In U.S. history, particularly in the three decades before the Civil
War, members of the movement that agitated for the compulsory
emancipation of the slaves. Abolitionists are distinguished from
free-soilers, who opposed the further extension of slavery, but the
groups came to act together politically and otherwise in the
antislavery cause. The abolitionist movement was one of high
moral purpose and courage; its uncompromising temper made the
slavery question the prime concern of national politics and
hastened the demise of slavery in the United States.
Although antislavery sentiment had existed during the American
Revolution, and abolitionist Benjamin Lundy began his work early
in the 19th century, the abolition movement did not reach
crusading proportions until the 1830s. One of its mainsprings was
the growing influence of evangelical religion, with its religious
fervor, its moral urgency to end sinful practices, and its vision of
human perfection. The preaching of Lyman Beecher and
Nathaniel Taylor in New England and the religious revivals that
began in W New York state in 1824 under Charles G. Finney and
swept much of the North, created a powerful impulse toward
social reform—emancipation of the slaves as well as temperance,
foreign missions, and women's rights. Outstanding among Charles
Finney's converts were Theodore D. Weld and the brothers
Arthur Tappan and Lewis Tappan.
The Antislavery Movement
The Tappan brothers and William Lloyd Garrison, who began
publishing an abolitionist journal, The Liberator, in 1831, were the
principal organizers in Dec., 1833, at Philadelphia, of the American
Anti-Slavery Society. The primary concern of the society was the
denunciation of slavery as a moral evil; its members called for
immediate action to free the slaves. In 1835 the society launched a
massive propaganda campaign. It flooded the slave states with
abolitionist literature, sent agents throughout the North to organize
state and local antislavery societies, and poured petitions into
Congress demanding the abolition of slavery in the District of
The abolitionists were at first widely denounced and abused. Mobs
attacked them in the North; Southerners burned antislavery
pamphlets and in some areas excluded them from the mails; and
Congress imposed the gag rule to avoid considering their petitions.
These actions, and the murder of abolitionist editor Elijah P.
Lovejoy in 1837, led many to fear for their constitutional rights.
Abolitionists shrewdly exploited these fears and antislavery
sentiment spread rapidly in the North. By 1838, more than 1,350
antislavery societies existed with almost 250,000 members,
including many women.
Although abolitionists united in denouncing the African venture of
the American Colonization Society, they disagreed among
themselves as to how their goal might be best reached. Garrison
believed in moral suasion as the only weapon; he and his followers
also argued that women be allowed to participate fully in
antislavery societies, thus disturbing more conservative members.
When the Garrisonians passed such a resolution at the society's
1840 convention, a large group led by the Tappan brothers
withdrew and formed the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery
Society. The abolitionists were never again united as a single
Advocates of direct political action founded (1840) the Liberty
party; James G. Birney was its presidential candidate in 1840 and
1844. Writers such as John Greenleaf Whittier and orators such as
Wendell Phillips gave their services to the cause, while Frederick
Douglass and other freed or escaped slaves also took to the
An antislavery lobby was organized in 1842, and its influence grew
under Weld's able direction. Abolitionists hoped to convert the
South through the churches, until the withdrawal of Southern
Methodists (1844) and Baptists (1845) from association with their
Northern brethren. After the demise of the Liberty party, the
political abolitionists supported the Free-Soil party in 1848 and
1852, and in 1856 they voted with the Republican party.
The passage of more stringent fugitive slave laws in 1850
increased abolitionist activity on the Underground Railroad. Uncle
Tom's Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe, became an effective
piece of abolitionist propaganda, and the Kansas question further
aroused both North and South. The culminating act of extreme
abolitionism occurred in the raid of John Brown on Harpers Ferry.
After the opening of the Civil War insistent abolitionist demands
for immediate freeing of the slaves, supported by radical
Republicans in Congress, pushed President Lincoln in his decision
to issue the Emancipation Proclamation.