Key Highlights & Summary:
- The abolitionist movement advocated for the total emancipation of slaves, and the end of all forms of racial discrimination.
- It distinguished itself from those who supported the idea of gradual emancipation of slaves and “Free Soil” activists who fought for restricting slavery to specific regions.
- The abolition movement was prevalent in the Northern region around the beginning of the 1830s and was among the contentious differences between the North and South that led to the Civil War.
The opposition to slavery started on by the view that everyone is equal before God. The Quakers were the most vocal and consistent in the disregard for slavery, but so were the Presbyterians, Baptists, and the Amish.
From 1830 to 1870s, the abolitionist movement attempted to secure the immediate emancipation of all slaves and denounced all forms of racial discrimination. This distinguished the abolitionists form those opposing slavery in the westward expansion in the North after an 1840 philosophy labelled Free Soilism.
After the American Revolution, abolition sentiments were strong, with many of the opinion that slavery was inconsistent with the values of the new American nation. Majority of the abolitionist at this time were northerners with a few from the northern part of the south. In the years after 1820, the southerners began to perceive as though the northerners were united against them for the emancipation of the blacks.
Over the decade spanning from the 1820s, the North experienced increased spread of manufacturing, leading to a vibrant economy. The increasing success was met with heightened evangelicalism leading up to what was known as the Second Great Awakening, meant to remind the society on the importance of religion even in the face of economic progress.
The Missouri Compromise of 1820 that led to Missouri admittance into the Union as a slaveholding state, significantly fueled the persons of the Northerner’s abolitionist, a majority of whom who were white, upper-middle class social reformers and clergy members.
There were massive religious revivals led by men such as Lyman Beecher, Nathaniel Taylor, Charles G. Finney that called for upholding morality, ending corrupt practices and the individual responsibility to defend the will of God in the society.
The religious fervour activists such as Theodore D. Weld, Arthur and Lewis Tappan, William Lloyd Garrison and Elizur Wright, Jr., were in the frontlines of the immediate emancipation clamour.
In early 1831, Garrison had begun publishing his newspaper, the Liberator in Boston which received support from free African-Americans. He also contributed to the editorial efforts of the Genius of Universal Emancipation, a publication by Benjamin Lundy. He, Garrison, the Tappans and sixty other delegates in 1833 founded the American Anti-Slavery Society in Philadelphia denouncing slavery as a sin, calling for non-violence resistance and denouncing every form of racial discrimination.
The society rapidly grew and in two years, with financial and moral support from African-American communities, it had branches in every free state, saturating the North with anti-slavery messages, demanding Congress to end all forms of slavery in all the States. It also denounced the American Colonization Society program of voluntary, gradual emancipation and black emigration to present day Liberia and Sierra Leon.
These led to uprisings and violent responses from pro-slavery camps in the North and South with the pro-slavery camp destroying anti-slavery literature sent to the states and a gag rule over Congress that disallowed the consideration of antislavery petitions.
The contentions led to the murder of abolitionist Elijah Lovejoy in 1837 and the subsequent election of antislavery politicians by Northerners afraid for their own civil liberties and prominent men such as Wendell Phillips, Gerrit Smith, and Edmund Quincy joined the cause.
Whereas the wave of antislavery had captured the conscience of the North, there emerged disagreement within the movement. In 1840, Garrison and his followers started demanding for the equal right for women within the movement and avoidance of corrupt political parties and churches.
Others in the movement were not onboard with the rest of Garrison demands, and the Tappan’s founded the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society while others launched the Liberty party with James G. Birney as the presidential candidate in the 1840 and 1844 elections.
Many people were not happy with the active role the women took in the Garrisons camp. Debates emerged on the proper role of women in society, and the women drew parallels between the subjugation of women and the enslavement of the black folk. Prominent people such as Lydia Maria Child, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucy Stone, and Susan B. Anthony were vocal at the time and went on to form the women rights movement and organised the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention.
Frederick Douglass, Wendell Phillips, and Lucy Stone became extremely well known as public commentators against slavery. Black literature became popular such as the poetry of John Greenleaf Whittier and James Russell Lowell. The autobiographies of fugitive slaves of Douglass, William and Ellen Craft and Solomon Northup received full attention and they became among the prominent black abolitionists alongside Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, and Sarah Parker Remond.
The abolitionists continued to exercise influence over the religious sphere in the society, causing the difference between Methodists (1844) and Baptists (1845), as Methodists were primarily pro-slavery and Baptists abolitionists. The Baptists founded independent “free churches” that continued with the cause of preaching against what had become a significant obstacle for the achievement of individual perfection and a society free from sin.
The abolitionist founded the Oberlin College, this was the first experience towards racially integrated higher education. The Baptists also founded the College Oneida Institute, and it went on to graduate an impressive group of African-American leaders, and Illinois’s Knox College, a western centre of abolitionism.
African American activists, however, complained that the white abolitionists were patronising and racists. Nonetheless, the white abolitionists did support African American anti-segregation efforts and advocacy for better education in black schools in the 1840s and 1850s. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, also saw white abolitionist protecting African Americans in danger of imprisonment upon their escape from slave masters.
The whites and blacks also collaborated in the Underground Railroad, a network of individuals, churches and schools that facilitated the escape of slaves from slave states and from the consequences of the Fugitive Slave Act. Harriet Tubman is the most celebrated hero of the Underground Network, and most of the success of the network is because of the efforts of black men and women.
In 1850, the movement seemed to lose ground after the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act that repealed the Missouri compromise allowing states to determine their own slaveholding status and the Dred Scott decision that declared the Missouri Compromise unconstitutional.
Further to the preceding, John Brown, a white abolitionist had attempted to spur the southern slaves into a resistance war with the slave masters and the Commonwealth of Virginia. His plan failed and was hanged for treason, though his final words signalled the inevitable civil war.
During the war, abolitionists supported the Union in the secession crisis, championing military emancipation. In 1865 the Thirteenth Amendment had passed in the previous year, and Garrison declared that the abolitionist movement was no longer necessary. Wendell Philips and his camp continued with demands for equality for all blacks including access to land, suffrage and better education until 1870 and declared mission accomplished with the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment.