Abolitionism is the term used to describe the radical wing of the American antislavery movement during the 19th century. In the United States, the leading abolitionist was William Lloyd Garrison, a tenacious speaker, writer, organizer, and publisher who launched his influential periodical, The Liberator, in January 1831.

Abolitionism is distinguished by its opposition to gradualism. Thomas Jefferson and other gradualists, although condemning slavery as a horrendous evil, believed it should be phased out over many years so as to lessen the harmful effects on southern agriculture. Moreover, many gradualists believed that African Americans could not be successfully assimilated into American society. They supported a policy known as colonization, which called for freed slaves to be transported to colonies overseas.

Garrison and his followers, such as Wendell Phillips, were fierce critics not only of gradualism and colonization, but also of the racial prejudices that were endemic among many proponents of these schemes. They accordingly called for equal civil and political rights for African Americans.

The significance of abolitionism in the history of libertarian thought lies in its stress on self‐​ownership. The right of the slave to himself, Garrison argued, is “paramount to every other claim.” Hence, utilitarian considerations, such as the impact that abolition might have on the southern economy, should not override the moral right of the slave to his or herself. This moral argument was essential to the call for immediate abolition. Abolitionists knew the eradication of slavery would take time, even under the best of circumstances, but they insisted that no pragmatic considerations should take precedence over the moral claim of self‐​ownership.

This stress on self‐​ownership is illustrated by the label manstealer, which was often applied to the owners of slaves. Abolitionists viewed slavery as theft on a grand scale because the slave owner expropriated from the slave that which was properly his own—namely, his body, labor, and their fruits. This argument also was called on during the many debates about the biblical view of slavery. When abolitionists (many of whom were deeply religious) were pressed to cite biblical injunctions against slavery, they frequently appealed to the commandment, “Thou shalt not steal.”

Although abolitionists constituted a small minority even in those northern states where slavery had already been outlawed, their influence was considerable. Although all abolitionists were firmly opposed to slavery, there were a number of currents and cross‐​currents in this relatively small movement, some of which retain their theoretical interest today.

A major internal debate among abolitionists concerned the constitutionality of slavery. Garrison argued that, because the U.S. Constitution sanctioned slavery, it was “a covenant with death and an agreement with hell.” That is why the Garrisonians opposed any strategy that involved electoral politics as a means of ending slavery. In their view, a conscientious abolitionist could not hold political office because this would require the swearing of an oath to uphold and defend the Constitution.

A different view was expressed by the radical libertarian and abolitionist Lysander Spooner, who wrote numerous tracts defending the position that the U.S. Constitution, as interpreted within the framework of natural law, provides no legal warrant for slavery. Although Spooner opposed political strategies to end slavery on other grounds—he was essentially an anarchist in substance, if not in name—his arguments influenced Lewis and Arthur Tappan, Gerrit Smith, and other abolitionists who were active in the Liberty Party (which had been organized in 1839). Garrison, in addition to rejecting political strategies, was a pacifist who did not approve of violence as a means of combating slavery. Spooner and other abolitionists disagreed with Garrison on this issue as well; they believed that violence could legitimately be used in self‐​defense. Indeed, in 1858, Spooner published a broadside—“A Plan for the Abolition of Slavery”—that encouraged armed abolitionists to infiltrate the South, liberate slaves, and foment insurrections. After attaining their freedom, slaves were to receive restitution from the property of their former owners. Some historians believe that Spooner’s plan may have influenced John Brown’s unsuccessful raid on the armory at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, in October 1859. Another interesting split in the abolitionist movement was occasioned by Garrison’s argument that free states should secede from the Union and thereby make it easier for slaves to escape from the South. (The motto “No union with slaveholders” graced the front page of The Liberator for many years.) However, as Garrison later explained, when he put aside his pacifism to support the North during the Civil War, the right of secession applied states motivated by a just cause, so the South did not have this right and could be compelled to rejoin the Union.

Here again it was Lysander Spooner who proved to be the maverick among abolitionists. In three pamphlets bearing the title, “No Treason: The Constitution of No Authority,” Spooner defended the right of southern states to secede despite his vehement opposition to slavery. Spooner also gave an economic interpretation of the causes of the Civil War while downplaying the role of slavery in bringing about that conflict.

Further Readings

Garrison, William Lloyd. Documents of Upheaval: Selections from William Lloyd Garrison’s “The Liberator,” 1831–1865. Truman John Nelson, ed. New York: Hill & Wang, 1966.

Jaffa, Harry. A New Birth of Freedom: Abraham Lincoln and the Coming of the Civil War. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000.

Ruchames, Louis, ed. The Abolitionists; A Collection of Their Writing. New York: Putnam, 1963.

Spooner, Lysander. No Treason: The Constitution of No Authority. Boston: L. Spooner, 1867.

George H. Smith
Originally published