Evolution of Abolitionist Movement

Abolitionism is the movement for the liberation of African-American slaves, their emancipation and incorporation in the American society, as well as the elimination of racial discrimination and segregation. First attempts to end slavery took place in the 17th century but the abolition movement became really powerful after the victory of the American Revolution (1774 – 1783). Abolitionism derived from religious beliefs and ideas of social equality. The movement was mostly popular among the citizens of the North, but Southern planters and slaveholders were naturally against the liberation and emancipation of black people. In fact, this conflict between the North and the South was a core reason for Civil War (1861 – 1865).

Abolitionism in the US underwent plenty of transformations during the period from declaring the independence in 1775 until the end of the Civil War. The abolition movement originated from Pennsylvania. The representatives of local elites supported the gradual prohibition of slavery and the elimination of the different forms of racial discrimination. They tried to design special judicial means to force the legislators to abandon the bondage. Thus these first abolitionists stood for moderate and conservative methods of struggle for social and civil rights of African-Americans. However, in eary1830s visible transformation in abolitionist movement occurred. The center of the movement was no longer Pennsylvania but Massachusetts. In 1831, William Lloyd Garrison started publishing the radical abolition newspaper Liberator. This event caused intensive radicalization of the abolitionism. The articles in this newspaper promoted the immediate prohibition of slavery and full equality of African-Americans. A lot of historians consider the foundation of Liberator by Mr. Garrison as a starting point of abolitionism and regard that previous attempts to gain social rights for slaves were a background to this phenomenon. Unlike Pennsylvania elites, new radicals provided training for special agents whom they sent to organize local antislavery communities. Instead of using some legal methods of struggle, they appealed to the emotions of the masses and drew the attention of people to the horrors of slavery (Newman, 2002).

Therefore, since the early 1830s there were two divergent directions in the abolitionist movement. The conservative one was represented by the Pennsylvania Abolition Society and the radicals, so-called “modern” abolitionists, were represented by the Massachusetts Antislavery Society. As indicated above, the key difference between two directions was a tactical approach to the campaign for the bondage abolition. Moreover, PAS was a closed community of intellectuals and for a long time African Americans could not get membership in this organization. On the contrary, “modern” abolitionists quickly incorporated black activists in the antislavery movement (Newman, 2002).

After the 1830s, the actions of abolitionist were much more active, and the reaction of the conservative part of society was quite violent. For example, they burnt a lot of abolitionist newspapers and brochures, the US House of Representative abandoned the consideration of abolitionist petitions, and some leaders of the movement were even killed. The toughest reaction was in the Southern states, where abolitionism posed a threat to the existing social and economic structure.

In 1840, some disputes considering fundamental matters emerged within MAS. Garrison insisted on providing women with the equal rights within the organization and avoiding of “corrupt” political parties and churches. His opponents considered such position unacceptable because they were sure that abolitionists had to influence the political system by nominating and voting for their candidates. Therefore, these conflicts of opinions caused another split in the abolitionist movement (Foner & Garraty, 2001).

After the end of the Civil War and the adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment the necessity of the abolitionist movement was in question. Hence, the group with Garrison in charge put forward the idea to dissolve the movement, but another group led by Wendell Phillips believed that abolitionism would reach its purpose only after achievement of full equality of black and white people. They continued their activities until 1970 when the Fifteenth Amendment, which granted the right to vote for African-American men, was passed, and only then they ceased their activity (Foner & Garraty, 2001).