In 1836 Theodore Dwight Weld met his match in anti-abolition mobs that refused to let him speak at a local church in Troy, New York. Goaded by the mayor and at least one police officer, they dragged him from the pulpit and stoned him all the way to his lodging. Weld suffered a concussion that ended his speaking career. The mayor warned him to get out of town.1

The emergence of radical abolitionism unveiled the relationship between a social movement, society, class, and the state as reflected in mob violence, law, partisan politics, and civil disobedience. State repression and popular persecution tied the cause of the slave to that of civil liberties and to American democracy itself. Anti-abolitionist riots were also racial pogroms, targeting northern black communities and their institutions. The movement’s interracial nature and programmatic radicalism posed a latent challenge to the slaveholding Republic.

Though abolitionists remained a significant minority, they acted as the ideological vanguard of a growing antislavery sentiment. Political outsiders, abolitionists nonetheless took advantage of the print, transportation, and communication revolutions. Organizationally, they developed a lecturing agency system, a network of newspapers, and modes of political action that were a blueprint for subsequent radical movements. Ideologically, Christian notions of universal brotherhood gave birth to abolitionists’ systematic articulation of human rights. The complicity and conservatism of northern elites engendered critiques of political institutions, market society, cultural conformity, and social hierarchies that fractured the movement. Abolition’s very growth exposed fissures within it. It was a “movement emergent” in the 1830s.2


Perhaps no phenomenon illustrated the radical nature of abolition more vividly than the virulence of the racist response to it. Commentators from the French statesman and author Alexis de Tocqueville to contemporary historians have remarked on the prevalence of racism in the North. In the South abolitionists were treated like slave rebels, felons subject to the highest penalties of law and vigilante violence. Anti-abolitionist violence exposed the profoundly limited nature of American democracy and citizenship when it came to slavery and race. In this atmosphere of a major attack on their civil liberties and persons, abolitionists gained their first adherents.3

Controversies over black education gave an inkling of the depth of white opposition to racial equality. Abolitionists proposed the building of a black manual labor college in 1831. Supported by Garrison and Jocelyn, it received the enthusiastic backing of the black convention, which appointed Cornish as an agent to raise funds and a committee to manage it. Arthur Tappan donated one thousand dollars. Known for its public school system, female academies, Yale College, and an African Improvement Society devoted to black education, New Haven seemed like an ideal place to build the college. The manual labor movement called for a unified program of mental and physical education that emphasized the dignity and value of labor. It made education accessible to the working poor and familiarized the privileged with physical work. Weld was educated in manual labor at the Oneida Institute in New York.

The united opposition of the city’s elite, the mayor, colonizationists, Yale, and working-class immigrants, who competed for jobs and residential space with the black population, doomed the college. At a raucous town meeting only Roger Sherman Baldwin, the future lawyer for the Amistad rebels, and James Donaghe, a Virginian abolitionist, voted with Jocelyn for the college. In resolutions, the town leaders voiced their opposition to abolition: “that the propagation of sentiments favorable to the immediate emancipation of slaves . . . is unwarrantable and dangerous interference with the internal concerns of other States, and ought to be discouraged.” The incident stripped the mask of racial benevolence from the colonization movement, which promoted the education of missionaries to Africa. The state colonization society was headquartered in New Haven, home to the influential Leonard Bacon. Garrison condemned Yale and New Haven of behavior “worthy of the dark ages.”4

Connecticut’s colonizationists did not hesitate to use more heavy-handed tactics. In 1833 Prudence Crandall, educated in Moses Brown’s school, admitted Sarah Harris, a young black girl, to her female academy in Canterbury. Crandall was asked to admit Sarah by Ann Marcia Davis, who worked for Crandall and sat in her classes. Ann was engaged to Sarah’s brother Charles Harris. Their father, William Harris, was an agent for the Liberator. Sarah had pleaded her case eloquently before Crandall. When parents and townspeople protested, Crandall dismissed her white students and opened her academy to black girls. She met Garrison, who became an ardent ally and advertised her school in his newspaper. Connecticut, acting on a petition from Canterbury, passed a law banning the instruction of African Americans from out of state, and Crandall was arrested. Andrew T. Judson, a local Democratic politician, led the opposition to Crandall. Her case went all the way to the state supreme court, where it was dismissed because of insufficient evidence, but the so-called black law was allowed to stand. After Crandall was freed, townspeople launched a campaign of intimidation, fouled the school’s well water with manure, hurled stones through its windows, pelted students with garbage, and attempted to burn it down, falsely accusing a black man of the crime. They arrested her black student Ann Eliza Hammond of Providence for vagrancy.

The persecution of Crandall and her black students aroused abolitionists. Garrison published letters from Crandall’s “colored scholars,” one of whom struggled, she said, to find Christian forgiveness toward her enemies. He commented, “To colonize these shameless enemies of their species [rather than blacks] to some desert country would be a relief and blessing to society.” In his The Right of Colored People to Education Vindicated, May denounced the “inveterate . . . prejudices of whites against those of African descent” and the “aristocracy of color” in the United States. With monetary assistance from Tappan, he hired lawyers for Crandall and published the Unionist in her defense. Charles C. Burleigh, whose brother William taught at Crandall’s academy, edited it. Garrison published a pamphlet with the arguments of Crandall’s lawyers because they raised the question of black citizenship. Forty-three men and women from Canterbury and neighboring towns formed an antislavery society. The NEASS’s Abolitionist published “A Canterbury Tale” detailing the harassment of Crandall and her students. John Bowers, a black abolitionist from Philadelphia, commissioned her portrait, collecting twenty-five dollars to pay for it, so that posterity may know the “great heroines whose names but seldom adorn the history of Modern America.” Crandall, who could not guarantee her students’ safety, closed the academy and married a Baptist minister, Rev. Calvin Philleo. During the Civil War a black Union regiment raised money for her upkeep. Owing to a petition initiated by Mark Twain, the state of Connecticut paid her an annuity of four hundred dollars as reparation. Sarah and her sister Mary Harris became teachers and active abolitionists. Sarah named one of her daughters after Crandall, and Mary, together with her husband, worked in freedmen’s schools in Louisiana during Reconstruction. In October 1995 the Connecticut General Assembly declared Prudence Crandall a State Heroine.5

In 1835 a mob in Canaan emulated the people of Canterbury, destroying the Noyes Academy. That year abolitionists in New Hampshire started publishing the Herald of Freedom in Concord with the immediatist motto, “No compromise with slavery.” They appealed to the citizens of the state to disavow “an unhallowed prejudice” and asked that the “abused Negro” be enfranchised. When they built a school on land deeded by Samuel Noyes, townspeople voted for it despite some opposition. Its trustees included Sewall and David Lee Child. Unlike Yale, Dartmouth College supported the effort, visualizing Noyes as a feeder school to the college and building on its checkered history of benevolence toward Native Americans. On Hosea Easton’s suggestion, fourteen black students were admitted to Noyes, among them Henry Highland Garnet, Alexander Crummell, the son of Boston Crummell, and Thomas Sidney, all three graduates of the African school, and Thomas Paul, Garrison’s apprentice. The three New Yorkers were forced to make the journey to Canaan on top of a stagecoach, which took a toll on the sickly Garnet. Not deterred, they gave impressive speeches before the New Hampshire Anti Slavery Society (NHASS), much to the delight of their teachers but to the annoyance of townspeople.

Paul wrote in the Liberator of mounting opposition to the interracial academy. On July 4, administrators led by Timothy Tilton turned away a mob bent on asserting the racially exclusive nature of American republicanism. A month later, with the sheriff leading them, the mob returned to bulldoze the building by tying it to a cart pulled by teams of oxen. They surrounded the black students, who boarded with the faculty, and shot at them with guns. Garnet fired back and was credited with having saved the students. Both Garnet and Crummell became famous abolitionists, the latter naming one of his sons Sidney Garnet to honor the two classmates who had undergone the ordeal with him. The three eventually graduated from Oneida, which was remade into an abolitionist school by Beriah Green. Crummell recalled “3 years of perfect equality” with the white students there. The black abolitionists Jermaine Loguen, Amos Beman, William G. Allen, and Forten’s son, William D. Forten, also graduated from Oneida. Their teacher at Noyes, Nathaniel Peabody Rogers, became the editor of the Herald of Freedom.6

Cutting across class lines, with “gentlemen of property and standing” taking the lead, anti-abolition mobs in the mid-1830s reacted to the rise of immediatism in an orgy of violence. They frequently targeted blacks who appeared to be stepping out of their place and were symbols of black achievement as well as churches and schools. A race riot started by drunken white sailors in Providence in 1831 alarmed Garrison, but it was an example of a regular pattern. Some of the most spectacular incidents of violence occurred at the very places where organized abolition was born. Of the seventy-plus instances of anti-abolition violence, over half, forty-six, occurred between 1834 and 1837, just as the movement was gaining ground. Threats from “southrons” accompanied the call in 1833 for the founding of the NYASS, and anti-abolitionists forced a last-minute change of venue. Garrison, who had returned from England, was excoriated in the press for his anti-Americanism. He barely escaped from New York, whose business elites had close ties to slavery. Contemporary critics blamed abolitionists’ “martyr complex” for inciting violence.7

Colonizationist opposition, a jingoistic and racist press, the lackadaisical response by and complicity of law enforcement authorities, and conservative elites’ dread of disrupting economic and political ties with the slave South stoked violence to stamp out the infant movement. The New York City riot of 1834 destroyed black homes and churches sympathetic to abolition and led to the ransacking of Lewis Tappan’s home. James Watson Webb, the editor of the New York Courier and Enquirer, whose racist ranting and colonizationist views became a regular in the Liberator’s “Refuge of Oppression” section, accused abolitionists of promoting racial amalgamation. Garrison’s call for the repeal of the Massachusetts law against interracial marriage infuriated Webb. The riot forced the resignation of Peter Williams, whose church was nearly destroyed, from the AASS board of managers under pressure from his superior in the Episcopal church, Bishop Onderdonk, a colonizationist. But Williams refused to renounce his membership and participated in antislavery meetings until his death in 1840. In a public letter to Mayor Cornelius Lawrence signed by the Tappans, Goodell, Leavitt, and Cornish, among others, the AASS disavowed promoting interracial marriage and raised the issue of freedom of speech. Garrison was more critical of the magistrates of New York, who he opined had been delinquent.

A month later a race riot in Philadelphia, which began as a fight between black and white firefighters at a carnival, wreaked havoc on black homes, businesses, and churches. Irish immigrants, victims of discrimination themselves, vented their anger on blacks, and a PAS report pointed to colonizationist complicity in fostering racist sentiment. One black man was killed and several more were injured. Whites were told to light candles in their windows to escape the mobs. A “citizens’ committee” blamed competition over jobs as well as abolitionist activism in preventing the rendition of fugitive slaves for provoking violence. At least four anti-abolition riots in New Jersey, New Hampshire, and Connecticut occurred that year alone. In 1835 a mob again attacked black homes in Philadelphia.8

Contemporaries noted the respectable nature of anti-abolition mobs made up of merchants, politicians, and local law enforcement officials. In 1833 a public debate between Green and Rev. Joshua Danforth over colonization in Utica had resulted in the burning in effigy of Green and Alvan Stewart, a local abolitionist. City authorities in Utica issued grand jury presentments against a convention called by Stewart to form the NYASS in 1835. The Common Council, however, voted to let them hold the convention at the courthouse. Led by Samuel Beardsley, a local Democratic politician, an anti-abolitionist meeting that included the mayor and local bankers forced the council to reverse its decision. An opposing meeting of “respectable mechanics” backed the abolitionists’ right to gather. Abolitionists moved their convention to the Bleecker Street Presbyterian Church. A committee of twenty-five led by the ubiquitous Beardsley and a local judge shouted down the speakers, destroyed church property and antislavery literature, and threatened to cane the minister. Beardsley became the attorney general of New York and a state supreme court justice. Stewart argued that northern mobs were doing the work of slaveholders. He and Goodell launched an abolitionist newspaper they called Friend of Man in 1836, and Utica soon became a stronghold of abolition.9 Aversion to anti-abolitionist violence made many join the movement.

Mob violence made its way to Garrison’s doorstep as well. He received threatening notes and found an elaborate gallows with two nooses constructed in front of his house, for him and the British abolitionist George Thompson. Thompson’s lecture tour in the United States was disrupted by mobs pelting him with rotten eggs and garbage in Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts. He and, earlier, Charles Stuart were commonly portrayed as foreign agents sent to destabilize the Union. Invited by Garrison, Thompson was refused accommodations in a New York hotel because of a southern guest’s complaints. Other NEASS lecturers, mistaken for Thompson, received the same treatment. But black audiences received him cordially. One of his staple lectures was a true history of Haiti, in which he justified the use of violence in self-defense by slaves.10

Black Bostonians started watching Garrison’s home and following him to work and back. Garrison insisted he would not allow America to disown abolitionists, and he issued an appeal on behalf of the slaves modeled after the Declaration of Independence. In August the colonizationist lawyer Peleg Sprague and the former mayor Harrison Gray Otis made inflammatory speeches at an anti-abolition meeting at Faneuil Hall. Garrison excoriated Sprague’s suggestion that abolitionists plead their cause in the South, where they could be lynched. He rebuked Otis for tainting his family’s revolutionary heritage by becoming an “apologist for slavery” and excluding black countrymen from his patriotism. On October 21, after having dinner with Vashon at his home, Garrison attended a Boston Female Anti Slavery Society (BFASS) meeting, where he was finally mobbed. A howling crowd of thousands had gathered to rough up Thompson and got Garrison instead. Disheveled, his clothes ripped and spectacles lost, with a noose around his body, Garrison owed his life to a carpenter who hid him in his shop, two burly truckmen who protected him, and an intrepid black carriage driver who whisked him to the city jail while keeping the mob at bay with his whip. Mayor Theodore Lyman, who disbanded the BFASS meeting, jailed Garrison for his protection but only after formally charging him and the thirty-odd abolitionist women for provoking disorder. Garrison and his wife, Helen (a BFASS member), who was pregnant and witnessed his mobbing, named their firstborn after Thompson. According to Garrison, the “American nation in 1835” was a “picture of infamy,” “mobocracy” had triumphed in Boston, and freedom of speech and press were a “mockery.”11

The mobbing of abolitionists converted those appalled at the open violation of civil liberties. The most important of these were Wendell Phillips, the scion of a Boston Brahmin family, the physician Henry I. Bowditch, and Francis Jackson, who had offered his home as a venue to the BFASS after the Boston mobbing. Phillips’s conversion was hurried along by his fiancée, Ann Greene, who had been trapped by the mob. William Jay, the accomplished jurist and son of the founder John Jay, joined the movement after the New York City riot, and Gerrit Smith announced his conversion from colonization to abolition because “the right to free discussion” was threatened. Smith offered his estate in Peterboro to the antislavery convention driven out of Utica. He argued that abolitionists should modify their language and work for gradual emancipation. Garrison noted that Smith blew “hot and cold,” but his repudiation of colonization was an important victory. Immediatism bothered some, like the antislavery Unitarian theologian William Ellery Channing. In his influential Slavery, Channing endorsed abolitionist ideas, committing, Garrison observed, “moral plagiarisms.” He chided abolitionists for their extremism but condemned their persecution. May and Lydia Maria Child criticized Channing for accepting abolitionist logic but criticizing abolitionist activism. Channing deplored the fact that antislavery societies included blacks instead of appealing to the respectable elements of society.12 Attacks on the civil liberties of whites led many to abolition.

Slaveholders knew no restraint when suspected abolitionists and slave rebels were apprehended. Just as the publication of the Liberator coincided with Turner’s insurrection, the AASS’s moral suasion campaign to mail antislavery literature to the South coincided with the slave insurrection hysteria of 1835 in Mississippi. Rumors of a rebellion and sensational accounts of the shady activities of John Murrell, who was suspected of starting a revolt, resulted in the torture, lynching, and hanging of at least nineteen slaves and a number of whites, including gamblers in Vicksburg deemed suspicious by vigilante committees. The execution of suspected rebels, abolitionists, and criminals exposed the unsavory reality of the new empire of cotton built on slaveholders’ visions of wealth and power. Abolitionists, who viewed the lynching as the fruit of slavery, found themselves classed with “slave stealers” and “horse thieves.”13

That year northerners and blacks came under suspicion all over the South. In August Amos Dresser, a student at Lane Seminary in Ohio, was arrested in Nashville for being an abolitionist planning to start a rebellion. Dresser sold Bibles wrapped in the newspaper of the AASS, the Emancipator, to raise money for his education. He also sold a copy of Rankin’s Letters on Slavery and had in his possession abolitionist pamphlets. Dresser confessed that he thought slave-holding violated divine law but disavowed any intention to incite slaves. A committee of slaveholders debated whether to subject him to the customary thirty-nine lashes doled out to recalcitrant slaves and settled for twenty. Shocked that his rights were so flagrantly violated, Dresser refused to disavow abolition. He became one of the most effective lecturing agents for the AASS. In 1837 John Hopper, the son of the Quaker abolitionist Isaac Hopper, narrowly escaped being lynched in Savannah, Georgia.14

During the long summer of 1835 two police constables arrested Reuben Crandall, a physician and the brother of Prudence, in Washington, a southern city that doubled as the national capital, on the charge of circulating abolitionist literature. Earlier, an eighteen-year-old slave named Arthur Bowen had been arrested for demanding freedom and threatening his mistress with an axe. A predominantly Irish mob tried to lynch Bowen and Crandall, but, frustrated by the heavily guarded jail, they went on a rampage against black churches and homes. They targeted the popular restaurant of a mixed-race former slave named Beverly Snow and the Presbyterian church and the school of Rev. John F. Cook. The colonizationist district attorney Francis Scott Key brought an indictment of sedition against Crandall. Eager to demonstrate a link between slave rebelliousness and abolition, Key was also behind the arrest and conviction of Bowen. Snow migrated to Canada, where he reopened his restaurant, and Cook fled to Pennsylvania, where he rebuilt his church. Crandall admitted to being an abolitionist and led authorities to his collection of antislavery literature. In his trial a year later, Judson, now a representative from Connecticut, testified, surprisingly, on his behalf, recalling his attempts to dissuade his sister from running a colored school. The defense counsel, quoting colonizationists, including Key, on the evils of slavery, raised the issue of freedom of speech. The grand jury returned a verdict of not guilty, but Crandall, who languished in jail for over eight months because of a prohibitive bail set by a proslavery judge, contracted tuberculosis in the “unwholesome dungeon” and died in 1838.15

In the latter half of the decade, abolition became interwoven with freedom of the press, as abolitionist editors came under sustained attack. Mobs disrupted the annual meeting of the Ohio Anti Slavery Society (OASS) and the founding of the Philanthropist by James G. Birney, a slaveholding convert to abolition. Birney’s father supported David Rice’s attempt to make Kentucky a free state, and he grew up hearing David Barrow of the KAS preach. A successful lawyer, Birney started representing slaves and Native Americans. Initially a colonizationist, he was converted to immediatism by Weld. Birney established the Kentucky Anti-Slavery Society in 1835 and tried to start a newspaper before being warned out of the state. When a public meeting in Alabama classed abolitionists with “blacklegs, gamblers, or other idle suspicious persons” who deserved death, Birney published his vindication of abolition. Abolitionists were, he explained, nearly forty thousand men and “unoffending and respectable females.” The real criminals were slaveholders, who scourged slaves so that they could lead lives of splendor.

In 1836 a mob led by Cincinnati’s mayor destroyed Birney’s press and descended on his home, where his son William kept them at bay. Birney and the OASS, which adopted the Philanthropist as its official organ, charged merchants and bankers with southern business connections and native Kentuckians for the violence. The mob also preyed on black homes and churches as well as brothels and saloons that encouraged interracial fraternization. African Americans responded in self-defense. When Dennis Hill, the president of the Cincinnati Union Society of Colored Persons, distanced the society from abolition in order to protect the community, twenty-eight of its members repudiated his statement. Weld advised African Americans to stay away from the OASS’s annual meeting because of threats of violence. A black man who attended was badly assaulted. When a law-and-order group of artisans, including Charles Hammond, the editor of the Cincinnati Gazette and a member of an early protection society, called a meeting to protest the violence, the meeting was hijacked by the very forces that led the mobs, who had the gall to blame abolitionists for the violence. In a letter of sympathy the executive committee of the NYASS argued that slavery could last only “on the ruins of a free press.” Slaveholders and their northern “aristocratic brethren” wanted “to crucify the freedom of the free, in order to secure the continued slavery of the slave.” Channing wrote to Birney that they were “sufferers for the liberty of thought, speech, and the press.” The Philanthropist resumed publication and increased its subscriptions. Abolitionist literature thrown out by the mob apparently made converts of passersby.16

Despite a concerted campaign to blame the victims, anti-abolition violence generated support for the movement in the North. The most notorious incident in this period was the murder of Elijah Lovejoy, an abolitionist editor in Alton, Illinois, in 1837. Lovejoy was born in Maine, his mother was a Garrisonian, and his brother Joseph an agent for the Liberator. In 1834 Lovejoy began publishing an evangelical antislavery newspaper, the Observer, in St. Louis. He condemned the lynching of a black man, Floyd McIntosh, who was burned alive over a slow fire. Lovejoy came across his dismembered body. The appropriately named Judge Luke Lawless did not indict his murderers. Lovejoy criticized the judge, leading a mob to destroy his printing materials. The lynching and the hounding out of the AASS agent Rev. David Nelson from Missouri convinced Lovejoy to relocate. In Alton a mob led by some Missourians destroyed Lovejoy’s press as soon as it arrived on the docks. City leaders condemned the action, but once Lovejoy founded an antislavery society they turned against him. His articles criticizing speculation by the wealthy during the Panic of 1837 and threats by Missourians to cut off business ties did not help. The local colonization society and the Kentucky-born attorney general of the state, Usher Linder, demanded that Lovejoy cease publishing the Observer. The controversy led to the formation of the Illinois Anti Slavery Society, but mobs repeatedly destroyed his press. Edward Beecher, the president of Illinois College and the son of the famous minister Lyman Beecher, asserted that it was a matter of freedom of the press. Lovejoy and his supporters resisted when a mob attacked his press a fourth time. An exchange of fire led to the death of Lovejoy, who was riddled with five bullets, as well as that of one person in the crowd. Linder made sure no one was prosecuted for his murder.

Abolitionists would not commemorate the death of one of their own in a similar manner until the execution of John Brown twenty-two years later. At the AASS meeting in the Broadway Tabernacle, Green drew attention to the “legalized man-murder” of slaves and asked, “Will not thousands and millions of our countrymen who have hitherto been indifferent, be thereby roused to the claims of the enslaved?” Garrison too compared Lovejoy’s murder with two million enslaved martyrs and the plight of his young widow to that of slave women. Garrison, who lined his columns in thick black lines of mourning, chided the hypocrisy of those who criticized Lovejoy and endorsed anti-abolition violence. Channing, who moved closer to abolition with each new outrage, called for a meeting to condemn the murder. City officials attempted to deny abolitionists the use of Faneuil Hall. Held nearly two months later because of the controversy, the meeting was interrupted by Attorney General James Austin, who portrayed the mob as revolutionary heroes. Phillips rose to school him in New England’s revolutionary tradition, thereby embarking on his career as the orator of the movement. Many years later Phillips recalled the agony he felt on hearing about Lovejoy’s death. Edmund Quincy announced that resistance to tyranny was obedience to God and sent his donation to the Massachusetts Anti Slavery Society (MASS). Charles Lenox Remond also delivered a rebuttal to Austin’s “lawless speech,” skewering his racist logic that compared slaves to a pack of dangerous animals in a menagerie. At a black protest meeting Thomas Jinnings noted that Lovejoy’s “horrid murder” was a fruit of the “foul system” of slavery.17

State repression complemented mob violence. Describing the disruption of a meeting in Mansfield by a mob beating drums and by the town clerk, who rang the church bell continuously, Isaac Stearns, a farmer, felt that men of “high standing” and “aristocratic feeling” should cease to dictate “what we shall hear and what we shall not hear.” George Storrs, an NEASS agent, was arrested in New Hampshire, May had several meetings disrupted, once by a stone thrown into a church that injured a woman in the audience, and Rev. George B. Cheever was imprisoned for libel. In Baltimore the black minister Charles W. Gardner was arrested. In Harrisburg a mob stoned the AASS agent Jonathan Blanchard. Marius Robinson was tarred and feathered and severely injured with a scythe in Ohio. To add insult to injury, he was tried for inciting violence.

Abolitionists found it difficult to secure venues for their meetings either because most town leaders were anti-abolitionist or because of fears that the buildings would be destroyed. In 1838 a mob in Philadelphia burned down Pennsylvania Hall, built by abolitionists with mostly small donations from blacks, women, and working people. The Pennsylvania Anti Slavery Society (PASS) had been founded a year earlier, and a colonization convention had started publishing the Anti-Abolitionist. In 1835 city merchants, mindful of their southern trading connections, had dumped abolitionist literature into the Delaware. As abolitionists addressed the second women’s antislavery convention in the hall, a loud mob heckled and broke the windows. Abolitionists appealed for protection, but the next day the hall was burned down. Whittier, now the editor of the Pennsylvania Freeman, called it a sacrifice to the “Demon of Slavery.” The mob also attempted to torch the Colored Orphan Asylum and Bethel church. While the rioters escaped punishment, a grand jury led by Cresson blamed abolitionists. Lundy, who lost most of his papers in the fire, and the PASS received minor damages for their loss. Nearly ten years later, after much legal wrangling, the managers of Pennsylvania Hall received more compensation. The British antislavery political economist Harriet Martineau described “the short life of American abolitionism . . . so crowded with events and achievements.” Violence, May reported, prevented the timid from joining antislavery societies. The black minister Theodore S. Wright, speaking on behalf of slaves, assured abolitionists that in being stoned, imprisoned, and mobbed they would “seed” the movement.

Abolitionists pioneered civil disobedience tactics in response to repression. The AASS issued an elaborate set of directives composed by Weld that instructed its agents on how to face down mobs, anticipating strategies used by civil rights workers against violent retaliation in the twentieth century. In its report of 1836 the MASS commented, “The violence and recklessness of our opposers have given a notoriety to the project of the Abolitionists, which, otherwise, it would not have so soon attained.”18 The movement was baptized by fire.


The 1830s were consumed in a war of words between abolitionists and colonizationists. The Irish political economist Mathew Carey of Philadelphia wrote a series of pamphlets advocating colonization. Carey influenced Henry Clay’s American System, which cited colonization as a way of ridding the country of what modernizers viewed as the economically backward institution of slavery and a “degenerate” race. Carey evoked culture, biology, the environment, and Humean moral sense to argue for racial separation. He criticized abolitionists for opposing “the fundamental laws of human nature” and “inequalities arising from unequal intellectual cultivation, a dissimilarity of moral sense.” A black writer adopting the pseudonym Paul Cuffe responded that Carey, who had libeled blacks during the yellow fever epidemic, was “woefully ignorant of the dispositions of our people.” In their address to the people of the United States, the managers of the ACS remarked on the “transformation, from imbecility and hopelessness, to activity, and confidence, and manliness and high expectations” of black colonists in Liberia. A meeting of blacks in New Bedford retorted that the ACS represented “terror, prejudice, and oppression” rather than “the warm and beneficent hand of philanthropy.” It “teaches the public to believe that it is patriotic and benevolent to withhold from us knowledge and the means of acquiring subsistence, and to look upon us as unnatural and illegal residents in the country, and thus by force of prejudice, if not by law, endeavor to compel us to embark for Africa.”19

Colonizationists’ racism and anti-abolitionism fed off each other. Wilbur D. Fisk, the colonizationist president of Wesleyan University who refused admission to the abolitionist Charles B. Ray, argued that abolitionists had raised the expectations of blacks and had rendered “the offensive object still more unwelcome and revolting.” Colonizationists accused Garrison of sowing hostility between the races and justified opposition to the college in New Haven and Crandall’s school by citing local prejudices. J. K. Converse, a colonizationist pastor from Vermont, resorted to invective, saying that free blacks were debased, sunk in wickedness and vice, had deceitful hearts, and were “citizens in nothing.” Even if granted political equality, they would remain inferior to whites. Similarly, the New Jersey Colonization Society pronounced that “nature has drawn a line of distinction, in color, which can never be obliterated” and that free blacks tended to become “unhappy, indolent, vicious, and revengeful.” William Fowler of the Vermont Colonization Society cast further aspersions, calling for the removal of blacks, who were “comparatively ignorant, as everyone knows; addicted to vice, as proved by the records of the prison; poor and improvident, as proved by the annals of the alms-house.”

In his address to the Massachusetts Colonization Society, the conservative Whig politician Caleb Cushing accused the AASS of arousing “the jealousies of the free blacks.” Rev. Joseph Tracy deplored the misapplication of the “Jacobinical doctrine of the Rights of Man” and natural equality that resulted in a demand for black equality. One colonizationist called immediatism the “principle of agrarianism” since it “leveled all distinctions in society, of rank, color, caste, and sex.” Some even argued that American slavery was better than African barbarism. They criticized abolitionists for not understanding that masters as well as slaves had rights.20

A few tried to assert an antislavery mission for the ACS. Robert J. Breckinridge, a Presbyterian pastor in Kentucky, called slavery a national crime but adhered to colonization as the best way to avoid slave rebellion and racial amalgamation. Bacon, in his review of Garrison’s, Stuart’s, and Cropper’s anticolonization pamphlets, judged that colonization would lead to abolition and that Liberia had done more “to make the negro character respectable by mankind” than Haiti. He predicted that slavery would not survive “free and open discussion.” Ironically, Bacon wrote this amidst the campaign of terror against abolition. He, Lyman Beecher, and Fisk founded the short-lived American Union for the Relief and Improvement of the Colored Race, which attracted the support of Arthur Tappan. Bacon edited the Journal of Freedom to represent antislavery colonizationists. The opposition of Garrison, Lewis Tappan, and the frigid reception accorded the union by African Americans sealed its fate. Breckinridge and Bacon eventually threw their weight behind another antislavery colonizationist, Abraham Lincoln. The colonizationist Ebenezer Baldwin in a pamphlet of 1834 set out to prove the fallacy of the idea that blacks were naturally inferior to whites. With the death of Baldwin and the defection of Gerrit Smith, who bemoaned the lack of love for blacks in the ACS, the society ceased to contain an effective antislavery wing.

Some colonizationists waxed lyrical on the ancient glories of Egypt and Africa. In 1836 Rev. Frederick Freeman, an Episcopal minister from Pennsylvania, published an updated version of Bacon’s plea for Africa in his book Yaradee. Despite the best efforts of the ACS secretary, Ralph Randolph Gurley, and Calvin Colton, who held that abolition was a schism from colonization, to promote missionary efforts in Africa, colonization became literally and figuratively bankrupt by the end of the decade.21

Abolitionists challenged colonizationists’ antislavery bona fides in the North. In The Sin of Slavery and Its Remedy (1833), Elizur Wright argued that the ACS was a predominantly slaveholding organization which sought to secure slave property. A bad cause—colonizationists were in favor of racially discriminatory laws, he noted—could not be made good by a few antislavery adherents. He debated the ACS agent Robert S. Finley, and Jocelyn and May took on Gurley. On the request of John Remond, Buffum debated the elitist Danforth, who disparaged his opponent’s lowly origins as a hatter. At Western Reserve College, Green, Wright, and Storrs initiated one of the earliest considerations of the merits of abolition versus colonization. Birney refuted Fisk and lectured in Converse’s church. Thompson debated the colonizationist president of Centre College in Danville, Kentucky, and Breckinridge during the latter’s visit to England. Goodell challenged Bacon, Henry B. Stanton debated Tracy and Freeman, and Robinson refuted Elisha Whittlesey.22

The most extended debate took place at Lane Seminary in Cincinnati. Founded in 1829, Lane was bankrolled by Arthur Tappan and headed by Beecher. In 1831 a Rev. Samuel Crothers published letters against slavery in a local paper, and a year later Stanton, a student at Lane, held that the North should not help the South put down a slave rebellion. In 1834 Weld and his followers from Oneida became students at Lane. With the charismatic Weld leading off, students armed with literature from the ACS and the AASS explored immediatism for eighteen days in two-hour-plus sessions. The most dramatic testimony came from James Bradley. Enslaved in Africa, he “cut up . . . white objections” to abolition. Bradley, who had bought his freedom, inverted slave-holding logic, reasoning that slaves were used to taking caring of their masters and would take care of themselves better “when disencumbered from this load.” They wanted “liberty and education,” not expatriation. Even the southern students James A. Thome of Kentucky and William Allan of Alabama converted, engendering optimism about moral suasion. Slaveholders’ violent repression of abolition ensured that debates like the ones at Lane would not occur in the South.

To the dismay of the administration, the students not only formed an antislavery society but also started teaching in Cincinnati’s black community. Beecher and his daughter Catharine tried unsuccessfully to effect a reconciliation. Contact with African Americans made the Lane rebels even more committed to immediatism and against colonization. Their activities caused an uproar, and school authorities sought to ban discussion of slavery. Two of the students, Augustus Wattles and Marius Robinson, began to teach full-time in black schools. Weld never forgot his experience with black Cincinnatians, many of whom had bought themselves out of slavery and continued to scrape money together to buy friends and families. Recounting their stories, he “was forced to stop from sheer heart-ache and agony.” Led by Weld, seventy-five students left the seminary, and fifty-one signed the “Statement of Reasons” defending freedom of discussion. Financed again by Tappan, most moved to the fledgling Oberlin Collegiate Institute, cofounded by a Finneyite, Rev. John Jay Shipherd. Professor John Morgan and the former Lane trustee Asa Mahan, who became president of Oberlin, joined them. Finney enlisted as professor of theology.

As Oberlin became a pioneer in interracial and women’s higher education and a “movement center” of abolition, Weld embarked on a lecture tour of Ohio, western Pennsylvania, and New York. Stanton did the same in New England. Weld helped found the OASS, with many of the Lane rebels signing on, and Stanton, drawing on local abolitionist networks, helped form the Rhode Island Anti Slavery Society (RIASS). Lane students formed the backbone of the AASS’s agency system, the biblically named Seventy, actually just over sixty agents trained by Weld. They apprised Weld of their labors, complaining when Finney tried to get them to ride the religious circuit instead of preaching abolition. At the first anniversary of the AASS, Thome testified that colonization had served to “lessen my conviction of the evil of slavery, and to deepen and sanctify my prejudice against the colored race.” In contrast to colonization, Stanton declared, defeating racial prejudice was an important abolitionist aim. Weld also kept in touch with the abolitionist teachers Phebe Mathews, Emmeline Bishop, and Susan Lowe, recruited by Wattles. Weld became the premier theoretician of what he called a “living abolitionism.”23

Colonization was on the defensive among its original constituency, northern clergymen. When Rev. Samuel H. Cox visited England he was confronted with the question of whether the ACS had the support of the free people of color. Cox undertook an independent investigation and determined that because of “the non-consent and unanimous opposition of the colored people . . . the Society is morally annihilated.” His interviews with New York’s black clergymen settled the question. In his pamphlet against colonization, he printed Cornish’s letter that denounced it as a “system of proscription and cruelty.” The Andover-educated Amos Phelps persuaded 124 ministers to sign a declaration condemning colonization and endorsing immediatism. Phelps told them it was their duty to change public sentiment and public conscience. His four lectures on slavery established that slaveholding was “in all cases a sin,” as it was based on the principle of man stealing. Phelps caustically observed that if the Bible justified slavery, it also justified polygamy. The abolition movement composed of “Mr. Working-man” and “Mr. Philosopher” should unite on immediate abolition. To those who claimed that immediatism was dangerous, Phelps answered that only when the Haitians were threatened with reenslavement did they retaliate. When freed, American slaves, like their counterparts in Haiti, would “under the new order of things . . . march . . . towards their ancient splendor.” In the appendix, a letter from Joshua Coffin listed all the slave rebellions in North America as a sign of divine vengeance and criticized colonizationists for fostering unchristian prejudice.24

Abolitionists discredited the independent Maryland Colonization Society, which made emancipation one of its goals. Watkins accused the “Maryland scheme” of “pseudo philanthropy” in denying enslaved blacks a “liberty of choice,” forcing them to leave the country to obtain their freedom. Our “true friends,” he wrote, were the “persecuted abolitionists.” After receiving a letter from an emigrant detailing the hardships encountered in Cape Palmas, Watkins said that colonization rewarded slaves for their “years of grievous privation and unrequited toil with exile, disease, starvation and death.” Following Watkins, Garrison denounced the Maryland plan as a “new scheme of villainy.” In his second, lesser-known pamphlet against colonization, Garrison reviewed Maryland’s colonization design and the increasingly oppressive laws against free blacks in that state. Instead of “righting the wrongs” of slavery, he criticized the state’s policy of “making the condition of the free so uncomfortable, that they will be glad to escape, and by riveting the chain of the slave forever, except he consent, when emancipated, to be exiled.” Colonization was a scheme to abolish the “whole colored population.” In 1840 black Marylanders protested what they saw as an atrocious law that barred free blacks from entering the state and fined them for doing so, the money raised designated to the state colonization society. Black abolitionists in New York convened an anticolonization meeting led by Wright, Ray, Cornish, Thomas Downing, the Reason brothers, James McCune Smith, and John J. Zuille against Maryland colonization. Black meetings in Worcester, Buffalo, and Albany also condemned it.25

The colonizationists in Maryland made a direct appeal to the black community, touting emigrant success stories under the motto, “Where Freedom is, there is my country.” The society appointed John Russwurm, who became disenchanted with the bigotry of ACS agents and married McGill’s daughter, governor of Cape Palmas in 1836. Colonizationists published letters from black emigrants, highlighting the accomplishments of McGill’s son Samuel Ford McGill and Russwurm. The African Repository published reports of a procolonization meeting among free persons of color in Charleston. An anonymous black Charlestonian argued that “popular prejudice” stood as an unconquerable barrier to “our advancement in knowledge” and recommended removal to Liberia, where “you will enjoy moral and political liberty.” But disillusioned black colonists like Louis Sheridan, a prosperous free black man from North Carolina, and Thomas Brown, a carpenter who possessed substantial property in his native South Carolina, provided fodder for abolitionists’ position. Describing the dismal conditions in Liberia, Sheridan, in a letter to Lewis Tappan, complained that he had not left “the US to be freed from the tyranny of the white man” to find himself at the mercy of another. The ACS extorted money from emigrants for the cost of their transportation to Liberia, a majority of whom, he said, would leave if they could. He also wrote that the slave trade from the area proceeded unchecked. Brown, who had migrated at his own expense, noted that while the ACS and Cresson pressured him to report favorably on Liberia, the AASS treated him fairly. He testified to the high mortality rates suffered by colonists, refuting the racialist logic of placing black people in their so-called natural environment. Brown confessed that he was forced to deal in alcohol, guns, tobacco, and powder to survive.26

Besides black testimony, Birney and Jay put the finishing touches to the abolitionist argument against colonization. In his Letter on Colonization (1834) to Rev. Thornton J. Mills of the Kentucky Colonization Society, Birney observed that colonization was a strange mixture of true with utterly false principles. In trying to address the evil of slavery, it fostered a “persecuting and malignant spirit against free people of color.” A year later Jay published his Inquiry into the Character and Tendency of the American Colonization and American Anti-Slavery Societies. Jay’s sharpest critique of colonizationists rested on their opposition to black education and improvement and their desire to get rid of black people. He pointed out that Haiti had proven the “ability of the African race to value, defend, and enjoy the blessings of freedom,” and he welcomed signs that the British were doing away with gradualism and apprenticeship in the West Indies. He opposed compensation to slaveholders as “morally impossible.”27

The black abolitionist David Ruggles was also a premier ideologue of anticolonization immediatism. Born in Lyme, Connecticut, in 1810, educated in Sabbath schools and by the colonizationist author Lydia Sigourney, Ruggles moved to New York City in 1828. He was at various points a sailor and a grocer, but his true vocation was abolition. Ruggles founded a Garrisonian society and an antislavery reading room and library, attended the black conventions, and became an agent for the Emancipator. He published a formidable body of pamphlets in response to the physician David M. Reese, a vehement colonizationist. Reese charged abolitionists with foisting “the project of a forced and unnatural elevation of the African race.” He dismissed their speeches as the “ravings of a mad man” and their conventions as a “motley assemblage of blacks and whites.” Ruggles characterized Reese’s racism as “hyperbole and cant.” He treated the colonizationist Heman Howlett, who was devoid of Reese’s racism, more respectfully, adding that he was a “better writer.” Ruggles predicted that “my little book, pregnant with truth, shall survive the revolution of ages, and even give Dr. Reese himself a reluctant immortality!” His second reply, written under the pseudonym Martin Mar Quack MD LLD etc., spoofed Reese’s medical degrees. Reese did not deign to answer Ruggles and instead replied to Jay. He contended that most blacks had been treated kindly by whites until “the spirit of Garrisonism was infused among these depressed people and . . . from being quiet and unassuming . . . they now began to assume an attitude of pride and independence. They were taught to regard themselves as perfectly equal to the whites in every aspect, and to attribute their separation, which long custom had rendered tolerable, as the fruits of robbery and oppression.” In Humbugs of New York (1838), Reese blamed the “black and white fanatics who constituted the Executive Committee of the American Anti Slavery Society” for inciting violence against themselves. He even defended the “quiet and orderly people of Alton” for murdering Lovejoy. Ruggles fired back with An Antidote for a Poisonous Combination. Reese’s remarks, he wrote, were a mixture of “scurrility, abuse and falsehood” and put upon him “the indelible mark of infamy.”28

Black abolitionists remained the standard-bearers in opposing colonization. They convened giant anticolonization meetings on December 20, 1838, and January 8, 1839, in New York. Marveling at the fact that black people had opposed colonization for over twenty years, the meeting passed a resolution written by McCune Smith that called “the whole scheme . . . anti-republican, anti-christian, and anti-humane.” McCune Smith considered the ACS an aristocratic organization that preached the “natural inequality” of American citizens. Cornish followed, deprecating the “criminal hatred of color” encouraged by colonizationists. Bell mocked colonizationist efforts to variously flatter, cajole, bribe, and intimidate blacks. Thomas Van Rensselaer admitted that he was wrong to think that the colonizationists were harmless, as they continued to poison the public mind. The Colored American opined that it was a “cruel, utopian system” that had lost much of its vitality under the abolitionist onslaught. Black meetings in Cleveland and Cincinnati passed resolutions against the society. Stephen Gloucester reported that colonizationists approved of the burning of Pennsylvania Hall and abused blacks and abolitionists alike. Contested in the North and virtually nonexistent in the militant proslavery lower south, colonization societies persisted mainly in the border states. By the end of the decade abolition had displaced colonization as the dominant force for antislavery in much of the upper north.29


Abolitionist ideology illustrated the radical nature of the movement. It exposed northern complicity in upholding slavery, connected the sufferings of slaves to national wealth, and developed a discourse of human rights. The NEASS characterized immediatism as a principle that recognized “equal natural rights” of black people and defined slavery as a crime akin to robbery, kidnapping, or piracy. C. P. Grosvenor, the abolitionist Baptist minister, argued that since slavery was based on “the love of money, the root of all evil,” no reformation of the system was possible. It was better to reduce the oppressor to pauperism than to keep two million oppressed slaves in poverty. For “so long as national wealth is bottomed, in part, on the labor of the oppressed . . . pouring all their earnings to the national Treasury, the Free States are partakers of this ill gotten wealth.” Amos Savage believed that all Americans were implicated in the “national sin of slavery,” and Rankin opined that the “oppression of the poor is one of the greatest sins.”30

Notwithstanding their formal commitment to nonviolence, abolitionists continued to evoke the revolutionary example of Haiti. Grosvenor and James Dickinson defended the Haitian rebels: “Who does not applaud the colored people of St. Domingo for their refusal to submit to the cruel yoke of slavery?” William Dexter Wilson lauded “Hayti, the first spot to receive African slaves, . . . the first spot of successful resistance to the whites; and the first spot to establish a government of free blacks in the western world.” David Lee Child extolled the day “Hayti triumphed; single handed and against the world.” The people of Haiti, according to one abolitionist, were “on a level, in point of cultivation and intelligence, with any people in the world; whatever prejudice and malice may object to the fact.” According to Garrison, Haiti should be the object of “universal admiration” and the “acclamations of the world.” In 1837 the Liberator published Whittier’s hagiographic poem on Louverture and reported on the formation of a Haitian Abolition Society against American slavery. Two years later the Philanthropist combined its protest against the annexation of Texas with a demand for the recognition of Haiti by the American government. In its first issue the Anti-Slavery Record published a rejoinder to proslavery apologists who regularly evoked the “horrors of St. Domingo.” Weld persuaded Birney to publish parts of W. W. Harvey’s Sketches of Hayti (1827) to challenge unsympathetic depictions of the revolution. New York City’s ASS argued that the safety of immediate abolition had been proven in Haiti, South America, and Mexico and called for cultivating it as a “moral sentiment.”31

The West Indies, after the end of the apprenticeship system, also served as a successful example of immediatism. Birney pointed out that while all the nations in South America and the British West Indies had moved toward emancipation, the United States and Brazil upheld the “most contemptible of all despotisms.” Henry Peterson averred that West Indian emancipation had proven the failure of gradualism. In 1838 the AASS published Thome and J. Horace Kimball’s book based on their six-month investigative tour of the West Indies. Their report stressed the superiority of immediate emancipation in Antigua, where freed people enjoyed civil and political rights, including education and suffrage. In comparison, apprenticeship in Jamaica and Barbados illustrated that halfway measures between slavery and complete freedom gave rise to abuses by former masters and government. They compiled the testimony of officials, magistrates, missionaries, free blacks, and former slaves and indicated that there was “unjustifiable inequality” in the apprenticeship laws that worked as “additional compensation” for masters and a “modified form of slavery.” Weld prepared the book for publication because Kimball, the former editor of Herald of Freedom, had died. The British abolitionists Joseph Sturge and Thomas Harvey went on a similar mission. They all viewed the West Indian experiment as proof of the advisability of immediate emancipation.32

Abolitionists sustained the doctrine of immediatism against any sign of backsliding. In his letter to the NEASS convention, Jocelyn warned that immediate emancipation should remain the watchword of abolitionists. When David Paul Brown, the president of the PASS, vacillated between immediatism and gradualism in his speech of 1838, the PASS and the MASS republished Heyrick’s pamphlet to show how it had converted Wilberforce from gradualism to immediatism. The experience of gradual emancipation and racism in the North was another argument for immediatism. An NHASS report argued against “a lingering emancipation.” Immediatism would convert “our negro-hating and negro-scorning countrymen.” Oliver Johnson judged that no slaveholder would ever do anything to prepare his slaves for freedom. Abolitionists rejected the notion of compensating slaveholders. May pointed out to those who maintained that abolitionists disregarded slaveholders’ property rights, that the slaves were the ones whose “dearest rights” had been violated. The Indiana Anti-Slavery Society, one of the last state societies organized, encapsulated the abolitionist principle in its constitution, immediate emancipation and the inalienable rights of humans “without respect to color.” Green juxtaposed arguments against the practicability of abolition with God-given directives against slavery, an early version of the higher law argument.33

While fundamentalist proslavery ministers appealed to the written word of the Bible or to biblical literalism, abolitionist theology was interpretive, scholarly, and humanistic. Like that practiced by early Quakers and Unitarians, abolitionist Christianity was tempered by rationalism and humanitarianism. Abolitionists viewed slavery as a crime against humanity rather than merely a religious sin. In his four sermons on abolition, Green reasoned that slavery violated the ethical principle of disinterestedness and that selfishness, its opposite, was the source of oppression. He stressed the Gospel’s notion of brotherhood, especially the divine injunction of whatsoever you “did to the least of me ye did to me.” Anticipating the Social Gospel movement, the Christian socialists, and liberation theologians of the twentieth century, abolitionists condemned the oppression of the laboring poor. Even the more freethinking Garrison regarded the poor and the oppressed as God’s chosen people. The Anti Slavery Society of Worcester County stressed the criminality of slavery and believed that the arm of a just God would be stretched out toward the oppressed rather than the oppressor.

Weld’s highly influential The Bible Against Slavery, which was reprinted in four editions in 1837–38, invoked the Gospel’s “LAW OF LOVE” as an abolitionist principle. Like Green, he insisted that the chattel principle or the converting of men into property, not just deprivation of rights and privileges, defined slavery. Slaveholders were man stealers, and they violated both moral law and biblical commandments. Weld derived the very essence of human rights, “MAN IS INVIOLABLE“from the Bible. Human beings could not be reduced to articles of commerce, he wrote, not just countenancing “self ownership” but also questioning the very idea of human beings as property. He demolished the racial grounds of proslavery divines that attempted to link blackness with “Cain’s mark” or the curse on Ham. He later rejected biblical creed and became a Unitarian. Even when they were appealing to the Bible, abolitionists appealed not just to the word of scripture but to historical facts and common sense. In his letters to Rev. John L. Wilson, the South Carolinian colonizationist, Rankin claimed that Christianity had abolished slavery in the Roman Empire. Responding to Rev. John Smylie of Mississippi, Gerrit Smith warranted that most primitive Christians were slaves rather than slaveholders. He emphasized Paul’s homily, “Remember them that are in bonds as bound with them.” The subtitle of Weld’s book announced that it concerned the “subject of Human Rights.”34

Abolitionists were pioneers in developing the modern concept of human rights. From 1835 to 1839 the AASS published a monthly journal entitled Human Rights, the first time the term was used extensively. Slavery, it announced in its opening issue, is “the greatest possible violation of human rights.” Garrison printed an occasional column under the new moniker. According to the RIAS convention, there could be no compromise over the principle of “human rights,” and David Root, the president of the NHASS, called slavery an “outrageous infraction” of it. In a secular counterpart to Weld’s arguments, Goodell defended human rights as timeless and changeless over slaveholding politicians’ invocation of states’ rights to defend slavery. Channing made human rights the lodestar of his critique of slavery.35

The abolitionist vindication of human rights challenged the ideology of paternalism that slaveholders assiduously propagated in the face of criticism. With the assistance of Sarah and Angelina Grimké, the South Carolina sisters who converted to Quakerism and abolition, Weld produced the most effective counterargument, American Slavery As It Is, published by the AASS in 1839. Until the publication of the slave narratives of the 1840s and 1850s and Uncle Tom’s Cabin, its place was untouched. It sold more than a hundred thousand copies in a year and was reprinted and circulated in Britain. The book was culled mainly from advertisements in southern newspapers for runaway slaves and the sale of slaves and eyewitness descriptions of slavery. It damned slaveholders with their own words and with descriptions of maimed, scarred slaves. In his introduction Weld demolished the logic of slaveholding paternalism in pithy sentences: “Protesting their kind regard for those whom they hourly plunder of all they have and all they get . . . Plunderers of their liberty, yet careful suppliers of their wants.” Paternalist pretensions of taking care of slaves’ physical well-being were also not accurate, Weld wrote, citing case after case of ill-fed slaves and physical cruelty. Southern interest, law, custom, and practice treated slaves as disposable property. So effective was his indictment that modern historians of slaveholder paternalism have spent considerable time refuting it.36

Abolitionists not only developed an ideological response to slaveholders but also challenged their national political power. In the summer of 1835 Postmaster Alfred Huger in Charleston impounded abolitionist literature sent out by the AASS. The man behind the society’s postal campaign was Lewis Tappan. A Carolinian mob called Lynch Men burned the allegedly incendiary material as well as effigies of Arthur Tappan and Garrison. Southerners elsewhere followed suit, likening the campaign to an abolitionist invasion. Postmaster General Amos Kendall agreed that the “higher law” of slaveholders’ self-preservation trumped the crime of interfering with the federal mail. Postmaster Samuel L. Gouverneur of New York State, the son-in-law of the former president James Monroe, decided to withhold the delivery of all AASS mail addressed to the South. President Andrew Jackson suggested printing the names of those receiving abolitionist literature, prompting the AASS to ask those who wished to take their names off their mailing list to contact the society.

The federal postal system, which excluded black carriers, hardly functioned as an abolitionist network and was highly susceptible to censorship. Garrison criticized the United States in comparison to the “truly enlightened” Haitian government, which made all mail deliveries free of charge. When Jackson called for a federal law authorizing censorship of abolitionist mail in his annual message to Congress, the AASS responded with a letter composed by Jay and signed by its executive committee, including Cornish and Wright, which stated, “We never intend to surrender the liberty of speech, or press, or of conscience.” The Democratic editor William Leggett, who criticized Kendall and Gouverneur, predicted that southern demands “would make abolitionists of our whole two millions of inhabitants” in New York. The abolitionist argument gained enough traction that the postal law of 1836 prohibited interference with the federal mail. It was a dead letter in the South, where state laws allowed for censorship and harsh punishment for the distribution of abolitionist literature. Sen. John C. Calhoun’s prescription of “state sovereignty” on all questions relating to slavery became a reality even though the “great nullifier’s” demand for censorship of the national postal system was narrowly defeated in the Senate.

The “freedom of thought struggle” led to the effective suppression of any discussion or activity that threatened slavery in the South. Anti-abolition meetings led by slaveholding politicians called for the arrest of abolitionists. Southern legislatures passed resolutions demanding that northern states exact legal punishments for the publication and distribution of abolitionist material. Most southern states already had such laws on the books. After 1835 they became more draconian, stipulating death for those guilty of circulating antislavery literature or even publicly challenging the legitimacy of slaveholding. While northern states did not pass similar laws, abolitionists had to put up a strong fight against censorship proposals. In the Massachusetts General Court, May, Sewall, Loring, Goodell, Follen, and Channing successfully linked abolition to the question of representative government. Garrison argued that the “nation itself will be in bondage.” Where, he demanded, “are our STATE RIGHTS?”37

Besides the mail controversy, the long struggle over the right to petition exposed the reality of the Slave Power, which was hardly a symptom of paranoia. In December 1835 abolitionists revived the petition campaign for the abolition of the interstate slave trade and slavery in the District of Columbia, both under the constitutional jurisdiction of the federal government. Calhoun, whose resolutions of 1837 declared any interference with slavery by abolitionists or the federal government unconstitutional, demanded outright rejection of the petitions. The Gag Rule compromise, proposed by Henry Pinckney of South Carolina and supported by most Democrats, stipulated their automatic tabling. The House gag of 1836, renewed every year, was strengthened in 1840 to Calhoun’s prescription of a standing rule that did not allow abolition petitions to be even received, until it was rescinded in 1844. A lesser-known Senate gag based on a procedural motion to table the reception of abolition petitions lasted well into the 1850s. The one-term senator Thomas Morris of Ohio led the fight for the right to petition, excoriating “the putrid mass of prejudice” designed “to keep the colored race in bondage.” He was read out of the Democratic Party and became the vice presidential candidate of the abolitionist Liberty Party.

The former president John Quincy Adams, now a congressional representative from Massachusetts, defended the right to petition, emerging as the abolitionists’ first political hero. As early as 1831 Adams presented antislavery petitions, though he distanced himself from their demands. He became the dean of northern “conscience Whigs,” an antislavery bloc composed of the congressmen William Slade of Vermont, Seth M. Gates of New York, and Sherlock J. Andrews and Joshua R. Giddings of Ohio. Using ingenious parliamentary tactics, Adams embarrassed his opponents on more than one occasion. In 1837 he presented a petition from the women of Fredericksburg against the slave trade. A Virginia representative expostulated that they were not ladies but free black women, one of whom was of an infamous character, and then spent the rest of the time explaining that he had no personal knowledge of her. When Adams asked to present a petition from slaves, sent to him as a prank, to the horror of southerners he revealed that the slaves had petitioned against abolition. He took on the abolitionists’ battle at considerable risk, receiving death threats. His speeches became increasingly antislavery, reflecting his long-standing private aversion to the institution.

Southern politicians and their northern doughface Democratic allies halted congressional debate on slavery, but abolitionists responded energetically to the political silencing of their movement. The executive committee of the AASS issued a declaration “to the people of the United States or such Americans who value their rights and dare to maintain them.” It informed that “a crisis has arrived” when “hundreds of citizens peaceably assembled [can be] forcibly dispersed” and when the right to petition is threatened by congressional gags. In his public letter to Clay, Smith called the right to petition a “natural right.” The Gag Rule inspired a deluge of abolition petitions printed in standard format by the AASS and its auxiliaries. Thousands of petitions against the annexation of Texas and the Gag Rule and for the recognition of Haiti joined earlier petitions on the District of Columbia in a mass petition campaign. Antislavery societies sent over six hundred thousand petitions with nearly two million signatures to Congress and state legislatures. The average number of signatures per petition increased dramatically, from tens in the early thirties to hundreds in the latter part of the decade. While many were members of antislavery societies, others were fellow travelers who signed particular petitions. Unlike voting, commonly confined to adult white men, the act of petitioning politicized women, who took the lead and outsigned men. The mass petition campaigns were highly effective tools for abolitionist mobilization. To southerners, the petitions were an invitation to rebellion, as they claimed had happened in Haiti and the Caribbean.38 They were also responding to the growth of the abolition movement.

It is possible to develop an anatomy of the movement. Historians, like abolitionists themselves, have counted antislavery societies, their membership, subscription lists for abolitionist newspapers, and signatures in abolitionist petitions. In 1836 Garrison reported the formation of 7 state antislavery societies with over 500 auxiliaries. The AASS reported a total of 527, the largest numbers in Ohio (133), New York (103), and Massachusetts (87). The AASS also shared members with the old PAS and NYMS, although those societies did not formally belong to it, and it was in touch with British abolition societies, black emigrants to Canada, the French and Haitian Abolition Societies. Abolition grew rapidly in the last years of the decade. By 1838 the AASS had over 1,000 auxiliaries with around 100,000 members, according to its secretary, Birney, in his answer to Rep. Franklin Harper Elmore, who, at Calhoun’s behest, posed a series of questions on the nature and aims of antislavery societies. Historians follow Rep. James Henry Hammond’s estimate of 250,000. Birney, who wrote that he had given the lowest possible membership figures, claimed that one in ten persons in the northernmost states was an abolitionist and one in twenty in the middle states. Second-wave abolition, as South Carolinian planter-politicians realized, was a mass movement. New modes of communication, the penny press, the mail, and democratic fund-raising proved crucial in the formation of the movement. The AASS raised over forty thousand dollars in 1838 from members as diverse as a revolutionary soldier from Maine, a four-year-old boy, and a “colored woman” who sold apples in the streets of Boston. For a penny a week, the most humble could sustain the antislavery society. The MASS developed weekly contribution boxes decorated with abolitionist ephemera and a journal, the Monthly Offering, to coordinate its fund-raising. Antislavery societies also disseminated antislavery cards, poems, broadsides, and wafers with popular abolitionist sayings. Few of their opponents could match the sheer volume of abolitionist handicrafts, art, and literature.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, abolition was hardly a middle-class affair. Though African Americans formed its core constituency, abolitionism spread among white men and women in the North. Opponents made much of the lowly origins of radical abolitionists like Buffum, Thompson, and Garrison, many of whom lacked formal education. Henry C. Wright and Orange Scott emerged from the ranks of the working poor. Most delegates barely had enough money to travel to Philadelphia to found the AASS in 1833. Garrison’s travel expenses, along with those of Whittier and Barbadoes, were underwritten by benefactors, but some abolitionists were unable to attend because of financial difficulties. With the prominent exception of the Tappans, a handful of New York merchants in their coterie, and the land magnate Gerrit Smith, most full-time activists, including Garrison, Weld, and the Childs, barely managed to make ends meet. Well-to-do abolitionists like the Tappan brothers, Henry G. Chapman, Francis Jackson, and Wendell Phillips risked their businesses and faced ostracism on joining the movement. Follen lost his Harvard professorship. Birney, the Grimké sisters, and the South Carolinian Baptist minister W. H. Brisbane forsook their slaveholding patrimony. Abolitionists did not belong to a cultural and intellectual elite either. While they attracted the support of a few prominent figures, abolitionists’ uncompromising activism differentiated them from the northern political and cultural establishment. As Louis Filler put it, “It would misconstrue the abolitionist crusade not to appreciate its roots in ordinary people.” Farmers, mechanics, and artisans formed its base. Most of the signatures in urban abolition petitions were those of workingmen, a fact that challenges the portrayal of abolition as a predominantly bourgeois endeavor. A majority of petitioners owned less property than their fellow citizens and were skilled workers—shoemakers, carpenters, painters, blacksmiths—or laborers. Not a few were propertyless, wage-earning journeymen. As one abolitionist vindicating the right to petition proclaimed, “Our Government is a democracy. We, the farmers and mechanics, are the rulers. We are the governors—you, our servants.”39 The northern haute bourgeoisie, whose fortunes were closely tied to slavery, were arrayed in opposition. The growth of capitalism proved to be a bulwark of slavery rather than its bête noir.

Furthermore, abolition was a young people’s movement. Most of its leaders, including Garrison, were in their twenties and represented a new generation. In 1831 a meeting of “colored young men” at the Boyer Lodge led by Ruggles, William P. Johnson, and Van Rensselaer endorsed immediatism. Not a few of the antislavery societies in Western Reserve, Amherst, Union, Andover, Middlebury, and Marietta Colleges and Phillips Academy were founded by students who, like the Lane rebels, defied colonizationist college authorities. Others, such as Oberlin and Knox Colleges, owed their success to abolition. Like the female antislavery societies, young men’s antislavery societies proliferated in the 1830s. The Boston Young Men’s Anti-Slavery Society published David Lee Child’s The Despotism of Freedom, denouncing the “inveterate, cruel and . . . ferocious prejudice” against blacks. On Stanton’s prompting, the New York Young Men’s Anti-Slavery Society announced, “Our duty to the colored people of this land is urgent.” By 1838 there were enough young men’s antislavery societies to hold a national convention.40

The young men and women who joined the abolition ranks became parents, and abolitionists developed a juvenile wing. A fond father, Garrison and his wife, Helen, raised their children schooled in activism and named them after prominent abolitionists. In a poem written to commemorate the birth of his first son, a poem admired by blacks in particular, Garrison dwelt on the grief of slave mothers and fathers. The Liberator had a juvenile department, in which Garrison published Isaiah De Grasse’s elegant essay to the American Convention. Black Bostonians took the lead in establishing the first antislavery juvenile society, which they named after Garrison, and Susan Paul, the daughter of Thomas Paul, conducted the society’s juvenile colored choir. Garrison was especially taken with Paul, writing, “In all that constitutes female excellence” no one was her superior. The choir performed regularly for the NEAS conventions and antislavery meetings in Boston and Salem. Garrison protested vehemently when they were barred from riding stagecoaches to perform. He also published an exchange between Susan’s students and some white Sabbath school students from Amesbury and Salisbury, who donated their pocket money to Paul’s school. Paul wished that all white children felt and acted in the same way.

Susan Paul wrote one of the first antislavery juvenile didactic books, a biography of one of her students, James Jackson, who died at an early age in 1835. The memoir recounted James’s habits of piety, obedience, and industry. But it also imparted important lessons in abolition and antiracism. Paul exhorted her young readers to have the courage to “love anybody who is good” regardless of skin color, and she deplored the early racism imbibed by white children who were taught to fear black people. If everyone followed the Golden Rule, she argued, “no person would be despised or abused because they are poor, or because they had a dark skin.” Paul recounted the time when she told her pupils about enslaved children. In response, James prayed regularly, she wrote tellingly, for the liberty of the slaves.41

Like Susan Paul, Henry C. Wright, the young minister, was involved in the Sunday school movement. Paul or Sarah Mapps Douglass was probably the “negro school teacher” Wright was accused of escorting on his arm after an antislavery meeting. An advocate of children’s education and nonresistance who questioned parental authority to physically discipline their children, Wright was the AASS agent for juveniles. The Mansfield and Foxboro Juvenile ASS consisted of boys and girls between the ages of five and ten. The juvenile antislavery society of Pawtucket, Rhode Island, held its own fair to raise money for abolition. In 1837 Wright reported that children had collected fifty-two dollars by contributing a penny each. Wright was the author of A Kiss for a Blow (1842), a popular children’s tract advocating abstention from conflict. The AASS published a monthly journal directed at children, the Slave’s Friend, from 1836 to 1839. It taught them to refer to blacks as “colored Americans” and reported on the AME bishop Daniel Payne’s speech to children. Containing stories like that of a “small colored girl” who shared her plums with a racist white girl, hoping her kindness would change her views, it achieved notoriety when Hammond waved it in Congress during his anti-abolition speech. Scholars have focused on the occasional children’s antislavery catechisms, hymns, and prayers in the journal. But most of the fairly substantial articles were on the history of the slave trade and African Americans, letters from black children, and the proceedings of juvenile antislavery societies as well as on prejudice, petitions, Haiti, Lovejoy, anti-abolition mobs, extracts from slave narratives, and Thome and Kimball’s book on West Indian emancipation. The journal afforded children a serious education in abolition. Rather than social control, abolitionists’ educational activism displayed a healthy respect for minors as rational, ethical agents.42 The movement’s diverse membership, innovative tactics, radical ideology, and political impact set it apart from other antebellum reform endeavors.


The politicization of abolition inevitably led to differences over strategy and ideology. Growth fueled divisions. The cause of the friction lay not only in what Garrison’s contemporary and later detractors called Garrisonianism, a compound in their view of religious, political, and social heresies, but also in differences over the future direction of abolition. Nor was it simply a matter of reformists versus radicals. All abolitionists were radicals when it came to slavery and race. While it is perhaps unfair to tar all of Garrison’s opponents with the same conservative brush, Aileen Kraditor correctly drew attention to Garrison’s belief in a big tent philosophy for the movement. It was Garrison’s critics who wanted to read him, his newspaper, and the AASS itself out of abolition.43 The stakes were high, each side viewing the other as harming the slave’s cause. To Garrison, opposition to him and his followers translated into opposition to abolition. To his opponents, Garrisonianism threatened to subvert abolition itself.

The division was strategic but articulated in ideological disputes over Garrison’s religious infidelity, belief in nonresistance, and support for women’s rights. Abolitionists shared similar positions on the church before the schism. At the first meeting of the AASS, Jocelyn, who represented the evangelical wing, argued that the “American Church” was stained with the blood of innocent souls in sustaining slavery, sounding like a radical Garrisonian. At its next meeting the AASS passed Bourne’s resolutions asking all Christians to petition their churches on the question of slavery. Even Lewis Tappan was forced out of his Presbyterian church for his abolitionism. Birney and Weld made strenuous efforts to get the Presbyterians to accept abolitionism and reported on their division between the orthodox Old Lights and the New Lights in 1837. Abolitionist ministers such as Scott, Le Roy Sunderland, Grosvenor, and Nathaniel Colver waged a battle against slaveholding within the Methodist and Baptist denominations, forming the abolitionist Wesleyan Methodist Connection of America and the American Baptist Anti-Slavery Convention. Eventually both denominations split into northern and southern wings in 1844–45 under the pressure of the slavery controversy, a precursor to political disunion. Garrisonian as well as evangelical abolitionists pressured the churches to act against slavery.44

But the evangelicals found Garrison’s religious iconoclasm hard to stomach. Their differences could be encapsulated in the competing mottoes of the Liberator and the official organ of the AASS, the Emancipator, edited by Joshua Leavitt. The former’s was inspired by Thomas Paine, “Our Country is the World, Our Countrymen are Mankind,” to which Garrison added “Universal Emancipation,” and the latter’s was the biblical “Proclaim Liberty to the Captive.” In 1838 Garrison embraced Paine, viewed by many as a radical atheist rather than as a revolutionary hero. He echoed Paine’s skepticism of the Bible as the revealed word of God, going a step further than most abolitionists’ rejection of proslavery fundamentalism. Garrison also antagonized those involved in religious benevolence by questioning the Sabbath. Like Quakers, he believed that every day, not just Sunday, should be observed as a holy day, and he excoriated racial segregation, the “negro pew,” in the churches. Even the Quakers segregated blacks in their meetings, and Garrison asked them to renew their “ancient zeal.”45

Clerical abolitionists criticized the inflammatory controversies between Garrison and evangelical editors. In 1837 they began a sustained campaign to read him out of the movement. The Congregationalist pastoral letter against the Grimké sisters’ public speaking tour in Massachusetts was followed by a clerical appeal in which Rev. Charles Fitch and Rev. Joseph Towne of Boston complained of criticisms in the Liberator of the church and slaveholding ministers. According to them, such denunciations deterred abolition from gaining more followers within the church. Rev. Amos Phelps, the general agent of the MASS and, later, a leader of the anti-Garrisonian faction, came to Garrison’s defense. The abolitionist common front against orthodoxy soon collapsed. Abolitionists in the Andover Theological Seminary issued their own appeal against Garrison’s critique of the church and missionary societies and his support of women’s rights. The Andover Appeal also accused him of fomenting “disorganization and anarchy” by advancing the idea of nonresistance, or the rejection of all human governments based on force.

Garrisonian nonresistance antagonized both religious and political abolitionists. This radical pacifism, which went beyond the American Peace Society’s antiwar stance, translated into a rejection of the use of force by the state. He opposed capital punishment, perceiving early on its differential racial application, and called his opponents “hanging clergymen.” Garrison was influenced by John Humphrey Noyes, the founder of the Oneida community, who described the American government as “a bloated, swaggering libertine, trampling on the Bible—its own Constitution—its treaties with Indians—the petition of its citizens: with one hand whipping a negro tied to a liberty-pole, and on the other dashing an emaciated Indian to the ground.” No doubt this characterization appealed to Garrison after the violent campaign to stamp out abolition, in which the state often colluded. As he put it, “Non resistance versus brickbats and bowie-knives! . . . Divine law against lynch law!” Garrison was swayed not only by the religious perfectionism of Noyes, who believed that humans could perfect themselves and free themselves from all sin, but also by Adin Ballou, a nonresistant and the founder of the Hopedale community. He began publishing articles on “peace principles” and nonresistance, articles written mostly by Henry C. Wright. In 1838 he and Wright formed the New England Non-Resistance Society with its own paper, the Non Resistant. Garrison believed all governments involved tyranny, violence, and inequality and were contrary to equality, peace, and freedom. He rejected “all human politics, worldly honors and stations of authority,” especially military office, armaments, and war.

Garrison’s embrace of nonresistance, combined with his support for women’s rights, provoked opposition from clerical abolitionists. Rev. James Woodbury of Acton issued a wide-ranging condemnation of Garrison’s views of the Sabbath and the ministry, his partiality to nonresistance, Wright’s rejection of “family government,” that is, parental violence, and his “Fanny Wrightism.” In a personal attack, Woodbury declaimed that to most abolitionists “Garrison is the god of their idolatory. He embodies abolition. He is abolition personified and incarnate.” The only way for religious abolitionists to distance themselves from Garrison’s views was to disown him. In reply, Garrison was forced to defend his abolition credentials, recalling that he “was a poor, self educated mechanic” with “no family connexions, without influence, without wealth, without station. . . . The clergy was against me—the rulers of the people were against me—the nation was against me,” when he began his crusade. Two more clerical appeals followed Woodbury’s letter, leading Garrison to sever all connections between the Liberator and the MASS, to the newspaper’s financial disadvantage. A committee led by Jackson took charge of its finances. The clerical offensive only strengthened Garrison’s suspicions of organized religion.

Garrison was upset by the failure of the AASS executive committee and the Emancipator to defend him against the attack. In a long letter Lewis Tappan explained to him that the committee, even though it did not approve of the clerical appeals and recognized his “early, unremitting and invaluable devotion to the cause,” could not enter into a controversy between him and abolitionist clergymen in Massachusetts.

Women and African Americans, however, rallied to Garrison’s defense, and he in turn defended their right to speak for abolition. In her forceful, book-length defense of Garrison, Maria Weston Chapman alluded to his pioneering efforts and to the history of the growing religious opposition to him. The black population of Boston was unanimously behind Garrison, since the ministers had remarked adversely on their religiosity. Purvis sent a letter in which he hailed the Liberator as a beacon to the abolition cause. The Abington Female ASS called the clerical appeals an attack on abolition itself, and the BFASS accused them of misrepresenting the scriptures. When the NEAS convention, in May 1838, decided to seat women on an equal footing, Phelps, Rev. Charles Torrey of Salem, and Fitch resigned. Tappan regretted associating with “ungodly men” in the antislavery enterprise and tried to persuade Phelps to start a new organization. Like Elizur Wright, they believed that issues like women’s rights, religious perfectionism, and nonresistance impaired the abolitionist cause. Garrison reiterated, “As an abolitionist, we examine no man’s political or religious creed, and care not who it is that is willing to assist us in breaking the yoke of slavery. But our liberal feelings are not met by others. We are willing to walk with them, but they are not willing to walk with us.”46

Before his conversion to nonresistance, Garrison favored political action, and his opponents were as critical of the state and church. At its third annual meeting the AASS passed Garrison’s resolution denouncing the American Republic as a “land of religious despotism” and “home of republican injustice.” As late as 1836 Birney held that abolition was above “political predilections” and was not a political movement. Nor were Garrison and his followers strictly nonpolitical before the schism, as their opponents never failed to point out. Garrison supported the mass petition campaign and published verbatim the speeches of antislavery politicians. He supported the candidacy of the abolitionist Amasa Walker to Congress, asking African Americans to vote for him, inveighed against the annexation of Texas, and wrote paeans to Adams. David Lee Child, along with Lundy, led the abolitionist charge against Texas, and Henry C. Wright proposed a resolution against the admission of Arkansas into the Union at the AASS annual meeting. At the NEAS convention in 1837, Garrison devoted his speech to Texas, and it unanimously passed an anti-annexation resolution. The next year Stanton and Phelps led a large anti-Texas meeting in Faneuil Hall. Stanton, Weld, and Stewart as well as Garrison and Phillips addressed the legislatures of Massachusetts, Ohio, and New York on the Gag Rule and fugitive slaves. By 1838 the AASS was encouraging interrogation of candidates on slavery and voting only for those who supported abolition. On Stewart’s prompting, the NEAS convention did the same. Garrison himself stirred his readers to vote against proslavery politicians.47

But while Garrison embraced nonresistance, Christian perfectionism, and women’s rights, Elizur Wright, Birney, Leavitt, and Stanton moved toward political abolitionism. Like Garrison, they were moved by the events of the 1830s in their contemplation of the future direction of the movement, which they believed lay in entering politics. Stanton had enjoyed considerable success in politics. His widely reported two-day speech before the Massachusetts assembly not only defended the right to petition and Congress’s constitutional power over slavery and the slave trade in the District of Columbia but also mounted a defense of political abolitionism. It led to the passage of resolutions supporting the abolition of slavery in the district. Stanton recalled that he had addressed ten legislative committees in seven states and traveled to Washington to defend the right to petition. He claimed to have predicted the passage of a constitutional amendment to end slavery as early as 1838. The Philanthropist editorialized that politics would not result in gradualism or a falling away from abolitionist principles, as many feared, but allowed abolitionists to “operate with increased vigor” and “enlarged hope of success.” Birney felt that abolitionists needed to combat the political power of slaveholders through the ballot box. He was appalled by Wright’s nonresistance articles in the Liberator and suggested that those who championed extraneous, unpopular concerns should resign from the AASS. If Garrisonians advocated the reformation of a corrupt state and society, political abolitionists wanted to take over the reins of government. They wanted to read out the Garrisonians by moving the AASS in a purely political direction.48

The showdown between them came at the annual meeting of the MASS in January 1839, at which Stanton attacked Garrison for “lowering the standard of abolition.” Black abolitionists defended Garrison by acclamation, and John T. Hilton called him a “simon pure, sincere abolitionist,” leading one of Garrison’s detractors to remark that if he went to hell, black people would follow him there. Hoping to challenge Garrison’s views on voting, Stanton asked him whether he thought voting was a sin, to which Garrison replied, “Sin for me.” Not wanting to abide by Garrison’s live-and-let-live philosophy, political abolitionists wanted to make voting the duty of all abolitionists. Their resolutions were handily defeated, and Phelps, Alanson St. Clair, and Torrey, who ironically were also presenting resolutions denying women the right to vote in antislavery meetings, began their own newspaper, Massachusetts Abolitionist. In an effort to allay divisions, the MASS annual report was generous to Phelps and Stanton but defended women’s rights to participate equally in antislavery societies.

Already suspicious of the maneuverings of the executive committee represented by Tappan, Elizur Wright, and Birney, Garrison correctly suspected it of aiding his opponents. The committee made the move toward politics official policy. In “A Letter on the Political Obligations of Abolitionists,” Birney tried to purge the “no government” men, as he called them, from the AASS. He pointed out that its constitution specifically enjoined abolitionists to take political action against slavery and influence Congress. Outraged that Birney’s call for expulsion was printed in the Emancipator, the official organ of the AASS, Garrison replied as a “framer, member and manager” of the AASS. He protested Birney’s “bold attack” on the “pacific views” of some abolitionists and his attempt to convert the AASS into a political organization. Garrison claimed that the AASS constitution did not exclude nonresistance. No person could be a nonresistant and not an abolitionist, though an abolitionist need not be a nonresistant. The Garrisonian-dominated MASS also got into a financial dispute with the executive committee. Arthur Tappan suffered near bankruptcy after the Panic of 1837, and the AASS was in dire straits, aggravating matters.

The financial panic, brought on by rampant speculation, including in the slave-based cotton economy, fed the crisis in the abolition movement. The boom and bust nature of early American capitalism led abolitionists like Henry C. Wright to condemn the unholy partnership between southern slavery and northern capital. The AASS pointed to the fact that the entire nation, including northern consumers and businesses, profited from the exploitation of slave labor. A parasitic and idle slaveholding class living off the enslaved was the cause of hard times, according to Stewart. Leavitt diagnosed the problem as the chokehold of the Slave Power on the nation’s political economy. To Leavitt, inspired by British corn law opponents and pro-labor political economists’ opposition to the tariff, the answer lay in free trade. In adopting the Democratic opposition to protection, he left Whiggish abolitionists unimpressed. Garrison viewed free trade as the watchword of slaveholding nullifiers. It never became economic orthodoxy among abolitionists, and even in Leavitt’s Liberty Party economic radicalism trumped laissez-faire.49

The schism was a tripartite one between Garrisonians, evangelicals, and political abolitionists but with considerable crossover. The Liberator teemed with the correspondence of Garrisonians versus political and evangelical abolitionists. Anti-Garrisonians pushed to have their positions endorsed at the annual AASS meeting presided over by Smith but did not gain the upper hand. Birney, Stanton, and Goodell made the case for independent political action, leading to a debate with Cornish, who liked the idea of acting politically but disagreed with a requirement to vote only for abolitionists, as African Americans were behind all who were for black suffrage. The AASS passed Whittier’s resolution in favor of voting to promote abolition but also gave women the right to vote. Phelps and other clerical abolitionists left the MASS after failing to exclude women at the NEAS convention. They formed the rival Massachusetts Abolition Society in May 1839, which was recognized as an auxiliary by the AASS. Its formation led, according to Garrison, to the “strange spectacle” of having two abolition societies in one state, and he denounced it as schismatical, intolerant, and exclusive. Elizur Wright, who became the editor of the Abolitionist, came into conflict with the clerical abolitionists, who had founded the “new organization” MAS. In a letter to Stanton that Garrison published, Wright disparaged the MAS and urged the formation of a political party.

A group of abolitionists based mostly in upstate New York, Stewart, Green, Leavitt, Stanton, Birney, Smith, and Goodell, became convinced of the necessity of a third party. Led by Stewart and Myron Holley, a veteran of the Anti-Mason party, they tried to jump-start an abolitionist party. In 1839 Stewart, a founder of the NYASS, recommended a third party to its executive committee. Political abolitionists held conventions in Albany and Cleveland but were opposed by many abolitionists, who remained suspicious of entering politics. Birney was offered their presidential nomination but felt the move was premature, as the two major parties had not yet held their nominating conventions. The physician Francis J. LeMoyne of Pennsylvania, who was nominated for the vice presidency, wrote to Birney that in his view abolition was a “religious enterprise” rather than a political movement. Tappan thought that forming a political party was contrary to the principles of the AASS constitution. (He would later change his mind.) He gave a brilliant speech at the AASS meeting on the complicity of the church and ministers in slavery and was more interested in starting an evangelical antislavery society to replace the AASS. Smith initially held aloof from both sides, writing to Weld that he was “heart sick” of the divisions.50

Whereas political abolitionists seriously underestimated the strength of the Garrisonians, which included most of the female membership of the society, the evangelicals underestimated abolitionists’ loyalty to the original society. This became apparent at the seventh anniversary meeting of the AASS in 1840. The executive committee refused to accede to Garrison’s request to delay the crucial gathering. Garrison had undertaken a lecturing tour of Massachusetts the previous year to rally the faithful. The MASS’s new agent John A. Collins made sure that a large New England contingent dominated the meeting. Blacks and a majority of female antislavery societies rushed to Garrison’s defense against the new organization men. A meeting in Boston led by Hilton and William Cooper Nell, the son of the GCA’s William G. Nell, called Garrison “the colored people’s best friend.” Grace and Sarah Douglass wrote from Philadelphia that no one could ever convince them that Garrison was “recreant to the cause of the slave.” A meeting in New Bedford led by Nathaniel Borden and William Powell called him “our true and faithful friend.” Steamboats chartered for the meeting suspended their segregated seating, ensuring the attendance of a large number of African American delegates. Garrison called them “our unflinching friends, our most powerful allies.” Forgotten in the histories of the schism, the speech of the convention was delivered by Henry Highland Garnet, who argued that black people, as American citizens, “demand redress for the wrongs we have suffered, and ask for the restoration of our birth right privileges.” According to Garrison, “Patrick Henry never spoke better, on any occasion.”

Some political abolitionists endorsed women’s rights, and some Garrisonians supported political action, but the schism forced them to choose sides. In April Holley et al. had already met in convention at Albany and nominated Birney and Thomas Earle of Pennsylvania on an independent Abolitionist ticket, and the Liberty Party, as it was named a year later, was born. Of the 121 delegates, 104 were from New York. Those sympathetic to political action but wary of third parties and independent nominations, including Gamaliel Bailey, the editor of the Philanthropist, and Whittier, were soon won over. By this time Garrison was fighting for the very survival of the AASS. Lewis Tappan handed over control of the Emancipator to the New York City ASS just before the AASS meeting. Arthur Tappan refused to preside, and Jackson took his place. After the election of Abby Kelley to the business committee, the entire evangelical wing walked out of the meeting. The AASS passed resolutions on voting according to one’s personal conscience, criticized the church for its criminal silence on slavery, and commenced the publication of the National Anti-Slavery Standard (NASS) to replace the Emancipator.51

The seceders, led by the Tappans, formed the American and Foreign Anti Slavery Society (AFASS), emulating the British and Foreign ASS, with whom it forged good connections. In his presiding speech, Arthur Tappan spoke out against the idea that all human governments are sinful and argued ingenuously that the substitution of men by persons in the AASS rules for voting and officeholding could include not just women but also children, probably a swipe at Wright. Despite the presence of Birney and Stanton, the AFASS would not officially endorse the Liberty Party until 1843. The AFASS briefly published the American and Foreign Anti Slavery Reporter and tracts written mostly by Lewis Tappan. During its short history (1840–55), the AFASS and the clerical abolitionists continued to pressure the churches to move against slavery and assisted fugitive slaves. In 1846 Lewis Tappan formed the American Missionary Association (AMA), which played a crucial role in freedmen’s education after the Civil War. Evangelical abolitionists, most trained at Oberlin, devoted their energies to missionary work at home and abroad, in Canada, the West Indies, and Africa. Unlike their eastern counterparts, the western evangelicals based at Oberlin steered clear of the schism but became supporters of the Liberty Party. All factions of the movement signed off on an appeal for Oberlin written by Weld.52

Black abolitionists deplored the schism as distracting and unnecessary. A meeting of the Marine Benevolent Society fulsomely praised Garrison but in addition cited the Tappans, Jay, Birney, Stewart, and Smith in its accolades. Ruggles defended Garrison, saying that if he was convicted of religious apostasy, black people would stand by him. At a meeting in New York chaired by Theodore S. Wright, Van Rensselaer, in whose house Garrison was staying, tried to have resolutions passed in favor of him. Garrison and Tappan addressed the meeting. Ray and Cornish led the opposition to Van Rensselaer’s attempt to endorse only the Garrisonian delegation to the world antislavery convention in London, as it would appear that they had cast censure on the rival AFASS delegation. As Ray explained, “If the colored people of this City, or any section of this country, do manifest less warmth of feeling than formerly towards Mr. Garrison, it is in part owing, to our Friends having multiplied who are equally active, & equally efficient with Mr. Garrison, & as a necessary consequence our good feeling is scattered upon all, instead of being concentrated upon one, as when Mr. Garrison stood alone.” Some, like John Lewis, wanted to “assume a strict neutral ground” and resigned as an agent of the NHASS. Ray’s newspaper, the Colored American, feared that divisions in the movement led to “forgetting the slave and the outraged colored community” and recommended “independence of thought and principle” among black abolitionists. He decided to remain with the AASS for the present but published the annual call for meetings of both the AASS and AFASS.

Eventually most of New York City’s black abolitionists, including Ray, aligned with the political evangelical wing of the movement. That alignment was natural given their geographical and ideological proximity to the Tappanites. Many of them were clergymen who were conservatives when it came to the woman question. Cornish had criticized Garrison’s nonvoting stance, noting that it would be unwise for abolitionists to disfranchise themselves when black men were fighting for the right to vote. A meeting of Albany’s colored citizens endorsed the Liberty Party. Van Rensselaer, a member of the AASS’s executive committee, was one of the few black New Yorkers who remained allied with the Garrisonians. Posing the question, “When doctors disagree, who shall decide?” William P. Powell, a founding member of the AASS, doled out a strong dose of Garrisonian medicine with its respect for women’s rights and rejection of slaveholding governments. In Boston and Philadelphia most blacks remained allied with the Garrisonians.53

The schism permeated the movement even though some antislavery societies refused to identify with either side. What had been a source of strength, the movement’s diversity, became the cause of division. An ideal solution was retaining the AASS as an organization for agitation and the formation of the Liberty Party as the political arm of the movement. That is what happened, but it did so in the midst of recriminations and one-upmanship. Differences between Garrison and his critics sharpened as the incentive to accommodate disagreements ceased to exist. Despite the bitter personal animosity, abolitionists cooperated with each other on distinct issues. In Ohio the line between Garrisonians and Libertyites was blurred despite the founding of the Garrisonian Ohio American Anti Slavery Society in 1842, which became the Western Anti Slavery Society (WASS). Weld, close to the evangelical and political abolitionists but a supporter of women’s rights, also stayed above the fray. In 1843 he refused to join the AFASS because of its “denial of the equal membership of women.”54 The woman question was an essential facet of the schism.

You can support the site and the Armed Forces of Ukraine by following the link to Buy Me a Coffee.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at admin@erenow.org. Thank you!