Frederick Douglass Project: In the Classroom: The Abolitionist Movement Packet

Frederick Douglass Project site menu
Home Letters Images Writings Internships For Teachers Links Search

Douglass in the Classroom


The Crusade to End Slavery

Am I Not a Man and a Brother? The growth of public opposition to slavery represents one of the largest and most significant reform movements in American history. The turning point in the debate over slavery occurred during the 1830s, with the reorganization of the northern abolitionist movement. Before that time, most abolitionists had hoped to bring about an end to slavery by resettling African Americans in Africa or the Caribbean. Members of the American Colonization Society (ACS), formed in 1817 by a group of white Virginians, proposed that southern slaveholders should receive monetary compensation for the loss of their slaves after they were freed. These individuals strove to end slavery while working within the system, careful not to threaten the property rights of slaveholders or arouse too much hostility among them. Ultimately, the movement to resettle African Americans proved to be too large of an undertaking to work, and gradually petered out.

Under the guidance of leaders like William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Beecher Stowe, the abolitionist movement expanded during the 1830s, becoming increasingly strident and forceful over the next three decades. Breaking ranks with their predecessors, these new anti-slavery activists began to call for the immediate emancipation of slaves and to reject more moderate proposals for reform. They believed the newly manumitted slaves should be permitted to remain in the US and should be granted the full rights of American citizenship. They also began to attack slavery from a religious perspective and attempted to define the debate over slavery as a spiritual and moral issue. Northern abolitionists employed a variety of tactics to win converts to their cause, chief of which was the publication and distribution of literature dedicated to the eradication of slavery in the United States.

The following documents have all been taken from this enormous, and influential, body of work. As you examine them, try to pay special consideration to the writer's agenda, his or her potential biases and assumptions, and the strategies that he or she uses to condemn slavery. You should use the discussion questions listed at the end to guide your analysis. Be prepared to share your answers to these questions with the rest of the class.

Image source: (Frontispiece) Whittier, John Greenleaf. Poems written during the progress of the abolition question in the United States, between the years 1830-1838 (Boston, I. Knapp, 1837).

The Golden Rule

Excerpt from Angelina Grimké, Appeal to the Christian Women of the South.

I appeal to you, my friends, as mothers; Are you willing to enslave your children? You start back with horror and indignation at such a question. But why, if slavery is no wrong to those upon whom it is imposed? Why, if as has often been said, slaves are happier than their masters, free from the cares and perplexities of providing for themselves and their families? Why not place your children in the way of being supported without your having the trouble to provide for them, or they for themselves? Do you not perceive that as soon as this golden rule of action is applied to yourselves that you involuntarily shrink from the test; as soon as your actions are weighed in this balance of the sanctuary that you are found wanting? Try yourselves by another of the Divine precepts, "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself." Can we love a man as we love ourselves if we do, and continue to do unto him, what we would not wish any one to do to us? Look too, at Christ's example, what does he say of himself, "I came not to be ministered unto, but to minister." Can you for a moment imagine the meek, and lowly, and compassionate Saviour, a slaveholder? Do you not shudder at this thought as much as at that of his being a warrior? But why, if slavery is not sinful?

Source: Grimké, Angelina. Appeal to the Christian women of the south ( New York: New York Anti-Slavery Society 1836).

The Horrible Inconsistencies of Slavery in a Christian Nation

Excerpt from Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.

Indeed, I can see no reason, but the most deceitful one, for calling the religion of this land Christianity. I look upon it as the climax of all misnomers, the boldest of all frauds, and the grossest of all libels. Never was there a clearer case of "stealing the livery of the court of heaven to serve the devil in." I am filled with unutterable loathing when I contemplate the religious pomp and show, together with the horrible inconsistencies, which every where surround me. We have men-stealers for ministers, women-whippers for missionaries, and cradle-plunderers for church members. The man who wields the blood-clotted cowskin during the week fill the pulpit on Sunday, and claims to be a minister of the meek and lowly Jesus. The man who robs me of my earnings at the end of each week meets me as a class-leader on Sunday morning, to show me the way of life, and the path of salvation. He who sells my sister, for purposes of prostitution, stands forth as the pious advocate of purity. He who proclaims it a religious duty to read the Bible denies me the right of learning to read the name of the God who made me. He who is the religious advocate of marriage robs whole millions of its sacred influence, and leaves them to the ravages of wholesale pollution. The warm defender of the sacredness of the family relation is the same that scatters whole families, -- sundering husbands and wives, parents and children, sisters and brothers, -- leaving the hut vacant and the heart desolate. We see the thief preaching against theft, and the adulterer against adultery. We have men sold to build churches, women sold to support the gospel, and babes sold to purchase Bibles for the poor heathen! All for the glory of God and the good of souls."

Source: Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass (Boston: Anti-Slavery Office, 1845)

"Effects of the Fugitive Slave Law"

Effects of the Fugitive Slave Law print

Abolitionists published this print in 1850. It depicts a group of six armed white men attacking four black men (possibly freedmen) in a cornfield. Below the picture are two quotes, one taken from the Bible and the other from the Declaration of Independence:

"Thou shalt not deliver unto the master his servant which has escaped from his master unto thee. He shall dwell with thee. Even among you in that place which he shall choose in one of thy gates where it liketh him best. Thou shalt not oppress him."

"We hold that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

Image source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division <>

"Gordon under Medical Inspection"

Gordon Under Medical Inspection


This illustration, based on a photograph, originally appeared in Harper's Weekly in 1863. It depicts an escaped slave who made it across Union lines. His back bears the scars he received from his master's lash.

Source: "Gordon under medical inspection." (1863, July 4). Harper's Weekly, p. 429.

"Family Amalgamation among the Men-Stealers"

Family Amalgamation among the Men-stealers

Abolitionists published this illustration in 1834. It depicts a southern family dinner, in which a slave joins his father/owner at the table.

Source: Bourne, George. Picture of slavery in the United States of America. Middletown, Conn.: E. Hunt, 1834, p. 91.
Image source:
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division <>

The Land of the Free (and the Home of the Oppressed)

land of the free and home of the oppressed Broadside

The American Anti-Slavery Society published this broadside in 1836. The top features two contrasting images: a picture of the founding fathers reading the Declaration of Independence, labeled "The Land of the Free," and one of a group of slaves being led past the Capital building, dubbed "The Home of the Oppressed." The following two lines contain images depicting the Washington slave trade, including illustrations of various slave auction houses, pens, and the port where slaves were loaded onto ships for transport to other parts of the country.

Image source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division <>

"Am I Not a Man and a Brother?"

The American Anti-Slavery Society published this broadside in 1837. It features a large image of a supplicant male slave draped in chains. Underneath, the caption reads, "Am I Not a Brother and a Man?"

In addition to image, the broadside includes two striking quotes. The first is a warning taken from the Bible: "He that stealeth a man and selleth him.shall surely be put to death (Exodus XXI, 16)." The second represents a more contemporary claim: "England has 800,000 Slaves, and she has made them FREE. America has 2,250,000! And she HOLDS THEM FAST!!!" The poem, "Our countrymen in chains," was written by John Greenleaf Whittier. The text is available here.

Image source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division <>

A Greater Sin

Excerpt from a letter that J.W. Loguen wrote to his former mistress, printed in the anti-slavery newspaper, The Liberator, in 1854.

You say you have offers to buy me, and that you shall sell me if I do not send your $1000, and in the same breath and almost in the same sentence, you say "You know we raised you as we did our own children." Woman, did you raise your own children for the market? Did you raise them for the whipping post? Did you raise them to be driven off, bound to a coffle in chains? Shame on you! But you say I am a thief, because I took the old mare along with me. Have you got to learn that I had a better right to the old mare, as you call her, than [Master] Logue has to me? Is it a greater sin for me to steal his horse, than it was for him to rob my mother's cradle, and steal me?...Have you got to learn than human rights are mutual and reciprocal, and if you take my liberty and life, you forfeit your own liberty and life? Before God and high heaven, is there a law for one man which is not a law for every other man?

Source: The Liberator, 1854.

Nothing but Crime Can Forfeit Liberty

Excerpt from a letter that Theodore Weld wrote to William Lloyd Garrison.

Weld begins by stating that he is unfamiliar with the exact philosophy and goals of the New England Anti-Slavery Society, but adds that

"...its expressive name is dear to my soul. From that I infer that the Society is based on that great bottom law of human right, that nothing but crime can forfeit liberty. That no condition of birth, no shade of color, no mere misfortune of circumstances, can annul that birthright charter, which God has bequeathed to every being upon whom he has stamped his own image, by making him a free moral agent, and that he who robs his fellow man of this tramples upon right, subverts justice, outrages humanity, unsettles the foundation of human safety, and sacrilegiously assumes the prerogative of God."

Source: Weld to Garrison, January 2, 1833, in Barnes, Gilbert H., and Dwight L. Dumonds (eds.), Letters of Theodore Weld, Angelina Grimke Weld, and Sarah Grimke Weld, 1822-1844 (New York: D. Appleton Century Company, 1934).

The Fugitive's Song

Sheet music of The Fugitive's Song

Throughout the antebellum period, it was relatively common for abolitionists to try to express themselves through song and verse. The cover of this sheet-music shows a fictionalized and inaccurate version of Frederick Douglass's escape from slavery (he actually escaped by ship). In the picture, a barefoot Douglass flees from two mounted pursuers who appear across the river behind him with their pack of dogs. Ahead, to the right, a signpost points toward New England.

Image source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division <>

Discussion Questions

Please answer the following questions for each document:

  1. What is the purpose of this document? What does the composer want us to know?
  2. Who is the composer's intended audience? How might this have influenced the work?
  3. How are various groups of people portrayed in this document? Whose views are excluded or privileged?
  4. What strategy does the composer use to attack slavery? Is it effective? Why or why not?
  5. What kind of knowledge does the reader need in order to understand this document?
  6. If you were an African American living in the nineteenth century, how do you think you would have reacted to this document? How would you have reacted if you were a white northerner? A white southerner?

Additional Resources: