The abolitionist movement was an organized effort to end the practice of slavery in the United States. The first leaders of the campaign, which took place from about 1830 to 1870, mimicked some of the same tactics British abolitionists had used to end slavery in Great Britain in the 1830s. Though it started as a movement with religious underpinnings, abolitionism became a controversial political issue that divided much of the country. Supporters and critics often engaged in heated debates and violent— even deadly—confrontations. The divisiveness and animosity fueled by the movement, along with other factors, led to the Civil War and ultimately the end of slavery in America.

What Is an Abolitionist?

An abolitionist, as the name implies, is a person who sought to abolish slavery during the 19th century. More specifically, these individuals sought the immediate and full emancipation of all enslaved people.

Most early abolitionists were white, religious Americans, but some of the most prominent leaders of the movement were also Black men and women who had escaped from bondage.

The abolitionists saw slavery as an abomination and an affliction on the United States, making it their goal to eradicate slave ownership. They sent petitions to Congress, ran for political office and inundated people of the South with anti-slavery literature.

These staunch activists wanted to abolish slavery completely, which differed from the ideas of other groups like the Free Soil Party, which opposed the expansion of slavery into U.S. territories and newly formed states such as Kansas.

Did you know? Female abolitionists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott went on to become prominent figures in the women's rights movement.

How Did Abolitionism Start?

Opposition to slavery wasn’t a new concept when abolitionism started. Since the inception of the Atlantic slave trade, which began in the 16th century, critics voiced their disapproval of the system.

In an early effort to stop slavery, the American Colonization Society, founded in 1816, proposed the idea of freeing slaves and sending them back to Africa. This solution was thought to be a compromise between antislavery activists and slavery supporters.

By 1860, nearly 12,000 African Americans had returned to Africa.

Missouri Compromise

The Missouri Compromise of 1820, which allowed Missouri to become a slave state, further provoked anti-slave sentiment in the North.

The abolitionist movement began as a more organized, radical and immediate effort to end slavery than earlier campaigns. It officially emerged around 1830.

Historians believe ideas set forth during the religious movement known as the Second Great Awakening inspired abolitionists to rise up against slavery. This Protestant revival encouraged the concept of adopting renewed morals, which centered around the idea that all men are created equal in the eyes of God.

Abolitionism started in states like New York and Massachusetts and quickly spread to other Northern states.

Laws Inflame Tensions

In 1850, Congress passed the controversial Fugitive Slave Act, which required all escaped enslaved people to be returned to their owners and American citizens to cooperate with the captures.

Seven years later, the Supreme Court ruled in the Dred Scott decision that Black people—free or enslaved—didn’t have legal citizenship rights. Owners of enslaved people were also granted the right to take their enslaved workers to Western territories. These legal actions and court decisions sparked outrage among abolitionists.

Famous Abolitionists

Many Americans, including free and formerly enslaved people, worked tirelessly to support the abolitionist movement. Some of the most famous abolitionists included:

  • William Lloyd Garrison: A very influential early abolitionist, Garrison started a publication called The Liberator, which supported the immediate freeing of all enslaved men and women.
  • Frederick Douglass: Douglass escaped slavery himself and published a memoir titled Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. An instrumental figure in the abolitionist movement, he also supported women’s suffrage.
  • Harriet Beecher Stowe: Stowe was an author and abolitionist who was best known for her novel Uncle Tom's Cabin.
  • Susan B. Anthony: Anthony was an author, speaker and women’s rights activist who also supported the abolitionist movement. She is revered for her diligent efforts in fighting for women’s rights to vote.
  • John Brown: Brown was a radical abolitionist who organized various raids and uprisings, including an infamous raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia.
  • Harriet Tubman: Tubman was a fugitive enslaved person and abolitionist who was known for helping escaped enslaved people reach the North via the Underground Railroad network.
  • Sojourner Truth: Best known for her speech, “Ain’t I a Woman?,” Truth was both an abolitionist and a women’s rights advocate.

Rift Widens Between North and South

As it gained momentum, the abolitionist movement caused increasing friction between states in the North and the slave-owning South. Critics of abolition argued that it contradicted the U.S. Constitution, which left the option of slavery up to individual states.

Abolitionism was illegal in the South, and President Andrew Jackson banned the U.S. Postal Service from delivering any publications that supported the movement.

In 1833, a white student at Lane Theological Seminary named Amos Dresser was publicly whipped in Nashville, Tennessee, for possessing abolitionist literature while traveling through the city.  

Elijah Lovejoy 

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

After the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 was passed, both pro- and anti-slavery groups inhabited the Kansas Territory. In 1856, a pro-slavery group attacked the town of Lawrence, which was founded by abolitionists from Massachusetts. In retaliation, abolitionist John Brown organized a raid that killed five pro-slavery settlers.

Then, in 1859, Brown led 21 men to capture the U.S. arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. He and his followers were seized by a group of Marines and convicted of treason. Brown was hanged for the crime.

The Civil War and Its Aftermath

President Abraham Lincoln opposed slavery but was cautious about fully supporting the more radical ideas of the abolitionists. As the power struggle between the North and the South reached its peak, the Civil War broke out in 1861.

As the bloody war waged on, Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, calling for the freeing of enslaved people in areas of the rebellion. And in 1865, the Constitution was ratified to include the Thirteenth Amendment, which officially abolished all forms of slavery in the United States.

Abolitionist Movement Ends

Though the abolitionist movement seemed to dissolve after the addition of the Thirteenth Amendment, many historians argue that the effort didn’t completely cease until the 1870 passage of the Fifteenth Amendment, which extended voting rights to Black men. Meanwhile, the Fourteenth Amendment, ratified in 1868, granted citizenship to all persons "born or naturalized in the United States," including former enslaved people. 

When slavery officially ended, many prominent abolitionists turned their focus to women’s rights issues. Historians believe that the experiences and lessons learned during the abolitionist movement paved the way for leaders who were eventually successful in the women’s suffrage movements.

Abolitionist ideals and traditions also served as a model for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which was formed in 1909.

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Abolition and the Abolitionists. National Geographic.
Early abolition. Khan Academy.
Abolitionist Sentiment Grows.