Summary of the Abolitionist Movement

The Abolitionist movement in the United States was an attempt to eliminate slavery in a country that valued individual liberty and believed that “all men are created equal.” Slave owners dug in as abolitionists became louder in their demands, aggravating regional tensions that eventually led to the American Civil War.


  • Abolitionism was an anti-slavery social reform movement in the US. It began in the mid-18th century and continued until 1865, when the 13th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified and slavery was formally abolished.
  • The movement grew from religious foundations to become a political undertaking that occasionally devolved into violence.
  • Although the majority of abolitionists were white, devoutly religious men and women, some of the movement’s most powerful and influential members were African American men and women who had fled from slavery.

The earliest leaders of the movement lasting from around 1830 to 1870, utilized methods similar to those used by British abolitionists to eradicate slavery in the 1830s. Though it began as a religiously motivated movement, abolitionism evolved into a divisive political issue that split most of the country.

Supporters and opponents frequently engaged in intense debates and violent — even lethal — clashes. The movement’s divisiveness and enmity, combined with other circumstances, contributed to the Civil War and, finally, the abolition of slavery in America.

Quick Facts about Abolitionism

  • Abolishing something means getting rid of it.
  • In the United States, the term abolitionism commonly refers to the abolition of slavery.
  • Slavery existed mostly in the United States’ southern colonies. Indentured servants were the first individuals to be used as property.
  • Members of the Religious Society of Friends, or Quakers, were among the most enthusiastic advocates of abolitionism.
  • The Quaker-based Organization for the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage was the first official abolitionist organization in the British Empire, founded in 1775.
  • Indentured servants often served for roughly 7 years before receiving land and money in exchange for their services.
  • James Oglethorpe, the founder of the colony of Georgia, was one of the first people to bring abolitionist ideas to the Americas in the mid-18th century.
  • Following the American Revolution, the majority of the northern states formally abolished slavery, and became the first governments in the Americas to do so.
  • Africans were first employed as slaves in the early 1700s. They were maintained as property for the remainder of their lives, which became an accepted practice.
  • By the 1800s, more people were speaking out against slavery and advocating for its abolition.
  • Slave importation into the United States was prohibited in 1808.
  • The United Kingdom abolished slavery throughout its empire with the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833.
  • The American Anti-Slavery Society was founded in 1833 by abolitionist icon William Lloyd Garrison (AASS).
  • Frederick Douglass, a freedman, was a prominent member and regular speaker for the AASS.
  • By the 18th century, the abolitionist movement’s aim and membership had begun to merge with the temperance and women’s suffrage organizations.
  • The murder of abolitionist Elijah Lovejoy in Alton, Illinois in 1837 by a pro-slavery mob became a rallying cry for abolitionists, and Lovejoy became a martyr in their cause.
  • Although most abolitionists used nonviolent measures, perhaps due to their Quaker heritage, some, such as John Brown, chose to use violence to eradicate slavery.
  • Historians today distinguish between abolitionists and anti-slavery campaigners. For example, the mid-nineteenth-century Free Soil Party opposed the expansion of slavery into the west but did not challenge the institution of slavery in the south, hence it was not an abolitionist party.

What Exactly Is an Abolitionist?

As the term implies, an abolitionist is someone who worked to abolish slavery in the 19th century. More precisely, these individuals advocated for the immediate and complete abolition of all enslaved people.

The majority of early abolitionists were white, religious Americans, but some of the movement’s most notable leaders were also Black men and women who had been freed from slavery.

Slavery was viewed as an immorality and an affliction in the United States by abolitionists, who sought to abolish slave ownership. They petitioned in Congress, ran for political office, and distributed anti-slavery literature throughout the South.

These committed campaigners advocated for the abolition of slavery entirely, in contrast to other groups like the Free Soil Party, which opposed the expansion of slavery into United States territory and newly formed states such as Kansas.

Did you know? In the women’s rights movement, female abolitionists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott rose to prominence.

How Did Abolitionism Emerge?

When abolitionism first emerged, opposition to slavery was not a novel idea. Since the beginning of the Atlantic slave trade in the 16th century, critics expressed their displeasure with the system.

The American Colonization Society, founded in 1816, advocated the concept of releasing slaves and returning them to Africa as an early effort to end slavery. This idea was supposed to offer a common ground between antislavery activists and supporters of slavery.

Nearly 12,000 African Americans had returned to Africa by 1860.

The Missouri Compromise of 1820

On March 6th, 1820 the legislation of Missouri Compromise permitted Missouri to become a slave state and inflamed anti-slavery feeling in the North even further.

The abolitionist movement began as a more organized, militant, and rapid attempt to abolish slavery than previous attempts. It first appeared around 1830.

Historians believe that views expressed during the Second Great Awakening religious movement encouraged abolitionists to come up against slavery. This Protestant revival promoted the idea of adopting new morality, which focused on the concept that all men are created equal in God’s eyes.

Abolitionism began in states such as New York and Massachusetts and rapidly expanded to the rest of the northern states.

Tensions Intensified By Laws

Congress passed the controversial Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, requiring all fugitive enslaved persons to be returned to their owners and American citizens to assist in the recapture.

Seven years later, in the Dred Scott case, the Supreme Court decided that Black individuals, whether free or enslaved, lacked legal citizenship rights. Enslaved people’s owners were also granted the ability to transport their enslaved workers to Western areas. Abolitionists were outraged by these legal efforts and judicial verdicts.

The Gap between North and South Widens

As it gained traction, the abolitionist movement exacerbated tensions between states in the North and the slave-owning South. Abolitionists claimed that it violated the United States Constitution, which left the option of slavery up to individual states.

In the South, abolitionism was outlawed, and President Andrew Jackson prohibited the US Postal Service from delivering any materials supporting the campaign.

Amos Dresser, a white student at Lane Theological Seminary, was publicly beaten in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1833, for having abolitionist literature while travelling through the city.

Elijah Lovejoy’s

In 1837, a pro-slavery mob assaulted an abolitionist press warehouse in Alton, Illinois, attempting to destroy abolitionist press materials. During the raid, they shot and killed Elijah Lovejoy, a newspaper editor and abolitionist.

Following the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, the Kansas Territory was home to both pro- and anti-slavery factions. In 1856, a pro-slavery party assaulted Lawrence, which was founded by Massachusetts abolitionists. In response, abolitionist John Brown staged a raid that resulted in the deaths of five pro-slavery residents.

Later in 1859, Brown led a group of 21 men to capture the United States armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. A troop of Marines apprehended him and his companions and charged them with treason. For the crime, Brown was sentenced to death by hanging.

Famous Abolitionists

Many Americans, both free and previously enslaved, fought hard to promote the abolitionist campaign. Among the most well-known abolitionists were:

William Lloyd Garrison

A prominent early abolitionist, Garrison founded The Liberator, a journal that advocated for the immediate abolition of all enslaved men and women.

Susan B. Anthony

Anthony was an author, lecturer, and women’s rights campaigner who was also an abolitionist. She was known for her persistent work in promoting women’s voting rights.

Frederick Douglass

After escaping slavery, Douglass wrote a book called Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. He was a key participant in the abolitionist movement and campaigned for women’s suffrage.

Harriet Beecher Stowe

Stowe was an abolitionist and writer known best for her novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Sojourner Truth

Truth was popular for her most famous speech, “Ain’t I a Woman?” Truth was an abolitionist as well as a supporter of women’s rights.

John Brown

Brown was a militant abolitionist who led a number of raids and uprisings, including the historic attack on Harpers Ferry, Virginia.

Harriet Tubman

Tubman was a runaway slave and abolitionist notable for assisting escaped enslaved individuals in reaching the North via the Underground Railroad network.

Abolitionist Movement Timeline

1787 – The Abolition Society, the first institutional organization in the abolitionist movement, was founded in Britain. Slavery attitudes in the Western world are shifting as of today. The Enlightenment, a European intellectual movement, argued forcefully that certain rights, especially liberty, belonged to all individuals. The opposition to retaining humans as private property is growing gradually but steadily.

1804 – By this day, all states north of Maryland had abolished slavery. These states do not have huge plantations that rely on slave labor to support their economies. Slavery, on the other hand, remains a social and economic institution in the country’s southern states.

1807 – Slavery is abolished in Britain’s colonies. The importing of enslaved people is also illegal in the United States. Slavery, however, is still practiced in the South.

1811 – Chile passes its first antislavery law.

1819 – The slave trade is outlawed in France in 1819.

1833 – All enslaved people in British colonies in the Western Hemisphere are liberated. William Lloyd Garrison establishes the American Anti-Slavery Society in Philadelphia, United States.

1841 – Former slave Frederick Douglass begins speaking about the realities of slavery to abolitionist groups. Later in life, he publishes an acclaimed autobiography and establishes a newspaper.

1848 – Slavery is prohibited in all French colonies.

1850 – The Fugitive Slave Act is established in the United States. The act calls for the arrest and return of runaway slaves who have escaped from one state into another or into federal territory.

1852 – Uncle Tom’s Cabin is published by Harriet Beecher Stowe. The novel exposing slavery’s horrors becomes a best-seller.

1860 – In November, Abraham Lincoln of the antislavery Republican Party is elected President of the United States. Southern states begin seceding from the Union in December, convinced that their way of life is under assault.

1861 – The American Civil War officially begins.

1863 – Lincoln signs the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing slaves in Confederate states.

1865 – Slavery in the United States is formally prohibited by the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution.

1886 – Slavery is abolished in Cuba.

1888 – When Brazil passes an antislavery law, slavery is finally abolished in South America.

The Civil War and Its Consequences

President Abraham Lincoln hated slavery but was hesitant to completely accept the most radical abolitionist beliefs. The Civil War broke out in 1861, as the power struggle between the North and the South reached a climax.

As the brutal conflict raged on, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, which called for the abolition of slavery in territories of the rebellion. In 1865, the Constitution was amended to include the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished all forms of slavery in the United States.

The Abolitionist Movement Comes to an End

Though the abolitionist movement appeared to die with the addition of the Thirteenth Amendment, many historians contend that it did not die fully until the 1870 passage of the Fifteenth Amendment, which granted Black males voting rights.

When slavery was abolished, many famous abolitionists switched their attention to women’s rights issues. Historians feel that the experiences and lessons learned during the abolitionist campaign set the path for women’s suffrage leaders.

Abolitionist ideas and practices also served as a model for the formation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909.

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