The abolitionist movement typically refers to the organized uprising against slavery that grew in the 30 years prior to the United States Civil War. However, slavery had existed in the United States since the founding of the colonies, and some people fought to abolish the practice from the time it was established. Long before the American Revolution, religious groups called for the end of slavery, and until the 13th Amendment formally ended it in 1865, abolitionist uprisings came in waves. However, for many Americans, slavery was more than just a practice—it was a way of life. People in both the North and the South fought the abolitionists. Many considered slavery to be part of the natural order, and they believed that any efforts to end slavery would divide the nation and destroy the country’s economy.

In the early years of the Republic, Congress passed some laws that supported abolitionist goals. It passed laws that prevented Americans from selling slaves to other countries, for instance. Congress also made attempts to end the abusive treatment of slaves during their transport from Africa. Still, by the 1830s, the United States had about two million slaves—nearly four times as many as in 1776, when the country declared its independence. Then, the abolitionists began to organize. They formed antislavery societies that drafted petitions calling for an end to slavery and sent them to Congress. They gave speeches and held conferences to promote their cause.

In 1833, the abolitionist movement became more aggressive. William Lloyd Garrison made a huge impact, largely through his publication, The Liberator. Garrison formed the American Anti-Slavery Society and proclaimed human enslavement to be a moral outrage; he and his group promoted their goals through methods of nonviolent protest. They made public speeches, produced antislavery literature, and boycotted cotton and other products that relied upon slave labor. Garrison’s goal was not simply to end slavery, however, but to end prejudice and promote racial justice. During the 1840s, the abolitionists formed political parties and continued the fight for racial equality. Like Garrison, they argued that human bondage was not only immoral, but unfitting of a country founded on the promise of freedom.

Fighting in the name of justice, the abolitionists had a powerful sway. By championing civil rights, they changed the political climate of the country. Both white and black people joined the movement, though they had different goals and ideas. Not all white abolitionists believed that blacks were equal to whites. While the white activists tended to limit their focus to ending slavery, the black activists were more likely to tackle the larger issue of promoting racial equality.

In recent years, historians studying abolition have explored the influence of black activism. Traditionally, historians have downplayed its significance, but more and more contemporary scholars believe it was critical to the movement. Manisha Sinha, along with some historians in the Caribbean who stressed the influence of the Haitian Slave Revolt and explore the role of the slave revolts in the Caribbean, believe black activists set the stage for a larger battle, establishing principles and practices that were used in later reform movements.

 

Abolition

Since the existence of slavery in the United States, abolitionists had opposed it. Activism was also found in publications like William Lloyd Garrison's The Liberator.

13th Amendment
Noun

update to the U.S. Constitution making slavery illegal.

Noun

ending or wiping out of something, usually referring to the ending of slavery.

antislavery
Noun

being against the institution of slavery.

black activism
Noun
the political movement of people of African descent advocating for issues concerning themselves and those like them.
civil rights
Plural Noun

set of fundamental freedoms guaranteed to all individuals, such as participation in the political system, ability to own property, and due process and equal protection under the law.

slave resistance
Noun

the opposition to slavery by the enslaved.