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The Abolitionists


Film & Theme

The Strategy of Nonviolence: The Abolitionists

American slavery was rooted in and dependent upon the threat and practice of violence. In response, the majority of abolitionists argued that violence was a corruptive force and slavery was best battled through what they termed “moral suasion.” For decades, they urged fellow Christians to search their consciences and open themselves to the divine truth of slavery’s evil. Abolitionist organizations sent speakers, including former slaves like Frederick Douglass, to testify about slavery’s horrors. They urged followers to circulate and discuss anti-slavery pamphlets and to make direct appeals to southern friends and relatives.

By the 1850s, a series of legal decisions led some abolitionists to despair of ending slavery through moral suasion. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 required law enforcement officials in non-slave states to return escaped slaves to bondage. Eight years later, in the Dred Scott Decision, the Supreme Court determined that blacks, free or enslaved, did not have legal citizenship rights. Some abolitionists, like John Brown, feared there was a government conspiracy to nationalize slavery; he equated caution with cowardice.

This clip, based on Frederick Douglass’s written account, recreates a meeting between Brown and Douglass in which they discussed violent and non-violent opposition to slavery. Brown, already in hiding for the murder of pro-slavery settlers in Kansas, appealed to Douglass to support his plan to seize the federal armory at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, and to launch a massive slave rebellion. In the autumn of 1859, Brown and twenty-two followers launched the ill-conceived plan that ultimately led to Brown’s execution and martyrdom.

Abolitionists, Episode III. 14:01–18:20:

Questions for class discussion

  • What were some of the reasons John Brown decided on his course of action?
  • What was Brown hoping to accomplish with his raid?
  • How did Frederick Douglass react to Brown’s invitation to join him?
  • How do the two men’s reactions reflect divisions within the abolitionist movement?


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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