Efforts to ‘abolitionize’ the United States

By Chris Rizer - Special to the Register

“…and I will be heard.”

Last week, I wrote on Reverend William Wylie Harper and his efforts to “abolitionize” Mason County, efforts that had the support of Editor Tippett and were finally successful when West Virginia abolished slavery in 1864. He, however, was not the first abolitionist, nor the last.

The abolitionist movement in the United States began even before the American Revolution, primarily among the Mennonites and Quakers. In 1775, the Pennsylvania Abolition Society was founded as the first organization dedicated to the abolition of slavery, and in 1790, that group was the first to take a public stand and petition Congress to ban slavery.

In 1777, Vermont became the first state to abolish slavery while still the independent Vermont Republic. In 1780, Pennsylvania enacted the Gradual Abolition Act, which gradually ended slavery by freeing any children born to slaves after that date. By 1804, gradual abolition was enacted throughout the Northeast, and slavery was banned in the Northwest Territory (the area that became Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin).

That effectively ended slavery north of the Ohio River and Mason-Dixon Line, though the process of gradual abolition took decades to fully abolish slavery. But, by spreading the end of slavery out over several decades and thereby minimizing the impact on the economy, these efforts gained the support of “anti-slavery men” such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Quincy Adams, and later, Abraham Lincoln.

If those leaders had their way, gradual abolition would have spread into the South until slavery eventually died on its own. Of course, we know now that this did not happen. Virginia came close several times, but the economy of the Deep South was too reliant on slavery for it to end. This gave rise to the abolitionists, those who called for slavery to be unconditionally and immediately abolished.

As a movement, abolitionism was born in the 1820s, amid the Second Great Awakening. Alongside the growth of the Methodist and Baptist Churches, and particularly after its inclusion as one of the Methodist works of piety, opposition to slavery became much more than just an economic debate. It was a war for the soul of the nation.

Methodist and Baptist ministers fought this war from the pulpit, but it was clear that more was necessary, and other “ministers” took their preaching to the newspapers and meeting halls. The foremost of these ministers of abolitionism was William Lloyd Garrison.

Though he began his career as a supporter of gradual abolition, he soon realized that would not work. With years of experience in publishing, he joined Benjamin Lundy as co-editor of an abolitionist newspapers in 1829. After a brief stint in jail, he began his own newspaper in 1831.

It was in the first issue of that paper, The Liberator, that Garrison wrote, “I am in earnest—I will not equivocate—I will not excuse—I will not retreat a single inch—and I will be heard.” From that moment, Garrison was the unquestioned spokesman for the abolitionists.

By 1832, Garrison had enough support to organize the New England Anti-Slavery Society, which only a year later joined ten other organizations to form the American Anti-Slavery Society. Through those organizations, Garrison recruited talented orators to advance the abolitionist cause.

Some of these speakers included Angelina and Sarah Grimke, daughters of a South Carolina slave owner, and escaped slave Frederick Douglass. Together with Garrison, whom Douglass himself said spoke as if his “words were full of holy fire,” they could abolitionize just about any crowd.

Other Garrisonians, as they came to be called, included noted lawyer Wendell Philips and suffragettes Susan B. Anthony, Abby Kelley Foster, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Those four supporters, along with the Grimke sisters, were instrumental in convincing Garrison that African-American suffrage and women’s suffrage were one and the same, and from 1837, The Liberator dedicated itself to both causes.

By 1838, the American Anti-Slavery Society had over 250,000 members and real political influence. That influence was a threat, and Garrison himself was threatened with lynching and a bounty in Georgia. Churches and schools supporting abolitionists were burned to the ground, abolitionists were imprisoned, and some, such as Reverend Elijah Lovejoy, were murdered in cold blood.

Nonetheless, they continued their fight, though they had little luck getting any abolitionist bills through Congress as long as the Southern states had a say in the matter. It wasn’t until the midst of the Civil War, after the South had given up its seats in Congress, that their goals were realized.

On January 1st, 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves in areas under control of the Union Army. A step in the right direction, the Proclamation gained national support and paved the way for the 13th Amendment. With its ratification in December of 1865, slavery was abolished in its entirety. The fight for suffrage, however, continued.

Information from more sources than are possible to list here, but prominent among them is Henry Mayer’s “All on Fire,” a biography of William Lloyd Garrison.

The next meeting of the Mason County Historical and Preservation Society will be Saturday, March 14 at 5 p.m. at the Mason County Library.


By Chris Rizer

Special to the Register

Chris Rizer is president of the Mason County Historical and Preservation Society, reach him at masonchps@gmail.com.

Chris Rizer is president of the Mason County Historical and Preservation Society, reach him at masonchps@gmail.com.