In a Civil war History class, I heard that the percentage of people who favored the abolition of slavery was quite low in the North. Furthermore I understand that, at the time, some of the main arguments for abolition of slavery had nothing to do with caring for the welfare of slaves. Some disliked slave owners because they were wealthy and powerful, others wanted to get blacks out of the country altogether because they thought them to be undesirable. For example:

...states like Oregon, Illinois, Ohio, and Indiana passed constitutional provisions banning black settlement within their boundaries. Free-Soil, Whig, and Republican politicians like David Wilmot supported these measures because they protected white labor from possible competition from free blacks, exposing the racist roots of free labor ideology in the 1840s and 1850s.

Approximately what portion of the population in the North in 1860 (or slightly earlier if the data is better) wanted to end slavery because it was a brutal practice that violated the human rights and dignity of slaves?

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    Would membership in abolition societies serve as an indicator/proxy for the answer?
    – MCW
    Commented Jun 25, 2015 at 16:29
  • @MarkC.Wallace that's certainly a relevant piece of data.
    – lazarusL
    Commented Jun 25, 2015 at 16:38
  • @MarkC.Wallace: And if you know a good source, I'd love to see it
    – two sheds
    Commented Jun 25, 2015 at 16:40
  • Umm, isn't that what the op is doing, right here? Why must you be confrontational?
    – CGCampbell
    Commented Jun 26, 2015 at 2:11
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    Just because they had racist laws, does not mean that their antislavery was non-humanitarian. Many abolitionists wanted to transport all the slaves to Africa after liberating them. All racism is bad, but there's a lot of clear blue water in between 'I don't want them living near me' and 'they are the descendants of Ham, so they're destined by God to be our slaves'.
    – Ne Mo
    Commented Sep 20, 2016 at 17:06

3 Answers 3


There were no public opinion polls, so obviously it is impossible to get an exact estimate. One good data source, then, is elections. The Liberty Party was supported by abolitionists with moral objections to slavery. (This is opposed to the Free Soil Party, which as OP has noted garnered support from those more concerned with white labor than black slaves.) So vote for the Liberty Party is a rough proxy of humanitarian abolitionist sentiment.

In the 1844 Election, Liberty candidate James G. Birney received 2.3% of the vote. Of course, he was not even on the ballot in most Southern states. In New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Vermont, he received around 8% of the vote. In New York, Illinois, and Connecticut, he won only 3% of the vote.

Liberty Party vote may undercount abolitionist support, because the most radical abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison preferred to work outside of what they saw as a corrupt political system. So I'd estimate that in northern states in the 1840s, the percentage of humanitarian abolitionists ranged from 5-10%, and this number may have increased somewhat (though not dramatically) in the 1850s as sectionalism increased and attitudes toward slavery became more polarized.

  • Election result in a two party system like that one is absolutely irrelevant. Obviously any other party other than the main two will get next to zero votes, getting 2% in such a system for a third party is a HUGE result, since all people voting you knew their vote was going to get lost anyway.
    – o0'.
    Commented Jun 25, 2015 at 16:20
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    @Lohoris: And one more point. Getting 2% is not a huge result in the antebellum political system. Look at the Free Soil Party (10% in 1848) or Know Nothings (26% in 1856!). The antebellum party system was much more fluid than the contemporary two party system.
    – two sheds
    Commented Jun 25, 2015 at 16:30
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    Thanks! I just want to get clarification on a few points. Since the Liberty Party's support later went to the free soil party, rather than them being competitors, is there evidence that the racist views of the free soil party were or were not present in the Liberty party. The platform seems very progressive, but is attributing 100% of their support to humanitarian abolitionists fair?
    – lazarusL
    Commented Jun 25, 2015 at 16:34
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    @lazarusL: Yes, I think so. Abolitionism marked you as a radical back then. If you just wanted to pragmatically align yourself with an anti-slavery party, you'd vote for the northern Whigs. Aligning yourself with the Liberty Party was making a bold statement.
    – two sheds
    Commented Jun 25, 2015 at 16:38
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    @lazarusL: It's hard to know who voted and who didn't, and how much that was a gauge for political interest--this was an era when candidates served whiskey and rum at the polling station in return for a vote. Also, some of the non-voters are going to be Garrisonite abolitionists who thought the political system was corrupt. So you might be right about the skew...but then again, maybe not.
    – two sheds
    Commented Jun 25, 2015 at 16:40

If your question is how many in the North wanted to abolish slavery that would be very high. If your question was How many in the North wanted to go to war over slavery in 1860's; that would likely be much lower.

Given the facts that the North did not have slavery, and wasn't entertaining starting up slavery.. the number of folks in the north who opposed slavery and thought it was a brutal immoral practice were likely quite high.

I would argue that both the destruction of the whig party, and the creation of the new Republican party in 1854 were all about first the limitation of slavery(no new states should have slavery) and then the abolition nationally of slavery. The whig party went away because it proved ineffective in containing and ultimately banning slavery, and the Republican party was created as an abolitionist party to resolve this issue.

John C. Fremont, the first Republican to run for the Presidency in 1856 used the slogan "Free Soil, Free Men, and Fremont" crusading against slavery. So to your point, John C. Fremont, won 11 of the 16 Northern states on an abolitionist ticket. So closely were the Republican to the abolitionist movement the South threatened to secede if a Republican won the Presidency.. both of which happened in 1860.

So your question was: Approximately what portion of the population in the North in 1860 wanted to end slavery because it was a brutal practice that violated the human rights and dignity of slaves? I have no clue. But 70% of the northern states voted for the abolitionist candidate in 1856. And All 16 along with California and Oregon voted for Abraham Lincoln the abolitionist candidate in 1860.

So checking out the exact percentage by northern state which voted for Lincoln might give you a starting point.

looks like about 55-60% support in the north with Vermont coming in at 75.8%

I would further say that while most in the north were willing to let slavery die over a prolonged period by limiting their power in the congress and denying them new state members; after the supreme court decision of 1857, that started to change. The Dred Scott decision; radicalized the North as much as the reaction to the Kansas Nebraska act radicalized the mid west. The Dred Scott decision effectively legalized slavery in the north. Slave holders were free to bring their slaves to the north, and worse run rough shot over local laws in capturing "escaped slaves".. Or any free people of color they pleased. This was a pretty hard pill for the north to swallow and accounts for the rise in popularity of the Republican Party in the North leading up to the 1860 elections.


This is not an objective question, but I can tell you that the idealist abolitionists were mainly liberal elitists living in Boston and New York. The average farmer types in Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, etc, opposed slavery on grounds of principle, but also wanted to put a stop to the importation of Africans into the country and wanted them out of the country. They wanted both objectives accomplished. The sentiments can perhaps be summed up best by Abraham Lincoln:

...zeal for the spread of slavery, I can not but hate. I hate it because of the monstrous injustice of slavery itself.... it forces so many really good men among ourselves into an open war with the very fundamental principles of civil liberty.
If all earthly power were given me, I should not know what to do, as to the existing institution. My first impulse would be to free all the slaves, and send them to Liberia--to their own native land.... but its sudden execution is impossible. What then? Free them all, and keep them among us as underlings? ... What next? Free them, and make them politically and socially our equals? My own feelings will not admit of this; and if mine would, we well know that those of the great mass of white people will not.... We can not, then, make them equals. But it does seem to me that systems of gradual emancipation might be adopted; but for their tardiness in this, I will not undertake to judge our brethren of the South.

--- Abraham Lincoln, Peoria, October 16, 1854

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    Importation of slaves into the US was stopped in 1808. Free state farmers were against free blacks moving into their states, Illinois had a law to that effect in the antebellum area although I'm not sure it would have stood a constitutional test.
    – Oldcat
    Commented Jun 26, 2015 at 18:59
  • @Oldcat That is like saying the importation of cocaine into the United States was stopped in 1914. Commented Jun 26, 2015 at 19:26
  • It just was not a political issue in antebellum years, despite a small crowd testing the waters to reintroduce it. More northerly slave states raised slaves to be sold south to meet domestic needs.
    – Oldcat
    Commented Jun 26, 2015 at 19:32

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