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Rise of Sectionalism: 1815–1859

Abolitionist Movement

Abolitionist Movement and Its Leaders

The abolitionist movement grew in the North, as activists such as William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass and the novel Uncle Tom's Cabin exposed the evils of slavery.
William Lloyd Garrison was one of the most prominent abolitionists in the United States. He helped establish two early abolitionist organizations: the New England Anti-Slavery Society and the American Anti-Slavery Society.
Credit: Courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-DIG-ppmsca-38382
The abolitionist movement began in Europe in the 18th century during the Age of Enlightenment and eventually spread to America. Antislavery sentiments were largely concentrated in the North, where there was little to no dependence on enslaved labor. Between 1777 and 1804 the states north of Maryland enacted laws outlawing slavery. In 1807 Congress banned the importation of slaves. However, the new law did not forbid the continued trade of workers already enslaved in the slaveholding Southern states.

Early efforts at abolition originated in the North and advocated a gradual end to slavery. This notion was rejected by Southerners. Their way of life, including their social hierarchy and economy, was too dependent on slavery. It became even more so after Southern plantation owners started planting cotton as their main cash crop. Picking cotton required many workers, so its popularity greatly increased the demand for slaves.

Abolitionists began changing their tactics, pushing for an immediate end to slavery. They formed antislavery societies and sent petitions to Congress. They also organized boycotts and speeches and circulated newspapers and pamphlets.

Two of the most prominent abolitionists were journalist William Lloyd Garrison and human rights activist Frederick Douglass. Garrison began publishing his abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator, in 1831 and helped establish the New England Anti-Slavery Society in 1832 and the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1833. Garrison traveled throughout the North giving speeches in support of abolition.

Frederick Douglass was a former slave who had escaped from Maryland to New York and eventually Massachusetts. An eloquent speaker, Douglass presented his firsthand account of life as a slave to large crowds. He later published an autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.

Despite the efforts of such abolitionists, the movement faced two major obstacles. First, the issue of abolition could upset the already fragile peace between the North and South. Second, slavery was considered a matter of states' rights; federal involvement was viewed as unconstitutional.

The tide began to turn in favor of abolition through the 1840s and 1850s. Many Northerners wanted to prevent the spread of slavery into the Western territories. At the same time, a novel written by author Harriet Beecher Stowe stirred abolitionist sentiment. Beginning in 1851 Uncle Tom's Cabin was originally published in weekly installments in an abolitionist newspaper, the National Era. The novel was released as a book in 1852. A dramatization of the evils of slavery, Uncle Tom's Cabin sold over 300,000 copies in its first year. Readers were stunned by Stowe's graphic depictions of cruelty, and many were encouraged to take up the abolitionist cause.

Origins of the Women's Movement

The women's movement grew out of the abolitionist movement but was not immediately successful. Public sentiment at the time was concentrated on the antislavery campaign and had little thought for other causes.
Social reformer Lucretia Mott first became interested in women's rights when-as a young teacher-she learned she was being paid half as much as her male counterparts.
Credit: Courtesy of the Library of Congress,LC-USZ62-42559
The women's movement was inspired by the abolitionist movement in the United States. Many early supporters of women's rights were also advocates of abolition, including some of the country's most prominent antislavery families, such as the Hunts, Motts, and Stantons.

Women such as Lucretia Mott played a key role in the antislavery movement. With William Lloyd Garrison, Mott helped establish the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1833. She also helped found the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society and served as its president. The Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society fought for equality for women and for African Americans.

As in other areas of daily life, women faced discrimination within the abolitionist movement. The American Anti-Slavery Society experienced internal divisions as a result. Garrisonian abolitionists were individuals who believed in William Lloyd Garrison's radical views on abolition. Garrison's followers remained members of the American Anti-Slavery Society and continued to fight for equality for African Americans and women. Other members formed the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society, which barred women from membership. A third outgrowth of the American Anti-Slavery Society was the Liberty Party. As a political organization, the Liberty Party limited its membership to men and only allowed women to participate in fundraising.

This discrimination inspired the emergence of a distinct women's movement. In 1848, women's rights leaders, including Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, organized the Seneca Falls Convention, also called the First Woman's Rights Convention. Attendees at the event drafted a Declaration of Sentiments modeled after the Declaration of Independence. Their declaration contained the paraphrased statement, "We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men and women are created equal." Convention-goers listed their demands for equality, including the right to vote.

The push for women's equality ultimately took a backseat during the 1850s and through the Civil War as activists focused their attentions on abolition. The women's movement regained momentum in the latter half of the 19th century.