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date: 25 February 2024



  • Richard S. Newman,
  • Paul Finkelman
  •  and Carl E. Prince

A version of this article originally appeared in The Encyclopedia of African American History, 1619–1895.

[This entry contains three subentries dealing with abolitionism from the late seventeenth century through the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865. The first article discusses the definition of abolitionism as differentiated from antislavery activism, and its forms including Garrisonian and non-Garrisonian abolition. The second article describes abolitionism from the onset of slavery and colonization of North America through 1830. The final article discusses the emergence of Immediatism among black and white Americans and its influence on the debate over slavery.]

Abolitionism as a Concept

The terms abolition and antislavery are often used interchangeably in the modern era, but in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries they had different, and changing, meanings. These meanings were tied to organizational strategies and philosophies.

Before the American Revolution the term abolition referred to the movement in Great Britain to abolish the African slave trade. In Britain this term continued to apply to the international slave trade until 1808, when both Britain and the United States banned the trade. During and after the Revolution various “abolition” societies emerged in the United States. In 1775 opponents of slavery in Pennsylvania organized the nation's first abolition society; that society collapsed during the Revolution but in 1787 was reorganized as the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery, the Relief of Freed Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage, and for Improving the Condition of the African Race. This organization became known as the Pennsylvania Abolition Society (PAS). After the war like-minded New Yorkers, led by John Jay and Alexander Hamilton, organized the New York Manumission Society. In the aftermath of the Revolution opponents of slavery organized similar societies in all of the other northern states as well as in Virginia, Maryland, and Delaware. The goal of these societies was to end slavery in their particular states and to end the African slave trade. These organizations became moribund, or simply disappeared, by the 1820s. They had served their purpose in the North, as all northern states either ended slavery outright or passed gradual emancipation acts to end slavery over the course of a number of years. By this time the federal government had also prohibited the importation of new slaves from Africa and American participation in the African slave trade.

“The Abolition of the Slave Trade

. Or the Inhumanity of Dealers in Human Flesh Exemplified in Captn. Kimber's Treatment of a Young Negro Girl of 15 for Her Virjen Modesty,” a cartoon published in London on 10 April 1792. The sailor holding the rope is saying, “Dam me if I like it. I have a good mind to let go.” One of the onlookers at the right says, “My Eyes Jack our Girles at Wapping are never flogged for their modesty.” The other says, “By Gales, that's too bad if he had taken her to Blackwall all would be well enough. Split me I'm allmost sick of this Black Business.”

Library of Congress.

In the 1820s the term abolition came to refer to people opposed to slavery, but it had no strong or clear meaning. There were no organizations agitating for the end of slavery and only a few Americans, most of whom were black, doing so. This changed dramatically in 1831 when William Lloyd Garrison began publishing the Liberator; he then organized the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1833. Earlier abolition societies had worked for gradual emancipation in the North, which involved freeing the children of slaves and allowing the institution to literally die out as existing slaves passed on. Garrison, however, was not content with gradual emancipation; he pushed for immediate abolition, arguing that slavery was deeply sinful and wrong. This was the beginning of the abolition movement, and followers of Garrison called themselves “abolitionists,” sometimes referring to themselves as “immediatists”; they are known to historians as Garrisonians or Garrisonian abolitionists. The call for immediate abolition was strongly tied to the belief that slaveholding was a sin. The chief tactic of these first abolitionists was moral suasion—that is, they sought to persuade masters to give up slaveholding to avoid the sin of owning other human beings.

The Garrisonians soon faced challenges to their demand for the immediate abolition of slavery from allies within the movement, as well as from opponents of abolition, about the practicality of that demand. How, people wondered, could the nation immediately emancipate millions of illiterate, propertyless blacks? Even radicals like Garrison realized the enormity of the problem; they responded by arguing for “immediate abolition, gradually attained.” By this they meant that opponents of slavery should immediately commit to the goal of full abolition of slavery, even if it could not be done overnight. Their model was Great Britain, which abolished slavery in its remaining American colonies over a five-year period in the 1830s.

In the early 1830s the Garrisonians flooded the postal system with pamphlets and papers urging an end to slavery. They sent publications to prominent southern politicians and churchmen and to lesser-known members of southern churches. Yet this moral suasion campaign, which consisted of denouncing the sin of slaveholding, led not to massive abolition but to mobs attacking post offices to destroy mail coming from the North. The Garrisonians also began what they called the “great petition campaign,” sending thousands of petitions to Congress with hundreds of thousands of signatures to protest federal support for slavery. Rather than persuade Congress, however, the petitions led to a “gag rule,” under which Congress refused to even read antislavery petitions. At the same time Garrisonians sent speakers throughout the North to gather support for their movement. While many joined the movement in this period, antislavery speakers, too, were often mobbed; most famously, the abolitionist publisher Elijah Lovejoy was killed while defending his press from a proslavery mob.

In addition to antislavery, the Garrisonians supported a variety of other causes, most notably women's equality. This led to women speaking before mixed—that is, male and female—audiences, which was considered shocking by most Americans, including many opponents of slavery. By the late 1830s the Garrisonians began to denounce established churches for their failure to take a stronger stand, or any stand at all, on slavery. At the same time, Garrison and his followers began to withdraw from all political activity, including voting, while denouncing the Constitution as a “Covenant with Death and an Agreement with Hell.” The Garrisonians were perfectionists, unwilling to compromise or to ally with anyone who might compromise on the issue of slavery. The stubborn position of the Garrisonians, controversy regarding feminism and the churches, and the pressure of mob violence eventually led to factionalism within the abolitionist movement. In 1840 dissidents formed a new organization, the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society. Later that year some of the same men formed the Liberty Party, which ran the nation's first antislavery candidate for president in 1840.

The American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society and the Liberty Party were more antislavery than abolitionist. Members believed in political action and in chipping away at slavery; they voted and participated in other political activities. The Liberty Party never won an election, but in 1844 it may have taken enough votes away from the Whig slaveholder Henry Clay to throw the election to another slave owner, James K. Polk. This illustrated the power of antislavery ballots, even though it did not, in the short run, gain anything for the institution's opponents. Indeed, since Polk was an expansionist, it may be that the Liberty Party actually hurt the antislavery cause. However, in the next sixteen years the power of antislavery voting would become more significant.

In 1848 antislavery Democrats supported Martin Van Buren, who ran for president on the Free-Soil ticket. Not all Free-Soilers were fully antislavery—some just opposed the spread of slavery into the new territories—but the party was the movement's most successful political organization up to that time. The Free-Soil Party took enough votes away from the dough-faced proslavery Democratic candidate, Lewis Cass, to give the election to the Whig, Zachary Taylor. While Taylor was a slave owner, he opposed the spread of slavery into the territories recently acquired from Mexico, whereas Cass would have been willing to allow new slave territories. Van Buren, meanwhile, won over 290,000 popular votes—more than 10 percent of the total—demonstrating the growing power of antislavery sentiment.

In the next decade antislavery sentiment became more widespread. The Republican Party, formed in 1854, attracted almost all opponents of slavery except the small minority who remained loyal to the Garrisonian notion of withdrawing from political activity. Abraham Lincoln himself was no abolitionist; he advocated neither an immediate end to slavery nor even interference with the institution in the states where it existed. Yet he was firmly opposed to the creation of new slave states and just as committed to putting slavery, as he said, on “the course of ultimate extinction.” Other Republicans, like Salmon Portland Chase of Ohio, came out of a more aggressive antislavery background, arguing that the federal government should do everything in its power to contain and restrict slavery. By 1860 a majority of northerners were antislavery, at the same time opposing abolitionists, whom they saw as radical and dangerous to the stability of the nation.

The evolution of the thought of Frederick Douglass illustrates the differences between the abolition and antislavery positions and how, by 1862, they had merged. After escaping from slavery, Douglass was hired as a lecturer by the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society, which was the state branch of Garrison's American Anti-Slavery Society. He endured mobbing and harassment as he traveled throughout the North, telling his story and lecturing on the need for abolition. At the time, he was a loyal Garrisonian, eschewing politics and demanding an immediate end to slavery. Upon his return from a trip to England, however, Douglass moved from the rigid abolitionism of the Garrisonians to a more practical antislavery stance. By 1851 he was advocating political activity as he merged his first newspaper, the North Star, with a Liberty Party paper to create Frederick Douglass' Paper, which then became the leading organ of political antislavery.

Douglass then participated in politics and voted for antislavery candidates. In 1860 the Garrisonians still rejected politics and refused to support Lincoln. Wendell Phillips, the most articulate Garrisonian speaker, referred to Lincoln as “the slave hound of Illinois” because as a lawyer he had once represented a master in a fugitive slave case. Douglass, on the other hand, was antislavery and far from perfectionist; he voted for Lincoln, as he understood that the Republicans, including their standard-bearer, were also truly antislavery, however tepidly. When the Civil War began, Douglass pushed Lincoln to take a firmer stand against slavery. By then a more practical antislavery agitator, Douglass did not attack the Republicans for not moving more quickly against slavery. Indeed, by late 1862 the antislavery Republicans had become the true party of abolition. The Emancipation Proclamation, issued on 1 January 1863, made abolition a Union war policy.

At long last, the Thirteenth Amendment, passed by Congress two years later and ratified in December 1865, turned even mainstream politicians into abolitionists. As a testament to the wisdom of Douglass's practical stance, when slavery's end did come, it was accomplished by the very politicians that the Garrisonian abolitionists had scorned. Ironically, abolition indeed came suddenly, without preparation and without any gradual process—just as those same abolitionists had been demanding for three and one-half decades.

See also American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society; American Anti-Slavery Society; Antislavery Movement; Antislavery Press; Black Abolitionists; Chase, Salmon Portland; Civil War; Clay, Henry; Democratic Party; Douglass, Frederick; Emancipation Proclamation ; Frederick Douglass' Paper ; Free-Soil Party; Garrison, William Lloyd; Garrisonian Abolitionists; Liberty Party; Lincoln, Abraham; Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society; Moral Suasion ; North Star ; Perfectionism; Phillips, Wendell; Polk, James K.; Reform; Religion; Religion and Slavery; Republican Party; Slavery; Slave Trade; Slavery and the U.S. Constitution; Thirteenth Amendment; Whig Party; and Women.


  • Barnes, Gilbert Hobbs. The Antislavery Impulse, 1830-1844. New York: D. Appleton-Century, 1933.
  • Blight, David. Frederick Douglass' Civil War: Keeping Faith in Jubilee. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989.
  • Steward, James Brewer. Holy Warriors: The Abolitionists and American Slavery. New York: Hill and Wang, 1996.

Early Abolitionism: The Onset of Slavery Through 1830

Only with the onset of the American Revolution did a true abolitionist movement finally get under way. Fortunately, the moral imperatives universally generated by the Revolution, and in turn the general progress of human rights and individual liberties accompanying that upheaval, would come to have a significant impact on the lives of African American slaves. Earlier abolitionist efforts, while minimal, at least prefigured the more substantial ideological shifts concomitant with the birth of the United States.

The simplest truth about seventeenth-century slavery was that the legal structure created to deal with the practice lagged far behind its ubiquitous growth, as did efforts to either contain or eliminate it. Abolitionist organization was virtually nonexistent; only symbolic efforts pointed the way to the abolitionist future. In 1630 in Massachusetts Bay, for example, the infant legislature enacted a law protecting captured runaway slaves from abuse by angry owners. In 1652 Rhode Island limited the maximum period of enslavement to ten years, and slaves could not be held beyond the age of twenty-four. In 1688 Germantown Quakers in the new colony of Pennsylvania passed an antislavery resolution notable only for its rarity. Such token efforts to contain or delimit slavery, not spearheaded by actual abolitionist organizations, were made in all North American colonies by the end of the century. By 1700, in a general population of about a quarter million, there were nearly thirty thousand African Americans, by far the greater portion of them slaves, living in the colonies; slavery had already become institutionalized in American life. Laws limiting slave movement and prescribing dire punishments for runaways and those inciting insurrection were on the books in all colonies. The slave trade was in full flower, and antislavery organization failed to blossom until the Revolution.

In the 1750s and 1760s two significant Philadelphia Quakers signaled the moderate activism that would bear fruit in the 1780s: John Woolman and Anthony Benezet both published widely read antislavery tracts that helped trigger some Revolutionary-era response and helped form a sound ideological abolitionist base. Their works crystallized and popularized the moral wrongness of slavery and influenced some of the founding fathers who came to prominence as “young men” of the Revolution.

Woolman's popular 1754 pamphlet Some Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes concentrated on the argument that slavery was at its roots unchristian. “Where slavekeeping prevails, pure religion and [religious] sobriety declines,” Woolman wrote, adding that the institution “tends to harden the heart, and render the soul less susceptible … of the character of a true Christian.” The Philadelphian's tract piqued a growing public awareness—at least in the colonies as far south as Maryland—that human slavery not only deprived slaves of all basic natural rights and individual liberties but corrupted the owning class as well. Woolman also indirectly indicted all those who did nothing to end human enslavement.

In 1766, as popular American Revolutionary activity heated up, Benezet, another Philadelphia Quaker, began to publish antislavery tracts that assaulted the continuing slave trade, publicizing “the Calamitous State of the Enslaved Negroes” and generally tying the rising sentiments favoring human rights and natural law in the colonies to the poisonous paradox that slavery increasingly constituted. He also linked the American problem to one that English abolitionists were already addressing abroad, far in advance of their American brethren. Eventually, in the nineteenth century, that connection bore organizational fruit; in the short run, however, increasingly well-known pre-Revolutionary antislavery ideology generated only scant organizational results. A notable exception was the 1775 formation of the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery. It was the first such society in the new nation—and as was indicative of how little it mattered, the organization did not meet regularly until 1784.

By that time Thomas Paine and Benjamin Rush, both major American Revolutionaries, had weighed in with influential pamphlets linking the need for the abolition of slavery to the larger cause of American independence and the achievement of republican-oriented natural rights. Other founding fathers, influenced by Enlightenment principles and the growing stream of antislavery propaganda from both the American continent and abroad, became convinced of the need to end slavery by means of gradual emancipation; these historical figures included Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and George Mason, among others. In truth, their efforts were coming too late. By 1760 there were almost 1,600,000 people in the thirteen colonies. About one-fifth of that population, over 325,000, were African American, at least a quarter million of them slaves.

Manumission in the northern states for the most part followed the end of the war. An exception was a weak 1781 gradual emancipation law in Pennsylvania, which freed the offspring of slaves at age twenty-eight. The Massachusetts Supreme Court ended slavery at the close of the Revolutionary War—far ahead of its time—declaring that “the idea of slavery is inconsistent with … our Constitution, and there can be no such thing as perpetual servitude of a rational creature.” Connecticut and Rhode Island followed with gradual emancipation legislation in 1784. Although in 1785 New York became the first state to officially sanction an abolitionist organization—its Society for Promoting the Manumission of Slaves—mainly as influenced by Hamilton and Jay, the state did not enact gradual emancipation until 1799. By shortly after the turn of the nineteenth century manumission laws were on the books in all northern states. The startlingly forward-looking Northwest Ordinance of 1787 excluded slavery in the territories west of the Appalachians and north of the Ohio River. This combination of circumstances effectively rendered the North “free” and the South “slave” as the new century dawned.

Still, aggressive abolitionist efforts lagged. In 1802 free blacks notably petitioned Congress to end the slave trade, proscribe fugitive slave laws, and fully put an end to slavery as an institution. But at the same time regression was the order of the day in Indiana; the new state legislated slavery as legal in contradiction to the Northwest Ordinance, and Congress failed to excise the state's law. For the most part, as the slave trade continued legally until 1808 and sub rosa thereafter, slavery was further institutionalized and flourished in the South. There was little adamant antislavery effort in response in the North and new West, even as the border state of Delaware and the western state of Illinois barred free blacks within their borders.

Negative progress was all too evident in 1816, when the American Colonization Society (ACS) was founded, not to free slaves for their own benefit but to buy them out of captivity and “resettle” them in Africa so as to eliminate their presence in the United States. That such an organization could be widely seen as credible was a damning commentary on the weakness of abolitionism. among whites. Earlier, notable blacks, including Paul Cuffe and Peter Williams, Jr., supported a return to Africa, but that support evaporated with the founding of the ACS. Blacks objected to the ACS founders' remarks that African Americans had no place in the United States and to descriptions that disparaged their economic and social contributions.

Again, black activists protested, and the center of that protest was once more Philadelphia. In 1817 Richard Allen and James Forten told a largely African American audience of three thousand that the ACS was an “outrage”; Forten denounced the society's offer to make him ruler of Liberia. The audience resolved that “whereas our ancestors (not of choice) were the first successful cultivators of the wilds of America …, to banish us from [America's] bosum would not only be cruel, but in direct violation of those principles, which have been the boast of the republic.” Meager protests followed in Boston, New York City, and Hartford; these ineffective responses were occurring in the midst of the deepening institutionalization of southern slavery. Indeed, in 1821 the ACS, with federal support, succeeded in establishing the Republic of Liberia, with about twenty thousand free American blacks as its first citizens.

Some major radical white abolitionists emerged in the 1820s as effective propagandists, providing at least an ideological bridge to the Garrisonian abolitionism of the 1830s, even if organizational efforts remained stunted. In 1821 Benjamin Lundy, a Quaker from Ohio, published the Genius of Universal Emancipation, a journal that failed but led to the American Convention for the Abolition of Slavery, which was also ultimately aborted. These failures nevertheless kept both propaganda and organizational aspirations with regard to a burgeoning antislavery movement alive and in the public eye. In 1824 James Duncan of Indiana published his Treatise on Slavery, a widely circulated tract that reminded Americans that slavery not only was unconstitutional but also “violated fundamental moral law.”

But it was left to the African American abolitionist David Walker, who became known at the end of the 1820s, to provide the most important propagandist bridge to the militant abolitionism that waited in the wings. Walker was a free black born in North Carolina who, by 1829, was a used-clothing dealer in Boston; he also headed the Colored Association of Boston. His radical antislavery pamphlet, widely read first in New England and later throughout the nation, was entitled An Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World. Both anticipating and energizing the radical white abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, it called on African Americans in the South to seek their freedom—even through violent means if necessary. By the end of the year it had already gone through three editions, each one more militant than the last. The state of Georgia played into his hands by outlawing circulation of the tract and putting a price on Walker's head. Such extreme reactions only enhanced the document's impact; it galvanized abolitionist sentiment in white New England in general and Massachusetts in particular and certainly helped set the table for the radical organizational efforts that began a few years later. The first issue of Garrison's antislavery newspaper, the Liberator, was published on 1 January 1831, marking the opening of a new era of militancy and organizational success for the abolitionist movement.

See also Allen, Richard; American Revolution; Benezet, Anthony; Cuffe, Paul; David Walker's Appeal; Emancipation; Forten, James; Franklin, Benjamin, and African Americans; Free African Americans to 1828; Fugitive Slaves ; Genius of Universal Emancipation ; Hamilton, Alexander, and African Americans; Jay, John, and Slavery; Laws and Legislation; Manumission Societies; Petitions; Religion; Riots and Rebellions; Slavery: Northeast; Slave Insurrections and Rebellions; Society of Friends (Quakers) and African Americans; Walker, David ; Williams, Peter, Jr. ; and Woolman, John.


  • Davis, David Brion. The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, 1770–1823. New York: Oxford University Press, 1975.
  • Hodges, Graham Russell. Root and Branch: African Americans in New York and East Jersey, 1613–1863. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999.
  • Quarles, Benjamin. Black Abolitionists. New York: Oxford University Press, 1969.
  • Zilversmit, Arthur. The First Emancipation: The Abolition of Slavery in the North. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967.

Immediate Abolitionism and the Civil War

The doctrine of immediate abolitionism became the antislavery movement's rallying standard in the three decades leading up to the Civil War. In the inaugural editorial of the Liberator (1 January 1831), the first newspaper in the United States dedicated primarily to the cause of immediate emancipation, the Massachusetts abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison proclaimed, “I will not equivocate—I will not excuse—I will not retreat a single inch—and i will be heard.”

Garrison and other immediatists built their movement on years of black activism, revivalism, and transatlantic reform. According to the distinguished historian James Brewer Stewart, whose book Holy Warriors remains the standard treatment of the American abolition movement, immediatism was akin to a crusade against slavery and racial injustice. The doctrine of immediate emancipation compelled antebellum abolitionists to embrace and debate a range of strategies and tactics during the 1830s, 1840s, and 1850s, from the efficacy of slave violence to the formation of abolitionist political parties. In this sense, it is useful to conceive of the immediate abolition movement as a precursor to the modern civil rights movement. It had a long and varied history that cannot be reduced to a single leader, action, or incident.

The first generation of American abolitionists advocated gradual, not immediate, abolition. The Pennsylvania Abolition Society, founded in 1775 and the nation's leading antislavery group before 1830, aimed for slavery's gradual elimination. Pennsylvania passed the world's first gradual abolition act in 1780, requiring masters to register slaves with local officials and providing that all slaves would be liberated at the age of twenty-eight. Many liberal statesman and reformers favored Pennsylvania's gradualist model. Even prominent African American reformers like the Maryland activist Daniel T. Coker and the Pennsylvania preacher Absalom Jones publicly embraced gradualism; while privately advocating more radical measures, Jones and Coker realized that white leaders would consider only gradualist appeals. Between 1780 and 1804 every northern state in the new nation followed Pennsylvania's lead by passing gradual abolition laws. Only Massachusetts, in 1783, ended slavery by judicial decree.

While gradualist antislavery societies persisted through the 1820s, new generations of reformers embraced immediatist strategies during the next decade. In 1832 the New England Anti-Slavery Society was founded in Boston as the first regional abolition society dedicated to achieving the immediate end of bondage. In 1833 in Philadelphia, immediate abolitionists formed the American Anti-Slavery Society. Both groups became models for others in New York, Ohio, Michigan, and elsewhere; by 1836 there were roughly three hundred antislavery societies, located primarily in the North and Midwest. Immediatists harshly criticized gradual abolitionists, recalcitrant slaveholders, and colonizationists north and south who advocated sending free blacks to West African settlements. Immediatists also believed that racial equality was both desirable and possible in nonslaveholding states.

Gradual abolition groups in New York and Pennsylvania did not admit black members before 1830, but black activists did serve as cofounders of immediate abolition societies; African Americans constituted 25 percent of the New England Anti-Slavery Society's inaugural membership. In addition, immediatism bore the imprint of decades of black protest. From the Philadelphia preacher Richard Allen's 1794 Address to Those Who Keep Slaves and Approve the Practice, a moral condemnation of slave owning, to the Boston activist David Walker's militant 1829 pamphlet, Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World, African American reformers had developed a public protest movement that was immediatist in everything but name. Walker had previously worked as a correspondent for Freedom's Journal, the nation's first black newspaper (published in New York City between 1827 and 1829), which called for more aggressive antislavery stands. His Appeal went further, predicting a massive uprising unless white officials ended slavery at once. With serious debates occurring between black and white reformers over leadership, tactics, and racial discourse, the advent of immediatist societies in the 1830s instilled hope among black activists that they had entered a new age of race relations, where immediate abolitionists served as an interracial model for American society at large.

Religious revivalism and transatlantic reform were the other pillars of immediate abolitionism. The great revivalist surge known as the Second Great Awakening peaked during the 1820s and 1830s. Revivalism's emphasis on perfecting the world and eradicating sin funneled activists into the immediate abolitionist movement. Immediatists were also inspired by English reform movements. The British abolitionist Elizabeth Heyrich was one of the first transatlantic writers to publicly advocate immediatism; her essays were republished in American circles during the 1820s and 1830s, prompting American abolitionists to question the efficacy of gradualism. The British parliament's decision to pass a total emancipation act, which took effect 1 August 1833 and freed 780,000 slaves in the British Caribbean, solidified transatlantic influences.

Immediatists embraced a range of aggressive tactics between the 1830s and the Civil War. Under the banner of “moral suasion” they attempted to raise consciousness about the evil of slavery, sending abolitionist appeals directly to southern masters, blanketing local communities with abolitionist pamphlets and speakers, and publishing abolitionist newspapers. Female activists played a vital role in moral suasion campaigns. Women served as editors and orators, organizers of antislavery fairs and fund-raisers, and directors of petition drives. By the Civil War abolitionist women had helped accumulate two million signatures on antislavery petitions.

Abolitionists predicted in the 1830s that moral suasion would compel guilty southern masters to liberate slaves and nonslaveholding whites to press for emancipation laws. When no revolution in American public sentiment occurred and the slave population doubled between the 1830s and early 1860s, the immediate abolition movement fragmented. Some activists advocated direct and even violent action. In 1843 the black activist Henry Highland Garnet called for an uprising among southern slaves. Other abolitionists resorted to political action. The Liberty Party, founded in 1840 as the first abolitionist political organization, tallied over sixty thousand votes in the presidential election of 1844. By the 1850s, while many moral suasionists disavowed politics, other immediate abolitionists supported the newly formed Republican Party.

What impact did immediate abolitionism ultimately have on American culture? Immediatists did not cause the Civil War, but they did shape Americans' view of slavery as a problematic and even evil institution—one intimately tied to sectional divisions. Furthermore, once Emancipation finally occurred during the Civil War, American politicians utilized the rhetoric and ideals of the antislavery movement to rationalize what Abraham Lincoln is known to have called a “new birth freedom.” Finally, the movement served as a model for other reform groups, from the civil rights movement to the women's rights movement.

See also Allen, Richard; American Colonization Society; Black Press; Civil Rights; Coker, Daniel T.; David Walker's Appeal; Emancipation; Great Awakening; Jones, Absalom; Newspapers; Petitions; Slavery: Northeast; Walker, David; and Women.


  • Kraditor, Aileen. Means and Ends in American Abolitionism: Garrison and His Critics on Strategy and Tactics, 1834–1850. New York: Pantheon Books, 1969.
  • Newman, Richard S. The Transformation of American Abolitionism: Fighting Slavery in the Early Republic. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.
  • Newman, Richard, Patrick Rael, and Philip Lapsansky, eds. Pamphlets of Protest: An Anthology of Early African-American Protest Literature, 1790–1860. New York: Routledge, 2001.
  • Stewart, James Brewer. Holy Warriors: The Abolitionists and American Slavery. Rev. ed. New York: Hill and Wang, 1996.