"During all my slave life I never lost sight of freedom. It was always in my heart; it came to me like a solemn thought…We slaves all knew when an Abolitionist [sic] got into Congress. We knew it when there was just one there, and we watched it all the way until there was a majority there."
- Ambrose Headen, former slave in Alabama and North Carolina
The early antislavery movement includes early abolition societies, prominent from the 1780s to about 1812, which were present in almost every state. Spiritually based antislavery efforts became significant in the mid 1700s. These early efforts also displayed the essential efforts of free African Americans who made political and practical economic efforts to encourage emancipations, to end the slave trade and, ultimately, to abolish slavery in the United States. Early antislavery efforts are direct precursors to the Underground Railroad. An example of early resistance would be African American efforts to flee the United States during the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, to fight for the British during these conflicts in exchange for freedom, and to organize slave rebellions as in the Stono Rebellion in 1739, Gabriel Prosser's Conspiracy of 1800, Denmark Vecey's rebellion and Nat Turner's famous uprising of 1832.
The American Revolution and subsequent adoption of the Constitution challenged slavery in one important, through perhaps unintended, way. The rhetoric and ideology of the American Founding Fathers, especially as embodied in the Declaration of Independence, affirmed individual rights of life and liberty, philosophies painfully at odds with the continued enslavement of African Americans, and a point not lost on them.
Ultimately, the Constitution did not follow up on the implications of "liberty" offered in the Declaration of Independence. The constitutional compromise of 1787 put an end to American involvement in the international slave trade, though the inter-state slave trade thrived for decades, and the 1787 Northwest Ordinance prohibited the spread of slavery into territories west of the Ohio River. However, the Constitution and the Fugitive Slave Law of 1793 confirmed the rights of slaveholders to their human property. Subsequent federal statutes, especially the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and the Kansas Nebraska Acts, and the Dred Scott United States Supreme Court decision, continued to confirmed slaveholder property rights up to the Civil War. Further, southern states continued to pass and tighten their own "Black Laws" during the Antebellum, or pre-Civil War, era. Northern states, meanwhile, such as Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Connecticut began in the 1780s, to pass laws aimed at the gradual abolition of slavery. States like New York followed suite in the early nineteenth century. The regional character of slavery was beginning to materialize, an essential development of the Underground Railroads varied paths to freedom.
"Abolitionist" had different meanings at different times in American history. Early state societies were formed to abolish slavery through legislative actions and personal manumission. When slavery persisted, these societies faded. Slavery as a national issue was revived by Congressional debates on the future of American territories and the voices and actions of free and enslaved Blacks and white abolitionist allies and politicians. William Lloyd Garrison publishing the anti-slavery newspaper The Liberator in 1831. The journal soon rose to national prominence as the leading antislavery publication in the United States. Garrison demanded the immediate and uncompensated emancipation of all slaves. Beginning in the 1830s, this became the new definition of abolitionism. Nat Turner's 1831 rebellion turned a national spotlight on the horrors of slavery and the desperation of the enslaved. Some abolitionists, even President Abraham Lincoln, favored "Colonization," the return of African-Americans to Africa. This scheme, though attempted, never gained a large following, simply because Africa was no longer home to free African Americans who had resided in the United States for years or even generations. The United States, despite slavery, was home to African Americans.
Religiously motivated abolitionists constituted a large group and were organized loosely into the American and Foreign Anti-slavery society from 1840 until the mid-1850s. Political abolitionists were closely aligned with the church-based groups. Most of the political abolitionists found their way into the new Republication Party, later the "Radical Republicans," formed in 1854. The political issues of the 1850s energized political abolitionists like no previous era. The Compromise of 1850, engineered through Congress by Illinois Senator and future presidential candidate Stephen A. Douglass, completely politicized the slavery question by obeying its strict Fugitive Slave Law by assisting in capturing escaped slaves or breaking federal law. The compromise ended the slave trade in Washington, D.C., but it did not take the next step of ending slavery in the nation's capitol. Further, it angered Northerners by permitting slavery to spread westward.
The Dred Scott decision of 1857 further enraged Northerners. Scott, originally from the slave state of Missouri, was transported by his master through the free state of Illinois, then the free territory of Wisconsin. Back in Missouri, Scott sued for his freedom on the grounds that his residence in free lands nullified his slave status. Chief Justice Roger Taney, himself a Virginia slaveholder, not only ruled against Scott but passed judgment on the larger issue of slave restriction. Taney held that African Americans were not citizens and thus not entitled to any rights a citizen might enjoy. Taney went on rule that African Americans had been held "so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect," and that Congress had exceeded its authority in limiting the geographic expansion of slavery. Slavery could not be excluded from federal territories. The decision raised a storm of protest that insured that there could be no accommodation between Northern and Southern interests regarding slavery.
African American abolitionists, who had sought white allies, sometimes felt that they were kept on the margins of the antislavery movement. Anti-slavery did not necessary translate to pro-African American or even pro-equality. White abolitionists had often come to abolitionism through benevolence and saw slavery as part of a larger human reform movement. African Americans saw the fight for the end of slavery as the first priority. Increasingly, free African Americans had their own meetings and supported newspapers published by African Americans, such as The North Star, published by Frederick Douglass and the Colored American by Samuel Cornish.
The Underground Railroad in the South was extremely cautious, careful and secretive, but it existed. It existed in the port cities of the Atlantic coast and in the Appalachian mountains of the southern interior. It existed among certain church denominations - Black Baptist or Congregationalist - and as described, it existed where the American South met Mexico and Florida prior to that region's forced annexation.
As might be expected, and as slaveholders and southern newspapers did expect, most of the aid to runaways in the South was given by free African Americans and other slaves. When the runaway Anthony Burns was kidnapped by slave-catchers in Boston and returned to Richmond, Virginia, he kept writing materials hidden in his jail cell. Six times he wrapped a letter to rock and threw it out the cell window at a passing African American. Each time, the letter was mailed and reached its destination, demonstrating the type of unplanned aid given to fugitives -- even those behind bars - which made the Underground railroad hard to define and more difficult to control.
Some southern whites also aided fugitives. Their activities are shrouded in more secrecy than the actions of white northerners who came south to assist, or forcefully liberate, slaves. As early as the 1790s, there are accounts of whites that encouraged slave revolts in Virginia. Indeed, Gabriel Prosser, following his aborted slave revolt, hid out on a river vessel captained by a white man for ten days. An African American boatman ultimately betrayed him. Such activity by white southerners, once discovered, brought severe and rapid punishments such as imprisonment, fines, whippings and social isolation. By the 1850s, most antislavery southern whites had abandoned the South for abolitionist lives in the North.