Abolition movement was activity that took
place in the 1800's to end slavery. Most abolitionist activity occurred in the United
States and Britain, but antislavery movements operated in other countries as well.
In the United States, antislavery activity began in colonial days. During the 1680's,
Quakers in Pennsylvania condemned slavery on moral grounds. In the late 1700's, several
leaders of the American revolutionary movement, including Thomas Jefferson and Patrick
Henry, spoke out against slavery.
The American Colonization Society, founded in 1816, led antislavery protests during the
early 1800's. It tried to send freed slaves to Liberia in Africa. The abolitionist Elihu
Embree published the first periodicals devoted wholly to the abolition of slavery. He
established a weekly newspaper in Jonesborough, Tenn., in 1819 and a monthly publication,
The Emancipator, which appeared in 1820. In 1831, the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison
began publication of his newspaper, The Liberator. Garrison demanded immediate freedom for
slaves. The American Anti-Slavery Society, founded in 1833, supported Garrison's crusade.
The abolition movement gradually spread throughout the Northern States despite bitter and
violent opposition by Southern slaveholders and Northerners who favored slavery. In 1837,
a mob murdered Elijah P. Lovejoy, a newspaper editor of Alton, Ill., who had published
Many famous abolitionists came from New England. They included Garrison, poets James
Russell Lowell and John Greenleaf Whittier, and reformer Wendell Phillips. Others, such as
the merchant brothers Arthur and Lewis Tappan and the reformer Theodore Weld, came from
Middle Atlantic or Midwestern states.
Women also played an important role in the abolition movement. Lucretia Mott and the
sisters Sarah and Angelina Grimke organized groups and made speeches. Many free blacks
also joined the abolitionists. They included James Forten and Robert Purvis, wealthy
Philadelphia merchants; Frederick Douglass, a former fugitive slave from Maryland; and
Sojourner Truth, a freed slave from New York.
The movement entered a new phase in 1840, when some of its leaders entered politics and
founded the Liberty Party. James G. Birney, a former slaveholder born in Kentucky, ran as
the party's candidate for president in 1840 and 1844. In 1848, abolitionists became an
important element in the Free Soil Party. After 1854, most abolitionists supported the
Even after abolitionists entered politics, they remained more interested in their cause
than in political offices. They combined political protest with direct action. Their homes
often became stations on the underground railroad, which helped slaves fleeing to the free
states or to Canada.
After the Civil War began in 1861, abolitionists rallied to the Union cause. They rejoiced
when President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863,
declaring the slaves free in many parts of the South. In 1865, the 13th Amendment to the
United States Constitution abolished slavery in the country. Large numbers of
abolitionists then joined the fight to win social and political equality for blacks.
In Britain, abolitionists worked to end the international slave trade and to free slaves
in the British colonies. Slavery had never flourished in England itself. On the other
hand, many English people had become wealthy through the slave trade.
William Wilberforce, a statesman and orator, headed the antislavery movement in England.
In 1807, he helped persuade Parliament to pass a bill outlawing the slave trade. In 1833,
another bill abolished slavery throughout the British Empire.
Contributor: David Herbert Donald, Ph.D., Charles Warren Prof. of American History,
Harvard Univ.; Winner of Pulitzer Prize in Biography or Autobiography, 1961 and 1988.