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 slavery).
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 Lundy 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 Beecher and Nathaniel Taylor in New England and the religious revivals that began in W New York state in 1824 under Charles G. Finney 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. Weld and the brothers Arthur Tappan and Lewis Tappan.
The Antislavery Movement
The Tappan brothers and William Lloyd Garrison, 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 rule to avoid considering their petitions. These actions, and the murder of abolitionist editor Elijah P. Lovejoy 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 Society, 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 party; James G. Birney was its presidential candidate in 1840 and 1844. Writers such as John Greenleaf Whittier and orators such as Wendell Phillips gave their services to the cause, while Frederick Douglass and other freed or escaped slaves also took to the lecture platform.
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 party in 1848 and 1852, and in 1856 they voted with the Republican party.
The passage of more stringent fugitive slave laws in 1850 increased abolitionist activity on the Underground Railroad. Uncle Tom's Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe, became an effective piece of abolitionist propaganda, and the Kansas question (see Kansas; Kansas-Nebraska Act) further aroused both North and South. The culminating act of extreme abolitionism occurred in the raid of John Brown 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 Proclamation.
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).