Who were the leading figures in the abolitionist movement in the United States in the decades leading up the Civil War?

Expert Answers
Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The abolitionist movement was a convergence of many different voices and approaches to bring about the end of slavery.  You can click on the link below to see the different voices and leaders of this powerful movement.  Individuals will have their own "prominent abolitionists," but it's very difficult to assess which ones were more prominent than others.  By what metric does one assess if Garrison was more important than Douglass?  How does one value if David Walker was more essential than Harriet Tubman?  In the end, individuals will have to determine in their own mind who they think is a more prominent abolitionist.  The different approaches to ending slavery found resonance in the North, not because this region was committed to racial equality.  All of these leaders and movements could not exist in the South, given this region's complete commitment to the institution of slavery.  The North, being the area to which slaves escaped, as well as being a domain where slavery was not the law of the land, helped to provide a location where these forces could be brought together.  They all approached the issue in different ways.  John Brown thought that his approach was the only one, while Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad had her own.  In the end, they all helped to demonize those who practiced slavery and provided a strong outlet for those who wished to define themselves against the slave- owning South.

dbello eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Prior to the Civil War there was already a tradition of reform in this country. The idea that a particular movement can broaden the rights or improve the quality of life for the common man emerged as part of the American culture. The early reform movements prior to the Civil War were in religion, education, and temperance. The Abolitionist movement evolved from this social and political mentality. The abolition of slavery had already become a burning issue in the U.S. in 1817 due to the efforts of the American Colonization Society.  Their platform was the gradual emancipation of slavery and their return to Africa, with the nation of Liberia being established to address the issue. By 1831 the movement becomes more radical in their efforts, William Lloyd Garrison advocated for immediate emancipation and used his newspaper The Liberator to promote his agenda. Sarah and Angelina Grimke lectured throughout the north promoting anti-slavery societies as well as women's rights. Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and Sojourner Truth all were involved in the 'underground railroad' which provided a network of safe houses for those who wanted to escape to the north. Harriet Beecher Stowe an author who never stepped foot in the south wrote a novel titled Uncle Tom's Cabin which had a tremendous impact on anyone who read the novel to one of emancipation for those held in bondage.

krishna-agrawala | Student

Abolition movement refers to the activities of many leaders and general population in in the eighteenth and nineteenth century against the practice of slavery. In the United States this movement began prior to its Independence war. Towards close of 17th century Quakers condemned slaver as immoral. In late 18th century many leaders of of the American revolution, including Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry, criticized the practice of slavery. American Colonization Society led antislavery protests in early nineteenth century, and tried to send free slaves to Liberia.

Aggressive opposition to slavery began to develop in 1830's under leadership of persons like William Lloyd Garrison, Lucretia Mott, Lewis Tappan, and Theodore Dwight Weld.

New, aggressive opponents of slavery began to spring up in the North during the 1830's.  Their leaders included William Lloyd Garrison, Lucretia Mott, Lewis Tappan, and Theodore Dwight Weld.  In 1831, Garrison launched his newspaper, The Liberator, in which he demanded immediate freedom for slaves.  An American Anti-slavery Society was founded in 1833. During the 1830's and 1840's, many free blacks, including such former slaves as Frederick Douglass, Henry Highland Garnet, Harriet Tubman, and Sojourner Truth joined the abolition movement. 

In 1840, when some of the leaders of abolition movement entered politics and founded the Liberty Party.  James G. Birney, a former slaveholder born in Kentucky, contested for the post of  president in 1840 and 1844.

By 1848, abolitionists became an important element the American politics. In this process the differences developed between North and the South over the Issue of slavery. To reduce this kind of tensions a group of act, popularly called Compromise of 1850,  were passed by Congress. Theses acts included a strict fugitive slave law that required Northerners to return escaped slaves to their owners. This law was resisted by Northerners who disobeyed it and started the the "underground railroad", a system of escape routes and housing for runaway slaves. In this way the conflict over slavery continued.

Abraham Lincoln, who was staunchly opposed to slavery won the 1860 presidential election. This caused apprehension among  Southerners that he would take strong measures to end slavery. Under such conditions the Southern started to consider secession as an option, sowing the seed for the Civil War.