Before the early 1830s, slavery was discussed calmly. Since slavery was banned in the North, most of the early abolitionists were southerners.
The first abolitionists were Quakers and free blacks. Quakers believed that all people had the same `spark of divinity,' making slavery immoral. Quakers were among the first to free their slaves. Some Quakers traveled the countryside urging slave-owners to free their slaves.
In the 1820s, Benjamin Lundy urged southerners to free their slaves, and for the nation to help free blacks move to Haiti, Canada or Texas (which was still part of Mexico). Lundy tried to use persuasion on slave-owners rather than attacks and condemnation.
Benjamin Banneker was a free black born in Maryland. A mathematician and astronomer, he published an almanac that rivaled Franklin's for accuracy, and John Adams cited Banneker's achievements as proof that intelligence is not a factor of skin color.
Later in life, Banneker surveyed the District of Colombia and contributed to the design of the capital city. He corresponded with Washington, Jefferson and others about the evils of slavery. But because of the increasing profitability of cotton production, Banneker and the Quakers were not able to influence many slave-owners.
In the 1820s, a large anti-slavery movement emerged, supported by southerners and represented by organizations such as the American Colonization Society.
While they opposed slavery, they also believed that blacks and whites could not live together in harmony. Therefore, while they urged slaveowners to free their slaves, they also raised money to pay for the transportation of free blacks to West Africa.
President James Monroe, Chief Justice John Marshall and House Speaker Henry Clay were supporters of the colonization movement. And even Southern slaveowners who rejected abolition often supported colonization of free blacks.
By 1860, nearly 11,000 blacks had gone to Liberia in West Africa, and helped found and build that country. But most blacks refused colonization, insisting that the U. S. was their home.
William Lloyd Garrison was one of the most uncompromising abolitionists of his day. He was completely unwilling to compromise on slavery. Slaveowners were evil and should not receive reimbursement for slaves freed by legislation. Abolition must be complete, immediate, and without compensation.
Garrison didn't care what other social or economic problems might be caused by immediate emancipation. His words were so extreme and so harsh that he alienated many people who might otherwise have supported his cause.
In the South, Garrison was despised as one who encouraged slaves to revolt. Copies of his antislavery newspaper “The Liberator” were banned, and a $5,000 reward was offered to anyone who would capture Garrison and bring him to Georgia to stand trial.
“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 speak, or write, with moderation. . . I will not equivocate – I will not excuse – I will not retreat a single inch – and I WILL BE HEARD!” -- William Lloyd Garrison
Elijah P. Lovejoy was another extreme abolitionist. He also spoke out against alcohol and Roman Catholicism, but it was his abolitionist views that angered his neighbors.
An angry mob broke into his printing office in 1837. They dumped his printing press into the Mississippi River, burned his office, and murdered him.
A more successful abolitionist was Theodore Dwight Weld. He tried to build a large antislavery movement by appealing to the consciences of Midwestern farmers and church groups.
Weld published a collection of newspaper articles detailing the horrors of slavery under the title, “American Slavery As It Is.” Weld especially focused on southern accounts, in order to counter southern claims that slave abuse almost never occurred.
Sarah Grimke Angelina Grimke Weld was married to Angelina Grimke. She and her sister Sarah were from a slaveholding family in South Carolina, but had been converted to abolition by Quakers. Many conventional Americans were shocked by the idea of two women speaking out publicly against slavery.
Both women spoke out powerfully against slavery. Many conventional Americans were shocked by the idea of two women speaking out in public.
In the North, free blacks could become involved in the abolition movement. Some black abolitionists had once been slaves themselves, and could tell of slavery's horrors based on personal experience.
Two leading black abolitionists were Henry Highland Garnett and Frederick Douglass. As rivals for black abolitionist leadership, they also demonstrated the divisions within the movement.
Garnett was the more militant of the two, and as early as 1843 was calling for slaves to rise up against their owners and make themselves free.
Garnett believed that any violence done by slaves in the act of freeing themselves was justified on the grounds of self defense. His stated believe was that it was better to die free than live as slaves.
Frederick Douglass was the best orator, black or white, in the movement. He had escaped slavery as a youth, taught himself to read and write, and published his Autobiography in 1845. He disagreed with Garnett on the role of violence in abolition, but not on the degradations of slavery.
He worked tirelessly with white politicians and social leaders throughout the 1840s and `50s, and beyond the Civil War. Until his death in 1895, Douglass spoke out on behalf of black equality, the rights of working people, and for the right of women to vote.
Black women such as Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman also played major roles in the antislavery movement.
Isabella Baumfree had been born a slave, and changed her name to Sojourner Truth when she became free. Although she was illiterate, Truth stood six feet tall and was a powerful speaker who sometimes in her speeches used songs she had composed.
Harriet Tubman was a runaway slave from Maryland. She aided the movement by working as a `conductor' on the Underground Railroad, an informal network of abolitionists who hid runaway slaves fleeing to Canada.
At the risk of her own freedom and safety, Tubman returned to slave states nineteen time to guide other blacks to freedom.