Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Abolitionists and Emancipationists - Common End, Different Means.

One thing that I have noticed while studying the history of slavery in America is that many people get confused in trying to differentiate between emancipationists and abolitionists, which as you will see, is quite easy to do. While individuals from both camps wanted their destination to be the eventual end of slavery, they had different ideas of how to get there.

First, abolitionists were those people who wanted the immediate and uncompensated end of slavery; and yesterday was not soon enough. Men and women such as William Lloyd Garrison (above left), Gerrit Smith, Frederick Douglass, John Brown, Wendell Phillips, Angelina Grimke, Julia War Howe, and Lydia Maria Child were all of this belief. Many abolitionists saw the Constitution as sanctioning slavery and thus a "pact with the devil." God's law was to be upheld, not man's law. These people were seen as radical in their time by the majority of Americans, and made up only a small percentage of the population, but they were visible and vocal. Through speeches, newspapers, handbills, and congressional petitions they kept the slavery issue on the front burner and in America's face.

Emancipationists too wanted to see the end of slavery, but they did not think that the immediate release of almost 4 million slaves was a good idea. They instead thought that a gradual plan such as freeing slaves when they reached a certain age, or colonizing the freed slaves to another country, say Liberia, or a Caribbean, or South or Central American country would be best. The colonizationists did not see how blacks and whites could practically live integrated in the same country, so the freed slaves would be deported. Emancipationists were usually conservative minded individuals who saw the Constitution as being an obstacle, and that slave owners should be compensated for their "property" losses. People such as Abraham Lincoln (for the majority of his career), Henry Clay, and Cassius Clay were all what I would term emancipationists. These men were often progressive thinking individuals who had lived or were raised where slavery was practiced and thus to some degree were influence by its mere presence.

To make things even more muddy, there were gradations and different levels of commitment to both abolitionists and emancipationists. For example, there were militant unequivocal abolitionists who accepted the use of violence as being necessary to end slavery. John Brown was probably the foremost militant abolitionist. The opposite was the pacifist abolitionist such as William Lloyd Garrison, who preferred education and persuasion instead of violent action. There were also those in the middle that gravitated from side to side when they felt it necessary. Gerrit Smith for instance worked hard funding Underground Railroad operations, but he also helped fund John Brown's Kansas activities and the famous Harper's Ferry Raid. On the emancipationist side, there were those who owned slaves, but wanted to see the practice ended. And, there were those that wanted slavery ended, but again, have blacks removed. And there were those that were once pro-slavery, then turned emancipationist, then became abolitionist over their lifetimes.

So, on a sliding scale to measure those wanting an end to slavery, there were those that wanted it yesterday and those that saw it ending in the future but were in no hurry to get there, and those that filled just about any position in between.


  1. I'm studying this topic in my Kentucky History class at Western Kentucky University. This was an insightful article and was very clear in its message.

  2. As an author of historical fiction, having recently tried to bring out this point in my young adult work, "Just Following Orders: Escape from Guerrilla Warfare in 1863," I am adding this to my list of important resources for my readers. Thanks so very much for how you've made the point so succinctly.

  3. Thanks for posting this--I appreciate your effort. Not nearly enough people who need to read it will, but I hope those who do will be inspired to read further.