Abolitionist

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

An abolitionist was 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, and by about 1800 Quaker groups in America were working to abolish slavery in 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, which became the most prominent abolitionist newspaper. In New York City a pair of wealthy businessmen, 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, and 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.

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.