The Many Voices of Abolition
The call for the end of slavery could be heard as far back as Colonial days, but the abolitionist movement didn't become a serious force in the North until the 1830s. Driven primarily by religious fundamentalism, early abolitionists felt that slavery was a moral abomination. Not surprisingly, Southerners felt otherwise and viewed the growing abolitionist movement as just another Northern force trying to encroach on their lifestyle and economy.
The first official abolitionist organization, the American Anti-Slavery Society, was founded in 1833 and called for the complete eradication of slavery. Members also wanted full political rights for freed blacks. The abolitionist movement spread quickly, and soon there were more than 1,000 chapters in the Northern states, boasting a membership of nearly a quarter of a million people.
Abraham Lincoln was once rumored to have greeted Harriet Beecher Stowe as “the little lady who started this great war.” Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, published in 1852, explored slavery from a slave's perspective. Only the Bible outsold Uncle Tom's Cabinin the nineteenth century, and it sparked both action from abolitionists and protest from proponents of slavery.
Many abolitionists faced violent reaction in both the North and the South, and it wasn't uncommon for abolitionist newspaper offices to be ransacked. Sometimes the violence went even further. In 1837, Reverend Elijah Lovejoy, the editor of an antislavery newspaper in Illinois, was killed by an angry proslavery mob enraged by his advocacy.
The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 and the publication of Uncle Tom's Cabinin 1852 gave the abolitionist movement renewed strength in the North as more and more whites came to realize the inherent evil, violence, and degradation of slavery.
William Lloyd Garrison was one prominent abolitionist. Born in 1805, Garrison grew up in a poor but religious family in Newburyport, Massachusetts. He is best known as the publisher of the leading abolitionist newspaper of its time, the Boston-based Liberator, which he began publishing in 1831. It was a leading voice in the New England abolitionist movement and carried wide influence.
Charles Calistus Burleigh was an attorney who became a lecturer for the Middlesex Anti-Slavery Society in Massachusetts at the young age of twenty-four. A gifted speaker, Burleigh countered the common fear that freed blacks would undercut the wages of whites in the North with the argument that blacks would stop fleeing to the North once they were free in the South.
A powerful speaker and writer, Frederick Douglass edited and published the influential abolitionist newspaper The North Starfor nearly seventeen years and spoke out against the evils of slavery in numerous speeches throughout the North. Born the son of slave mother and an unknown white man in 1817, Douglass was sent to Baltimore at age eight to work as a house servant. He was taught to read and write by the mistress of the house, escaped north, and found work in Massachusetts. At age twenty-four, Douglass attended a meeting of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society, where he spoke about his life as a slave and his escape. William Lloyd Garrison was taken with Douglass's speaking skills and immediately hired him as a full-time abolitionist lecturer.
Photo courtesy of the National Archives (200-FL-22)
Sojourner Truth was an illiterate slave who fled her New York owner in the 1820s and spent most of the rest of her life lecturing on the horrors of slavery. She was a deeply religious woman who captivated audiences with her arguments for women's rights and abolition.
Harriet Tubman was a small yet scrappy Maryland slave who ran away from her master in 1849 and spent the better part of her life helping other slaves reach freedom through the Underground Railroad. Tubman, who had a flair for disguise, was never apprehended during her forays into the South. Slave owners in the South came to loathe Tubman for her emancipation activities, and a hefty reward was offered for her capture.
Charles Lenox Remond was the first black man to speak at public meetings on behalf of abolition. Born a free man in Salem, Massachusetts, Remond became an agent of the Massachusetts chapter of the American Anti-Slavery Society, and in 1840 he represented the organization at the first World Anti-Slavery Convention in London.
Abolition in the South
Interestingly, the South had its share of abolitionist activity too. In the late 1820s, Southern abolitionist groups actually outnumbered Northern groups, with many important Southerners freeing their slaves and assisting colonization efforts. In 1832, the Virginia legislature debated a proposal for gradual, compensatory emancipation that would have become effective in 1861. Obviously, the legislation didn't succeed, and the Southern abolitionist movement slowly died.