By Julie Roy Jeffrey, Ph.D.
In the 1830s a new generation of abolitionists, adopted an unyielding moral position on the subject of slavery that made them the most radical of all reformers in the antebellum period. Inspired partly by the revivalists' charge to purify American life, they regarded slavery as a national sin and argued that the work of eradicating it must begin at once (immediate emancipation). They further proposed, as William Lloyd Garrison explained, "to secure to the colored population of the United States all the rights and privileges which belong to them as men and as Americans." Such goals challenged social and economic arrangements in both the North and the South and threatened to disrupt the political status quo. While many Americans thought that slavery was unfortunate, they did not support interfering with it in the South. Nor did they view blacks as social or political equals. Abraham Lincoln, for much of his life, agreed with the majority view. Expecting that the institution of slavery would eventually disappear in the United States, he did not propose meddling with it in places where it was already well established. And while during his debates with Stephen Douglas, he suggested that blacks should have the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, he did not think "perfect equality" between the races was possible. Yet even though Lincoln and most other Americans did not agree with abolitionist goals, the abolitionists continued to make their case for over three decades. Their persistence and their skillful use of new modes of communication ensured that slavery would remain as a topic of debate, one that eventually helped to tear the Union apart.
Led by William Lloyd Garrison, whose new antislavery newspaper, the Liberator (1831), popularized the slogan "Immediate Emancipation," abolitionists in the 1830s savagely attacked the more moderate antislavery organization that had been the voice of antislavery since 1816. The American Colonization Society supported a program of gradual and voluntary emancipation of slaves and the relocation of American free blacks to Africa. Since the ACS gave no timetable for emancipation, and since colonization represented a way of removing free blacks from the United States, the organization gained the support of disparate groups: several mainline religious denominations, northerners who disliked slavery but valued political and economic stability, and even some southern slaveholders who viewed free blacks as a threat to the vitality of slavery. Garrison rightly perceived the weaknesses in the ACS's approach. Slavery was expanding along with the cotton kingdom at a faster pace than individual emancipation of slaves. Furthermore, as he knew from his contact with the free black community, free blacks little interest in emigration to Africa. Moreover, the organization had a fatal moral flaw: it had never repudiated the basic assumption behind slavery, that it was right to hold human beings as slaves. The attack on the ACS eventually undermined its position as a credible antislavery force.
In 1832, Garrison and others formed the New England Anti-Slavery Society, and the following year a group from eleven states came to New York to establish the American Anti-Slavery Society, a national organization open to men and women of both races. Abolitionism grew in the 1830s as local and state voluntary associations formed and affiliated themselves with the national movement. By 1838, the AAS announced that there were 1300 auxiliary societies with more than one and a quarter million members. New England, western New York, the Pennsylvania-Ohio border and parts of the midwest settled by New Englanders and Quakers were the areas of greatest strength. In places with a free black communities, voluntary societies frequently had a racially mixed membership, although eventually many blacks preferred to establish their own societies.
Expansion was fueled by effective use of printed materials (newspapers, tracts, almanacs, books, both factual and imaginative) and by traveling lecturers who carried the message of immediate emancipation to many small communities in the rural Northeast and Midwest. Even though abolitionist activity in the 1830s was geared to persuasion (moral suasion), their efforts elicited angry responses. The extreme language abolitionists used (characterizing southerners as manstealers, for instance), the 1835 campaign flooding the mail with antislavery propaganda that ended up in southern as well as northern post offices, the many antislavery petitions sent to Congress, infuriated many Americans. In 1836, Congress passed the Gag Rule to prevent debates over slavery caused by presentation of the abolitionist petitions. In many northern communities, hostile crowds took direct action, attacking abolitionist lecturers, disrupting abolitionist meetings, and wreaking destruction on property owned by free blacks. In 1837, a mob killed Elijah Lovejoy, the editor of an abolitionist newspaper in Alton, Illinois, and threw his printing press into the river. Abraham Lincoln, not yet critical of slavery, briefly criticized mob action, but the murder of an abolitionist apparently did not disturb him unduly.
At the end of the 1830s the tactical and organizational unity of the abolitionist movement broke down. In 1837, Agelina and Sarah Grimke, two committed abolitionists from a southern slaveholding family, undertook an antislavery lecturing tour in New England. Their original plan was to speak only to women who had eagerly embraced abolitionism as a peculiarly female duty. But men also wanted to hear the Grimkes speak and began attending their lectures. The sisters' willingness to speak before the mixed audiences that appeared violated custom and forced consideration of the broader question of women's participation in the movement. Garrison and his supporters welcomed an expansive role for women in the movement while others, especially those based in New York, thought that the woman question diverted attention from the main goal of emancipation. Some also felt that the campaign to persuade Americans that slavery was a sin had failed, and they intended to pursue antislavery through politics. In 1840, those dissatisfied with the AAS, then dominated by Garrisonians, walked out of the annual meeting and formed their own organization, the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society.
Despite the divisions within the movement, abolitionism continued in a variety of guises. While some antislavery societies disbanded as a result of the controversies in the national organization, secular and church affiliated antislavery voluntary societies continued to work to end slavery. Less formal groups like women's sewing circles made items to sell at the antislavery fairs that raised major sums of money for the cause. Others made clothes for fugitives from slavery or fugitive slave communities in Canada. The loosely coordinated underground railroad, involving blacks and some whites, became an important way of working in the cause after 1850 when Congress passed a new Fugitive Slave Act.
During the 1840s and 1850s, efforts were also made to carry abolitionism into the arenas of religion and politics. Believing slavery was a sin, both individuals and groups of church members tried to force the major Protestant denominations to take a clear and unequivocal stand against slavery. Major denominations were unwilling to take such a step, seeing, correctly as it turned out, the possibility of division between northern and southern branches. They also saw the debate over slavery as a distraction from their main business of saving souls. In disgust, many abolitionists withdrew from their churches, and established their own antislavery congregations to offer public witness against slavery. And with the birth of the Liberty Party in 1840 slavery entered politics. The issue of slavery's expansion into the territories assured that it would not disappear from political debate even though individual antislavery parties might be short lived.
As one woman explained, abolitionism was "the cause of God." Many evangelical Christians, though certainly not a majority of them, agreed and saw their decision for abolitionism as a kind of conversion. Even though Quakers did not share an evangelical perspective, those who became abolitionists also viewed their commitment as a sacred and moral imperative. Most Americans, like Abraham Lincoln, rejected the seemingly uncompromising nature of abolitionism. But like Lincoln, more and more Americans eventually recognized that slavery and freedom were incompatible and that slavery compromised fundamental American beliefs.
Friedman, Lawrence J. Gregarious Saints: Self and Community in American Abolitionism, 1830-1870 (1982)
Goodman, Paul. Of One Blood: Abolitionism and the Origins of Racial Equality (1998).
Jeffrey, Julie Roy. The Great Silent Army of Abolitionism: Ordinary Women in the Antislavery Movement (1999).
Ripley, C. Peter (ed.). The Black Abolitionist Papers (1991)
Walters, Ronald G. The Antislavery Appeal: American Abolitionism after 1830 (1976).
©Copyright 2000 Abraham Lincoln Historical Digitization Project