Americana: Abolitionist Movement

The abolitionist movement occurred from the 1830s until 1870, five years after the American Civil War or the War Between the States.
The object was to achieve emancipation of all slaves and ending racial discrimination and segregation. There were those who were against slavery, but prejudiced against the African immigrant who came here by force, but abolitionists extended their cause to include an acceptance of freed slaves into the American society as equal citizens.
The abolitionists were against western expansion of slavery in the newly formed states there, as well as territories not yet states of the Union. These issues led to the Civil War as part of the argument over state rights and sovereignty between those state governments and the federal government of the United States.
The southern states where slavery had been established were dependent upon slaves for their cotton plantations and general labor, while the North was established as a region of industrial cities dotting the state of rural farmers who did not believe in slavery as it was contradictory to the concept of the United States Constitution and its amendments, as well as the moral issue of human rights.
The abolitionist concept did not originate in the 1830s, but became more organized; such attitudes and resentment toward the practice of slavery dates back to the American Revolution. Manufacturing and commerce helped paved the way to emancipate the African slaves, as well as evangelical religious movements. Preachers like Lyman Beecher, Nathaniel Taylor, and Charles G. Finney were part of what was called the Second Great Awakening which led religious revivals in the 1820s that emerged into the Abolitionist Movement as well as other reformation crusades such as temperance (anti-alcohol consumption and sale), pacificism (anti-war), and women’s
rights (suffrage). By the 1830s, Theodore D. Weld, William Lloyd Garrison, Arthur Tappan and Lewis Tappan, and Elizur Wright Jr., had taken up the cause for immediate emancipation.
William Lloyd Garrison of Boston, in early 1831 began publishing a newspaper called the Liberator that was supported by mostly free African Americans. In December of 1833, the Tappans, Garrison and sixty other delegates of both races and genders met in Philadelphia the American Anti-Slavery Society, which denounced slavery as a cardinal sin that must be abolished immediately. The society emphasized doing so without violence and condemned social racial prejudice. By 1835, the society had received much support, both in moral and financial support from free African American communities in the northern states. They submitted petitions to the United States Congress to end all federal support of slavery as well as antislavery literature of all sorts to educate the public on the subject. Women participated greatly in the society and denounced the American Colonization Society’s program of voluntary gradual emancipation and black emigration from whence they had originated, or rather the original homeland, in most cases, of their ancestors.
Naturally there were hostile responses from the South as well as the North, where mobs were formed that sometimes turned to violence, the burning of mailbags that contained abolitionist literature, and the passage in the House of Representatives of a gag rule that banned consideration of antislavery petitions – clearly against the rights to petition under the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States. This disturbed many citizens and after the murder of abolitionist editor, Elijah Lovejoy, they worried about their own civil liberties to vote for antislavery politicians. It also brought on board converts like Wendell Phillips, Gerrit Smith, and Edmund Quincy to the abolitionist cause.
By 1840, Mr. Garrison and his followers were convinced that slavery had influenced corruption within the American society and the issue began to appear more in politics, which in turn brought about the idea that a revolutionary change in America’s spiritual values was required in order to meet the goal of emancipation. During this heightened antislavery movement, women’s equal rights also played into the society’s goals. However, internal disputes concerning these issues caused the American Anti-Slavery Society to split in 1840 and members formed the Liberty political party with James G. Birney who ran as a presidential candidate in the elections of 1840 and 1844.
Abolitionists had an influence upon religious issues and doctrine that contributed to schisms, much like the early Roman Catholic Church versus the Byzantine Eastern Church of Constantinople now known as Istanbul, splitting the Catholic Church for a period of time between East and West. The Methodists in 1844 and the Baptists in 1845 are primary examples of this schism developing the Southern Baptist Church on the side of slavery and others developing numerous independent antislavery free churches.
Abolitionists founded the Oberlin College, a western higher educational center of abolitionism.
Female abolitionists became leaders under the Garrison abolition movement and organized the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848. African Americans protested the patronizing behavior and sometimes racial attitudes of the white abolitionist, there were whites did support independent crusades by African Americans to outlaw segregation and improve education for free African Americans during the 1840s and on into the 1850s.
After the 1860 Fugitive Slave Law was passed, white abolitionists protected African Americans who were escapees from slavery from capture, although what became known as the Underground Railroad was largely supported by African Americans.
By the 1850s, the slavery issue reached a crisis by the Kansas Nebraska Act the Dred Scott decision, and John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry. Most abolitionists supported, sometimes reluctantly, the Republican party that became known later as the Party of Lincoln, stood by the Union during the secession crisis, and became champions of military emancipation during the Civil War.
In 1865, the abolition movement once again split when Mr. Garrison and his supporters recognized that the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery made the continuance of the American Anti-Slavery Society moot. However, many felt that the first phase, the emancipation, had been fulfilled, but the African American was still ostracized within society despite being citizens of the United States having all rights under the Bill of Rights afforded to them. Wendell Phillips, with those issues upon his mind, successfully prevented Mr. Garrison from dissolving the society. It continued until 1870 to demand land, the ballot, and education for the African American citizen formerly enslaved. Traditional ideology of the abolitionist movement, especially the American Anti-Slavery Society, culminated into the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1909 – the NAACP.


The Feminist Abolitionists by Blanche Glassman Hirsh, 1978; The Black Abolitionists by Benjamin Quarles, 1970; Holy Warriors by James Brewer Stewart, 1986.