American abolitionists (fl. 1829-1865) were those who worked to abolish slavery to free the slaves. Among others:
David Walker wrote “An Appeal to the Coloured People of the World” (1829) three years after the death of Thomas Jefferson, arguing against his racist ideas: “I say, that unless we refute Mr. Jefferson’s arguments respecting us, we will only establish them.” Walker said whites were keeping blacks down by denying them education and pushing a twisted, racist form of Christianity. Walker called for civil rights organizations, black self-help and the violent overthrow of slavery. The “Appeal” was a guiding star for many blacks. It even radicalized whites.
Nat Turner led a slave uprising in south-eastern Virginia. He went from farm to farm killing whites, freeing slaves and gathering men to his cause. It left 60 whites and 100 blacks dead. Whites killed another 250 blacks in the violent crackdown that followed. Ended any idea that blacks were contented slaves.
William Lloyd Garrison founded The Liberator, an abolitionist newspaper, in 1831, little read till Nat Turner’s uprising later that year. Garrison believed in the immediate abolition of slavery, in blacks and whites living together as equals – radical stuff. He made an appeal to the moral conscience of slave owners in the South only to find that even whites in the North were mostly for slavery. He ran junk mail campaigns, boycotts, speaking tours and his newspaper to turn public opinion in the North. He burned the Constitution, calling it an agreement with hell. His radical views made Lincoln seem like the voice of reason.
Frederick Douglass, a former slave and great public speaker, wrote the best known first-hand account of American slavery: “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave” (1845). While the backbone of the abolitionist movement was black, the leadership was largely white. Douglass gave it a black voice and a black leader. He talked Lincoln out of sending blacks back to Africa.
Harriet Tubman a former slave who was the most successful “conductor” of the Underground Railroad: during the 1850s she went back south to help over 200 to escape slavery. She brought men to John Brown’s cause.
Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” (1852), a huge best-selling book that became a play. More than anything else it turned mainstream white opinion in the North against slavery. It did not use arguments or facts and figures. Instead it put white readers in the shoes of black slaves to show them what it felt like.
John Brown in 1859 took Harpers Ferry where the government kept 150,000 guns. He hoped to gain arms for a slave uprising in western Virginia. The government sent the Marines, put him on trial and hanged him. He became a hero throughout the North.
Abraham Lincoln as late as December 1862 was willing to let the South keep its slaves to make peace. In 1863 he turned: he championed the abolitionist cause in the Emancipation Proclamation and Gettysburg Address, in accepting blacks into the army. He pushed through the Thirteenth Amendment, outlawing slavery in 1865.