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Early Antislavery
The Liberator
The Liberator was started by William Lloyd Garrison as the first abolitionist newspaper in 1831.
Photo courtesy Library of Congress, Manuscripts Division

While colonial North America received few slaves compared to other places in the Western Hemisphere, it was deeply involved in the slave trade and the first protests against slavery were efforts to end the slave trade. English reformers took the lead in this and were joined by Americans with varied motives. Some southerners feared slave revolts if importation continued. Religious societies stressed the moral evil of the trade, and free blacks saw the end of the slave trade as a first step toward general emancipation.

In colonial North America, newly enslaved Africans often ran away in groups of men and women intending to create a new community in a remote area. For these groups, called maroons, their very numbers made them easier to discover, although bands of fugitives, primarily men, continued to live in swamps and mountains and to elude capture throughout the slavery era. Spanish Florida and Mexico were favored destinations for many enslaved in the lower South. The northern states and Canada became goals when they adopted emancipation laws.

The American Revolution created more free blacks, both through those who actively supported the Patriot cause and were freed and those who took the opportunity to work for or leave with the British. The rhetoric of liberty and human rights effected a change in some slaveholders who emancipated their slaves in the years after the Revolution. But these events were more than counterbalanced by the fact that the United States Constitution, adopted in 1787, protected the rights of slaveholders to slave property throughout the union. Some actions by the new American government and the individual states did limit slavery. The Northwest Territory was forbidden to slavery and the northern states enacted gradual emancipation laws. But the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1793 explicitly stated that slaveholders could retrieve their slave "property" from free states and territories. That was to discourage enslaved persons from trying to reach free regions.

Hundreds of slaves fled bondage each year in the decades between the American Revolution and the Civil War. Some stayed in the South, seeking family from whom they had been separated or a temporary refuge from slavery. Other fugitives stayed in southern towns and cities, often with forged "free" papers. Whether they sought free territory or remained in the south, they were primarily aided by other slaves and by free blacks while in the south. In each decade after the Revolution, the assistance of some whites became more apparent. The Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) was prominent in the antislavery societies which sprang up after the Revolution, and, for a while, the Baptists and Methodists were antislavery. The early antislavery societies promoted gradual emancipation and they faded from the national scene by the War of 1812. As the free black population grew, their concern for the status of the African American became the center of the antislavery movement.

The debate in Congress in 1819 and 1820 over whether Missouri should enter the Union as a slave or free state made it clear to the entire nation that the slavery issue was not going to simply evaporate in the American republic. For free blacks, the formation of the national American Colonization Society persuaded them to organize for the abolition of slavery rather than act individually. The Colonization Society wanted federal government funds to pay the costs of settling free blacks in an African colony they founded and called Liberia. The threat to free African Americans that this appeared to represent called for a more organized black response and for more white allies. The era of immediate abolitionism is generally acknowledged to have begun on
January 1, 1831, when William Lloyd Garrison first published his abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator.

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