The Abolitionists

Engraved portrait of Frederick Douglass
Frederick Douglass. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The term abolitionist generally refers to a dedicated opponent to slavery in the early 19th century America.

The abolitionist movement developed slowly in the early 1800s. A movement to abolish slavery gained political acceptance in Britain in the late 1700s. The British abolitionists, led by William Wilberforce in the early 19th century, campaigned against Britain's role in the slave trade and sought to outlaw slavery in British colonies.

At the same time, Quaker groups in America began working in earnest to abolish slavery in the United States. The first organized group formed to end slavery in America began in Philadelphia in 1775, and the city was a hotbed of abolitionist sentiment in the 1790s, when it was the capital of the United States.

Though slavery was successively outlawed in the northern states in the early 1800s, the institution of slavery was firmly entrenched in the South. And agitation against slavery came to be regarded as a major source of discord between regions of the country.

In the 1820s anti-slavery factions began spreading from New York and Pennsylvania to Ohio, and the early beginnings of the abolitionist movement began to be felt. At first, the opponents to slavery were considered far outside the mainstream of political thought and abolitionists had little real impact on American life.

In the 1830s the movement gathered some momentum.

William Lloyd Garrison began publishing The Liberator in Boston, and it became the most prominent abolitionist newspaper. A pair of wealthy businessmen in New York City, the Tappan brothers, began to finance abolitionist activities.

In 1835 the American Anti-Slavery Society began a campaign, funded by the Tappans, to send anti-slavery pamphlets into the South.

The pamphlet campaign led to enormous controversy, which included bonfires of seized abolitionist literature being burned in the streets of Charleston, South Carolina.

The pamphlet campaign was seen to be impractical. Resistance to the pamphlets galvanized the South against any anti-slavery sentiment, and it made abolitionists in the North realize that it would not be safe to campaign against slavery on southern soil.

The northern abolitionists tried other strategies, most prominently the petitioning of Congress. Former president John Quincy Adams, serving in his post-presidency as a Massachusetts congressman, became a prominent anti-slavery voice on Capitol Hill. Under right of petition in the U.S. Constitution, anyone, including slaves, could send petitions to Congress. Adams led a movement to introduce petitions seeking the freedom of slaves, and it so inflamed members of the House of Representatives from the slave states that discussion of slavery was banned in the House chamber.

For eight years one of the main battles against slavery took place on Capitol Hill, as Adams battled against what came to be known as the gag rule.

In the 1840s a former slave, Frederick Douglass, took to the lecture halls and spoke about his life as a slave.

Douglass became a very forceful anti-slavery advocate, and even spent time speaking out against American slavery in Britain and Ireland.

By the late 1840s the Whig Party was splitting over the issue of slavery. And disputes which arose when the U.S. acquired enormous territory at the end of the Mexican War brought up the issue of which new states and territories would be slave or free. The Free Soil Party arose to speak out against slavery, and while it didn't became a major political force, it did put the issue of slavery into the mainstream of American politics.

Perhaps what brought the abolitionist movement to the forefront more than anything else was a very popular novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin. Its author, Harriet Beecher Stowe, a committed abolitionist, was able to craft a tale with sympathetic characters who were either slaves or touched by the evil of slavery.

Families would often read the book aloud in their living rooms, and the novel did much to pass abolitionist thought into American homes.

Prominent abolitionists included:

The term, of course, comes from the word abolish, and particularly refers to those who wanted to abolish slavery.

The Underground Railroad, the loose network of people who assisted escaped slaves to freedom in the northern United States or Canada, could be considered part of the abolitionist movement.

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McNamara, Robert. "The Abolitionists." ThoughtCo, Jan. 31, 2018, McNamara, Robert. (2018, January 31). The Abolitionists. Retrieved from McNamara, Robert. "The Abolitionists." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 20, 2018).