ABOLITIONISM In the usual sense of the term, abolitionism refers to the loosely organized northern movement during the mid-nineteenth century which advocated the destruction (abolition) of African American slavery in the United States. Anti-slavery sentiment (as opposed to abolitionism per se) had existed in varying degrees from the colonial period of American history onward. The typical proponent of antislavery sentiment was well-meaning, but moderate, content to hope for and at times (albeit rarely) advocate the painless and gradual extinction of the institution of slavery. To be sure, there were some exceptions to this general rule. The Society of Friends (Quakers), for example, is usually credited with being the only group to collectively advocate abolitionism during the pre-revolutionary era. The Quakers — at least after the conversion or expulsion of recalcitrant slave-owning members — believed that slavery was inconsistent and incompatible with the teachings of Jesus and, accordingly, Quaker activists such as Anthony Benezet set out to persuade non-Quakers as to the advisability and morality of abolitionism.
Antislavery sentiment increased measurably in the North as a result of the ideological implications of the American Revolution. The intellectual ferment of the eighteenth century Enlightenment and the libertarian principles of the revolutionary struggle with Great Britain combined to dramatically illustrate the ideological inconsistency of keeping slaves on the one hand while fighting for liberty on the other. This realization, coupled with Quaker activism, prompted northern state legislatures to provide for the gradual emancipation of slaves in the North by 1804; and this action, together with other antislavery measures such as the Northwest Ordinance (1787), and the establishment of the American Colonization Society (1816), provided a solid foundation for the emergence of the abolitionist movement of the 1830's.
Not satisfied with gradualism or with the use of indirect tactics, the abolitionists of the 1830's were decidedly activistic, calling for immediate action to eradicate the institution of slavery in the United States. Prominent among their ranks was William Lloyd Garrison, who founded the American Antislavery Society in 1833. Garrison was convinced that slavery was a sin and that the immediate uncompensated emancipation of all African American slaves was America's most urgent priority. As the result of the tireless efforts of Garrison and fellow-abolitionists Theodore Dwight Weld, Elijah Lovejoy and Theodore Parker, nearly 200,000 Americans had joined antislavery and abolitionist societies by 1850. In addition to these "card-carrying" abolitionists, historian John Garraty estimates that "many hundreds of thousands more had become what would today be called 'fellow travelers,' unwilling to stand up and be counted but generally sympathetic to the movement."
Although it is true that the abolitionists often could not agree upon exact tactics and strategy, they remained united as to their ultimate goal. As historian Richard 0. Curry has written, despite "divisions in their ranks and vilification and abuse by a hostile public, the abolitionists were a dedicated minority that could not be silenced." This lack of silence, of course, did much to intensify the sectional hostility which ultimately resulted in the American Civil War.