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The Abolitionists


Film & Theme

Equality under the Law: The Abolitionists

In his most famous speech, “What to the Slave is the 4th of July?” (1852), Frederick Douglass called the “shouts of liberty and equality” of his fellow citizens “hollow mockery.” After seven long decades, the United States had failed to extend the Declaration of Independence’s principles of liberty and equality to black people. Abraham Lincoln, much to the dismay of Douglass and other abolitionists, declared in his first inaugural address (1861) that he had no intention or constitutional power to interfere with the institution of slavery in the states where it existed. Yet under pressure from the abolitionists and events on the battlefield, Lincoln  did exactly that on January 1, 1863, by issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, which would “forever free” slaves in the states already in rebellion.

In this clip from the conclusion of The Abolitionists, you will hear reactions to this effort to establish equality under the law for millions of Americans. Abraham Lincoln acknowledged the abolitionists’ long and difficult struggle when he praised "the logic and moral power of Garrison and the anti-slavery people." For Frederick Douglass, this was the culmination of his life’s work and heralded what he called a “new and glorious era in the history of American liberty.” In December 1865, with the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, abolitionists rejoiced that the United States was finally cleansed of its “original sin.”

The Abolitionists, Episode III: 39:04-51:40

Questions for class discussion

  • What contribution did the nonviolent group led by William Lloyd Garrison make to the abolition of American slavery?
  • Why did President Lincoln say he was only an “instrument” in the antislavery struggle?


For Teachers

Explore Created Equal in the Classroom:

- Equality Under the Law
- The Power of the Individual
- The Strategy of Nonviolence

Community Programs

The NEH Created Equal project uses the power of documentary films to encourage public conversations about the changing meanings of freedom and equality in America.

Changing America Exhibit

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