“Resolved, that the compact which exists between the North and the South is a covenant with death and an agreement with hell—involving both parties in atrocious criminality—and should be immediately annulled.”

This resolution, passed by the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society, was written by the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. The compact to which it referred was the Constitution of the United States, which was called an agreement with hell because—in its original form—it sanctioned slavery.

Abolitionism was the radical wing of the American anti-slavery movement. It demanded the immediate cessation of slavery on the grounds that all men are self-owners. That is, every human being has a natural right to his own person and property, which no other moral or practical consideration outweighed. This emphasis, along with strong ties to Quakers, who denied the government moral authority over men, meant that abolitionism emerged as a libertarian movement.

Spun out against a backdrop of internal debate, social backlash, war, and political limitations, the history of abolitionism provides both inspiration and cautionary tales about the attempt to reform society in a fundamental manner.

The American Anti-slavery Movement

The early American colonies had no consistent policy regarding the treatment of slaves. Some adopted the harsh code of the nearby British colony Barbados. South Carolina, for example, imposed no penalty for beating a slave to death and defined the rape of a female slave as a trespass against her master. In the Northern colonies, where slaves were less numerous, the laws tended to be milder.

Before the American Revolution, little anti-slavery sentiment was expressed outside Quaker circles. In that community, tracts against slavery appeared as early as the 17th century and Quakers who owned slaves began to divest themselves of such “property.” In 1773, Patrick Henry expressed what might have been a common sentiment among non-Quaker slaveowners. He wrote to a friend,

I am drawn along by the general inconvenience of living without them. I will not, I can not justify it. However culpable my conduct, I will so far pay my devoir to virtue, as to own the excellence and rectitude of her precepts and to lament my own want of conformity to them.

The Declaration of Independence, which was universal in its application, stated,

We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.

Nevertheless, the ensuing Constitution entrenched slavery into the fabric of America. Article I, Section 2—to which Garrison so strenuously objected—stated,

Representatives and direct taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three-fifths of all other Persons.

The representation provided by slavery became a bulwark of political power for the South. To abandon slavery meant placing itself at the mercy of Northern interests, which favored such measures as tariffs that benefited Northern industries at the expense of the agrarian South.

A series of events heightened the conflict. They included: the admission of Kentucky as a slave state, which increased “slave” representation in the Senate; the Fugitive Slave Act, which required “free” states to return escaped slaves to their owners; and the invention of the cotton gin, which made cotton plantations—and, so, slave labor—far more profitable.

Meanwhile, free labor in the South found it difficult to compete with slave labor, causing many whites to migrate. A resident of North Carolina commented,

Of my neighbors, friends and kindred, nearly one-half have left the State since I was old enough to remember. Many is the time I stood by the loaded emigrant wagon and given the parting hand to those whose faces I was never to look upon again. They were going to seek homes in the free west, knowing, as they did, that free and slave labor could not both exist and prosper in the same community.

As economic, social, and political tensions reached a fevered pitch, one voice distinguished itself as the moral conscience on slavery.

William Lloyd Garrison

In 1805, William Lloyd Garrison was born in Newburyport, Massachusetts, into modest circumstances that worsened with his father’s desertion of the family. Driven by necessity, a young Garrison found his calling in life as a newspaperman when he apprenticed to the printing office of the Newburyport Herald.

Garrison’s anti-slavery passions were ignited by the Quaker Benjamin Lundy, publisher of the periodical Genius of Universal Emancipation. The two men became fast friends. But in order to work together, they needed to resolve a conflict. Lundy was a gradualist and a colonizationist; that is, he wanted to phase out slavery gradually and to establish foreign colonies to which free and freed blacks could be sent. Garrison flatly rejected this approach. In the first issue of a new Genius, co-edited by the two men, Garrison declared,

These, therefore, are my positions:

1. That the slaves are entitled to immediate and complete emancipation;

2. That the question of expediency has nothing to do with that of right, and it is not for those who tyrannize to say when they may safely break the chains of their subjects. As well may a thief determine on what particular day or month he shall leave off stealing;

3. That, on the ground of expediency, it would be wiser to set all the slaves free today than tomorrow.

4. That, as a very large proportion of our colored population were born on American soil, they are at liberty to choose their own dwelling place, and we possess no right to use coercive measures in their removal.

The two men signed their own articles and took no responsibility for opinions expressed by the other.

Garrison and Lundy’s partnership was doomed by a lawsuit. After a badly beaten slave sought sanctuary with them, Garrison published a furious attack upon Francis Todd, whose ship transported slaves from Africa to New Orleans. Todd responded with a libel suit and won. The impoverished Garrison was imprisoned for more than six weeks until a sympathetic abolitionist anteed up. Somewhere in the process, the Genius ceased to publish.

On January 1, 1831, The Liberator rose from the ashes, with the motto “Our Country is the World—our Countrymen are Mankind.” Garrison and Isaac Knapp were the publishers; Garrison, the editor. The neatly printed weekly issued from a small room in Boston that functioned as both an office and a home to the two men. At night, the floor became a bed. A friendly cat kept mice away and caressed Garrison’s balding head while he wrote editorials. A visitor described Garrison at work:

I never was more astonished. All my preconceptions were at fault. My ideal of the man was that of a stout, rugged, dark-visaged desperado,—something like we picture a pirate. Here was a quiet, gentle, and I might say handsome man,—a gentleman indeed, in every sense of the word.

The Liberator, however, did not remain gentlemanly.

The second issue attacked the American Colonization Society, whose views were similar to those of Lundy. The Society, Garrison proclaimed, was wrong in principle and impotent in design. Garrison dedicated The Liberator to disclosing the Society’s true nature, especially the fact that so many members were prominent slaveowners, who wanted to deport free blacks.

The attack raised complaints that would be hurled repeatedly at Garrison. His language was too blunt. He attacked individuals instead of principles, thus giving personal offense. In response, Garrison thanked God no one accused him of being lukewarm. To critics he said, “I have need to be all on fire for there are mountains of ice around me to melt.”

In a sense, The Liberator was badly timed. Walker’s Appeal, a pamphlet recently published by a free black, had panicked the slave states. This pamphlet flaunted black superiority and called for insurrection in the South. As a direct result, in 1830, North Carolina passed a law to prohibit slaves and free blacks from reading and writing. All blacks emancipated after 1830 were ordered to leave the state within 90 days.

On August 31, 1831, a Virginia slave named Nat Turner instigated a slave revolt in which a slave owner and his family were killed.

Eventually, the victims of Turner’s band exceeded 50. The South exploded with fear and rage, with many blaming Northern abolitionists, especially William Lloyd Garrison.

A Virginia paper called for a price on Garrison’s head; the Georgia legislature appropriated money for that same purpose. Georgetown, in the District of Columbia, passed a law prohibiting any free black from taking The Liberator from the post office on pain of a $20 fine or 30 days’ imprisonment.

Garrison responded by making The Liberator even more radical and placed a woodcut representing a slave auction on The Liberator’s heading. A resident of Georgia assured Garrison that the picture achieved its goal: it galled slave owners.

The Liberator also became a voice for free blacks. When a New England Anti-Slavery Society formed with the goal of immediate emancipation, The Liberator became its voice. Of the 72 people endorsing the society’s constitution, one-fourth were black, a remarkably high percentage for that day and age.

In its second volume, The Liberator ran a series of woodcuts illustrating slavery. One of them depicted a slave woman kneeling under the words “Am I not a Woman and a Sister?” This woodcut headed the Ladies’ Department of The Liberator and foreshadowed a major controversy within the abolitionist movement—women’s rights. More accurately, should abolitionism embrace the women’s cause or would this dilute the single issue of anti-slavery?

Garrison’s answer was clear: abolitionism was a fight for human rights, not male rights. He wrote,

Two capital errors have extensively prevailed, greatly to the detriment of the cause of abolition. The first is, a proneness on the part of the advocates of immediate and universal emancipation to overlook or deprecate the influence of woman in the promotion of the cause; and the other is, a similar disposition on the part of the females in our land to undervalue their own power. A million females in this country are recognized and held as property—liable to be sold or used for the gratification of the lust or avarice or convenience of unprincipled speculators—without the least protection for their chastity—cruelly scourged for the most trifling offenses—and subject to . . . to severe privations and to brutish ignorance! Have these no claims upon the sympathies—prayers—charities—exertions of our white countrywomen?

Garrison’s defense of women was undoubtedly spurred by three events. After Prudence Crandall wrote to him for advice on opening the nation’s first academy for black girls, The Liberator carried the school’s advertisement.

Crandall was arrested, imprisoned, tried twice, and ostracized from respectable society. Eventually, the school was set ablaze.

Then Garrison attended the Annual Convention of Anti-Slavery Women in Philadelphia, where the women’s meeting hall suffered the same fate as Crandall’s school.

The pivotal event for women’s rights was the 1840 World Anti-Slavery Convention in London. Lucretia Mott, a Quaker and veteran abolitionist, accompanied Garrison, both attending as representatives of the American Anti-Slavery Society.

But British abolitionists refused to admit female representatives onto the floor. When women were finally allowed to sit in the gallery, Garrison withdrew from the convention floor to join them.

(Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were so distressed by their treatment that they organized the first Woman’s Rights Convention in America—in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848.)

American male abolitionists continued to debate the propriety of including women’s rights under the anti-slavery banner as well as including female radicals in the front ranks of the cause.

Many believed these strategies blunted the movement’s forward motion. Did the contributions of the many zealous female writers and speakers outweigh the social backlash caused by their prominence within abolitionism? Would women’s rights have been better served by separating from abolitionism, by which women felt betrayed after the Civil War? Should a single-issue cause ever attempt to expand its message?

The impossibility of comparing parallel histories—one in which abolitionism embraced women’s rights, the other in which it did not—means that these questions have no clear answers. Similar questions haunt movements today.

Political Activity

Electoral politics raised its own set of controversies. The political creed of early abolitionism had been “Don’t vote for anyone against liberty.” Abolitionists had preferred to circulate anti-slavery petitions rather than run candidates, but when Congress began to gag these petitions by tabling them without discussion, anti-slavery societies in New York began to grumble about the need for an anti-slavery political party.

Garrison rejected electoral politics. He believed reform occurred by changing the hearts and souls of people, not through politics or law, which was a form of force. This Quaker-like approach was called moral suasion, and it formed the core of anti-slavery strategy. Garrison granted that if a man believed in government, it was proper for him to vote but he himself could not cast a ballot with a clear conscience.

Henry Stanton (husband to Elizabeth Cady) and Garrison faced off on this issue at the 1839 meeting of the American Anti-Slavery Society. The Society had pledged “to influence Congress” and Stanton took this as a mandate for electoral activity, including the establishment of a third party. Garrison argued that there were many ways to influence Congress without running candidates.

The controversy came to a head at the next annual meeting (1840) when political abolitionists walked out on the first day because Garrison blocked their effort to have the Society endorse an explicitly political strategy.

Garrison’s compromise resolution proposed that both political and anti-political abolitionists follow their conscience: it was rejected.

Defectors formed a separate organization from which the Liberty Party sprang. James Birney and Thomas Earle, the presidential and vice presidential candidates, predicted the Liberty Party would gain control of the government within 20 years.

The split established electoral politics as a major approach to anti-slavery. Nevertheless, the American Anti-Slavery Society resolved,

that the ballot box is not an anti-slavery, but a pro-slavery argument, so long as it is surrounded by the U.S. Constitution, which forbids all approach to it except on the condition that the voter shall surrender fugitive slaves—suppress negro insurrections—sustain a piratical representation in Congress, and regard man-stealers as equally eligible with the truest friends of human freedom and equality to any or all the offices under the United States Government.

Such internal conflicts were partially smoothed over by outside pressures that drew the movement together. Anti-slavery meetings and lectures continued to be mobbed. Anti-slavery ministers were attacked and dragged from their pulpits. Abolitionists were tarred and feathered. Then Elijah Lovejoy, the editor of an abolitionist paper, was murdered by a mob. His death made the North aware of the lengths to which the pro-slavery advocates would go.

Garrison called for the North to secede from the South. An editorial in The Liberator began,

A Repeal of the Union Between Northern Liberty and Southern Slavery is Essential to the Abolition of the One and the Preservation of the Other.

“No union with slaveholders!” became Garrison’s cry, and objections from fellow anti-slavery advocates flooded The Liberator. Disunion was an impractical goal that would cripple anti-slavery’s influence. Besides, wasn’t a cry for disunion precisely what the South wished to hear from abolitionists? And wasn’t this a slap at the Liberty Party which was trying to work within the system? Nevertheless, the American Anti-Slavery Society ratified Garrison’s call for disunion, 250 in favor, 24 against.

In this spirit, Garrison publicly burned a copy of the Constitution, declaring, “So perish all compromises with tyranny.” Cries of “Amen” rose from his audience.

Now, both anti-slavery radicals in the North and pro-slavery zealots in the South looked forward to the death of the American Union.


Garrison favored Northern secession but not Southern secession. Why? Because only the causes set forth in the Declaration of Independence could justify secession; only the denial of inalienable rights could justify disunion. A bloody dissolution may have seemed inevitable but Garrison cautioned against it.

We are growing more and more warlike. Just in proportion as this spirit prevails, I feel that our moral power is departing and will depart. I say this not so much as an Abolitionist but as a man. I believe in the spirit of peace, and in sole and absolute reliance on truth and the application of it to the hearts and consciences of the people. I do not believe that the weapons of liberty ever have been, or ever can be, the weapons of despotism. I know that those of despotism are the sword, the revolver, the cannon, the bombshell; and, therefore, the weapons to which tyrants cling, and upon which they depend, are not the weapons for me, as a friend of liberty.

Anti-slavery feelings reached fever pitch with the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1853). Twenty thousand copies were sold in three weeks, four times that many by the twelfth week. Nearly 500,000 copies circulated in England alone.

After requesting a copy of The Liberator, the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe, met with Garrison. She became, in her own words, a constant reader of The Liberator.

Then a fugitive slave, Anthony Burns, was arrested in Boston, and abolitionists tried to stop his extradition to the South. The abolitionist Wendell Phillips urged everything short of violence to aid Burns. But appeal to government was no longer possible, for government had become the servant of slavery. Phillips declared,

The future seems to unfold a vast slave empire. Our Union, all confess, must sever finally on this question. It is now with nine-tenths only a question of time.

Anthony Burns was sent back into slavery. Under constant pressure from abolitionists, Massachusetts passed the Personal Liberty Law of 1855, making the return of fugitive slaves more difficult. The South called this a declaration of disunion.

National attention soon focused on whether Kansas would enter the Union as a free or slave state—a matter that affected the balance of power in the Senate. The immense Kansas-Nebraska territory had been formerly closed to slavery under the Missouri Compromise. But the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854—a deal struck by Stephen Douglas of Illinois to get Southern support for a railway in his state—nullified the compromise. Kansas was now up for grabs. Let the people decide, Douglas said. And so, resident voters would determine the slave status of new states carved from the territory. Pro- and anti-slavery forces flooded Kansas in an effort to influence the election. Violence erupted; voting irregularities were rampant.

The election in 1856 of President Buchanan, who was regarded as a friend to slavery, angered Garrison. In the first issue of its 27th year, The Liberator announced plans for a State Disunion convention to consider immediate disunion. A resolution revealed the change in abolitionist attitudes:

Resolved, that the sooner the separation takes place, the more peaceful it will be; but that peace or war is a secondary consideration in view of our present perils. Slavery must be conquered, peacefully if we can, forcibly if we must.

The pacifism of a younger Garrison was gone.

Meanwhile, political alliances were also shifting. Some Northern Democrats, disgusted by the Kansas-Nebraska Act, had already defected and joined with others to form the Republican Party. Then, in 1860, a disorganized Democratic Party split its ticket, thereby throwing the election to the relatively unknown Republican candidate, Abraham Lincoln. Southern reaction was dramatic: South Carolina led the way and seceded. Conflict at Fort Sumter prompted Virginia and other states in the upper South to follow suit.

Some historians view the secession as an overreaction. True, Lincoln had opposed slavery but he was an extreme gradualist, calling for its elimination over approximately 100 years. His main concern was to preserve the Union. Lincoln had declared,

If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it. If I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would also do that. What I do about slavery and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save this Union.

Even if slavery was not the proximate cause of war, the abolitionists now viewed the war as an opportunity to end slavery. Garrison candidly replied to critics of his new war-spirit:

Well ladies and gentlemen, you remember what Benedict in the play says: “When I said I would die a bachelor, I did not think I should live till I were married.” And when I said I would not sustain the Constitution because it was a covenant with death and an agreement with hell, I had no idea that I should live to see death and hell secede. Hence it is that I am now with the Government, to enable it to constitutionally stop the further ravages of death and to extinguish the flames of hell forever.

After Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, The Liberator became a virtual campaign sheet for Lincoln’s reelection. The Thirteenth Amendment was ratified in December 1865, thereby ending the constitutional support for slavery:

Section 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

On December 29, 1865, Garrison composed the last issue of The Liberator:

The present number of The Liberator is the completion of its thirty-fifth volume, and the termination of its existence. I began the publication of The Liberator without a subscriber, and I end it—it gives me unalloyed satisfaction to say—without a farthing.... After having gone through with such a struggle as has never been paralleled in duration in the life of any reformer, and for nearly forty years been the target at which all poisonous and deadly missiles have been hurled. I might—it seems to me—be permitted to take a little repose in my advanced years.

Garrison pursued reforms until the end of his life. In April 1879, he was raising money to settle former slaves in Kansas when he fell ill. On May 23, the libertarian voice that had been “as harsh as truth and as uncompromising as justice” fell silent.


Was abolitionism a success or a failure?

This is a natural question to ask about any movement with a clearly stated goal, but it is difficult to answer, even if that goal—e.g., the elimination of slavery—was clearly achieved. The tensions caused by “the peculiar institution” may have been so deep that slavery would have been eliminated whether or not abolitionism had existed. Indeed, some economists argue that slavery was doomed because it was becoming economically unfeasible.

A better approach is to identify the contributions abolitionists made to the larger, ongoing debate about slavery. For decades, they were in the forefront of identifying the institution as primarily a moral issue, not one of political or economic expediency.

They also established non-violence as a major strategy to solve the social problems caused by slavery and racism. This included forming societies and schools that welcomed blacks as equals, defending the rights of free blacks and runaway slaves in court, providing sanctuaries from abuse for blacks, circulating anti-slavery literature at great personal risk, and tirelessly petitioning politicians for reform. In short, while much of the nation threatened each other and cut backroom deals, the abolitionists kept the principles in public view and focused on assisting individual victims.

Did abolitionism fuel the conflagration of war? Until the years immediately preceding the Civil War, abolitionism was probably the single strongest anti-war voice in America. Its nonviolent techniques enraged the South but it seems odd to blame those who expose a great evil for causing turmoil: that charge should be laid at the feet of those who do the evil and resist correcting it. Nevertheless, abolitionists did eventually join the call for war as a “solution” to slavery and they vigorously backed the Union effort.

Arguably, at that point, their support did not speed along a war that had become inevitable. But it did keep slavery in the forefront as a political focus. When Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, it was intended—in part—to shore up flagging support for the Union by asserting support for blacks. As inadequate as the Proclamation was, it is doubtful that black rights would have been given even that acknowledgement without the persistence of anti-slavery agitators. Moreover, after the war, abolitionists such as Wendell Philips led the successful campaign to have black rights embedded in the Constitution through the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth amendments.

Could slavery have been eliminated without the bloodiest conflict America has ever experienced? Could the anti-slavery cause have succeeded through moral suasion or political compromise alone? Britain prohibited slavery in 1800 without bloodshed. Other nations accomplished the same. Only the United States required a civil war to end its peculiar institution. The circumstances within the United States may have dictated a violent outcome, or war may have been an option too quickly chosen. In either case, abolitionism was one of the few political forces arguing for a change in the hearts and souls of men, not for bloodshed.

The success or failure of abolitionism must be judged against the broader question, what was possible? In confronting the most divisive issue in American history, slavery, abolitionism provided the voice of conscience. It assisted tens of thousands of individual blacks, steered the nation toward a recognition of universal rights, and was instrumental in embedding those rights into the Constitution.

Even the “mistakes” of abolitionism had interesting consequences. For example, because male abolitionists did not fight to include the word “female” in the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth amendments, the women’s rights movement was rekindled in a backlash of anger.

Abolitionism remains one of the most dynamic and powerful radical movements America has produced. William Lloyd Garrison and The Liberator remain its voice.