The Abolitionist Movement

Poster advocating the end of slavery

The Abolitionist Movement in America began in the 1830s and was devoted to ending the institution of slavery in the United States. Though the movement initially started among religious Americans who believed that the practice of slavery was morally wrong, it soon gripped the nation as Abolitionists and anti-Abolitionists went head to head. The main detractors of the movement were from the South. President Andrew Jackson even prohibited the U.S. Postal Service from delivering any abolitionist literature to the South as abolition was illegal there. For the South, whose deeply entrenched belief in slavery, as well as their economic dependence on it, it was crucial to resist the abolishment of slavery. While the Northern states had developed their industrial and manufacturing sector, the Southern states had remained deeply invested in agriculture which depended heavily on slave labor. Without slave labor, the entire Southern economy was in danger of collapse. Feeling under threat for their very existence ultimately led seven Southern states to secede and form their own Confederate States of America, which eventually sparked the Civil War in 1861. After the start of the War, another four states joined the Confederacy. With Union Victory in 1865, the Constitution was ratified to include the Thirteenth Amendment which officially ended slavery in the United States.

In fact, before the Civil War, many politicians including Abraham Lincoln weren’t trying to abolish slavery. They were only concerned with preventing slavery from spreading to new territories in the West. Part of the reason was that Lincoln as well as most abolitionists agreed that the Consitution prohibited the Federal government from abolishing slavery in states where it already existed. So though he was inherently against slavery and believed that all men deserved to enjoy the fruits of their labor, initially, he did not support equal rights for black and white Americans-like the black right to vote.

Many early Abolitionists were educated, religious, white Americans. There were also many black Abolitionists who had escaped to the North. The most prominent among them were Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman. Both were slaves who had escaped and were actively helping other slaves; Douglass by spreading awareness and recruiting for the Abolitionist Movement by publishing his memoirs and giving speeches across the country, and Tubman by helping slaves escape to the North by the Underground Railroad. As the battle between the North and South heated up, many Americans who had been sitting on the sidelines were swayed by the impassioned talks given by Frederick Douglass. A brilliant and eloquent speaker, he spoke out against the Southern propaganda that slaves were happy and content. His books and talks showed a very different picture of what the life of a slave was really like. His intelligence and articulation also debunked the myth that being black meant you were incapable of intelligence and the ability to learn. One of the basis for justifying slavery was that the slaves were like children, and needed their superior white masters to guide and protect them. This was clearly untrue. Frederick Douglass’s frank and impassioned speeches helped convince more white Americans that a serious change needed to happen in their Constitution, while Harriet Tubman worked quietly in the background to help slaves get safely to the “Underground Railroad” and freedom. She worked tirelessly despite holding down a job as a maid, taking unimaginable risks every time she helped a runaway slave, and remained largely unsung and unpraised. She didn’t do it for the glory, but for the satisfaction of doing what was right. Her quiet, yet no less powerful disobedience inspired millions of people around the world for generations to come to stand up for what they believe in, no matter the personal cost.

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