Abolitionism, the reform movement to end slavery, always remained small and on the fringes of antebellum American society, and most people in the North and South saw abolitionists as extremists. But this vocal minority managed to keep racial issues in the foreground until at least some of their views were accepted by mainstream Northern society. Southerners, on the other hand, always saw them as a direct threat to their way of life.
Efforts to end slavery had been present since the Colonial era, when Quakers were the primary torchbearers of the movement. Even though they were disappointed when the U.S. Constitution of 1787 did not end slavery but only the overseas importation of slaves in 1808, their efforts, combined with the more diverse economy of the Northern states, succeeded in outlawing the practice above the Mason-Dixon Line by the first decade of the 19th century.
Abolitionists began to advocate a gradual form of emancipation in the 1820s whereby slaves would be purchased from their owners and sent back, or recolonized, to their African “homeland.” The concept, pushed by the American Colonization Society, was always hampered by the lack of funds and the opposition of many blacks, who rightly viewed America, not Africa, as their native country.
A diligent member of the colonization movement was William Lloyd Garrison, who had been born into a working-class family in Massachusetts. Increasingly
frustrated with the slow pace of abolition, Garrison would forever radicalize the movement in the 1830s by forming the American Anti-Slavery Society. Through its publication The Liberator, he called for immediate and universal emancipation.
That view shocked the nation, as both Northerners and Southerners dreaded the wholesale freeing of slaves. Yankees feared the competition for labor, Southerners the collapse of their economy, and both were anxious about race-mixing, or “amalgamation.” Violence began to escalate against abolitionists. In 1835 Garrison was nearly lynched as a Boston mob chased him from an antislavery rally. Two years later, a crowd dragged Elijah Lovejoy, an Illinois abolitionist, from his printing press and killed him.
Garrison and his followers continued to push for their goals and provoke controversy despite such threats. “The Constitution,” Garrison said, was “a covenant with death and an agreement with Hell,” because it did not outlaw slavery. He even publicly burned copies of the document.
Garrison’s beliefs and tactics began to unsettle many of his fellow abolitionists. He considered blacks to be equal to whites, while some members of the movement opposed slavery but still saw blacks as inferiors. In some aboltionist meetings, in fact, blacks were forced to sit in segregated sections. Garrison caused additional furor when he also began to speak out for women’s rights, considered even more radical than ending slavery, and urged they become equal partners in the abolitionist movement.Those alienated by such beliefs split off in 1839 to join Arthur and Lewis Tappan’s American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society, which had a male-only membership.
Despite the rift, Garrison, the Tappans, Quaker women like Sarah and Angelina Grimke, black leaders such as Frederick Douglass and their followers managed to keep slavery a controversial and topical issue. Shrewdly realizing that pure opposition to slavery was not enough to gain them large-scale support, they began to argue that a “Slave Power” conspiracy was trying to rob Northern whites of their rights and economic structure.
For example, during territorial expansion issues, abolitionists argued that the so-called Slave Power was trying to take land from white farmers. During the Gag Rule period of 1835-1844, which forbade the discussion of slavery in Congress, abolitionists contended that the Slave Power was suppressing freedom of speech. The Compromise of 1850 included the Fugitive Slave Act, which allowed federal officials to hunt down escaped slaves even if they had made it into a free state. Abolitionists contended that the Slave Power had made dangerous inroads into the federal government, and was able to subvert state laws.
Northerners began to wonder if there wasn’t something to the “Slave Power” theory. In Boston, where Garrison was almost lynched, a mob actually helped to free and spirit away a black man who had been caught because of the Fugitive Slave Act.
After 1861 abolitionists kept pressuring the Lincoln administration to end slavery, and celebrated the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation. Garrison, who had refused to vote because he believed it validated a corrupt system that supported slavery, cast his first ballot for Lincoln in the 1864 election.
The abolitionist movement never gained a truly large following, and it took the 13th Amendment to finally end involuntary servitude in 1865. But Garrison, Douglass and their colleagues kept the issue of race and slavery in the fore, helping to develop the tensions that led to war.