American Anti-Slavery Society

by Claire Berkowitz and Karen Board Moran

The first African slaves were brought to America in 1619 to labor on the tobacco plantations of the Virginia colony. While individuals may have spoken out against the practice, it was not until 1688 that German Friends (Quakers) in Germantown, Pennsylvania declared slavery contrary to Christianity. About four generations later Pennsylvanian Quakers formed the first antislavery society in 1775 on the eve of American Independence.

Massachusetts became the first state to end slavery when a judicial decision in 1783 interpreted the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 as having abolished slavery with the phrase, “all men are born free and equal.” Over the next few years legislation abolished slavery in Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York and New Jersey. During this same period emancipation societies were formed in states from Massachusetts to Virginia.

The first national act against slavery was included in the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. Slavery was prohibited in territory north of the Ohio River. As provided for in the U.S. Constitution, the second national act was the prohibition of slave imports beginning in 1807.

Ten years later, southerners formed the American Colonization Society to encourage emancipation and to send free blacks to Africa. By 1860, 15,000 blacks had been sent to the Society’s African colony, Liberia. Heading the Society at various times were James Madison, James Monroe, and John Marshall. Supporters included Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln.

The increase in religious revivalism known as the Second Great Awakening led abolitionists to see slavery as the product of personal sin. Abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison observed that slavery also received moral support from racial prejudice. In 1831 he founded The Liberator, a newspaper demanding the immediate abolition of slavery and emphasizing racial equality.

Two years later the American Anti-Slavery Society was founded with a plan to reach mass audiences through lecturing agents, petition drives, and a wide variety of printed materials. The Liberator and The National Anti-Slavery Standard (NASS) were the official newspapers of the organization. Maria Weston Chapman of Boston served as one of the society’s principal propagandists for both papers, and Lydia Maria Child edited the NASS for almost two years. Moral suasion (the act of persuading to induce belief or action) tactics included inviting fugitive slaves like Frederick Douglass and William Wells Brown to give powerful antislavery testimony. Unfortunately, these African Americans sometimes faced patronizing attitudes even from the white abolitionists.

At first women were barred from membership in the Society, which led to the creation of Female Anti-Slavery Societies. Lucretia Mott founded the first one in 1833 in Philadelphia. It was the first time women were exposed to running an organization, for in those days, “woman’s place was in the home.” Women quickly learned how to conduct meetings, prepare agendas, and conduct petition campaigns. Anti-Slavery Sewing Circles enabled women to turn their domestic skills into fundraisers for the cause as they sold their goods at antislavery bazaars and fairs.

Opponents tried to suppress the anti-slavery agitation and propaganda by rulings of the church and the state, and even by mob violence. In their 1837 Pastoral Letter Congregationalist ministers publicly chastised the women for speaking out against slavery saying, “her character becomes unnatural.” Many male abolitionists agreed with the ministers, but felt the churches were corrupted by their support of slavery. Since an end of slavery was more important than woman’s equality, many abolitionists “came-out” of their church membership and were labeled “come-outers”.

Garrisonian abolitionists urged Northerners to refuse to vote as another way of expressing disapproval for the “proslavery” Constitution. They even advocated the dissolution of the union with slaveholding states.

By 1840 there were 2,000 chapters of the American Anti-Slavery Society throughout the North. However, abolitionists who disagreed with the Garrisonians soon regrouped as a new organization, the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society. Other members tried to reform the churches, while others shifted their energies to political antislavery reform. When the government failed to respond to petitioning and lobbying, the Liberty Party was created in 1840 to offer voters a choice in partisan politics. However, the single issue of slavery was not yet strong enough to sway many voters. The new territories gained following the Mexican War led to the organization of the Free Soil Party to block extension of slavery into the new territories. Its strength grew with the passage of the controversial Kansas-Nebraska Act, which repealed the Missouri Compromise’s bar on slavery in western territories north of 36º 30’ latitude.

As violence increased in Kansas and at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, the majority of abolitionists worked with moderate antislavery Northerners to create the Republican Party (a coalition of Free Soilers, Whigs and Northern Democrats). By 1860 most abolitionists endorsed the election of Abraham Lincoln as a means of battling slavery.

Works cited:

African-American Mosaic.” Library of Congress. 7 September 2003.

American Abolitionist. Indiana University-Purdue University. 6 September 2003.

American Colonization Society.” Africans in America. Public Broadcasting System. 7 September 2003.

Sterling, Dorothy. Ahead of Her Time: Abby Kelley and The Politics of Antislavery. New York, 1991.