At its inaugural meeting on December 4, 1833, the American Anti-Slavery Society (AASS) declared an unconditional commitment to the immediate abolition of slavery and equal rights for free black men. Loath to engage in violence and political compromise, the new organization was dedicated to ‘‘moral suasion’’ as a vehicle for social change. The American Colonization Society’s proposals for the emancipation and resettlement of slaves in Liberia were anathema to the members of the AASS. Led by the Tappan brothers of New York and Liberator editor William Lloyd Garrison, the group sought to secure a perpetual place for African Americans within the United States.
In the mid-1830s, the AASS sent a seemingly endless stream of petitions to Congress, calling, most notably, for the abolition of slavery in Washington, D.C. Largely the result of female members’ efforts, this campaign eventually provoked the highly controversial ‘‘gag rules,’’ which precluded congressional debate regarding slavery until 1844. With the constitutional right to petition Congress in doubt in 1834, the AASS supplemented its petition drive by deluging southern mails with its tracts and periodicals (the National Anti-Slavery Standard and the Liberator, for example). When the first shipment of literature reached Charleston Harbor on July 29, however, it was promptly deemed ‘‘incendiary’’ and confiscated by the postmaster-general of the city and later destroyed by a mob of angry citizens.
Faced with this patently illegal censorship of the mails, the Jackson administration chose to turn a blind eye rather than challenge slaveholding interests. While the vast majority of white northerners opposed abolition, such repression of AASS reform efforts inspired a good deal of rights-conscious opposition from moderate and conservative northerners. Ultimately, AASS agitation laid bare the federal government’s willingness to compromise such civil liberties as freedom of the press and freedom of speech on behalf of minority interests.
By 1840, the AASS faced something of an identity crisis. The role of women in the movement, its responsibility to support reforms aside from abolition, and the merits of political participation were all sources of division that ultimately led to the collapse of the organization and the end of a united national opposition to slavery. While the radical elements in the group remained loyal to Garrison, those who favored a more focused, political approach defected in 1840, forming the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Organization.
With statements like Wendell Phillips’s 1844 The Constitution, a Proslavery Document, the Garrisonian wing went on to assume an uncompromisingly disunionist position. It also took up the controversial cause of women’s rights during the 1840s. The organization’s assiduous agitation on behalf of the oppressed placed civil liberties at the center of public discourse. After its 1840 schism, AASS became the first organization in the United States actively to promote the universality of the principles enshrined in the Declaration of Independence.
JAMES CORBETT DAVID
References and Further Reading