The abolitionist movement called for the end of the institution of slavery and had existed in one form or another since colonial times; the early case had been stated most consistently by the Quakers. Most Northern states abolished the institution after the War for Independence, reacting to moral concerns and economic unfeasibility.
The movement gained new momentum in the early 19th century as many critics of slavery hardened their views and rejected their previous advocacy of gradualism (the slow and steady progress towards the goal of freedom for slaves) and colonization (finding land in Africa for former slaves). As the movement grew and became more formally organized, it sparked opposition in both the North and the South; Northern mill owners depended upon slave-produced cotton every bit as much as the Southern plantation owners.
Undeterred, many abolitionists defied the original Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, as well as the later Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, and actively sought to assist runaway slaves in their quest for freedom, most notably through the auspices of the Underground Railroad. Abolitionist leaders included such figures as William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman and William Lloyd Still. Garrison adopted a militant tone which differed strikingly from the more timid proposals of prior abolitionists, who generally favored "colonization" of blacks away from white society. Garrison demanded the immediate end of slavery without compensation to slaveowners and equal rights within mainstream society for everyone, regardless of race.
Garrison`s efforts led to the formation of the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1833. He wrote its initial declaration, which appeared on December 14, 1833, reading in part:
The right to enjoy liberty is inalienable. To invade it, is to usurp the prerogative of Jehovah. Every man has a right to his own body—to the products of his own labor—to the protection of law—and to the common advantages of society. It is piracy to buy or steal a native African, and subject him to servitude. Surely the sin is as great to enslave an American as an African.
Within five years, the society had 1,350 local chapters. The success of the abolition movement in the North, and the large amount of propaganda that it generated, enraged the South. South Carolina took the step of declaring that:
Resolved, that the formation of the abolition societies, and the acts and doings of certain fanatics calling themselves Abolitionists, in the nonslaveholding states of this Confederacy, are in direct violation of the obligations of the compact of the Union, dissocial and incendiary in the extreme.
They further petitioned the federal government to have the post office stop the distribution of abolitionist literature. Congress decided that this would be unconstitutional, but in practice it was not unusual for Southern postmasters to prevent the delivery of offending material.
After the Reverend Elijah Lovejoy, editor of an Abolitionist newspaper in St. Louis, moved it in 1836 to Alton, Illinois, the citizens of Alton destroyed in on three occasions. On the fourth, on November 7, 1837, the mob murdered Lovejoy. His associate Edward Beecher, brother of Henry Ward Beecher, wrote in the narrative of the Alton riots, which appeared in 1838, "The true spirit of intolerance now stood exposed. Events were so ordered by the Providence of God as to strip off every disguise. It now became plain that all attempts to conciliate and to discuss were vain; and nothing remained but to resist or to submit."
One of the early leaders of the Abolitionist movement was Theodore Weld, who helped organize the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1833, and whose 1839 work, Slavery As It Is, inspired Harriet Beecher Stowe to write Uncle Tom`s Cabin.
Also of particular note is Frederick Douglass, who in 1845 wrote of his own slavery experience in his book, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. He was a prolific abolitionist lecturer and later advised President Lincoln on civil rights issues. On July 5, 1852, Douglass delivered a speech that eventually became known as "What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?" Some historians have called it one of the greatest antislavery orations ever given.
Although some in the Abolitionist Movement, especially Garrison, felt that women should play a prominent role, that position was resented by many. When in 1840, Garrison and his followers elected a woman to the American Anti-Slavery Society`s business committee, a split in the organizations resulted. The departing members explained themselves:
We, the Undersigned, members and delegates of the American Anti-Slavery Society, as a duty and, therefore, a right, hereby protest against the principle assumed by a majority of persons representing said Society at its present meeting, that women have the right of originating, debating, and voting on questions which come before said Society, and are eligible to its various offices;
It is interesting to note that abolitionists anticipated an argument later used by the Confederacy. Just as Southerners eventually concluded that their institution of slavery could not be protected under the Constitution while the number of free states grew, abolitionists argued that since slavery could not be abolished under the existing Constitution, it was the obligation of the North to secede. In 1843, the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society endorsed disunion by a vote of 59 to 21. They argued that no principled abolitionist could either vote or hold office under the Constitution as it then existed. In 1845, the group published a pamphlet to that effect with an introduction by Wendell Phillips.