Abolitionist Movement (19th Century)

The Rise of the Abolitionist Movement

  • For decades, there had been a strong antislavery movement in the country. While it was centered in the North, there were many people opposed to slavery in the Southern states, as well.
  • The anti-slavery movement sought to end slavery legally and legitimately, through the course of law.
  • There were those in the antislavery movement that proposed legislation purchase the freedom of slaves. This sort of solution would have ended slavery, but done it without the violence and death that the Civil War brought.

Abolitionist Timeline

1830- First National Negro Convention convenes in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
1832- Abolitionists led by William Lloyd Garrison from the New England Anti-Slavery Society in Boston. Garrison expands this organization into the American Anti-Slavery Society the following year
1835 - Free African Americans form a vigilance committee to assist fugitive slaves in New York City
1841 - African American writer and abolitionist Frederick Douglass delivers his first antislavery speech in Nantucket, Massachusetts
1843 - Henry Highland Garnet delivers his famous "Call to Rebellion" speech, advocating armed resistance against slavery at the National Negro Convention in Buffalo, NY
1849 - Harriet Tubman escapes slavery in Maryland; later, using the Underground Railroad— a hidden network of people, places, and modes of transportation used to provide fugitive slaves safe passage to the North and Canada—she returns to the South 19 times to convey 300 slaves to freedom
1858 - Abraham Lincoln gains national recognition as an antislavery candidate during his unsuccessful campaign for the U.S. Senate
1859- Militant white abolitionist John Brown, with a band of black and white rebels, unsuccessfully raids a federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia; Brown and others are hanged
1860 - Abraham Lincoln elected President of Republican Party; and the start of the southern secession.
1861- The Civil War begins.
1863- Emancipation Proclamation
1865- The 13th Amendment is added to the U.S Consitution.


Troubles Faced

The abolitionists were at first widely denounced and abused. Mobs
attacked them in the North; Southerners burned antislavery pamphlets
and in some areas excluded them from the mails; and Congress imposed
the gag rule to avoid considering their petitions. These actions, and the
murder of abolitionist editor Elijah P. Lovejoy in 1837, led many to
fear for their constitutional rights. Abolitionists exploited these fears
and antislavery sentiment spread rapidly in the North. By 1838, more
than 1,350 antislavery societies existed with almost
250,000 members, including many women

Anti-Slavery Societies

  • The first abolition society in the United States was formed by a group with a majority of Quakers in Pennsylvania in 1775, and was called the "Society for the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage."
  • When Benjamin Franklin was the president of the society in 1787 it changed it's name to The Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery, the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage, and for Improving the Condition of the African Race.
  • By the 1790's twelve states in both the North and the South had such organizations, and delegates from all the abolition societies met in Philadelphia for annual.

  • In 1790 the society addressed the United States Congress with a memorial advocating federal abolition of slavery.
  • Abolitionists in the United States worked to abolish the slave trade hoping that without the slave trade the institution of slavery would disappear. They also helped to pass the United States Trade Act of 1807, which prohibited the importation of slaves.
  • William Lloyd Garrison, who became the most outspoken opponent of slavery, gave his first famous speech against the institution on July 4, 1829. William Lloyd Garrison's Speech
The Anti-Slavery Society Convention, 1840 by Benjamin Robert Haydon
The Anti-Slavery Society Convention, 1840 by Benjamin Robert Haydon

  • The American Anti-Slavery Society was founded in 1833, by Arthur Tappan and William Lloyd Garrison. Led by the society president Arthur Tappan, a wealthy New York businessman, the group's sole purpose was to provide relief to free blacks who were unlawfully held in bondage.
  • To spread the word about anti-slavery movements the group distributed pamphlets written by their members as well as reprints of foreign tracts, corresponded with each othe

r, lectured, commissioned studies, addressed state and federal legislatures, and sent letters and petitions to legislatures.
  • Declaration of Sentiments A "Declaration of Sentiments" were drawn up by William Lloyd Garrison, Samuel May, and John Greenleaf Whittier, which called for immediate total abolition of slavery through "moral and political action.".
  • In 1863 the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society rejected the idea put forward by Garrison and pledged to work towards a congressional act that made the readmission of the Southern states into the Union conditional upon full emancipation, including the right to vote.

The Emancipation Proclamation

Emancipation Proclamation
Emancipation Proclamation

President Abraham Lincoln read the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, at the beginning of the third year of the civil war. The proclamation declared "that all persons held as slaves" within the rebellious states "are, and henceforward shall be free."

Despite it's impressive wording, the Emancipation Proclamation was limited in many ways. It only applied to states that had left the Union, so slavery was untouched in the loyal border states. It also expressly left out parts of the Confederacy that had already come under Northern control. Most important, the freedom it promised depended upon Union military victory.
Although the Emancipation Proclamation did not end slavery in the nation, it captured the hearts of millions of Americans and fundamentally transformed the character of the war. After January 1, 1863, every advance of federal troops expanded the domain of freedom. Moreover, the Proclamation announced the acceptance of black men into the Union Army and Navy. By the end of the war, almost 200,000 black soldiers and sailors had fought for the Union and freedom.

The 13th Amendment

President Lincoln Writing the Proclamation of Freedom: Lincoln is remembered as "The Great Emancipator." In 1863, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. The document freed slaves in the Confederate states.

Principal Personages in the Abolitionist Movement

  • WILLIAM LLOYD GARRISON (1805-1879), editor of the Liberator, famous antislavery journal, and cofounder of the American Anti-Slavery Society
  • ARTHUR TAPPAN (1786-1865), cofounder and first president of the American Anti-Slavery Society
    William Lloyd Garrison
  • LEWIS TAPPAN (1788-1873), New York philanthropist and one of the founders of the American Anti-Slavery Society
  • JAMES GILLESPIE BIRNEY (1792-1857), American anti-slavery leader and presidential candidate for the Liberty Party
  • DAVID WALKER (1785-1830), militant Negro abolitionist, author of Appeal ... to the Coloured Citizens of the World (1829), a famous antislavery journal
  • FREDERICK DOUGLASS (1817-1895), ex-slave, editor of The North Star, an abolitionist paper, made speech before a meeting at Nantucket of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society in 1841 and was so effective that he was made one of its agents.
  • ELIZUR WRIGHT (1804-1885), professor of mathematics and moral philosophy at Western Reserve College, and one of the founders of the American Anti-Slavery Society
  • LYDIA MARIA CHILD (1802-1880), novelist, author of numerous antislavery pamphlets and articles
  • BENJAMIN LUNDY (1789-1839), editor of the Genius of Universal Emancipation, an abolitionist paper
  • THEODORE DWIGHT WELD (1803-1895), American Anti-Slavery Society agent

Methods and Tactics used to Lead the Movement

Songs and Poems

During the 1840s, abolitionist societies used song to stir up enthusiasm at their meetings. To make songs easier to learn, new words were set to familiar tunes. William Lloyd Garrison's "Song of the Abolitionist" has six stanzas set to the tune of "Auld Lang Syne." Garrison also had a particular fondness for poetry, which he believed to be "naturally and instinctively on the side of liberty." He used verse as a vehicle for enhancing anti-slavery sentiment. Garrison collected his work in "Sonnets and Other Poems" (1843). In 1848, William Wells Brown, abolitionist and former slave, published "The Anti-Slavery Harp," a collection of songs for anti-slavery meetings. "The Anti-Slavery Harp" is in the format of a "songster"--giving the lyrics and indicating the tunes to which they are to be sung, but with no music. George W. Clark's, "The Liberty Minstrel", is an exception among songsters because Clark wrote some of the music himself, although most of it consists of well-known melodies to which anti-slavery words have been written.


The Child's Anti-Slavery Book: Containing a Few Words about American Slave Children was a book that was distributed by the Sunday School Union. It uses actual life stories about slave children separated from their parents or mistreated by their masters to make the free children sympathetic. Vivid illustrations help to reinforce the message that black children should have the same rights as white children, and that holding humans as property is "a sin against God."

A Copy of an issue of The Liberator
The Liberator (1831):
Garrison published weekly issues of The Liberator from Boston continuously for 35 years, from January 1, 1831, to the final issue of January 1, 1866. The newspaper earned nationwide notoriety for its uncompromising advocacy of "immediate and complete emancipation of all slaves" in the United States. Garrison set the tone for the paper in his famous open letter "To the Public" in the first issue


Militant tactics, such as uprising and revolts were a popular way to spread the abolitionist movement in the 1800s. Nat Turner was a black abolitionist that supported the use of aggressive and forceful tactics. In 1831, in Virginia, he led an insurrection and more than 55 white people were killed. It was very bloody and violent and angered many whites from its brutality. Yet, many blacks felt that the only thing that would get a response was an uprising and taking drastic measures.