Frederick Douglass and the abolitionist movement


Frederick Douglass was introduced to the abolitionist movement in 1841 when William Coffin invited him to share his story in a convention organized by the Massachusetts Antislavery Society (MAS). William Garrison, impressed by his oratory, hired him as an agent of the MAS. This was a turning point in Douglass’ life and the beginning of his abolitionist activities.

The Quakers

The first call for the abolition of slavery in America came in 1688 from the Quakers in Pennsylvania. The Quakers formed the first American Abolition Society in 1775. In 1787 Benjamin Franklin became president of the Society. In 1790, two months before his death, Franklin petitioned Congress, for the first time, to eliminate slavery in his famous “Petition from the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery”. The petition was immediately rejected by pro-slavery congressmen, mostly from the south. A committee assigned to its study claimed that the 1787 Constitution refrained Congress from abolishing slavery or its trade.

In 1807 President Jefferson prohibited the international trade of slaves, however internal trade was allowed. The abolitionist movement was largely unorganized and scattered achieving some success.

During the 1820s and 1830s the American Colonization Society established the colony of Liberia in Africa and by 1865 over 10,000 African American slaves had migrated to Liberia. Supporters included Henry Clay, James Monroe and Abraham Lincoln.

Second Great Awakening and the Church

In the 1830s a drastic change took place in the abolitionist movement. The Second Great Awakening, a religious revival, stressed the morals of upholding God’s will in society. Slavery was considered a sin. Churches, specially the Evangelical Protestant church, were the starting point to the emergence and spread of abolitionist ideas in northern society. Nathaniel Taylor, Charles Finney and Lyman Beecher were some of the leaders of the Second Great Awakening.


William Lloyd Garrison

Portrait of William Lloyd Garrison c.1850

In 1831 William Lloyd Garrison, with the support of whites and African Americans, started publishing The Liberator, a weekly anti slavery newspaper published in Massachusetts. He had attracted enough supporters and the following year he created the New England Anti-Slavery Society.  In 1833 he joined Arthur and Lewis Tappan in New York creating the American Anti-Slavery Society. By 1838 they had 250,000 members. In 1835 Garrison change the name of New England Anti-Slavery Society to Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society with the purpose of allowing other New England states to organize their own affiliates. Women actively responded to Garrison’s call and formed the largest affiliate, The Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society. This led to other female associations and eventually to the “Women’s Rights Movement”.


Frederick Douglass and the anti slavery movement

Frederick Douglass’ first autobiography.

Douglass joined the American Anti Slavery Society in 1841 as an agent. His role was to travel and deliver speeches, distribute pamphlets and get subscribers to the Liberator. He traveled the country for four years until 1845 when he found himself in a dangerous situation as a fugitive slave.

During the years Douglass toured the country many had started to doubt if he was truly who he said he was, a fugitive slave. Because he was so eloquent and knew to how to read and write many doubted his story was true. With the support of friends he was motivated to write his autobiography “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” which was published in 1845.

Afraid for his safety he had to flee to the United Kingdom. He toured England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales giving speeches and networking. Here he met many supporters. Ellen Richardson and Henry Richardson raised funds to buy Douglass’ freedom which protected him from the fugitive slave laws of 1793 and 1850. He was a free man.

He was one of many supporters of the Underground Railroad, harboring fugitive slaves many times in his own house. At one time he had 10 runaways hiding in his home.


The North Star

Douglass’ Monthly was published in Rochester, NY.

Douglass returned to America a free man and with the financial support of friends he started the publication of his own newspaper, the North Star, which was later renamed Frederick Douglass’ Paper and Douglass Monthly. He published it in Rochester, New York, where he now resided, in order to avoid confrontation with the Liberator.

With the power to reach a wider audience Douglass’ objective was to influence public opinion through his publication. He became one of the leaders of the abolitionist movement on his own right. He was vocal about the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, the annexation of Texas with the purpose of increasing the number of slaveholders, the Dred Scott Case and the repeal of the Missouri Compromise as well as the consequences of the War with Mexico to the antislavery movement.


A split in the anti slavery movement

Sojourner Truth was a born a slave and became a spokeswoman for the abolition movement.

In 1840 a split in the antislavery movement was starting to take place. Garrison supported women’s participation and leadership in the American Anti-Slavery Society but the Tappan brothers disagreed with Garrison refusing to admit women to the society. Lewis and Arthur Tappan moved on and formed the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society which did not admit women.

Garrison also disagreed with the Constitution arguing that it was a pro slavery document and considered that abolitionists should not be involved in politics or in government. He strongly believed that he country needed a new Constitution even if that meant breaking up the Union. At this point Frederick Douglass parted ways with Garrison. Although he had started his career as an abolitionist agreeing with Garrison, along the way Douglass changed his mind. He came to agree with members of the Free Soil Party that slavery was unconstitutional and that Congress had the power to end it without breaking the Union.

Another braking point with Garrison was that he condemned violence and force. However Douglass had aided John Brown by offering him a place to stay and raising funds to equip his men with uniforms and ammunition. Douglass had to flee, first to Canada and then to Britain.


The Republican Party

Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation abolishing slavery.

In 1848 members of the two old political parties, the Democrats and the Whigs, who were opposed to slavery joined forces to create the Free Soil Party. In 1854 the Free Soil Party formed an alliance with the Whigs who opposed to the extension of slavery in Kansas and the Republican Party was born under the leadership of Abraham Lincoln.


Politics and slavery

Earlier in his career as an abolitionist Douglass had realized that slavery was a matter of politics instead of, as he had thought, public opinion. He found himself in a position to influence politics at the highest level of government now that Lincoln was president. He met Lincoln several times to discuss the role of African Americans in the Civil War. He felt that military service was important to secure the rights to citizenship and suffrage. During the duration of the Civil Warhe recruited African Americans to fight for the Union, his two sons were the first ones to enroll. He advocated for equal treatment, pay, protection and rewards and promotions.


Emancipation Proclamation

The Emancipation Proclamation was issued on Jan 1, 1863. On April 8, 1864 the Constitution was amended , the Thirteenth Amendment, abolishing slavery.

Section 1: Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the US, nor any place subject to their jurisdiction.

Section 2: Congress shall have the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.


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