American Anti-Slavery Society
American Anti-Slavery Society
The American Anti-Slavery Society played a significant role in furthering the cause of abolition during the decades leading up to the Civil War. The society was founded in 1833 in Philadelphia by the white abolitionists Theodore Dwight Weld, Arthur Tappan, and Arthur’s brother Lewis. Its most prominent member was William Lloyd Garrison, who served until 1840 as the society’s first president. Noteworthy members included Frederick Douglass and William Wells Brown, two former slaves who, as “agents” for the society, spoke eloquently about the brutality of slavery. Other well-known members included James Gillespie Birney, Maria Weston Chapman, Lydia Child, Samuel Eli Cornish, James Forten, Henry Highland Garnet, Wendell Phillips, Robert Purvis, and Charles Lenox Remond.
The organization grew rapidly throughout the North, with 400 chapters by 1835; 1,350 by 1838; and 2,000 by 1840. Individual membership estimates vary but generally fall in the range of 150,000 to 250,000. The American Anti-Slavery Society was noteworthy because it was the first such organization with a national reach to call for the immediate (rather than gradual) abolition of slavery.
The decade preceding the formation of the American Anti-Slavery Society was one of widespread unrest over the issue of slavery. In 1820, after rancorous debate, the U.S. Congress passed the Missouri Compromise to regulate slavery in the expanding nation’s western territories. The debate between antislavery and proslavery factions in Congress and elsewhere intensified the parallel debate over the issue of federalism and the relative powers of the federal and state governments. This debate eventually led to the formation of the Democratic Party, which supported slavery, and the Republican Party of Abraham Lincoln, which opposed it.
Slavery was squarely on the national agenda: The Virginia legislature conducted intense debates on the issue in 1829 and 1831; David Walker published his famous “Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World” in 1829; and the state of South Carolina, in an act that presaged its leading role in secession and the Civil War, resisted federal efforts to collect tariffs in the state in 1831. The tension between the federal and state governments led to Southern fears that it was only a matter of time before the federal government would intervene in the issue of slavery.
Also in 1831, Garrison launched The Liberator, a newspaper that called for racial equality and demanded immediate abolition. That same year, Nat Turner launched a slave rebellion in Southampton County, Virginia. Turner’s rebellion left sixty white people dead before it was put down by the state militia, adding to a climate of fear throughout the South and a tightening of laws pertaining to slave behavior. In the North, however, these events contributed to a growing abolitionist sentiment, much of it led by the Quakers and other religious groups.
At its founding meeting, the American Anti-Slavery Society issued a “Declaration of Sentiments,” written by Garrison. In addition to arguing that plantation owners were not entitled to compensation for the freeing of slaves, the declaration argued that slavery was a violation of natural law, the U.S. Constitution, and—reflecting the sentiments of the religious revival of the 1830s called the Second Great Awakening—the will of God. The declaration read, in part:
That all those laws which are now in force, admitting the right of slavery, are therefore, before God, utterly null and void; being an audacious usurpation of the Divine prerogative, a daring infringement on the law of nature, a base overthrow of the very foundations of the social compact, a complete extinction of all the relations, endearments and obligations of mankind, and a presumptuous transgression of all the holy commandments; and that therefore they ought instantly to be abrogated.
We further believe and affirm—that all persons of color, who possess the qualifications which are demanded of others, ought to be admitted forthwith to the enjoyment of the same privileges, and the exercise of the same prerogatives, as others; and that the paths of preferment, of wealth and of intelligence, should be opened as widely to them as to persons of a white complexion. (Quoted in Ruchames 1963, p. 78)
The goal of the American Anti-Slavery Society was to reach the public through speeches and public lectures, petitions, and mass publications. Frederick Douglass and William Wells Brown frequently lectured in the name of the society, often in the face of mob violence. Garrison recruited Maria Weston Chapman to write for The Liberator and The National Anti-Slavery Standard (NASS), both official publications of the society, and Lydia Marie Child edited NASS for two years. Garrison, however, was the society’s guiding hand, and in that capacity he urged Northerners to refuse to vote as a means of expressing their disapproval of slavery. He and the society bombarded Congress with petitions, prompting Congress to institute a gag rule under which it refused to accept any petitions having to do with slavery.
Women were initially barred from membership in the society. This ban even included such women as Maria Weston Chapman and Lydia Marie Child, who supported the society with their labor. Most male members, many of them churchmen, regarded female involvement in the rough-and-tumble of the debate as unseemly. They raised their eyebrows in sharp disapproval when the sisters Angelina and Sarah Grimké were among the first to lecture publicly on behalf of the society. Nevertheless, numerous prominent women supported the society’s goals and worked in its behalf, including Lucretia Mott, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucy Stone, and Amelia Bloomer, but they found themselves the targets of condescension from male members.
The Congregationalist Church, in a pastoral letter of 1837, condemned women for speaking out against slavery, characterizing female involvement in such public matters as “unnatural.” Although many men agreed with this position, they believed that the goal of ending slavery took precedence over issues involving women’s rights. In their view, too many churches supported slavery, or at least acquiesced in it, and were therefore corrupt. These men were often said to have “come out” of their church membership, and they became known as “come-outers.”
In response to the society’s gender bias, women took their own route. Lucretia Mott organized the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society (PFASS) in 1833, and similar organizations were formed in other cities. In the years that followed, the society and its members gained
valuable experience in fund-raising and organization, and this experience would serve women well in the later battle for the right to vote. Meanwhile, antislavery sewing circles allowed women to use their skills in the domestic arts to make craft items, which they sold at fairs and bazaars to raise funds to support their efforts. There is little exaggeration in saying that sexism in some quarters of the antislavery movement galvanized women to fight for equal rights. The Grimkés, for instance, shifted their focus from the slavery issue to that of women’s rights and became important pioneers in the nineteenth-century women’s suffrage movement.
The American Anti-Slavery Society split in 1839. At issue was the belief by some members that Garrison’s ideas were too radical. To Garrison, the U.S. Constitution (a “document from hell”) was illegal because it allowed the existence of slavery. Thus, he believed that the very foundations of the nation were illegitimate, and he called for the North to secede from the Union and form its own nation. Garrison’s opponents within the society argued that the Constitution, and therefore the U.S. government, was legitimate, for it allowed people the right to redress their grievances and end forms of oppression such as slavery. For this faction, the society’s principal goal was to elect antislavery candidates to public office, where they would be able to enact laws outlawing slavery.
Meanwhile, the gender issue led to sharp disagreements. Garrison, along with Wells, Phillips, and Douglass, strongly supported equal rights for women. The controversy came to a head when Child, Mott, Chapman, and Abby Kelly were elected to the society’s executive committee. In response, Lewis Tappan remarked, “to put a woman on the committee with men is contrary to the usages of civilized society.” Accordingly, in 1840, Tappan and several other prominent members of the society broke away to form a rival organization, the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society. Concentrating entirely on slavery, the rival organization refused to lend support to women’s rights. In the decade that followed, the new organization formed the Liberty Party (1840–1848), which evolved into the Free-Soil Party (1848–1854), and then into the Republican Party. The split weakened the American Anti-Slavery Society, however, as it shifted its focus from national to state and local efforts.
The American Anti-Slavery Society was formally dissolved in 1870. The society is not to be confused with a modern organization by the same name that fights slavery and racial oppression throughout the world, nor with the British Anti-Slavery Society, formed in 1823.
Duberman, Martin, ed. 1965. The Antislavery Vanguard: New Essays on the Abolitionists. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Filler, Louis. 1986. The Crusade Against Slavery: Friends, Foes, and Reforms, 1820–1860. Algonac, MI: Reference Publications.
Kraditor, Aileen S. 1969. Means and Ends in American Abolitionism: Garrison and his Critics on Strategy and Tactics, 1834–1850. New York: Pantheon Books.
Nye, Russell B. 1955. William Lloyd Garrison and the Humanitarian Reformers. Boston: Little, Brown.
Ruchames, Louis, ed. 1963. The Abolitionists: A Collection of Their Writing. New York: Putnam.
Michael J. O’Neal