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.

Movement to Abolish Enslavement Develops

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 enslavement in British colonies.

Role of Quaker Groups

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

Anti-Enslavement Effort Gains Momentum

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 enslavement 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.

Pamphlet Campaign

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 enslavement on southern soil.

Petitioning Congress

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 enslaved people, could send petitions to Congress. Adams led a movement to introduce petitions seeking the freedom of enslaved people, and it so inflamed members of the House of Representatives from the pro-slavery states that the discussion of enslavement was banned in the House chamber.

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

Frederick Douglass Becomes Advocate

In the 1840s a formerly enslaved person, Frederick Douglass, took to the lecture halls and spoke about his life. 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 pro-slavery or free states. The Free Soil Party arose to speak out against enslavement, and while it didn't became a major political force, it did put the issue of slavery into the mainstream of American politics.

Uncle Tom's Cabin

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 enslaved 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

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 enslaved freedom seekers in the northern United States or Canada, could be considered part of the abolitionist movement.

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
McNamara, Robert. "The Abolitionists." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, McNamara, Robert. (2023, April 5). The Abolitionists. Retrieved from McNamara, Robert. "The Abolitionists." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 31, 2023).