One hundred and eighty-eight years ago, Illinois’s nascent anti-slavery movement began to pick up steam. On Feb. 1, 1833, eleven men who shared a fierce loathing of America’s peculiar institution banded together and established the Putnam County Anti-Slavery Society, the first anti-slavery society in Illinois, and one of the first in the western United States.
Many white settlers of Putnam County came from eastern abolitionist stock. In the early 1830s, they sought new opportunities along the fertile Illinois River, in the Spring Valley region north of Peoria. Putnam County quickly became a hotbed of abolitionist activity.
The Putnam County Anti-Slavery Society believed in immediatism, as in, free all slaves immediately, with equal rights and privileges. This was not a popular idea, even among the anti-slavery crowd. Nevertheless, the society forged ahead. And its message caught on. On the one-year anniversary of its founding, society membership had swelled from 11 to 60, and it had gained national attention.
In 1835, the group joined with the American Anti-Slavery Society. It welcomed national abolitionist speakers, and its own members gave impassioned speeches throughout the state. One of the society’s founders, William M. Stewart, would condemn the nation’s “most odious and unchristian system of oppression” while describing in great detail how slaved suffered “pains and violent deaths from the lash.”
Wives and daughters of Putnam’s all-male abolitionist society would not stand idly by. In 1842, they organized an anti-slavery society for women, the first in Illinois. The men and women would play a major role in Illinois’ Underground Railroad.
The Putnam County Anti-Slavery society met one of its goals with Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation. The call for equality and privileges can still be heard today.
The following letter from the Putnam County Anti-Slavery Society appeared in the March 29, 1834 issue of The Liberator, an abolitionist newspaper published in Boston by famed abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison.