The Abolitionist Movement

From the 1830s until 1870, the abolitionist movement attempted to achieve immediate emancipation of all slaves and the ending of racial segregation and discrimination. Their propounding of these goals distinguished abolitionists from the broad-based political opposition to slavery’s westward expansion that took form in the North after 1840 and raised issues leading to the Civil War. Yet these two expressions of hostility to slavery—abolitionism and Free-Soilism—were often closely related not only in their beliefs and their interaction but also in the minds of southern slaveholders who finally came to regard the North as united against them in favor of black emancipation.

Although abolitionist feelings had been strong during the American Revolution and in the Upper South during the 1820s, the abolitionist movement did not coalesce into a militant crusade until the 1830s. In the previous decade, as much of the North underwent the social disruption associated with the spread of manufacturing and commerce, powerful evangelical religious movements arose to impart spiritual direction to society. By stressing the moral imperative to end sinful practices and each person’s responsibility to uphold God’s will in society, preachers like Lyman Beecher, Nathaniel Taylor, and Charles G. Finney in what came to be called the Second Great Awakening led massive religious revivals in the 1820s that gave a major impetus to the later emergence of abolitionism as well as to such other reforming crusades as temperance, pacifism, and women’s rights. By the early 1830s, Theodore D. Weld, William Lloyd Garrison, Arthur and Lewis Tappan, and Elizur Wright, Jr., all spiritually nourished by revivalism, had taken up the cause of “immediate emancipation.”

In early 1831, Garrison, in Boston, began publishing his famous newspaper, the Liberator, supported largely by free African-Americans, who always played a major role in the movement. In December 1833, the Tappans, Garrison, and sixty other delegates of both races and genders met in Philadelphia to found the American Anti-Slavery Society, which denounced slavery as a sin that must be abolished immediately, endorsed nonviolence, and condemned racial prejudice. By 1835, the society had received substantial moral and financial support from African-American communities in the North and had established hundreds of branches throughout the free states, flooding the North with antislavery literature, agents, and petitions demanding that Congress end all federal support for slavery. The society, which attracted significant participation by women, also denounced the American Colonization Society’s program of voluntary gradual emancipation and black emigration.

All these activities provoked widespread hostile responses from North and South, most notably violent mobs, the burning of mailbags containing abolitionist literature, and the passage in the U.S. House of Representatives of a “gag rule” that banned consideration of antislavery petitions. These developments, and especially the 1837 murder of abolitionist editor Elijah Lovejoy, led many northerners, fearful for their own civil liberties, to vote for antislavery politicians and brought important converts such as Wendell Phillips, Gerrit Smith, and Edmund Quincy to the cause.

But as antislavery sentiment began to appear in politics, abolitionists also began disagreeing among themselves. By 1840 Garrison and his followers were convinced that since slavery’s influence had corrupted all of society, a revolutionary change in America’s spiritual values was required to achieve emancipation. To this demand for “moral suasion,” Garrison added an insistence on equal rights for women within the movement and a studious avoidance of “corrupt” political parties and churches. To Garrison’s opponents, such ideas seemed wholly at odds with Christian values and the imperative to influence the political and ecclesiastical systems by nominating and voting for candidates committed to abolitionism. Disputes over these matters split the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1840, leaving Garrison and his supporters in command of that body; his opponents, led by the Tappans, founded the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society. Meanwhile, still other foes of Garrison launched the Liberty party with James G. Birney as its presidential candidate in the elections of 1840 and 1844.

Although historians debate the extent of the abolitionists’ influence on the nation’s political life after 1840, their impact on northern culture and society is undeniable. As speakers, Frederick Douglass, Wendell Phillips, and Lucy Stone in particular became extremely well known. In popular literature the poetry of John Greenleaf Whittier and James Russell Lowell circulated widely, as did the autobiographies of fugitive slaves such as Douglass, William and Ellen Craft, and Solomon Northrup. Abolitionists exercised a particularly strong influence on religious life, contributing heavily to schisms that separated the Methodists (1844) and Baptists (1845), while founding numerous independent antislavery “free churches.” In higher education abolitionists founded Oberlin College, the nation’s first experiment in racially integrated coeducation, the Oneida Institute, which graduated an impressive group of African-American leaders, and Illinois’s Knox College, a western center of abolitionism.

Within the Garrisonian wing of the movement, female abolitionists became leaders of the nation’s first independent feminist movement, instrumental in organizing the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention. Although African-American activists often complained with reason of the racist and patronizing behavior of white abolitionists, the whites did support independently conducted crusades by African-Americans to outlaw segregation and improve education during the 1840s and 1850s. Especially after the passage of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law, white abolitionists also protected African-Americans threatened with capture as escapees from bondage, although blacks themselves largely managed the Underground Railroad.

By the later 1850s, organized abolitionism in politics had been subsumed by the larger sectional crisis over slavery prompted by the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the Dred Scott decision, and John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry. Most abolitionists reluctantly supported the Republican party, stood by the Union in the secession crisis, and became militant champions of military emancipation during the Civil War. The movement again split in 1865, when Garrison and his supporters asserted that the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery made continuation of the American Anti-Slavery Society unnecessary. But a larger group led by Wendell Phillips, insisting that only the achievement of complete political equality for all black males could guarantee the freedom of the former slaves, successfully prevented Garrison from dissolving the society.


The Wilmot Proviso –

The 1846 Wilmot Proviso was a bold attempt by opponents of slavery to prevent its introduction in the territories purchased from Mexico following the Mexican War. Named after its sponsor, Democratic representative David Wilmot of Pennsylvania, the proviso never passed both houses of Congress, but it did ignite an intense national debate over slavery that led to the creation of the antislavery Republican Party in 1854.

The Mexican War of 1845–1846 was fueled, in part, by the desire of the United States to annex Texas. President James Polk asked Congress in August 1846 for $2 million to help him negotiate peace and settle the boundary with Mexico. Polk sought the acquisition of Texas and other Mexican territories. Wilmot quickly offered his proposal, known as the Wilmot Proviso, which he attached to President Polk’s funding measure. The proviso would have prohibited slavery in the new territories acquired from Mexico, including California.

The proviso injected the controversial slavery issue into the funding debate, but the House approved the bill and sent it to the Senate for action. The Senate, however, adjourned before discussing the issue.

When the next Congress convened, a new appropriations bill for $3 million was presented, but the Wilmot Proviso was again attached to the measure. The House passed the bill and the Senate was forced to consider the proposal. Under the leadership of Senator John C. Calhoun of South Carolina and other proslavery senators, the Senate refused to accept the Wilmot amendment, approving the funds for negotiations without the proviso.

For several years, the Wilmot Proviso was offered as an amendment to many bills, but it was never approved by the Senate. However, the repeated introduction of the proviso kept the issue of slavery before the Congress and the nation. The Compromise of 1850, which admitted California as a free state but left the issue of slavery up to the citizens of New Mexico and Utah, created dissension within the Democratic and Whig parties. The strengthening of federal enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act (9 Stat. 462) angered many northerners and led to growing sectional conflict.

The creation of the Republican Party in 1854 was based on an antislavery platform that endorsed the Wilmot Proviso. The prohibition of slavery in any new territories became a party tenet, with Wilmot himself emerging as Republican Party leader. The Wilmot Proviso, while unsuccessful as a congressional amendment, proved to be a battle cry for opponents of slavery

Ref.: Wilmot Proviso

Compromise of 1850 –

The Compromise of 1850 consists of five laws passed in September of 1850 that dealt with the issue of slavery. In 1849 California requested permission to enter the Union as a free state, potentially upsetting the balance between the free and slave states in the U.S. Senate. Senator Henry Clay introduced a series of resolutions on January 29, 1850, in an attempt to seek a compromise and avert a crisis between North and South. As part of the Compromise of 1850, the Fugitive Slave Act was amended and the slave trade in Washington, D.C., was abolished. Furthermore, California entered the Union as a free state and a territorial government was created in Utah. Also, an act was passed settling a boundary dispute between Texas and New Mexico that also established a territorial government in New Mexico.

Ref.: Library of Congress Web Site | External Web Sites | Selected Bibliography


Officially titled “An Act to Organize the Territories of Nebraska and Kansas,” this act repealed the Missouri Compromise, which had outlawed slavery above the 36º 30′ latitude in the Louisiana territories and reopened the national struggle over slavery in the western territories.

In January 1854, Senator Stephen Douglas introduced a bill that divided the land west of Missouri into two territories, Kansas and Nebraska. He argued for popular sovereignty, which would allow the settlers of the new territories to decide if slavery would be legal there. Antislavery supporters were outraged because, under the terms of the Missouri Compromise of 1820, slavery would have been outlawed in both territories.

After months of debate, the Kansas-Nebraska Act passed on May 30, 1854. Pro-slavery and anti-slavery settlers rushed to Kansas, each side hoping to determine the results of the first election held after the law went into effect. The conflict turned violent, aggravating the split between North and South until reconciliation was virtually impossible.

Opponents of the Kansas-Nebraska Act helped found the Republican Party, which opposed the spread of slavery into the territories. As a result of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the United States moved closer to Civil War.


With the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act on May 30, 1854, the stage was set for murderous mob rule in the territory of Kansas. The act pitted Northern abolitionists against proslavery Southerners and undermined any chance of compromise.

Repealing the demarcation line between slave and free territory established by the Missouri Compromise, the Kansas-Nebraska Act declared that the question of whether slavery would be allowed in a new state would be determined by popular sovereignty- the vote of the settlers of the territory. The contest for control of the territorial legislature and thus the state would be determined by which side of the slavery issue could rush the most settlers into the territory. Northern abolitionists and Emigrant Aid Societies encouraged and sponsored Free-Soil settlers, while proslavery factions flooded the territory with slave owners. The neighboring slave state of Missouri was a funnel into Kansas for the proslavery faction, which quickly gained the upper hand in population.

Kansas was a powder keg that exploded into a bloody civil war, characterized by lynching, bushwhacking, and burning- a continuous stream of violence that could not be contained by federal or territorial authorities. The area around the town of Lawrence, Kans., was settled by Free-Soilers who harbored fugitive abolitionists, slaves, and newspaper editors indicted for treason by the proslavery territorial government.

In May 1856, an 800-man “posse” made up of border ruffians from Missouri sacked Lawrence, wrecking the newspaper offices and burning the hotel and the home of the Free-Soil governor. Four days later, fanatic abolitionist John Brown and four of his sons seized five proslavery settlers from their homes along Pottawatomie Creek and, in front of the settler’s families, hacked them to death with broadswords. More than 200 men would be killed in the era known as “Bleeding Kansas”.

Fascinating Fact:  Brown and his sons evaded capture and were never indicted or punished for the Pottawatomie massacre.


IMage of The Slavery Code of the District of Columbia, Washington: L. Towers, 1862. American Treasures of the Library of Congress
The Slavery Code of the District of Columbia…
Washington: L. Towers, 1862.
American Treasures of the Library of Congress

The United States Congress abolished the slave trade in the District of Columbia on September 20, 1850, as part of the legislative package called the Compromise of 1850. Since the founding of the District of Columbia in 1800, enslaved people had lived and worked in the nation’s capitol. By the mid-nineteenth century, laws regulating slavery in the District were considerably more lenient than slave codes in the rest of the South, but slavery continued to exist in Washington until April 16, 1862. On that day, President Lincoln signed legislation freeing the 3,000 African Americans bound by the District’s slave code.

Antebellum Washington was home to a thriving community of free blacks. The laws of Southern states commonly prohibited manumitted slaves from remaining within state boundaries. Forced to seek a new life far from friends and family, many former slaves migrated to Washington. By 1860, free blacks outnumbered slaves by nearly four to one in the city.

Many Northern states abolished slavery and slave trading during the early national period. However, section 9 of the United States Constitution specified, “The migration or importation of such persons as any of the states now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the year one thousand eight hundred and eight. Urging New Yorkers to ratify the Constitution, revolutionary patriot and Federalist John Jay noted

“What is proposed to be done by England is already done in Virginia, Delaware, and Rhode-Island, and it is likely to take place in all the States of America. It will be an honour to this country, and the most glorious event in the present reign, if the example should be followed here.”

Extract from an Address to the People of the State of New-York, on the Subject of the Constitution,” 1788.
Documents from the Continental Congress and Constitutional Convention, 1774-1789

The United States banned further importation of slaves in 1808, as soon as the Constitution allowed. Essentially a dead letter by the end of the Civil War, the institution of slavery was permanently dismantled by passage of the Thirteenth Amendment

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