How did abolitionism become the dominant American reform movement?

6/13/2013 • Ask Mr. History

How and why did abolitionism become the dominant American reform movement?

Elizabeth Ngugi

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Dear Ms Ngugi,

In two words, it didn’t.

Prior to the American Civil War the Abolitionist movement grew thanks to propaganda such as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, spokesmen such as William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass, and political partisans such as Thaddeus Stevens, but as late as 1865 the Temperance movement was more popular and the majority of Americans, north as well as south, regarded the Abolitionists as too extreme. As the recent film Lincoln demonstrates, even having the President of the United States on their side did not give the Abolitionists decisive appeal, and Abraham Lincoln had to go through some fancy political juggling and chicanery to get the 13th Amendment passed. Popular acceptance of the whole concept of racial equality would take more than a century thereafter.



Jon Guttman
Research Director
World History Group
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