"Abolition’s First Wave" by Sean Wilentz (NYRB)



[NDLR : Réflexions et histoire sur le premier mouvement abolitionniste américain. Précieux. JLPujo]

Standard-Bearers of Equality: America’s First Abolition Movement

by Paul J. Polgar

Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture/ University of North Carolina Press, 342 pp., $39.95


Le 14 mai 2020

William Lloyd Garrison stands in history alongside Frederick Douglass as the preeminent leader of the American abolitionist movement. According to his close coworker Wendell Phillips, there was barely a ripple of antislavery excitement anywhere in the country when Garrison, with miraculous acumen, became “the first man to begin a movement designed to annihilate slavery.” Thereafter, as the editor of the premier abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator, which he founded in Boston in 1831, Garrison struck at what he called the root of American slavery’s evil: in 1854 he publicly burned a copy of the US Constitution, which he denounced as a proslavery “covenant with death.” Only by renouncing the nation’s evil politics and repudiating any union with slaveholders, Garrison declared, could America hope to eradicate slavery and the more general oppression of blacks.

Garrison’s legend survives among historians of the Civil War era, some of whom regard him as the model American radical whose condemnations of racist American democracy were historically accurate as well as morally admirable. Lionizing Garrison in this way, though, exaggerates his influence, distorts the chronology of abolitionist agitation, and misconstrues his most important political insight—an insight not his alone—about the need to transform a struggling antislavery effort into an all-out militant campaign.1

Despite his fame, Garrison and his so-called Boston clique of devotees represented a decided minority of the abolitionist movement. His version of what became known as “immediatist” abolitionism, which emphasized moral suasion and condemned electoral politics as inherently corrupting, did not command the larger following gained by rival abolitionists. Neither did Garrison’s insistence on instantly abolishing racial discrimination as well as slavery, nor his push to agitate over other injustices, notably the subordination of women. Although Garrison’s rivals were closely allied with him through the 1830s, they proposed an urgent but more gradual emancipation, within the limits of the Constitution, and they wanted, as Garrison did not, to concentrate strictly on ending slavery. Their efforts in the 1840s focused on mounting third-party political campaigns that Garrison denounced, and that led, in the 1850s, to the creation of the Republican Party and the political crisis that brought the Civil War and Emancipation.

Garrison’s renown did make him, until his death in 1879, the personal embodiment of the abolitionist movement. Understandably, he was beloved by African-Americans, including the throngs of black South Carolinians, among them thousands of newly freed slaves, who hailed him as a hero when he visited Charleston shortly after the Civil War ended. Still, by the 1850s, Garrison’s increasingly scathing antipolitical perfectionism had become counterproductive, and his authority within the growing antislavery movement declined. Garrison’s denunciations of American political institutions led to a particularly bitter break with Douglass, who came to regard the Constitution as an antislavery instrument: “a GLORIOUS LIBERTY DOCUMENT.

A fixation on Garrison further distorts the history of abolitionism by obscuring the considerable antislavery agitation that predated 1830. In 1825, years before Garrison evinced any interest in slavery, a prominent South Carolina planter published a tract warning that Yankee antislavery fanatics and demagogues had fomented a “momentous crisis” to which the South needed to awaken. Five years earlier, amid the controversies over Missouri’s admission to the Union as a slave state, growing numbers of northerners embraced the veteran Philadelphia editor William Duane’s call for slavery’s “speedy and gradual abolition—and for its ultimate extinction.”2

Historians have only recently begun to rediscover and fully appreciate these pre-Garrison efforts and others dating back to the American Revolution, to which the distinguished historian of slavery Ira Berlin referred in the title of his last book, The Long Emancipation (2015). Manisha Sinha, in her comprehensive history of the abolitionist movement, The Slave’s Cause (2016), has described the activities of Garrison’s generation as a “second wave” of abolitionism.3 Slavery was established everywhere in revolutionary America, but the North, at least, was abuzz with antislavery protests and politics, initially seeking the abolition of slavery in New England and the Middle States—the first organized antislavery political efforts in the Atlantic world, predating the British by more than a decade. These activities, as Sinha demonstrates, continued through the 1820s—not at all “a footnote in the history of antislavery,” she writes, but a matrix from which sprang “many of the tactics and ideas used by their successors in the antebellum period.”4

Paul J. Polgar’s Standard-Bearers of Equality: America’s First Abolition Movement is the most thorough study to date of this early abolitionist wave. It shows definitively that Wendell Phillips was wrong: Garrison was hardly the first man to begin a movement dedicated to slavery’s abolition. With analytic subtlety as well as deep archival research, Polgar reveals how relatively privileged northern whites worked closely with blacks, pushing first to eliminate slavery in their own states, then to protect and expand African-Americans’ civil rights, and then to promote abolition throughout the country.

In contrast to an older literature that emphasized the limitations of efforts to end slavery in the North, Polgar shows that they required fearless, imaginative, and resolute political activism to overcome powerful proslavery interests. Without exaggerating either his subjects’ radicalism or their effectiveness, he examines how Enlightenment ideas informed battles to achieve an America free of racial injustice as well as of slavery.5 Finally, his account illuminates how second-wave abolitionism, including Garrison, arose, building directly on the first wave. With that, his book clarifies why Garrison and his allies were actually so important.

Although what he calls the first abolitionist movement arose during the revolution and its immediate aftermath, Polgar is careful not to overstate the revolution’s antislavery character. The rupture with Britain did not initiate antislavery activity in America: Quaker humanitarians, particularly in Pennsylvania, had agitated against slavery among their fellow Friends since the 1680s. Nor did revolutionary politics and thought lead irrevocably to antislavery positions, least of all in the lower South, where slaveholders upheld slavery as perfectly compatible with the patriot cause. These slaveholders, moreover, established a commanding voice in national politics, which they held for decades to come. Quoting the historian Christopher Leslie Brown, Polgar asserts that “most in Revolutionary America cared much less about the problem of slavery than the few abolitionists active at the time.” Yet he also demonstrates that the small abolitionist minority was intensely committed and, in significant ways, highly disruptive.

Polgar focuses on the two oldest, largest, and most active of the early abolitionist organizations: the Pennsylvania Abolition Society (PAS) in Philadelphia, originally formed under a different name in 1775, then revived in 1784 and reorganized in 1787; and the New-York Society for Promoting the Manumission of Slaves (NYMS), founded in Manhattan in 1785.6 Antislavery agitation was already making headway in their respective states: in 1780 the Pennsylvania legislature enacted the first gradual emancipation law in history, granting freedom to the children of enslaved mothers, though with a stipulated period of indentured service; and five years later, the same year the NYMS was formed, New York lawmakers came very close to passing a more radical emancipation bill of their own.7 But the PAS and NYMS were all the more auspicious because they were located in the largest African-American population centers in the North, which brought them into direct contact with enslaved as well as free blacks, including several intrepid black abolitionists and a variety of black churches and mutual aid societies whose work complemented their own. Those connections, slighted until recently, turned into a crucial working alliance across the color line that fortified the first movement’s larger egalitarian vision.

The first abolitionist movement was very much an eighteenth-century undertaking, reflecting an era before the rise of mass political parties and reform organizations. In their social tone, the PAS and NYMS had much in common with the upper-class fraternal and charitable societies that proliferated in America’s early cities, groups that with a kind of republican noblesse oblige promoted improvements ranging from alleviating the miseries of public prisons to providing medical relief for the poor. The first movement’s numbers—Polgar reckons roughly twelve hundred members joined the PAS before 1840—were tiny compared to the tens and possibly hundreds of thousands who would join the leading abolitionist group of the 1830s, the American Antislavery Society. Membership was based on formal election and payment of annual dues, and the societies went out of their way to recruit eminent men, especially political notables like Benjamin Franklin, John Jay, and Alexander Hamilton. Above all, every member was white; the NYMS even admitted slaveholders.

The first movement’s rhetoric furthermore exuded a respectability and deference to the law that, looking back, appears meek in the face of the enormity of human bondage. With a faith in rational human progress and a conviction that slavery could succumb to judicious antislavery action, theirs was a distinctly gradualist vision of emancipation. Slavery’s destruction, they believed, demanded persistent incremental change undertaken within the nation’s newly established political system, beginning state by state in the North, then spreading to the border states as well as Virginia where antislavery opinion was also on the rise, and eventually overtaking the lower South. That gradual process would preclude violent convulsions; it would also give the formerly enslaved as well as their former masters time to adjust to the unprecedented realities of truly universal freedom. First-wave abolitionists actively discouraged displays of passionate, disrespectful dissent; they aimed their appeals at the intellect, not the emotions. And such measured reformism makes all the more understandable the abolitionist societies’ enduring reputation as conservative philanthropies.8

Certain aspects of that reputation have already come into question. Despite the societies’ formal restrictions, for example, their membership and leadership were hardly limited to local elites. This was especially true for the PAS, in which, as Gary B. Nash and Jean R. Soderlund have shown, middling shopkeepers and artisans greatly outnumbered wealthy merchants and professionals.9

Polgar’s book demolishes the societies’ polite image with respect to their ideas and actions as well as their following. Although they disdained confrontational radicalism and could not conceive of mass organizing, the first-wave abolitionists were, in their late-eighteenth-century way, deeply impressive in their activism, which took three basic forms.

First, on a day-to-day basis, the societies organized teams of highly skilled lawyers to work with enslaved as well as free blacks, particularly in cases challenging slaveholders’ property claims to individual slaves. Far from genteel do-gooders, these lawyers and their lay assistants became vital partners for blacks seeking to gain or protect their freedom in prolonged and sometimes ferocious legal battles against implacable slaveholders. Between 1784 and 1801, the NYMS and PAS lawyers won the vast majority of cases recorded as resolved, securing freedom for, at a minimum, a combined total of more than three hundred black men, women, children, and almost certainly many more than that.

Second, as part of their shared struggle alongside black activists, the societies provided important educational opportunities to black children, free and enslaved. Most notably the NYMS in 1787 founded an African Free School, whose graduates included some of the most notable black abolitionists of the pre–Civil War era, including Henry Highland Garnet and Alexander Crummell.

Finally, the societies undertook political work, which included petitioning and lobbying state legislatures either for a gradual emancipation law (New York) or the enforcement of existing emancipation legislation (Pennsylvania). Historians generally cast these gradual laws as grudging at best, granting freedom not to slaves but to their children, and even then demanding up to twenty-eight years of service before those children were fully free. So gradual was gradual emancipation that there were still a handful of slaves in New Jersey when the Thirteenth Amendment was ratified in 1865. Yet as the first such legislative emancipations ever, denying what powerful slaveholders insisted were their vested rights to property in humans, the laws marked a fundamental break with the past. To the abolitionists, they represented but a first step toward the full emancipation they sought.10

Once gradual emancipation had been enacted, the societies appealed to state legislators for further reforms, including banning the sale of slaves out of state and legalizing slave marriage—agitation that in New York led to the enactment of the first general emancipation law in the nation’s history in 1817, which granted freedom to every enslaved person in the state as of 1827. Acting sometimes on their own and sometimes in concert with other local societies, the groups also prevailed on Congress to do what it could under the Constitution to hasten the demise of slavery as well as the Atlantic slave trade, beginning with a petition signed by the PAS’s president, Benjamin Franklin, that roiled the House of Representatives in 1790.

They did these things not simply to end racial slavery but to promote racial equality. Accounts fixated on Garrison have left the impression that antislavery idealism among whites that was also antiracist only began in the 1830s, when their hero joined with black activists to excoriate white supremacy. To the contrary, Polgar shows that antiracism emboldened the first abolitionist movement as well. From its inception, the NYMS declared its intention to enable blacks “to share, equally with us, in that civil and religious Liberty…to which these, our Brethren are by nature, as much entitled as ourselves,” a sentiment the PAS also upheld. Eradicating slavery, the abolitionists believed, was only, as the 1780 Pennsylvania emancipation law proclaimed, “one more Step to universal Civilization,” which would bring, in time, an end to racial hatred as well as racial injustice.

Sometimes, Polgar concedes, the Enlightenment precepts that informed the abolitionists’ thinking seemed to limit their idealism as much as to ignite it. Rejecting theories that held that Africans and Europeans were descended from different species, the abolitionists denounced assertions of black inferiority that were central to the defense of slavery. It was racial bondage and the broader prejudices it engendered, they insisted, and not nature or divine providence, that prevented blacks, enslaved and free, from fully developing their innate faculties. Likewise, it was slavery that poisoned the racist white mind.

Yet when they came to explain slavery’s debasing effects, abolitionists could sound notes similar to proslavery allegations about blacks’ intellectual and moral deficiencies. Polgar quotes the leading Philadelphia abolitionist Benjamin Rush acceding to charges that enslaved blacks tended toward “Idleness, Treachery, Theft, and the like,” even as he described these traits as “the genuine offspring of slavery.” Inferiority posited on the basis of environment instead of race, Polgar observes, was still inferiority.

Not surprisingly, a sometimes overbearing tone of paternalism also pervaded the white abolitionists’ efforts, in endless calls for blacks to prepare themselves for freedom by abandoning vice in favor of thrift and industry. As much as the societies’ all-white membership, this condescension has diminished the early abolitionists’ reputation among historians.

Polgar, however, finds a redeeming idealism in the first abolitionists’ thinking. In sharp contrast to slavery’s racist defenders, the abolitionists emphasized the transitory character of black dependence. They then dedicated themselves to aiding and encouraging black uplift, complementing similar efforts by black fraternal and mutual aid groups. By establishing schools with classical curricula for black children, offering vocational training, and organizing informal employment bureaus, the abolitionists tried to speed the rise of a new class of educated, prosperous black Americans fully engaged in public affairs on equal terms with whites. In politics, they supported efforts to give black men the same suffrage and civil rights as white men. Printers aligned with the cause published antislavery essays, orations, and sermons, including addresses written by black abolitionists; friendly newspaper editors opened their columns to antislavery writers, anticipating the appearance in New York of the first black-run newspaper in the nation, Freedom’s Journal, initiated in 1827 very much in the spirit of first-wave abolitionism.

As for the abolitionist societies’ paternalism, Polgar observes that it suffused black abolitionists’ uplift appeals as well. Both groups perceived that enslaved blacks and their children, lacking education and vocational training as well as accumulated property, could hardly be expected to make the transition to freedom unaided. Both groups saw poverty and vice as mutually reinforcing and moral and intellectual elevation as intrinsically linked prerequisites to prosperity and citizenship—elevation that, given the oppression of slavery, blacks at once needed and deserved acutely.

This convergence of white and black abolitionists created what Polgar calls a “recipe for antislavery reform” that “bridged the boundaries of race and permeated the rhetoric and actions of both white and black reformers.” He identifies a variety of biracial efforts. The most demanding of them included hardheaded political efforts like exposing slaveholders who were trying to skirt or even thwart gradual emancipation laws. But they also included providing assistance, as one black mutual aid society requested of the NYMS in 1796, to remove “every species of vice among people of their own description.”

It is difficult to discern how ordinary African-Americans, scraping by just to make a living, reacted to the reformers’ moralistic appeals, although, as Polgar observes, it is also hard to imagine that those appeals did not grate. Yet no matter how severely class as well as color blinkered its outlook, the first abolitionist movement audaciously envisaged, at the nation’s founding, an America of blacks and whites living in harmony, freed from racism as well as slavery. All the more remarkably, despite all it was up against, the movement won its share of victories, in politics as well as in courtrooms and schools.

After helping to secure a gradual emancipation law in New York in 1799—acting as “the most powerful lever” in the cause, the black abolitionist William Hamilton later proclaimed—the NYMS abolitionists began the expanded work that would end in the 1817 general emancipation law. They also encouraged free black political activity, which, Polgar demonstrates, flourished in both the Federalist and Jeffersonian Republican parties. Their engagement complemented and affirmed what Polgar describes as a broader black abolitionist view of the American Revolution, emancipation, and uplift as “simultaneous forces indelibly linked by the principles of freedom and equality.”

In Philadelphia, the seat of the national government from 1790 until 1800, both PAS members and black activists specialized in petition campaigns, which included dispatching petitions demanding reforms of slavery and the Atlantic slave trade to the new Congress. Furious opposition by proslavery southern representatives kept the reformers’ successes to a bare minimum. Still, for the abolitionists to gain a hearing in the House of Representatives and eke out any victories at all marked a growing political sophistication as well as abiding determination.

None of this, of course, meant that the first-wave abolitionists came remotely near their goal of annihilating slavery and dispelling white prejudice. They did win often enough, though, to sustain a dogged optimism. In 1804 New Jersey finally adopted a gradual emancipation law, followed, thirteen years later, by New York’s general emancipation law. In national politics, a petition signed by seventy free black men from Philadelphia in 1799 led directly to Congress’s enactment of the Slave Trade Law of 1800, which swiftly brought effective federal action against American ships illicitly carrying enslaved Africans to foreign ports. Abolitionists greeted the final closure of the Atlantic slave trade in 1807–1808 as a glorious triumph, and as late as 1819 abolitionists helped to force the first great national political crisis involving slavery, over whether Missouri should be admitted to the union as a slave state. Speaking to a local mutual-aid group in 1808, George Lawrence, a New York black abolitionist, foresaw shortly winning “the full fruits of emancipation” that would “divulge that bright genius so long smothered in slavery.” Soon enough, however, that optimism would be smothered.

The rise of the southern cotton empire after the 1790s, and the spread of plantation slavery after 1815 further to the south and west, increased American slaveholders’ power and dashed expectations that emancipation was on the horizon. In the North, reactions to the revolutionary violence in Haiti as well as to the rise of free black communities with their own institutions brought what Polgar calls “a vicious racist response,” including state constitutional and legal reforms that severely restricted or eliminated black male suffrage. The Missouri crisis, although it ended in 1821 with slavery’s expansion, frightened mainstream politicians into building a new national party system founded on the exclusion from national debates of any issues overtly connected to slavery. The ensuing political shutdown intensified the domination of national politics by what would come to be known in the 1830s as the Slave Power.

Beleaguered as never before, the abolitionist movement gave way to a far larger and politically well-connected movement supporting the colonization of free blacks outside the United States, led by the American Colonization Society (ACS). Founded in 1816 by a group that included Henry Clay and Andrew Jackson, the ACS appealed to some genuine antislavery elements who saw its program as a means to accelerate the elimination of slavery, as well as to racists interested chiefly in removing what they regarded as the noisome presence of free blacks. Although firmly resisted by most first-wave abolitionists, the rapid rise of the ACS amid the racist backlash worsened the societies’ floundering, and by 1830 what passed for antislavery opinion was broadly identified with colonization.

Just then, William Lloyd Garrison made his signal contribution to the abolitionist cause. The young printer had only recently converted to antislavery under the tutelage of Benjamin Lundy, the peripatetic editor of the first-wave abolitionist newspaper The Genius of Universal Emancipation and a delegate to the American Convention for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery, a confederation of state abolition societies formed in 1794. Lundy had been experimenting with a modified proposal for colonization as a way to spread abolitionism in the border states, and Garrison briefly adopted that view. But he also found himself drawn to activists in Boston’s black community who, along with the Philadelphia black leader James Forten, persuaded him that colonization was a racist proslavery ploy and that gradualist approaches to abolition were as practically useless as they were morally bankrupt. Although other white abolitionists, notably Theodore Dwight Weld and the brothers Lewis and Arthur Tappan, joined Garrison, he proclaimed more forcefully and eloquently than anyone the imperative to reinvent the abolitionist cause as an immediatist crusade, linking the older gradualist approach with colonization and replacing pragmatism with defiance.

With its mass organizing strategies as well as its militant tactics, second-wave abolitionism thoroughly supplanted its predecessors. Traces of first-wave abolitionism survived—the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, for example, exists to this day, dedicated to fighting mass incarceration and other racial injustices—but most of the organizations would disappear by the end of the 1830s or soon thereafter. (The NYMS lingered until 1849.) Nevertheless, by excavating the first movement’s long-buried history, Polgar vindicates its formative part in the long fight against American slavery and white supremacy and hints at its lasting importance long after its demise.

At one level, the very existence of the early abolitionists showed that the struggle over slavery was as old as the nation itself. The PAS, the NYMS, and other abolition societies, along with their enslaved and free black allies, led the way in enacting and enforcing the first laws in America that declared slavery an abomination and put it on the road to extinction. With their lobbying of legislators and petition campaigns, as well as their insistence on building interracial alliances, the first-wave groups pioneered agitation techniques upon which Garrison and his coworkers would later expand. And when the second-wave movement divided between Garrisonian perfectionists and those seeking abolition through the political system, the first wave’s dedication to agitating inside the existing boundaries of the Constitution and engaging in mainstream politics resurfaced in the campaigns of the Liberty, Free Soil, and Republican parties, whose political efforts actually forced the crisis that ended in Emancipation.

Above all, Polgar concludes, the first abolitionist movement had the boldness to imagine, at the nation’s founding, an America free of black subjugation. Its idealistic faith inspired later generations of activists, black and white, from the era of the Civil War and Reconstruction through the civil rights revolution of the twentieth century. In these bleak, pessimistic times, that faith and that legacy are worth pondering.


  1. The most important recent study of Garrison balances his more strident agitation by examining his connections to broader currents of democratic political thought and activity, in Britain and Europe as well as the United States: W. Caleb McDaniel, The Problem of Democracy in the Age of Slavery: Garrisonian Abolitionists and Transatlantic Reform (Louisiana State University Press, 2013). The most detailed biography is Henry Mayer’s thoroughly favorable All on Fire: William Lloyd Garrison and the Abolition of Slavery (St. Martin’s, 1998).
  2. Envisaging an abolition that would be both speedy and gradual was not as contradictory as it might seem today. Most abolitionists, through to the Civil War, recognized that the Constitution barred the federal government from abolishing slavery in states where it already existed. Their strategy presupposed a gradual state-by-state process but one that the federal government could greatly hasten by halting slavery’s growth. 
  3. See the review in these pages by James M. McPherson, October 27, 2016. 
  4. On the contribution of American antislavery activity before and during the revolution to the rise of British abolitionism, see Christopher Leslie Brown, Moral Capital: Foundations of British Abolitionism (University of North Carolina Press, 2006). 
  5. These findings contradict yet another stream of recent interpretation, which has portrayed the American Revolution as an unremitting disaster for practically all of humankind and especially for African-Americans. See, for example, Matthew Lockwood, To Begin the World Over Again: How the American Revolution Devastated the Globe (Yale University Press, 2019), reviewed in these pages by David A. Bell, April 23, 2020.
  6. By 1793, there were no fewer than eight state abolition societies, stretching from Rhode Island to Virginia. In 1794 they confederated as the American Convention for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery and Improving the Condition of the African Race, the first interstate antislavery organization. 
  7. Rhode Island and Connecticut enacted gradual emancipation laws in 1784; New York finally passed one in 1799, followed by New Jersey in 1804. Vermont, which only became a state in 1791, banned slavery for males above twenty-one and females above eighteen in its original constitution approved in 1777; in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, court rulings and antislavery interpretations of state constitutions, initiated by freedom suits and petitions undertaken by enslaved persons, killed off slavery in the mid-1780s. 
  8. The most thorough previous study of the PAS closely and sympathetically examines its various initiatives but emphasizes its conservatism in comparison with the abolitionists of the 1830s and after: Richard S. Newman, The Transformation of American Abolitionism: Fighting Slavery in the Early Republic (University of North Carolina Press, 2002). 
  9. Freedom by Degrees: Emancipation in Pennsylvania and Its Aftermath (Oxford University Press, 1991), pp. 115–118, 130–131. Nash and Soderlund note that briefly at the end of the 1780s, an influx of wealthier merchants and professionals changed the PAS’s membership, but these eminences had largely departed by 1795. 
  10. 10 For more on this point, see my No Property in Man: Slavery and Antislavery at the Nation’s Founding (Harvard University Press, 2018), pp. 25–57.
  11. _

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