From the first settlement, slavery was present in North America. When the Revolutionary War erupted in 1776, there was some resistance to slavery in the newly formed United States of America; however, an organised push for abolition did not take hold in the US until the 1830s, ultimately instigating the American Civil War.
Though there were many abolitionist leaders, the contributions of freed and formerly enslaved African Americans are critical to understanding abolition in America. Frederick Douglass was a formerly enslaved black man who led the push for abolition before and during the American Civil War.
Here’s the story of Frederick Douglass and the abolitionist movement in America.
The rise of the abolitionist movement
Though there had been opposition to slavery since the Atlantic slave trade began, abolition erupted as an intentional, organised effort in the 1830s after the Missouri Compromise allowed for slavery in the new realms of the nation’s western expansion. By this time, northern states had banned slavery, and some wanted to limit slavery to existing states, making it illegal to expand the practice into new US territories.
In the US, abolition was initially a religious issue, as many saw slavery as sinful and worked to emancipate enslaved people both through political action and in the public sphere. More staunch abolitionists at the time believed immediate freedom for all enslaved people in the US was the only way to right this moral wrong.
Previously, attempts had been made to send enslaved African Americans back to Africa as a way to appeal to both anti-slavery and pro-slavery supporters. Approximately 12,000 African Americans had been sent out of the US and back to Africa. For those in favour of this policy, it seemed that slavery should not exist but also that black people should not cohabitate in the US either.
The American Anti-Slavery Society
In 1833, the American Anti-Slavery Society was established, and its leaders, including William Lloyd Garrison, studied British abolition strategies to bring abolition to the US. Early setbacks to the abolitionist movement included the passing of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, which required all escapees of slavery to be returned.
Further, the Supreme Court ruled in 1857 that black people did not have rights to citizenship through the controversial Dred Scott decision. Moreover, this ruling allowed enslavers to move to western territories with those they enslaved.
Violence erupted in the south and western territories throughout the 1850s, and ultimately reached a breaking point after the election of Abraham Lincoln, who spoke against slavery during his campaign, though he did not align with all of the philosophies of abolitionists. Upon his election, southern states began seceding from the nation, and the Civil War became inevitable.
As abolitionists became more organised, ran successful congressional campaigns and pushed to change southern mentality on the ground, their movement gained steam. After decades of tension, the American Civil War broke out in 1861, and in 1863, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, abolishing slavery in the south.
In 1865, the Thirteenth Amendment was ratified, and all forms of slavery were abolished in the United States. Though there were many individuals who pushed for abolition, one leader whose efforts greatly impacted its success was Frederick Douglass.
Frederick Douglass’ birth date is uncertain, but it is believed to be sometime around 1817-1818. Born into slavery in Maryland, he escaped in 1838 and immediately began working to dismantle the system.
While enslaved, a young Douglass had been taught the alphabet, despite bans on education in the south, and taught other enslaved people how to read using the Bible. He became a keen reader and used his early education to develop his ideology that both moral arguments and political policy were necessary to attain abolition.
Upon his escape from slavery in 1838, he arrived in New York and later moved to Massachusetts where he attended abolitionist meetings. Douglass would meet prominent abolition leader Garrison at a meeting where he was asked to speak, and Garrison encouraged him to become a speaker for the movement after hearing his story of slavery.
Douglass travelled through the United States with the American Anti-Slavery Society, and he grew in his role as an abolition leader despite several physical attacks by supporters of slavery.
In 1845, Douglass published Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, bringing his personal account of slavery to the public. He travelled through the UK and Ireland from 1845-1847, meeting with Irish nationalist Daniel O’Connell, who would influence Douglass’ later work, and delivering many speeches on his travels.
Upon his return to the US, he published his own newspaper from 1847-1860, the North Star, which described the cruelty of slavery and included coverage on the push for women’s suffrage.
Douglass was a famed orator, and one of his most praised speeches was delivered in 1852, called ‘What to a slave is the 4th of July?” In it, he ponders that question, and in response states, “… a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim.”
Throughout the American Civil War, Douglass continued speaking and working towards abolition. He met with Abraham Lincoln as an unofficial ambassador for African Americans. With Douglass’ encouragement, Lincoln permitted African American soldiers to fight in the Civil War.
Douglass recruited African Americans to the cause, and he continued to push Lincoln to provide equal pay for soldiers. Further, he advocated for the right of newly freed African Americans to vote.
He was disappointed in Lincoln when the Emancipation Proclamation did not include the right to vote, especially as African Americans had fought bravely for the Union cause. Though this caused tension between the two, they later reconciled and Douglass spoke at the dedication of the Emancipation Memorial in 1876.
After the war and throughout the Reconstruction Era, Douglass continued his work supporting women’s suffrage, pushed for civil rights for black people, and served in several government posts. He continued writing, publishing 5 autobiographies by his death in 1895.