Black and white abolitionists in the first half of the nineteenth century waged a biracial assault against slavery. Their efforts proved to be extremely effective. Abolitionists focused attention on slavery and made it difficult to ignore. They heightened the rift that had threatened to destroy the unity of the nation even as early as the Constitutional Convention.

Although some Quakers were slaveholders, members of that religious group were among the earliest to protest the African slave trade, the perpetual bondage of its captives, and the practice of separating enslaved family members by sale to different masters.

As the nineteenth century progressed, many abolitionists united to form numerous antislavery societies. These groups sent petitions with thousands of signatures to Congress, held abolition meetings and conferences, boycotted products made with slave labor, printed mountains of literature, and gave innumerable speeches for their cause. Individual abolitionists sometimes advocated violent means for bringing slavery to an end.

Although black and white abolitionists often worked together, by the 1840s they differed in philosophy and method. While many white abolitionists focused only on slavery, black Americans tended to couple anti-slavery activities with demands for racial equality and justice.

Anti-Slavery Activists

Christian Arguments Against Slavery

Benjamin Lay, a Quaker who saw slavery as a “notorious sin,” addresses this 1737 volume to those who “pretend to lay claim to the pure and holy Christian religion.” Although some Quakers held slaves, no religious group was more outspoken against slavery from the seventeenth century until slavery's demise. Quaker petitions on behalf of the emancipation of African Americans flowed into colonial legislatures and later to the United States Congress.

Benjamin Lay. All Slave Keepers that Keep the Innocent in Bondage . . . . Philadelphia: Printed for the Author, 1737. Franklin Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (3–22)

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Plea for the Suppression of the Slave Trade

In this plea for the abolition of the slave trade, Anthony Benezet, a Quaker of French Huguenot descent, pointed out that if buyers did not demand slaves, the supply would end. “Without purchasers,” he argued, “there would be no trade; and consequently every purchaser as he encourages the trade, becomes partaker in the guilt of it.” He contended that guilt existed on both sides of the Atlantic. There are Africans, he alleged, “who will sell their own children, kindred, or neighbors.” Benezet also used the biblical maxim, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” to justify ending slavery. Insisting that emancipation alone would not solve the problems of people of color, Benezet opened schools to prepare them for more productive lives.

Anthony Benezet. Observations on the Inslaving, Importing and Purchasing of Negroes. Germantown, Pennsylvania: Christopher Sower, 1760. American Imprints Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (3–1)

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The Conflict Between Christianity and Slavery

Connecticut theologian Jonathan Edwards, born 1745, echoes Benezet's use of the Golden Rule as well as the natural rights arguments of the Revolutionary era to justify the abolition of slavery. In this printed version of his 1791 sermon to a local anti-slavery group, he notes the progress toward abolition in the North and predicts that through vigilant efforts slavery would be extinguished in the next fifty years.

Jonathan Edwards, D.D. The Injustice and Impolicy of the Slave Trade and of the Slavery of Africans . . . A Sermon. New Haven, Connecticut: Thomas and Samuel Green, 1791. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (3–2)

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Sojourner Truth

Abolitionist and women's rights advocate Sojourner Truth was enslaved in New York until she was an adult. Born Isabella Baumfree around the turn of the nineteenth century, her first language was Dutch. Owned by a series of masters, she was freed in 1827 by the New York Gradual Abolition Act and worked as a domestic. In 1843 she believed that she was called by God to travel around the nation—sojourn—and preach the truth of his word. Thus, she believed God gave her the name, Sojourner Truth. One of the ways that she supported her work was selling these calling cards.

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Woman to Woman

Ye wives and ye mothers, your influence extend—
Ye sisters, ye daughters, the helpless defend—
The strong ties are severed for one crime alone,
Possessing a colour less fair than your own.

Abolitionists understood the power of pictorial representations in drawing support for the cause of emancipation. As white and black women became more active in the 1830s as lecturers, petitioners, and meeting organizers, variations of this female supplicant motif, appealing for interracial sisterhood, appeared in newspapers, broadsides, and handicraft goods sold at fund-raising fairs.

The Negro Woman's Appeal to Her White Sisters. [London]: Richard Barrett, [1850]. Broadside. Printed Ephemera Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (3–12)

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Harriet Tubman—the Moses of Her People

The quote below, echoing Patrick Henry, is from this biography of underground railroad conductor Harriet Tubman:

Harriet was now left alone, . . . She turned her face toward the north, and fixing her eyes on the guiding star, and committing her way unto the Lord, she started again upon her long, lonely journey. She believed that there were one or two things she had a right to, liberty or death.

After making her own escape, Tubman returned to the South nineteen times to bring over three hundred fugitives to safety, including her own aged parents.

In a handwritten note on the title page of this book, Susan B. Anthony, who was an abolitionist as well as a suffragist, referred to Tubman as a “most wonderful woman.”

Sarah H. Bradford. Harriet, the Moses of Her People. New York: J. J. Little & Co., 1901. Susan B. Anthony Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (3–21)

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Increasing Tide of Anti-slavery Organizations

In 1833, sixty abolitionist leaders from ten states met in Philadelphia to create a national organization to bring about immediate emancipation of all slaves. The American Anti-slavery Society elected officers and adopted a constitution and declaration. Drafted by William Lloyd Garrison, the declaration pledged its members to work for emancipation through non-violent actions of “moral suasion,” or “the overthrow of prejudice by the power of love.” The society encouraged public lectures, publications, civil disobedience, and the boycott of cotton and other slave-manufactured products.

Declaration of the Anti-Slavery Convention. Philadelphia, December 4, 1833. Broadside. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (3–3)

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William Lloyd Garrison—Abolitionist Strategies

White abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, born in 1805, had a particular fondness for poetry, which he believed to be “naturally and instinctively on the side of liberty.” He used verse as a vehicle for enhancing anti-slavery sentiment. Garrison collected his work in Sonnets and Other Poems (1843).

During the 1840s, abolitionist societies used song to stir up enthusiasm at their meetings. To make songs easier to learn, new words were set to familiar tunes. This song by William Lloyd Garrison has six stanzas set to the tune of “Auld Lang Syne.”

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  • William L. Garrison. “Sonnet to Liberty.” Manuscript, December 14, 1840. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (3–19a)

  • William L. Garrison. “Song of the Abolitionist.” November 10, 1841. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (3–19b)

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Popularizing Anti-Slavery Sentiment

Slave Stealer Branded

Massachusetts sea captain Jonathan Walker, born in 1790, was apprehended off the coast of Florida for attempting to carry slaves who were members of his church denomination to freedom in the Bahamas in 1844. He was jailed for more than a year and branded with the letters “S.S.” for slave stealer. The abolitionist poet John Greenleaf Whittier immortalized Walker's deed in this often reprinted verse: “Then lift that manly right hand, bold ploughman of the wave! Its branded palm shall prophesy, ‘Salvation to the Slave!’”

John G. Whittier. “The Branded Hand.” Philadelphia, ca. 1845. Leaflet. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (3–15)

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Abolitionist Songsters

George W. Clark's, The Liberty Minstrel, is an exception among songsters in having music as well as words. “Minstrel” in the title has its earlier meaning of “wandering singer.” Clark, a white musician, wrote some of the music himself; most of it, however, consists of well-known melodies to which anti-slavery words have been written. The book is open to a page containing lyrics to the tune of “Near the Lake,” which appeared earlier in this exhibit (section 1, item 22) as “Long Time Ago.” Note that there is an anti-slavery poem on the right-hand page. Like many songsters, The Liberty Minstrel contains an occasional poem.

George W. Clark. The Liberty Minstrel. New York: Leavitt & Alden [et al.], 1844. General Collections, Library of Congress (3–17)

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Abolitionist Songsters

Music was one of the most powerful weapons of the abolitionists. In 1848, William Wells Brown, abolitionist and former slave, published The Anti-Slavery Harp, “a collection of songs for anti-slavery meetings,” which contains songs and occasional poems. The Anti-Slavery Harp is in the format of a “songster”—giving the lyrics and indicating the tunes to which they are to be sung, but with no music. The book is open to the pages containing lyrics to the tune of the “Marseillaise,” the French national anthem, which to 19th-century Americans symbolized the determination to bring about freedom, by force if necessary.

The Anti-Slavery Harp: A Collection of Songs for Anti-slavery Meetings. Compiled by William Wells Brown. Boston: Bela Marsh, 1848. Music Division, Library of Congress (3–16)

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Suffer the Children

This abolitionist tract, distributed by the Sunday School Union, uses actual life stories about slave children separated from their parents or mistreated by their masters to excite the sympathy of free children. Vivid illustrations help to reinforce the message that black children should have the same rights as white children, and that holding humans as property is “a sin against God.”

The Child's Anti-Slavery Book: Containing a Few Words about American Slave Children. . . . New York: Carlton and Porter, 1859. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (3–13)

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Fugitive Slave Law

North to Canada

In the wake of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, which forced Northern law enforcement officers to aid in the recapture of runaways, more than ten thousand fugitive slaves swelled the flood of those fleeing to Canada. The Colonial Church and School Society established mission schools in western Canada, particularly for children of fugitive slaves but open to all. The school's Mistress Williams notes that their success proves the “feasibility of educating together white and colored children.” While primarily focusing on spiritual and secular educational operations, the report reproduces letters of thanks for food, clothing, shoes, and books sent from England. This early photograph accompanied one such letter to the children of St. Matthew's School, Bristol.

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  • Mission to Fugitive Slaves in Canada: Being a Branch of the Operations of the Colonial Church and School Society . . . 1858–9. [London]: Society's Offices, 1859. Pamphlet. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (3–4a)

  • Mission to Fugitive Slaves in Canada: Being a Branch of the Operations of the Colonial Church and School Society . . . 1858–9. [London]: Society's Offices, 1859. Copyprint. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (3–4b)

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The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850

This controversial law allowed slave-hunters to seize alleged fugitive slaves without due process of law and prohibited anyone from aiding escaped fugitives or obstructing their recovery. Because it was often presumed that a black person was a slave, the law threatened the safety of all blacks, slave and free, and forced many Northerners to become more defiant in their support of fugitives. S. M. Africanus presents objections in prose and verse to justify noncompliance with this law.

S. M. Africanus. The Fugitive Slave Law. Hartford, Connecticut, 1850. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (3–5)

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Anthony Burns--Capture of A Fugitive Slave

This is a portrait of fugitive slave Anthony Burns, whose arrest and trial in Boston under the provisions of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 incited riots and protests by white and black abolitionists and citizens of Boston in the spring of 1854. The portrait is surrounded by scenes from his life, including his sale on the auction block, escape from Richmond, Virginia, capture and imprisonment in Boston, and his return to a vessel to transport him to the South. Within a year after his capture, abolitionists were able to raise enough money to purchase Burns's freedom.

Anthony Burns. Boston: R. M. Edwards, 1855. Wood engraving with letterpress. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-90750 (3–9)

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Growing Sectionalism

Antebellum Map Showing the Free and Slave States

The growing sectionalism that was dividing the nation during the late antebellum years is documented graphically with this political map of the United States, published in 1856. Designed to portray and compare the areas of free and slave states, it also includes tables of statistics for each of the states from the 1850 census, the results of the 1852 presidential election, congressional representation by state, and the number of slaves held by owners. The map is also embellished with portraits of John C. Fremont and William L. Dayton, the 1856 presidential and vice presidential candidates of the newly organized Republican Party, which advocated an anti-slavery platform.

William Reynolds. Reynolds's Political Map of the United States . . . . New York: Wm. C. Reynolds, 1856. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress (3–20)

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Distribution of Slaves

Although the Southern states were known collectively as the “slave states” by the end of the Antebellum Period, this map provides statistical evidence to demonstrate that slaves were not evenly distributed throughout each state or the region as a whole. Using data from the 1860 census, the map shows, by county, the percentage of slave population to the whole population. Tables also list population and area for both Southern and Northern states, while an inset map shows the extent of cotton, rice, and sugar cultivation. Another version of this map was published with Daniel Lord's The Effect of Secession upon the Commercial Relations between the North and South, and upon Each Section (New York, 1861), a series of articles reprinted from The New York Times.

Adolph von Steinwehr. Map Showing the Distribution of Slaves in the Southern States, [n. p., n. d.]. Printed Map. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress (3–14)

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Militant Abolition

John Brown's Raid

More than twenty years after the militant abolitionist John Brown had consecrated his life to the destruction of slavery, his crusade ended in October 1859 with his ill-fated attempt to seize the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry in western Virginia. He hoped to take the weapons from the arsenal and arm the slaves, who would then overthrow their masters and establish a free state for themselves.

Convicted of treason and sentenced to death, Brown maintained to the end that he intended only to free the slaves, not to incite insurrection. His zeal, courage, and willingness to die for the slaves made him a martyr and a bellwether of the violence soon to consume the country during the Civil War.

John Brown. Address of John Brown . . . Sentence of Death; For his heroic attempt at Harpers Ferry. . . . Boston: C.C. Mead. Broadside. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (3–6)

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Frederick Douglass on John Brown

The friendship of Frederick Douglass and John Brown began in 1848, when Douglass visited Brown's home in Springfield, Massachusetts. Brown confided to Douglass his ambitious scheme to free the slaves. Over the next eleven years, Brown sought Douglass's counsel and support.

In August 1859 Brown made a final plea to Douglass to join the raid on Harpers Ferry. Douglass refused. After Brown's capture, federal marshals issued a warrant for Douglass's arrest as an accomplice. Douglass fled abroad. When he returned five months later to mourn the death of his youngest daughter Annie, he had been exonerated. Douglass wrote this lecture as a tribute to “a hero and martyr in the cause of liberty.”

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  • Frederick Douglass. “A Lecture on John Brown.” Typescript, 1860. Frederick Douglass Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (3–8a)

  • Frederick Douglass. “A Lecture on John Brown.” Autograph corrections and drafts, 1860. Frederick Douglass Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (3–8b)

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“The Book That Made This Great War”

Harriet Beecher Stowe's Mighty Pen

Harriet Beecher Stowe is best remembered as the author of Uncle Tom's Cabin, her first novel, published as a serial in 1851 and then in book form in 1852. This book infuriated Southerners. It focused on the cruelties of slavery—particularly the separation of family members—and brought instant acclaim to Stowe. After its publication, Stowe traveled throughout the United States and Europe speaking against slavery. She reported that upon meeting President Lincoln, he remarked, “So you're the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war.”

Harriet Beecher Stowe. Copyprint. Published by Johnson, Fry & Co., 1872, after Alonzo Chappel. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-10476 (3–18)

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Uncle Tom's Cabin—Theatrical Productions

This poster for a production of Uncle Tom's Cabin features the Garden City Quartette under the direction of Tom Dailey and George W. Goodhart. Many stage productions of Harriet Beecher Stowe's famous novel have been performed in various parts of the country since Uncle Tom's Cabin was first published as a serial in 1851. Although the major actors were usually white, people of color were sometimes part of the cast. African American performers were often allowed only stereotypical roles—if any—in productions by major companies.

Palmer's Uncle Tom's Cabin Co., 1882, no. 11. Buffalo, N.Y.: Courier Litho. Co., ca. 1899. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. Reproduction Number: LC-USZC4-6171 (3–10)

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