Reform Movements: Abolition

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Reform Movements: Abolition


Immediate Action. The abolitionist movement gained momentum in the early 1830s when prominent white leaders such as William Lloyd Garrison left the American Colonization Society and adopted the position that nothing short of the immediate abolition of the institution would bring about its demise. The new zeal was sparked in part by Garrisons periodical, The Liberator, which began publication on 1 January 1831. In the first issue Garrison explained, I am aware that many object to the severity of my language; but is there not cause for severity? I will be as harsh as truth and as uncompromising as justice. On this subject I do not wish to think, or speak, or write with moderation. Many new recruits agreed with Garrison that drastic language was necessary, for they believed the soul of the nation was in a state of crisis.

Ideology. For the new abolitionists the imperative to end slavery was based on their understanding of Christian principles and the intentions of the founding fathers. When the American Anti-Slavery Society was founded by Garrison in 1833, its declaration drew on the Declaration of Independences proclamation That all men are created equal. Garrison wrote, We have met together for the achievement of an enterprise, without which that of our fathers is incomplete. He also outlined the main tenets of the antislavery argument: We further maintain that no man has a right to enslave or imbrute his brother; to hold or acknowledge him, for one moment, as a piece of merchandise; to keep back his hire by fraud; or to brutalize his mind by denying him the means of intellectual, social, and moral improvement. The right to enjoy liberty is inalienable. To invade it is to usurp the prerogative of Jehovah. For one man to hold another in bondage was a sin, abolitionists believed; in the words of William Ellery Channing, a Unitarian minister from Boston, slavery was radically, essentially evil. This crusade to end the injustice of slavery and the suffering of two million helpless souls was a religious quest born of the revivalist zeal that was sweeping the North. One prominent abolitionist leader, Theodore Weld, used evangelical appeals to win converts to the cause. He sought hearts and heads and tonguesfor faith and works, he told his listeners at camp-style meetings in Ohio and New York. If your hearts ache and bleed we want you, you will help us; but if you merely adopt our principles as dry theories, do let us alone.

Southern Reaction. By 1830. there were virtually no outspoken antislavery advocates left in the South. Most had stifled their objections or moved north of the Mason-Dixon line, like the Grimké sisters (Sarah and Angelina Weld) and James Birney. In the 1830s resistance to abolition in the South reached a fevered pitch. After David Walker, an African American from the North, published his 1829 Appeal for violent resistance, Southern states swiftly enacted laws forbidding anyone to teach slaves to read or write, an effort to prevent such incendiary ideas from reaching a slave audience. The Liberator, which was read by only a small section of the Northern public, ironically gained notoriety because its views were disseminated by Southern editors who quoted the magazines radical rhetoric as evidence of what they saw as growing anti-Southern sentiment in the North. Southern legislatures demanded that the paper be suppressed in the North (as it was in the South) and that its editor be thrown in prison. When Nat Turners insurrection occurred in 1831, Southerners felt vindicated in their fear of abolitionist rhetoric. In 1835 they demanded the extradition of Northern abolitionist leaders to the South for trial and tried them in absentia, offering bounties on them dead or alive.

Northern Reaction. Many Northerners also opposed Garrisons radical abolitionism. Unskilled workers who feared economic competition with freed slaves, incited by merchants who profited from trade with the South, disrupted meetings, destroyed abolitionist printing presses, and participated in mob attacks on white abolitionists and free African Americans. Lewis Tappan, a prominent abolitionist leader in New York, had his house ransacked; Weld and his followers were pelted with rotten eggs and stones in Ohio; and Garrison was dragged through the streets of Boston by a rope and nearly hanged before authorities stepped in to rescue him. Hundreds of African Americans were also subject to violence. But after the murder of abolitionist editor Elijah Lovejoy many Northerners were appalled by proslavery infringements on the rights of white citizens to express their views freely; they sympathized with the abolitionists right to speak even if they were not aroused by their cause.

Black Abolitionists. Free African Americans were integral to the abolition movement. Black readers supported The Liberator, making up the majority of subscribers and many of the contributors. Maria Stewart, one of the first black women to speak publicly, wrote articles opposing colonization and Northern prejudice and calling for the immediate abolition of slavery. Many black abolitionists, such as David Walker, also supported Garrison financially, even sending him to England in 1833 to raise money for the cause. Some of the greatest contributions to the movement came from fugitive slaves such as Frederick Douglass, William Wells Brown, and Harriet Tubman, who spoke to antislavery meetings and shared their firsthand accounts of what slavery was like, even at the risk of being recognized, captured, and sent back into captivity. Many fugitives or former slaves also wrote narratives, funded and published by antislavery groups, that told the stories of their lives and promoted the movement. Douglass, whose articulate speeches drew claims from whites that he could not have been a slave, wrote his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, published in 1845, in an attempt to convince Northerners that he had indeed been a slave and that his experiences were real. Many black abolitionists, most notably Tubman, also aided in the escape of slaves by organizing the Underground Railroad and helping fugitives establish new lives for themselves in the North.

Division. After 1835 the abolition movement began to divide. One group, led by Garrison, favored radical rhetoric and supported such wide-ranging reform causes as womens rights and international peace. The other, led by New York abolitionists such as Weld, Lewis and Arthur Tappan, and the Kentuckian Birney, wanted to concentrate on the abolition of slavery and felt that other causes were unrelated. At the 1840 meeting of the American Anti-Slavery Society the abolitionist movement broke into factions when Garrison appointed a woman to the business committee against the objection of the New York group. Garrison gained control of the society, which became the American and. Foreign AntiSlavery Society. The other faction formed the Liberty Party and fought for abolition through political channels. The party nominated Birney for president in 1840, when he won only seven thousand votes, and in 1844, when his sixty-two thousand votes were enough to prevent Henry Clay from gaining the presidency. In 1848 the Liberty Party became the Free Soil Party, one of the precursors of the Republican Party, which in 1856 would adopt the abolition slogan Free soil, free speech, free labor, and free men. In the meantime a diverse spectrum of abolitionist societies were formed, incorporating people who held a wide range of views from radical immediatism to conservative colonization or gradual abolition.

Fugitive Slave Law. In 1850 Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Law, which sought to ease the capture of runaway slaves by permitting any black person to be sent South solely on the affidavit of anyone claiming to be his or her owner. In practice this meant that free African Americans were in danger of being sent into slavery as well. The law also stripped runaway slaves of basic legal rights such as the right to testify in their own defense and have a jury trial. Most galling of all to Northerners was the requirement that all citizens assist in the capture of escaped slaves. Anyone who harbored a fugitive slave or interfered in the arrest of a fugitive slave could be heavily fined and imprisoned. The law caused an uproar in the North and led many Northerners who had previously felt that the issue of slavery should be left up to individual states to change their minds about slavery. They feared the power of the South and felt that their own rights were being infringed. Abolitionist societies gained new support in the North, and the nation became even more sharply divided.


Elijah Lovejoy a graduate or Princeton Theological Seminary was an outspoken advocate of abolition, supporting gradual emancipation and colonization. His publication of these views in his weekly paper, The St. Louis Observer, led to threats of violence. In 1836 he decided to move from Missouri, a slave state, to Alton in the free state of Illinois. Here again his views made him unpopular, especially when he decided to advocate immediate emancipation of slaves. Three times his printing press was thrown into the Mississippi River by angry mobs. But the Ohio Anti-Slavery Society continued to support Lovejoy, each time paying to replace the press. When the fourth press arrived, it was secured in a warehouse amid the most violent threats Lovejoy had yet received. Despite pleas from friends to leave town, Lovejoys commitment to his right to express his views freely was only strengthened. On 7 November 1837 a mob gathered, stormed the barn, and killed Lovejoy. He immediately became recognized as the first martyr to the cause of abolition, and his death brought the movement even more support from citizens who were outraged by the denial of free speech and the tyranny of mob violence in the North.

Sources: Paul Simon, Freedoms Champion: Elijah Lovejoy (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1994);

Alice Felt Tyler, Freedoms Ferment: Phases of American Social History from the Colonial Period to the Outbreak of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1962).


Philip S. Foner, History of Black Americans: From the Emergence of the Cotton Kingdom to the Eve of the Compromise of 1850 (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1983);

Gerald Sorin, Abolitionism: A New Perspective (New York: Praeger, 1972);

Alice Felt Tyler, Freedoms Ferment: Phases of American Social History from the Colonial Period to the Outbreak of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1944).

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Reform Movements: Abolition

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