What were the weaknesses in the aims and the methods of the Abolitionists after 1830?

"Should abolitionism be a reform movement appealing to a wide constituency and using conventional religious and political means to attain its limited ends, or should it be an agitational movement relying largely on moral suasion to produce moral renovation and a fundamental restructuring of values?"

Most of the weaknesses in the methodology of abolitionists in the United States post-1930 came about because of the inability to settle the above question. Unsure of their aims, certain only that action of some sort was required; and quickly, it is hardly unsurprising that much was said and debated but little positive action actually resulted until the Civil War of 1865.

The principal twin problem which hobbled Abolitionists both before and after 1830 was chiefly that of self-destructive tendencies and an alienation of a dispassionate and misunderstanding public. Being anti-authority in many ways, Abolitionists were seen to threaten the stability of the free North almost as much as the slave-holding South. Nor could most abolitionists agree as to their precise aims, or the scope of those aims. Whilst "by 1831 [slave-holders] ... realized that there way of life rested on an anachronism. Slavery had once been accepted nearly everywhere. That was no longer true.", they therefore they became far more active in their defence of their 'Peculiar Institution'. Against strong economic and social arguments from the South, on the whole, "the abolitionists' appeal was religious, moral, and intellectual. It was therefore self-limiting in scope." Schisms and in-fighting accounted for much of the ineffectiveness of the American antislavery movement, for its various and diverse members rarely could decide where they wanted their methodical action to take them. Dilution of the antislavery argument into other political issues such as the role of women only saw the Abolitionists declaimed further as extremist lunatics bent on assailing the foundations of universal societal precepts.

"In 1840 organized abolitionism shattered." William Lloyd Garrison gained control of the American Anti-Slavery Society in May, nine years after the publication of the first issue of his abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator. He rejected activity through political channels. He supported the oratories of the Grimke sisters in an era in which it was not deemed 'proper' for women to address audiences of mixed sex. His detractors figured that calls for sexual equality would dilute the message of anti-slavery, and his fellow abolitionist, Tappan, said that "women have equal rights with men, and therefore they have a right to form societies of women only. Men have the same right. Men formed the American Anti-Slavery Society" Although women brought the combined power of their gender to the Garrisonian faction, it was at the cost of alienating the traditional-minded and influential amongst society—men who might possibly have countenanced the notion that slavery was against all that was good and decent, but felt that the antislavery organisation itself was failing through such impropriety to support that which was decent anyway. Edging into the 1930s and 40s, the US Constitution was beginning to be taken (and fervently argued by the South) as pro-slavery, against which it became harder and harder for the abolitionists to argue. The Supreme Court ruling of 1842 gave congress power over fugitive slaves—individual states no longer held any control over this matter. This made the Garrisonian ideal of ignoring the grand political scheme in favour of localised agitation all the more counterproductive.

"Localism, personality conflicts, hard times, tension between group needs and individual conscience, and differences over tactics limited the American Anti-Slavery Society's effectiveness", and by extension of this, their dissension negatively impacted upon the whole continent-wide abolitionist movement. The all-or-nothing approach of many Abolitionists, too, saw them condemned as lunatics—Gamaliel Bailey of the politically-based and motivated Liberty declared "we have no faith in any political action against unconsitutional slavery which is not grounded on a deeply-rooted hostility to all slavery, constitutional or unconstitutional" Whilst governments could only bring themselves at most to halt the spread of slavery further, the Abolitionists were by necessity of conscience concerned with the eradication of all slavery

Antislavery action took on a wide variety of forms: one man even "[planting] sugar beets in Massachusetts in order to show Northerners they could sweeten their diets with "free" sugar." Unfortunately this action was never organised on a scale large enough to impact upon Southern profit margins—even if it had, the thing to suffer most would most likely have been the slaves' quality of life; having to labour harder to bring in less money to the plantation owners, who would have been less inclined to suffer the slightest deprivation in order to maintain basic human levels of comfort for their property. Economics, for this reason, was probably not the ground best suited to a challenge upon Southern society.

More positively, abolitionism was at times welcoming of all, regardless of creed, in the hope that antislavery sentiment would adhere to the minds of those attending. Great 'bazaars' were regularly held for antislavery causes: these brought tidy sums of capital for the cause and attracted support from a far wider base than simply those which would have spared the effort to attend public oratories. However, the Abolitionists were gravely limited in the areas in which they could hold these gatherings—restricted mainly to Northern states in which they already had welcome presence, the expansionist angle of the subtly preaching travelling side-show was therefore only very partially developed. With the invention of the printing press, small organisations could get their point put across to society much more easily, and "antislavery print could go where antislavery lecturers dared not venture." In fact, in a single year the American Anti-Slavery Society budgeted $30,000 to finance "the greatest pamphlet campaign in evangelical history" Post-1930, however, the South was already wise to the evident Northern attempted interventionist policy, and the extra funding was probably necessary simply to account for the leaflets which would have been intercepted by pro-slavery activists.

"Abolitionists could write on specially printed antislavery stationery and seal those letters with 'wafers' telling of slavery's manifold evils." It is more than likely, however, that all this achieved was the routine destruction of personal, non-abolitionist mail upon its entry to the South. Likewise, the effect in the North would have been minimal because strong abolitionist supporters were so internalised within society that their mail would tend to be directed chiefly towards people they did not need to bring on side; rather the only (rather self-defeating) effect was to reassure each other that their purity of spirit was not waning.

"Diversity of forms and styles let abolitionists have the best of all worlds. They could play to a rational and legalistic audience; they could pummel opponents and waverers with harsh language; they could manipulate sentimental conventions with tearful accounts of black families separated by cruel masters; and they could attack sentimental conventions when the 'fastidious decorum of the age' stood in their way."

Unfortunately, it was this last point which gave them such a poor response from their Northern fellows—for any intellectual angle with which the Abolitionists explored the Northern involvement with slavery required an active effort on the part of Northerners about a subject Northerners were indifferent to or cared little about... "The campaign to convince Northerners that they did indeed 'have something to do with slavery,' that it was not a remote institution which did not concern them" was of prime concern to the organised abolitionists until the Civil War. Another possible view of the matter, as adopted by a few abolitionists, "assumed Northern virtue rather than Northern guilt with respect to slavery, and yet on grounds of duty still demanded a Northern crusade against slavery." This assumed too much about the willingness of the Northern soul (or any American) to question the financially comfortable status quo. Positively, at least, abolitionists (at least in early years) sensibly presented perceived antislavery campaigning as the better alternative to slave uprisings; but there was always the connection between abolition and revolutionary violence; many of the public felt that if that was the result of antislavery campaigning, it was to no good end—not seeing that it was ineffective campaigning which had led to the need for action. The perception of the common man was always a stumbling point.

Abolitionists such as Lundy "seemed not to realise that slavery formed the basis for a way of life and for class and sectional power and thus would be defended even if account books proved some other labor system more profitable." His Mexican free labour system went precisely nowhere. The evangelical amongst the abolitionist movement suffered from the mistaken belief that slave-owners were moral enough to free slaves if their mistake was but pointed out to them. Religious institution has historically been a general major stumbling block of all revolutionary action, and to abolitionism there was no exception made. The crux of it was that clergy were generally hostile to antislavery because they saw conversion as higher priority; in addition to which, the influential amongst the church held just as many prejudices as the common man—which they naturally worked into their sermons.

Following on the theme of prejudice; large number of abolitionists, such as William Jay, were very limited in the scope of their abolitionism and aims to result from their actions: "Justice and humanity required emancipation, he agreed, but these principles did not also require abolitionists to endorse the explosive proposal of extending political privileges to Blacks." Whilst slavery was perhaps seen as too harsh a fate for any of God's creatures, racism and reverse inferiority complexes were too ingrained a feature of the national consciousness to be swept away with the tide of seeming good feeling. This was infuriating to the free (and captive) Black populations—"Some Northern Blacks became impatient with the antislavery program as it was developed by white abolitionists. It was too abstract and too impractical in both goals and methods to offer immediate, positive benefits to an oppressed people." Notions of 'justice' and 'humanity' appeared in seeming isolation in the minds of Whites, and were treated as wholly separate issues. Whilst humanity (as it pertained to slavery) demanded emancipation, 'justice', to their mind, still merely reaffirmed their own social superiority.

"Exactly what Garrison and other advocates of immediate emancipation meant by the term was as uncertain to the general public then as it is to students now ... [it] was always a doctrine to be endorsed rather than a program to be implemented." There can be no doubt that the extremist nature of the Garrisonian ideals of immediate emancipation worked counter to the cause of abolitionism; for "essential to their success, abolitionists believed, was the discrediting of the rival programs of gradual emancipation and colonization." Many more people could support the shunting of Blacks off into distant states or overseas because this presented less of a risk to established societal norms—"the aspect of the abolitionists' program that particularly antagonized persons in the North, who otherwise quite readily conceded that slavery was evil and destructive, was the demand that the Blacks, when freed, remain in the United States, be elevated in status and condition, and be allowed to participate as equals in society." They never quite realised (despite the cynically reasoning efforts of intellectual Southern semanticists to address the matter) that slavery acted as a crutch upon which the society of slave-holding states was based—that so much good feeling was possible from a lower-class white man towards his superiors because he was not in the position where he had to take the demeaning jobs his Northern counterpart did—such tasks were, in the South, always accomplished by slave labour.

Ultimately, the concerns of the increasingly political or ineffectual antislavery lobby were hardly responsible for the outbreak of the Civil War. "It became increasingly difficult to tell whether antislavery conviction reflected a genuine belief that all men should be free or only a hatred and fear of the South for what was conceived to be its threat to Northern interests." Too many other issues were involved in the seceding of South Carolina—it was only direct action, never the love or work of the abolitionist, which saw fruition.


Ronald Walters, The Antislavery Appeal: American Abolitionism, 1976

John Hopkins University Press

Merton L.Dillon, The Abolitionists - The Growth of a Dissenting Minority, 1974

Northern Illinois University Press