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From Ohio History Central

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Levi Coffin

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Harriet B. Stowe

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John and Jane Rankin

Abolitionists were people who sought to end the institution of slavery.

As long as slavery existed, some opposed it and wished to see it abolished. Before the late 1700s, many abolitionists were currently slaves themselves or were former slaves who had gained their freedom. However, by the 1780s, other groups began to embrace the abolitionist cause, including people who were not of African descent.

In North America, one of the earliest groups to speak out against slavery was the Society of Friends, also known as the Quakers. The Quakers believed in an Inner Light. According to their religious beliefs a piece of God, the Inner Light existed in all human beings. Because God exists in all people, the Quakers opposed violence and war. During the late 1700s and the 1800s, the Society of Friends also protested against slavery. If God existed in all humans, how could another human, the Quakers pondered, own a piece of God?

Other whites began to oppose slavery during the late 1700s in the United States. Unlike the Quakers, most of them did not necessarily oppose slavery on religious grounds. Some whites in the U.S. contended that slave owners violated the principles that the Founding Fathers and the Declaration of Independence had established in 1776. They argued that whites were hypocrites for fighting for their own freedom from Great Britain during the American Revolution while keeping African Americans enslaved. Whites in the U.S. were not creating a country where all people had the right to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Many of these people believed that the young republic would fail if basic liberties were not guaranteed.

At the same time, other whites, including some slave owners, began to believe that slavery was no longer cost effective. Many farmers in the South used slave labor to grow tobacco. By the 1770s, the tobacco market had become glutted due to over-production. In some cases, it began to cost the slave owners more money to grow the crop than they received when they sold it. Some farmers switched to grain crops, which did not require the same number of workers as the tobacco crop did. As a result of these factors, some whites began to believe that slavery would soon come to an end.

Another group dedicated to slavery's abolition was the American Colonization Society. Founded in 1817, most members of the American Colonization Society came from religious groups, especially the Society of Friends, in the North; or were slave owners from states in the Upper South like Kentucky and Virginia. Many of the organization's members advocated gradual emancipation. In this way, slaves would gain their freedom slowly over time and in small numbers. Many Northern states passed laws in the late 1700s that stipulated a slave would gain his or her freedom upon reaching a certain age. Gradual emancipation laws would hopefully reduce the fears of reluctant whites. Many Northern and Southern whites opposed an end to slavery because they did not want to face competition from or live next to former slaves. To deal with these objections, the American Colonization Society proposed sending former slaves and other African Americans who had been born free to Liberia in Africa. The American Colonization Society also pressured the federal government to compensate slave owners who freed their slaves. By 1830, the American Colonization had managed to send only 1,400 African Americans to Liberia. More people were born into slavery every week in the United States than the American Colonization Society sent to Africa in an entire year.

During the 1830s, a new type of radical abolitionist appeared. These abolitionists called for the immediate end to slavery. One of the most prominent radical abolitionists was a man named William Lloyd Garrison. Garrison called for slavery's immediate end as well as equal rights for African Americans with whites. Not all radical abolitionists agreed with Garrison on the granting of equal rights to African Americans. However, they did declare that slavery was a crime against humanity and that it must end.

In 1831, Garrison began to publish an anti-slavery newspaper known as The Liberator. This paper's purpose was to educate white Northerners, many of whom had never seen a slave, about slavery's cruelty. By informing white Northerners about slavery's injustices, Garrison hoped to recruit members to the abolition movement. In 1833, he helped establish the American Anti-Slavery Society. This organization sent lecturers across the North to convince people of slavery's brutality. In 1839, the society split. Garrison and his supporters called for the creation of a new government that disallowed slavery from the very beginning. He contended that the United States Constitution was an illegal document for denying African Americans their freedom. If the South would not agree to create a new nation that outlawed slavery, Garrison argued that the North should secede from the United States and form its own country.

Other members of the American Anti-Slavery Society, including Salmon P. Chase and Joshua Giddings, contended that Garrison's views were too radical. They agreed that slavery was wrong but also said that the United States Constitution had created a legitimate government under which the people had the right to end oppression. Rather than threatening to break apart the United States, these abolitionists hoped to elect people of their beliefs to political office. Then the elected representatives could make laws outlawing slavery. To achieve this end, these abolitionists formed a political party, the Liberty Party. Over time, the Liberty Party evolved into the Free-Soil Party and eventually became part of the new Republican Party. This division between abolitionists remained until the end of the American Civil War. In 1865, the United States officially outlawed slavery with the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution.

Many Ohioans participated in the abolitionist movement. As in other parts of the United States, Quakers were the early leaders of the movement. In 1817, Quaker Charles Osborn, a resident of Mt. Pleasant, Ohio, published The Philanthropist, the first anti-slavery newspaper in the United States. In 1821, Benjamin Lundy, the "father of Abolitionism," began to publish his newspaper, the Genius of Universal Emancipation, in Mt. Pleasant as well. Ohio Quakers became active participants in the Underground Railroad. Men like Levi Coffin hid runaway slaves until they reached safety in Ohio, other Northern states, or Canada. While slavery was illegal in Ohio, the United States Constitution and the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 permitted slave owners to reclaim their runaway slaves, even if the African Americans now resided in a free state. To gain complete freedom, runaway slaves had to leave the United States. As a result, Underground Railroad stops were created in Ohio and other free states, providing runaway slaves with safe passage all of the way to Canada.

Perhaps the most famous Ohio participant on the Underground Railroad was John Rankin, a Presbyterian minister. He served as a "conductor" and opened his home in Ripley to African Americans seeking freedom. His home stood on a three hundred-foot high hill that overlooked the Ohio River. Rankin would signal fugitive slaves in Kentucky with a lantern, letting them know when it was safe for them to cross the river. He kept the runaways hidden until it was safe for them to travel further north. Rankin provided shelter and food to as many as two thousand runaway slaves during his career with the Underground Railroad. Harriet Beecher Stowe, another famous Ohio abolitionist, immortalized Rankin's efforts to help African Americans in her book, Uncle Tom's Cabin. Rankin's home was the first stop in Ohio for Eliza, one of the book's main characters, as she sought freedom in the North. Stowe wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin to inform Northern whites about slavery's brutality. In 1852 alone, Northerners purchased more than 300,000 copies of the book. Abraham Lincoln once claimed that Stowe and her book caused the Civil War.

While these abolitionists lived in a free state, they faced opposition from many whites. Most of these whites feared the end of slavery. They believed that African Americans would flee the South and come to the North, taking jobs away from white Ohioans. Some of these people also believed African Americans were inferior to whites, or the whites had economic ties to slaveholding states. On January 22, 1836, a group of white Cincinnatians urged their city government to keep James Birney from publishing his anti-slavery newspaper, The Philanthropist. Birney was undaunted. To prevent him from publishing, a mob of white Cincinnatians destroyed the newspaper's printing press on July 12, 1836. Undeterred, Birney remained in Cincinnati and continued to publish his newspaper. The mob returned on July 30, 1836, and once again destroyed his printing press. John Rankin also was a victim of mob violence from time to time. Pro-slavery advocates tried to embarrass him on one occasion by shaving his horse's tail and mane. Despite this opposition, Ohio's abolitionists remained committed to ending slavery.

See Also


  1. Kraditor, Aileen. Means and Ends in American Abolitionism: Garrison and His Critics on Strategy and Tactics, 1834-1850. New York, NY: Pantheon Books, 1969.  
  2. Blue, Frederick. No Taint of Compromise: Crusaders in Antislavery Politics. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2005.
  3. Litwack, Leon F. North of Slavery: The Negro in the Free States, 1790-1860. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1965.
  4. Mayer, Henry. All on Fire: William Lloyd Garrison and the Challenge of Emancipation. New York, NY: St. Martin's Press, 1998.  
  5. McKivigan, John R., and Stanley Harrold, eds. Antislavery Violence: Sectional, Racial, and Cultural Conflict in Antebellum America. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1999.
  6. Merrill, Walter. Against Wind and Tide: A Biography of William Lloyd Garrison. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1965.  
  7. Middleton, Stephen. The Black Laws: Race and the Legal Process in Early Ohio. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2005.  
  8. Parker, John P. His Promised Land: The Autobiography of John P. Parker, Former Slave and Conductor on the Underground Railroad. New York, NY: W.W. Norton, 1996.  
  9. Ruchames, Louis, and Merrill, Walter, eds. The Letters of William Lloyd Garrison, 1805-1879. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1970-1979.  
  10. Stewart, James Brewer. Holy Warriors: The Abolitionists and American Slavery. New York, NY: Hill and Wang, 1996.  
  11. Stewart, James Brewer. William Lloyd Garrison and the Challenge of Emancipation. Arlington Heights, IL: Harlan Davidson, Inc., 1992.  
  12. Thomas, John L. The Liberator, William Lloyd Garrison: A Biography. Boston, MA: Little, Brown, and Company, 1963.