Key Abolitionists: Leading the Antislavery Movement
Some of the most outspoken black antislavery advocates, or abolitionists, were runaway or former slaves. However, African Americans born free also identified with the struggle against slavery. Although African Americans spearheaded their own efforts to end slavery, the nation was predominantly white. Therefore, white abolitionists and their resources were critical in the fight to end slavery.
Two such abolitionists, Anthony Benezet and William Lloyd Garrison, were among the abolitionist movement’s most revered figures. This section provides details about a handful of the many abolitionists, both black and white, who were particularly influential in the fight against slavery.
As free blacks increased their resources, they became more vocal not just about ending slavery but also about attaining true equality for African Americans. The latter was especially important since white abolitionists didn’t necessarily believe that African Americans should receive the same treatment as white Americans.
Anthony Benezet, whose family fled religious persecution in France, was one of the first figures in the abolition movement. A Quaker convert who studied Africa to better aid his cause, Benezet wrote several influential antislavery pamphlets. His A Short Account of That Part of Africa, Inhabited by the Negroes (1762) helped British antislavery leader Thomas Clarkson clarify his position on slavery. Methodism’s founder John Wesley incorporated Benezet’s Some Historical Account of Guinea (1771) into his sermons in Britain against the slave trade.
Benezet, a pioneering force behind the nation’s first abolition society better known as the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, also worked overtime to ensure the passage of the Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery by the Pennsylvania Assembly in 1780.
Few abolitionists, black or white, matched David Walker’s revolutionary spirit, especially in the 1820s when calls for gradual emancipation prevailed.
In 1829, David Walker, born in North Carolina to a free mother and a slave father, published his highly controversial Walker’s Appeal. In his Appeal, Walker praised slaves who defended themselves against their masters. At a time when many African Americans, even abolitionists, refrained from advocating violent and rebellious action against slavery, Walker dared to suggest that slaves kill their masters for their freedom.
Of course, this scared many slaveholders who already feared slave rebellions. It also scared many white abolitionists who usually favored gradual emancipation. Walker’s direct address to enslaved and free African Americans to take the fight for freedom into their own hands, even if it meant using violence, distinguished his Appeal the most.
Walker’s message was so incendiary that a bounty of $3,000 was placed on his head, and some Southern states offered $10,000 to anyone who brought him in alive. In some places in the South, those caught with Walker’s Appeal risked fines and imprisonment. When the slave Nat Turner and others later rebelled, white Southerners didn’t blame slavery for the rebellion, but rather Walker’s Appeal for encouraging it.
Despite the risks, Walker refused to hide and instead produced more editions of the controversial treatise. Shortly after the third edition was distributed in 1830, Walker was found dead. At the time, it was assumed to be murder, but many historians today believe that he died of tuberculosis.
William Lloyd Garrison
Born in Massachusetts, William Lloyd Garrison, mentored by abolitionist publisher Benjamin Lundy, initially advocated for gradual emancipation and supported efforts to settle African Americans in Africa. By the 1830s, however, he supported immediate emancipation and distanced himself from the American Colonization Society.
To reinforce his newfound advocacy of militant abolitionism, or the immediate abolishment of slavery without violence, Garrison launched his own antislavery publication, Liberator, in 1831. Garrison didn’t relegate his brand of militant abolitionism (also known as Garrisonism) to his newspaper. Instead, he established the New England Anti-Slavery Society in 1832 and spearheaded the American Anti-Slavery Society, which began publishing the National Anti-Slavery Standard in 1840.
Over the years, Garrison rejected not only slavery but the Constitution as well. He and Frederick Douglass didn’t speak for years because Garrison supported burning the Constitution, which he contended was a proslavery document, while Douglass favored using it as a tool to end slavery. Undoubtedly, the House of Representatives’ 1836 decision to ignore petitions against slavery, a policy that lasted until 1845, only reinforced Garrison’s point.
Born into slavery in Maryland in 1818, Frederick Douglass, shown in Figure 5-1, is perhaps America’s most well-known abolitionist. One of the first truly prominent African Americans on both a national and international level, Douglass, the son of a slave mother who died when he was 7 and an unknown white man, learned to read and write at an early age. Set on freedom, Douglass, after one failed escape attempt, finally succeeded in 1838. After spending a brief time in New York where he was also married, he and his new wife settled in New Bedford, Massachusetts.
A Liberator subscriber, Douglass went to see its publisher William Lloyd Garrison speak in 1841 and impressed Garrison who became a mentor. Days after that meeting, Douglass delivered a speech of his own, and his career as a master orator began. Encouraged to write about his personal experience with slavery, Douglass published his classic text Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass in 1845. Fearing that the text could prompt his re-enslavement, Douglass went to Europe, where he lectured in England, Scotland, and Ireland.
Back in the United States, Douglass began publishing his own newspaper and developing his own ideas about freedom. He campaigned relentlessly to end slavery and procure equal rights for African Americans. Thus, he became a titan within the African American community until his death in 1895.