A Brief History of the 

American Abolitionist Movement


Early America | Birth of the Movement | Garrisonians | Religious Abolitionists | Political Abolitionists | Radical & Militant Abolitionists | Civil War & Beyond


Early America

In colonial-era North America, the Society of Friends, otherwise known as the Quakers, stood almost alone in professing that slaveholding was incompatible with Christian piety. The Age of Enlightenment and the American Revolution, however, led more Americans to equate the slaves’ right to freedom with the colonists’ demand for independence. Consequently, Northern states began the gradual emancipation of their slaves. Although the federal government prohibited slavery in the Northwest Territory in 1787 and banned the trans-Atlantic slave trade in 1808, antislavery agitation dropped off due to the increasing profitability of Southern slavery. Most remaining, antislavery sentiment became channeled through the African Colonization Society, a group founded in 1816 to return blacks to their home continent.

Birth of the Movement

The modern American abolition movement emerged in the early 1830s as a by-product of religious revivalism popularly known as the Second Great Awakening. Revivalistic tenets led abolitionists to see slavery as the product of personal sin and to demand emancipation as the price of repentance. Abolitionists recognized that slavery received moral support from racial prejudice, and they lobbied to overturn the nation’s racially discriminatory practices.

During the 1830s, abolitionists tried to reach and convert a mass audience. The American Anti-Slavery Society, founded in 1833, attracted tens of thousands of members with lecturing agents, petition drives, and a wide variety of printed materials. Condemning slavery on moral grounds, abolitionists pursued immediate emancipation through moral suasion tactics. Individual slaveholders and national religious institutions--the chief targets of moral suasion--largely rejected abolitionist appeals. Instead, opponents tried to suppress antislavery agitation by enactments of the church and the state and even by mob violence.

African American activists became a significant element in the new campaign. Some had long records of public opposition to the colonization movement and to racial discrimination in the North. Fugitive slaves, such as Frederick Douglass and William Wells Brown, provided compelling antislavery testimony, but black abolitionists sometimes encountered patronizing attitudes from their white counterparts. Thus, many shifted their labors to self-help and civil rights efforts while a few concentrated on separatist projects such as African emigration.

Thousands of women also braved public disapproval to participate in the early abolitionist campaign. Often veterans of moral reform activities, these women were inspired by religious principles and republican ideology. Like their African American counterparts, they encountered opposition within the movement. Although a few women attended the founding convention of the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1833, that society at first barred women members. In response, abolitionist women formed local organizations, which met at national conventions in 1837, 1838, and 1839. They also raised considerable money for the antislavery cause by sponsoring events such as picnics and bazaars.


Wide-spread rejection of the antislavery program forced abolitionists to reconsider their moral suasion strategy. Many followed the lead of the Boston abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison and abandoned the churches, believing them to be hopelessly corrupted by slavery. Garrisonians also counseled Northerners to refuse to vote as a way of expressing disapproval for the "proslavery" Constitution. The Garrisonians also championed universal reform, including temperance, pacifism, and extension of women's rights.

slide32.jpg (16546 bytes)Many male abolitionists opposed a public role for female abolitionists--some held antifeminist views while others feared backlash from the link between antislavery and the even more unpopular cause of gender equality. The "woman's issue" complicated quarrels among abolitionists regarding tactics in the religious and political spheres, and the problems led to a schism between the factions. The Garrisonians won control of the American Anti-Slavery in 1840, when opponents quit in protest of the election of a female officer.

Under Garrisonian control, the American Anti-Slavery Society committed itself to nonresistant political practices and advocated the dissolution of the union with slaveholding states. Garrisonians also experimented with dramatic new propaganda techniques to awaken the Northern conscience. Women played key roles in the American Anti-Slavery Society after 1840. Maria Weston Chapman of Boston served as one of the society's principal propagandists and oversaw the operation of its main office. Lydia Maria Child edited the Garrisonians' official newspaper for almost two years. Abby Kelley, Lucy Stone, Sojourner Truth, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and dozens of other women braved insults and threats of physical harm in order to serve as traveling lecturers and organizers. These public figures became important role models for women seeking to overcome societal barriers.

Religious Abolitionists

Many non-Garrisonian abolitionists regrouped in a new organization, the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society. These abolitionists continued to lobby religious institutions, and they gained valuable allies in the early 1840s, namely the well-organized Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian antislavery movements. Their agitation helped bring about sectional schisms in the Methodist and Baptist churches in the mid-1840s and the New School Presbyterians in 1857. Even after those divisions, however, abolitionists protested that the Northern church branches tolerated thousands of border state slave owners in their fellowship.

Until the Civil War, abolitionists continued to lobby the religious institutions, agitating the fellowship issue inside the nation's network of missionary and religious publication societies. When those bodies resisted, abolitionists created a parallel network of religious benevolent enterprises, such as the American Missionary Association. Despite noteworthy gains during the 1850s, undiluted abolitionism remained a minority viewpoint in the Northern churches, and few blacks received equal treatment in Northern religious bodies.

Political Abolitionists

While some non-Garrisonian abolitionists focused on reforming the churches, others shifted their energies to political antislavery reform. Beginning in the mid-1830s, abolitionists petitioned legislatures and interrogated political candidates on slavery-related issues. When no candidate expressed antislavery sentiments, abolitionists often protested by "scattering" their ballots among write-in candidates. When the federal government failed to respond to petitioning or lobbying, politically minded abolitionists formed an independent antislavery party in 1840.

The Liberty party was launched in 1840 to pursue emancipation through partisan politics. Although some political abolitionists wanted to introduce economic considerations into arguments against slavery, the Liberty party platforms in the 1840 and 1844 presidential elections differed little from those of the old antislavery societies. They called for an immediate abolition of slavery and for the repeal of all racial discriminatory legislation on political and moral grounds.

In the early 1840s, abolitionists were deeply divided over the fledgling Liberty partyslide11.jpg (16342 bytes). Most Garrisonians condemned any political activity as an implied endorsement of the legality of slavery. Non-Garrisonian abolitionists were reluctant to support the Liberty party because of its allegiance with the moralistic Whig party. Despite the Liberty party's ethically defined platform, few Whigs defected. In 1840, Liberty party presidential candidate James G. Birney received just 7,000 votes (0.29 percent) in 1840 and only 62,000 (2.31 percent) in 1844. Obviously, the single issue of slavery was not yet strong enough to sway many voters.

Events in the 1840s fostered growth of Northern political antislavery sentiment. Public controversy over such issues as the congressional "gag rule" against antislavery petitions, the annexation of Texas as a new slaveholding state, and the disposition of territory won in the Mexican-American War made opposition to the "Slave Power" more respectable in Northern circles. In 1848, a Liberty party faction led by Salmon P. Chase, Gamaliel Bailey, and Henry B. Stanton advocated cooperation with political groups that opposed extension of slavery into western states. In a complicated series of intraparty battles, the Liberty party merged with antiextensionist Whigs and Democrats to create the Free Soil party. The new party dropped the Liberty party's support for immediate abolition and for black civil rights. With this more moderate stance, it attracted far more voters than the Liberty party.

Not all Liberty men could accept the compromised antislavery position of the new party. As early slide5.jpg (17482 bytes) as 1845, Birney, William Goodell, and Gerrit Smith had proposed to broaden the Liberty party platform into a program of universal reform. Calling themselves the Liberty League, the faction advanced the theory that the Constitution did not sanction slavery and that Congress therefore had the power to abolish slavery everywhere in the Union. Although the Liberty League failed to capture control on the Liberty party or to block the Free Soil merger, its members continued to work for an undiluted abolitionist program. Running candidates until the Civil War, first under the old Liberty party name and then with the Radical Abolitionist party label, this tiny abolitionist faction urged larger antislavery parties to take stronger positions against slavery and racism.

Undeterred by the criticism of either the Garrisonians or the Liberty Leaguers, moderate political abolitionists built their electoral strength. The 1848 Free Soil ticket of Martin Van Buren and Charles Francis Adams received 290,000 votes. The passage of the Compromise of 1850, however, temporarily depressed Northern antislavery sentiment, and the party received only 156,000 votes in 1852. This trend was reversed in 1854 with passage of the controversial Kansas-Nebraska Act, which repealed the Missouri Compromise's bar on slavery in western territories north of the 36°30' latitude. The simultaneous rise of nativism weakened traditional party allegiances, and the Whig party could no longer satisfy either Northern or Southern militants. The party performed poorly in the 1852 election and disintegrated amid the turmoil accompanying the Kansas-Nebraska Act. At the same time, Free Soilers and antiextensionsists from the Whigs and Democrats merged to form the Republican party. The new party attracted a broad range of voters, including many who were more concerned with economic development and freedom from competition with black labor than with ending slavery.

Radical & Militant Abolitionists

slide14.jpg (17608 bytes)Opposition to events in Kansas, coupled with resistance to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, helped produce a new more militant strain of abolitionism. Free blacks joined many younger white abolitionists in blocking the rendition of fugitive slaves from the Northern states. A well-organized "emigration" effort recruited hundreds of antislavery settlers for Kansas and armed them to resist the proslavery statehood movement there. John Brown emerged from the guerrilla skirmishing in "Bleeding Kansas." Committed to battling slavery through violent means, Brown received clandestine financial support from antislavery veterans, mainly from the small radical political abolitionist faction. In 1857 and 1858, Brown assembled a small, racially integrated company that aimed to set up a base in the Southern Appalachians to aid escaping slaves. This plan evolved into an unsuccessful attack on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry in October 1859, which failed to spark an expected mass slave insurrection.

The majority of political abolitionists rejected violent tactics and remained content to work with moderate antislavery Northerners inside the Republican party. Former Liberty party leaders and radical abolitionists who defected from other major parties joined forces to resist conservative or racist elements in the Republican coalition. These efforts were so successful that by 1860 nearly all political abolitionists and even some Garrisonians endorsed the election of Republican Abraham Lincoln as a means of battling slavery.

Civil War & Beyond

The combined influence of the Garrisonians, the religious abolitionists, and the political abolitionists helped provoke sectionalism and Southern secession in 1861. The secession of the Southern states led most religious denominations to acknowledge the moral corruption of slaveholding and to endorse emancipation. During the Civil War, political abolitionists and Garrisonians rallied Northern public pressure, forcing President Abraham Lincoln to adopt emancipation as a war goal.

In the postwar era, abolitionist reformers continued to lobby the federal government for protection of the rights of African Americans. The political abolitionists' constitutional interpretation, based on natural rights theory, became the legal justification for much of the Reconstruction era's civil rights legislation. As dedicated agitators for more than thirty years, the abolitionists contributed significantly to moving the political system to act against slavery and racism.


John R. McKivigan

Mary O'Brien Gibson Professor of History

Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis


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