Students will analyze the growth of the abolitionist movement in the 1830s and the slaveholding states’ view of the movement as a physical, economic and political threat. Maps to Key Concepts 3, 5, 7, 9 & 10
What else should my students know?
10.A Opposition to slavery in North America dates to slavery’s beginnings there. Enslaved men and women were constantly seeking ways to use the religious and civil values espoused by enslavers to argue for their own freedom. Indigenous people in the early British and Spanish colonies tried to use the courts to gain freedom, but few succeeded.
10.B Some colonists argued for abolition very early, including Bartolomé de las Casas in the 16th-century Spanish colonies and some white Quakers in 18th-century British colonies.
10.C During the Revolution, many enslaved people actively sought their freedom by escaping to the British or by adopting the language of inalienable rights and challenging white American colonists to live up to their liberty-loving rhetoric.
10.D Many prominent white people, including Thomas Jefferson and James Madison (both enslavers), thought slavery would eventually end but did not support abolition. In the early 19th century, they joined a majority of white Americans supporting the removal of African Americans to Africa. The American Colonization Society raised money to facilitate this removal, which they said would include both free and enslaved African Americans. African American opposition to the American Colonization Society was part of a new, centralized movement to promote abolition and work toward citizenship rights.
10.E William Lloyd Garrison and black allies launched the radical abolitionist movement in 1831 using the ideas of all of these predecessors. Garrison began promoting immediate abolition as an alternative to gradual emancipation or colonization. He started publishing the anti-slavery newspaper The Liberator in 1831 and founded the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1833.
10.F White women and free black Northerners, many of whom also opposed the Indian Removal Act, were among the largest groups represented in Northern abolitionist societies. Influential advocates included Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, many others who had escaped enslavement and the publishers of many black newspapers. Even so, scholars estimate that abolitionists never accounted for more than one percent of the population, meaning that support for enslavement continued to be widespread among the white settler population.
10.G Southern lawmakers and cultural leaders reacted to the growth of Northern abolition with an increased commitment to defending slavery as a positive good and with political actions to prevent the spread of the abolitionist message in the South.
How can I teach this?
- In a short video from Learning for Justice, Dr. Martha Jones discusses the American Colonization Society and its roots in white supremacy.
- Angelina and Sarah Grimké were sisters from South Carolina who became prominent advocates of abolition and women’s rights. Their writings are readily available.
- Sarah Parker Remond and her brother Charles Lenox Remond were members of a prominent free black family from Salem, Massachusetts. Both became popular anti-slavery lecturers.
- David Walker’s 1829 Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World described the conditions of African American people in slavery and called for armed rebellion. Walker’s Appeal was smuggled into the South using underground networks and subterfuge. Enslavers severely punished anyone caught reading or distributing it. The David Walker Memorial Project offers an overview of the Appeal (including excerpts) and its distribution.
- Free and fugitive black Northerners participated in “Colored Conventions” to pursue educational, labor and legal goals. Before the war, the delegates to these conventions discussed, among other topics, colonization and immediate abolition.
- Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman are among the most well known of the many formerly enslaved people who became abolitionists. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass is among several fugitive slave narratives available through the website Documenting the American South.
- Copies of The Liberator are widely available online.
- Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, was an effective way to educate Northerners on the horrors of slavery, even though it perpetuated many racist stereotypes.
- In 1835, the American Anti-Slavery Society began a direct mail campaign in the South. Local postmasters refused to deliver the mail and mobs in Charleston, South Carolina, burned the anti-slavery materials along with effigies of abolitionists. Following this campaign, various slave states passed laws that made it illegal to deliver abolitionist materials. The blog of the Postal Museum includes a short article, “America’s First Direct Mail Campaign,” detailing this event.
- After the growth of abolitionist societies, Southerners produced a number of forceful defenses of slavery grounded in specific ideas about religion and science. For examples, see John C. Calhoun’s “Slavery a Positive Good” from 1837, James Henry Hammond’s “Letter to an English Abolitionist, 1845” or Hammond’s 1858 speech, “Cotton Is King.”
- Southerners also produced defenses of slavery grounded in the comparisons between enslaved men and women and the Northern working class. See, for example, the poem “The Hireling and the Slave” by William Grayson.
- To understand the Southern reaction to abolition, see the 1836 Gag Rule, which automatically “tabled” (postponed) action on all abolitionist petitions relating to slavery without hearing them. Speeches on the subject by John Quincy Adams are also useful.
- Gradual emancipation procedures differed widely. For example, New York’s law allowed for the abandonment of enslaved children who were destined for freedom and therefore of little value to their enslavers. They would be separated from their mothers and sent to the local poorhouse to be rented out.