Slavery in the Nineteenth Century Questions and Answers

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What was the character of the abolitionist movement?

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The abolition movement in the American colonies and the United States was mainly limited to religious dissenters, especially Quakers, until the late eighteenth century. At that point, anti-slavery societies began to emerge in major cities, including Philadelphia, Boston, and New York, and they included such important figures as Benjamin Franklin, John Jay, and Alexander Hamilton, among others. It was due in part to the efforts of these socieities that all northern states had passed gradual emancipation laws by the 1830s. The rise in religious fervor in the 1820s and 1830s spawned a new generation of abolitionists in Northern cities. They argued that slavery was a moral evil, and some, like the firebrand William Lloyd Garrison, said that the institution was a stain on the entire nation, not just the South. Significantly, and unlike their predecessors, Garrison and many of the new wave of abolitionists argued for immediate abolition. They were not necessarily more numerous, but were more vocal than others who argued for gradual, often compensated emancipation, with expatriation to a colony in Africa for free blacks. In any case, these radical abolitionists remained ideologically marginal in the North (indeed Garrison was often publicly harassed by Boston mobs who disagreed with his stance) until the 1850s, when the Fugitive Slave Act, and the publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin led to enormous resentment against slavery. Abolitionist numbers were also bolstered by free blacks, especially escaped slaves, of whom Frederick Douglass was the most famous. Within the South itself, abolition was a decidedly dissident movement. Abolitionist literature was banned in most southern states. While there was an undercurrent of antislavery feeling among poorer whites (captured by Hinton Rowan Helper's book The Impending Crisis) this was generally more ideologically aligned with the Free Soil political movement, which opposed the spread of slavery, than abolitionism. Antislavery sentiment was generally limited to communities of religious dissenters like Quakers and Mennonites. 

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