American Abolitionists, Elitism and Education

In the United States, meanwhile, the movement had evolved in a different, if complementary, direction. The style was different as well. Whereas British abolitionists committed themselves to grass-roots activity, appealing directly to local electors, by and large, early American abolitionists conceived of anti-slavery as an elite movement, espousing carefully worded legal and political challenges to slavery and the slave trade.

Discretion was the by-word of groups like the Pennsylvania Abolition Society: hence the emphasis on persuading legislators to take action by emphasizing their "honorable" and "gentlemanly" credentials. If groups like the SEAST took obvious pride in depicting themselves as "respectable," a key word in the abolitionists’ vocabulary, they also attached great weight to their ability to speak for the British "people," thereby helping to redefine the shape of British politics.

Moreover, American abolitionists, frustrated in their efforts to get Congress to implement a federal ban on the slave trade, spent an increasing amount of their time defending state abolition plans. They also took a keen interest in the welfare of free blacks, sponsoring African schools and, where possible, extending legal aid to distressed blacks, particularly those kidnapped or caught up in the domestic slave trade.

The New York Manumission Society, for instance, established its first school for African Americans, the African Free School, in New York City in 1787, and was responsible for educating thousands of pupils, including Rev. Alexander Crummell, the scholar and missionary who served twenty years in Liberia, and former runaway and abolitionist Rev. Henry Highland Garnett, an advocate of emigration. If anything, these legal and educational activities would assume greater importance as time went on, helping to give American abolitionism its own distinctive shape and character, especially after 1790.