The Abolitionists features five principal characters, whose intertwined lives and shared beliefs came together to form a powerful movement that forever changed the nation.

Frederick Douglass
Frederick DouglassBorn into slavery on Maryland's eastern shore in 1818, Frederick Douglass spent several years in Baltimore, where he learned to read. Douglass viewed his newfound literacy as the key to knowledge, and "the pathway from slavery to freedom," as he wrote in his first autobiography. In 1838, he escaped to the North, settling in the abolitionist stronghold of New Bedford, Massachusetts. After reading William Lloyd Garrison's newspaper The Liberator, and hearing him speak at an anti-slavery meeting, Douglass joined forces with Garrison, traveling across the North to tell his story and advocate for the eradication of slavery. In 1845, he published his autobiographical Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, which won him national fame -- and brought him to the attention of his former owners. To avoid recapture, Douglass fled to the United Kingdom, where he spent two years lecturing. As Douglass's Narrative became a bestseller, he was treated by his British hosts not just as an equal, but as a celebrity.

Shortly after his return to the U.S. in 1847, Douglass moved to Rochester, New York, a final stop for northbound fugitive slaves on the Underground Railroad. Rochester (and upstate New York) was a hotbed for political abolitionism and was a boom town -- upstate New York in antebellum America was the California of the 20th century. There Douglass established his own newspaper, The North Star. He did so without the blessing of his mentor and friend Garrison. The printer felt abandoned and betrayed. The rift between the two men grew deeper as Douglass questioned Garrison’s philosophies -- particularly his commitment to nonviolence and his insistence that abolitionists ignore politics.

When the Civil War began, Douglass hoped the goal of the war would be to end slavery. But as late as August of 1862, Lincoln announced his primary goal was to save the Union "and is not either to save or destroy slavery." Douglass was therefore overjoyed when Lincoln announced the following month that he would emancipate the slaves in rebel-held territory.

After Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, Douglass helped recruit black soldiers to fight in the Union Army. In the post-war years, Douglass continued his relentless campaign for civil rights, working to help freedmen in the South. He died in 1895 after serving in a number of government posts, including as a consul general and minister to Haiti.

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William Lloyd Garrison
William Lloyd GarrisonAfter growing up in Newburyport, Massachusetts, William Lloyd Garrison moved to Boston in 1828. His profound sense of Christian morality led him to become an advocate for the abolitionist cause, and in 1831, with the support of the black abolitionist community, he founded the anti-slavery newspaper The Liberator. Through the paper, which would become one of the most influential publications of the movement, Garrison propagated his view that "moral suasion" and nonviolence would be effective methods to promote abolition. He was one of the founding members of the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1833. Recognizing Frederick Douglass’ gifts as a speaker, he urged him to join the cause.

In 1835, Garrison was nearly lynched during a confrontation with an angry mob in Boston. The event shook him deeply. Over time, as the abolitionists met resistance and violence in both the North and the South, Garrison came to see the Constitution itself as corrupt. He insisted that abolitionists renounce their government, and that they withdraw from citizenship and refuse to vote.

Despite the vehemence of the pro-slavery forces, Garrison never wavered in his dedication to abolitionism. He continued to work for the anti-slavery cause throughout the antebellum and Civil War years, eventually loosening his dedication to nonviolence as he observed increased armed resistance on both sides of the struggle.

When President Lincoln invited Garrison to Fort Sumter to celebrate the end of the Civil War, Garrison was greeted by thousands of joyous and grateful freedmen, who expressed their gratitude for his life's work. The printer published the final issue of The Liberator in December 1865 after the 13th Amendment was added to the Constitution. He continued to work toward civil rights and women's rights until his death in 1879.

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Angelina Grimké
Angelina GrimkéThe daughter of one of the wealthiest slave-owning families in Charleston, South Carolina, Angelina Grimké was deeply religious; she believed slavery was a sin, and that God would punish those who owned and enslaved other human beings. Resolving to leave Charleston and the pollutions of slavery, Angelina moved to Philadelphia in 1829, where she ultimately became actively involved in the abolitionist and women's rights movements, despite the shame it brought her family. Her pedigree among the slaveholding aristocracy was a weapon that few other abolitionists could claim, and it lent credibility to her anti-slavery views and to the movement as a whole.

In 1836, Grimké authored An Appeal to the Christian Women of the South, a 36-page essay published by the American Anti-Slavery Society. Though Charleston residents publicly burned copies of the Appeal in protest, Grimké remained committed to the abolitionist cause. She also began to link the rights of enslaved people to the rights of women as she received more resistance to her increasing public visibility.

In 1838, Grimké married fellow abolitionist Theodore Dwight Weld, who had initially worried that her "preoccupation" with women's rights would divert attention from the abolitionist cause. At their wedding, however, he renounced his legal authority over his wife. In 1839, the couple published the bestselling American Slavery As It Is, a book made up of first-hand accounts of slavery, handbills for runaway slaves, court records, and the words of slave owners themselves.

While Grimké never gave up her vision of equal rights, the demands of motherhood, and her weak health essentially ended her public career following the book's publication.

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John Brown
John BrownJohn Brown was raised by devout Calvinists who believed in treating people of all races fairly. As a child, Brown witnessed the cruel mistreatment of an enslaved boy. From that time onward, he believed fervently that slavery was evil. After a string of failed business ventures as a merchant and tanner, Brown went in search of a new direction; the mob murder of anti-slavery printer Elijah Lovejoy in 1837 provided it. At a memorial service for Lovejoy, Brown declared, "Here, before God, in the presence of these witnesses, from this time, I consecrate my life to the destruction of slavery." Brown became a radical abolitionist and believed that any means used to achieve the goal of ending slavery were justified -- including violence. This was a decisive break with the nonviolent resistance embraced by most abolitionists at that time, including William Lloyd Garrison.

Brown gained infamy after he led the Pottawatomie Massacre in Kansas in 1856, during which he and his sons dragged five pro-slavery men from their cabins and brutally killed them with broadswords. In 1859, he and a small army raided the federal armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, hoping to spark a rebellion across the South. Brown was captured and hanged in the aftermath, becoming a martyr for the abolitionist cause. Speaking at his trial, and cementing his image as a folk hero, Brown proclaimed, "Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments -- I submit; so let it be done!"

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Harriet Beecher Stowe
Harriet Beecher StoweAs a young woman in Cincinnati, Harriet Beecher Stowe -- daughter of the influential minister, Lyman Beecher -- shared her father's opposition to slavery in principle, but agreed with him that abolitionist activists were "unfashionable" and "reckless." In 1833, Stowe's opinions began to change when she travelled to Kentucky and saw slavery up close for the first time.

When Stowe lost her young son to cholera in 1849, she empathized with enslaved mothers whose children were taken from them, and she was inspired to write Uncle Tom's Cabin. Published in 1852, the novel was both a heartbreaking portrayal of the suffering of enslaved people and a plea for whites to assume their Christian duty to end slavery forever. It became an international bestseller, as well as a wildly popular play, exposing thousands of Americans to the cruelties of the "peculiar institution" of slavery.

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  • Additional funding for this program was provided by

  • DIG: Gretchen Stone Cook, Kargman, Rose (Abolitionists)
  • Arthur Vining Davis Foundations
  • NEH
  • Yawkey Foundation