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The Abolitionists


Film & Theme

The Power of the Individual: The Abolitionists

The American abolitionist movement began early in the 19th century with men and women— black and white—who believed they could end a system of legal slavery that was embedded in every aspect of American life. In New England, generations created fortunes financing, building, and captaining ships that carried captives from Africa and shipped slave-made goods along the Eastern seaboard. In the South, white landowners built an economy based on the labor-intensive crops of rice, tobacco, and cotton, supported by a political and legal system that ensured a steady supply of workers. The vast majority of Americans truly believed slavery was a permanent fact of life. The Abolitionists tells the stories of five extraordinary people who envisioned a different world. Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, Harriet Beecher Stowe, John Brown, and Angelina Grimké all imagined a nation without slavery and worked to make it happen.

This clip introduces William Lloyd Garrison (1805–1879), a leader in the antislavery movement for thirty years. A man of strong Christian faith, he lived in Baltimore and Boston, where he found supporters in free black communities. He attended black churches and developed a deep conviction that slaveholding was a sin and slavery a national evil. Garrison used his newspaper The Liberator to attempt to convince readers to deliver the nation from sin by ending slavery. At a time when most abolitionists believed that only a slow and gradual emancipation of slaves might be possible, Garrison consistently called for an immediate end to slavery.

Abolitionists, Episode I. 10:10–16:25

Questions for class discussion

  • How did Garrison’s religious beliefs influence his understanding of slavery?
  • What was the role of the free black community in shaping Garrison’s views about abolition? How did his views change over time?
  • What was “radical” about Garrison’s abolitionist ideas?
  • Why was it especially important that Garrison, a white man, formed alliances with free blacks and took up the abolitionist cause?


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.

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