Before 1833 the anti-slavery movement in America was largely unorganised. There was a scattering of local societies, such as the New York City Manumission Society (founded 1785) and the Pennsylvania Abolition Society (founded 1789). The first national society was the American Colonization Society, established in 1817. Led by men in the upper South, and helped by the Federal Government, it established a colony in western Africa (Liberia) for emancipated slaves. It achieved some success, despite strong opposition from abolitionists, and by 1865 over 10,000 emigrants had settled in Liberia.

In 1831 William Lloyd Garrison of Massachusetts founded the newspaper The Liberator and in the following year he set up the New England Anti-Slavery Society. In 1833 he joined with Arthur and Lewis Tappan of New York in forming the American Anti-Slavery Society. Based in New York City, it made rapid progress and within five years had 1350 local chapters and about 250,000 members. These years saw an enormous output of pamphlets, tracts, newspapers and abolition petitions. In 1839, however, the Society split. Garrison and his followers antagonized more moderate members by criticizing churches, opposing political action, denouncing the Constitution as supportive of slavery, and by urging that women hold office within the Society. Lewis Tappan set up the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society and at the same time the Liberty Party was founded, nominating James Birney as President in 1840 and 1844. Most abolitionists initially hoped that one of the two old political parties, the Democrats or the Whigs, would take a stronger stand against slavery. In 1848 former members of both parties who were opposed to slavery set up the Free Soil Party, which sent two senators and 14 representatives to Congress. In 1854 the Party formed an alliance with Whigs opposed to the extension of slavery into Kansas. The resulting Republican Party achieved success when its candidate, Abraham Lincoln, was elected President in 1860.

The historian Richard Hofstadter wrote in 1948 that ‘Abolitionism was a religious movement, emerging from the ferment of evangelical Protestantism, psychologically akin to other reforms – women’s rights, temperance, and pacifism – which agitated the spirits of the Northern middle classes during the three decades before the Civil War. Its philosophy was essentially a theology, its technique similar to the techniques of revivalism, its agencies the church congregations of the towns’. The profusion of anti-slavery and abolitionist books, newspapers, pamphlets, reports, printed speeches and other publications which appeared in those three decades were an essential feature of this evangelical movement. The Southern states took drastic measures to block their distribution, but in the North they were sold and read in huge numbers. American slavery as it is: testimony of a thousand witnesses, written by Theodore Weld in 1839, sold nearly 100,000 copies in its first year. Similarly, newspapers such as The Liberator, The Emancipator, Slaves’ Friend and Anti-Slavery Record had exceptionally large print runs, reaching a total of over a million copies in 1835.


The National Library holds five microform collections documenting the anti-slavery movement. They were acquired between 1969 and 1984. These are supported by a number of other monographs - collections of documents and historical studies.



(i) American Colonization Society (mfm 1062)

The American Colonization Society was founded in 1817 with the aim of establishing a colony of former American slaves in western Africa. Land was purchased at Cape Meserudo, near Sierra Leone, in 1821 and the first settlers arrived in 1822. The colony was named Liberia in 1824. The colony declared its independence and it was recognised by the United States Government in 1862. By 1867 more than 13,000 emigrants had been sent to Liberia. The Society sought to maintain a neutral position on the slavery question and it was condemned as pro-slavery by William Lloyd Garrison and other abolitionists.

The records of the American Colonization Society, mostly dating from 1823 to 1912, are held in the Library of Congress and were microfilmed on 323 reels. They are arranged in the following series:

  1. Incoming correspondence, 1819-1917 (181 reels)
  2. Outgoing correspondence, 1839-1912 (61 reels)
  3. General correspondence, 1909-65 (8 reels)
  4. Financial papers, 1818-1963 (35 reels)
  5. Business papers, 1816-1963 (14 reels)
  6. Subject files, 1792-1964 (16 reels)
  7. Miscellaneous papers, 1835-1935 (8 reels)

(ii) British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society (mfm 889)

The British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society was founded in 1839 and had a particular concern with American slavery. It held a World Anti-Slavery Convention in London in 1840, which was attended by many American abolitionists, and another in 1843. It corresponded with abolitionists, but was opposed to the Garrison wing of the movement and its influence was limited.

The records of the Society are held in Rhodes House Library, Oxford. The records referring specifically to American slavery were filmed on two reels. They consist of

  1. Minutebooks, 1839-68
  2. Memorials and petitions, 1839-50
  3. Incoming correspondence, 1836-62

(iii) Estlin Papers (mfm 893)

John B. Estlin and his daughter Mary Estlin lived in Bristol, England, and were active supporters of the anti-slavery movement. Mary in particular had an extensive correspondence with American abolitionists, both before and after the Civil War. She visited the United States in 1868. Among her correspondents were William Lloyd Garrison and Harriet Beecher Stowe.

The Estlin Papers, including 70 pamphlets and reports, are held in the Dr Williams Library in London. They were microfilmed on six reels and comprise:

  1. Minute book of the Bristol and Clifton Auxiliary Ladies Anti-Slavery Society, 1840-60
  2. Letters, 1844-81, mostly written to Mary Estlin and including letters that she wrote from America in 1868
  3. Pamphlets and reports, including anti-slavery pamphlets, Civil War pamphlets, and memoirs of abolitionists

(iv) Oberlin College (mc 13 - catalogued individually)

Oberlin College in Ohio was founded in 1833. From the outset it was a major focus of the abolitionist movement, especially after a group of about 50 students from Lane Theological Seminary joined it on condition that in future students would be accepted regardless of colour. In 1835 it began to admit African-American students and in 1837 it became one of the first colleges to admit women as undergraduates. It was later an active terminus for the ‘underground railroad’, the network of secret routes and safe houses by which slaves escaped from the southern states.

The collection that was filmed at Oberlin College comprises about 2500 books and pamphlets published between 1780 and 1865, including annual reports and proceedings of anti-slavery societies, speeches, slave narratives, travellers’ observations of slavery, biographies of leaders of the anti-slavery movement, children’s books, songs, religious and economic arguments for or against slavery, and pro-slavery works. Among the authors are John Quincy Adams, George B. Cheever, Stephen Douglas, Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, Joshua Giddings, William Goodell, Angelina Grimke, William Jay, Abraham Lincoln, Horace Mann, Theodore Parker, William Patton, Wendell Phillips, William Henry Seward, Gerrit Smith, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Charles Sumner and Theodore Dwight Weld. There are also works by British abolitionists such as Thomas Clarkson, Zacharay Macaulay and William Wilberforce.

(v) Slavery: source material and critical literature (mc 104 - some titles catalogued individually)

This very large microfiche collection was produced by Lost Cause Press and was based on Dwight Dumond’s A bibliography of antislavery in America (1961) and the ‘Slavery’ entries in the catalogue of the Library of Congress. The works filmed cover a wide date range, from about 1740 to 1940, with a large number dating from the decades following the American Civil War. They include speeches, sermons, open letters, petitions, tracts, slave narratives, travel accounts, memoirs, histories, songs and poems. There are a number of works on the West Indies, Liberia, and the African slave trade. While American publications make up the bulk of the collection, there are also British, French, German and Spanish publications.

Among the authors represented in the collection are John Quincy Adams, James G. Birney, Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, Abraham Lincoln, Horace Mann, Theodore Parker, Wendell Phillips, William H. Seward, Charles Sumner and Theodore Dwight Weld.

A selection of other publications

(i) Collections of documents

Blassingame, John W., ed., The Frederick Douglass papers, 5 vols, 1979-92

Foner, Philip S.and Herbert Shapiro, eds, Northern labor and antislavery : a documentary history, 1990

Merrill, Walter M., ed., The letters of William Lloyd Garrison, 6 vols, 1971-81

Nelson, Truman, Documents of upheaval; selections from William Lloyd Garrison's the Liberator, 1831-1865, 1966

Pearse, William H. and Jane H., eds, The antislavery argument, 1965

Phillips, Wendell, Speeches, lectures, letters, 1864

Ruchames, Louis, ed., The abolitionists; a collection of their writing, 1963

(ii) Historical studies

Abzug, Robert H., Passionate liberator : Theodore Dwight Weld and the dilemma of reform, 1980

Aptheker, Herbert, Abolitionism: a revolutionary movement, 1989

Barnes, Gilbert, The antislavery impulse, 1830-1844, 1933 [new ed. 1964]

Bordewich, Fergus M, Bound for Canaan: the underground railway and the war for the soul of America, 2005

Curry, Richard O., ed., The abolitionists, 1973

Duberman, Martin, ed., The antislavery vanguard: new essays on the abolitionists, 1965

Dumond, Dwight L., Antislavery: the crusade for freedom in America, 1961

Filler, Louis, The crusade against slavery, 1830-1860, 1960

Mabee, Carleton, Black freedom: the nonviolent abolitionists from 1830 through the Civil War, 1970

McFeely, William S., Frederick Douglass, 1991

McKivigan, John R., The war against proslavery religion: abolitionism and the northern churches, 1830-1865, 1984

Mayer, Henry, All on fire: William Lloyd Garrison and the abolition of slavery, 1998

Pease, Jane H. and William H., Bound with them in chains: a biographical history of the antislavery movement, 1972

Perry, Lewis, Radical abolitionism: anarchy and the government of God in antislavery thought, 1973

Perry, Lewis and Michael Fellman, eds, Antislavery reconsidered: new perspectives on the abolitionists, 1979

Quarles, Benjamin, Black abolitionists, 1969

Ratner, Loman, Powder keg: Northern opposition to the antislavery movement, 1831-1840, 1968

Reynolds, David S., John Brown, abolitionist: the man who killed slavery, sparked the Civil War, and seeded civil rights, 2005

Richards, Leonard L., Gentlemen of property and standing: anti-abolition mobs in Jacksonian America, 1970

Savage, W. Sherman, The controversy over the distribution of abolition literature, 1830-1860, 1968

Sewell, Richard H., Ballots for freedom: antislavery politics in the United States, 1837-1860, 1976

Stewart, James B., Holy warriors: the abolitionists and American slavery, 1976

Stewart, James B., Wendell Phillips, liberty’s hero, 1986

Walters, Ronald G., The antislavery appeal: American abolitionism after 1830, 1976

Wyatt-Brown, Bertram, Lewis Tappan and the evangelical war against slavery, 1969

Wyatt-Brown, Bertram, Yankee saints and Southern sinners, 1985

Yellin, Jean Fagan, Women & sisters: the antislavery feminists in American culture, 1989


The five anti-slavery collections are held in the Newspaper and Microforms Collection. The 323 reels of American Colonization Society microfilm are held at mfm 1062. They are listed in a 34 page register published by the Library of Congress in 1979.

The two reels of records of the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society are held at mfm 889. There is a list of the contents at the beginning of each reel. The six reels of Eslin Papers are held at mfm 893. They also contain a description of the records at the beginning of each reel.

The Oberlin College Library collection was filmed on about 7500 microcards and is held at mc 13. The publications have been individually catalogued and they are also listed in a finding-aid published by the Lost Cause Press in 1968. The cards are filed alphabetically by author or title.

Slavery: source material and critical literature was filmed on about 9500 microfiche and is held at mc 104. Only a small proportion (about 1070 titles) of the publications have entries in the on-line catalogue. The remainder have catalogue cards in the Books In Process (BIP) file in the Main Reading Room. The fiche is filed alphabetically by author or title.

The books are held in the General Collection at various locations.


American Colonization Society: a register of its records in the Library of Congress Manuscript Division, Washington, Library of Congress, 1979

Dumond, Dwight L., A bibliography of antislavery in America, Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 1961

Hofstadter, Richard, The American political tradition and the men who made it, New York, A.A. Knopf, 1948

Lost Cause Press, Anti-slavery propaganda in the Oberlin College Library, Louisville, Lost Cause Press, 1968

First posted 2008 (revised 2019)