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The Abolitionist Movement

Leaders of the Struggle to End Slavery

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The abolitionists were considered a fringe element in American life, yet they persisted in their devotion to the cause of ending slavery. Over time their ideas gained more followers, and on the eve of the Civil War they had become a moral force in mainstream society and an influence on national affairs.

William Lloyd Garrison

William Lloyd Garrison
Library of Congress

William Lloyd Garrison was the editor and publisher of The Liberator, the most influential abolitionist newspaper in America. Garrison's ideas were often considered extremely radical, and he was routinely threatened with physical harm.

Garrison may have been the closest thing the American abolitionists had to a central leader, as he always seemed to be at the forefront of the cause. His views were so strident that he was, for most of his career, essentially outside of the political realm. But by inspiring many others, he exerted an influence on the great national debate over slavery.

Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass
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Born a slave in Maryland, Frederick Douglass escaped to freedom and joined the abolitionists in New England. He wrote his autobiography, and took to the stage to give public addresses about the evils of slavery and the need to abolish it.

Douglass was known for his fearlessness and eloquence. His personal experience and moral authority gave great credibility to the abolitionist message, and he became perhaps the best-known spokesman of the cause.

The Grimké Sisters

Angelia Grimk&#233
Library of Congress
Sarah and Angelina Grimké, sisters born into a wealthy slave-owning family in South Carolina, became eloquent voices against slavery in the late 1830s. After converting to Quakerism, and coming into contact with abolitionists in the North, the sisters devoted themselves to speaking out against the institution of slavery. At a time when women were not expected to concern themselves with political or social issues, the Grimké Sisters dared to take to the stage and speak out.

Wendell Phillips

Wendell Phillips
Library of Congress

Born into a wealthy and privileged Boston family, Wendell Phillips became a lawyer and was expected to pursue a career in mainstream politics. Instead he joined the abolitionist cause, and in the 1840s and 1850s was perhaps its most eloquent orator.

John Brown

John Brown
Library of Congress

John Brown was perhaps the most controversial of all the abolitionists, as he chose to violently oppose slavery. He had been involved in the murders of slave owners in "Bleeding Kansas," and he led a band of followers on a disastrous raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virgina, in October 1859. Revered by many in the North, and hated by those in the South, Brown took the abolitionist cause in a direction no one had anticipated.

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