The Northern Abolitionist Movement

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The Northern Abolitionist Movement

America had always been home to people who felt that slavery was wrong and should be eliminated. These people, called abolitionists because they wanted to abolish or destroy slavery, denounced the practice as horrible and evil. Prior to the mid-nineteenth century, however, their efforts to eliminate slavery from U.S. soil failed to gather enough popular support because everyone knew how much the South depended on slaves to make its economy and society work. But in the 1830s and 1840s, organized opposition to slavery in the United States became more powerful and confrontational (meeting an issue head-on) than it had ever been before. Describing slavery as an evil and un-Christian system and a stain on the values enshrined in America's Declaration of Independence, the abolitionists finally convinced large numbers of Northerners that slavery should not continue. This development angered and frightened white Southerners, who recognized that the abolitionist movement was a serious threat to the society that they had built for themselves.

Early abolitionists

The very first abolitionist demonstration in America took place in 1688. A group of brave Quakers gathered in Germantown, Pennsylvania, to voice their religious objections to the slave trade. At first, few people paid much attention to the Quakers' calls for an end to slavery. During the eighteenth century, however, a growing number of people living in the American colonies looked at slavery with a more critical eye. Free blacks like Episcopal church leader Absalom Jones (1746–1818), businessman James Forten (1766–1842), and Methodist bishop Richard Allen (1760–1831) lobbied tirelessly for the freedom of their race, and some white people—religious leaders and politicians as well as ordinary citizens—expressed reservations about "the peculiar institution," as slavery was sometimes called. Slavery remained common across the colonies, but discomfort with the practice became more evident.

By the end of the 1700s, when America became an independent nation, slavery in the North was fading away. Even some wealthy Southern slaveholders expressed hope that slavery might pass out of existence some day. In the early 1800s, however, the South's reliance on slavery increased as white landholders turned to the labor-intensive crop of cotton for their livelihood. This development was a bitter disappointment to people opposed to slavery.

African colonization

In 1816, American abolitionists tried a different tactic to end slavery. They recognized that many whites who thought that slavery should be abolished still did not want to live with blacks, either because they saw blacks as inferior or because they thought that racial prejudice was too firmly ingrained in American society to make integration (the mixing of the two races) work. Aware that many whites opposed the idea of sharing their society with free blacks, supporters of abolition formed an organization called the American Colonization Society. This group came to include many of the nation's leading businessmen and political leaders. The Society encouraged slaveholding states to establish programs in which they would free their slaves gradually. The emancipated (freed) slaves would then be transported to Africa, where they could form their own free nation.

Boosted by financial support from the federal government and endorsements from a number of states, the Society established the nation of Liberia on the west African coast in 1822. Over the next forty years the Society transported more than six thousand blacks to its shores. Most free blacks, however, resisted the idea of returning to Africa. They had built lives for themselves and their families in the United States, and they did not want to leave and start over somewhere else. "We are natives of this country," argued Peter Williams, Jr., a leading free black abolitionist who opposed colonization. "Not a few of our fathers suffered and bled to purchase its independence [in the Revolutionary War]." Another free black named David Walker (1785–1830) stated similar feelings in an 1829 pamphlet called An Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World. "Tell us no more about colonization," Walker wrote, "for America is as much our country as it is yours."

Despite the humiliations that they and their families had endured over the years, most free blacks considered themselves Americans. Pointing to the sacrifices that their ancestors had made to help build America, these men and women said that blacks deserved a chance to make lives for themselves on U.S. soil. As free blacks expressed their opposition to colonization, the idea eventually faded away.

The rise of the abolitionists

In the years immediately following the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which kept the United States equally balanced between slave and nonslave states, neither the North nor the South showed much interest in the subject of slavery, since it often caused anger and bitterness whenever it was discussed. In the 1830s, though, abolitionism once again became a subject of intense debate as a new generation of antislavery voices made themselves heard. But unlike earlier abolitionists, who tried to negotiate a gradual end to slavery, many of these men and women boldly called for immediate emancipation of all slaves and complete racial equality. Leading abolitionists included journalist William Lloyd Garrison (1805–1879), author Lydia Maria Child (1802–1880), business partners and brothers Arthur Tappan (1786–1865) and Lewis Tappan (1788–1873), writer Frederick Douglass (c. 1818–1895), writer Theodore Dwight Weld (1803–1895), and human rights leader Wendell Phillips (1811–1884).

Many of the leading abolitionists of this era were guided by their religious convictions. The 1820s and 1830s were decades in which religion took on increased importance in the lives of people all across the nation. During this time, known as the Second Great Awakening, many religious leaders told their congregations that they could achieve salvation by building lives of morality and by speaking out against sin. Since slavery loomed as the most sinful practice in America in many people's minds, abolitionists attacked the institution with greater passion and energy than ever before.

But even though the Second Great Awakening fundamentally changed the lives of many Americans, the recharged abolitionist movement met strong resistance wherever its followers tried to spread its message of freedom and equality. Predictably, resistance to this message was strongest in the American South. During the 1830s and 1840s, Southern whites came to view the Northern abolitionists as perhaps the most serious threat to their way of life that they had ever faced. Even though the majority of white households did not own any slaves, powerful Southern slaveholders had built comfortable lives for themselves. These men, who had great influence with other whites in their communities, did not want to make any changes that might threaten their wealth and position. Many poor whites wanted to keep slavery, too, because of long-standing racism and the realization that slavery's continued existence ensured that they would never occupy the lowest rung in Southern society. Finally, Southern whites hated the increase in abolitionist talk because they thought that it might spark a bloody slave rebellion.

Alarmed and angered by Northern abolitionists who charged that the very foundations of Southern culture were evil and corrupt, defenders of slavery adopted a defiant position. They claimed that Northerners would not be so eager to abolish slavery if their own regional economy depended on it. Southerners also embraced arguments that slavery actually helped to civilize African "savages," and some slaveholders even used scriptural passages from the Bible to justify enslavement of their fellow men. Northern abolitionists who attempted to spread their message in Southern states were attacked and driven out of the region. In addition, Southern states passed numerous laws designed to prevent Northern antislavery groups from discussing abolitionism on their land. In 1835, for example, Georgia passed a law imposing the death penalty on anyone who published materials that might cause slave unrest.

At the same time that the South took steps to protect itself from the speeches and literature of Northern abolitionists, the South also made it impossible for its own citizens to question the slave-dependent society in which they lived without risking their freedom or their lives. Some states passed laws designed to silence antislavery voices within their borders. In 1836, for example, Virginia passed a law that made it a felony for anyone to advocate (speak in favor of) abolition. Such laws rarely had to be enforced, however, because Southerners who expressed doubts about slavery learned that such statements put them in great danger from their own neighbors. By the late 1830s, whites in the American South were defending slavery and objecting to Northern interference with their way of life with one united voice.

Resistance to abolitionism in the North

Convinced that Southerners would never abandon slavery willingly, Northern abolitionists focused much of their attention on fellow Northerners. They hoped to convince the citizens of the Northern states to force the South to eliminate slavery. But even though slavery no longer existed in the North, bigotry against black people was still common throughout the region. Free blacks in the North endured all kinds of discrimination in the areas of housing, education, and legal rights. In addition, many white Northerners feared that the abolition of slavery might jeopardize their own economic wellbeing. Poor white laborers worried that emancipated blacks would come up from the South and take their jobs. Rich Northern merchants who conducted business in the South thought that abolition might diminish their profits. Finally, many Americans living in the North were concerned that abolitionist activities would disrupt the stability of the Union itself.

As a result, when leading abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison and Theodore Dwight Weld first spoke out against slavery in the early and mid-1830s, violence was often directed against them by Northern laborers and businessmen. Printing presses and other equipment used by abolitionists were destroyed, and mob attacks against abolitionist gatherings became quite common. In 1835, a mob in Boston, Massachusetts, dragged Garrison through the streets and nearly lynched (hanged) him. On another occasion, antiabolitionist protestors rioted for several days in New York City during which black neighborhoods were terrorized and abolitionist churches were vandalized.

Despite the risks of speaking out, Northern abolitionists refused to back down. Important abolitionist organizations like the Female Anti-Slavery Society and the American AntiSlavery Society (both established in 1833) gradually gathered new members. By 1840, an estimated one hundred thousand Northerners had joined hundreds of organizations devoted to the abolishment of slavery. The membership included thousands of white men, but free blacks such as John Jones and Frederick Douglass accounted for a great deal of the abolitionist movement's energy and direction. Another important source of strength for the abolitionist cause was white women. In fact, many of the women who would later become leading advocates of women's rights in America—such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815–1902), Lucretia Coffin Mott (1793–1880), and sisters Sarah Grimké (1792–1873) and Angelina Emily Grimké (1805–1879)—first became politically active by working for the emancipation of slaves.

Support for abolishing slavery grows

Northern abolitionists continued to operate under the threat of violence throughout the 1830s, but by the end of that decade, the Northern view of the movement had changed considerably. One major reason for this change was the 1837 murder of an abolitionist named Elijah P. Lovejoy (1802–1837) at the hands of a proslavery mob in Illinois. A publisher of antislavery pamphlets and other materials, Lovejoy was killed trying to protect his printing press from a violent crowd of antiabolitionists. As people across the North learned of Lovejoy's murder, the abolitionist movement received a big increase in support. Indeed, former president John Quincy Adams (1767–1848) called the event "a shock as of an earthquake throughout the continent." Lovejoy became known as "the martyr abolitionist."

Lovejoy's death generated a wave of sympathy for the cause of abolitionism and spurred many Northerners to examine criticisms of slavery more closely. In addition, many whites who had opposed the abolitionists or remained undecided about supporting them started to view their cause differently. They began to see abolitionism as an issue that was dedicated to preserving civil liberties for all people, which included securing freedom for all black Americans. White Northerners noted that Southern states had placed limits on freedom of speech in order to stop the abolitionist movement, and that Lovejoy had been murdered defending his constitutional right to free speech. They began to wonder if the issue of slavery might someday endanger their rights as well.

By the early 1840s, the Northern abolitionist movement was firmly established as a powerful force in American politics. Antislavery feelings reached heights never before seen in the Northern states. Disputes within the antislavery camp over various strategic and philosophical issues caused divisions in its ranks, but even though the movement splintered into several factions, its members never wavered from their basic goal of abolishing slavery from the shores of America.

As Northern abolitionists continued their call for immediate emancipation and racial equality, they were encouraged not only by their growing influence in the North, but also by events elsewhere in the world. They noticed that slavery was being abolished in many other countries. Throughout Central and South America, former colonies of Spain and Great Britain outlawed slavery as they gained independence. In Europe, countries like France and Denmark formally abolished slavery as well. To delighted antislavery activists in the United States, these international developments made it seem as if the institution of slavery was crumbling everywhere.

Southerners watched all of these events unfold with ever-increasing anger and fear. Even when the abolitionist movement was small and weak, people in the South had been offended by its charges that their slave-based economy was evil and immoral. By the 1840s, when the abolitionists' influence in the North seemed to grow with each passing day, Southerners were completely fed up. Tired of being told what to do, they criticized the North as arrogant and dictatorial. Some people in the South also defended slavery even more vigorously, insisting that it was a good and moral system.

As the debate over the morality of slavery swirled across America, countless families and organizations divided over the issue. Even religious denominations fell victim to this growing tension. Indeed, differences over the morality of slavery became so bitter within the national Baptist and Methodist churches that both organizations split into northern and southern branches during the mid-1840s. "The trend [throughout the United States] was unmistakable," wrote Jeffrey Rogers Hummel in Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men. "Slavery was dissolving ideological and institutional bonds between North and South."

The Underground Railroad

One of the most valuable weapons that the abolitionist movement used in its war against slavery was the so-called "Underground Railroad." This was the name given to a secret network of free blacks and whites who helped slaves escape from their masters and gain freedom in the Northern United States and in Canada, where slavery was prohibited. The Underground Railroad system consisted of a chain of barns and homes known as "safe houses" or "depots" that ran from the South up into the North. The free blacks and whites who helped runaway slaves make it from one safe house to the next were called "conductors" or "stationmasters." The total number of runaway slaves who "rode" the Underground Railroad to freedom is unknown, but historians estimate that as many as fifty thousand blacks may have reached the free states or Canada through this method.

An early version of the Underground Railroad was constructed in the 1780s by Quakers and other church groups, but the network did not become a significant force until the 1830s. At that time, the growing abolitionist movement pumped new energy and resources into the network, and increasing numbers of runaway slaves used it to escape from the South.

Blacks living in the North were largely responsible for the success of the Underground Railroad. These activists included free blacks who had purchased their freedom from their masters and moved North, as well as former slaves like Frederick Douglass who, after successfully escaping themselves, risked their lives and freedom time after time in order to help other slaves. The most famous of the black "conductors" was Harriet Tubman (c. 1820–1913), an escaped slave who made nineteen dangerous trips back into slave territory to help more than three hundred runaways gain their freedom. White abolitionists aided the effort as well, even though they knew they would be harshly punished if their activities were discovered. For example, a Maryland minister named Charles T. Torrey, who helped hundreds of runaways escape, died in a state penitentiary after being imprisoned for his activities. Another white abolitionist named Calvin Fairbanks was imprisoned for seventeen years for his efforts on behalf of runaway slaves.

The men and women who operated the Underground Railroad were brave, but their courage was matched by that of the fugitive slaves. Many of these runaways had never traveled more than a few miles from the plantation or home in which they toiled, and they knew that they would be beaten, whipped, or perhaps even killed if they were recaptured. Yet thousands of slaves dashed for freedom every year during the mid-1800s, traveling through unfamiliar territory by night with the knowledge that angry slavecatchers might be only minutes behind them.

Most runaway slaves who escaped from the South lived in slave states that bordered the North, like Maryland, Kentucky, and Virginia. Even though it was dangerous for slaves from these states to attempt escape, they did not have to travel nearly as far as slaves from Alabama or Mississippi to reach soil where slavery was not permitted. In fact, some runaway slaves from the Deep South remained in the region since they figured that they probably would not be able to make it all the way to the North. Instead, some fled to large Southern cities like Charleston in hopes of melting into the free black population that lived there. Others hid in remote regions where few people lived. One such spot was the Florida Everglades, where fugitive slaves were aided by the Seminole Indians who made their home there. Finally, some slaves from the Deep South found refuge in Mexico, where slavery had been outlawed.

Runaway slaves became a big problem for the South from the 1830s until the Civil War began in 1861, even though slave states took several measures to stop them. Southern communities organized groups of white citizens called slave patrols that roamed the countryside. These patrols were designed to capture fugitives and intimidate slaves who might be thinking about running away. Southern representatives also insisted that the North enforce national fugitive slave laws. The primary fugitive slave law used by the South was one that had been passed in 1793. This law, known as the Fugitive Slave Law, was essentially a stronger version of a fugitive slave clause that had been included in the U.S. Constitution. It permitted slaveholders to recapture fugitive slaves living in America's free states and compelled Northern courts and legal officials to help the slaveowners in their efforts. The law also made it illegal for anyone to interfere with slaveholders attempting to regain control of their "property."

By the late 1830s, however, it was clear that many fugitive slaves using the Underground Railroad were able to evade the slave patrols and avoid slavecatchers sent North to retrieve them. The task of recapturing runaway slaves was made even more difficult for slaveholders in 1842, when the U.S. Supreme Court made a ruling that infuriated the South. In a case called Prigg v. Pennsylvania, the Court decided that a slaveholder could still "seize and recapture his slave [in a free state], whenever he can do it without any breach of the peace, or any illegal violence." But the Court's decision also stated that the Northern states did not have to help Southerners retrieve escaped slaves if they did not want to. Several state legislatures in the North promptly passed laws that ensured that slavecatchers would not receive any aid from state departments or officials.

The Prigg v. Pennsylvania ruling outraged Southerners because they knew that fugitive slaves who escaped to the North on their own or through the Underground Railroad would be very difficult to capture without help from Northern officials. Southern legislators immediately tried to pass a tough new fugitive slave law, insisting that the Supreme Court's ruling was a violation of their property rights. Their campaign for a new law eventually resulted in the controversial Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, part of the Compromise of 1850. This law gave Southerners sweeping new powers to retrieve escaped slaves and legally bound Northerners to help in those efforts.

By 1850, however, the Underground Railroad had already done a lot of damage to the Southern slavery system. It had enabled thousands of black people to escape to Canada or the free states of the Northern United States. In addition, it provided invaluable assistance to the overall abolitionist movement. As runaway slaves made homes for themselves as free blacks, their descriptions of slavery and their inspiring stories of escape convinced countless white Northerners of the worthiness of the abolitionist cause. Given this state of affairs, passage of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act proved to be a hollow victory for the South. Catching escaped slaves remained a difficult task even after the law was passed, and the Act further increased Northern sympathy for blacks trapped in the Southern slave system.

Uncle Tom's Cabin

During the 1830s and 1840s, the abolitionist movement distributed millions of antislavery newspapers and pamphlets in Northern cities (shipments to destinations in the South were usually intercepted by authorities and destroyed). Many of the essays and articles contained in this literature included eloquent appeals for the abolishment of slavery, helping the movement advance in the North. But the single most important piece of antislavery literature to emerge during the mid-1800s was a novel called Uncle Tom's Cabin, written by Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811–1896).

First published over the course of several months in 1851 in a magazine called the National Era, Stowe's novel appeared in book form in March 1852. Uncle Tom's Cabin told the story of three Southern slaves—Tom, Eva, and Eliza—living under the cruel hand of a white slaveowner named Simon Legree. It was one of the first works of American literature to depict black people as human beings with the same desires, dreams, and frailties as white people.

Stowe's dramatic story captured the imagination of thousands of readers all across the North. More than three hundred thousand copies of the book were sold in the year following its publication, and stage versions of the story attracted record crowds. But Uncle Tom's Cabin was far more than a bestselling novel. Its depiction of black nobility and the evils of slavery drew thousands of additional people to the abolitionist cause. "By portraying slaves as sympathetic men and women, Christians at the mercy of slaveholders who split up families and set bloodhounds on innocent mothers and children, Stowe's melodrama gave the abolitionist message a powerful human appeal," wrote Eric Foner and Olivia Mahoney in A House Divided: America in the Age of Lincoln.

People in the South were very critical of Stowe's book. They complained that she exaggerated the punishments that blacks received and insisted that she did not provide her readers with a true portrait of slavery. But their accusations were drowned out by the praise that Stowe received elsewhere. Uncle Tom's Cabin remained an extremely popular book in the North throughout the 1850s. Most people believe that it did more to help the cause of abolitionism than any other work of American literature. In fact, when President Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865) met Stowe in the early days of the Civil War, he reportedly called her "the little lady who wrote the book that made this big war!"

Words to Know

Abolitionists people who worked to end slavery

Colonization an action in which an existing country establishes a new community or state in a foreign land

Emancipation the act of freeing people from slavery or oppression

Quakers a religious group that strongly opposed slavery and violence of any kind

Underground Railroad a secret organization of free blacks and whites who helped slaves escape from their masters and gain freedom in the Northern United States and Canada

People to Know

Frederick Douglass (c. 1818–1895) escaped slave who became a leading abolitionist

Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811–1896) abolitionist who wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin

The Shame of the American People

Born into slavery, Frederick Douglass escaped to freedom in 1838 and became one of the foremost black leaders of his era. A tireless crusader for the cause of abolitionism, he believed that the continued practice of slavery cast an ugly shadow on the ideals of liberty and justice upon which the United States had been founded. He produced many moving speeches and articles on this subject during his lifetime. His passion and convictions are prominently displayed in this excerpt from one of his lectures:

While slavery exists, and the union of these States endures, every American citizen must bear the chagrin [embarrassment or shame] of hearing his country branded before the world, as a nation of liars and hypocrites [people who pretend to be something other than what they really are]; and behold his cherished national flag pointed at with the utmost scorn and derision. . . . Let me say again, slavery is alike the sin and the shame of the American people: It is a blot upon the American name, and the only national reproach which need make an American hang his head in shame, in the presence of monarchical governments.

American Slavery as It Is

Theodore Dwight Weld was one of the giants of the American abolitionist movement. A minister who had been profoundly influenced by evangelist Charles G. Finney (1792–1875), Weld organized many antislavery lectures and distributed thousands of antislavery pamphlets around the country. One of his most notable works was a book called American Slavery as It Is. This 1839 work, which he compiled with his wife, Angelina Grimké, and his sister-inlaw, Sarah Grimké, was a collection of articles and notices from Southern newspapers that documented the inhumanity of the Southern slavery system.

The following is an excerpt from Weld's introduction to the collection. The anger and passion of his words are representative of the sentiments of the larger abolitionist movement and show why Weld came to be regarded as one of abolitionism's most powerful and eloquent voices.

Every man knows that slavery is a curse. Whoever denies this, his lips libel [give a damaging picture of] his heart. Try him; clank the chains in his ears and tell him they are for him. Give him an hour to prepare his wife and children for a life of slavery. Bid him make haste and get ready their necks for the yoke, and their wrists for the coffle chains [fastened together in a line], then look at his pale lips and trembling knees, and you have nature's testimony against slavery.

Two million seven hundred thousand persons in these states are in this condition. They were made slaves and are held such by force, and by being put in fear, and this for no crime! Reader, what have you to say of such treatment? Is it right, just, benevolent? Suppose I should seize you, rob you of your liberty, drive you into the field, and make you work without pay as long as you live—would that be justice and kindness, or monstrous injustice and cruelty?

Now, everybody knows that the slaveholders do these things to the slaves every day, and yet it is stoutly affirmed that they treat them well and kindly, and that their tender regard for their slaves restrains the masters from inflicting cruelties upon them. . . . It is no marvel that slaveholders are always talking of their kind treatment of their slaves. The only marvel is that men of sense can be gulled [tricked] by such professions. Despots [dictators] always insist that they are merciful. . . . When did not vice lay claim to those virtues which are the opposites of its habitual crimes? The guilty, according to their own showing, are always innocent, and cowards brave, and drunkards sober, and harlots chaste, and pickpockets honest to a fault.

The Grimké Sisters

Angelina Emily Grimké (1805–1879) and Sarah Moore Grimké (1792–1873) were two of America's leading abolitionists. Born in Charleston, South Carolina, the sisters were raised in a wealthy slaveholding family. They converted to Quakerism, however, and eventually moved to the North to add their energy and talents to the cause of abolitionism. In fact, the Grimké sisters became the first American women to publicly speak out against slavery.

The Grimké sisters' decision to give lectures on the subject of abolitionism triggered heavy criticism from clergymen and other community leaders who thought that women who delivered public speeches violated standards of appropriate female conduct. Angelina and Sarah were stung by such criticisms, but they continued to deliver lectures and publish works (such as Angelina's famous An Appeal to the Christian Women of the South) explaining their abolitionist beliefs. A key ally in their efforts to speak out against slavery was the revivalist preacher Theodore Dwight Weld, whom Angelina eventually married.

As time passed, the prejudice the Grimkés encountered—even in some abolitionist circles—convinced them to work for the cause of female equality as well. By the 1830s, they had emerged as leading spokespersons for the cause of women's rights.

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The Northern Abolitionist Movement

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