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History For Our Time: Abolitionist Movement

From the 1830s until 1870, the abolitionist movement attempted to achieve immediate emancipation of all slaves and the ending of racial segregation and discrimination. Their propounding of these goals distinguished abolitionists from the broad-based political opposition to slavery’s westward expansion that took form in the North after 1840 and raised issues leading to the Civil War. Yet these two expressions of hostility to slavery—abolitionism and Free-Soilism—were often closely related not only in their beliefs and their interaction but also in the minds of southern slaveholders who finally came to regard the North as united against them in favor of black emancipation.

Although abolitionist feelings had been strong during the American Revolution and in the Upper South during the 1820s, the abolitionist movement did not coalesce into a militant crusade until the 1830s. In the previous decade, as much of the North underwent the social disruption associated with the spread of manufacturing and commerce, powerful evangelical religious movements arose to impart spiritual direction to society.

By stressing the moral imperative to end sinful practices and each person’s responsibility to uphold God’s will in society, preachers like Lyman Beecher, Nathaniel Taylor, and Charles G. Finney in what came to be called the Second Great Awakening led massive religious revivals in the 1820s that gave a major impetus to the later emergence of abolitionism as well as to such other reforming crusades as temperance, pacifism, and women’s rights. By the early 1830s, Theodore D. Weld, William Lloyd Garrison, Arthur and Lewis Tappan, and Elizur Wright, Jr., all spiritually nourished by revivalism, had taken up the cause of “immediate emancipation.”

 In early 1831, Garrison, in Boston, began publishing his famous newspaper, the Liberator, supported largely by free African-Americans, who always played a major role in the movement. In December 1833, the Tappans, Garrison, and sixty other delegates of both races and genders met in Philadelphia to found the American Anti-Slavery Society, which denounced slavery as a sin that must be abolished immediately, endorsed nonviolence, and condemned racial prejudice. By 1835, the society had received substantial moral and financial support from African-American communities in the North and had established hundreds of branches throughout the free states, flooding the North with antislavery literature, agents, and petitions demanding that Congress end all federal support for slavery.

The society, which attracted significant participation by women, also denounced the American Colonization Society’s program of voluntary gradual emancipation and black emigration.


All these activities provoked widespread hostile responses from North and South, most notably violent mobs, the burning of mailbags containing abolitionist literature, and the passage in the U.S. House of Representatives of a “gag rule” that banned consideration of antislavery petitions. These developments, and especially the 1837 murder of abolitionist editor Elijah Lovejoy, led many northerners, fearful for their own civil liberties, to vote for antislavery politicians and brought important converts such as Wendell Phillips, Gerrit Smith, and Edmund Quincy to the cause.

But as antislavery sentiment began to appear in politics, abolitionists also began disagreeing among themselves. By 1840 Garrison and his followers were convinced that since slavery’s influence had corrupted all of society, a revolutionary change in America’s spiritual values was required to achieve emancipation. To this demand for “moral suasion,” Garrison added an insistence on equal rights for women within the movement and a studious avoidance of “corrupt” political parties and churches. To Garrison’s opponents, such ideas seemed wholly at odds with Christian values and the imperative to influence the political and ecclesiastical systems by nominating and voting for candidates committed to abolitionism. Disputes over these matters split the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1840, leaving Garrison and his supporters in command of that body; his opponents, led by the Tappans, founded the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society. Meanwhile, still other foes of Garrison launched the Liberty party with James G. Birney as its presidential candidate in the elections of 1840 and 1844.

 Although historians debate the extent of the abolitionists’ influence on the nation’s political life after 1840, their impact on northern culture and society is undeniable. As speakers, Frederick Douglass, Wendell Phillips, and Lucy Stone in particular became extremely well known. In popular literature the poetry of John Greenleaf Whittier and James Russell Lowell circulated widely, as did the autobiographies of fugitive slaves such as Douglass, William and Ellen Craft, and Solomon Northrup. Abolitionists exercised a particularly strong influence on religious life, contributing heavily to schisms that separated the Methodists (1844) and Baptists (1845), while founding numerous independent antislavery “free churches.” In higher education abolitionists founded Oberlin College, the nation’s first experiment in racially integrated coeducation, the Oneida Institute, which graduated an impressive group of African-American leaders, and Illinois’s Knox College, a western center of abolitionism.
Within the Garrisonian wing of the movement, female abolitionists became leaders of the nation’s first independent feminist movement, instrumental in organizing the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention. Although African-American activists often complained with reason of the racist and patronizing behavior of white abolitionists, the whites did support independently conducted crusades by African-Americans to outlaw segregation and improve education during the 1840s and 1850s. Especially after the passage of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law, white abolitionists also protected African-Americans threatened with capture as escapees from bondage, although blacks themselves largely managed the Underground Railroad.

 By the later 1850s, organized abolitionism in politics had been subsumed by the larger sectional crisis over slavery prompted by the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the Dred Scott decision, and John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry. Most abolitionists reluctantly supported the Republican party, stood by the Union in the secession crisis, and became militant champions of military emancipation during the Civil War. The movement again split in 1865, when Garrison and his supporters asserted that the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery made continuation of the American Anti-Slavery Society unnecessary. But a larger group led by Wendell Phillips, insisting that only the achievement of complete political equality for all black males could guarantee the freedom of the former slaves, successfully prevented Garrison from dissolving the society. It continued until 1870 to demand land, the ballot, and education for the freedman. Only when the Fifteenth Amendment extending male suffrage to African-Americans was passed did the society declare its mission completed. Traditions of racial egalitarianism begun by abolitionists lived on, however, to inspire the subsequent founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1909.
Blanche Glassman Hirsh, The Feminist Abolitionists (1978); Benjamin Quarles, The Black Abolitionists (1970); James Brewer Stewart, Holy Warriors: The Abolitionists and American Slavery (1986).   Source: The Reader’s Companion to American History

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