The Influence of Anti-Slavery Pamphlets During the Abolitionist Movement

Anti-Slavery in Illinois at the time of Knox's Founding 

In 1837, Illinois was a free state in name only. Founded from South to North, Illinois was almost founded as a slave state. While outright slavery was outlawed, indentured servitude laws made it so that “Illinois was the most accommodating of the ‘free’ states in regard to slave owners bringing their slaves within its borders.”[1] This meant that the attitude towards slavery in Illinois was split. For every anti-slavery movement that arose, there was a pro-slavery movement that met it.[2]

Abolition was not always palatable to the inhabitants of Illinois. Many anti-slavery movements were motivated by different causes, some on the freedom of enslaved peoples and some on the benefit to organized religion that abolishing slavery would have. As the founders moved west, they were motivated by abolition but also by their own personal benefit. While Galesburg was founded to spur an abolitionist movement, Knox was more of a business and religious opportunity.

While Knox is often cited as a source of abolition,[3] Knox itself was founded not solely on the idea of abolition. In the Benjamin Haskins papers, an early settler in Galesburg, it’s detailed that “The dream of Reverend George W. Gale was to found an institution of learning somewhere in the far western country. The plan was to provide an opportunity for young men of small means to secure an education.”[4] In this passage, it's clear that although Galesburg was an abolitionist town, there were other motivations at hand. 

The Illinois Martyr to Freedom

Elijah P. Lovejoy, a reverend originally from New England, didn’t at first believe in immediate abolition and wouldn’t have always considered himself to be an abolitionist. However, his assassination in 1837 sparked a new wave of abolitionist media and led to the formation of Anti Slavery societies across the nation. In 1827 Lovejoy tried his luck out west in St. Louis and quickly started publishing The St Louis Observer. While not originally meant to be an abolitionist publication, The Observer became increasingly more critical of slavery. By 1836 Lovejoy found the slave state of Missouri to be too dangerous for him and his young wife and they relocated across the Mississippi river to Alton, IL. Unfortunately, Lovejoy found that Alton was not as welcoming as he had hoped. Between 1836 and 1837, The Observer’s printing presses were destroyed three times. Angry mobs and pro-slavery politicians alike called for Lovejoy to stop printing his anti-slavery preachings. But, Lovejoy did not, citing the freedom of speech and freedom of the press guaranteed under the constitution as his defense. For this refusal to stop, he was killed in November of 1837. 

While Elijah P. Lovejoy was not the most perfect man, many historians cite him as the Martyr to Freedom, including Paul Simon. “In reality, he served two causes. One was that of freeing the slaves. The other was the freedom of the press. Lovejoy became the first United States martyr to freedom of the press…But the immediate cause Lovejoy served was that of the antislavery movement. Lovejoy’s death rocked the nation.” While Lovejoy was an incrementalist prior to an immediatist, it was his death that changed how the anti-slavery movement would use the media going forward, including immediate abolitionist movements. [5]

The Anti-Slavery Almanacs: Abolition in Every Home

Lovejoy’s journey toward abolition can be paralleled in the Almanacs that were produced and circulated at the time. Through yearly almanacs, many anti-slavery societies were able to spread news of the anti-slavery movement, share images and stories of the horrors of slavery, and make the horrors of slavery household knowledge.

The almanac was one of the most widespread pieces of media at the time and American anti-slavery societies knew that creating a specialized almanac would help to spread their information across the United States. The first printed farmer's almanac was as early as 1457, it contained information on astronomy and climate data, and there is a new edition published every year. In the 1800s, it wasn’t uncommon for every household to have an almanac as one of their only books alongside the Bible. Almanac specialist Robb Hansell Sagendorph explains that “the good farmer’s almanacs had by then become well established and accepted in the home not only as trustworthy but as informative and entertaining, the specialized almanac, trading on the almanac name, was accepted almost automatically–especially since it was generally given away (to advertise some cause or product) free of charge.”[6]

Almanacs give us insight into the circulation of abolitionist knowledge and how abolitionists' ideas were transmitted to the general public. Additionally, looking at change over time in anti-slavery almanacs helps us understand the shift from images to theoretical and moral arguments against slavery. Diving into Anti-Slavery Almanacs it's clear how vital accessible information and imagery could be in garnering support against slavery. While the American Anti-Slavery Almanac, for 1840 makes the horror stories of slavery inescapable – placing graphic drawings and personal stories on every other page of the almanac between the astronomical information – later almanacs contain very few photos and very little information on the climate, choosing to instead focus on the academic and theological arguments against slavery. 

The Anti-Slavery Almanacs: A Religious Obligation

*Content Warning: This section depicts graphic descriptions of people abused during slavery, please read at your own discretion.*

Focusing primarily on these inescapable horrors of slavery, the American Anti-Slavery Almanac, for 1840 is filled to the brim with graphic descriptions of the abuses of slavery paired with jarring etchings depicting the worst of it all. In one section, “Hunting Slaves with Dogs and Guns”, the almanac quotes newspapers and journals in the South identifying runaway slaves with gunshot wounds paired with an etching of a man being attacked in the water by dogs with a man with a gun running behind him. Another section, “Women at Work in the Field”, is headed by an etching of a slave master whipping two women with children on their backs. Quoted is Rev. Francis Hawley explaining the plight of an enslaved mother, “‘When the child is a few weeks old, the mother must again go to the field. If it is far from her hut, she must take her babe with her. If the child cries, she cannot go to its relief.’” Hawley goes on to plead that “‘Brother, you cannot begin to know what the poor slave mothers suffer on thousands of plantations at the south.’”[7] Even now, nearly 200 years later, these stories tug at the heartstrings of the reader. These narratives appeal to the readers' sense of emotion, but, as the movement developed the almanacs began to transition to a more logical argument against slavery: a religious one. 

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The New England Anti-Slavery Almanac for 1841 is the first almanac that shifts the focus from climate and astronomical information to abolitionist theory. This image depicts the inside front cover of the almanac with an etching of a white couple walking past enslaved workers with the caption "They can't take care of themselves" The back of the front cover consists of a list of "Things abolitionists should do." 

The American Anti-Slavery Almanac, for 1841 is the first almanac in which we see abolitionist information taking more precedence to astronomical information. While the first eight pages are filled with sunset and sunrise times, moon phases, and holidays, the next 27 pages are exclusively filled with op-eds about racism and slavery. 

The almanacs called to the abolitionist audience to practice abolitionism in the same frequency that they preached it; calling to abolitionists to move towards more than just abolishing slavery. “Abolitionism is – anti-slavery principles ACTED OUT. The only true profession of a creed is, the practice of it. Abolitionists, wherever you are, whatever you do, show that your abolitionism is not mere theory; but that it grasps your heart– not mere sentimentalism that goes off in rhapsodies, nor a mere impulse– gushing out when your sympathies are moved by a tale of cruelty, but that you have an abiding, intense abhorrence of slavery.”[8] In a way, abolitionism in the 1800s had become a trend. While people may have aligned themselves with the abolitionist movement, many people saw ending slavery as the end of it but had no desire to desegregate.

Even though many of the passages in the almanacs criticized practices of the church, many pamphlets published at the time were still predominantly spreading Christianity and using Christianity as one of the main arguments to fight against slavery. The Anti-Slavery Almanac, for 1841 implores “Abolitionists, do you pray for the slave? I don't ask whether you labor for him, or give for him, or speak or write for him, or vote or petition for him. But do you pray for the slave? If this part of the work is not done faithfully, rely upon it, nothing else will be well done.”[9] This not only roots the anti-slavery movement in Christianity but also encourages Christian readers to do more than just go through the motions when it comes to abolitionism, it encourages them to use their religion and soul to identify people that need their help. While these humanizing examples of how to help enslaved people by ending slavery are riddled throughout the anti-slavery pamphlets, there are also many examples of enslaved people being infantilized throughout the pamphlets published throughout the 1830s and 1840s. 


This inside cover of The Abolitionist, an abolitionist pamphlet written by William Lloyd Garrison, depicts a white female missionary with a black man. The man's hands are clasped in prayer. The image is captioned "A Female Missionary: Instructing a Native African", alongside bible quotes citing “Ethiopia shall soon stretch her hands unto God. Psalm LXVIII.31” and “Go…teach all Nations. Matthew XXVIII.19.”

Infantilization of Enslaved Peoples in White Abolitionist Publications 

In the January 1833 edition of William L. Garrison and Isaac Knapp’s The Abolitionist, the art on the inside cover shows a young white woman with a Black man praying. Underneath the image is titled “A Female Missionary: Instructing a Native African.” and goes on to include “Ethiopia shall soon stretch her hands unto God. Psalm LXVIII.31” and “Go…teach all Nations. Matthew XXVIII.19.” While this is a depiction outside of the United States, it directly relates to how Christians are encouraged to approach enslaved populations throughout their abolitionism. Christianity at the time and the belief in the Christian God is seen to be the word of law, and it is the White Christians’ duty to spread that belief. In other words, white missionaries place themselves as saviors to enslaved African Americans. “Philanthropists and Christians! Come forth, then, to sustain by your contributions the Anti-Slavery Society in this benevolent work, and the blessings of many shall rest upon your heads.”[10] These pamphlets strongly encouraged their Christian abolitionist readers that by devoting themselves to the anti-slavery movement, they too would benefit from the blessings they would receive.

Charles K. Whipple criticized this phenomenon in 1856 in his book, Relations of Anti-Slavery to Religion. “–they (the Abolitionists) are acting in the interest of religion not less than of Anti-Slavery; that the advancement of Christianity itself, in this country, demands the precise course they are taking…as the imputation to him of injustice in his own acts, or any countenance of injustice in the laws which he has given to men, would be (in the mind that accepted such an idea) a weakening of the very foundation of Christianity – as the duty of loving and serving God results from his being good and not evil, and as both love and service will of necessity be deteriorated by the supposition that injustice forms a part.”[11] While the abolition of slavery was promoted as a movement of Good Christians, eventually abolitionists knew that supporting slavery would reflect poorly on the church. Especially as the enslaved were becoming more humanized in the eyes of anti-slavery supporters, it was unjust to continue turning a blind eye to the abuses of slavery. 

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The Liberty Almanac, for 1847 follows the formatting for the 1841 anti-slavery almanac, focusing more on the abolitionist message rather than the climate and astronomical information. Like the Abolitionist, this almanac focused on a religious argument against slavery and the front cover depicts a group of African Americans gathering seemingly in worship. 

The Liberty Almanac for 1847 was one of the last anti-slavery almanacs published by the Anti-Slavery Society. “The following are the fundamental principles of this society. That slave-holding and slave-trading are heinous sins in the sight of God, and violations of the rights of man, and ought to be immediately abandoned–that so long as slavery exists, there is no reasonable prospect of the annihilation of the slave-trade, and of extinguishing the sale and barter of human beings– that the extinction of slavery and the slave-trade is to be attained by moral, religious and pacific means.”[12] The call to action at the time was much more forceful, positioning slavery against the fundamental principles that the United States was built on. 

The media has always influenced political and social movements. However, at this time media wasn’t always widely accessible. Newspapers rarely had illustrations let alone photographs, and books weren’t always widely circulated. By producing an Anti-Slavery Almanac, the American Anti-Slavery Society was able to spread anti-slavery information and data across the United States in a way that was digestible to readers that had never been done before the 1830s through 1840s. The tragic death of Lovejoy allowed for the Anti-Slavery Society to publish freely and for Anti-Slavery societies across the country to form, making abolition a more acceptable subject, one that allowed Galesburg to thrive and one that eventually overtook the country as the South seceded from the union and the civil war began. 

Anti-Slavery Pamphlets