American Abolitionists and Antislavery Activists:
Conscience of the Nation

Updated April 4, 2021

l to r: Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips

Introduction to Abolition and Antislavery in the United States

Slavery began in British North America in 1619. 

Movements to limit or end slavery began in the earliest days of British colonial America and the founding of the American republic.

Anti-slavery activities took numerous forms from the late 1600s through the end of the American Civil War.  Ultimately, abolitionists and anti-slavery activists inspired and moved the country toward passing the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, ending slavery forever.

The first abolitionist organization, the Society for the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage, was established in Philadelphia in 1775. 

Framers of the Declaration of Independence and, later, the Constitution of the United States, debated the issue of slavery.  Many of the founding fathers wanted to exclude slavery from the new republic.  Among them were John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, Benjamin Rush, and others.  They believed that slavery was morally wrong and contrary to the ideals of the new republic.  These ideals were equality and liberty. 

After the American revolution, abolitionist societies were established in Massachusetts, Connecticut and New York.  The leaders of these organizations were among the most prominent Americans of the time.  They believed that slavery could be ended gradually, with compensation to the slaveholders. 

As a result of the lobbying of these societies, states in New England began to legislate slavery out of existence.  Among them were Pennsylvania, Connecticut and New York.  Other states soon followed.

Before the federal Constitutional Convention met in 1787, six of the original states began legislation toward the complete emancipation of slaves.  They were Vermont (1777), Massachusetts (1780), Pennsylvania (1780), Connecticut (1784), New Hampshire (1784), and Rhode Island (1784). 

In 1794, New York began the legislative process, and in 1804, New Jersey adopted a plan for the gradual emancipation of slaves.

In 1787, the U.S. Constitution adopted a plan to abolish the foreign and domestic slave trade and, ultimately, to keep slavery out of all of the territories.  A new federal law, authorized by Rufus King, would prohibit slavery in the following states: Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Iowa.  These states would be admitted to the Union as free states.

In the early 1800s, attempts to end slavery entered a new era.  Gradual emancipation was replaced with the idea of sending freed African Americans back to Africa.  This was known as “colonization.”  The American Colonization Society, was created in 1819.  During this period, colonization societies were created throughout the south.  Many thought that slavery would eventually would wither away.  Some colonizationists believed that slavery was wrong.  Others wanted to remove all Blacks from the south.  By the late 1820s, the anti-slavery movement shifted from the south to the northern states.

By the 1830s, a new generation of abolitionists emerged.  Inspired by their moral and religious ideals, they demanded an immediate end to slavery, and without compensation to slave owners.  Abolitionists also called for freed enslaved peoples to be allowed into American society as equals.

From the 1830s through the 1860s, abolition and anti-slavery became one of the most contentious issues in American politics and society.  The issue of slavery deeply divided the country.  Southern politicians and slaveholders began a campaign to defend the institution.  It dominated American politics for more than three decades.  The very fabric of American democracy, and even the existence of the republic, was jeopardized by slavery.

Abolitionists and anti-slavery activists were a very small group.  They represented only a small fraction of the US population.  Nonetheless, they had a large influence on the political discussion of the day. 

These abolitionists called for the ending of what was called the “peculiar institution” of slavery.  The first success of the anti-slavery leaders was the prohibition of the African slave trade in the United States in 1808.  Later, they called for the ending of all interstate commerce in slavery and the prohibition of the extension of slavery into the new territories and states.  They also demanded the repeal of the fugitive slave laws, which required the return of fugitive slaves to their owners.  

Abolitionists’ ultimate goal was the absolute and unconditional ending of slavery in the United States.  To this end, they steadily lobbied state legislatures and the US Congress to call for the immediate end to slavery.

Before the Civil War, abolitionist societies sprung up throughout the northern states.  In 1831, the New England Anti-Slavery Society was organized. In 1833, a meeting was held in Philadelphia, where abolitionists from New York, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts met to establish a national organization, the American Anti-Slavery Society (AASS).  Soon, auxiliaries the AASS and other anti-slavery societies were organized throughout the eastern and western states.  In 1835, the Ohio Anti-Slavery Society was created and soon the New York Anti-Slavery was established.  Both state auxiliaries of the AASS.  By the 1850s, more than 2,000 societies existed, with a membership of more than 200,000.

The abolitionist movement was among the first times that Whites and Blacks worked together effectively toward major social and political reforms.

Abolitionists employed numerous tactics to accomplish their goals.  They published pamphlets, tracts and articles, and they established dozens of abolitionist newspapers.  They hired speakers to lecture on the topic, and hundreds of inspired individuals crisscrossed the country, spreading the message.  They continued to lobby Congress and local legislatures.

Abolitionist leaders were often highly educated men.  Many of them had intense religious feelings and commitments.  Many were clergymen and elders of Protestant evangelical churches.  Most of them traced their families to New England.

As the influence of abolitionists grew, southerners sought to diminish their effectiveness.  They called for a ban on mailing anti-slavery tracts.  In Congress, southern lawmakers put a “gag order” on petitions submitted to debate the issue of slavery.

After the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, northern abolitionists created vigilance committees.  These committees protected escaped slaves from being recaptured and returned to the south and defended them in court.

Abolitionists opposed the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which sought to determine if Kansas would become a slave state by popular sovereignty.  It would allow new settlers to determine the question of slavery in the new territory.

Many abolitionists aided slaves in the Underground Railroad.  They helped thousands of slaves to escape from the South and relocate to the North and took them to freedom in Canada.

The abolitionist movement was not popular, and was supported by few people in the north.  The northern economy depended on the products of slavery.  Cotton, tobacco, sugar and other commodities were creating great wealth in New England.

Abolitionists were often seen as fanatics.  They were accused of driving a wedge between the north and the south, disrupting the economies of both regions.  They were frequently ridiculed and were objects of contempt.  

Abolitionists paid a heavy price for their beliefs.  Some were jailed for their activities, and several died in custody.  Attempts to silence them were often violent.  A number of abolitionists were beaten.  Several abolitionists were killed by angry mobs. 

Who were the abolitionists and anti-slavery activists?  They were both White and African American.  Abolitionists came from all walks of life, classes, professions, and religious beliefs.

The work of these individuals and organizations made it possible for Abraham Lincoln to abolish slavery on January 1, 1863, when he signed the Emancipation Proclamation.  The Congress of the United States passed the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, ending slavery, on January 31, 1865.  This act freed more than four million African Americans from slavery.

The abolitionist movement was one of the most important social movements in the history of the United States.  Out of it grew the great Nineteenth Century reform movements, such as women’s rights and suffrage, Native American rights, temperance, prison and labor reform.

Abolitionists were inspired by the notion that slavery was morally and ethically wrong, and that it was an unjustifiable institution.  Abolitionists were the conscience of the nation.  They reminded us of the unfulfilled promises of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. 

Yet more than 150 years after leading the fight to end slavery, most of these abolitionists have been forgotten. 

The purpose of this website is to honor those courageous men and women who fought for the rights of their countrymen.