Even in reform circles, the demand for a greater public role for women remained extremely controversial. Massachusetts physician Samuel Gridley Howe pioneered humane treatment of the blind and educational reform, and he was an ardent abolitionist. But Howe did not support his wife’s participation in the movement for female suffrage, which, he complained, caused her to “neglect domestic relations.” When organized abolitionism split into two wings in 1840, the immediate cause was a dispute over the proper role of women in antislavery work. Abby Kelley’s appointment to the business committee of the American Anti-Slavery Society sparked the formation of a rival abolitionist organization, the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society, which believed it wrong for a woman to occupy so prominent a position. The antislavery poet John Greenleaf Whittier compared Kelley to Eve, Delilah, and Helen of Troy, women who had sown the seeds of male destruction.

Behind the split lay the fear among some abolitionists that Garrison’s radicalism on issues like women’s rights, as well as his refusal to support the idea of abolitionists voting or running for public office, impeded the movement’s growth. Determined to make abolitionism a political movement, the seceders formed the Liberty Party, which nominated James G. Birney as its candidate for president. He received only 7,000 votes (about one-third of 1 percent of the total). In 1840, antislavery northerners saw little wisdom in “throwing away” their ballots on a third-party candidate.

This image appeared on the cover of the sheet music for “Get Off the Track!”, a song popularized by the Hutchinson singers, who performed antislavery songs. The trains Immediate Emancipation (with The Liberator as its front wheel) and Liberty Party pull into a railroad station. The Herald of Freedom and American Standard were antislavery newspapers. The song’s lyrics praised William Lloyd Garrison and criticized various politicians, among them Henry Clap. The chorus went: “Roll it along! Through the nation / Freedom’s car, Emancipation.”

While the achievement of most of their demands lay far in the future, the women’s rights movement succeeded in making “the woman question” a permanent part of the transatlantic discussion of social reform. As for abolitionism, although it remained a significant presence in northern public life until emancipation was achieved, by 1840 the movement had accomplished its most important work. More than 1,000 local antislavery societies were now scattered throughout the North, representing a broad constituency awakened to the moral issue of slavery. The “great duty of freedom,” Ralph Waldo Emerson had declared in 1837, was “to open our halls to discussion of this question.” The abolitionists’ greatest achievement lay in shattering the conspiracy of silence that had sought to preserve national unity by suppressing public debate over slavery.


1. To what degree was antebellum reform international in scope?

2. were the aims of prisons, asylums, and other institutions in this period of social change?

3. Why did Horace Mann believe that universal public education would return both equality and stability to a society fractured by the market revolution?

4. Why did so many prominent Americans, from both the North and South, support the colonization of freed slaves?

5. What was the strategy of “moral suasion” and why did most early abolitionists advocate this policy? How successful was it?

6. How was racism evident even in the abolitionist movement, and what steps did some abolitionists take to fight racism in American society?

7. How could antebellum women participate in the public sphere even though they were excluded from government and politics?

8. How did women’s participation in the abolitionist movement enable them to raise issues of their own natural rights and freedoms?

9. How did the feminism of this period challenge traditional gender beliefs and social structures?


1. What freedoms did the Shakers and Mormons seek for their members?

2. Compare the limitations to freedom for slaves and white women in this period.

3. How did the physical and legal assaults on abolitionists become perceived as attacks on the liberties of all white Americans in the North?

4. How did the abolitionist movement promote the idea of freedom as universal, and thus alter the national definition of liberty?

5. Some reformers believed that government power could be a force for freedom. Other groups saw the reform movements as attacks on freedom and the community.

Explain both views.

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