Abolitionist "Social Media"

With the flurry of tweets, posts, blogs, etc. over current events, I started thinking about how abolitionists connected and mobilized in the years before the Civil War.

Remember that the so-called "mainstream media" was indifferent at best, more often hostile to the anti-slavery movement.

Enter the abolitionist press: that is, anti-slavery newspapers and magazines like the Liberator, North Star, and Anti-Slavery Standard (more about them below--links to online copies), as well as many other smaller or more short-lived publications. One-off pamphlets and handbills also proliferated, as did children's books like The Young Abolitionists (not exactly of Harry Potter popularity).  

But first, consider this statement by historian Richard Blackett:

In the Anglo-American world, the success of the abolitionist movement turned on its ability to rally public opinion to its cause. In fact, it can be argued that abolitionists were the first to recognize the extent to which public pressure, organized and sustained over time, could influence government policy.

William Lloyd Garrison published his first issue of The Liberator on January 1, 1831. He chose stridency. "I am aware, that many object to the severity of my language; but is there not cause for severity?" he wrote in this first issue, and proceeded to publish every week over the next 35 years. The newspaper's influence far exceeded its circulate numbers of a few thousand. Readers shared copies or would come upon an occasional issue on their own, treasured well after its publication date. Most subscribers were Northern free blacks. 

  An early issue of The Liberator, with a slave auction (along with the sale of horses and cattle, showing the "property" designation of people) illustrated on the masthead.

An early issue of The Liberator, with a slave auction (along with the sale of horses and cattle, showing the "property" designation of people) illustrated on the masthead.

  Lydia Maria Child

Lydia Maria Child

The National Anti-Slavery Standard began in 1840. Unlike the Liberator with its long-standing connection with Garrison and his preferences, the Standard had a series of editors over the years, including Lydia Maria Child. (Child later served as editor for Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs.) According to historian John Blassingame, the Standard wanted to expand not only the publication to a wider audience than the Liberator but also the broader abolitionist cause.

Sound familiar: how progressive the message? In this case, should the message be strong and pure like the Liberator (and the so-called Garrisonians) or maybe a bit more accommodating to public tastes like the Standard (and the more political American Anti-Slavery Society)?

Meanwhile, Frederick Douglass decided to publish the North Star newspaper the late 1840s in Rochester, NY. The other two publications were white-run; at that point in time, no national publication had a black man at the helm. As did the other papers, the North Star published editorials, notices, ads, contributed articles, and much more. Douglass, like Garrison, used it to articulate his own views on the issues. And like the other papers, it never had a large subscription base. The Western New York Anti-Slavery Society and then the Rochester Ladies' Anti-Slavery Society provided financial support. 

  Photo of North Star office, 1893 (after publication ceased), Rochester Public Library Local History Division

Photo of North Star office, 1893 (after publication ceased), Rochester Public Library Local History Division

The publications semi-competed with each other and, as noted above, never represented the mainstream point of view. But by creating community and making abolitionists feel less alone, they contributed to a cataclysmic change in our country--the end of slavery.