Modern history

Abolitionism Expands and Divides

For a small percentage of Northerners, slavery was the ultimate injustice. While most Northerners applauded themselves for ridding their region of the institution, antislavery advocates urged them to recognize the North’s continued complicity in human bondage. After all, slaves labored under brutal conditions to provide cotton for New England factories, sugar and molasses for northern tables, and profits for urban traders. Free blacks were among the most vocal advocates of abolition. Yet their leadership became a source of conflict as more whites joined the movement in the 1830s. The place of the church, of women, and of politics in antislavery efforts also caused controversy. In addition, abolitionists disagreed over whether to focus on abolishing slavery in the South or simply preventing its extension into western territories. Although these debates often weakened individual organizations, they expanded the number and range of antislavery associations and campaigns.

The Beginnings of the Antislavery Movement

In the 1820s, African Americans and a few white Quaker allies led the fight to abolish slavery. They published pamphlets, lectured to small audiences, and helped runaway slaves escape. In 1829 David Walker wrote the most militant statement of black abolitionist sentiment, Appeal. . . to the Colored Citizens. The free son of an enslaved father, Walker left his North Carolina home for Boston in the 1820s. There he became an agent and a writer for Freedoms Journal, the country’s first newspaper published by African Americans. In his Appeal, Walker criticized the false promises of African colonization and warned that slaves would claim their freedom by force if whites did not agree to emancipate them. Quaker abolitionists, such as Benjamin Lundy, the editor of the Genius of Universal Emancipation, admired Walker’s courage but rejected his call for violence.

William Lloyd Garrison, a white Bostonian who worked on Lundy’s Baltimore newspaper, was inspired by Walker’s radical stance. In 1831 he returned to Boston and launched his own abolitionist newspaper, the Liberator, urging white antislavery activists to embrace the black perspective. White reformers, he claimed, worried more about the moral and practical problems that slavery posed for whites than about the wrongs it imposed on blacks. From blacks’ perspective, Garrison claimed, the goal must be immediate, uncompensated emancipation.

The Amistad Revolt, 1839 This illustration depicts the mutiny of forty-nine African slaves led by Cinque on board the Spanish ship Amistad off the coast of Cuba. After the rebels killed Captain Ramon Ferrer, they sailed to Long Island, New York. In subsequent judicial proceedings, the federal courts ruled that the slaves were entitled to their freedom, and they were returned to Africa. Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale university

The Liberator demanded that whites take an absolute stand against slavery where it existed and halt its spread. With the aid oflike-minded reformers in Boston, Philadelphia, and New York City, Garrison organized the American Anti-Slavery Society (AASS) in 1833. By the end of the decade, the AASS boasted branches in dozens of towns and cities, from Boston to Salem, Ohio. Members supported lecturers and petition drives, criticized churches that refused to denounce slavery, and proclaimed that the U.S. Constitution was a proslavery document. Some Garrisonians also participated in the work of the underground railroad, a secret network of activists who assisted fugitives fleeing enslavement.

In 1835 Sarah and Angelina Grimke joined the AASS and soon began lecturing for the organization. Daughters of a prominent South Carolina planter, they had moved to Philadelphia and converted to Quakerism. As Southerners, their denunciations of slavery carried particular weight. Yet as women, their public presence aroused fierce opposition. In 1837 Congregationalist ministers in Massachusetts decried their presence in front of “promiscuous” audiences of men and women.

The Grimkes were not the first women to speak out against slavery. Maria Stewart, a free black widow, lectured in Boston in 1831—1832. She demanded that northern blacks take more responsibility for ending slavery in the South and for fighting racial discrimination everywhere. In 1833 free black and white Quaker women formed an interracial organization, the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society. The organization built on the earlier efforts of white Quakers and free blacks in Philadelphia to boycott slave-produced goods such as cotton and sugar.

The abolitionist movement and the AASS quickly expanded to the frontier, and by 1836 Ohio claimed more antislavery groups than any other state. That year, Ohio women initiated a petition to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia, which was circulated from Rhode Island to Illinois. The petition campaign inspired the first national meeting of women abolitionists, held in New York City in 1837. But in Ohio and the rest of the Midwest, female and male abolitionists worked side by side, claiming it was their Christian duty “to unite our efforts for the accomplishment of the holy object of our association.”

Abolition Gains Ground and Enemies

The abolitionist movement shocked many Northerners, and in the late 1830s violence often erupted in response to antislavery agitation. Mobs threatened participants at the 1838 Antislavery Convention of American Women at Pennsylvania Hall in Philadelphia. After black and white women left the meeting arm in arm, the hall was burned to the ground. From 1834 to 1838, mobs routinely attacked antislavery meetings, lecturers, and presses as AASS agents crisscrossed the North recruiting followers and organizing local societies.

The massive petition campaigns in 1836 and 1837 generated both support and opposition. Thousands of women and men, including Amy Post and her husband Isaac, signed their names to petitions to ban slavery in the District of Columbia, end the internal slave trade, and oppose the annexation of Texas. While some evangelical women considered such efforts part of their Christian duty, evangelical ministers (including the Reverend Finney) condemned antislavery work as outside women’s sphere. Many female evangelicals retreated in the face of clerical disapproval, but others continued their efforts alongside their nonevangelical sisters.

Many politicians were also opposed to mass petitioning, whether by women or men, so in 1836 Congress passed the gag rule (see chapter 10).

But gag rules did not silence abolitionists. In the 1840s, fugitive slaves helped alert Northerners to the horrors of slavery. The most important of the fugitive abolitionists was Frederick Douglass, a Maryland-born slave who fled to New Bedford, Massachusetts, in 1838. He met Garrison in 1841, joined the AASS, and four years later published his life story, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, as Told by Himself. Having revealed his identity as a fugitive slave, Douglass sailed for England, where he launched a successful two-year lecture tour. He then returned to the United States; moved to Rochester, New York; and began publishing his own antislavery newspaper, the North Star. Amy Post befriended Douglass, and the Western New York Anti-Slavery Society raised funds and subscribers to support his work.

While eager to have fugitive slaves tell their dramatic stories, many abolitionist leaders did not match Post’s vigorous support of African American activists asserting an independent voice. Although these abolitionists opposed slavery, they still believed that blacks were inferior to whites. Thus several affiliates of the AASS refused to accept black members. Those that did often faced resignations from members who opposed the innovation. Ultimately, the independent efforts of black activists such as Douglass helped to expand the antislavery movement even as they made clear the limits of white abolitionist ideals.

Conflicts also arose over the responsibility of churches to challenge slavery. The major Protestant denominations included southern as well as northern churches. If mainstream churches such as Presbyterians, Baptists, or Methodists refused communion to slave owners, their southern branches would certainly secede. Still, from the 1830s on, abolitionists pressured their churches to take Christian obligations seriously and denounce human bondage. Individual churches responded, but aside from the Society of Friends, larger denominations failed to follow suit.

In response, abolitionists urged individual Christians to break with churches that continued to accept slaveholders. Antislavery preachers and parishioners pushed the issue, and some worshippers “came out” from mainstream churches to form antislavery congregations. Union churches, composed of evangelical “come outers” from various denominations, were founded in New York State and New England. White Wesleyan Methodists and Free Will Baptists joined African American Methodists and Baptists in insisting that congregants oppose slavery in order to gain membership. Although these churches remained small, they served as constant reminders to mainstream denominations of their continued ties to slavery.

Abolitionism and Women’s Rights

Women were increasingly active in the AASS and the “come outer” movement, but their growing participation aroused opposition even among abolitionists. By 1836—1837, female societies formed the backbone of antislavery petition campaigns. More women also joined the lecture circuit, including Abby Kelley, a fiery Quaker orator who demanded that women be granted an equal role in the movement. But when Garrison and his supporters appointed Kelley to the AASS business committee in the spring of 1839, they triggered a crisis. At the AASS annual convention that May, debates erupted over the propriety of women participating “in closed meetings with men.” Of the 1,000 abolitionists in attendance, some 300 walked out in protest. The opposition came mainly from the evangelical wing of the movement and included Lewis Tappan, one of the chief financiers of the AASS. The dissidents soon formed a new organization, the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society, which excluded women from public lecturing and officeholding but encouraged them to support men’s efforts.

The Garrisonians responded by expanding the roles of women in the AASS. In 1840 local chapters appointed a handful of female delegates, including Lucretia Mott, to the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London. The majority of men at the meeting, however, rejected the female delegates’ credentials. Women were then forced to watch the proceedings from a separate section of the hall, confirming for some that women could be effective in campaigns against slavery only if they gained more rights for themselves.

Finally, in July 1848, a small circle of women, including Lucretia Mott and a young American she met in London, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, organized the first convention focused explicitly on women’s rights. Held in Stanton’s hometown of Seneca Falls, New York, the convention attracted three hundred women and men, including Garrisonian abolitionists, radical Quakers, and members of the antislavery Liberty Party. James Mott presided over part of the convention and Frederick Douglass spoke, but women dominated the proceedings. One hundred participants signed a Declaration of Sentiments that called for women’s equality in everything from education and employment to legal rights and voting. Two weeks later, a second convention in Rochester, New York, took the radical action of electing a woman, Abigail Bush, to preside. Here, too, Douglass and other black abolitionists as well as local working women participated.

Although abolitionism provided much of the impetus for the women’s rights movement, it was not the only influence. Strikes by seamstresses and mill workers in the 1830s and 1840s highlighted women’s economic needs. Utopian communities experimented with gender equality, and temperance reformers focused attention on domestic violence against women and called for changes in divorce laws. A diverse coalition advocated for married women’s property rights. Women’s rights were also debated among the Seneca Indians in western New York. Like the Cherokees, Seneca women had lost traditional rights over land and tribal policy as their nation adopted more Anglo-American ways. In the summer of 1848, the creation of a written constitution threatened to enshrine these losses in writing. The Seneca constitution did strip women of their role in selecting chiefs but protected their right to vote on any decision to sell tribal lands. Earlier in 1848, revolutions had erupted against repressive regimes in France and elsewhere in Europe. Antislavery papers like the North Star covered developments in detail, including European women’s demands for political and civil recognition. French rebels such as Jeanne Deroin and German revolutionaries such as Mathilde Anneke were especially noted for their advocacy of women’s rights. The meetings in Seneca Falls and Rochester drew on these ideas and influences even as they attended primarily to the rights of white American women.

The Rise of Antislavery Parties

As women’s rights conventions began calling for female suffrage, debates over the role of partisan politics in the antislavery campaign intensified. Keeping slavery out of western territories depended on the actions of Congress, as did abolishing slavery in the nation’s capital and ending the internal slave trade. Moral suasion had seemingly done little to change minds in Congress or in the South. To force abolition onto the national political agenda, the Liberty Party was formed in 1840. Many Garrisonians were appalled at the idea of participating in what they considered a proslavery government, but the Liberty Party gained significant support among abolitionists in New York, the Middle Atlantic states, and the Midwest.

The Whigs and Democrats sought to avoid the antislavery issue in order to keep their southern and northern wings intact, but that strategy became much more difficult once the Liberty Party entered campaigns. In 1840 the party won less than 1 percent of the popular vote but organized large rallies that attracted men, women, and children. In sparsely settled regions like Illinois, Garrisonians even joined Liberty Party supporters to get out the antislavery message. In 1844 the party won a little more than 2 percent of the vote, but this time its presence in the race was enough to ensure a victory for James K. Polk over the Whig candidate, Henry Clay (see chapter 10).

When President Polk led the United States into war with Mexico, interest in an antislavery political party surged. In 1848 the Liberty Party gained the support of antislavery Whigs, also called Conscience Whigs; northern Democrats who opposed the extension of slavery into the territories; and African American leaders like Frederick Douglass, who broke with Garrison on the issue of electoral politics. Seeing a political opportunity, more practically minded political abolitionists founded the Free-Soil Party, which quickly subsumed the Liberty Party. Free-Soilers focused less on the moral wrongs of slavery than on the benefits of keeping western territories free for northern whites. The Free-Soil Party nominated Martin Van Buren, a former Democrat, for president in 1848 and won 10 percent of the popular vote. Once again, the result was to send a slaveholder to the White House—Zachary Taylor, who had led U.S. troops in the war with Mexico. Nonetheless, the Free-Soil Party had expanded beyond the Liberty Party, raising fears in the South and in the two major parties that the battle over slavery could no longer be contained.


• How did the American Anti-Slavery Society differ from earlier abolitionist organizations?

• How did conflicts over gender and race shape the development of the abolitionist movement in the 1830s and 1840s?

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