Abolitionists believed that slavery was morally wrong and should be abolished, and they hoped that their antislavery activism would put an end to racial discrimination, based on the idea of human rights. It stands in contrast to other variants of antislavery sentiments that were less values-based and more economically or socially/culturally based. These movements included colonization, free soil and free labor ideas, gradual emancipation, and compensated emancipation. Abolitionists generally, because of the moral implications of their arguments, expected immediate, uncompensated emancipation for slaves as the end result of their efforts. Abolitionists consisted of roughly 1 percent of northern society, making them the minority among those who believed in antislavery. They also struggled with related issues such as women's rights, but they all strongly agreed on the need for the emancipation of slaves and the devastating consequences of human trafficking and slavery. The significance of these arguments would climax in the years prior to the Civil War, and they seemed to find their first expression in the Emancipation Proclamation and the later postbellum amendments to the U.S. Constitution. In the end, this movement helped free 4 million slaves and helped inspire a new alignment of social relations in the South in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Members of the Society of Friends openly condemned the notion of slavery as an institution beginning in the 1740s. The Quaker community arrived in the early years of the colonies, and some families owned slaves, but they struggled to justify owning another human being with their religious beliefs. Most Quakers lived in the colonies of Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and between 1700 and 1766, slave ownership rose and declined depending on the crops being raised and the availability of indentured servants. By the 1740s, New Jersey Quaker John Woolman journeyed to the southern colonies, preaching about the immoral nature of slavery and advocating the eventual manumission of slaves. Between 1758 and 1774, the Quaker yearly meeting began the process of manumission within the society. Quakers who still owned slaves were expelled from the society after 1774. Quakers then began visiting politicians, as they had their own members, to urge emancipation on a national scale.

Non-Quaker antislavery advocates had put their efforts into the American Colonization Society established in 1817, but by the 1830s, the society failed to provide a practical vehicle for eliminating slavery and failed to soothe the consciences of those who believed slavery to be immoral and intolerable. Two important and well-known contributors to the newspapers were Benjamin Lundy, a Quaker who published the newspaper Genius of Universal Emancipation, and William Lloyd Garrison, editor of the Liberator. Both pushed the need for more active antislavery movements and the need for immediate emancipation. Garrison's demands for uncompensated, immediate emancipation, as well as his moral indignation, activated others who wanted to see the abolition of slavery and ignited a southern backlash prior to the Civil War. Frederick Douglass became another important contributor to the abolitionist movement. Born a slave, Douglass grew up to become a prominent speaker and free man. He not only published his personal narratives; he also established the North Star, a newspaper designed to reach out to abolitionists and blacks and encourage equality between blacks and whites. Free blacks and former slaves, including Sojourner Truth and Harriet Jacobs, supported the abolitionist movement through writing in abolitionist newspapers, speaking in public, and publishing their autobiographies.

By 1860, the abolitionist movement reached new heights with numerous contributions of newspapers, abolitionist lectures, and John Brown's zealous pursuit of abolition as seen in his actions in Kansas and at Harper's Ferry. The pitch and tone of the abolitionists put southern slaveholders and their allies on the defensive, leading to a political statement prior to Abraham Lincoln's election to the presidency. Despite Lincoln's commitment to uphold the Constitution, including slavery, southerners expected the end of their “peculiar institution” with the election of a candidate from the Republican Party, an exclusively northern party. Not all abolitionists desired war or slave rebellions, yet the onset of the Civil War brought the abolitionists’ cause to the forefront, and Quakers spent much time praying with President Lincoln to pursue the war in a righteous manner, explicitly or implicitly hoping for the emancipation of slaves. While the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 was a policy shift for the administration, abolitionists also changed their goals to racial equality for freedmen. After the Civil War, abolitionism as a movement dissolved during the Reconstruction era. Its ideals of equality were resurrected during the civil rights era, during which the rights gained by freedmen that were soon trampled upon during Reconstruction were regained through major constitutional victories brought on by the political power of ordinary people.

Matthew Whitlock

See also: Democratic Party ; Douglass, Frederick (1818–1895) ; Emancipation Proclamation ; Evangelicalism and Populism


“Quakers in Action: Anti-Slavery in North America.” Quakers in the World. http://www.quakersintheworld.org

Risley, Ford. Abolition and the Press: The Struggle against Slavery. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2008.

Sorin, Gerald. Abolitionism: A New Perspective. New York: Praeger Publishers, 1972.