Abolition Societies

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While America's first abolitionists remain relatively anonymous when compared to their famous antebellum counterparts—including William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, and Lydia Maria Child—they are no less important. Indeed, even a man like Garrison would have saluted his predecessors in the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery (PAS) for initiating the antislavery struggle in the nation's earliest years—an era when many citizens and statesmen wished to avoid national attacks on slavery for fear they would split apart the new Republic. These early abolitionist groups, which operated most consistently in the North and, fleetingly, in various southern locales, organized national conventions beginning in 1794. They represented endangered blacks in myriad legal cases in both the North and South and petitioned both state and federal governments on issues ranging from ending the overseas and domestic slave trades to eradicating bondage in the nation's capital, Washington, D.C.

religious affiliations of abolitionists

While attacks on bondage by enslaved people, religious figures, and pamphleteers date as far back as the 1600s, abolitionism as an organized movement began in the late colonial era when Pennsylvania Quakers decided to ban slaveholding members from attending meetings of the Society of Friends. By the closing decades of the eighteenth century, other religious dissenters had joined Quakers to form the foundations of early American abolition societies in Pennsylvania, New York, Rhode Island, Delaware, and even Maryland and Virginia. As David Brion Davis, the leading scholar of antislavery movements, has argued in The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution (1975), "in the 1760s, black slavery was sanctioned by Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, Presbyterian and reformed churchman and theologians." But even if most Americans did not join abolitionist groups, by the 1800s antislavery debates had occurred not just among Quakers but also Methodists, Baptists, Anglicans, Congregationalists, and Presbyterians. While Quakers formed the backbone of the PAS, the leading antislavery organization of the early Republic, they "reached out to every neighborhood and church" in Philadelphia for "additional members," according to Gary B. Nash and Jean R. Soderlund in Freedom by Degrees (1991).

In New York City, Quakers and Anglicans together provided over half of the membership of the New York Manumission Society. In Rhode Island, both Quakers and Congregationalists supported gradual abolition laws in the 1780s.

locations of abolition organizations

Early abolitionism operated primarily in northern urban locales. The PAS was formed in Philadelphia in 1775 (and reformed in 1784), the New York Manumission Society was established in New York City in 1784, and the Rhode Island Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery was created in Providence in 1789. Abolitionist groups also formed in Connecticut (1790) and New Jersey (1793). By 1793, smaller societies existed in Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia. The growth of abolitionist movements throughout the North and Upper South (no group existed in Georgia or South Carolina) led to the creation of the American Convention of Abolition Societies in 1794. Over the next forty years, abolitionists would meet annually and biennially (often in Philadelphia) to share abolitionist laws and literature, plot strategies and tactics, and address free black communities. The PAS remained the single largest abolitionist group of the early national era, with annual membership often reaching over one hundred people (and sometimes much more). Additionally, the PAS could count both middling men (artisans and shopkeepers) and "worthies" (including Benjamin Franklin, who served as the group's president before his death in 1790) among its ranks.

gradual abolition

The nation's first abolition groups sought to end slavery gradually. As Gary B. Nash has put it in Race and Revolution (1990), "the view developed by post-1830 abolitionists that no man should be rewarded for ceasing to commit a sin had little currency at the time." In other words, few early abolitionist leaders embraced the immediate ending of bondage. Emancipation statutes passed in northern states at the close of the eighteenth century reflected prevailing gradualist beliefs. These state laws provided that slaves would be liberated only at a future date. In Pennsylvania, which adopted the world's first gradual abolition law in 1780 (revised in 1784), freedom came for women at age nineteen and for men at age twenty-one. Most northern locales passed similar gradualist statutes over the next twenty years, with variations on the deadline for the liberation of enslaved people. Rhode Island passed such a law in 1784, as did Connecticut (revised in 1797). New York followed in 1799 (revised in 1817) and New Jersey in 1804. Vermont's Constitution of 1777 had gradualist language but was interpreted to have outlawed bondage, while New Hampshire eradicated slavery via constitutional interpretation. Massachusetts famously ended slavery by judicial decree in 1783 after several slaves sued for freedom in state courts. New northern states like Ohio, Illinois, and Maine entered the Union with constitutional bans on slavery.

Southern abolitionists tried to make their states follow these examples, but with little success. Operating in a circumscribed arena (Virginia and Maryland alone accounted for nearly 300,000 slaves in 1790), their calls for gradual emancipation laws appeared too radical in the South. As late as the fall of 1827, for instance, one could still find abolitionists in Alexandria, Virginia. Nevertheless, as they wrote to the PAS, their group attracted only nineteen members and was forced by the prevailing local opinion to concentrate not on agitating slavery's end by legislation but on helping free blacks illegally held in bondage and on gently "diffusing among our fellow citizens more just views on the subject of slavery." The very name of the group—the Benevolent Society of Alexandria for Improving the Condition of the People of Color—suggested the tricky line southern abolitionists walked. Nevertheless, abolition societies from Maryland, Virginia, Delaware, and Kentucky sent representatives to national abolition conventions. And while no southern state ever adopted a gradual abolition statute, some did ease emancipation restrictions during the early Republic. In 1782 Virginia rescinded a law that forbade private manumissions without legislative approval. The result over the next several decades was the liberation of perhaps as many as from four thousand to six thousand enslaved people.

If early abolitionists failed to end slavery nationally, they did help to sectionalize the institution politically and legally by sending northern slavery on the road to extinction. The total number of slaves liberated in northern locales was roughly forty thousand (although hard numbers are difficult to come by, for devious masters often sold slaves South before emancipation statutes matured). By the early 1800s, enough fugitive slaves had attempted to reach "free" Pennsylvania from various Chesapeake locales that masters increasingly complained about northern abolitionist "meddlers." During the 1820s, the Maryland legislature even petitioned Pennsylvania to curtail abolitionist legal maneuverings on blacks' behalf.

One of the most neglected achievements of early abolitionists, then, was their protection of state abolition laws. Pennsylvania reformers had to hold the line against several slaveholder-inspired efforts either to curtail gradual abolition statutes in the legislature or have them declared unconstitutional at the state supreme court. The PAS also remained vigilant against masters' efforts to find loopholes in state abolitionist laws. In the 1790s, for example, Pennsylvania legislators considered whether or not to let Haitian slave masters enter the state with temporary immunity from abolition laws. That measure was defeated after abolitionists mobilized opposition. (However, Haitian masters were allowed into slave states such as South Carolina.)

legal assistance to blacks

Perhaps the most neglected aspect of early abolitionist activism was legal aid to African Americans. The PAS and New York Manumission Society took the lead in representing kidnapped blacks and, on certain occasions, runaway slaves in courts of law. Early abolitionist legal maneuvering stemmed from black activism on the ground. When northern masters attempted to subvert abolition laws (for example, by claiming that they had moved to a northern locale only recently and were thus immune from emancipation laws), abolitionist lawyers stepped in, often garnering slaves their freedom. In other cases, abolitionist lawyers protected slaves from underhanded masters who tried to abrogate manumission contracts with bondspeople.

Because slave runaways began taking a toll on both northern and southern masters, many slave-holders resorted to freedom agreements with their slaves: if bondspeople pledged not to run away, masters promised to liberate them in perhaps five to seven years. In essence, enslaved people in Pennsylvania, New York, Maryland, Delaware, and even Virginia began converting slavery into indentured servitude through manumission agreements. Not only did the PAS and New York Manumission Society officiate at the signing of such contracts, they also confronted masters who attempted to ignore them. In 1788, for example, the PAS obtained freedom for several slaves who were emancipated during the American Revolution but subsequently reenslaved by recalcitrant masters. In 1800 the organization freed a single black Virginian on the same grounds: his mistress had once freed him and then summarily declared that "he is [still] my slave." After working with local reformers in Winchester, Virginia, the PAS secured the freedom of the man known in court records simply as "Abraham."

expansion of activities

As these examples suggest, early abolitionist activity often revolved around state laws and courts. But pre-1830 abolitionists expanded their activism to national matters on two key issues: the overseas slave trade and the ending of slavery in the District of Columbia. Pennsylvania abolitionists sent their first anti–slave trading petition to Congress in 1790—a petition that aroused considerable, if short-lived, debate. Between that date and the early 1820s, abolitionists—largely through the aegis of the American Convention of Abolition Societies—memorialized Congress roughly a dozen times on the ending of the international slave trade or, after the federal government had banned the trade in 1808, on violations of the law. The Constitution stipulated that Congress could consider banning the trade in 1807, but such a provision was not mandated. Early abolitionists felt it their duty to agitate Congress to fulfill an anti–slave trading pledge—and then to make the nation honor it.

By the 1820s the American Convention of Abolition Societies focused on ending slavery in the nation's capital. Led by Pennsylvania reformers, advocates of District emancipation argued that congressional power reigned supreme in Washington. Because slavery and slave trading stained Americans' national image, it was argued, they should be prohibited in the capital (though significantly, this did not mean southern emancipation would follow). Pennsylvania abolitionist Thomas Earle, who would later become the Liberty Party's vice presidential candidate in 1840, became one of the spokesmen for District emancipation. So too did a young newspaperman then in Baltimore named William Lloyd Garrison.

black abolitionists

Although formally excluded from groups like the PAS, black activists formed a parallel abolitionist movement before 1830. Led by the inaugural generation of free blacks emerging in the North and Upper South (including Prince Hall in Boston, Richard Allen and James Forten in Pennsylvania, William Hamilton in New York, and Daniel Coker in Baltimore), African American reformers created a vibrant abolitionist movement revolving around public protest tactics and moralizing strategies. Centered largely in newly independent black churches in Philadelphia, New York City, Boston, Providence, and Baltimore, black reformers appealed to Americans as a whole to tackle racial injustice and make it a national priority. "My bosom swells with pride whenever I mention the name of James Forten," Frederick Douglass once declared of one of his early abolitionist heroes.

from gradualism to immediatism

Great transformations occurred in American abolitionism during the 1820s and 1830s. For one thing, a new generation of reformers that questioned the efficacy of gradualism ascended to prominence. Slavery grew at a stunning pace, more than doubling since the founding of the first abolitionist groups. (Slaves numbered 700,000 in 1790 and two million in 1830.) While this growth extended to the south and southwest of the Atlantic seaboard, it intensified concerns among second-wave abolitionists about both slavery's place in the Republic and African Americans' claim to equality. Also, religious revivals focused many Americans' concerns on eradicating sin; this massive movement pointed many new faces—including those of women—towards a more radical conception of abolitionism known as "immediatism." Finally, the colonization movement expanded rapidly in both northern and southern states, often ostracizing free blacks. While gradual abolition societies expressed little or no opposition to colonization, free black activists mobilized as never before, holding public demonstrations against it, founding the first black newspapers, and holding national conventions. They also reached out to new generations of white reformers to create what were termed "modern" antislavery societies in the early 1830s. Indeed, with the inauguration of the New England Antislavery Society in 1832 (with its integrated membership and dedication to immediate abolition), the heyday of early abolitionist organizations ended.

See alsoAbolition of Slavery in the North; African Americans: African American Responses to Slavery and Race; African Americans: Free Blacks in the North; Emancipation and Manumission; Quakers; Slavery: Slave Trade, African; Slavery: Slavery and the Founding Generation; Women: Female Reform Societies and Reformers .


Davis, David Brion. The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, 1770–1823. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1975.

——. Slavery and Human Progress. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984.

Hodges, Graham Russell. Root and Branch: African Americans in New Jersey and East Jersey, 1613–1863. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1999.

Litwack, Leon F. North of Slavery: The Negro in the Free States, 1790–1860. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961.

Nash, Gary B. Race and Revolution. Madison, Wis.: Madison House, 1990.

Nash, Gary B., and Jean R. Soderlund. Freedom by Degrees: Emancipation in Pennsylvania and Its Aftermath. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Newman, Richard S. The Transformation of American Abolitionism: Fighting Slavery in the Early Republic. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.

Stewart, James Brewer. Holy Warriors: The Abolitionists and American Slavery. New York: Hill and Wang, 1976.

Zilversmit, Arthur. The First Emancipation: The Abolition of Slavery in the North. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967.

Richard S. Newman