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Unit 3: Abolition and the Civil War

Suggested Activities

Abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass

Era 4: Expansion and Reform
Era 5: Civil War and Reconstruction

  1. The portrait of William Lloyd Garrison was painted in 1833, the same year he founded the American Anti-Slavery Society, the most radical branch of the abolition movement. Briefly describe the American Anti-Slavery Society, including its membership and method of operation.

    What were William Lloyd Garrison's basic ideas about abolitionism? Why were they so controversial? If Garrison had not been such a strong voice for abolitionism, do you think the Civil War would have started sooner or later than it did? Why?
    [Standard 5—historical issues-analysis and decision-making]

The American Anti-Slavery Society promoted the cause of immediate abolition of slavery. The society sponsored meetings, signed antislavery petitions for Congress, published journals, distributed written propaganda, and circulated speakers to broadcast the message of abolition. It was primarily populated by people involved in religious groups, philanthropic organizations, and members of the free-black community.

Although originally an advocate of gradual abolition, by 1830 Garrison had denounced his earlier position and forcefully demanded immediate emancipation and the subsequent incorporation of freedmen into American society. (See a copy of Garrison's famous January 1, 1831, article in his newspaper The Liberator at He condemned the United States Constitution because it tolerated the evil of slavery. Garrison called for the peaceful separation of northern states from slaveholding states in the South.

Abolitionists were a minority in American society, and Garrison's views were particularly controversial because of their uncompromising tone. Whereas some abolitionists urged a more gradual end to slavery, Garrison was passionate in his commitment to complete and immediate freedom for slaves.

Garrison's success in publicizing his abolitionist views may have created the impression that the abolitionist movement had more widespread acceptance than it really did. As a result, southern states may have prematurely sought aggressive means to resolve the impasse. On the other hand, Garrison's call for peaceful secession may have delayed armed conflict.

William Lloyd Garrison (1805–1879)
Nathaniel Jocelyn (1796–1881)
Oil on wood panel, 1833
Bequest of Garrison Norton

  1. This portrait of Garrison was commissioned by the artist's brother, Simeon Jocelyn, an engraver and a supporter of abolitionism. He planned to make an engraving of this painting and to use the proceeds from the sale of copies to help fund the antislavery cause. Jocelyn also thought that making a portrait of Garrison available to the public would help elevate Garrison's public image. Why did Garrison's public image need a boost? In general, how was he regarded by people in the North? In the South?
    [Standard 4—historical research capabilities]

Garrison's public image needed a boost because his passionate and uncompromising support of abolitionism was not well received by the majority of American citizens. Southern states depended upon slavery for their livelihood and reacted against Garrison to protect their economic interests. Georgia, for example, offered a reward for his arrest and conviction in 1831. Not just southerners despised Garrison, however. Northern mobs attacked African Americans and stormed abolitionist meetings to show their objection to the antislavery message. Being a leading spokesman for the abolitionist movement, Garrison was a lightning rod for hate mail and threats of assassination.

  1. Frederick Douglass was twenty-one years old when he escaped slavery on a Maryland plantation and fled to New York City, ultimately settling in Massachusetts. Using Douglass's autobiography Life and Times of Frederick Douglass as your primary source (visit douglass/duglas11.txt), research Douglass's flight to freedom. How did he travel? Did anyone assist him? How long did the journey take? Plot his trip on a historical map to estimate the number of miles he traveled on his journey.

    From the 1830s through the Civil War, many slaves escaped to freedom in the North or Canada through the Underground Railroad. What was the Underground Railroad and how did it operate? Who ran it and approximately how many slaves escaped via this system? Define the terminology associated with the Underground Railroad.
    [Standard —historical comprehension]

Douglass left Baltimore, Maryland, by train on September 3, 1838, and traveled to Wilmington, Delaware, disguised as a free sailor. In Wilmington he boarded a steamboat to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and from there took a train to New York City. He arrived in New York on September 4, 1838. Douglass traveled approximately two hundred miles in one day and night and was assisted by friends who provided money, advice, and official travel papers.

The Underground Railroad was a loosely organized escape route that reached its peak of operation between 1830 and 1865. It was not a railroad at all, but a network of paths, river crossings, boats, wagons, trains, and hiding places such as barns, churches, and private homes. Abolitionists, free blacks, and any other citizens sympathetic to the plight of fugitive slaves provided clandestine assistance. The escaping slaves were called passengers; the homes where slaves were sheltered were called stations; and those who gave assistance were called conductors. Approximately one hundred thousand slaves escaped to freedom using the Underground Railroad.

Frederick Douglass (1817–1895)
Unidentified artist
Oil on canvas, circa 1844

  1. Douglass and Garrison shared many of the same views about abolitionism. By the late 1840s, however, the two men became allied with different factions of the antislavery movement. What specific issues did they disagree upon? How did the views of Douglass and Garrison compare to the official platform adopted by the Republican Party in 1856?
    [Standard 3—historical analysis and interpretation]

Douglass's publication of his own abolitionist newspaper, The North Star, marked the beginning of his independence from Garrison. Douglass started to question Garrison's views that violent resistance to slavery was wrong, believing that slaves had the right to gain their freedom by any means possible. He also disagreed with Garrison's interpretation of the United States Constitution as a pro-slavery document, realizing that the South would never abolish slavery if it could only be done by dividing the Union and dismantling the Constitution. Douglass began to seek antislavery reforms through the political process, a method that Garrison opposed. The antislavery issue entered mainstream American politics through the Republican Party. At its first national convention in 1856, the party was united in opposition to slavery in general and to the Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854) in particular. The Republicans maintained that Congress did not have the right to recognize slavery in the territories and should therefore abolish slavery there immediately.

  1. Both Garrison and Douglass published abolitionist newspapersCGarrison published The Liberator, and Douglass published The North Star. As a class project, "publish" an issue of one of these papers. Include articles exploring a variety of antislavery topics, letters to the editor, and relevant illustrations.
    [Standard 4—historical research capabilities]

Some ideas for inclusion in an abolitionist paper are: excerpts from articles written by Garrison and Douglass (visit, creative responses to these articles in the form of letters to the editor, selected slave narratives (visit, and cartoons or posters (visit or


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