Refugees on levee, April 17, 1897, photo by Carroll's Art Gallery
Sections: Colonization | Abolition | Migration | WPA

The American Anti-Slavery Society was established in 1833, but abolitionist sentiment antedated the republic. For example, the charter of Georgia prohibited slavery, and many of its settlers fought a losing battle against allowing it in the colony, Before independence, Quakers, most black Christians, and other religious groups argued that slavery was incompatible with Christ's teaching. Moreover, a number of revolutionaries saw the glaring contradiction between demanding freedom for themselves while holding slaves. Although the economic center of slavery was in the South, northerners also held slaves, as did African Americans and Native Americans. Moreover, some southerners opposed slavery. Blacks were in the vanguard of the anti-slavery movement. Abolitionist literature began to appear about 1820. Until the Civil War, the anti-slavery press produced a steadily growing stream of newspapers, periodicals, sermons, children's publications, speeches, abolitionist society reports, broadsides, and memoirs of former slaves.

The Library of Congress has a wealth of material that demonstrates the extent of public support for and opposition to abolition. Broadsides advertise fairs and bazaars that women's groups held to raise money for the cause. Other publications advertise abolitionist rallies, some of which are pictured in prints from contemporaneous periodicals. To build enthusiasm at their meetings, anti-slavery organizations used songs, some of which survive. The Library also has many political and satirical prints from the 1830s through the 1850s that demonstrate the rising sectional controversy during that time.

Although excellent studies of the abolition movement exist, further research in the Library's manuscripts could document the lesser known individuals who formed the movement's core. Other promising topics include the roles of women and black abolitionists and the activities of state and local abolitionist societies.

Abolition as a Social Movement

Early Anti-Slavery Publication

Jonathan Edwards, Jr., (1745–1801), was, like his more famous father, a Congregationalist minister. He served at the White Haven Church in New Haven, Connecticut, and later became president of Union College in Schenectady, New York. In this sermon, Edwards presented forceful arguments against ten common pro-slavery positions. One of the earliest anti-slavery publications in the Library of Congress collections, the sermon demonstrates the existence of strong anti-slavery feeling in the early days of the republic.

Injustices and Impolicy of the Slave Trade and of the Slavery of Africans…. Title page. Jonathan Edwards [Jr.], Author. New Haven: Thomas & Samuel Green, 1791. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (35)

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Minutes of Early Anti-Slavery Meeting

On January 1, 1794, delegates from the abolition societies of Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Maryland met in Philadelphia, a stronghold of the anti-slavery Quaker religion. The group voted to petition Congress to prohibit the slave trade and also to appeal to the legislatures of the various states to abolish slavery. The petitions pointed out the inconsistency of a country that had recently rejected the tyranny of kings engaging in “domestic despotism.” Delegates published an address urging on U.S. citizens “the obligations of justice, humanity, and benevolence toward our Africa brethren, whether in bondage or free.” The group planned to meet each January until slavery was abolished.

Minutes of Proceedings of a Convention of Delegates from the Abolition Societies…. Title page. Philadelphia: Zachariah Poulson, 1794. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (36)

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Anti-Slavery Publication for Children

The American Anti-Slavery Society produced The Slave's Friend, a monthly pamphlet of abolitionist poems, songs, and stories for children. In its pages, young readers were encouraged to collect money for the anti-slavery cause. Here a picture of the coffle- yoke used to chain groups of slaves together illustrates a dialogue about the horrors of slavery between a girl named Ellen and her father, Mr. Murray. A shocked Ellen concludes that “I will never boast of our liberty while there is a slave in this land.”

The Slave's Friend, Volume II, p. 3. New York: American Anti-Slavery Society, 1836. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (37)

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Anti-Colonization Song

Anti-colonization sentiment was common in abolitionist publications such as The Anti-Slavery Picknick, a collection of speeches, poems, dialogues, and songs intended for use in schools and anti-slavery meetings. A song called the “Colored Man's Opinion of Colonization” denounces plans to transport free blacks out of the United States. Many African-Americans opposed colonization, and, in 1831, a convention of free blacks meeting in New York asserted, “This is our home, and this is our country. Beneath its sod lie the bones of our fathers; for it some of them fought, bled, and died. Here we were born, and here we will die.”

The Anti-Slavery Picknick, pp. 106–107. Boston: H.W. Williams, 1842. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (38)

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Anti-Slavery Fair Advertisement

Although women were heavily involved in abolitionist activities, opinion was divided as to their proper role. Some people believed that women should serve in auxiliary roles that did not expose them to competition with men. However, many women played a highly visible role as writers and speakers for the cause. Some of them gained activist experience that they later used in support of women's rights. In this circular, the women of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society advertise a fundraising event to support an agent. Well-known abolitionists such as Maria W. Chapman, a spirited speaker, song writer, and editor of many volumes of The Liberty Bell songbook, and Helen E. Garrison, wife of William Lloyd Garrison, were involved in the event.

“Anti-Slavery Fair.” Boston: Massachusetts. Anti-Slavery Society. Broadside. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (39)

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Slavery in the Washington, D.C., Area

This broadside condemns the sale and keeping of slaves in the District of Columbia. The work was issued during the 1835–1836 campaign to have Congress abolish slavery in the Capital. At the top are contrasting scenes: a view of a reading of the Declaration of Independence, captioned “The Land of the Free,” with a scene of slaves being led past the Capitol, captioned “The Home of the Oppressed.” Also shown is the infamous Franklin & Armfield Slave Prison, still standing on Duke Street in Alexandria, Virginia. Opened in 1828, this center soon gained control of nearly half the sea trade in slaves between Virginia and Maryland and New Orleans. Most area slaves “sold South” were held there before being shipped to a dreaded future on a rice, cotton or indigo plantation.

“Slave Market of America.” New York: American Anti-Slavery Society, 1836. Broadside. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (40)

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Anti-Abolitionist Handbill

This handbill urging opponents of abolitionists to obstruct an anti-slavery meeting demonstrates the depth of pro-slavery feeling. Although the handbill advocates peaceful means, violence sometimes erupted between the two factions. An emotion-laden handbill was a factor in the well-known Boston riot of October 21, 1835. In that incident, a mob broke into the hall where the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society was meeting, and threatened William Lloyd Garrison's life.

“Outrage,” February 2, 1837. Handbill. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (41)

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Anti-Slavery Almanac

Each year the American Anti-Slavery Society distributed an almanac containing poems, drawings, essays, and other abolitionist material. This issue was compiled by Lydia Maria Child (1802–1880), a popular writer recruited to the abolitionist cause by William Lloyd Garrison. In 1833, Mrs. Child produced An Appeal in Favor of that Class of Americans Called Africans, a sensational anti-slavery publication that won converts to the movement. From 1841 to 1849, she edited the New York-based National Anti-Slavery Standard newspaper.

L[ydia] M[aria] Child, comp. The Anti-Slavery Almanac for 1843, cover. New York: American Anti-Slavery Society, 1843. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (42)

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Slave-Revolt Leader Joseph Cinquez

Joseph Cinquez (or Cinque) was one of a group of Africans from Sierra Leone who had been kidnapped and sold into slavery. In July 1839, Cinquez led a revolt on the slave ship Amistad, off Cuba. The slaves took control of the ship and killed the crew, but were soon captured and charged with piracy. Their subsequent trials in New Haven, Connecticut, were causes celebres, pitting abolitionists against President Martin Van Buren's administration. In March 1841, the Supreme Court upheld the lower court's decision to return Cinquez and his surviving friends to Africa. John Quincy Adams had represented the Africans before the Supreme Court, and they were set free largely as a result of his eloquent pleading.

“Joseph Cinquez, the brave Congolese Chief, who prefers death to Slavery, and who now lies in jail…” James or Isaac Sheffield, Illustrator. New York: Moses Beach, 1839. Lithograph. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (43)

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Abolitionist Song

The illustration on this sheet-music cover is an allegory of the triumph of abolitionism. A railroad car called “Immediate Emancipation,” is pulled by a locomotive named “Liberator.” These two names refer to William Lloyd Garrison, whose demand for immediate emancipation was expressed in his newspaper The Liberator. “Repealer,” the second locomotive, probably refers to the Irish insurgent movement, a cause with which many U.S. abolitionists were allied. Flags bearing the names of two other abolitionist publications, the Herald of Freedom and American Standard (or National Anti-Slavery Standard) fly from the “Emancipation” car. In the distance, two other trains, one marked “Van,” the other “Clay,” crash, and their passengers flee. These trains allude to Democrat and Whig presidential hopefuls Martin Van Buren and Henry Clay.

“Get Off The Track: A Song for Emancipation….” Cover. Jesse Hutchinson, Author. Boston, 1844. Sheet music. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (44)

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Abolitionist Sheet-Music

Like many other reformers, abolitionists felt that good crusades required singing. Hence, many abolitionists expressed themselves in verse and songs. The cover of this sheet-music shows a fictionalized and inaccurate version of the escape from slavery of Frederick Douglass (1817–1895), who actually fled by ship. The song is dedicated to Douglass “for his fearless advocacy, signal ability, and wonderful success in behalf of His Brothers in Bonds.”

“The Fugitive's Song….” Cover. Boston: Henry Prentiss, 1845. Sheet-music. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (45)

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Abolitionist Appeal to Women

Abolitionist materials aimed at women often appealed to their sympathetic feeling as wives and mothers for the plight of slave women who might be separated from their husbands or children.

“The Negro Woman's Appeal to Her White Sisters.” Richard Barrett, ca. 1850s. Broadside. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (46)

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Sections:  Colonization | Abolition | Migration | WPA