( 1789–1839 ), an Ohio Quaker, started the Genius of Universal Emancipation, which proved to be America's first commercially successful abolitionist paper. In 1826 Lundy helped start the free produce movement, a boycott of products made from slave labor, which soon brought James Mott ( 1788–1868 ) and his wife, Lucretia Mott ( 1793–1880 ), of Philadelphia, fellow Quakers, to prominence as abolitionists. Lundy also founded the National Anti-Slavery Tract Society in Baltimore in 1828 and the following year hired a young Baptist named William Lloyd Garrison ( 1805–1879 ) of Boston to write for him.

Garrison quickly eclipsed Lundy and ultimately became the most accomplished of all abolitionists. By 1831 he had started his own paper, the Liberator, which went on to become the longest-running and arguably most influential of all abolitionist papers. For the next two decades he proved unrelenting, founding the New England Anti-Slavery Society in 1831, the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1833, and the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society in 1835. Beginning in 1836 he helped put Angelina Grimké( 1805–1879 ) and Abby Kelley ( 1811–1887 ) in the national spotlight as writers and public speakers on abolition and women's rights, and in the 1840s and 1850s he did the same for Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth ( 1797–1883 ), runaway slaves who became important voices in the abolition movement. Growing increasingly radical over time, in 1854 he publicly burned the US Constitution and stomped its ashes, calling it a compact with hell for its sanctioning of slaveholding.


The year 1833 marked the beginning of the nationally coordinated abolition movement, as various antislavery societies from New England, New York, and Pennsylvania came together to form the American Anti-Slavery Society (AASS). Ohio, with the opening of the integrated and coeducational Oberlin College near Cleveland, became a hotbed of abolitionist activity. The wealthy New York City businessmen Arthur Tappan ( 1786–1865 ) and his brother Lewis Tappan ( 1788–1873 ), more than anyone else, provided the funding to make abolitionism a national crusade. They subsidized Garrison's Liberator, bankrolled the AASS, and supported Oberlin financially. Arthur also served as president of the AASS until 1840. During his tenure, the AASS engaged in its “great postal campaign,” which entailed sending millions of tracts and newspapers through the US Mail, mostly to northern ministers and political leaders, hoping to persuade them to join the movement. Some parcels were addressed to southerners, however, and southern postmasters confiscated them. President Andrew Jackson (a Democrat from Tennessee) urged Congress to pass a law banning incendiary abolitionist literature from the US Mail, while a mob in Charleston, South Carolina, broke into the local post office to seize and burn stacks of abolitionist mail. Despite being controlled by proslavery Democrats, Congress disagreed with Jackson and took a states’ rights position on mail delivery instead.

Beginning in 1836 the public debate over the annexation of Texas spurred the AASS to flood the mailboxes of congressmen with hundreds of thousands of anti-annexation petitions. Sympathetic members tied up the business of the House of Representatives by reading some of the petitions from the House floor, until the proslavery majority in Congress passed the controversial “gag rule” to stop them. The rule was extended in 1839 and was only repealed when the Whigs gained a large enough majority in the House in 1844. In the midst of all this, the first self-proclaimed abolitionist congressman, Joshua Giddings (a Whig from Ohio), was elected in 1838.

Proslavery residents of Charleston, South Carolina, broke into apost office on July 29, 1835, andpublicly burned antislavery newspapers and pamphlets in the town square.

Proslavery residents of Charleston, South Carolina, broke into apost office on July 29, 1835, andpublicly burned antislavery newspapers and pamphlets in the town square.


At its height in the late 1830s, the AASS boasted more than a thousand local chapters and a quarter million members, yet abolitionists represented only a tiny fraction of the overall population. Despised by most fellow northerners as a radical religious fringe, abolitionists often feared for their lives. Garrison was nearly lynched in Boston, Lewis Tappan's New York house was vandalized, and Samuel May and James G. Birney were attacked by mobs in Vermont and Ohio respectively. Women such as Grimké, who spoke before mixed audiences, and Prudence Crandall ( 1803–1890 ), who ran an integrated school in Connecticut, suffered abuse at the hands of bullies and arsonists. The most tragic case of violence, however, involved the newspaper publisher Elijah P. Lovejoy ( 1802–1837 ), who was killed in a shootout with a proslavery mob in Illinois, giving the movement its first martyr. His death actually helped swell the ranks of the movement, as converts began to see abolitionism as a cause worth living—and dying—for.

In 1840 the AASS ruptured. Garrison's faction wanted to avoid direct involvement in politics while supporting women's rights and abolitionism jointly. The Tappans wanted to start an abolitionist political party but disapproved of mixing women's rights with abolitionism. The Tappan faction thus broke off and formed the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society, which in turn founded the Liberty Party, running James G. Birney for president unsuccessfully in 1840 and 1844. The American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society also established the National Anti-Slavery Standard newspaper and the American Missionary Association, both of which proved successful as religious and educational outreaches of the movement. In 1848 the Liberty Party folded, and many former members joined with northern Barnburner Democrats and Conscience Whigs to form the Free Soil Party, which was devoted to preventing the spread of slavery into California and adjacent territories.

Meanwhile the 1830s and 1840s brought a flourishing literature of abolitionist nonfiction books, many of which used Christian sermonizing to try to win converts. Elizur Wright's The Sin of Slavery, and Its Remedy ( 1832 ) was exemplary of this trend. Abolitionist polemics railing against the hypocrisy of proslavery ministers and churches also became popular during this time. In this category, James G. Birney's The American Churches: The Bulwarks of American Slavery ( 1840 ) was exemplary. Such books hastened the splitting of the Methodist and Baptist denominations into separate southern and northern organizations in 1844 and 1845, respectively.


By 1850 abolitionists had already made their case to the American public, and great orators such as Douglass and Wendell Phillips ( 1811–1884 ) reiterated it to amenable northern audiences. In 1852 Harriet Beecher Stowe ( 1811–1896 ) added new fire to the movement by publishing her masterful work of fiction, Uncle Tom's Cabin. Written at a time when the Underground Railroad and the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 gripped the nation's attention, Stowe's book became the bestselling and most famous of all abolitionist publications. Unfortunately, it further polarized the North and South just as Congress began debating the idea of giving the people of the Kansas and Nebraska territories the right to decide for themselves whether to become free or slave states.

Upon passage of the Kansas–Nebraska Act in 1854, which in fact allowed settlers of the new territories to make such decisions through popular sovereignty, emigrant aid societies sprouted up in the North to help send abolitionist families to Kansas as missionaries and voters. The resulting migration to Kansas precipitated the Bleeding Kansas border war, in which vigilantes on both sides killed thousands and brought the most radical of all abolitionists, John Brown ( 1800–1859 ), into the headlines as a vigilante, murderer, and fugitive. The debate on Capitol Hill over what to do about the border war turned violent in 1856 as a proslavery South Carolinian attacked the abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner ( 1811–1874 ) of Massachusetts on the floor of the US Senate, nearly killing him. By this time, both the Whig and the Free Soil parties had dissolved, and the Republican Party was formed to replace it as the political arm of the abolition movement.

In 1857, when the US Supreme Court issued its notorious proslavery ruling in Dred Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. 393 ( 1856 ), Garrison called for the northern states to secede from the Union. Two years later, Brown emerged from hiding to grab the headlines again with his infamous raid on Harper's Ferry, Virginia, in which he and his men seized a federal arsenal and attempted to start a slave revolt; Brown was captured, tried, convicted, and hanged for treason against Virginia. The incident provoked southerners to call for secession. The election of Republican President Abraham Lincoln was the final straw leading the South to secede. The resulting Civil War eventually led Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, although the advancing Union armies became the actual liberators of the slaves during the war. The abolitionists were not satisfied, however, until the Thirteenth Amendment was adopted in December 1865.

William Lloyd Garrison (1805–1879), prominent abolitionist, founder of the American Anti-Slavery Society, and editor of the abolitionist newspaper The Liberator.

William Lloyd Garrison (1805–1879), prominent abolitionist, founder of the American Anti-Slavery Society, and editor of the abolitionist newspaper The Liberator.

Most male abolitionists thereafter turned their attention to the issue of civil rights for the freed slaves, and the Republican Party became their vehicle for achieving racial equality. The passage of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments were the capstones of their efforts, but the Civil Rights Acts of 1866 and 1875 were important building blocks as well. Over time, the pendulum of public opinion would swing in the opposite direction, however, as would the makeup of the US Supreme Court, and maintaining hard-won civil rights for blacks would prove difficult. Nevertheless, the former abolitionists laid the groundwork for future organizations and leaders to achieve racial justice and equality in the twentieth century.

Meanwhile, some female abolitionists turned their attention to the issue of equal rights for women, leading to the founding of both the National Woman Suffrage Association and the American Woman Suffrage Association in 1869. Though not successful at achieving their goal in the late 1800s, they started the movement that resulted in passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920. These former abolitionists also proved that women's outspoken advocacy could be effective even without the franchise, thus inspiring women's leadership in the soon-coming prohibition and progressive movements.

SEE ALSO Civil Rights Movement ; Federal Powers: Civil Rights ; Northwest Ordinance ; Slavery .


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T. Adams Upchurch
East Georgia State College