American Abolitionists and Antislavery Activists:
Conscience of the Nation

Updated April 4, 2021

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

Quotes on Slavery and Abolition

Quotes appear in chronological order.


Thou shalt not deliver unto his master the servant who has escaped from his master unto thee.

Deuteronomy 23:15


Remember them that are in bonds, as bound with them, and them which suffer adversity, as being yourselves also in the body.

Epistle of Paul to the Hebrews, 13:3


We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776, drafted by Thomas Jefferson


Negro slavery is an evil of Colossal magnitude and I am utterly averse to the admission of slavery into the Missouri Territories. It being among my first wishes to see some plan adopted, by which slavery in this country may be abolished by law.

John Adams, founding father, third President of the United States


Slavery is so foreign to the human mind, that the moral faculties, as well as those of the understanding are debased, and rendered torpid by it. All of the vices which are charged upon the negroes in the southern colonies and West Indies… are the genuine offspring of slavery, and serve as an argument to prove they [African Americans] were not intended by Providence for it.

Benjamin Rush, founding father


Who talks most about freedom and equality? Is it not those who hold a bill of Rights in one hand and a whip for affrighted slaves in the other?

Alexander Hamilton, founding father, first Secretary of the Treasury, abolitionist


Freedom is not a gift bestowed upon us by other men, but a right that belongs to us by the laws of God and nature.

Benjamin Franklin, founding father, abolitionist


…Neither my tongue, nor my pen, nor purse shall be wanting to promote the abolition of what to me appears so inconsistent with humanity and Christianity.

Benjamin Franklin, founding father, abolitionist


It is much to be wished that slavery may be abolished. The honor of the States as well as justice and humanity, in my opinion, loudly call upon them to emancipate these unhappy people.  To contend for our own liberty, and to deny that blessing to others, involves an inconsistency not to be excused.

John Jay, founding father, first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, abolitionist, in a letter to R. Lushington, March 15, 1786


If the Union must be dissolved, slavery is precisely the question upon which it ought to break.

John Quincy Adams, U.S. Secretary of State, 1820, privately commenting on Missouri Compromise of 1819


[Slavery] is the root of almost all the troubles of the present and the fears for the future.

Former President John Quincy Adams to Alexis de Tocqueville


Americans are so enamored of equality that they would rather be equal in slavery than unequal in freedom… The subjection of individuals will increase among democratic nations, not only in the same proportion as their equality, but in the same proportions as their ignorance.

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America


I consider involuntary slavery a never-failing fountain of the grossest immorality, and one of the deepest sources of human misery; it hangs like the mantle of night over our republic, and shrouds its rising glories. I sincerely pity the man who tinges his hand in the unhallowed thing that is fraught with the tears, and sweat, and groans, and blood of hapless millions of innocent, unoffending people…

John Rankin, 1823, abolitionist, published in The Castigator, a local newspaper in Ripley, Ohio


If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightning.

Frederick Douglass, abolitionist, former slave


It seems incredible that the advocates of liberty should conceive of the idea of selling a fellow creature to slavery.

James Forten, abolitionist, free African American


If you love your children, if you love your country, if you love the God of love, clear your hands from slaves. Burden not your children or country with them.

Richard Allen, abolitionist, former slave, founder of the Bethel African Methodist Church (AME)


Then I will speak upon the ashes.

Sojourner Truth, abolitionist, former slave


Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world.

Harriet Tubman, abolitionist, former slave


I freed a thousand slaves I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves.

Harriet Tubman, abolitionist, former slave


Abolitionists believe that, as all men are born free, so all who are now held as slaves in this country were born free, and that they are slaves now is a sin…

Elijah Parrish Lovejoy, abolitionist who was murdered by pro-slavery mob


I am aware that many object to the severity of my language; but is there not cause for severity? I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice. On this subject, I do not wish to think, or to speak, or write, with moderation. … I am in earnest — I will not equivocate — I will not excuse — I will not retreat a single inch — AND I WILL BE HEARD.

William Lloyd Garrison, abolitionist, January 1, 1831


Enslave the liberty of but one human being and the liberties of the world are put in peril.

William Lloyd Garrison, abolitionist


I will say, finally, that I despair of the republic while slavery exists therein.

William Lloyd Garrison, abolitionist, July 4, 1829


I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one. My eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight, I can divine it by conscience.  And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.

Theodore Parker, abolitionist, in speech, “The Present Aspect of Slavery in America and the Immediate Duty of the North,” Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Convention, April 29, 1858


Slavery can only be abolished by raising the character of the people who compose the nation; and that can be done only by showing them a higher one.

Maria Weston Chapman, abolitionist, feminist


Every man knows that slavery is a curse. Whoever denies this, his lips libel his heart.

Theodore Dwight Weld, abolitionist


An immoral law makes it a man’s duty to break it at every hazard.

Ralph Waldo Emmerson, poet, essayist, in speech in 1851 opposing the Fugitive Slave Law


Our fellow country men in chains! – slaves – in a land of light and law! Slaves – crouching on the very plains where rolled the storm of freedom’s war!

John Greenleaf Whittier, abolitionist poet


The law will never make men free; it is men who have got to make the law free. They are the lovers of law and order, who observe the law when the government breaks it.

Henry David Thoreau, in the essay, “Slavery in Massachusetts,” commenting on the Fugitive Slave Law, July 4, 1854


If there breathe on Earth a slave,

Are ye truly free and brave?

If ye do not feel the chain,

When it works a brother’s pain,

Are ye not base slaves indeed,

Slaves unworthy to be freed?

James Russell Lowell, Stanzas on Freedom


These are the woes of slaves;

They glare from the abyss;

They cry, from unknown graves,

We are the witnesses.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, poet


Slavery is a sin against God and a crime against man.

Free Soil Party platform


I John Brown am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land: will never be purged away; but with Blood.

Note written by John Brown, December 2, 1859, the day he was executed


Whenever I hear any one arguing for slavery I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally.

President Abraham Lincoln, in speech to 140th Indiana Regiment, March 17, 1865


As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy.  Whatever differs from this, to the extent of this difference, is no democracy.

Abraham Lincoln, 1858


I have always hated slavery, I think as much as any abolitionist.

Abraham Lincoln, July 10, 1858, speech at Chicago, Illinois


I hate it because of the monstrous injustice of slavery itself. I hate it because it deprives our republican example of its just influence in the world.

Abraham Lincoln, October 16, 1854, speech at Peoria, Illinois