The Abolition Movement The Abolitionist movement in the United States of America was an effort to end slavery in a nation that valued personal freedom and believed that "all men are created equal." Over time, abolitionists grew more vocal about their demands for ending slavery, and, in response, slave owners fought more earnestly to entrench the existence of slavery. This fueled regional hostility that ultimately led to the American Civil War.
Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad
While Sojourner Truth, Douglass, Delaney and others wrote and spoke publically to end slavery, a former slave named Harriet Tubman was actively leading slaves to freedom. Harriet Tubman is often called the Moses of her people for leading so many of them out of bondage to freedom. After escaping from bondage herself, she made repeated trips into Dixie (the South) to help others. Tubman, a conductor of the Underground Railroad, is believed to have helped some 300 slaves to escape to freedom. She was noted for warning those she was assisting that she would shoot any of them who turned back, because they would endanger herself and others she was assisting. In her 12 years of freedom before the American Civil War began, Harriet helped make the Underground Railroad one of the most important aspects of the abolition movement and became one of the most active figures in the movement.
Frederick Douglass—a former slave who had been known as Frederick Bailey while in slavery and who was the most famous black man among the abolitionists—broke with William Lloyd Garrison’s newspaper, The Liberator, after returning from a visit to Great Britain, and founded a black abolitionist paper, The North Star. The title was a reference to the directions given to runaway slaves trying to reach the Northern states and Canada: Follow the North Star. Garrison had earlier convinced the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society to hire Douglass as an agent, touring with Garrison and telling audiences about his experiences in slavery. In England, however, Douglass had experienced a level of independence he’d never known in America and likely wanted greater independence for his actions here.
Harriet Beecher Stowe: Abolitionist and Author
In 1852, what may have been the defining event of the abolition movement occurred. Harriet Beecher Stowe, an abolitionist who had come to know a number of escaped slaves while she was living in Cincinnati, authored the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It presented a scornful view of Southern slavery, filled with melodramatic scenes such as that of the slave Eliza escaping with her baby across the icy Ohio River:
The huge green fragment of ice on which she alighted pitched and creaked as her weight came on it but she stayed there not a moment. With wild cries and desperate energy she leaped to another and still another cake;—stumbling,—leaping,—slipping—springing upwards again! Her shoes are—gone her stockings cut from her feet—while blood marked every step; but she saw nothing, felt nothing, till dimly, as in a dream, she saw the Ohio side and a man helping her up the bank.
Critics pointed out that Stowe had never been to the South, but her novel became a bestseller in the North and was banned in the South. This novel prove to be the most effective bit of propaganda to come out of the abolitionist movement. It galvanized many who had been sitting on the sidelines. Reportedly, when President Abraham Lincoln met Stowe during the Civil War he said to her, "So you’re the little woman who started this big war."
John Brown: Abolitionist & Fiery Crusader
John Brown was a radical abolitionist whose fervent hatred of slavery led him to kill white pro-slavery settlers in the Kansas territory and to attempt to try and seize weapons at the United States arsenal at Harpers Ferry.
The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 allowed the citizens of those territories to determine for themselves whether the state would become a slave-state or a free-state. Proponents of both groups poured into the Kansas Territory, with each side trying to gain dominance, often through violence. After pro-slavery groups attacked the town of Lawrence in 1856, the radical abolitionist John Brown led his followers in retaliation, killing five pro-slavery settlers. The territory became known as "Bleeding Kansas."
On the night of October 16, 1859, Brown led 21 men in a raid to capture the U.S. arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia). Though Brown denied it, his plan was to use the arsenal’s weapons to arm a slave uprising. He and his followers, 16 white men and five black men, holed up in the arsenal after they were discovered, and were captured there by a group of U.S. Marines commanded by an Army lieutenant colonel, Robert E. Lee. Convicted of treason against Virginia, Brown was hanged on December 2. Brown quickly became a martyr among those seeking to end slavery in America.
William Lloyd Garrison: Abolitionist & Journalist
In 1828, while working for the National Philanthropist, Garrison took a meeting with Benjamin Lundy. The antislavery editor of the Genius of Emancipation brought the cause of abolition to Garrison’s attention. When Lundy offered Garrison an editor’s position at Genius of Emancipation in Vermont, Garrison eagerly accepted. The job marked Garrison’s initiation into the Abolitionist movement.
In 1830 Garrison started his own abolitionist paper, calling it The Liberator. As published in its first issue, The Liberator’s motto read, "Our country is the world—our countrymen are mankind." The Liberator was responsible for initially building Garrison’s reputation as an abolitionist.
Garrison soon realized that the abolitionist movement needed to be better organized. In 1832 he helped form the New England Antislavery Society. After taking a short trip to England in 1833, Garrison founded the American Antislavery Society, a national organization dedication to achieving abolition.