Founded in New York in 1831 by philanthropists Arthur Tappan and Lewis Tappan, the American Anti-Slavery Society quickly grew from a single local chapter to a bona fide national organisation.
Although early supporters were drawn mostly from religious organisations such as the Quakers or groups of freed black men, by 1840 there were over 2,000 branches with representation in most Northern states, achieving a total membership of between 200,000 and 250,000.
Representing the most activist segment of the Abolitionist movement in the United States, the society focused its efforts three main fronts; first the distribution, circulation and collection of anti slavery petitions for subsequent presentation to congress. At its peak, The Society was actively circulating over seventy petitions a year.
Second, The Society published and distributed pamphlets and publications exposing the injustices of slavery. By 1840 The Society was actively publishing over twenty different journals, each focused on a different segment of society, but carrying an identical message – the total eradication of slavery across the entire United States.
Finally, The Society sponsored lecture tours intended to bring their message of Abolition to large Northern audiences. At times these lectures were met with violence, disrupted by angry mobs who would attack speakers and destroy materials.
Speakers with first hand knowledge of the evils of slavery –freed slaves such as Frederick Douglass or William Wells Brown seemed to elicit the most anger from these mobs, perhaps because they were extremely articulate and well spoken free Black Men – a role inconsistent with popular stereotypes of African American slaves of that time.
Women - although active in The Society since its inception - gradually rose in visibility as they began to venture forth on the lecture circuit. Leading figures of the Suffragette movement – Susan Anthony, Lucretia Mott and Lucy Stone amoung others – gained valuable experience as part of the Abolitionist movement, expertise that they would later bring to bear on the struggle for Womens rights.
Unfortunately the increasing role of women, amoung other factors, led to a schism in the leadership of the Anti Slavery Society in later years. Many organisers – William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips and Frederick Douglass – for example, considered women’s rights as inalienable as those of African Americans.
Others, such as founder Arthur Tappan and Lewis Tappan disagreed, while still other members of The Society objected to constant attacks on the U.S. Constitution, which many viewed as supportive of slavery in what was then it’s current form.
These disagreements took their toll and by 1839 the organisation had split. The Tappan brothers and their followers left to form the rival American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society, which advocated political activities, as well as moral proselytising. Their group refused to acknowledge the struggle for women’s rights, instead focusing on what they considered to be core, Abolitionist activities. Their political activities resulted in the formation of the Liberty Party in late 1840.
The more radical remained as members of The American Anti-Slavery Society, following Garrison as he continued to vociferously denounce the Constitution, while at the same time increasing the power and visibility of women in their ranks.
Antislavery formally entered American politics for the first time as part of The Liberal Party (1840-48), The Free Soil Party (1848-54), as well as the Republican Party (1854).
The Anti-Slavery Society was formally dissolved in 1870, following the passing of the 14th Amendment and Reconstruction Acts in 1867, after, of course, The Civil War.