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abolitionists,in U.S. history, particularly in the three decades before the Civil War, members of the movement that agitated for the compulsory emancipation of the slaves. Abolitionists are distinguished from free-soilers, who opposed the further extension of slavery, but the groups came to act together politically and otherwise in the antislavery cause. The abolitionist movement was one of high moral purpose and courage; its uncompromising temper made the slavery question the prime concern of national politics and hastened the demise of slavery in the United States (see also slaveryslavery,
historicially, an institution based on a relationship of dominance and submission, whereby one person owns another and can exact from that person labor or other services.
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Antislavery sentiment had existed before and during the American Revolution. Philadelphia Quakers founded the world's first antislavery society in 1775, Vermont outlawed slavery in 1777, and abolitionist Benjamin LundyLundy, Benjamin,
1789–1839, American abolitionist, b. Sussex co., N.J., of Quaker parentage. A pioneer in the antislavery movement, Lundy founded (1815) the Union Humane Society while operating a saddlery in Ohio.
..... Click the link for more information. began his work early in the 19th cent. However, the abolition movement did not reach crusading proportions until the 1830s. One of its mainsprings was the growing influence of evangelical religion, with its religious fervor, its moral urgency to end sinful practices, and its vision of human perfection. The preaching of Lyman BeecherBeecher, Lyman,
1775–1863, American Presbyterian clergyman, b. New Haven, Conn., grad. Yale, 1797. In 1799 he became pastor at East Hampton, N.Y. While serving (1810–26) in the Congregational Church at Litchfield, Conn.
..... Click the link for more information. and Nathaniel Taylor in New England and the religious revivals that began in W New York state in 1824 under Charles G. FinneyFinney, Charles Grandison,
1792–1875, American evangelist, theologian, and educator, b. Warren, Conn. Licensed to the Presbyterian ministry in 1824, he had phenomenal success as a revivalist in the Eastern states, converting many who became noted abolitionists.
..... Click the link for more information. and swept much of the North, created a powerful impulse toward social reform—emancipation of the slaves as well as temperance, foreign missions, and women's rights. Outstanding among Charles Finney's converts were Theodore D. WeldWeld, Theodore Dwight,
1803–95, American abolitionist, b. Hampton, Conn. In 1825 his family moved to upstate New York, and he entered Hamilton College. While in college he became a disciple of the evangelist Charles G.
..... Click the link for more information. and the brothers Arthur TappanTappan, Arthur
, 1786–1865, American abolitionist, b. Northampton, Mass. He made a fortune in the dry-goods business in New York City and with his brother and partner Lewis Tappan gave generously of his time and money to various causes, especially to the antislavery
..... Click the link for more information. and Lewis TappanTappan, Lewis,
1788–1873, American abolitionist, b. Northampton, Mass. He became a partner in his brother Arthur's New York mercantile house in 1828 and in 1841 founded the first agency for rating commercial credit in the United States.
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The Antislavery Movement
The Tappan brothers and William Lloyd GarrisonGarrison, William Lloyd,
1805–79, American abolitionist, b. Newburyport, Mass. He supplemented his limited schooling with newspaper work and in 1829 went to Baltimore to aid Benjamin Lundy in publishing the Genius of Universal Emancipation.
..... Click the link for more information. , who began publishing an abolitionist journal, The Liberator, in 1831, were the principal organizers in Dec., 1833, at Philadelphia, of the American Anti-Slavery Society. The primary concern of the society was the denunciation of slavery as a moral evil; its members called for immediate action to free the slaves. In 1835 the society launched a massive propaganda campaign. It flooded the slave states with abolitionist literature, sent agents throughout the North to organize state and local antislavery societies, and poured petitions into Congress demanding the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia.
The abolitionists were at first widely denounced and abused. Mobs attacked them in the North; Southerners burned antislavery pamphlets and in some areas excluded them from the mails; and Congress imposed the gag rulegag rules,
in parliamentary procedure, rules limiting or prohibiting free debate on a particular issue. In U.S. history, the term is applied especially to procedural rules in force in the House of Representatives from 1836 to 1844.
..... Click the link for more information. to avoid considering their petitions. These actions, and the murder of abolitionist editor Elijah P. LovejoyLovejoy, Elijah Parish,
1802–37, American abolitionist, b. Albion, Maine, grad. Waterville (now Colby) College, 1826, and later studied theology at Princeton. In 1833 he became editor of the Observer, a Presbyterian weekly in St. Louis.
..... Click the link for more information. in 1837, led many to fear for their constitutional rights. Abolitionists shrewdly exploited these fears and antislavery sentiment spread rapidly in the North. By 1838, more than 1,350 antislavery societies existed with almost 250,000 members, including many women.
Although abolitionists united in denouncing the African venture of the American Colonization SocietyAmerican Colonization Society,
organized Dec., 1816–Jan., 1817, at Washington, D.C., to transport free blacks from the United States and settle them in Africa. The freeing of many slaves, principally by idealists, created a serious problem in that no sound provisions were
..... Click the link for more information. , they disagreed among themselves as to how their goal might be best reached. Garrison believed in moral suasion as the only weapon; he and his followers also argued that women be allowed to participate fully in antislavery societies, thus disturbing more conservative members. When the Garrisonians passed such a resolution at the society's 1840 convention, a large group led by the Tappan brothers withdrew and formed the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society. The abolitionists were never again united as a single movement.
Advocates of direct political action founded (1840) the Liberty partyLiberty party,
in U.S. history, an antislavery political organization founded in 1840. It was formed by those abolitionists, under the leadership of James G. Birney and Gerrit Smith, who repudiated William Lloyd Garrison's nonpolitical stand.
..... Click the link for more information. ; James G. BirneyBirney, James Gillespie
, 1792–1857, American abolitionist, b. Danville, Ky. He practiced law at Danville from 1814 to 1818, before he moved to Alabama, where he served one term in the state legislature.
..... Click the link for more information. was its presidential candidate in 1840 and 1844. Writers such as John Greenleaf WhittierWhittier, John Greenleaf
, 1807–92, American Quaker poet and reformer, b. near Haverhill, Mass. Whittier was a pioneer in regional literature as well as a crusader for many humanitarian causes. Early Life
Whittier received a scanty education but read widely.
..... Click the link for more information. and orators such as Wendell PhillipsPhillips, Wendell,
1811–84, American reformer and orator, b. Boston, grad. Harvard (B.A., 1831; LL.B., 1834). He was admitted to the bar in 1834 but, having sufficient income of his own, he abandoned his law practice to devote his life to fighting for sound causes, chiefly
..... Click the link for more information. gave their services to the cause. Former slaves as well as free African Americans, notably Frederick DouglassDouglass, Frederick
, c.1818–1895, American abolitionist, b. near Easton, Md. as Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey. The son of a black slave, Harriet Bailey, and a white father, most likely his mother's owner, he reinvented himself by taking the name of Douglass (from
..... Click the link for more information. , William Wells Brown, Mary Ann Shadd Cary, Robert and Thomas Hamilton, and Martin DelanyDelany, Martin Robinson
, 1812–85, American black leader, b. Charles Town, Va. (now in West Virginia). The son of free blacks, he attended a black school in Pittsburgh and studied medicine at Harvard. He emphasized the practical aspects of black problems.
..... Click the link for more information. , also played a significant role in the Abolitionist movement, establishing newspapers, writing novels and pamphlets, and lecturing.
An antislavery lobby was organized in 1842, and its influence grew under Weld's able direction. Abolitionists hoped to convert the South through the churches, until the withdrawal of Southern Methodists (1844) and Baptists (1845) from association with their Northern brethren. After the demise of the Liberty party, the political abolitionists supported the Free-Soil partyFree-Soil party,
in U.S. history, political party that came into existence in 1847–48 chiefly because of rising opposition to the extension of slavery into any of the territories newly acquired from Mexico.
..... Click the link for more information. in 1848 and 1852, and in 1856 they voted with the Republican partyRepublican party,
American political party. Origins and Early Years
The name was first used by Thomas Jefferson's party, later called the Democratic Republican party or, simply, the Democratic party.
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The passage of more stringent fugitive slave laws in 1850 increased abolitionist activity on the Underground RailroadUnderground Railroad,
in U.S. history, loosely organized system for helping fugitive slaves escape to Canada or to areas of safety in free states. It was run by local groups of Northern abolitionists, both white and free blacks.
..... Click the link for more information. . Uncle Tom's Cabin, by Harriet Beecher StoweStowe, Harriet Beecher,
1811–96, American novelist and humanitarian, b. Litchfield, Conn. With her novel Uncle Tom's Cabin, she stirred the conscience of Americans concerning slavery and thereby influenced the course of American history.
..... Click the link for more information. , became an effective piece of abolitionist propaganda, and the Kansas question (see KansasKansas
, midwestern state occupying the center of the coterminous United States. It is bordered by Missouri (E), Oklahoma (S), Colorado (W), and Nebraska (N). Facts and Figures
Area, 82,264 sq mi (213,064 sq km). Pop. (2010) 2,853,118, a 6.
..... Click the link for more information. ; Kansas-Nebraska ActKansas-Nebraska Act,
bill that became law on May 30, 1854, by which the U.S. Congress established the territories of Kansas and Nebraska. By 1854 the organization of the vast Platte and Kansas river countries W of Iowa and Missouri was overdue.
..... Click the link for more information. ) further aroused both North and South. The culminating act of extreme abolitionism occurred in the raid of John BrownBrown, John,
1800–1859, American abolitionist, b. Torrington, Conn. He spent his boyhood in Ohio. Before he became prominent in the 1850s, his life had been a succession of business failures in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and New York.
..... Click the link for more information. on Harpers Ferry. After the opening of the Civil War insistent abolitionist demands for immediate freeing of the slaves, supported by radical Republicans in Congress, pushed President Lincoln in his decision to issue the Emancipation ProclamationEmancipation Proclamation,
in U.S. history, the executive order abolishing slavery in the Confederate States of America. Desire for Such a Proclamation
In the early part of the Civil War, President Lincoln refrained from issuing an edict freeing the slaves despite
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See L. Filler, The Crusade against Slavery, 1830–1860 (1960); D. L. Dumond, Antislavery: The Crusade for Freedom in America (1961, repr. 1964); L. Lader, The Bold Brahmins: New England's War against Slavery (1961); M. Duberman, ed., The Antislavery Vanguard (1965); A. Lutz, Crusade for Freedom: Women in the Antislavery Movement (1968); A. S. Kraditor, Means and Ends in American Abolitionism (1969); B. Quarles, Black Abolitionists (1969); L. Perry and M. Fellman, ed., Antislavery Reconsidered (1979); R. J. Blackett, Building an Antislavery Wall (1983); H. Aptheker, Abolitionism: A Revolutionary Movement (1989); P. Goodman, Of One Blood (1998); R. S. Newman, The Transformation of American Abolitionism (2001); S. Drescher, Abolition: A History of Slavery and Antislavery (2009); A. Delbanco, The Abolitionist Imagination (2012); M. Sinha, The Slave's Cause: A History of Abolition (2016).