13 Most Famous Abolitionists

Reformers like William Lloyd Garrison (who established the American Anti-Slavery Society) and authors like Wendell Phillips, John Greenleaf Whittier, and Harriet Beecher Stowe spearheaded the white abolitionist movement in the North.

Former slaves like Frederick Douglass and free blacks like Charles Henry Langston and John Mercer Langston, who founded the Ohio Anti-Slavery Society, were among the black militants of the time. Many anti-slavery activists took the position that the institution of slavery itself was immoral.

Members of the Republican Party thought that free labor was superior to slave labor, hence they sought to end slavery gradually through market forces.

The white southern leaders felt their autonomy was being threatened by the Republican policy of preventing the spread of slavery into the West.

After Lincoln was elected president in 1860, seven states in the South, whose economies relied heavily on cotton and the labor of slaves, seceded and formed their own country.

American troops opened fire on South Carolina’s Fort Sumter in April 1861, officially marking the beginning of the bloody conflict. After Lincoln ordered military intervention, four additional slave states declared independence. Four slave states (Maryland, Missouri, Delaware, and Kentucky) choose to stay in the Union.

Famous Abolitionists

1. Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass

American social reformer, abolitionist, orator, writer, and politician Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey (February 20, 1895 – February 1817) was born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey.

After escaping slavery in Maryland, he became a prominent abolitionist speaker and writer in both Massachusetts and New York.

Thus, abolitionists of the time saw him as a living refutation of slaveholder arguments that slaves had the mental capacity to function as fully fledged American citizens.

That such a renowned orator had formerly been a slave was difficult for many in the North to fathom. A response to this skepticism, Douglass released his first autobiography.

Douglass’s first autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845), was an instant best-seller and a major factor in advancing the abolitionist movement.

His second, My Bondage and My Freedom (1845), was similarly influential (1855). His final autobiography, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, was published after the Civil War, when Douglass had become an outspoken defender for the rights of freed slaves.

Published in 1881 and again in 1890, just before his death in 1892, the book details his life before, during, and after the American Civil War. Further to his many public roles, Douglass was a vocal advocate for women’s suffrage.

When Victoria Woodhull decided to run for vice president on the Equal Rights Party ticket with Frederick Douglass as her running mate, Douglass became the first African American to be nominated for Vice President of the United States without his approval.

Douglass was a strong supporter of free speech and the Constitution’s guarantee of the right to create alliances with people of other races and political persuasions.

2. William Lloyd Garrison

William Lloyd Garrison

William Lloyd Garrison was a notable American Christian, abolitionist, journalist, suffragist, and social reformer who lived from December 10, 1805, until his death on May 24, 1879.

He is most remembered as the founder and publisher of The Liberator, a popular anti-slavery journal that ran in Boston from 1831 until the abolition of slavery in the United States by constitutional amendment in 1865.

Because of its participation in war, imperialism, and slavery, Garrison advocated “no-governmentism” and questioned the intrinsic validity of the American government.

At the outset of the Civil War, he rejected violence as a principle and supported Christian nonresistance to evil, but he later changed his mind and supported the Union cause and the Lincoln government.

One of the original members of the American Anti-Slavery Society, Garrison advocated for the abolition of slavery in the United States immediately and without compensation.

3. Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln

U.S. President from 1861 to 1865 and American lawyer and politician Abraham Lincoln (February 12, 1809 – April 15, 1865).

Lincoln kept the country together, ended slavery, fortified the federal government, and brought the American economy into the modern period all while leading the country through the American Civil War.

Also Read: Important People of the Civil War

Lincoln was born into a poor family in a log cabin in Kentucky and spent the majority of his childhood on the frontier in Indiana. He put himself through school and eventually achieved the positions of lawyer, Whig Party leader, Illinois state legislator, and United States Congressman from Illinois.

He resumed practicing law in 1849, but he was vexed by the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which legalized slavery in newly acquired territory.

When he returned to politics in 1854 as a leader of the fledgling Republican Party, he drew widespread attention during the 1858 Senate campaign debates against Stephen Douglas.

It was the North that ultimately decided the 1860 presidential election, which Lincoln won. His win was seen as a threat to slavery by pro-slavery elements, and the South began seceding from the Union.

Near this time, the newly formed Confederate States of America began seizing federal military sites in the south. A little over a month after Lincoln assumed office, the Confederate States of America attacked Fort Sumter in South Carolina.

Lincoln called in reinforcements after the bombardment to put down the uprising and restore the Union.

4. Sojourner Truth

Sojourner Truth

American abolitionist and advocate for women’s rights Sojourner Truth (born Isabella Baumfree; died November 26, 1883) was of New York Dutch descent.

Although Truth and her daughter were born into slavery in Swartekill, New York, she managed to flee to freedom in 1826. In 1828, she became the first black woman to successfully sue and win a case against a white man in order to rescue her kidnapped son.

In 1843, once she felt God had called her away from the city to the country, she adopted the name Sojourner Truth.

Her most famous address was an impromptu one given at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in Akron the same year (1851).

Also Read: Women of the Civil War

During the Civil War, a version of the speech rewritten by someone else in a stereotyped Southern accent made it famous under the title “Ain’t I a Woman?” However, Sojourner Truth was a New York native who spoke Dutch as her first language.

Truth helped recruit black soldiers for the Union Army during the Civil War and afterwards worked to secure land grants for freed slaves from the federal government, but was ultimately unsuccessful. She lived her life as a fighter for equality for women and African Americans.

5. John Quincy Adams

John Quincy Adams

John Quincy Adams, U.S. President from 1825 to 1829 (July 11, 1767 – February 23, 1848), was an influential American leader, diplomat, lawyer, and diarist.

He was the seventh US Secretary of State from 1817 until 1825. Adams was a senator and a representative for Massachusetts in the United States Congress throughout his lengthy career in diplomacy and politics.

John Adams, the second president of the United States, and his wife, Abigail Adams, had him as their eldest son. While his father was a Federalist, his son eventually joined the Democratic-Republican Party and eventually the Whig Party after becoming president.

A staunch abolitionist, Adams spent his time in Congress railing against the Democratic Party’s supposed dominance by Southern politicians and becoming increasingly outspoken on the issue of slavery.

He was strongly against the expansion of slavery into new territories and the participation of the United States in the Mexican-American War. The “gag rule,” which had stopped the House of Representatives from addressing petitions to abolish slavery, was also overturned under his leadership.

6. Harriet Tubman

Harriet Tubman

American abolitionist and social activist Harriet Tubman (born Araminta Ross in March 1822; died March 10, 1913).

Tubman, who was born into slavery, eventually escaped and used the network of anti-slavery activists and safe homes known as the Underground Railroad to save the lives of almost 70 slaves, including relatives and friends.

She was a Union Army armed scout and spy during the American Civil War. Later in life, Tubman became involved in the fight for women’s suffrage.

After joining the Union Army, Tubman served as a cook, nurse, scout, and spy during the Civil War. She led the attack at Combahee Ferry, which freed over 700 slaves, making her the first woman to lead an armed expedition in the war.

Also Read: Nurses of the Civil War

She returned to Auburn, New York, to care for her aged parents in the home she had bought in 1859, after the war.

Prior to her sickness, she was an advocate for women’s suffrage, and she later helped found a home for elderly African Americans. She was hailed as a symbol of defiance and independence.

7. Harriet Beecher Stowe

Harriet Beecher Stowe

Born on June 14, 1811, and passing away on July 1, 1896, Harriet Elisabeth Beecher Stowe was an American author and abolitionist. She was born into a devout Christian household and gained widespread renown with her novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), which details the hardships endured by African Americans in slavery.

As both a novel and a play, it was seen by millions of people and had a significant impact in both the United States and Great Britain, bolstering anti-slavery forces in the American North and eliciting great indignation in the South.

Thirty books in total, Stowe’s works range from novels to collections of articles and letters to recollections of her travels. Her writings and her participation in public debates about pressing social issues have a significant impact.

8. John Brown

John Brown

John Brown (9 May 1800 – 2 December 1859) was an abolitionist leader in the United States. First gaining national attention for his radical abolitionism and fighting in Bleeding Kansas, he was eventually arrested and hanged at Harpers Ferry for a failed attempt to instigate a slave uprising before to the American Civil War.

Brown, an evangelical Christian with strong religious convictions, was strongly influenced by his upbringing in the Puritan faith.

He believed he was “a divine instrument” sent to deal the “fatal blow” on American slavery as a “holy duty.” Brown was the primary advocate of violence within the American abolitionist movement; he believed that action was essential to eradicate American slavery after decades of nonviolent measures failed.

Brown stated repeatedly that he was following Christian precepts, the Golden Rule, and the Declaration of Independence, which proclaims that “all men are created equal” in his efforts to free slaves. He asserted frequently that these two ideas “meant the same thing” in his opinion.

9. Wendell Phillips

Wendell Phillips

Wendell Phillips (November 29, 1811 – February 2, 1884) was an abolitionist, Native American champion, orator, and lawyer.

According to Black attorney George Lewis Ruffin, many Blacks viewed Phillips as “the only white American fully colorblind and free of race prejudice.”

Archibald Grimké, an additional Black attorney, asserts that as an abolitionist leader, he surpasses William Lloyd Garrison and Charles Sumner. He was the “leading figure” in American abolitionism from 1850 to 1865.

10. Angelina Grimké 

Angelina Grimké 

Angelina Emily Grimké Weld (20 February 1805 – 26 October 1879) was an abolitionist, political activist, advocate for women’s rights, and supporter of the women’s suffrage movement.

She and her sister Sarah Moore Grimké were the only prominent white Southern women abolitionists of note. As adults, the sisters lived together, while Angelina was married to abolitionist activist Theodore Dwight Weld.

Although Angelina and Sarah were grown in Charleston, South Carolina, they have lived their whole adult lives in the North. Angelina’s fame peaked in 1835, when William Lloyd Garrison published one of her letters in his anti-slavery newspaper, The Liberator.

And in May 1838, when she delivered a speech to abolitionists in front of a hostile, stone-throwing throng in front of Pennsylvania Hall. The essays and speeches she made at this time were persuasive arguments for the

11. James Garfield 

James Garfield

James Abram Garfield (19 November 1831 – 19 September 1881) served as the 20th president of the United States from March 4, 1881 until his death six months later, two months after being shot by an assassin.

A lawyer and Civil War commander, he was the only sitting member of the House of Representatives to be elected president. He served nine years in the House of Representatives.

Before he ran for president, he was elected to the U.S. Congress. The Ohio General Assembly nominated him for a seat in the United States Senate, but he declined the offer when he became president-elect.

Not only did Garfield support the abolition of slavery, but he also considered that the rebel leaders had forfeited their constitutional rights. As a measure of ensuring the lasting abolition of slavery, he supported confiscating Southern plantations and even expelling or executing rebel leaders.

Garfield believed it was the responsibility of Congress “to establish what legislation is necessary to ensure equal justice for all loyal individuals, whatever of race.” He was more supportive of Lincoln when he took action against slavery.

12. Mum Bett

Mum Bett

Elizabeth Freeman, also known as Bet, Mum Bett, and MumBet (about 1744 – December 28, 1829), was the first enslaved African-American to file and win a freedom suit in Massachusetts.

In its judgement in favor of Freeman, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled slavery incompatible with the Massachusetts State Constitution of 1780. Brom and Bett v. Ashley (1781) was cited in the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court’s consideration of Quock Walker’s freedom action on appeal.

By upholding Walker’s freedom in accordance with the state’s constitution, the court was deemed to have tacitly abolished slavery in Massachusetts.

13. Frances E.W. Harper

Frances E.W. Harper

American abolitionist, suffragist, poet, temperance campaigner, educator, public speaker, and author Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (September 24, 1825 – February 22, 1911).

She was one of the first African-American women to be published in the United States, beginning in 1845.

Harper, who began her profession at age 20 and was born free in Baltimore, Maryland, went on to have a long and successful career. At the age of 67, she published the critically acclaimed novel Iola Leroy (1892), making her one of the first Black women to do so.

In 1850, at the age of 24, she was the only female teacher at Union Seminary, an AME Church-affiliated school in Columbus, Ohio.

In 1851, Harper began writing anti-slavery literature while staying with the family of William Still, a clerk at the Pennsylvania Abolition Society who assisted escaped slaves along the Underground Railroad.

In 1853, Harper became a public speaker and activist after joining the American Anti-Slavery Society.