Study Guide

Abolitionists Introduction

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Abolitionists Introduction

Society and Slavery Go Way Back

Hoo-boy. America's the poster child for how to get off on the wrong foot. 

From the moment the United States was founded as a free and independent republic, dedicated to the proposition that "all men are created equal," slavery represented a fundamental contradiction to the nation's most cherished values. You can't just buy, sell, and breed other human beings to build your economy, and then pretend you're still the coolest country on the block.

And we'll never ever get out of this one, but the brutal truth is, slavery in human societies dates back at least to antiquity in Egypt. Aristotle once argued that, "from the hour of their birth, some men are marked out for subjection, others for rule."

Ladies and gentlemen, this is The Father of Logic. Dude, thanks for categories and virtues—Scattergories is our jam and our New Year's resolutions are on point—but newsflash: human beings don't belong in the same category as mules and donkeys. And claiming ownership over another human isn't virtuous in the least bit.

"But hey," you say, "a concept like that must've come straight from an autocracy, right?" 

Nope. Aristotle hailed from Athens, the shining birthplace of democracy. So, the institution of slavery's had a very long history of paradoxical existence within otherwise free and democratic nations. In other words, democracy's been cuttin' corners since long before slavery was introduced to the young and reckless colonies that later became the U.S.

It's hard to put two and two together when the American Revolution against the British monarchy represented a defiance of divine birthright. That's a stark contrast to accepting slavery and subordination-from-birth, don't you think? Although paradoxical, there was a relationship at play here (some smartypants professors might call this relationship a "dialectic") between the two extremes: 

(a) the blatant inequality, inhumanity, and cruel subjection of bondage
(b) the idealistic self-determination of a free and equal society

Abolitionists, You the Real MVPs

Like the Chinese concept of yin and yang, the two opposites emerged alongside and in contrast to one another. Historian David Brion Davis argued that "since man has a remarkable capacity to imagine abstract states of perfection, he very early imagined a perfect form of subordination."

Yeah, that's not your vanilla, Sesame Street definition of "imagination" there, folks.

Though a situation of hypocrisy, thankfully, the comparison was not lost on many colonists, Black and white. The ideal and the real coexisted in the first 250 years of European settlement on the North American continent. But the lingering potency of the ideal—that is, "that all men are created equal"—also formed the basis for a persevering antislavery movement. 

What is Abolitionists About and Why Should I Care?

This is a story for activists. And idealists. And anyone who ever fought for a cause that seemed impossible to win, because the odds appeared too insurmountable and because no one seemed to listen. 

Before there ever was a United States of America, people on this continent were fighting against the evils of slavery. Generations of humanitarians who would never live to see Emancipation Day still dedicated their lives to trying to make people understand why bondage was wrong. In the end, they prevailed, but only after generations of struggle, mob violence, hardships, setbacks, and betrayals.

Not all abolitionists were complete egalitarians; many shared at least some of the racial beliefs and stereotypes that infused eighteenth and nineteenth-century America. Black and white abolitionists had their differences, as did male and female abolitionists. Yet, for the sake of their cause, this small but important group of uncompromising and principled Americans somehow managed to overcome the usual boundaries of class, race, and gender that have so often separated people throughout U.S. history.

  • They worked together amidst an extremely hostile environment of racist Northerners and even less receptive Southerners.
  • They petitioned a federal government that tried to shut its doors to their pleas.
  • They helped transform a party system that long resisted the disruptive influence that the slavery issue would bring.

But for the new western territories and the inherently racist appeal of the "free soil" movement, abolitionists may never have succeeded. And when they did succeed, it turned out that emancipation did not necessarily mean complete freedom or equality for Black people. For many more generations, through Reconstruction and the Civil Rights Movement, new waves of activists carried on the abolitionists' crusade for equal rights and freedoms for all Americans. Women who found their voices in the abolitionist rank-and-file went on to speak out on their own behalf, for suffrage and just treatment.

This is a story that unfolds over hundreds of years, across the North and South, among people of all races, genders, and religious persuasions. It is therefore appropriate that the main subject of this story centers on the one thing all those people have in common: they recognized slaves' inherent humanity, and the inhumanity of slavery. Their success may have come along with severe limitations, but it came just the same, and when it did, the whole country was forever changed as a result.

So, if you're yearning for change or working on behalf of a similarly noble-but-seemingly-lofty cause—environmentalism, the eradication of AIDS, or snuffing out your weird uncle's racist comments—you should keep reading. Your ultimate objective may not be reached during your own lifetime, but that's no reason not to make the effort while you're still alive and kicking.

Who knows? You may end up in the history books for it. And even small changes can snowball into bigger ones. Regardless, you'll be part of a legacy bigger than yourself. And that's quite a good way to spend a lifetime.

Abolitionists Resources


David Brion Davis, The Problem of Slavery in The Age of Revolution, 1770-1823 (1975)
A sequel to his Pulitzer Prize-winning The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture, Davis seeks to analyze the context and ramifications of "a profound transformation in moral perception...within the white enslaving culture," but with references to Black responses, notably in regard to St. Domingue and its influence on whites' perceptions of slavery.This book takes the cultural and ideological setting established in the previous work and seeks to explore its translation into social action. Davis begins the period where he initially left off, amidst the "ideals and aspirations" of the American and French Revolutions, and ends with the culmination of those Enlightenment ideals in the Latin American wars for independence and the Missouri Compromise in the U.S., the death knell to its Founding Fathers' hopes for "imminent extinction" and the beginnings of "a conflict of new dimensions."

Leon F. Litwack, North of Slavery: the N**** in the Free States, 1790-1860 (1961)
A renowned history professor and author, Leon Litwack attests to the level and extent of anti-Black discrimination and segregation that existed in the American North.

Nell Irvin Painter, Sojourner Truth: A Life, a Symbol (1996)
This is both a compelling biography and a larger social history of the nineteenth century. Truth was a true abolitionist, but Painter's book also explores the myth that developed around her charismatic presence during her own lifetime.

Benjamin Quarles, Black Abolitionists (1969)
A noteworthy reminder of the significant role that Black people themselves played in the abolitionist movement. Examines reformist tracts, narratives, and records from antislavery societies.

Leonard L. Richards, Gentlemen of Property and Standing": Anti-Abolition Mobs in Jacksonian America (1970)
A good complement to the Litwack book, offering a focused examination of anti-abolitionist sentiment in the North, with a discussion of its causes, context, and useful statistics.

Leonard L. Richards, The Slave Power: The Free North and Southern Domination, 1780-1860 (2000)
A well-researched, eminently readable and straightforward explanation of antebellum politics and how they led up to the Northern belief in a "Slave Power" conspiracy. An excellent book.


Various Artists, Wade in the Water, Vol. 1: African-American Spirituals (1994)
Pick up this moving collection of early African-American spirituals performed with power and love by choirs from Florida A&M and Howard University as well as the internationally acclaimed Fisk Jubilee Singers.

Soundtrack, Uncle Tom's Cabin (1998)
Listen to one stage adaptation of Harriet Beecher Stowe's best-selling 1852 abolitionist novel.

Various Artists, Afro-American Spirituals, Work Songs, and Ballads (1998)
The Library of Congress Archive of Folk Culture presents this collection of field recordings collected by John and Alan Lomax during their travels through the American South in the 1930s. It's a treasure of early American music history and a must listen for any fan of jazz, blues, bluegrass, country, or soul.

N**** Work Songs & Calls (1999)
Another fantastic piece of history presented by the Library of Congress Archive of Folk Culture. The father-son team of John and Adam Lomax compiled nineteen recordings of field work songs and calls during their travels through the American South in the 1930s.

Fisk Jubilee Singers, In Bright Mansions (2003)
Savor eighteen unforgettable performances by the world-renowned Fisk Jubilee Singers, a group of African-American musicians who have worked tirelessly to preserve the rich history of slave songs.


Title page of an 1825 pamphlet: "A Plan for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery in the United States, without Danger or Loss to the Citizens of the South."

The Immediatist
Portrait of abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison.

An Abolitionist Pioneer
One of our leading ladies of the abolitionist movement, Sojourner Truth.

Anti-Abolitionist Violence
"Destruction by fire of Pennsylvania Hall, the new building of the Abolition Society, on the night of the 17th May" in 1838.

Gagging Dissent
"Abolition Frowned Down," an 1839 satire on enforcement of the "gag-rule" in the House of Representatives, which prohibited discussion of the question of slavery.

The Voice of Abolitionism
Portrait of abolitionist Wendell Phillips, in a daguerreotype from Matthew Brady's Gallery in New York.

Singing Freedom Songs
Illustrated sheet music cover for "Get off the track," an abolitionist song by The Hutchinsons. The song was dedicated to antislavery editor Nathaniel Peabody Rogers, as "a mark of esteem for his intrepidity in the cause of Human Rights." The sheet music was illustrated with an allegory of the triumph of abolitionism.

A Nervous Nation Satirizes the Growing Conflict
"Practical illustration of the Fugitive Slave Law," a satire on the antagonism between Northern abolitionists and Secretary of State Daniel Webster and other supporters of enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.

Anthony Burns: The Spark for An Abolitionist Inferno
An 1855 portrait of the fugitive slave Anthony Burns, whose arrest and trial under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 touched off riots and protests by abolitionists and citizens of Boston in the spring of 1854.

An Abolitionist Seal
The large, bold woodcut image of a supplicant male slave in chains appeared on the 1837 broadside publication of John Greenleaf Whittier's antislavery poem, "Our Countrymen in Chains." The design was originally adopted as the seal of the Society for the Abolition of Slavery in England in the 1780s, and appeared on several medallions for the society made by Josiah Wedgwood as early as 1787.

Movies & TV

Nat Turner, A Troublesome Property (2003)
Dramatic reenactments bring to life the story of a slave preacher who planned and executed the largest slave rebellion in American history.

The Underground Railroad (1999)
Alfre Woodard hosts this History Channel documentary about one of the most misunderstood elements of the abolitionist movement, the Underground Railroad. This film focuses on the individuals—white and Black—who formed the complex network that helped usher slaves into the free North.

Amistad (1997)
Steven Spielberg directs and Morgan Freeman stars in this epic film based on the true story of the 1839 mutiny aboard an African slave ship headed to the United States from Cuba and the abolitionist lawyer—John Quincy Adams—who advocated for the rebels' freedom.

Frederick Douglass, When the Lion Wrote History (1994)
Actress Alfre Woodard narrates this intimate documentary about a man who escaped slavery to become a respected orator, a prolific writer, a leader in the abolitionist movement, and a passionate advocate for women's suffrage.

Uncle Tom's Cabin (1927)
Early African-American actor James B. Lowe stars as Uncle Tom in this, one of the most famous screen adaptations of Harriet Beecher Stowe's 1852 abolitionist novel. Seven decades after the book's publication, Stowe's tale about the injustices of slavery takes on new meanings.


Railing Against Bondage
The full text of Angelina Grimké Weld's antislavery speech at Pennsylvania Hall is available through PBS.

Africans in America
Several more primary-source documents pertaining to slavery and abolition are also available online through the PBS Africans in America series.

Speaking Out
"I will be heard!" is an excellent collection of documents and descriptions from the Cornell University Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections.

Arguing Amistad In Court
The full text of the Court opinions and the arguments in the Amistad case are available from University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law.

Sojourner Truth
Sojourner Truth has a well-earned institute named after her in Battle Creek, Michigan.

Telling Truth's Story
The University of Pennsylvania has also made Sojourner Truth's Narrative available on their website.

Read the Works of a Great Man
The Library of Congress has made Frederick Douglass' papers available online, complete with a searchable-by-keyword feature.

Abolitionists into Feminists
Pomona College lets you peek at primary sources on Lucretia Mott and the women's rights movement.

Primary Sources on Slavery
The Avalon Project at Yale Law School archives documents from pre-eighteenth century to the present. This page contains several primary-source documents on slavery, antislavery movements, and legislation.

Historical Documents

Slavery Slowly Ends in the North
The Pennsylvania gradual abolition law from March 1st, 1780.

Hunting Runaways
A runaway slave broadside from November 2nd, 1853.

The Martyr
Summary on the life, trial, and execution of John Brown, 1859.

Rebellion and Redemption on the Amistad
Primary-source documents relating to the Amistad slave rebellion.

The Amistad Case
The full text of the Court opinions and the arguments in the Amistad case are available from University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law.

An Illiterate Yet Profoundly Eloquent Woman
Read primary-source reviews of Sojourner Truth's speeches, from the Sojourner Truth Institute in Battle Creek, Michigan.

One of the Most Articulate Abolitionists of His Day
My Bondage and Freedom, by Frederick Douglass, 1855.

Independence Day in the Land of Slavery
Frederick Douglass on what the fourth of July means to the slave.

A Voice for Freedom
The full text of Angelina Grimké Weld's antislavery speech at Pennsylvania Hall is available through PBS.

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