Abolitionism and 19th century reform movements

The abolitionist movement was both intimately wrapped up in and simultaneously distinct from the other reform movements of “moralists and modernizers,” as historian Steven Mintz labels them, of the mid-19th century.1 It was similar to these other movements, such as the temperance movement and the women’s rights movement, in that often it was the same ideas and figures behind these various movements and in that it sought to reform society along more egalitarian lines. It was different from these other movements, however, in that it was not primarily a political movement and in that it had unique underlying ideology.

In more ways than not, the abolitionist movement cannot be separated in history or in thought from the other movements of reform with which it was associated, such as the temperance and women’s rights movements. All three of these movements, which do not constitute the total or even the bulk of the reform movements of the mid-1800s but which are undoubtedly the three most prominent examples of such reform movements, were essentially movements to reform society along more egalitarian lines. All three attempted to extend full equality and dignity under the law and in the conscience to excluded groups, such as blacks, immigrants, and women. In addition, even many of the faces behind these various movements were the same; the women’s rights movement, which is particularly closely tied to the temperance movement, was largely begun by female abolitionists who felt disaffected by their male counterparts in the abolitionist movement.2

One important way in which the abolitionist movement was decidedly different from the other reform movements of the mid-1800s, however, is in its primarily moral rather than political thrust. Historian Eric Foner offers a very persuasive quote by leading abolitionist Salmon P. Chase to this effect: “Abolition,” he says, “seeks to abolish slavery everywhere. The means which it employs correspond with the object to be effected – they are of a moral nature – argument, persuasion, remonstrance and the like.”3 He completes the thought by stating plainly that the aims of the abolitionist movement “cannot be effected by political power.”4 In short, leading abolitionists saw the abolitionist movement as a movement of moral and not political reform. While anti-slavery legislation was one part of the movement, it was not the entirety or the final aim of the movement.

Chase and others saw abolitionism primarily as an ethical rather than a political movement because of its unique underlying ideology. Whereas “anti-slavery aimed at the separation of the federal government from slavery and its deliverance from control by the Slave Power,”5 abolitionism primarily aimed to change the consciences of people. The same is true of abolitionism in comparison with the temperance and women’s rights movements, both of which sought to change the laws relevant to their positions. While women’s rights advocates sought primarily to alter the laws that they saw as inhibiting the full humanity and citizenship of women, the final aim of many abolitionist was not merely legal but moral recognition of the equality of all people regardless of race.

In that it can be seen as an egalitarian reform movement of the mid-19th century, abolitionism is very much the same as the other reform movements of that era, such as temperance and the women’s rights movement. All of these various movements sought to grant the full rights of human dignity and citizenship to outcast and disenfranchised classes and groups in society. Abolitionism, however, is different from these other movements, and even from the closely associated anti-slavery movement, in that it was primarily a movement of moral reform rather than political reform, that it aimed at the conscience of the individual and not primarily at a change in law.

1 Steven Mintz, Moralists and Modernizers: America’s Pre-Civil War Reformers (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995).

2 Ibid, 144. 

3 Eric Foner, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 80.

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid.


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