There were many influential people involved in the Abolitionist and Anti-Slavery movement in the United States during the antebellum period but the best known of the anti-slavery activists were William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, John Brown and Abraham Lincoln. These four men were not only actively involved with but were also influential in the movement to end slavery. Each brings a different approach to and understanding of the anti-slavery movement. Garrison was a journalist who was deeply religious and who used his voice and his press to spread an anti-slavery message throughout the north; Douglass moved audiences with his personal story of enslavement and escape; Brown was a man of action who turned to violence to bring about an end to the institution of slavery; and Lincoln used the power of the Congress, the election stump and later the Presidency to stop the spread of slavery into the Western territories and to later abolish the institution of slavery. Each man contributed, in his own way, to the movement to bring about the abolition of slavery in the United States and though they differed in many ways they all maintained the same goal, to see the extinction of slavery within the United States.
The terms Abolitionism and Anti-slavery are often used interchangeably but to truly understand Garrison, Douglass, Brown, and Lincoln one must have a clear understanding of the differences between the two. Anti-slavery advocates did not like the institution of slavery but were generally willing to compromise with supporters of the institution, therefore, trying to restrict slavery to areas where it had been long established. When the United States gained new territories during westward expansion anti-slavery champions fought the spread of slavery into western lands. Many anti-slavery adherents believed that if the institution of slavery was restricted to areas where it had been long established and was prohibited from spreading it would eventually run its course. This gradual emancipation would be peaceful and would preserve the Union. Anti-slavery backers were largely moderates and operated within the rule of law. Abraham Lincoln is the most well-known of the anti-slavery advocates. Abolitionists, on the other hand, believed that slavery was morally wrong and must be ended immediately everywhere. Abolitionists believed that slavery was so deeply rooted in the Southern economy and culture that it would never die a natural death and therefore must be terminated. Abolitionists often differed on the method that would be used to cause the abolition of slavery; some supported the use of violence, others employed moral suasion, and still, others resorted to political means. Abolitionists were radicals who operated outside the rule of law. William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, and John Brown were all abolitionists.
William Lloyd Garrison grew up in poverty in Newburyport, Massachusetts and for a time lived with and was educated by a Baptist deacon before being apprenticed to a local newspaper. His work in newspapers would lead him to Benjamin Lundy, publisher of an abolitionist journal. Garrison would become involved in the American Colonization Society after meeting Lundy but later became disheartened by the goal of the American Colonization Society to rid the north of as many free blacks as possible rather than the emancipation of the enslaved. Garrison started his work in abolitionism as a supporter of gradual emancipation. Garrison had moved to Baltimore in order to work on Lundy’s abolitionist journal. This experience gave him to the opportunity to interact with African Americans and to see the horrors of slavery first hand. His experience in Baltimore radicalized Garrison and, when Garrison returned to Massachusetts, he opened his own abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator, which published its first edition on January 1, 1831. After his experience in Baltimore, Garrison turned away from gradual emancipation and in his first editorial for The Liberator, Garrison publically apologized for having ever supported gradual emancipation and likened it to “timidity, injustice, and absurdity.” (Cain, 72) Garrison began to call for immediate emancipation without compensation for slave owners, no colonization of newly freed slaves, and the enfranchisement of African Americans on an equal footing with whites. His position was not popular, even in northern states, in the 1830s. The Northern States, despite having abolished slavery, still held strong racist views of black people. Garrison was seen by both Northerners and Southerners as radical and dangerous.
Garrison was not deterred by the opposition and founded both the New England Anti-Slavery Society in 1832 and, a year a later, the American Anti-Slavery Society. In his Declaration of the National Anti-Slavery Convention, Garrison described the goals of the newly created society as well as explained his and his followers’ opposition to the institution of slavery. He began by turning to the Declaration of Independence and the principles enumerated by Thomas Jefferson that “All men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Garrison pointed out that the institution of slavery violated the very principles that our nation was founded on and, in fact, had left the American Revolution incomplete. He compared the grievances of the colonists to the grievances of the enslaved and explained that, though the colonists were justified in throwing off the shackles of tyranny, they never experienced the violence and degradation experienced by those who were enslaved because of the color of their skin. He then laid out the principles of the Anti-Slavery Society and the actions that the society would take to cause the immediate abolition of slavery and to obtain the rights given to free white men for African Americans. Garrison also used moral arguments against slavery. He held that no man had a right to enslave another and that those in free states had an obligation to not stop slave insurrections, to work to end the Three-Fifths Compromise, and to not return runaway slaves that they encountered. The year prior to writing the Declaration for the American Anti-Slavery Society, Douglass published his opinion on the United States Constitution and the federal union in The Liberator. Garrison believed that the United States Constitution was pro-slavery and “dripping as it is with human blood” because within the articles of the Constitution slavery was protected by the Three-Fifths Clause and the Fugitive Slave Law. Additionally, Garrison wrote that the federal Union was created to achieve a political purpose that was “a coalition to do evil.” He believed that the Union was created on the back of the enslaved and that the writers of the Constitution did not have the power to form the “unholy alliance” with slavery and therefore the Constitution was null and void. He asserted that because the founding principles of the nation are that all men are equal and that they have natural rights, that the Constitution was void when it was written because of the protections of slavery. Garrison was one of the first abolitionists to call for disunion if keeping the union together meant allowing slavery. Garrison early on advocated for changing the law and government but would later turn away from government as a means to end the institution of slavery.
In the late 1830s, Garrison came to believe that the government was corrupt and would not be a useful means to abolish slavery, in 1838 he attended a Peace Convention in Boston which was called to establish a Non-Resistance Society. Garrison was tasked with writing the Declaration of Sentiments for the Peace Convention in which he described how members of the Non-Resistance Society would avoid entanglements with governments that support slavery. Members of the Non-Resistance Society would repudiate all civil government and would only abide by the rule of God, would not hold any office that compelled them to send men to war or to protect slavery, would not vote for members of the legislature or for the executive, they would not sue in any court that upheld the rights of slave owners, and would use various forms of civil disobedience. They would be passive and would not support war or violence but, would “speak boldly in the cause of God”, assail inequality, use moral suasion and use the press to spread their message of non-resistance and of immediate abolition. Garrison was a master of using moral suasion and unforgiving language to oppose the institution of slavery. Garrison felt that he and other abolitionists had to use severe language “simply because [the] crime has grown monstrous.” (Cain, 38) He believed that “a little extra heat is not only pardonable but absolutely necessary…” to end slavery. He was not afraid to attack the reputation, patriotism, and Christianity of slaveholders to paint them as evil “man-stealers.” The Northerners were not immune from Garrison’s attacks and were often called out for their apathy to slavery and for the racism that was prevalent in the north. He even turned his overblown rhetoric against other abolitionists, especially those who disagreed with his tactics or interpretation of the federal Constitution as a pro-slavery document.
The use of civil disobedience in reform movements is well known and was often successful in obtaining the desired goal of the movement, however, those who have used civil disobedience successfully have also participated in the government by voting and other political means. Disposing of political power, especially the vote hinders the ability of the movement to make a real and lasting change. Garrison and other members of the Non-Resistance Society, by not exercising their elective franchise along with powerful rhetoric, allowed for those who were moderate anti-slavery advocates or who supported slavery to have a stronger voice in the creation of laws and compromises.
The main audience for Garrison’s message was white northerners but he did at times try to reach out to the enslaved to give them support and encouragement. In June of 1843, Garrison specifically addressed the enslaved in which he pledged the support of abolitionists to the cause of those held in bondage. He asked them not to get weary because they had friends, who were the “noblest champions of the human race”, in the north who were working for their emancipation despite their inability to go to the south. In the address, Garrison explained the work that abolitionists were doing to get their immediate emancipation, assured them that God was on their side, and reminded them that once they were free they would be reunited with lost family members. Additionally, Garrison warned the enslaved not to turn to insurrection to obtain their freedom because they would be no match for the state militias or the federal army, however, he did tell the enslaved that it was their duty to free themselves by running away from their masters to the north where their friends would assist them. The decision to run away from a slave master would have been a difficult one for many enslaved people. The uncertainty of where to go, the possibility of leaving family members behind, along with the difficulty of a trek across a vast territory, and the fear of punishment would have been very real considerations of any enslaved person thinking about freeing themselves. Very few enslaved people who ran away were successful in reaching freedom and those who were caught faced severe physical punishment. Garrison’s appeal, if it reached the enslaved, would have seemed disingenuous. If it was too dangerous for the abolitionists to travel to the south, then it would be too dangerous for the enslaved to runaway to the north.
One enslaved person who did successfully runaway was Frederick Douglass who, after leaving his master, arrived in Massachusetts in search of freedom. Frederick Douglass had been enslaved since birth in Maryland and had seen his own family ripped apart by the institution of slavery. As a young man he posed as a sailor and was able to board a ship sailing for the north and freedom. Douglass, who had taught himself to read and write, joined the anti-slavery movement in New Bedford, Massachusetts where he met William Lloyd Garrison. Douglass had been an avid reader of The Liberator and a Garrison enthusiast prior to their meeting. Garrison asked Douglass to join the cause and both went on public speaking tours around the north and in Europe to spread the abolitionist message. Douglass used his own personal story of enslavement and the horrors that he had witnessed when enslaved to entice northerners and Europeans to support the abolitionist cause, thereby becoming one of the most popular speakers on the abolitionist lecture circuit. In 1845 Douglass wrote his autobiography, which detailed his years in slavery, the brutality of the institution, the cruelty of slave masters, and his escape from bondage. The autobiography became extremely popular and propelled Douglass to national recognition. A newspaper reviewer of the autobiography in the late 1840s wrote that “it contains the spark which will kindle up the smoldering embers of freedom in a million souls, and light up our whole continent with the flames of liberty.” (Blassingame, 123) Douglass would go on to write two additional works, My Bondage and My Freedom, in 1855 and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass in 1881. Douglass, like Garrison, used moral suasion and attacked slave owners in his speeches and writings. Douglass used his former slave master, Thomas Auld, “as a means of bringing this guilty nation with yourself to repentance.” (To My Old Master, 162)
Douglass began his career as an abolitionist as an ally of William Lloyd Garrison but when they returned from a trip to Europe a rift began to develop when Douglass moved to Rochester, New York and began publishing his own abolitionist newspaper, The North Star. The rift grew exponentially when Douglass began to disagree with Garrison’s interpretation of the Constitution as a pro-slavery document. Douglass believed that the Constitution was not pro-slavery but rather an anti-slavery document because the list of reasons why the new Constitution was written, found in the Preamble, included establishing justice and securing the blessings of liberty. Douglass believed that if all the provisions of the Constitution were enacted, properly, slavery would be ended in the nation. He believed, unlike Garrison, that the federal government had the power, within the Constitution, to abolish slavery everywhere and that “slavery must be abolished, and that can only be done by enforcing the great principle of justice.” (On the Union, Religion, and the Constitution, 260) Additionally, Douglass reminded white Americans that the founding principles of the nation enumerated in the Declaration of Independence were inconsistent with the institution of slavery, in his speech “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”. Douglass called the celebration of American independence while the institution of slavery persisted in the country hypocritical:
“What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boated liberty, and unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy—a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages.” (What to the Slave, 142-43)
Douglass, in his “What to the Slave is the 4th of July?” speech also lambasted another American institution, American Christianity, which he felt was complicit in protecting the institution of slavery and the oppression of the enslaved. He believed that by supporting slavery the churches were practicing an empty form of worship rather than following the teachings of Jesus Christ, who taught that all men should be treated with love and dignity. Douglass described how the churches had told the enslaved and the slave masters that the relationship between master and slave was ordained by God similar to the relationship between humans and God. Douglass argued that what the ministers were preaching was “a religion for oppressors, tyrants, man-stealers, and thugs” rather than a religion of mercy. (What to a Slave, 147)
As the rift between Douglass and the Garrisonians grew more heated, Douglass felt the need to explain the differences between Radical Abolitionists, like himself, Garrisonian Abolitionists, and Republicans. Douglass explained that the Garrisonian Abolitionists opposed the political action of abolition, were pacifists, called for disunion, and encouraged the enslaved to take care of themselves. He expounded that the Republicans were too moderate and willing to make compromises with slaveholders to preserve the union despite the cruelties experienced by the enslaved. He believed that the Republicans wanted slavery to take care of itself. Douglass was a radical abolitionist who denied that slavery was legal and believed that political action and perhaps even war, were needed to end the institution of slavery. Douglass’ belief that a civil war may be the only way to end slavery brought him into the orbit of abolitionist John Brown.
John Brown was born into a family which held strong Calvinist beliefs and hated slavery. As a Calvinist, John was taught a strict moral code and learned to despise the institution of slavery himself. As an adult, Brown struggled financially to support his growing family and moved frequently around the north. When living in Hudson, Ohio Brown became involved in the Underground Railroad helping fugitive slaves reach safety in Canada and later assisting free blacks in North Elba, New York, but it was not until the murder of Elijah Lovejoy, an abolitionist newspaper publisher, by pro-slavery men that Brown understood his calling to end slavery. However, he struggled to follow through on his calling due to the difficulties of trying to support his large family. After the loss of four of his children to dysentery Brown came to believe that God wanted him to end slavery. Brown, unlike Garrison, believed in the Old Testament’s form of justice, “an eye for an eye” and had an actual plan, though a flawed one, to end slavery. John Brown was a man of action but not a particularly good planner. Brown began his crusade to end slavery following a deadly raid by pro-slavery forces on the anti-slavery community of Lawrence, Kansas. Brown, a few of his sons, and other supporters rushed into the Kansas territory to seek revenge on the pro-slavery forces that had attacked the people of Lawrence, saying that “we must show by actual work that there are two sides to this thing and that they can not go on with this impunity.” (Gopnkin, 293) Brown’s revenge was intensely brutal and resulted in the murder and dismemberment of five pro-slavery men at Pottawatomi Creek. Following the massacre, Brown was a wanted man but never faced punishment for his actions, and in fact, gained the support of some abolitionists and transcendentalists in the north who saw Brown’s actions as a second American revolution and who would financially support his anti-slavery actions. Little did they know that Brown would use their money to support his raid on Harper’s Ferry, Virginia.
Brown did not just use violence to end the institution of slavery, he, like Douglass, also believed that government could be improved to support the equality of the races. Brown traveled to Canada several times to establish a provisional government which would be led by a black president and vice president and even produced an alternative Constitution which was more egalitarian and multi-racial than the United States Constitution, which Brown believed, along with Garrison, supported the institution of slavery.
Despite his efforts in Canada to establish a more democratic government, Brown did still plan to begin a slave insurrection in the United States, which he tried to do at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. He tried unsuccessfully to gain the support of Frederick Douglass, who also believed that violence might be needed to end slavery. Douglass knew a bad plan when he saw one and refused to participate in the Harper’s Ferry raid. Unfortunately, for Brown and his followers, Brown’s lack of planning did not result in an uprising of the enslaved and murder of slave owners but rather the death of several of Brown’s supporters and his own capture by the United States Army. Once captured, Brown knew that he would be put to death and that his death could greatly benefit the abolitionist movement saying that he was “worth infinitely more to die than to live.” While awaiting his trial and later death, Brown was interviewed by reporters and wrote numerous letters in support of the cause of abolition that would be used to portray him as a martyr of a righteous cause. Brown even impressed his captors, who could relate to his understanding of the southern honor culture. In one of his last statements, before being put to death Brown stated that he was “now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood.” Following his death northerners celebrated Brown as a hero who fought and died for the noblest cause of freedom but Southerners feared that the northern abolitionists were all like Brown who would stop at nothing to start a servile war in the slave-owning states. Though most abolitionists did not resort to violence some began to believe that violence was what was needed to end the institution of slavery in the United States.
Abraham Lincoln, who was an anti-slavery supporter but far from an abolitionist, was critical of Brown’s use of violence to start a slave insurrection and of the rhetoric of abolitionism as antithetical to the preservation of the Union. Lincoln believed that both slavery and abolitionism were dangerous to the social order of the nation and believed that “the promulgation of abolition doctrines tends rather to increase than abate its evils.” (Basler, 552) Garrison’s use of abusive language toward slave-holders was, according to Lincoln, more likely to arouse conflict, and that slave-holders should be approached with respect and toleration. Lincoln was a strong believer in the old adage “you get more flies with honey, than vinegar” and believed that reason, rather than passion, should be used in all matters but most especially when it came to the institution of slavery. Lincoln’s approach to the issue of slavery was to rationally explain that slavery should be put on the path to ultimate extinction by not allowing it to extend into the western territories. He also did not believe that there should be a set time limit applied to the extermination of slavery. Lincoln was rational and careful in his approach to the institution of slavery.
Lincoln was a Whig, who later, after the dissolution of the Whig Party, became a Republican and was a moderate who felt that if slavery could be contained to those areas where it already existed it would die a natural death over a period of time. He, therefore, was focused on preventing the spread of slavery into the newly acquired western territories rather than ending the institution of slavery everywhere, which the abolitionists were working toward. Like many of the abolitionists, Lincoln hated slavery and believed that it was antithetical to the founding principles of the nation and that blacks should have the protections of the inalienable rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence, but not full social and political equality with whites. In his speech at the Cooper Institute, Lincoln argued that the founding fathers did not support the institution of slavery and that even southern slave-owning founders voted in favor of restricting slavery in the Northwest Territory. He also called for the United States to live up to its founding principles. Lincoln took a much more moderate tone than Garrison when speaking about slavery and slave owners. He understood the southern honor culture and tried not to anger slavery supporters with harsh language and ad hominem attacks. In his Lyceum address, Lincoln said that “passion has helped us, but can do no more. It will in future be our enemy.” (Basler, 84)
Lincoln was sympathetic to southerners who had not been alive when slavery was begun in the colonies but felt that slavery was morally wrong and needed to be gradually abolished. Lincoln believed that slavery allowed other nations to condemn the United States as hypocritical, caused conflict between good men and the fundamental principles of the nation, moved the nation away from its founding as a natural rights republic, and financially hurt the poor white people of the south who could not compete with slave labor. He also argued that governing another man was despotic and tyrannical. Lincoln made it very clear in his speeches and in the debates with Stephen Douglass, that though he did not like slavery or the fugitive slave law that he if elected to Congress or later the presidency, he would not end slavery in the South and would enforce the execution of the Fugitive Slave Law. Lincoln, unlike Garrison and Brown, believed that slavery could be put on the path to extinction by working within the law to prevent the extension of slavery into the western territories. He also believed that the nation could no longer exist as half slave and half free because of the conflict the institution of slavery created with the nation as a whole and within the government itself. He also deeply believed that reason and not passion was critical to gain support for ending slavery and the anti-slavery movement.
Though these four important figures in the antebellum period differed in their understanding of the Constitution’s support of the institution of slavery, tactics to end the institution, and the equality of the races, they all believed that slavery was morally wrong and violated the founding principles of the nation as expressed in Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. They also agreed that slavery needed to end but disagreed on the best way to extinguish the institution. Each man played an important role in the antebellum period, Garrison kick-started the abolitionist movement, Douglass showed through his speeches and writing that African Americans were just as intelligent and capable as whites, Brown’s actions at Harper’s Ferry, though violent, was the push the south needed to secede from the Union which led, ultimately, to the Union victory in the Civil War, and Abraham Lincoln guided the nation through its most difficult period. Lincoln technically, though not physically, freed many of the enslaved through the Emancipation Proclamation prior to the end of the Civil War.
Basler, Roy P. Abraham Lincoln: His Speeches and Writings. Da Capo Press, 2001.
Cain, William E., editor. William Lloyd Garrison and the Fight against Slavery: Selections from the Liberator. Bedford Books of St. Martin’s Press, 1995.
Dew, Charles B. Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War. University of Virginia Press, 2016.
Johannsen, Robert W. The Lincoln-Douglas Debates of 1858. Oxford University Press, 2008.
Potter, David M., and Don E. Fehrenbacher. The Impending Crisis: America before the Civil War; 1848 – 1861. Harper Perennial, 2011.