Discuss the emergence of the abolitionist movement in the US in the decades leading up the Civil War. Who were the leading figures in this movement?
The abolitionist movement in the decades leading up to the Civil War was quite a diverse movement. Of course, the ultimate goal was to end slavery in the United States. But different abolitionist leaders chose different ways of trying to accomplish this. Some were peaceful, and some were violent. Some wanted to abolish slavery immediately, some wanted to do it gradually. Some used the printed word to try to end slavery, and some used the spoken word. And some broke the law in order to try to end slavery. One important aspect of abolition in the 1850’s was the Underground Railroad, which was neither underground nor a railroad. It was a series of safe houses or “stations” where fugitive slaves could stay on their journey to Canada and freedom. A leader of the Underground Railroad was Harriet Tubman, an escaped slave who went back into the south 19 times to help 300 slaves escape to freedom. Another abolitionist, who turned to violence, was John Brown. He led a raid at an arsenal in Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, in order to seize weapons for a slave revolt. Frederick Douglass, a former slave, used his life story and his abilities as a brilliant speaker to try to end slavery. He also published an anti-slavery newspaper called The North Star. Another abolitionist was William Lloyd Garrison. He fought for immediate abolition, published an anti-slavery newspaper called The Liberator, and was one of the founders of the The American Anti-Slavery Society. Other leaders included Theodore Weld and his wife, Angelina Grimke.
Many historians (myself included) stake the critical beginning of the modern abolition movement as 1831, with the beginning of the abolitionist newspaper The Liberator, published by William Lloyd Garrison in Boston. From that point, we start to see more vocal opposition to slavery, and we see the beginning of church involvement in the years that followed with Reverend Elijah Lovejoy and Henry Ward Beecher.
I tend to believe that the rapid increase in the slave population during this time made the institution impossible for the abolitionists to compromise with, or the population at large to completely ignore. Frederick Douglass shattered myths of racial inferiority with his own brilliant writing and speaking tours. John Brown, the fiery radical, waged a seven year campaign on his own to liberate slaves, one at a time if necessary.
You also have to credit Harriet Beecher Stowe, who published Uncle Tom's Cabin in the early 1850s, with convincing many people of the evils of slavery, and increasing the size and energy of the movement.