As early as the
debates over the Declaration of Independence, slavery had divided
Americans. But not until the 1830s did a mass movement, inspired
by religious revivals that swept much of the North, emerge favoring
the abolition of slavery. Unlike previous opponents of slavery,
abolitionists demanded immediate rather than gradual emancipation.
They spoke forcefully against slavery and slaveholders and insisted
that African-Americans, once free, be accepted as equal citizens
rather than being deported to Africa.
Beginning with a
handful of activists, the movement spread rapidly throughout
the North. Much of its grassroots strength rested on the efforts
of women who organized meetings, circulated petitions, and delivered
public lectures. Some, working for the rights of the slave,
developed a new understanding of their own subordinate social
and legal status and went on to launch the crusade for women's
rights. Abolitionism was also the first racially integrated
social movement in American history. Free African-Americans
and fugitives like Frederick Douglass emerged as major organizers
aroused violent hostility from Northerners who feared it threatened
to disrupt the Union and overturn white supremacy. Racism was
pervasive in the antebellum North and five states, including
Illinois, prohibited African-Americans from entering their territories.
In Alton, Illinois, an angry mob killed antislavery editor Elijah
P. Lovejoy while he was defending his printing press. But such
events generated sympathy for the movement by convincing many
Northerners that slavery threatened not only the liberties of
African-Americans, but those of whites.
By the 1840s, the
abolitionists had succeeded in forcing the slavery issue onto
the center stage of American politics.
The Slavery Debate