Although its implementation proceeded in fits and starts, abolitionism was an idea whose force ultimately proved unstoppable across the English-speaking world. Anti-slavery advocates played a major role in bringing the institution of slavery to an end.
The US Constitution embodied both an ideal and a compromise - a democratic government that tolerated the institution of slavery.
A clause requiring the return of fugitive slaves, obliquely referred to as "servants," was added to ensure that southern states would ratify the Constitution.
From the late 1780s to 1808, anti-slavery advocates focused on the abolition of the international slave trade. Once that battle was won, they focused on the abolition of slavery itself.
The movement to end slavery was part of a broader drive for reform in the 19th century. Whether dedicated to reforming education, promoting temperance, or abolishing slavery, reformers believed that improving American character was a key to realizing the potential of the nation.
Animated by religious convictions and faith in progress, early white and black abolitionists, many of whom were ministers, used the tactics of religious revivalism: they hoped that moral persuasion would convince slaveholders to free their slaves voluntarily.
The early 19th century, otherwise a period of rapid democratization, witnessed the growth of virulent racial prejudice. During the decades before the Civil War, many free states specifically denied black men the right to vote and a few barred African Americans from crossing their borders.
During the 1830s, a new generation of white radical leaders, including William Lloyd Garrison, joined black demands for immediate action.
Garrison was imprisoned in 1830 for accusing a Newburyport, Massachusetts, ship captain of engaging in the illegal slave trade.
In this letter, he observes that even prison, for the white man, cannot compare to the life sentence of slavery.
Abolitionists relied on new, cheap printing processes to promote immediate abolition and to organize anti-slavery societies throughout the North.
Abolitionist presses flooded the country with images depicting the horrors of slavery. But by the 1840s, convinced that moral persuasion had failed, some abolitionists turned to violence.
In 1850, Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act. This controversial law required citizens to assist slave hunters and allowed slave hunters to take alleged fugitive slaves back south without due process of law. Because it was often presumed that a black person was a slave, the law threatened the safety of all blacks, slave and free.
Some northerners who strongly objected to the new law but had not been active in the anti-slavery movement turned to abolitionism in protest.
The abolitionist cause gained enormous strength after the 1852 publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin. Hundreds of thousands of northerners read her book, which crystallized the chasm between the views of a minority class of slaveholders in the South and the rest of the nation.
Uncle Tom's Cabin captured international attention over the issue of slavery. Stowe's anti-slavery novel was read by millions in the US and Europe, and served as an inspiration for the abolitionist cause.
In this letter to Dr. Ralph Wardlaw, Stowe writes that the realities of the slave system were "darker and sadder than fiction."
The Underground Railroad was a covert network of individuals and groups that facilitated the flight of slaves to the North and to Canada. It did not have a formalized or centralized structure. Although there were safe houses, guides, and pathways, there were no maps or timetables, and the journey was often perilous.
During the 1850s, a growing number of northerners, black and white, guided fugitive slaves fleeing across the Mason-Dixon Line and the Ohio River. Among the most famous guides was Harriet Tubman, who freed as many as three hundred slaves before the Civil War.
Levi Coffin, a white Quaker, was called the Underground Railroad's president. From their home in Newport, Indiana, Coffin and his wife Catherine provided food and shelter to fugitives seeking freedom.
Coffin explained his commitment to assisting fugitives with these words, "The Bible, in bidding us to feed the hungry and clothe the naked, said nothing about color, and I should try to follow out the teachings of that good book."
View this print on the This letter is an example of Coffin's efforts to free a slave family through a network of supporters.
During the decade preceding the Civil War, abolitionists successfully fused their vision of a moral nation with a political ideal of national progress based on a free-labor economy.
Always an embattled minority, abolitionists won widespread support in the North for their cause by demonstrating the danger that slavery and its expansion posed to the rights of free white people.
However, the abolitionists remained dedicated to their primary mission: ending slavery.
Developed by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History from Slavery and Abolition: People, Places, Politics: History in a Box, 2009