Abolitionist Newspapers

views updated

Abolitionist Newspapers

By the beginning of the antebellum period, print journalism represented the most effective public medium for spreading political, religious, and cultural ideology, second only to the traveling tent revivals of the Second Great Awakening. The resurgence in American industrial and technological development following the Revolutionary War (1776–1783) substantially lowered the cost of newspaper production, making it less expensive for independent journalists to distribute their work. Moreover, as new market economies established regionally interdependent communication and transportation networks that brought raw materials and manufactured goods back and forth from field to town, abolitionist papers and pamphlets also traveled on steam engines and rail lines, reaching an ever increasing audience, particularly in the North. Abolitionists, normally silenced in public debate and unable to achieve political office, were eager to take advantage of these new opportunities in American print culture. Opponents of slavery took full advantage of pamphlets as well as serial newspapers in order to spread their social message. Examining abolitionist newspapers also reveals the diversity within abolitionist circles and the intersections between antislavery and other movements for social equality in nineteenth-century America.

Abolitionist newspapers were primarily run by either African American or white male abolitionists. Newspapers owned and edited by African Americans combined their calls for the end of slavery with a more radical critique of American racism in general. The nation's first African American newspaper of any kind was also an abolitionist newspaper known as Freedom's Journal. In March of 1827 Sam Cornish (1790–1859), pastor of the First Colored Presbyterian Church in New York City, and John Russwurm (1799–1851), graduate of Bowdoin College, published the paper's first edition. Unfortunately, the paper lasted only until 1829, unable to sustain the cost of printing and distribution for more than two years. Freedom's Journal suffered the fate of a number of short-lived African American newspapers that were unable to secure steady financial backing from the white philanthropists who supported most abolitionist causes. Cornish and Russwurm openly attacked the colonization wing of the abolitionist movement, in particular the American Colonization Society, arguing that African Americans should remain in the United States as free and equal citizens. As a result, these early African American newspapers did not appeal to potential white readers who wanted to imagine slavery and racism as exclusive products of southern backwardness and immorality that were completely divorced from northern life and culture. The most successful African American abolitionist paper was Frederick Douglass's (1817–1895) North Star, which ran independently out of Rochester, New York, from 1847 through 1851 when Douglass merged his paper with Gerrit Smith's (1797–1874) Liberty Paper to form Frederick Douglass's Paper. The North Star was principally important in emphasizing the necessity of African American self-emancipation—African American's self-conscious acknowledgement of their humanity and right to equality under the U.S. Constitution.

White-owned abolitionist papers fared better than their African American counterparts and are often credited as the true vanguard of abolitionist print journalism. The most famous abolitionist serial was William Lloyd Garrison's (1805–1879) The Liberator, which ran from 1835 to the early years of Reconstruction in 1866. Garrison's Liberator ushered in a new era of abolitionist ideology and a shift in the northern critique of southern life. Previously, abolitionists had attacked slavery by drawing metaphors between chattel slavery and the evils of absolute power and tyranny, concepts most Americans linked with British rule. Now Garrison along with Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811–1896) and others used print journalism to expose the immorality of slavery, not only in its treatment of African Americans, but in its corruption of white slave owners. By printing slave narratives—most notably the autobiography of Frederick Douglass, which would later become an independent novel—Garrison's Liberator emphasized sexual and physical abuse as natural components of life on southern plantations. Doing so helped to merge an unpopular abolitionist movement with growing temperance and moral reform movements that were gaining a foothold in northern urban areas. Despite good intentions, white abolitionists such as Garrison were also eager to transform enslaved people's experience into multipart serials that would simultaneously horrify and titillate white audiences, while creating public demand for the next issue in the story.

Abolitionist newspapers also became part of an expanding nexus of opportunities for women to enter the public sphere and demand social change in the antebellum decades. In 1837 a Massachusetts serial known as the Spectator published the Letters on the Equality of the Sexes and the Condition of Women by Sarah Grimké (1792–1873). The daughter of a wealthy South Carolina planter, Grimké self-educated and used the pages of abolitionist papers such as the Spectator and eventually The Liberator to draw connections between the immorality of chattel slavery and women's subservient position to men and lack of access to education. Although it is doubtful that Grimké and her sister Angelina (1805–1879) were the only women within abolitionist circles, their access to publication through both pamphlets and abolitionist journalism made them the most visible representatives of women's rights in the antebellum North.


Arkin, Marc. "The Federalist Trope: Power and Passion in Abolitionist Rhetoric." Journal of American History 88, no. 1 (2001): 75-98.

Hutton, Frankie. "Social Morality in the Antebellum Black Press." Journal of Popular Culture 26, no. 2 (1992): 71-84.

Jacobs, Donald. "William Lloyd Garrison's Liberator and Boston's Blacks, 1830–1865." New England Quarterly 44, no. 2 (1971): 259-277.

Lerner, Gerda. The Feminist Thought of Sarah Grimke. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Shortell, Timothy. "The Rhetoric of Black Abolitionists: An Exploratory Analysis of Antislavery Newspapers in New York State." Social Science History 28, no. 1 (2004): 75-109.

                                    Kwame A. Holmes