Freedom of Speech: The Anti-Slavery Press

Freedom of Speech: The Anti-Slavery Press
Anna Harrison: Economics, Discovery and Daily Life

Skill: High School/College
Time Required: One to three class periods


For a good part of the first half of the 19th century, the practice of slavery was the subject of fierce and bitter debate in the young United States.  While Jefferson had eliminated it in his original version of the Declaration of Independence, such elimination had to be removed in order to get the southern colonies to vote for independence.  While William and Anna Harrison were concerned with native peoples in the Northwest Territory, much of the rest of the country was arguing over whether or not slavery would continue.  One of the important sources of information and debate about all kinds of things in the 19th century were newspapers, and this was nowhere more true than in the debate about slavery in the anti-slavery press, which tested the Constitutional guarantee of freedom of speech…sometimes to its limits.


Students who participate in this activity will learn something about the continuing battle over slavery as well as over freedom of the press, this time in terms of the abolitionist press that published from the 1820s to the Civil War.  They will also gain experience in research and in synthesizing information for multimedia presentations. 

Materials Required:

Access to the Internet; First Ladies Library Timeline, key word, “slavery”; Access to computers with PowerPoint and other multimedia programs.


1.  Divide students into groups of four.  Each student in a group will assume a role:

  • One student is a reporter
  • One student is an editor
  • One student is a technology expert
  • One student is an archivist

2.  After exploring the web sites listed below, each group should take on an aspect of the history of abolitionist journalism and, each student doing his or her own part of the assignment, create a multimedia presentation on the topic they have chosen.  Students should also be willing to explore their topic beyond these web sites, both by finding additional information on the Web, and by using books and other print materials.

  • The archivist gathers the data
  • The reporter writes the script
  • The editor makes certain that all writing is accurate and correct
  • The technology expert puts together the presentation

3.  When the research and presentation is completed, time should be allocated for all groups to share their work.
4.  Suggestions for possible topic areas:

  • What was the abolitionist (or anti-slavery) press?
  • Who were Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, Horace Greeley, David Ruggles?
  • The story of the attempted suppression of the anti-slavery press
  • The rise of anti-slavery societies in the North
  • The difference between white and black anti-slavery newspapers 

Extending the Lesson:

This lesson can be extended by delving further into the rhetoric of the period, in newspapers, periodicals, broadsides, and books such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  This rhetoric should represent both the northern and southern points of view.

Sources & Resources:


Using the Power of the Pen and the Press to Defeat Slavery

The Anti-Slavery Press and the American Civil War

Pioneer Anti-Slavery Press

The Abolitionists (PBS)

The Hazards of Anti-Slavery Journalism

William Lloyd Garrison and The Liberator

National Anti-Slavery Standard

History of Newspaper Censorship

Frederick Douglas


Credits: This lesson was developed by Averil McClelland, Kent State University.