American Anti-Slavery Society

  • Public-Policy Reform
  • 1833

The powerful religious and moral revival in America during the early 1800s, known as the Second Great Awakening, spawned an outpouring of voluntary giving and the creation of many new charitable societies aimed at spreading Christianity and reducing social ills like drunkenness, violence, and slavery.

One of the most consequential of these new charities was the American Anti-Slavery Society. It was established in 1833 with financing from major philanthropists Arthur and Lewis Tappan and Gerrit Smith, along with many small donors mobilized by an army of religious female fundraisers. Within two years the society had 200 local chapters, and there were 1,350 by 1838, mobilizing an estimated 250,000 members. Given the controversial cause, historian Kathleen McCarthy calls this “a stunning level of recruitment, accounting for almost 2 percent of the national population within the scant space of five years in an era of primitive communications.” As a fraction of the national population, the society was larger than today’s Boy Scouts, National Rifle Association, National Wildlife Federation, or Chamber of Commerce.

In the process, abolitionism became a national crusade. Advocates presented the following arguments for reform: No one has the right to buy and sell other human beings. Husbands and wives should be legally married and protected from involuntary separation. Parents should maintain control of their children. It is wrong for slaveowners to be able to severely punish a slave without trial. Laws prohibiting the education of slaves must be repealed. Planters should pay wages to field hands instead of buying slaves.

In the summer of 1834, slavery apologists reacted violently to this new opposition. During a riot in New York City, leading AAS donor Arthur Tappan escaped with his life only by barricading himself and his friends in one of the family stores well supplied with guns. The home of his brother Lewis Tappan was destroyed, with all of his family possessions pulled into the street and burned while some leading citizens looked on passively.

Despite their narrow escapes, the Tappan brothers were undeterred. Lewis left his house unrepaired, to serve, he said, as a “silent anti-slavery preacher to the crowds who will flock to see it.” More substantively, the Tappan brothers decided to flood the U.S. with anti-slavery mailings over the next year. They founded and subsidized several important magazines to popularize anti-slavery arguments, including the high-circulation Emancipator, the children’s magazine the Slave’s Friend, the Record illustrated with woodcuts, William Lloyd Garrison’s the Liberator, and the journal Human Rights.

These publications and other abolitionist tracts and papers were flurried across the country by the American Anti-Slavery Society. The campaign was powered by $30,000 of donations. It targeted ministers, local legislators, businessmen, and judges, using moral suasion to make the case against enslavement. The society’s publications committee, headed by Lewis Tappan, mailed over a million pieces in the course of ten months, harnessing new technologies like steam-powered presses plus the religious enthusiasms of thousands of volunteers to mobilize public opinion. The National Postal Museum has described this as America’s first-ever direct-mail campaign.

As McCarthy notes, defenders of slavery had “kept the leavening potential of civil society in check…watchfully curbing any trend which might contribute to the development of alternative, independent power bases.” So the enemies of abolition struck back against this civil information campaign. In his 1835 message to Congress, President Andrew Jackson called for a national censorship law to shut down mailing of these politically “incendiary” writings. He encouraged his postmaster general to suppress the deliveries or at least look the other way while local postmasters did, and in many places abolitionist tracts were pulled out of the mail and subscribers were exposed and threatened.

Arthur and Lewis Tappan and other philanthropists subsidizing the effort were subject to additional violence. Lewis was mailed a slave’s ear, a hangman’s rope, and many written threats. An offer of $50,000 was made for delivery of his head to New Orleans. A Virginia grand jury indicted him and other members of the American Anti-Slavery Society. As his only weapon, Lewis carried a copy of the New Testament in his breast pocket.

These thuggish reactions helped turn public opinion against slavery, especially among Northern churchgoers, and fueled the rapid spread of AAS chapters described above. The Tappans, meanwhile, continued their dogged efforts to change national policy on this issue. See their contributions, for instance, in the nearby 1841 entry on the Amistad decision, and the 1846 entry on the American Missionary Association. Combining abundant generosity with personal passion and a genius for organizing and public relations, the Tappan brothers made giant contributions to the most consequential public-policy reform in the history of the United States.