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ANTISLAVERY sentiment and activity in the United States took several forms during its evolution from the quiet protest of the Germantown Quakers in 1688 through the tragic and violent American Civil War, which spawned the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. Response to slavery varied from adamant defense to mild doubts to militant hostility. The antislavery movement was a crucible for the white conscience in matters of race, because nearly all slaves in the United States were black. As a consequence, different elements within the society perceived the problem of slavery in radically different ways and proposed sometimes contradictory solutions.

In the U.S. the antislavery movement was a multifarious one that featured diverse and often clashing objectives and organizational forms. Throughout the history of antislavery activism in the United States, there was a small number of people who may with justice be called abolitionists, those who sought to abolish slavery throughout the country and to incorporate the freed blacks into American society. In the eighteenth century abolitionists generally supported plans for gradual emancipation, but a new generation of abolitionists who appeared in the 1830s demanded an immediate end to slavery and advocated the integration of American society. A much larger group among the opponents of slavery were those who feared that blacks neither could nor should integrate into American society as equals. These critics of slavery instead proposed the colonization of free blacks outside the United States. Increasingly, colonizationists shifted away from their early opposition to slavery to focus upon the removal of free blacks. The northern sectionalists came to be the largest element in the antislavery crusade; they opposed slavery as the basis of the social and political power of an aristocratic class that unfairly dominated the political process to the disadvantage of northern whites. The racial attitudes of this group covered a broad spectrum, and its main efforts centered upon restricting the expansion of slave territory.


The early history of antislavery in America consisted primarily of the agitation of certain British and American Quakers, but even in this group antislavery sentiments grew slowly because many wealthy Quakers were slave-holders. Only by the mid-1700s, when the Society of Friends faced a severe internal crisis brought on by the effects of the Great Awakening and the Seven Years War, did opposition to slavery increase measurably among Quakers. It was not until the 1780s that the major Quaker meetings could announce that their membership was free of slaveholders.

By the late eighteenth century the opposition to slavery had spread beyond the Society of Friends to other people whose response to slavery grew out of the secular thought of the Enlightenment. Because of its underlying republican ideology, emphasizing liberty and individual rights, the American Revolution encouraged antislavery sentiments. During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, all the states abolished the African slave trade, and most moved toward the ultimate eradication of slavery. This movement proceeded most rapidly in the states north of the Mason-Dixon line, where slavery was of minor economic importance. Moreover, the enactment of the Northwest Ordinance in 1787 had confined slavery to the area that increasingly became known as the South.

Gradual emancipation in the northern states did not take place without opposition, and the newly formed anti-slavery societies played a crucial role in these early achievements. Aside from supporting gradual emancipation, these early antislavery societies attacked the Fugitive Slave Law and the African slave trade, distributed antislavery literature, and encouraged education of blacks. Although the membership of these early organizations included such prominent political figures as Benjamin Franklin, John Jay, Alexander Hamilton, and Benjamin Rush, Quakers usually dominated them. Because of this narrow sectarian base and the ideological limitations of early antislavery sentiment, the movement rapidly waned following its victories in the northern states.


During the three decades following 1800, opposition to slavery entered a new phase. Efforts at gradual emancipation gave way to proposals for the colonization of free blacks, and the center of antislavery activity shifted to the upper South. Although the most vocal opponents of slavery during these years were active in southern states, true abolitionism never gained a foothold anywhere in the South. In the two decades following the American Revolution, all the southern states except Georgia and South Carolina moved toward emancipation by easing the process of private manumission, and between 1800 and 1815 societies devoted to gradual emancipation sprouted in all the states of the upper South. After 1800 the tide turned and flowed in the opposite direction. By 1830 nearly all vocal abolitionists were forced to leave the South. As the crucial debate in the Virginia legislature in 1832 revealed, the only antislavery advocates remaining in the South by then were the rapidly dwindling supporters of the American Colonization Society (ACS).

The ACS had originated in response to fears that free blacks could not successfully incorporate into American society. Its activities typified the conservative reform emanating from a period of fairly modest social and economic change, but its early membership included, along with some of the South's leading politicians, such abolitionists as Benjamin Lundy, the Tappan brothers, Gerrit Smith, and the young William Lloyd Garrison. Abolitionists formed only a minor element in the ACS, however. In the early years, most advocates of colonization usually related the proposal to schemes for manumission and gradual emancipation, but most colonizationists cared little about the plight of the slave and hoped to rid the country of the troublesome presence of a race generally deemed inferior and degraded. The doctrine of gradualism based on a faith in the perfectibility of all people gave way to the racist perspectives that typified the nineteenth century. As the ACS became increasingly dominated by those whose main purpose was the deportation of free blacks and shedding its antislavery character, the abolitionists turned against the organization.


The appearance of Garrison's Thoughts on African Colonization in 1832 and the debates at Lane Seminary in 1834 signaled a major shift in American antislavery and the emergence of the movement for immediate abolition. One can trace the roots of the doctrine of immediatism to the basic elements of eighteenth-century antislavery thought and relate its appearance in the United States in the 1830s to such causes as British influence, increasing black militancy, and the failure of gradual emancipation in the South. Nevertheless, the new intensity and enthusiasm that characterized the drive for immediate, uncompensated abolition came about primarily from evangelical perfectionism. Although abolitionists were often ambivalent about their precise programs, their new approach connoted a direct response to the recognition of the sinfulness of slavery and epitomized the abolitionist movement of this period. In rejecting the detached eighteenth-century perspective that had governed the psychology of gradual emancipation, the advocates of immediate abolition "made a personal commitment to make no compromise with sin."

In the 1830s antislavery sentiments spread throughout the northern states, and a new network of abolition societies appeared. The New England Antislavery Society formed in 1831. Two years later at a meeting in Philadelphia, delegates from Massachusetts, New York, and Pennsylvania established a national organization, the American Anti-Slavery Society (AAS). In rapid order, auxiliaries appeared in all the eastern states, and members made an energetic effort to revive western abolitionism. Following the Lane debates, Theodore Dwight Weld served as an agent for the AAS by lecturing and organizing local groups throughout Ohio and the western portions of New York and Pennsylvania. In 1835 he founded the Ohio State Antislavery Society, which shortly became second only to the New York Society among the state auxiliaries of the AAS. His success prompted the AAS to extend the agency system by sending out a new host of agents, the "Seventy," to further expand the number of

local societies and advance the idea of immediate abolition of slavery.

As a result of such activities, the number of state and local societies multiplied rapidly. Historians, however, know little about the makeup of these societies except that they proliferated in rural Yankee areas "burned over" by the Great Revival and that a majority of their members were women. Abolitionist leaders were highly educated and moderately prosperous men of some importance in their communities. Their most significant characteristics were an intense religious commitment and Yankee origins. Nearly two-thirds were pastors, deacons, and elders of evangelical churches, and an even larger proportion of white abolitionist leaders traced their family origins to New England.

A distinctive group within the movement consisted of the free blacks who were prominent in the activities of the underground railroad and who provided a crucial element of abolitionist leadership. Unfortunately, whites generally denied blacks positions of power in these organizations, and blacks resented the racism and paternalism of the whites. During the 1830s and 1840s, a series of all-black National Negro Conventions focused the efforts of black abolitionists.

The major activity of the abolitionists in the 1830s consisted of the dissemination of antislavery arguments in the hope that moral suasion would effect the end of slavery in the United States. They produced abolitionist newspapers, such as Garrison's Liberator and the Emancipator, which functioned as the major organ of the AAS. Aside from its newspaper, the AAS issued a quarterly, two monthlies, and a children's magazine. It also supported a yearly antislavery almanac and a series of pamphlets that included the classics of antislavery literature. While it was not until the 1840s and 1850s that slave narratives and sentimental antislavery novels appeared, the appeal to sentiment was central to the most powerful of the abolitionist attacks on slavery published in the 1830s, Weld's Slavery As It Is.

In 1835 the AAS launched its postal campaign under the direction of Lewis Tappan. The society hoped to inundate the South with publications and convince southerners to rid themselves of the evils of slavery. Although the intention of the literature was to sway the minds and sentiments of the slaveholders, critics immediately viewed it as incendiary. In July 1835, a mob attacked the Charleston, South Carolina, post office and burned a number of abolitionist newspapers. In the following year, a law excluding antislavery literature from the mails failed in Congress, but with the cooperation of the Jackson administration, local postmasters effectively eliminated the circulation of abolitionist material in the South.

When the postal campaign failed, the AAS shuffled its organizational structure and turned to a campaign to present Congress with petitions on a variety of subjects related to slavery. The petition was a traditional antislavery instrument, but in 1835, John C. Calhoun and his South Carolina colleague in the House, James Hammond, moved against hearing any antislavery pleas. In an effort to disassociate themselves from this attack on the civil rights of northern whites, northern Democrats accepted the more moderate gag rule that automatically tabled all antislavery petitions. Undaunted, the AAS flooded Congress with petitions. The largest number of these petitions opposed the annexation of Texas and called for the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia. Yet by 1840 the gag rule had effectively stifled the petition campaign.

Political Antislavery

Although it had grown rapidly during the 1830s, at the end of the decade, the abolition movement remained un-popular and weak. The abolitionists had encountered mob violence in the North, no major politician dared associate himself with their cause, and the leading religious denominations rejected their teachings. Factional bickering and financial reverses further undermined the movement. The theoretical Seventy agents had never reached full strength, and after 1838 their numbers dwindled drastically. Because the panic of 1837 and the subsequent depression dried up their sources of funds, the local societies had to curtail numerous activities. Then, in 1840, after several years of bickering over the relation of abolitionism to the churches and to other reform movements, particularly women's rights, the AAS split into warring factions. In that year the radical followers of Garrison took over the AAS. The moderate element formed a new organization, the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society (AFAS). By this time, the Great Revival, which had fired the growth of abolitionism in the previous decade, had run its course, and neither of these organizations retained the vitality that had characterized the AAS in the first five years of its existence.

In 1839 the majority of American abolitionists, faced with the distinct possibility of failure and agreeing that their earlier tactics had not won support for abolition, decided to establish a political party devoted to their cause. After an unsuccessful attempt to get New York gubernatorial candidates to respond publicly to their inquiries, Alvan Stewart, Gerrit Smith, and Myron Holley moved to form the Liberty party (or Human Rights party). The Liberty party devoted itself to bringing the slavery question into politics and hoped to keep the doctrine of immediatism alive by offering individuals an opportunity to go on record against slavery. Through 1844 the new party retained its abolitionist character by attacking the immorality of slavery and demanding equal justice for free blacks. During these years its support grew among the moderate abolitionists associated with the AFAS. While the Liberty party had induced most abolitionists to join its ranks, it is doubtful that abolition sentiment grew in the North during these years. At the height of its popularity, the party's votes came mainly from men who had earlier converted to abolitionism but had voted for the Whig party in 1840. It was strongest in the small, moderately prosperous Yankee farming communities that evangelical revivalism had earlier touched and that had been centers of organized abolition activities. After 1844 the Liberty party split over the question of broadening the party's appeal, and the majority of its members drifted into the Free Soil party, which appeared in 1848.

The failure of both moral suasion and political activity led many blacks and a few whites to greater militancy. In 1843 the Buffalo National Convention nearly adopted Henry Highland Garnet's advocacy of self-defense and slave revolt. Within a decade, especially after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850, numerous local conventions of blacks echoed his sentiments. In Christiana, Pennsylvania, Boston, and Syracuse, attempts by both blacks and whites to aid fugitive slaves became the focus of sporadic violence. It was not until 1859, however, that anyone connected with the abolition movement attempted to encourage rebellion among the slaves. After several years of planning, John Brown launched his unsuccessful Harpers Ferry raid.

Although individual abolitionists continued to agitate throughout the 1850s, organized abolitionism passed from the scene. As it emerged in the 1840s and 1850s, political antislavery compromised abolitionist goals in order to present a program moderate and broad-gauged enough to attract voters in the North whose opposition to slavery arose from their desire to keep blacks out of the territories and slaveholders out of positions of power in the federal government. The final phase of antislavery activity in the United States primarily emerged from hostility toward slaveholders and the values of the society in which they lived. Antisouthernism provided a vehicle through which the Republican party could unite all forms of northern antislavery feeling by 1860.

The growth of popular antagonism toward the South in the northern states began with the controversy over the gag rule. While the abolitionists had constantly attacked the excessive political power wielded by slave-holders, known as "slave power," Whig politicians in the

early 1840s made the most use of the issue to define a moderate pro-northern position between the abolitionists and the Democrats. The events associated with the Mexican-American War and actions of James Polk's administration caused a split in the Democratic party and the enunciation of the Wilmot Proviso, which would have excluded slavery from the territory gained by the war. The followers of Martin Van Buren in New York, increasingly enraged by the power of slaveholders within their party, joined with the so-called Conscience Whigs of Massachusetts and the majority of the Liberty party to form the Free Soil party. While its members included many true abolitionists, its platform represented both a broadening of the appeal of antislavery and a turning away from the earlier goals of the abolitionists. The party focused almost entirely on limiting the expansion of slavery to keep the territories free for the migration of whites. Its platform avoided traditional abolitionist demands, and its followers spanned the wide spectrum of contemporary racist opinion.

During the years between 1850 and 1854, not only abolitionism but also antisouthernism seemed to fade. Yet, at that very moment, a surge of nativism and anti-Catholicism throughout the North shattered traditional party alignments. Then, in 1854 and 1855, the fights over the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the chaos in Kansas Territory revived antisouthernism and channeled it through the new Republican party. Although it deserves credit for ending slavery in the United States, the Republican party was by no means an abolitionist party nor one devoted solely to antislavery. Its platform touched on a wide variety of economic and social questions and appealed to a diverse group of northerners.

Ex-Whigs, with smaller but crucial groups of free-soil and nativist ex-Democrats and the remnants of the Free Democratic party, made up the new party. Consequently, it included both vicious racists and firm believers in racial justice. Although most Republicans had moderately liberal racial views for the day, many supported colonization schemes, and nearly all expressed reservations about the total integration of the society. The main focus of their antislavery sentiments was the southern slave-holder, and the only antislavery plank in their platform demanded the exclusion of slavery from the territories. In this limited form, a majority of northerners could embrace antislavery. Still, the party shied away from any direct attack on slavery. When secession threatened, many Republicans were willing to guarantee the existence of slavery in the southern states through a constitutional amendment.

The needs of war, as much as the constant agitation of the small abolitionist element within the Republican party, propelled the country toward emancipation. President Abraham Lincoln, who had long doubted the feasibility of social integration, prosecuted the war primarily to maintain the Union. Caught between the radical and conservative wings of his own party, the president moved cautiously toward the enunciation of the Emancipation Proclamation, the issuance of which on 1 January 1863 freed the slaves in areas still in rebellion. Later, with a good deal more forthrightness, he lent his support to the Thirteenth Amendment, which declared slavery unconstitutional anywhere in the United States.


Ericson, David F. The Debate over Slavery: Antislavery and Pro-slavery Liberalism in Antebellum America. New York: New York University Press, 2001.

McPherson, James M. The Struggle for Equality: Abolitionists and the Negro in the Civil War and Reconstruction. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1964.

Newman, Richard S. The Transformation of American Abolitionism: Fighting Slavery in the Early Republic. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.

Quarles, Benjamin. Black Abolitionists. New York: Oxford University Press, 1969.

Stauffer, John. The Black Hearts of Men: Radical Abolitionists and the Transformation of Race. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2002.

Wyatt-Brown, Bertram. Lewis Tappan and the Evangelical War Against Slavery. Cleveland, Ohio: Press of Case Western Reserve University, 1969.

William G.Shade/a. e.

See alsoCivil War ; Colonization Movement ; Emancipation Movement ; Emancipation Proclamation ; Fugitive Slave Acts ; Gag Rule, Antislavery ; Harpers Ferry Raid ; Immediatism ; Kansas-Nebraska Act ; New England Anti-slavery Society ; Slavery ; andvol. 9:Address to President Lincoln by the Working-Men of Manchester, England ; Earliest American Protest against Slavery ; A House Divided ; John Brown's Last Speech ; Notes Illustrative of the Wrong of Slavery ; The Crime Against Kansas ; The Impending Crisis of the South: How to Meet It .

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26. Antislavery

  1. Abolitionists activist group working to free slaves. [Am. Hist.: Jameson, 1]
  2. Emancipation Proclamation edict issued by Abraham Lincoln freeing the slaves (1863). [Am. Hist.: EB, III: 869]
  3. Free Soil Party Abolitionist political party before Civil War. [Am. Hist.: Flexner, 3]
  4. Jayhawkers antislavery guerrillas fighting on Union side in Civil War. [Am. Hist.: Jameson, 256]
  5. Laus Deo! poem written to celebrate emancipation of slaves. [Am. Lit.: Laus Deo! in Hart, 460]
  6. Liberator William Lloyd Garrisons virulently Abolitionist newspaper. [Am. Hist.: Van Doren, 142]
  7. Lincoln, Abraham (18091865) sixteenth U.S. president; issued Emancipation Proclamation, freeing the slaves. [Am. Hist.: Jameson, 286287]
  8. North Star newspaper supporting emancipation founded by Frederick Douglass. [Am. Hist.: Hart, 607]
  9. Shelby, George vows to devote self to freeing slaves. [Am. Lit.: Uncle Toms Cabin ]
  10. Stowe, Harriet Beecher (18111896) author of Uncle Toms Cabin, influential Abolitionist novel. [Am. Hist.: Jameson, 481]
  11. Uncle Toms Cabin highly effective, sentimental Abolitionist novel. [Am. Lit.: Jameson, 513]
  12. Underground Railroad system which helped slaves to escape to the North. [Am. Hist.: EB, X: 255]

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"Antislavery." Allusions--Cultural, Literary, Biblical, and Historical: A Thematic Dictionary. . 17 Dec. 2017 <>.

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"Antislavery." Allusions--Cultural, Literary, Biblical, and Historical: A Thematic Dictionary. . Retrieved December 17, 2017 from