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Who Were the Abolitionists? Previous Next
Digital History ID 4577

 

The abolitionists were the small minority of Americans who advocated immediate emancipation of the slaves and equal rights for African-Americans. Most came from the cities and factory towns of the Northeast and Old Northwest, but a significant number came from the upper South, such as the Kentucky Whig Cassius Clay and the missionary John Fee. Their ranks included successful businessmen, like Arthur and Lewis Tappan of New York; ministers, like the Reverend Elijah Lovejoy of East Alton, Illinois, and Rabbi David Einhorn of Baltimore; and even former slaveholders, such as James Birney of Alabama and Angelina and Sarah Grimke of South Carolina. Factory workers and skilled craftspeople were especially likely to sign antislavery petitions. Virtually all were deeply religious women and men, who were convinced that slavery violated divine law. A disproportionate share were Quaker or Baptist in background. It seems likely that a majority of the grass-roots support for abolition came from women.

Most abolitionists were members of the country's second generation, who had no personal memories of the American Revolution. One of their goals was to realize the highest moral ideals of the Revolutionary generation.

In the Upper South, a number of abolitionists-such as Charles Torrey of New York, who died in a Maryland jail--helped slaves escape from bondage. Antislavery evangelicals gave slaves bibles, established integrated churches, and preached against the sin of slavery. Others, like Kentuckian William S. Bailey attempted to publish antislavery newspapers. A few founded utopian communities in the upper South, like the Frances Wright, an English radical who founded Nashoba, near Memphis, Tenn., as an experiment in interracial living. Still others, like Eli Thayer of Worcester, Mass., sought to promote the emigration of "free soilers" (advocates of free labor) into the upper South. These brave women and men risked their lives to force the South to confront the moral issue of slavery.

African-Americans were always at the forefront of the abolitionist cause. African-American abolitionists included religious leaders, like the Reverend James Pennington; journalists like Charles Remond; and fugitive slaves, like Frederick Douglass, who had escaped from slavery and who aroused antislavery fervor in the North were their eyewitness accounts of life in bondage.

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