Historical Background on Antislavery and Women’s Rights 1830-1845

Jack Larkin, Chief Historian, OSV

Background Notes: An overview of how the campaigns for abolitionism and woman’s rights emerged together and affected each other.

In the years before the Civil War the Northern United States abounded with movements for social change. Reformers and reform organizations created new institutions such as prisons, asylums and orphanages, sought to transform the public schools, to eradicate social ills such as prostitution and drunkenness in order to strengthen family life, and to reform the system of support for the poor. Many of these reform agendas have modern counterparts in attempts to redefine welfare, attack drug addiction and spousal abuse, and contain crime. But the two most controversial reform movements, and the ones which struck deepest at the foundations of American society, were the campaigns for the abolition of slavery and the equality of women.

These documents focus on New England in the 1830s and 40s and tell the story of how the campaigns for abolitionism and woman’s rights emerged together and affected each other. They also show how these movements were intertwined with New Englanders’ everyday lives. They provide a way to develop a historical perspective on two issues that Americans continue to debate and struggle with—racial justice and the equality of the sexes.

The great majority of Americans who joined the antislavery and woman’s rights causes in the 1830s—in many cases the same individuals—came from the countryside and towns of the North, usually from deeply religious, reform-oriented families. William Lloyd Garrison, a Massachusetts printer and editor, published the first issue of The Liberator which was to be the primary vehicle in New England for radical and militant abolitionism and later for woman’s rights. The following year he organized the New England Anti-Slavery Society dedicated to securing the immediate abolition of slavery. In 1838, the American Anti-Slavery Society was formed to unify abolitionists from the West, New York, and New England.

Many Northerners, and indeed many Southerners too, had long believed that colonization—the return of the freed slaves to their ancestral homeland of Africa—would be the solution to the persistent problem of American slavery. Garrison himself had begun as a believer in colonization. But in the early 1830s the most committed opponents of slavery came to reject colonization as unjust, racist, and impractical. (On this score the abolitionists appear to have been completely correct; it is hard to imagine today how close to 2 million freed slaves could have been re-settled across the Atlantic, given the resources available.)

Because of their calls for immediate emancipation and an end to racial prejudice, abolitionists were the object of a great deal of criticism, ridicule, and even violence. In the 1830s and 40s, anti-abolitionist and anti-black riots were the most common kinds of mob disorder in American cities. But most of the anti-abolitionist mobs were not made up of young rowdies from lower-class neighborhoods. They were well-organized groups of respectable, middle-class citizens who believed that abolitionism threatened their communities and businesses.

In the early 1830s, becoming an active abolitionist required courage. Many had to face physical danger at the hand of a mob, but many more had to endure the disapproval of family and friends or the ridicule of neighbors. All of them shared a motivating vision of slavery as a moral evil that could not be justified. Most, probably, were moved to action by the same powerful religious commitments that impelled others to support the causes of temperance, Christian missions, and non-violence. Although committed to the cause of freedom for African-Americans, many of the abolitionists were unable to free themselves completely from the racial prejudice so ingrained in American society and receive blacks socially on equal terms.

In the late 1830s and into the 40s, the antislavery ranks grew. The cause of colonization lost supporters, abolitionism became linked with other reform movements, and, as public opinion at the North became less tolerant of slavery and of the South’s tactics in its defense, anti-abolition violence greatly decreased. Antislavery became a safer and more popular cause, and won the support of many people not originally responsive to its claims. But the unity of the early movement was shattered. With growth came disagreement over both strategy and values. By 1840, organized antislavery was split into two main factions. William Lloyd Garrison and his supporters were the radical abolitionists. They insisted that antislavery was a strictly moral and religious movement, a crusade to arouse the conscience of the nation. For them, political action was a threat to the moral purity of the cause. They also favored woman’s rights and believed that women should have a significant role in antislavery work. In opposition to the Garrisonians was a group of more moderate political abolitionists. They also sought immediate emancipation but believed that working through the political system and trying to elect antislavery candidates were the most effective ways to bring it about. They also held more traditional views about the role of women in public life, arguing that “the woman question” frightened off many people who would otherwise support antislavery.

At the 1840 national convention of the American Anti-Slavery Society, these disagreements came to a head. When the radical majority at the convention supported the nomination of a woman abolitionist, Abigail Kelley, to serve on the convention’s business committee, the more conservative political abolitionists walked out. They withdrew to form the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society, which explicitly excluded women from membership.

The split within the antislavery movement reflected a widening gap between the radicals’ idealism and refusal to compromise, and the moderates’ interest in practical politics and achievable results. But it began with the “woman question,” and antislavery played an important part in the development of the women’s movement, primarily through its impact on individual women who began as abolitionists and then became increasingly active on behalf of woman’s rights.

Women had been involved in the antislavery movement from its beginning. Following the typical patterns of early-nineteenth century social life, they participated primarily as organizers and members of separate female antislavery societies, beginning in Philadelphia (1833), Boston (1833), and New York (1836), spreading to other cities like Providence, RI, and Portland, Maine, and quickly spreading through the countryside. By the late 1830s there were female societies in communities as small as Boylston, Massachusetts, with fewer than 1,000 inhabitants. These local societies were in most ways like the many thousands of other women’s voluntary organizations that were emerging in Northern communities in the early nineteenth century. They met, prayed, raised funds for state and national activities, and circulated publications and information.

The many hundreds of women who became active supporters of antislavery tended to come from reasonably prosperous families. They were most often the wives and daughters of professional men, merchants, and successful farmers who were likely to have a little time or money to spare. In this way they were similar to the members of most other women’s organizations. Women from the harder-pressed families of small farmers, artisans and laborers rarely had the leisure time to attend meetings or collect signatures on petitions, although there were many hardworking farmwives who managed to sign a petition and find a few cents for the slave.

The most active and engaged female abolitionists began to move outward from their local societies. In 1837, seventy-one delegates from eight states held the first Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women in New York; they issued publications and resolutions, formed executive committees, and launched a campaign to collect one million signatures on antislavery petitions. Since women could not vote, petitioning Congress was their only means of political action. The Executive Committee of the American Anti-Slavery Society reminded women in its Second Annual Report (1835) that “the debate in Congress on slavery in the District of Columbia was called forth by petitions signed by 800 ladies of New York. Here is work for all …”

The most active abolitionist women were the principal organizers and energizers of local or statewide action, and the writers who produced children’s books, hymns, and stories with an antislavery message, contributed to antislavery papers, or wrote tracts on the subject. The most unusual of them were the handful of women who spoke publicly for the cause, traveling the countryside as agents for the American Anti-Slavery Society. These women confronted a deeply ingrained tradition—the notion that women did not and should not speak in public. The first women lecturers were Sarah and Angelina Grimké. They began by addressing all-female audiences—itself a violation of custom—but soon went on to speaking before mixed groups of men and women, an even more serious offense. Such “promiscuous assemblies,” as they were called, created controversy wherever the Grimké sisters went. In 1837, the General Association of Massachusetts, which represented the ministers of the state’s dominant Congregational church, issued a statement condemning women “who so far forget themselves as to itinerate in the character of public lecturers and teachers.” This attack, and others made against them, spurred the Grimkés to make the equality of women a more important part of their message. They began to write and speak about the condition of woman as well as the condition of the slave—a decision which would soon help to split the abolitionist movement. But for the rest of their career as public speakers, Sarah and Angelina continued to combine the messages of woman’s rights and antislavery.

In the process they helped lay the foundation for the woman’s rights movement which would issue its first manifesto, the famous “Declaration of Rights and Sentiments” at Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848. Many of the women who would sign that Declaration and work to secure equality for women were also active abolitionists who believed that woman, like the slave; was entitled to equal rights.

Both movements, of course, have had very complicated histories since, full of triumph and disappointment. The abolitionists saw their immediate goals realized through the cataclysmic violence of the Civil War. The Thirteenth Amendment emancipated the slaves and the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments gave citizenship and civil rights to freed blacks. But the South’s freedmen were abandoned by the North in the 1870s, and they did not win back their rights for nearly a century until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s ended legal segregation and exclusion from politics. Female abolitionists who were committed to both causes had their hopes painfully shattered when the Fourteenth Amendment enfranchised black men but explicitly denied the vote to women by introducing the word “male” into the Constitution for the first time. After its ratification in 1868, women had to wait another fifty years to win the right to vote. Seventy years of political struggle for women’s right to vote finally won passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920.

Many of the issues these two movements grappled with are still with us today. The United States today is a substantially less racially unequal society than it was in the nineteenth century or at the end of the Second World War, but Americans still struggle with the meanings of justice and equality, and how to implement them in society. The status of women in American has changed in complicated ways since the achievement of the vote in 1920, including the emergence of a powerful feminist movement amid much opposition and criticism. Changing attitudes, coupled with other forces of change in the economy and the family have transformed the roles of millions of women at work, at home and in public life. Today, woman occupy positions and enjoy personal freedoms that the early advocates of women’s rights could only dimly imagine, but Americans remain divided over many questions about woman’s role in society.

Copyright: Old Sturbridge Inc.