After the Civil War Slavery was finally abolished in the United States. Now one might think that that was achieved by the tireless fight of the abolitionist movement in the decades before the war. Well, that was not exactly the case. Interestingly the abolitionist movement in the US had already disappeared from the public stage during the 1830s (in the South) and during the 1840s (in the North).
In the following, I would like to present the reasons why the abolitionist movement had already disappeared from the public in the 1840s.
In the South, the abolitionist movement disappeared in the early 1830s after several small slave riots, that had been called for by some free POCs, had led to new laws that drastically increased the punishment for encouraging slave rebellions. In the North, the abolitionist movement disappeared into insignificance after the American Anti-Slavery Society was split by William Lloyd Garrison joining the New England Non-Resistance Society and weakened by mass exits, caused by the election of the first woman (Abby Kelley) into an internal committee of the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1840.
Let`s find out more!
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What ended the Abolitionist movement in the South?
Just like slavery itself, there was also a difference between the North and the South when it came to the disappearance of the abolitionist movement. Having said that, there was one big similarity between the North and the South when it came to public opinion regarding the abolitionists.
In both the North and the South abolitionists were quite unpopular in wide parts of the population. And there were mostly 4 reasons for that unpopularity, you can find out more about these reasons in my article here.
One of the reasons for the unpopularity of the abolitionist movement in both the North and the South was the fear that abolitionism, the movement to end slavery, would disturb the public order. In regards to slavery and the abolitionist movement, the term public order had several different and yet closely connected meanings that will be explored in my article here.
So while the idea that the public order would be threatened by abolitionism was common in both the North and the South there was one additional threat in the South. Some of the free POCs were calling for an open rebellion of the enslaved POCs.
By the way. About 1/3 of the approximately 500.000 free POCs were living in the South. More on that and the level to which slave ownership was common among southern families in my article here.
And if you are interested in reading about Slavery and Abolitionism as seen through the eyes of a (freed) slave then I would like to recommend you the Autobiography of Frederick Douglass that you can find here* on Amazon.
These occasional calls for open rebellions obviously reinforced the fear of a slave rebellion that was deeply engraved into every slave-owning society during the cause of history. And the slaveowners had already felt insulted by abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison and his interpretation of the declaration of independence.
William Lloyd Garrison, who was not only the man who brought massive public attention to the abolitionist movement but who would split and weaken the movement in the end (more on that later), had argued that according to the Declaration of Independence all men, including POCs, were created equal. So William Lloyd Garrison basically accused the slaveowners in the South, who all considered themselves patriots, of violating one of their most sacred and important documents.
That kind of provocation from an abolitionist together with the occasional calls for the rebellion of the free POCs in the South caused a tense atmosphere among the population of the South. And that tension erupted into a swift reaction when some smaller riots occurred during the early 1830s.
In reaction to several smaller slave riots during the 1830s, the guarding of the slaves was intensified and several laws with drastic punishments for the encouragement of slave rebellions were passed in the South. As a direct consequence, the abolitionist movement disappeared in the South during the early 1830s.
So there we have the reason why the abolitionist movement disappeared in the South.
Let`s now find out why the abolitionist movement disappeared in the North. But before we find out more about it disappeared we should first take a brief look at how the abolitionist movement became large in the first place.
Abolitionism in the North: William Lloyd Garrison & the American Anti-Slavery Society
The two names that are largely responsible for the popularity of the anti-slavery movement in some parts of the population are William Lloyd Garrison and his magazine „The Liberator“ and Lewis Tappen, who would later lead the American Anti-Slavery Society.
William Lloyd Garrison & „The Liberator“
In the North William Lloyd Garrison and his publications against slavery, especially his magazine „The Liberator“, was effective in spreading the ideas of abolitionism.
„The Liberator“, a magazine founded by William Lloyd Garrison in 1831, brought a lot of public attention to the abolitionist movement although William Lloyd Garrison and his call for equal status for POCs only represented a part of the strongly decentralized abolitionist movement.
Butunlike William Lloyd Garrison large parts of the abolitionist movement in the North, just like the slaveowners in the South, could not imagine any possibility for integrating freed POCs into the white society of the United States.
Now that might sound quite odd. Why exactly would abolitionists who wanted to end slavery refuse the idea of integrating the freed slaves into society? And what were their plans for the freed slaves? You can find out more in my article here under the second headline.
By the way, we will encounter the name William Lloyd Garrison again later when we talk about the two events that basically reduced the relevance of the abolitionist movement in the North into non-existence.
The American Anti-Slavery Society
But before we talk about the end of the abolitionist movement we first have to take a look at the American Anti-Slavery Society.
In 1833 the New England Anti-Slavery Society (founded in 1832) transformed into the American Anti-Slavery Society and was led by Lewis Tappan. Lewis Tappan was able to create huge public attention through a massive campaign that included the distribution of 750.000 pamphlets and a petition to congress with around 400.000 signatures.
As a result of Lewis Tappan’s campaign, the American Anti-Slavery Society grew quickly during the 1830s (during the time the abolitionist movement in the South already disappeared) to around 250.000 members and 1.300 local branches.
Now there is one obvious question: When the American Anti-Slavery Society had such huge popularity during the 1830s then why did it disappear into insignificance during the 1840s?
The answer to that question is tied to two events.
What ended the Abolitionist movement in the North?
The abolitionist movement in the North disappeared after 2 events that took place during the late 1830s and in 1840.
After the American Anti-Slavery Society was split when William Lloyd Garrison joined the anarchic New England Non-Resistance Society and mass exits, that occurred after the election of the first woman into an internal committee of the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1840, there were no more significant abolitionist actions in the 1840s.
Let`s look at both events separately!
The Split of the American Anti-Slavery Society
As mentioned, although large parts of the population in the South and the North were skeptical or even openly hostile, here you can find an example for that kind of open hostility, towards the abolitionist movement, the abolitionist movement was still able to gain some popularity in the North.
But that popularity came to a halt when William Lloyd Garrison, who together with Lewis Tappan was one of the reasons for the popularity, split the American Anti-Slavery Society by joining the anarchic New England Non-Resistance Society.
The New England Non-Resistance Society did not only refuse any use of resistance but also renounced any allegiance to the government. Additionally, it also pleaded for a secession of the North from the South.
The idea behind that was that in case of a secession of the North massive slave rebellions would spark in the South. The hope was that the weakened South would not be able to suppress these slave rebellions so that slavery would be ended in that way.
I think it is needless to say that that kind of plan made the abolitionist movement even more unpopular in the eyes of large parts of the population. For more information on the 4 reasons abolitionists were so unpopular even in wide parts of the population of the North, I would like to recommend you my article here.
Another reason was that William Lloyd Garrison was not only an abolitionist but also one of the first male US-Americans who joined the women`s rights movement. And that did not only result in the disapproval of many of the conservative ladies within the abolitionist movement, the selection of the first woman to ever join an internal committee also prompted mass exits in 1840.
Let`s now look at why a woman in an internal committee of the American Anti-Slavery Society was such a big deal that it would contribute to the fall of the abolitionist movement into irrelevance.
The women`s right movement – the end of the Abolitionist movement?
The result of the first woman being voted into an internal committee of the American Anti-Slavery Society was a mass exit. That connection between a woman getting voted into a position of (limited) power and the mass exit as a direct consequence is actually a prime cause to take a look at the close connection between the abolitionist movement and the early women`s rights movement.
Since the Abolitionist Movement and the women`s rights movement followed the same argumentation for the emancipation of the respective group there was quite an overlap of activists like Lucretia Mott. By the way, many also joined the Temperance movement.
That connection to the women`s rights movement also kinda hurt the reputation of the abolitionist movement since wide parts of the American Population, including abolitionists, did not want to change the subordination of the women in both family and state!
By the way, there is a relatively new and highly recommendable biography about Lucretia Mott. Should you be interested in the fascinating story of one of the women at the forefront of both Abolitionism and the Women`s rights movement then I would highly recommend you the biography of Lucretia Mott. You can find it here* on Amazon.
In response to the rejection of the emancipation of women, the protagonists of the women`s rights movement would argue with the term of republican motherhood.
The idea of republican motherhood followed the argumentation that women as mothers were responsible for the upbringing of new generations of energetic US-Americans. That kind of task could, according to the idea of republican motherhood, only be successfully performed when women were had equal rights to men in both society and politics.
Now that kind of argumentation obviously didn`t change the opinion of the majority of the US public. Women were still expected to subordinate themselves under the will of men in both society and family. But many of the early female women`s rights activists were not only active in the women`s rights movement but also in the abolitionist movement as well as the temperance movement.
The problem for the abolitionist movement was that the participation of the women`s rights activists carried the widespread aversion against ending the subordination of women into the abolitionist movement, which was already suspiciously ogled. And when a woman was voted into an internal committee of the American Anti-Slavery Society for the first time in 1840 that kind of aversion against ending the subordination of women resulted in mass exits.
And not only members left the American Anti-Slavery Society but also leading heads like Lewis Tappan left the committee because of Abby Kelley being voted.
In combination with the secession of William Lloyd Garrison and his supporters, the mass exits of members after the election of Abby Kelley caused the abolitionist movement to mostly disappear from the public stage. After 1840 there were no more significant abolitionist activities.
So after the anti-slavery movement had already disappeared in the South during the early 1830s it after 1840 also disappeared from the public stage in the North. But although the abolitionist movement would disappear it had sharpened the recognition of the problem of slavery.
The question of slavery had become the separating topic that would radiate into all of the events that would lead up to the secession of the South and the Civil War. For more information on these events (and how they were all at least indirectly caused by the question of slavery) I would like to recommend you my article here.
And here you can find out more about the reasons why the North invaded the South during the Civil War.
Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.
Until next time
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.