History of the Abolitionist Movement

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Abolitionists: Reformers or Agitators

The abolitionist movement contrasted itself with the historic roots of the first fighters for freedom in the American nation. American anti-slavery society (1833) stated that, unlike their predecessors, who were driven to wage a bloody war for freedom, they rejected the use of weaponry. Moreover, they juxtapose the prior physical resistance with the “opposition of moral purity to moral corruption,” calling for overthrowing the prejudice and abolishing slavery by embracing love (American anti-slavery society, 1833). The abolitionist movement relied on the principles of truth, justice, reason, and humanity, highlighting that their intentions were peaceful and in line with law (American anti-slavery society, 1833). In order to achieve their aims, abolitionists have developed their declaration of sentiments, which conveyed their intentions of embracing the freemen labor over slave labor and voiced their support of those suffering.

Declaration of Independence: Foundation of Abolitionism

The abolitionists state that the national existence was founded upon the principle from the Declaration of Independence of “all men [being] created equal” and are granted inalienable and equal rights such as “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” (American anti-slavery society, 1833). The Declaration of Independence served as a national guideline and inspiration for the abolitionist movement to state that slavery was against the national justice principles. Moreover, in the framework of the Declaration of Independence, slave ownership was against the republican government and Christian beliefs (American anti-slavery society, 1833). Specifically, slavery, according to the American anti-slavery society (1833), presented a danger to the “peace, union, and liberty” of the nation. Hence, the society argued, the slaves should be emancipated from their owners in all parts of the country as long as it is government by the Constitution of their time.

The Gag Rule and Abolitionist Movement

With the rising popularity and increasing number of petitions sent by the abolitionist movement, the Southern Congress members began their fight in defending the tradition of slavery. The gag rule, introduced in effect from 1836 until 1845, postponed governmental action on slavery-related petitions without hearing them (Jenkins et al., 2020). In practice, members of Congress were prohibited from freely speaking or expressing opinions of slavery at the time, which hindered the progress somewhat. However, the rule’s implementation did not stop the slow rise of the anti-slavery sentiment in the Northern part of the US (Jenkins et al., 2020). This rise was gradually reflected in the growing congress support of John Quincy Adams, who from the start fought passionately against slavery and in support of the abolitionist movement (Jenkins et al., 2020). While the ‘gag rule’ initially intended to shut the anti-slavery conversation down, it ultimately backfired, limiting the petition rights of those pro-slavery (Jenkins et al., 2020). Overall, this rule may have hindered the development of the abolitionist movement somewhat, but more than anything, it has provided a compelling rallying point.

Women’s Rights and Anti-Slavery Movement

The anti-slavery movement has laid the foundational groundwork for embracing human rights in the American nation. Following that, the activists began reconciling anti-slavery and women’s rights arguments by framing both movements in terms of human rights (Stevenson, 2017). However, in abolitionism, a ‘man’s right’ rhetoric appeared only episodically to reinforce the notions of brotherhood and liberty (American anti-slavery society, 1833). While the women’s rights movement operated in the same plane of striving for equality for all, the early woman-slave analogy was often problematic due to its perceived emphasis on rights for white women (Stevenson, 2017). With the more comprehensive embedment of the human rights rhetoric, this connotation dissipated, and the emphasis was rightfully placed on endowing any and all human beings with equal rights.


American anti-slavery society. (1833). Declaration of sentiments of the American anti-slavery society. Adopted at the formation of said society, in Philadelphia, on the 4th day of December, 1833. Penny Tracts. Web.

Jenkins, J. A., & Charles, S. (2020). Causal inference and American political development: The case of the gag rule. Public Choice, 185(3–4), 429–457. Web.

Stevenson, A. (2017). The “Great Doctrine of Human Rights”: Articulation and Authentication in the Nineteenth-Century U.S. Antislavery and Women’s Rights Movements. Humanity: An International Journal of Human Rights, Humanitarianism, and Development, 8(3), 413–439. Web.

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