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Early abolitionists at work

From the earliest days of the American colonies and the founding of the republic, there were those who stood against slavery. One such abolitionist was the Quaker subsistence farmer, Benjamin Lay. Striding into a Quaker meeting house one autumn afternoon in 1738, Mr. Lay denounced the evils of slavery to all those gathered, before taking a sword and piercing a book – within which he had hidden a pouch of blood-red pokeberry juice. “Thus shall God shed the blood of those persons who enslave their fellow creatures,” he proclaimed.

Antislavery activists like Mr. Lay had different methods of conveying their message. Some wrote leaflets or pamphlets to hand out on street corners. Others published articles in the press. Many gave speeches and debated the topic in public forums. To focus their efforts and amplify their reach, abolitionists banded together to form societies. The first abolitionist organization, the Society for the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage, was established in Philadelphia in 1775. 

Philadelphia was also where the founding fathers gathered to frame the Declaration of Independence and, later, the U.S. Constitution. They were not immune to the slavery debate. Prominent members of the assembly, like John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Alexander Hamilton, argued that slavery stood in contradistinction to the ideals of equality and liberty professed in the founding documents.

Image: An unfinished engraving c. 1800 by Edward Savage, "The Presentation of the Declaration of Independence to the Continental Congress," based on a painting by Robert Edge Pine, depicts Thomas Jefferson placing the hallowed document before John Hancock in the crowded Assembly Room of the Pennsylvania State House (now called Independence Hall), Philadelphia. Courtesy: American Antiquarian Society, Library of Congress.

A brewing divide

Abolitionists began to lobby their local governments to legislate slavery out of existence. These endeavors were far more successful in the northern states, which were industrialized and less agrarian. One by one, slaves were emancipated in Vermont (1777), Massachusetts (1780), Pennsylvania (1780), Connecticut (1784), New Hampshire (1784), and Rhode Island (1784). Other states followed. Within the next 40 years, legislation was passed at the federal level dictating whether new states petitioning to enter the Union could allow slavery.

In the South, which relied on slave labor to maintain an agricultural and plantation-based society, abolitionists and antislavery activists met with stauncher resistance. Southern politicians and slaveholders recoiled at the advances of the movement, including the "Act Prohibiting the Importation of Slaves" which went into effect in 1808. Slavery became one of the most contentious issues in American politics and society. The differences between the North and South were becoming starker – and less likely to be reconciled through debate and compromise.

Image: Enslaved people plow the earth and cut piles of sweet potatoes on a South Carolina plantation, c. 1862-3. Courtesy: Library of Congress.

Approaches to abolitionism

Abolitionists’ aim was the ending of slavery in America, but they didn’t agree on how to reach that objective. Questions about the process and repercussions were debated extensively. How do you go about excising something so embedded in the economy? What would slaves do after emancipation? Where would they live? Should former slaves be treated the same as other citizens? Should slaveholders be compensated? How is the South supposed to fill the void of labor under skyrocketing costs? 

Many of the first abolitionists advocated for a softer transition, with slavery gradually ended and reparations paid to former slaveholders. Some abolitionists, with nationalist and racist overtones, supported the idea of colonization, or the repatriation of enslaved people to Africa – reducing Africa to a homogenous state and discounting that, by this time, most of those enslaved in the South had never lived anywhere but America. 

Others, inspired by morality and religion, demanded an immediate end to the institution, no compensation to slaveholders, full societal integration, and equal rights for all. Even if abolitionists could agree on how a slavery-free America would look, they also debated how to get there. Militarists like John Brown believed dramatic and violent acts would capture the national attention and force change. Statesmen like Frederick Douglass thought enlightened speeches and writings would be most convincing. Pragmatists like Harriet Tubman saw covert resistance and rescue as the path with the most immediate effects. All were abolitionists.

Image: A photograph of the Executive Board of the Pennsylvania Antislavery Society, 1851. Standing, from left to right, are Mary Grew, E. M. Davis, Haworth Wetherald, Abby Kimber, J. Miller McKim, and Sarah Pugh. Seated, from left to right, are Oliver Johnson, Mrs. Margaret James Burleigh, Benjamin C. Bacon, Robert Purvis, Lucretia Mott, and James Mott.

The abolitionist legacy

A small fraction of the American population, abolitionists carried outsize influence on public debate, politics, and society from America’s earliest collection of colonies to the devastating Civil War. By providing safe havens for freedom seekers, establishing vigilance committees, demanding the repeal of fugitive slave laws, lobbying members of state and federal legislatures, and persuading others to their cause, abolitionists laid the foundation for the liberation of 4 million enslaved people in America.

Their work also paved the way for the subsequent social reform and civil rights movements. The abolitionist cause was one of the first instances where people worked together regardless of race, class, status, religion, profession, or gender. These men and women deserve to be remembered. Join us as we honor their legacy. Explore the abolitionists of the Emancipation Bells – and let freedom ring.

Image: Detail of an abolitionist broadside publicizing outrage at the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, which required the return of freedom seekers to slaveholders. Courtesy: Library of Congress.