Abolitionism underwent a dramatic transformation beginning in the early 1830s. Building off of the longstanding activism of African American communities, abolitionism radicalized and fragmented. Abolitionists struggled to face the same questions as all social reformers: How can reformers sustain a protest movement that has not reached its main goal – ending southern slavery? Are confrontational tactics ever justified if moderate aims fail? And how do reformers integrate new activists and ideologies into their movement over time?
In understanding the transformation of American abolitionism, we must answer three central questions.