The Slavery Debate

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 and speakers.

Initially, abolitionism 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 Exhibit

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