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The Abolitionists

The abolition movement was a movement to end slavery, In Western European and America, abolitionism was a movement to end the African and Indian slave trade and set slaves free. It grew from the Second Great Awakening, a religious movement that occurred during the early 1800s. American Christians took it upon themselves to reform society.

What was originally more or less of a passive attitude among the founders of the government in the matter of the "peculiar institution" was changed to a persistent aggressive policy for its defense and extension in large measure by reaction from the assaults of the Abolitionists. The Abolitionist proclaimed the Federal Constitution to be "a covenant with death and an agreement with hell."

After 1776, when America became independent, Britain's slave-holding sugar colonies, such as Jamaica and Barbados, declined as America could trade directly with the French and Dutch in the West Indies. As the industrial revolution took hold in the 18th century, Britain no longer needed slave-based goods. Cotton, rather than sugar, became the main produce of the British economy, which benefited from the labor of American slaves.

The British abolitionists had assumed that ending the Slave Trade would eventually lead to the freeing of all enslaved people. When it became clear this would not happen, at first the aim, was for gradual abolition. In July 1833, a Bill to abolish slavery throughout the British Empire passed in the House of Commons, followed by the House of Lords on 1st August. The demand for freedom for enslaved people had become almost universal. It was driven forward, not only by the formal abolition campaign but by a coalition of non-conformist churches. The act, however, did not free enslaved people immediately; they were to become "apprentices" for 6 years. Compensation of 20 million was to be paid to the planters. Protests finally forced the government to abolish the apprenticeship system on 1st August, 1838.

The result was attained slowly, but through the legitimate operation of moral means. It was the regular accomplishment of a well-advised design and well-sustained labor. The same may be said of Jamaica emancipation. It was the practical product of moral efforts -- an end wrought out consistently and regularly through the agitation of moral causes. In both eases the methods employed worked with gradually increasing effectiveness, and brought the final result in the way anticipated.

In American national politics, Southerners chiefly sought protection and enlargement of the interests represented by the cotton/slavery system. They sought territorial expansion because the wastefulness of cultivating a single crop, cotton, rapidly exhausted the soil, increasing the need for new fertile lands. Moreover, new territory would establish a basis for additional slave states to offset the admission of new free states. Antislavery Northerners saw in the Southern view a conspiracy for proslavery aggrandizement. In the 1830s their opposition became fierce.

An earlier antislavery movement, an offshoot of the American Revolution, had won its last victory in 1808 when Congress abolished the slave trade with Africa. Thereafter, opposition came largely from the Quakers, who kept up a mild but ineffectual protest. Meanwhile, the cotton gin and westward expansion into the Mississippi delta region created an increasing demand for slaves.

The abolitionist movement that emerged in the early 1830s was combative, uncompromising, and insistent upon an immediate end to slavery. This approach found a leader in William Lloyd Garrison, a young man from Massachusetts, who combined the heroism of a martyr with the crusading zeal of a demagogue. On January 1, 1831, Garrison produced the first issue of his newspaper, The Liberator, which bore the announcement: “I shall strenuously contend for the immediate enfranchisement of our slave population. ... On this subject, I do not wish to think, or speak, or write, with moderation. ... I am in earnest I will not equivocate — I will not excuse — I will not retreat a single inch — AND I WILL BE HEARD.”

Garrison’s sensational methods awakened Northerners to the evil in an institution many had long come to regard as unchangeable. He sought to hold up to public gaze the most repulsive aspects of slavery and to castigate slave holders as torturers and traffickers in human life. He recognized no rights of the masters, acknowledged no compromise, tolerated no delay. Other abolitionists, unwilling to subscribe to his law-defying tactics, held that reform should be accomplished by legal and peaceful means. Garrison was joined by another powerful voice, that of Frederick Douglass, an escaped slave who galvanized Northern audiences. Theodore Dwight Weld and many other abolitionists crusaded against slavery in the states of the old Northwest Territory with evangelical zeal.

One activity of the movement involved helping slaves escape to safe refuges in the North or over the border into Canada. The “Underground Railroad,” an elaborate network of secret routes, was firmly established in the 1830s in all parts of the North. In Ohio alone, from 1830 to 1860, as many as 40,000 fugitive slaves were helped to freedom. The number of local antislavery societies increased at such a rate that by 1838 there were about 1,350 with a membership of perhaps 250,000.

Most Northerners nonetheless either held themselves aloof from the abolitionist movement or actively opposed it. In 1837, for example, a mob attacked and killed the antislavery editor Elijah P. Lovejoy in Alton, Illinois. Still, Southern repression of free speech allowed the abolitionists to link the slavery issue with the cause of civil liberties for whites. In 1835 an angry mob destroyed abolitionist literature in the Charleston, South Carolina, post office. When the postmaster-general stated he would not enforce delivery of abolitionist material, bitter debates ensued in Congress. Abolitionists flooded Congress with petitions calling for action against slavery. In 1836 the House voted to table such petitions automatically, thus effectively killing them. Former President John Quincy Adams, elected to the House of Representatives in 1830, fought this so-called gag rule as a violation of the First Amendment, finally winning its repeal in 1844.

The policy of agitation was the only course open to the advocates of emancipation, and that policy was pursued with vigor and industry that was untiring. Speeches, pamphlets, appeals and petitions to Congress for emancipation disseminated the ardent thoughts and feelings of the advocates of freedom, intended to fire the hearts of the people to a new crusade. These utterances were not confined to the people of the free States, but were delivered in the very midst of slavery and communicated through the press. Advocates of freedom were found with convictions so strong that they did not shrink from the dangers that attended personal contact with the adherents of the slave system. Retaliatory violence intensified the situation, firing the zeal of those who acted from enthusiasm, and alarming the timid and cautious.

The necessary consequence of such energetio movements, in a form that many could not distinguish from incipient revolution, was to produce a conservative reaction at the North, and to divide the sentiment of that section, thus complicating the situation, and for a time retarding the progress of the general feeling in favor of freedom to the slave. Apprehension for the safety of the Union, respect for the Constitution and the compromise that had at least served the purpose of separating combatants who might otherwise have met in dangerous collision, were part of the causes of a reactive tendency at the North, while political considerations looking to the solidity of party action had a large part in the result. . The aggressive character of the Abolition movement, as demonstrated in Kansas and in the hardy enterprise of John Brown, alarmed the slave-holding interest.

No American Abolitionist ever supposed that slavery would be abolished through a war between the Federal Government and the Southern people. Some imagined that abolition would be effected by dint of a moral suasion of the South that slavery was a sin and a curse; others that the South would be forced into it by an irresistible moral pressure from without; others that it could be reached somehow through the formation of liberty parties and other political actions; others that dissolving the Union and leaving the South unprotected by the Federal Constitution would conduce to it; and a few even considered that the surest mode of accomplishing it was by exciting servile discontent and insurrection. But at no time during the working of the institution were there so few insurrections and so little open discontent as during the two decades prior to the rebellion.

Gerritt Smith, in his speech at the temperance meeting in Saratoga, claimed that "the anti-slavery reform was a failure; never was slavery stronger, or more deeply rooted, than when the rebellion broke out." This is a striking admission to be made by one of the prime movers of the anti-slavery agitation. It is entirely at variance with the claim usually put forth by his compeers, that the freedom of the slaves was the consummation of their work. Nonetheless, it was the alarm produced by persistent Northern agitation, and that alone, which enabled the secession conspirators to fire the Southern heart, and precipitate the South into revolution. It was an indispensable pre-requisite to the ascendancy of a rebel spirit in the South, from which sprang the war, and finally the destruction of slavery.


The end of the Confederacy generally signaled a defeat for pro-slavery advocates as the international abolitionist movement gained strength in the 1860s and 1870s. Increasingly, abolitionists pressured European and American governments to end slavery and other forms of bondage in their territories. The Russian empire had already announced the end of serfdom in 1861, and the Dutch government abolished slavery in its colonies in 1863. The Spanish Government abolished slavery in Puerto Rico in 1873, although slavery would remain legal in Cuba until 1886. Brazil also took measures toward gradual abolition in 1871, although slavery would not be fully abolished there until 1888.





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Page last modified: 07-09-2017 17:00:26 ZULU