The Abolitionist Movement

Driving Questions:
1) What historical forces led to the rise of the movement?
2) What major figures were involved in the movement?
3) What methods/tactics were used to lead the movement?
4) What opposition did the abolitionist movement face?
5) Was/Is the movement successful in achieving its goals?

What forces led to abolition?

Quakers and Mennonites:

As Quakers felt that all believers had God within them and were therefore equal, they were some of the first to speak out against slavery (starting in the early 1700s). Many Quakers had slaves or were involved with those who did, but gradual reform within the sect changed this by the middle of the 18th century. They began to discuss the issue in large, important meetings. John Woolman, a leading reformer, wrote a treatise about slavery that was published the same year that the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting sent a letter to Quakers that "declared slaveholding as unrighteous". The Quakers soon formed committees to educate their "Friends" about not keeping slaves and to punish those who did not end their involvement through sanctions. This group set an example that others were quick to follow, and demonstrated the power that religion had in the abolitionist movement.

Another religious group that was similar to the Quakers were the Mennonites. The Christian ways of the Mennonites and the Quakers did not approve of slavery. Both religions were against any sort of violence of indenture. The Quakers and the Mennonites were some of the first people to openly disagree with slavery and they were highly involved in the Underground Railroad. The Quakers did not approve at all and had to move to the North because of their disgust with the South. Both religions made pacts against slavery.

Other Religion/Religious Revival:

As the abolitionist movement was gaining steam, a religious revival swept across the Northern states. Many Christians began to view slavery as a sin, a work of the devil that was "radically, essentially evil." Religion was one of the greatest forces that propelled anti-slavery sentiments forward, with ministers such as Theodore Weld and William Ellery Channing speaking out against the "peculiar institution" with increasing frequency. Abolition became a new crusade for Christians in the North, and large revivalist meetings often focused on the cause. Because of religion, many more Americans became involved in freeing slaves than there otherwise would have been.

America's Founding Principles:

Abolitionists believed that the institution of slavery was contrary to America's founding principles. They recalled the words of the Declaration of Independence, which stated that "all men are created equal." Many felt that one of the goals of the much-venerated Founding Fathers was to abolish slavery, which in reality was only partly true. Nevertheless, a sense of duty to their country inspired some to work against slavery in the United States.

Who were the leading figures of abolition?

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William Lloyd Garrison (1805-1879):

William Lloyd Garrison was one of the most important white leaders of the abolitionist movement. He argued for the immediate abolition of slavery in his controversial periodical The Liberator, which he began publishing in the beginning of 1831. One of his most famous quotes from The Liberator is "I shall strenuously contend for the immediate enfranchisement of our slave population...On this subject I do not wish to think, or speak, or write with moderation...I am in earnest -- I will not equivocate -- I will not excuse -- I will not retreat a single inch and I will be heard." This statement set the stage for the rest of Garrison's years fighting against the sins of slavery. He believed that harsh and brutally honest language needed to be used to solve the crisis of slavery in the United States, proving this with his words, "I am aware that many object to the severity of my language; but is there not cause for severity? I will be as harsh as truth and as uncompromising as justice. On this subject I do not wish to think, or speak, or write with moderation." Garrison established the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1833, working to end slavery through peaceful means. Unlike some of his contemporaries, he utilized "moral suasion" rather than violence in an attempt to convince others of the wrongs of the "peculiar institution."

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Frederick Douglass (1818-1895):

This former slave was born in Maryland as Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, and he experienced brutal beatings and horrible living conditions for much of his enslavement. When he escaped later in life, he changed his name to Frederick Douglass and as a free man grew very educated and involved with the Abolitionist Movement. Douglass became a brilliant speaker and was asked by the American Anti-Slavery Society to speak many times for the rights of African Americans. He was soon widely known all over the United States, and became even more famous when his biography was published in 1845. With his fame, he was able to start writing his newspaper, the North Star. Douglass's powerful voice for human rights made him advisor to President Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War. He was opposed to the separation of slaves in the South from the North, and fought with Lincoln for one united nation.

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Underground Railroad Escape Routes
Underground Railroad Escape Routes

Harriet Tubman (1821-1913) and the Underground Railroad:
Harriet Tubman was one of the most influential African American women during the time of slavery. She rescued over 300 slaves (over 19 trips) young and old from slavery over a span of 10 years. Other great freedom fighters named her one of the bravest people on Earth because of the dangers she faced every day for other slaves. Harriet Tubman once proudly pointed out to Frederick Douglass that in all of her journeys she "never lost a single passenger." Tubman worked through the Underground Railroad with the help of many other abololitionist figures. The Underground Railroad was one of the first times in American history that we saw blacks and whites truly working together. This was so important for the Abolitionist Movement because it allowed the cause to grow throughout the country and begin to be taken seriously by all races. There were many people involved in the Underground Railroad routes. There were conductors, stationmasters, and stockholders. Therefore, many people were against slavery and would support the movement for abolition. The Underground Railroad was a very organized and planned-out mission to free slaves. They escaped to Northern America, Canada, the Caribbean, Mexico, and Africa.

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Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896):

Harriet Beecher Stowe was a white Northern woman who was very religious. She wrote the incredibly powerful Uncle Tom's Cabin in 1851, speaking to the anguish and hardship of slaves in the South both physically and spiritually. Northerners felt its deep impact and rallied against slavery harder than ever, while Southerners were outraged once again. Stowe demonstrated the ability abolitionists had to use peaceful methods, such as the written word, to achieve their goals.

Other Notable Abolitionists:

  • Sojourner Truth (Isabella Baumfree)
  • Daniel Walker
  • The Gri​mké Sisters
  • Arthur and Lewis Tappan

What methods and tactics were used to lead the movement?

The Written Word:

For the most part, abolitionists tried to spread their message of freedom through non-violent means. Speeches, books, pamphlets, and periodicals all played a major role in the movement for liberation. The Press was the spark that kept the abolitionist movement alight. Leaders were able to communicate to the public through newspapers and journals, to rally the people and spread their ideas. Some of the most famous leaders were able to share their brilliance with the public, influencing the people's opinions.

Famous examples of anti-slavery literature:
  • Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin
  • Frederick Douglass' Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
  • William Lloyd Garrison's The Liberator
  • Frederick Douglass' North Star


Worried about the long-term effects of true abolition (the North being flooded with free blacks), a large group of Northerners began to support the efforts of the American Colonization Society. This group raised money and bought land in Africa, named it Liberia, and tried to send free blacks there in the hopes that they would "spread Christianity and democracy on that continent." No one else really thought this was a good idea--Southerners were furious about another "conspiracy to deprive them of their property," African-Americans had no desire to leave their own country (the U.S.), and this plan eventually led to bloody civil wars between the African-Americans and native ethnic groups in Liberia.

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Daniel Walker:

Daniel Walker was a free black man, who published his the Colored Citizens of the World in 1829. He demanded emancipation for all slaves and encouraged them to free themselves or escape. He, unlike Garrison and others, had no problem with using violence to accomplish the goals of abolition. Southerners viewed him as a danger to their lifestyles and wanted him dead. After his Appeal reached the South, "Southern states swiftly enacted laws forbidding anyone to teach slaves to read or write, an effort to prevent such incendiary ideas from reaching a slave audience."

Harpers Ferry:

The fight against slavery was rarely violent, as abolitionists preferred to write or speak about the problem. However, John Brown (who was white) and several other men changed this when they attacked an arsenal in Virginia to obtain weapons for a slave revolt. Brown was charged and hanged, but Southerners considered the raid an act of war and seceded from the Union within 18 months. The attack on Harpers Ferry was considered to be a failure, but it was a factor in the war that eventually freed every slave in America.
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The AAS and AFAS: Organizations for Emancipation:

The American Anti-Slavery Society (AAS) was formed in 1832 by William Lloyd Garrison, Arthur Tappan, and Lewis Tappan. Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, and other black abolitionists were members. Several women joined of both races, and in 1840 a split occurred because of disagreements about which causes to support. The members who stuck with the AAS felt that women's suffrage and other societal issues should be addressed at the same time as slavery. The newly-founded American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society (AFAS) members argued that abolition should be solved before women's rights. Some members, in fact, did not support women's rights at all.

The Influence of Women and Other Movements:

When the AAS and the AFAS separated, the importance of women in the fight to end slavery was demonstrated. Reform movements such as Protestant revivalism, temperance reform, educational reform, Sabbath reform, and penitentiary reform, as well as the antislavery movement, were all occuring relatively simultaneously, leading women to become more active participants in society. They found that they did have the power to change things, they could get involved, and they were able to fight for their own rights as well. Abolition was deeply tied to the Women's Suffrage Movement for this reason and it is clear that everything else happening at the time also had an impact.

Female Abolitionist
Female Abolitionist

What opposition did the abolitionist movement face?

Why was there so much opposition to freeing slaves, other than because of personal beliefs in superiority?
The Abolitionist Movement faced the reality that the Southern lifestyle ran around plantations and the fight to abolish slavery was threatening everything that the Southerners had to value. The demand for cotton had its own demand for slaves. The Southern farmers who profited from crops like cotton used their money to win political power and spread their culture. Southern slave owners were a minority (many more slaves and non-slave owners) but they did have most of the power in government. They held 50-85% of the state legislative seats and Congressional seats. They were able to create the Confederacy, which only kept slavery in the South for so long.

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The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850:

Because of this act, Northerners were legally required to aid in the recovery and return of escaped slaves. Several incidents sparked anger and resentment towards the South, this law, and slavery, rallying Northern support for abolition. In effect, the Fugitive Slave Law backfired for the South. Legislatures of the Northern states passed their own "personal liberty laws" that would help escaped slaves to avoid the effects of the Fugitive Slave Law.

Obstacles in the North:

Opposition to the abolitionists did not occur only in the South. Poor Northern laborers were afraid of losing their jobs to freed slaves, and many merchants needed to trade with the South in order to stay in business. Abolition would mean bad things for them, and they protested against the movement agressively and often violently. They "disrupted meetings, destroyed abolitionist printing presses, and participated in mob attacks on white abolitionists and free African Americans," endangering spokespeople for freedom in the North. William Lloyd Garrison was nearly killed by a mob in Boston, and another leader had his house ransacked. An abolitionist editor named Elijah Lovejoy was eventually murdered. This extreme violence shocked Northerners, even if they didn't necessarily oppose slavery. They believed that all white Northerners should have freedom of expression/speech/press, which was being denied to them by those who supported slavery.
The Attack on Elijah Lovejoy
The Attack on Elijah Lovejoy

Obstacles in the South:

Most outspoken abolitionists in the South had either moved north or quieted down by 1830. Laws were passed south of the Mason-Dixon Line in this time period prohibiting people from teaching slaves to read or write. Southerners hoped that such laws would keep slaves from reading abolitionist material that encouraged them to run away or revolt. Even though William Lloyd Garrison's periodical was not widespread in the early 1830s, Southern defamation of The Liberator made it well-known all over the country (another example of opposition that backfired). Southerners also felt that Northerners were growing more and more "anti-Southern" and tried to suppress The Liberator in the North as well as the South. Their legislatures wanted Garrison to be imprisoned and demanded that all abolitionist leaders in the North be brought to and tried in the South. When this didn't work, they went through the trials without them and began "offering bounties for them dead or alive."

How was the movement successful in achieving its goals?

The Abolitionist Movement was very successful in achieving the ultimate goal of a free country for every race. The struggle leading up to the American Civil War in 1861 was long and unforgiving. Blood was shed and the country was divided, with presidents like James Monroe and Abraham Lincoln acting upon the pressing issue of slavery and seeking to fix it. Monroe created the 36'30 latitude line that divided the Southern territory (the Arkansas Territory) from the Unorganized Territory to the north in the Louisiana Purchase. The South stayed pro-slavery while the North abolished slavery in its territories. Monroe took a baby step for humanity by enacting this 36'30 line of separation, but it ultimately helped to lead to the Civil War.
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Abraham Lincoln knew his country was dividing because of the differing views of his countrymen. Lincoln fought with the North against not only the Confederacy but slavery (though quietly at first) as well. The North won the Civil War in 1865, which put into effect Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. This declaration freed slaves all over the country, but most notably in the South. It was a strategic military maneuver, damaging much of the Confederacy's resources and labor force. The Emancipation Proclamation changed the war’s focus from preserving the Union to ending slavery, and opened a path for the actual abolition of slavery in the United States. Though it was not predominantly created to give blacks their right to liberty, it did achieve the goal of the Abolitionist Movement. The abolitionists had shaken the nation by arguing that there should be no slavery. Once America began to see the equality of blacks and whites, many more radical movements, such as the Women's Suffrage Movement, successfully achieved their own goals as well.

The Emancipation Proclamation
The Emancipation Proclamation

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