abolitionists

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 Columbia.

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 movement.

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 lecture platform.

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 (see Kansas; Kansas-Nebraska Act) 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.

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The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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