Militancy and the Abolitionist Movement

Essential Question

Did militancy help or hinder the abolitionist movement?



Although the original Constitution of the United States did not mention the word "slavery" in its text, it recognized the existence and legality of this institution. It protected the rights of slaveholders with regard to the return of runaway slaves, by increasing representation for slaveholders through the three-fifths compromise, and the slave trade would be continued for twenty years (until 1808). As the United States developed so did the national debate over slavery. The belief that slavery would gradually disappear in the decades after the American Revolution decreased as cotton production increased, and the nation became more reliant on the textile industry. Westward expansion and the settlement of new lands only fueled the growing debate over slavery.

By the 1830s, many southerners who had once defended slavery as a "necessary evil" now asserted that it was a "positive good." An increasing number of abolitionists, on the other hand, came to believe that slavery was a grave sin and an evil institution that should be ended immediately. In his denunciations of slavery, William Lloyd Garrison called the Constitution "a covenant with death" and "an agreement with hell." In response, southerners used their influence to pass a "gag rule" in Congress that prohibited anti-slavery petitions, restricted anti-slavery speech, and censored the US mail by prohibiting abolitionist literature from being sent to southern states. As both the abolitionists and the supporters of slavery became more entrenched in their positions, tempers flared, emotions heightened, and the fabric of the nation frayed into threats of secession and clouds of disunion.

Did the agitation and activities of the abolitionists advance or defeat their objective? The "essential question" posed as the aim of this lesson presents students with an open-ended, thought-provoking historical issue for their analysis and assessment.


As a result of this lesson, students will be able to:

  1. Analyze the methods and goals of the abolitionists in their crusade against slavery.
  2. Compare and contrast opinions of supporters and opponents of abolitionism.
  3. Evaluate the extent to which militancy helped or hindered the abolitionist cause.


Students should read the following contrasting viewpoints of the abolitionists by historians James Ford Rhodes and Avery Craven. Students can share their explanations of these viewpoints and ascertain the historical issue or question being raised by these historians.

"Abolitionism was an organized moral crusade centered in New England . . . to rid the nation of the sin of slavery. But the slaveholders, refusing to be moved by moral suasion and the principles of ‘true religion,’ made compromise impossible. Slavery, at war with the laws of God and nature, thus perished by the sword."
—James Ford Rhodes, Lectures on the American Civil War (New York: Macmillan, 1913)

"The abolitionists were irresponsible fanatics who bear the responsibility for the secession of the South and the outbreak of war in 1861. By their unceasing opposition to ‘sin’ and their unyielding attacks on the morals of slaveholders, the abolitionists succeeded only in convincing most Northerners that the South was a dangerous ‘slave power’ bent on destroying the American dream. . . . They created a psychological climate, North and South, where fear, hatred, and hysteria rather than reason prevailed. Civil War was then in the making."
—Avery Craven, The Coming of the Civil War (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957)

As an additional motivation, ask students to describe an issue or a situation today in which they would be eager and willing to participate in a protest activity and how this type of protest might affect the situation.


Students should read and discuss the significance of the document excerpts attached above. Teachers can decide whether the initial reading and discussion should be in small groups or general class discussion. Following these document excerpts there is a menu of thought-provoking questions to stimulate student discussion on the role and impact of the abolitionist movement.

Questions To Develop Student Discussion

  1. If you were debating John C. Calhoun and George Fitzhugh, how would you have responded to their arguments?
  2. Based on the readings, which viewpoint most closely corresponds with your own? Explain.
  3. Which statements would you characterize as moderate, and which ones would you characterize as militant? Explain and support your answer.
  4. Do you agree or disagree with Henry David Thoreau’s position on civil disobedience concerning slavery? Under what conditions do you think that civil disobedience is justified? Explain.
  5. Should the abolitionists be blamed for Southern secession from the Union and for the Civil War, or praised for bringing slavery to an end?
  6. Were the abolitionists’ militant rhetoric and actions necessary for the abolition of slavery? Explain your opinion.



  1. Students can compare the militant behavior and rhetoric of the abolitionists with reform movements from other historical periods and issues such as temperance and prohibition, voting rights and equality for women, civil rights for African Americans, conservation and environmental concerns, etc. The "essential question" posed in this lesson, as its primary learning objective, can readily be applied to any other reform movement in United States history.
  2. Students can be referred to the article "Abolitionist's Family Celebrated a Legacy of Nonconformity" in the New York Times (August 8, 2005),  This article highlights the family reunion of abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison’s descendents in Boston. Following the reading, students should be asked if this article helped to give them a better understanding of the abolitionist legacy.
  3. At the 1964 Republican convention, Barry Goldwater (the Republican nominee) stated in a speech that "extremism in the defence of liberty is no vice. Moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue." Would you agree or disagree with this statement? Explain.