Abolitionists

Abolitionists were individuals committed to eradicating chattel slavery in the United States. The first organized abolitionist group was the Pennsylvania Abolition Society (PAS). Dominated by socialites, politicians, businessmen, lawyers, and community leaders, its members included such prominent figures as Thomas Paine, George Washington, and Benjamin Franklin. PAS believed in the gradual abolition of slavery through legal (representing blacks in court) and political (petitioning Congress) means. PAS shunned grassroots involvement (even among African Americans) and instead focused on a strategy whereby elite white males would pursue their moral calling by working within existing institutional structures to abolish slavery.

With the surge of democratic sentiment that swept the nation in the early nineteenth century, it became obvious that PAS’s conservative approach to abolitionism was outdated and ineffective. In the 1830s, the abolitionist cause moved to Massachusetts, where the emphasis was on the immediate emancipation of slaves. The movement solicited the support of the masses (including African Americans and women) through the creation of organizations and societies and the dissemination of written material (pamphlets and newspapers) in a grassroots effort to abolish slavery. Abolitionists appealed to people’s emotions by emphasizing the immorality of such an ‘‘evil institution.’’ Such was the intent of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s antislavery novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), which was written in response to the strengthening of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.

William Lloyd Garrison’s (1805–1879) newspaper, The Liberator, was the rallying cry for the abolitionist cause. Garrison believed not only in the immediate emancipation of slaves, but also in a commitment to treating African Americans as persons with ‘‘inherent and unalienable rights.’’ He supported the Declaration of Independence but shunned the Constitution as a ‘‘proslavery compact,’’ a ‘‘covenant with death,’’ an ‘‘agreement with hell,’’ and a ‘‘flagrant robbery of the inalienable rights of men.’’ The Constitution, which was created at the expense of human dignity, violated the laws of God and, therefore, was null and void. Garrison detested political action and believed that abolitionism was a moral and religious crusade to open the eyes of the people to the evils of slavery.

One of the most prominent African-American abolitionists was Frederick Douglass (1818–1895), a former slave, whose autobiographies (The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, and My Bondage, My Freedom) revealed the details of his life as a slave and were also arguments against the institution that denied slaves their self-worth. At first Douglass supported Garrison’s reading of the Constitution as a proslavery compact, but soon parted ways with Garrison when he realized that the Constitution could be interpreted to be against slavery. Douglass encouraged abolitionists to work within the system to abolish slavery by becoming active in politics and exercising their constitutional rights of speech and press, as well as voting.

The abolitionist movement began in the Revolutionary era, reached its pinnacle in the 1830s, maintained its strength in the 1850s, and continued after the Civil War until the end of Reconstruction. By 1900, slavery was completely abolished in the Western Hemisphere.

RANDA CAROLYN ISSA

References and Further Reading

  • Blassingame, John W., ed. The Frederick Douglass Papers: Series One: Speeches, Debates, and Interviews. 3 vols. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1979. 
  • Cain, William E., ed. William Lloyd Garrison and the Fight Against Slavery: Selections From The Liberator. Boston: St. Martin’s Press, 1995. 
  • Newman, Richard S. The Transformation of American Abolitionism: Fighting Slavery in the Early Republic. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002. 
  • Stowe, Harriet Beecher. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, 150th ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

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