The Abolitionist Movement in the 1830's

Name/School: Colleen Kyle, Deerfield Academy

Topic: The abolitionist movement in the 1830s. 

Lesson: By examining and discussing a selection of primary source documents—two official pamphlets from movement leaders, and two personal letters from a family interested in the cause—students will gain an understanding of the abolition movement from the top down and the bottom up.  They will also learn about the Colonization Society and why its solution—sending freed slaves back to Africa—appealed to some Americans but was ultimately rejected by the radical abolitionists. 

Overview: This is a two-day lesson plan that will address the following two key questions:

  • What was the Colonization Society, and why did abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison come to disagree with its solution? 
  • What motivated the men and women of the abolitionist movement in the 1830s? 

Time: Two fifty-minute periods; two evenings of homework reading totaling 1 hour each; one wrap-up writing assignment that will take about an hour.

Materials: textbook; primary sources listed below. I may also use PowerPoint to have a brief slide show of pictures of abolitionists and some of their anti-slavery images to put a human face on the people we’re discussing.


  • Concepts (Big idea/central theme): What motivated the men and women of this movement to radically devoting their lives to abolitionism? What was the Colonization Society?
  • Content (What students should know): Students will gain an understanding of the connection between revival and reform; they will recognize that something that seems obvious today—that slavery is wrong—was not at all an obvious or easy thing to say in the 1830s. They will learn that the abolitionists drew on Christian doctrine as well as the Revolutionary War era ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. They will learn that the movement, while advanced by a zealous core of leaders, appealed to country folk like the Huntington family of Hadley, Massachusetts, whose homestead included slaves during the colonial era. They will learn about the Colonization Society and consider what the proponents of this scheme were thinking when they attempted to answer the question: after slavery’s abolition, then what?
  • Skills (what students should be able to do): Students will be looking at two different types of documents—excerpts from political pamphlets, a medium at which the abolitionists excelled, and personal letters. The purpose of this juxtaposition is to get students to understand the passion, conviction and skill the abolitionist societies demonstrated in their printed materials, but also to get a sense of how their ideas filtered down to, and affected, ordinary people in New England at the time. 


The day before: Students will have read their textbook, Norton et al., A People and a Nation, Brief Sixth Edition, chapter 11: “Reform and Politics in the Age of Jackson, 1824-1845,” pp. 178-186, and we will have discussed the Second Great Awakening and the beginnings of the reform movement, including the Colonization Society and the establishment of Liberia, prior to this class. 

End class with a reading of Henry Mayer’s account, in All on Fire: William Lloyd Garrison and the Abolition of Slavery, of William Lloyd Garrison’s near lynching in 1835 at the hands of a Boston mob—or of Amos Dresser’s account of his being sentenced to twenty lashes for distributing abolitionist pamphlets while traveling in Kentucky in that same year.  Ask the students to think about why people like Garrison, Dresser, Maria Weston Chapman, Theodore Weld, and the Grimké sisters put themselves at such great personal harm in the advancement of such unpopular, dangerous ideas. 

Readings for Day One:
·        William Lloyd Garrison abandons Colonization, 1830
·        Betsy Huntington letter to The Liberator, 1834
·        William Huntington letter to his mother Betsy, 1839

In-Class Discussion:

This will be a teacher-led discussion pulling out the meanings of the documents as a group and figuring out why a person like Betsy Huntington would find the Colonization Society a practical way of eradicating slavery—and why a person like W. L. Garrison becomes vehemently opposed to this solution.   Students will get a taste of reading and analyzing the actual handwriting of the Huntingtons (although a typed transcript of Betsy’s letter will also be provided—her original appears to be a draft, and perhaps includes a draft of another unrelated letter that may have been sent to one of her sons).  Wrestling with the two Huntington letters will develop students’ historical skills as they learn the content.

Readings for Day Two:
·        Declaration of the Anti-Slavery Convention, 1833
·        Selection from An Appeal to the Women of the Nominally Free States, Issued By An Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women, 1838: “How Northern Women Can Help the Cause of Emancipation.”

In-Class Discussion:

Students will break up into groups and will have twenty-five minutes to discuss the readings.  Each group will have one key question to examine and answer to the rest of the class in the second half of the period.  The questions will be:

  • What are the key religious/philosophical reasons these organizations give for opposing slavery?
  • What are some of the political/economic reasons these organizations give for opposing slavery?
  • Can you discern any gender differences in the tone and content of the two documents?

Evaluation/Assessment: The assignment following class discussion will be more personal and reflective in nature than as I attempt to encourage students to see the abolitionists as multidimensional people.  Students will be asked to submit a journal entry responding to this question:

  • What issues in contemporary society or politics are meaningful to you?  Have you ever taken an unpopular stand on an issue?  (Standing up to a bully in the school playground counts!)  If so, what motivated you to speak your mind?  If you haven’t yet—what do you think it would take for you to do so? 

I have also considered two possibilities for written or oral assignments that would draw connections to current events and underscore the relevance of these issues today: 

  1. Ask students to research the current volatile situation in Liberia and write about how Liberia’s peculiarly American origins make it different from other African nations.
  2. Give students a copy of John Bowe’s article, “Nobodies,” from the April 21/28, 2003 New Yorker, about the existence of slave-like conditions in the United States today, and ask them to write a response paper to it.

Extension Possibilities/Interdisciplinary Connections:  Deerfield juniors take American Literature at the same time they are studying American History, and most of their teachers cover The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.  Students will certainly find the study of abolitionists enlightening and relevant as they study Douglass’ narrative as a piece of literature.

Tips and reflections from the author:  The W. L. Garrison selections used here are taken from the following document collection, which is a very nice little book I found in the Deerfield Academy library:

  • Thomas, John L., editor. Slavery Attacked: The Abolitionist Crusade.  Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Incorporated, 1965.