Antislavery Literature: An Overview

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Antislavery Literature: An Overview

To advance their cause and add strength to their voices, the minority-holding antislavery views in the United States turned to printing technology in order to reach wider audiences with their message. The written word proved very useful in getting their message out to masses of people. Literature was distributed in a variety of forms, including books, journals, pamphlets, and newspapers. The material was presented in a number of styles and covered an expansive array of information from a multitude of perspectives. Much of this genre of writing relied on the Christian faith that all people were created in God's divine image. This theme of human equality can be seen running through most antislavery texts.

Antislavery literature included written prose, poetry, and lyrical verse. The bulk of the work was intended for the wider community at large, but specialty groups, such as children, were also targeted. Material was distributed primarily in the North, but some of the literature reached southern states as well. Though postmasters in the South were known for discarding antislavery mail, this did not stop abolitionists from trying to send information there. In addition to destroying abolitionist texts, the South imposed heavy fines and punishment on those found with antislavery literature. Most antislavery literature was published during the high tide of the abolitionist movement from 1830 to 1865. During this period thousands of essays, lectures, speeches, sermons, political articles, travel accounts, and personal narratives were printed in various forms.

In many ways, the Christian Bible was the backbone of the abolitionist debate. Though southerners used the Bible to support slavery, abolitionists likewise used its verses against slavery. They often quoted verses describing human equality, stating the belief that God had made of "one blood all nations of men" (Acts 17:26). More generally, themes of peace, love, and protection of those who could not defend themselves served as the foundation for abolitionist ideology. A number of sermons and speeches inspired by Christianity were published for wider distribution. Though many of those with antislavery views based them in some way to religious traditions, outside of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), there were few sects who aligned themselves fully with abolitionism.

Slave narratives most clearly captured the voice of the slave who had experienced firsthand the injustices of the slave system. Some of the most compelling antislavery arguments appeared in the written works that originated from slaves who spoke of the filthy living quarters, inadequate meals, long hours of backbreaking labor, the separation of families on the auction block, and especially of the brutal beatings suffered under the lash that were often times administered by the master with little provocation. The atrocities described in these narratives were often times so horrific that many readers did not believe they could have actually taken place. Still, many of these messages were taken as factual and provided a great contribution to the abolitionist cause.

In his 1789 autobiography, Olaudah Equiano described his time spent in slavery in the British colonies of North America and the Caribbean. He was able to gain his freedom and moved to England, where his writing helped inspire British advocates of abolitionism. The 1800s were the high point for abolitionist slave narratives. During this time, Frederick Douglass published an enormous amount of autobiographical work on his life, first in 1845, with new additions or updates made in 1853, 1855, 1881, and 1892. Throughout the century he had written extensively in a number of other venues concerning abolitionism, including the newspaper The North Star, which he published from 1847 to 1851. Other widely read slave narratives included those authored by Williams Wells Brown (1847), Henry Bibb (1849), and William and Ellen Craft (1860).

Outside of slave narratives, literature standing in opposition to slavery increased during the nineteenth century. In 1829, David Walker's Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World called for slaves to throw off their chains and to do so by force if necessary. The pamphlet was published three times and created a huge stir, especially in southern states after copies were found there. At the time, those in the North who held antislavery beliefs, such as William Lloyd Garrison, opposed Walker's radical call to action, as most were against the use of violent methods to oppose slavery. However, Garrison was one of the first to put into print a call for the immediate abolition of slavery, in his newspaper The Liberator, which ran from 1831 to 1866.

The National Anti-Slavery Standard was the official newspaper of the American Anti-Slavery Society under the editorial direction of Lydia Maria Child and David Lee Child during its thirty-year run from 1840 to 1870. During this time, the American Anti-Slavery Society published a number of other materials. The shorter antislavery tracts usually made a specific argument against slavery and then offered evidence in support of their antislavery message. Some of the larger tracts used a combination of pro-slavery arguments, southern newspaper entries, and comments from actual slaves to reveal the wrongs of the system. This can be seen in the widely read Slavery As It Is: Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses (1839), written by Theodore Weld, his wife Angelina Grimké, and her sister Sarah Grimké. Coming in at over 200 pages, this tract was in effect a book, but was printed in pamphlet form during the mid-1800s.

Many antislavery texts focused on the immorality of holding other persons in bondage and pointed out numerous cases of these inhumane conditions. Travelers to the South, who had visited plantations and slave auctions, also spoke of the horrors slaves were made to endure. Fictional stories based on the slave system served as a more readable form of the truths hidden from northern audiences. Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin was first published in serial from in the abolitionist journal National Era from 1851 to 1852. The work was then published as a novel and went on to exert a powerful influence on the national slavery debate. Whereas the book provided many northerners with a glimpse of the institution of slavery, southerners largely criticized her work as a fictitious misrepresentation of the plantation system and southern life in general. Stowe repeatedly came under attack because she had not spent time on a southern plantation prior to writing the story. In 1853, she published A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin, which attempted to legitimize her previous work through documentation, corroborative evidence, and other facts of the slave system.

These works gave readers who had no immediate contact with slavery in the North and overseas a view into the lives of those destroyed both physically and mentally under the lash. In this way, antislavery literature compelled many people to oppose slavery during the nineteenth century.


Beecher, Charles. The God of the Bible against Slavery. New York: American Anti-Slavery Society, 1855.

Bibb, Henry. Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, an American Slave. New York: Author, 1849.

Brown, William Wells. Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave. Boston: Anti-Slavery Society, 1847.

Craft, William. Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom: The Escape of William and Ellen Craft from Slavery [1860]. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1999.

Douglass, Frederick. My Bondage and My Freedom. New York: Miller, Orton, & Mulligan, 1855.

Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Dublin: Webb and Chapman, 1846.

Equiano, Olaudah. The Life of Olaudah Equiano; or, Gustavus Vassa, the African. Boston: Knapp, 1837.

Grimké, Angelina Emily. Letters to Catherine E. Beecher, in Reply to an Essay on Slavery and Abolitionism, Addressed to A.E. Grimké. Boston: Knapp, 1838.

Lay, Benjamin. All Slave-keepers That Keep the Innocent in Bondage, Apostates Pretending to Lay Claim to the Pure & Holy Christian Religion, of What Congregation So Ever, but Especially in Their Ministers, by Whose Example the Filthy Leprosy and Apostacy Is Spread Far and Near; It Is a Notorious Sin Which Many of the True Friends of Christ and His Pure Truth, Called Quakers, Has Been for Many Years and Still are Concerned to Write and Bear Testimony against as a Practice so Gross & Hurtful to Religion and Destructive to Government beyond What Words Can Set Forth, or Can be Declared of by Men or Angels, and Yet Lived in by Ministers and Magistrates in America. Philadelphia: Author, 1737.

Stowe, Harriet Beecher. Uncle Tom's Cabin; or, Life among the Lowly. Boston: J. P. Jewett, 1852.

Stowe, Harriet Beecher. A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin. Boston: J. P. Jewett, 1853.

Walker, David. David Walker's Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World. University Park Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000.

Weld, Theodore D. Slavery As It Is: Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses. New York: American Anti-Slavery Society, 1839.

                                     A. B. Wilkinson

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Antislavery Literature: An Overview

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