4 reasons why Abolitionists were unpopular (even in the North)

When we think about slavery and the struggle to overcome that institution we usually imagine a pretty clear separation between the pro-slavery stance of the South and the Anti-slavery stance of the North.

But that separation is flawed. While wide parts of the population in the South supported slavery as the peculiar institution of the South the Abolitionists of the 1830s and 1840s were also quite unpopular in wide parts of the population in the North. There were 4 reasons for the unpopularity of Abolitionists in the North.

Large parts of the population in both the North and the South saw Abolitionists and their ideas to end slavery as a threat to the public order. Additionally, the fear of many low-skilled workers in the North that freed slaves could take their jobs, the widespread rejection of the idea that freed slaves could or should be integrated into the predominantly white society, and personal overlaps between the Abolitionists and the Women`s rights movement resulted in the unpopularity of Abolitionists in both the North and the South.

Let`s find out more.

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Abolitionists were seen as a threat to public order

Ever since the Revolutionary war, the question of Slavery had been a debated topic between the slave states and the free states, more on that differentiation and why Slavery was less common in the North in my article here. After the Missouri Compromise of 1820, more on how the Missouri Compromise failed to solve the problem of slavery and intensified the rivalry between Free states and Slave states here, the political environment was more disunited than ever before.

Since the Abolitionists and their ideas of ending slavery caused even more tensions in an already tense political environment the Abolitionists of the 1830s and 1840s were seen as a threat to public order not only by wide parts of the Southern population but also by a large part of the population in the North.

In that context, public order meant much more than just a crime-free, safe environment. Let`s find out more about the different levels of the public order that were (supposedly) threatened by the ideas of the Abolitionist movement.

Conservation of the racial and social hierarchies

Let`s start out with the elephant in the room. One part of keeping the public order was the conservation of the racial hierarchy.

Many slaveowners had justified owning slaves with the idea that slavery was a god-given moral institution and as such a just thing. And the idea of freed slaves living equally in an until then white society was not only refused by slaveowners. Many Abolitionists also refused the idea that freed slaves could or should be integrated into the white society of the United States.

More on that and the „creative“ idea some of these men had to solve that problem in just a few minutes.

So while I think that it is somewhat easy to understand why the abolishment of the racial hierarchy could be seen as a threat to public order by many Americans in both the North and the South I personally struggled to understand how the abolishment of Slavery as a social hierarchy could threaten the public order.

That idea seemed especially strange considering the fact that only about 25% of the families in the South actually owned slaves. You can find out more about the percentage of families who owned slaves and Slavery in general in my article here.

It actually hit me when I was writing an article about the popularity of Gladiator fights in ancient Rome, that Slavery helped even families who did not own slaves to have a feeling of superiority.

Let me explain what I mean.

The institution of slavery did financially hurt the families who did not own slaves since most of the low-skilled labor in the South was done by slaves instead of free workers. But slavery provided even the poorest free man with the opportunity to feel superior not because of wealth or prestige but purely because of him being a free man instead of an enslaved man.

As mentioned, that same line of argumentation can also be named as one of the 10 reasons why Gladiator fights were so popular in ancient Rome.

So there we have the reason why even families who did not own slaves themselves often supported the institution of slavery. And when it comes to the reasons why wealthy slaveowners did not want to change anything about the racial and social hierarchy then I don`t think that needs much of an explanation aside from a reference to the fact that the economy of the South was highly dependent on cheap slave labor.

More about the geographical, political, and religious reasons that enabled the formation of such an economy in the South, but not in the North, in my article here.

But let`s return to the question of why Abolitionists were seen as a threat to public order and how some Abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison contributed to that point of view.

William Lloyd Garrison and his Anti-Slavery publications

In 1831 William Lloyd Garrison had founded the newspaper „The Liberator“ which gave him a tool to bring his ideas about Abolitionism to a wide audience.

However, his argumentation for ending slavery insulted and enraged the slaveowners since William Lloyd Garrison argued that, according to the Declaration of Independence of 1776 all men were created equal. By that, he implied that the slaveowners, who saw themselves as patriots and slavery as a god-given morally just institution, were acting in violation of the Declaration of Independence.

It also didn`t help that William Lloyd Garrison openly called slaveowners oppressors and despots while simultaneously referring to black slaves as brothers and sisters, who should be completely equal to the white US citizens.

It is noteworthy that William Lloyd Garrison did not speak for a majority of Abolitionists when he called black slaves brothers and sisters and insisted that they had to be equal to white US citizens!

And while these claims brought him (and the Abolitionist movement) a lot of public attention they also increased the unpopularity of both himself and the Abolitionist movement since equality between the races was not even the goal of all Abolitionists and certainly not of wide parts of the population in both North and South!

One good example of how unpopular Abolitionists actually were even in the North can be found when William Lloyd Garrison, an influential Abolitionist, visited Boston in 1835. There an enraged mob tied a rope around his neck and led him through the city…a pretty unambiguous gesture if you ask me.

But there was one more threat to pubic order that originated in the South but radiated into the North. By the way, that threat was also the trigger for why the Abolitionist movement in the South disappeared during the early 1830s, more on that here.

That threat was the calls of some free POCs in the South for a slave rebellion.

Isolated calls for slave rebellions

It is always important to note that there were also free POCs among the Abolitionists. There were about 500.000 free POCs during the 1830s, about 2/3 of them lived in the North but 1/3 also lived in the South. Some of them eventually wrote about their lives and some of these reports, like the autobiography of the freed slave Frederick Douglass*, survived!

If you are interested in reading about Slavery and Abolitionism as seen through the eyes of a (freed) slave then I would recommend you the Autobiography of Frederick Douglass that you can find here* on Amazon.

More about Slavery and how many families in the South actually owned slaves (and how many they owned) in my article here.

The free POCs in both the North and the South were at the bottom of the social pyramid, had the lowest incomes, were socially isolated, and were prohibited from joining political parties. As a reaction, these free POCs formed Black churches, self-help groups, but also national structures like the „National Negro Convention“ that would first come together in 1830.

But some of these free POCs would go a step further in their fight for Abolitionism and would try to rally the slaves in the South to start rebellions. Although these attempts to start slave rebellions were pretty rare they obviously increased the fear among the slaveowners.

And when these calls actually resulted in some minor slave riots during the early 1830s, measures were taken in the South that not only had the goal to prevent further slave riots but also increased the punishment for encouraging these riots. That, by the way, was one of the reasons why the Abolitionist movement in the South disappeared years before it would disappear in the North during the 1840s. More on the reasons why the Abolitionist movement basically disappeared in the North after 1840 in my article here.

Now one might ask how these minor slave rebellions in the South influenced the opinion of the Population in the North regarding the Abolitionists. Well, the answer is that these events didn`t help the Abolitionists.

The minor slave rebellions in the South during the early 1830s had been encouraged by some Abolitionists. And that proved the widespread fear of Abolitionists being a threat to the public order, that large parts of the population in both North and South had, right.

And although the Abolitionist movement did not disappear in the North until 1840 many public speeches of Abolitionists as well as abolitionist publications (and publicists) were often either prohibited or the subject of violent attacks. An example of that is the already mentioned incident when the Abolitionist and publicist William Lloyd Garrison visited Boston in 1835 where an enraged mob put a rope around his neck and led him through the city.

But let`s now leave the fear for the downfall of public order and look at the already mentioned problem that wide parts of the population, including many Abolitionists, could not imagine a possibility for integrating the freed slaves into the predominantly white society of the United States.

Rejection of the idea that freed slaves could be integrated into the white society

As already mentioned above, the idea of equality between the races met resistance not only from slaveowners but for a variety of already presented reasons also from men who did not own slaves.

And don`t get me wrong, that idea that POCs and Whites were not equal and also should not be equal was not only shared in the South!

Even many Abolitionists, who wanted to end slavery, refused the idea that they as whites were equal to POCs.

Since a majority of the Abolitionists and the slaveowners shared the common ground that the integration of freed slaves into the white society of the United States was neither possible nor desirable a solution had to be found. And that solution was the idea that the freed slaves could just be brought back to Africa from where their ancestors had originally been deported.

While today that a proposition would rightfully be marked as incredibly racist it was not only considered but the idea was actually implemented back in the day.

On 21 December 1816 a group of (white) members of the Upper class, including Andrew Jackson (not a fan of the Abolitionists) and Henry Clay (who sympathized with freed POCs), came together at the Davis Hotel in Washington DC and formed the American Colonization Society intending to relocate freed slaves from the US to Africa (to the modern-day state Liberia) while simultaneously opening an outpost for the trade with African resources.

In the following years, the American Colonization society managed to collect enough money and a concession for a piece of land at the western coast of Africa, the so-called Grain Coast. As a result, the first ship with 88 freed slaves (and 3 white supervisors) left New York for Africa in January of 1820.

The result of the attempt to relocate freed slaves from the US to Africa is the modern-day state of Liberia. But contrary to the plans of the American Colonization Society neither the relocation of the freed slaves nor the establishment of a trading outpost in Africa was successful since the number of freed slaves who were interested in getting relocated to Africa was understandably low.

Now that plan might sound crazy (and pretty racist). But that kind of crazy plan just shows how serious the rejection for the idea that freed slaves could be integrated into the white society really was.

But aside from these considerations, there were also more practical concerns that were especially prominent in the lower classes.

The fear of added rivalry on the job market

The economy of the North, due to different factors that are presented in my article here, offered a lot of jobs even for unskilled laborers.

That by the way was one of the reasons why the North was a much more popular goal for European immigrants than the South. For more information about that and the other reasons why most European immigrants stayed in the North and why especially the Irish immigrants remained on the East coast while German immigrants often moved west I would like to recommend you my article here.

But that kind of availability of low-skilled labor caused the lower classes in the North to fear the competition that Abolitionism would bring to their workplaces.

Many of the low-skilled laborers who worked in the factories in the North feared that the result of Abolitionism would be that masses of freed slaves would leave the South, move to the North, and compete with them for the same low-skilled jobs. Additionally, they also feared that masses of freed slaves entering the workplace would eventually lower the already low wages even further.

I think it is easy to say that the real or supposed threat of a harder rivalry over low-skilled jobs and the risk of falling wages that was connected to Abolitionism was one of the main reasons why especially workers with lower skills feared the results the abolitionist movement could have on their personal finances.

But there was one other reason why Abolitionists were unpopular. And was actually the most surprising one for me since I have never heard of that specific connection before I started researching for the article.

And that is the connection between the Abolitionist movement and the women`s rights movement. Let`s take a look!

The connections between Abolitionists and the Women`s rights movement

The last reason for the unpopularity of Abolitionists was the connections between the Abolitionist movement and the Women`s rights movement.

That connection, more precisely the vote of the first woman into an internal committee of the American Anti-Slavery Society, would actually cause mass exits that were one of the reasons for the end of the Abolitionist movement in the North after 1840.

But there was a strong connection between the Abolitionist movement and the Women`s rights movement even before the first woman, Abby Kelley, was voted into an intern committee of the American Anti-Slavery Society. That connection and the personal overlaps (like Lucretia Mott or Lucy Stone) were based on the same argumentation for both the emancipation of slaves and women.

For more information on one of the most dominant women in both the Abolitionist and the women`s rights movement, I can highly recommend you the biography of Lucretia Mott*. You can find the biography of that truly fascinating woman here* on Amazon.

There was only one problem. Just like many US-Americans could not imagine a society in which POCs and Whites were equal most Americans also did not want to end the submission of women in both family and society.

By the way, holding on to the submission of women in both family and society was not an American phenomenon like the following example shows.

Towards the end of the first half of the 19th century, the early stages of the Women`s rights movement developed. In 1840, two of its leading characters, two women named Elisabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Coffin Mott (the latter was also a well-known figure in the Abolitionist movement), traveled to London to be a part of the group of US representatives at the World Anti-Slavery Convention.

Well, at least they tried to represent the US. Both Elisabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Coffin Mott were denied entry at the World Anti-Slavery Convention because they were women.

Both were only allowed to sit in the visitor’s ranks, not in the ranks of the representatives. There they were later joined by William Lloyd Garrison, an important Abolitionist who would also play his fair part in the disappearance of the Abolitionist movement. More on how William Lloyd Garrison managed to split the American Anti-Slavery Society in my article here.

At the very latest it became obvious that these connections to the women`s rights movement did hurt the Abolitionist movement after the vote of Abby Kelley into an internal committee of the American Anti-Slavery Society caused mass exits.

These mass exits, combined with a split of the American Anti-Slavery Society would result in the end of the Abolitionist movement in the North. But although the Abolitionist movement would mostly disappear from the public attention after 1840 it had put the spotlight on the problem of Slavery.

And that problem would radiate into all the other conflicts and events that would eventually lead to the secession of the South that was started by South Carolina shortly after Abraham Lincoln was voted in 1860. You can find more information on the events that led up to the secession and the chronological dates on which each state, the first being South Carolina on 20. December 1860, seceded in my article here.

Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.

Until next time

Yours truly

Luke Reitzer


W. L. Barney (Hrsg.): A Companion to 19th-Century America, Malden, Mass./Oxford 2001.

W. P. Adams: Die USA vor 1900 (OGG,28), München 2009.