Using the Power of the Pen
and the Press to Fight Slavery
in the 19th Century
In the mid-19th century—as PBS’ series “The Abolitionists” attests—many of those fighting to abolish slavery (Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, Angelina Grimké, and Harriett Beecher Stowe) also published newspapers or wrote books to carry forth their message. Today these individuals are celebrated as heroes of American history, but in their time, they were pioneering authors and journalists, willing to take extreme risks in order to shine a light on the controversial issue of slavery.
Born into slavery in 1818, Frederick Douglass was read to by his owner's wife, which sparked his keen intellectual mind and drove him to secretly read newspapers, books, and political journals throughout his adolescence. After escaping slavery at 20, Douglass had become a leading literary voice in the antislavery movement by the 1840s, and according to PBS's "The Abolitionists," a household name.
Douglass published several autobiographies, including the contemporary bestseller “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.” In 1847, Douglass moved to Rochester, New York, a final stop for northbound fugitive slaves on the Underground Railroad, to establish his own paper, The North Star, which was inspired by the success and mission of William Lloyd Garrison's The Liberator.
In 1848, Douglass published an open letter to Thomas Auld, his former owner, in which he described his twenty years as a slave, and asked him to imagine his reaction had Douglass, with "a band of hardened villains" seized his daughter and made her their slave. "I ask how would you regard me, if such were my conduct?" he wrote.
William Lloyd Garrison
William Lloyd Garrison founded the Boston-based newspaper The Liberator in 1831, which became one of the most influential periodicals of the anti-slavery movement. Two years later, he co-founded the American Anti-Slavery Society. Garrison took risks in his reporting and in his staunch opposition to slavery and the government for permitting it, and in 1835 he was “nearly lynched during a confrontation with an angry mob in Boston,” according to PBS.
Learn more about William Lloyd Garrison and his writings at the Brandeis University Special Collections Spotlight.
Angelina Grimké came from one of the wealthiest slave-owning families in Charleston, South Carolina. PBS writes that “her pedigree among the slaveholding aristocracy was a weapon that few other abolitionists could claim, and it lent credibility to her anti-slavery views and to the movement as a whole.” In 1836, she wrote “An Appeal to the Christian Women of the South,” a 36-page essay published by the American Anti-Slavery Society. Charleston residents publicly burned copies of the Appeal in protest, but Grimké never abandoned the abolitionist cause. In 1839, Grimké and her husband Theodore Dwight Weld authored the bestselling book “American Slavery As It Is,” which included first-hand accounts of slavery, handbills for runaway slaves, court records, and the testimonials of slave owners.
Harriet Beecher Stowe
Daughter of an influential minister in Cincinnati, Harriet Beecher Stowe initially believed that slavery was wrong but criticized abolitionist activists. In 1833, after travelling to Kentucky and seeing slavery up close for the first time, she began to change her opinions. Stowe published “Uncle Tom's Cabin” in 1852, giving a “heartbreaking portrayal of the suffering of enslaved people and a plea for whites to assume their Christian duty to end slavery forever,” according to PBS. “The novel became an international bestseller…and a wildly popular play, exposing thousands of Americans to the cruelties of the ‘peculiar institution’ of slavery.”
Stowe encountered such harsh criticism for her controversial book—even receiving allegations that it was entirely false—that she wrote “The Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin” as a defense. The book’s subtitle, “Presenting the Original Facts and Documents upon Which the Story Is Founded, Together with Corroborative Statements Verifying the Truth of the Work,” reflects Stowe’s detailed documentation to back up her descriptions of slavery in the South in her original novel.
Journalists’ Coverage of
Slavery During the Civil War, Harper's
First published in 1850, Harper’s Magazine is the longest continuously-running magazine in the United States. Reporters have always covered a broad range of contemporary topics, including slavery during the Civil War.
The following list links to selected articles and opinion pieces on slavery published in Harper’s during the Civil War era. Please note that many of these articles use language that was contemporary to the time but which may be considered offensive to readers today.
“The Contest in America,” John Stuart Mill, Harper’s Magazine, April 1862 (Volume 0024, Issue 143)
In this passionate essay, British philosopher John Stuart Mill argues for Britain to stand with the Union and against slavery to end the civil war raging across the Atlantic.
“When the new Confederate States, made an independent Power by English help, had begun their crusade to carry negro slavery from the Potomac to Cape Horn, who would then have remembered that England raised up this scourge to humanity not for the evil’s sake, but because somebody had offered an insult to her flag? Every reader of a newspaper to the furthest ends of the earth would have believed and remembered one thing only—that at the critical juncture which was to decide whether slavery should blaze up afresh with increased vigor or be trodden out…. England stepped in, and, for the sake of cotton, made Satan victorious.”
“A Chapter on the Coolie Trade,” Edgar Holden, Harper’s Magazine, June 1864 (Volume 0029, Issue 169)
This first-hand account, written primarily as an observer on board a vessel transporting laborers, documents the practice of the enslavement / bonded labor of Chinese, Filipino, Indian, and other Asian people (“coolies”) that arose in the 1840s and '50s.
“Gigantic outrages have been enacted; but more than this, an old form of slavery has been instituted under a new name, and many a deluded Coolie is to-day under a more hopeless and terrible bondage than the African from the Gaboon [sic].”
“The Religious Life of the Negro Slave,” Charles A. Raymond, Harper’s Magazine, September 1863 (Volume 0027, Issue 160)
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3
In this three-part series, Charles A. Raymond offers his perspective on the religious practices and beliefs of enslaved blacks, based on conversations he had, interviews, and attending religious services.
“The life of the negro slave in America is a peculiar one; and hence Christianity in him must manifest itself in many respects in a peculiar manner. I propose, from an experience of fourteen years in the cotton-growing States of the South, spent in daily intercourse with the slaves, to present a few sketches illustrating the religious life of the slaves.”
Recent Books on Journalism
During the Civil War
Civil War Journalism (Reflections on the Civil War Era)
Risley Ford. Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2012.
Journalism in the Civil War Era (Mediating American History)
David W. Bulla. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2010.
Words at War: The Civil War and American Journalism
David B. Sachsman, S. Kittrell Rushing, and Roy Morris, Jr. West Lafayette: Purdue University Press, 2008.
Fanatics and Fire-eaters: Newspapers and the Coming of the Civil War (History of Communication), Lorman A. Ratner. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2003.
Writings on Slavery and the American Civil War
Harriet Martineau. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2002.
Blue & Grey in Black & White: Newspapers in the Civil War
Brayton Harris. Washington, DC: Brassey’s Inc, 2000.
Fredrick Douglass’s newspaper, The North Star, first published in 1847, had the motto: “Right is of no Sex—Truth is of no Color—God is the Father of us all, and we are all Brethren.”
From 1831 to 1865, William Lloyd Garrison edited and published the Boston-based newspaper The Liberator.
In publishing “An Appeal to the Christian Women of the South” in 1836, Angelina Grimké spoke out against the white, slave-owning society of Charleston, South Carolina in which she was raised.
Harriet Beecher Stowe and the original cover of her book “Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or Life Among the Lowly,” published in 1852.
After receiving harsh allegations against “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” Stowe published a detailed defense of the novel, “The Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” in 1854.
First published in 1850, Harper’s Magazine is the longest continuously-running magazine in the United States.