The antebellum American antislavery movement began in the 1820s and was sustained over 4 decades by organizations, publications, and small acts of resistance that challenged the legally protected and powerful institution of slavery and the more insidious enemy of black equality, racism. Abolitionists were always a radical minority even in the free states of the North, and the movement was never comprised of a single group of people with unified motivations, goals, and methods. Rather, the movement was fraught with ambiguity over who its leaders would be, how they would go about fighting the institution of slavery, and what the future would be like for black Americans. Some of the persisting goals of antislavery activism were legal emancipation, aid to runaway slaves through vigilance groups and the Underground Railroad, civil rights for freed blacks in the north, and education, suffrage, and economic advancement for African-Americans. Perhaps the most unifying ideal of the anti-slavery movement was that the racial basis forAmerican slavery could be undermined by promoting Christian values, education and economic progress among free blacks to show that they were capable of succeeding as individuals in an integrated American society. Richard Allen, leader of the A.M.E. church, stated the case for black progress as an answer to the justifications of slaveholders: “if we are lazy and idol, the enemies of freedom plead it as a cause why we ought not to be free.” In addition to the connection between abolition and economic and social progress, most abolitionists worked for the assurance of civil rights and legal protection for free blacks, who lived in an anomalous condition of “freedom” without citizenship and with constant threat of discrimination, violence, and abduction to be sold into slavery.
There were some bitter conflicts over specific strategies. Though Garrison and most blacks favored immediate abolition, many whites continued to prefer or express willingness to settle for gradual emancipation. Violent resistance was at first rejected by many, again under the influence of Garrison, but David Walker’s appeal that violence should be used against slavery became more popular as blacks and abolitionists searched for an effective means of self-defense against mobs and pursuit of civil rights. Whether or not individuals worked within the political framework of the constitution to effect change again depended on allegiance to Garrison, and in general the early antislavery activists preferred moral arguments while later leaders were more willing to use political means. To what extent black abolitionists cooperated with and trusted white abolitionists varied, for though whites were essential to the movement, blacks often felt they needed to rely on their own race’s leadership, and so both black and integrated organizations formed.
A few abolitionists supported the proposal of African or Haitian colonization by free blacks, but most viewed the colonization schemes as a way for whites to get rid of the “black problem” in the US rather than a viable alternative to gaining equal rights in the nation of their birth (since only a small minority of blacks in the US after the 1820s were African-born). Furthermore, colonization reinforced the notion that African-Americans would be better off somewhere else because they could never be integrated into American society as whites’ equals. Blacks saw similarities between Jackson’s Indian removal policy and federal funding for African colonization, and most determined to resist relocation. Settlement in Canada was not similarly viewed as running away from the struggle for equality at home because it not only provided safety, legal protection, and civil equality for black refugees but also harbored the founders of new abolitionist publications who strengthened the antislavery movement in the American North and Midwest.
Leaders of the anti-slavery...