The Abolitionists

PBS, 180 minutes

The 40 years leading to slavery’s end are chronicled in this gripping entry in the outstanding PBS series American Experience. The movement’s slow, painful development as abolitionists suffered dismissal, vilification and violence is illustrated by five key figures: William Lloyd Garrison, Angelina Grimke, Frederick Douglass, John Brown and Harriet Beecher Stowe.

Garrison lived among Baltimore’s many free blacks and saw them as equals. His Christian beliefs in moral suasion and nonviolence drove him to launch The Liberator in 1831—and with it the tiny movement. But his focus on appealing to slaveowners, while denouncing churches, political activism and the Constitution, meant others would take different paths.

Grimke, daughter of slaveowning South Carolina gentry, fiercely believed slavery was evil and joined Garrison’s crusade. But her assertion that enfranchising women would help free the slaves brought universal white male wrath. Douglass seized his freedom from a vicious master and was mentored by Garrison—until the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law forced him to flee to England. There his autobiography made him a celebrity; he found his political voice as well as financial backers. When Douglass returned home, he advocated a more pragmatic strategy in his own newspaper— and his influence outstripped Garrison’s.

Brown was a social radical armed with the self-righteousness of an Old Testament prophet. He was convinced that slavery, so sinfully entrenched in America, could never be ended peaceably— and that God had chosen him to lead a slave uprising. When Stowe was a girl, she crossed from free-state Ohio into slave-state Kentucky, saw black mothers and children separated and sold, and felt her soul ache. When her son died, her grief mingled with that memory, sparking Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

The complex narrative is cohesive, and historians’ commentary is interwoven with dramatized sequences and readings from these pioneers’ trove of stirring words. As their dream of America without slavery seems strangled by war and politics, we’re reminded how often a handful of believers in an unlikely cause managed to overcome impossible odds and redirect history’s arc.


Originally published in the April 2013 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.