The revivalism that spread across the country during the antebellum era also gave rise to numerous social reform movements, which challenged Americans to improve themselves and their communities. Because revivalism and reform went hand in hand, many prominent reformers were women. Denied roles in politics or in the new market economy, women found that they could make a difference through championing social change. These women reformers often fought for a variety of causes at the same time: for instance, the women’s suffrage movement was closely tied to the abolitionist movement.
The abolitionist movement sought to eradicate slavery in the United States. Prominent leaders in the movement included Theodore Weld, Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, Elijah P. Lovejoy, and William Lloyd Garrison, among others. Garrison, a radical abolitionist who called for immediate emancipation, became infamous when he started an antislavery newspaper, The Liberator, in 1831. His articles were so vitriolic that warrants for his arrest were issued in the South. Garrison and Weld also founded the American Anti-slavery Society in 1833.
Although the North was the hotbed of the abolitionist movement, not all northerners were abolitionists: many felt ambivalent toward emancipation or were downright against it. Trade unions and wage workers, for example, feared that if slavery were abolished, they would have to compete with free blacks for jobs (an argument also used by pro-slavery southerners). Most public figures and politicians shunned abolitionists for their radicalism and unwillingness to compromise. Even the “Great Emancipator” Abraham Lincoln, though more open to abolitionism, was wary of radical abolitionists.
The antebellum period was marked by several major slave uprisings. In 1822, a former slave named Denmark Vesey planned to lead eighty slaves in a revolt in Charleston, South Carolina. Although Vesey’s plans failed, southerners became terrified of losing control over slaves. In 1831, another slave, Nat Turner, led a bloody slave uprising in Virginia.
Because William Lloyd Garrison published the first edition of The Liberator the same year as Turner’s uprising, many southerners jumped to the conclusion that Garrison had incited the rebellions with his antislavery rhetoric. Furthermore, former slave Frederick Douglass became a celebrity in the North when he published his experiences in A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass in 1845.
As the abolitionist movement grew, it became more of an organized political force. The movement grew to be so noisome that the House of Representatives actually passed a gag resolution in 1836 to squelch all further discussion of slavery. Several years later, in 1840, the abolitionists organized into a party, the Liberty Party.