Shared beliefs about slavery bring together Angelina Grimke, the daughter of a Charleston plantation family, who moves north and becomes a public speaker against slavery; Frederick Douglass, a young slave who becomes hopeful when he hears about the abolitionists; William Lloyd Garrison, who founds the newspaper The Liberator, a powerful voice for the movement; Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose first trip to the South changes her life and her writing; and John Brown, who devotes his life to the cause. The abolitionist movement, however, is in disarray and increasing violence raises doubts about the efficacy of its pacifist tactics.
Douglass escapes slavery, eventually joining Garrison in the anti-slavery movement. Threatened with capture by his former owner, Douglass flees to England, returning to the U.S. in 1847. He launches his own anti-slavery paper. John Brown meets with Douglass, revealing his radical plan to raise an army, attack plantations and free the slaves. Harriet Beecher Stowe publishes Uncle Tom's Cabin in 1852. A best-seller, and then wildly successful stage play, this influential novel changes the hearts and minds of millions of Americans. The divide between North and South deepens, touching off a crisis that is about to careen out of control.
The battle between pro-slavery and free-soil contingents rises to fever pitch. During his raid on Harpers Ferry, John Brown is captured, then executed, becoming a martyr for the cause. Abraham Lincoln is elected president in 1860. Southern states secede, war breaks out and the conflict unexpectedly drags on. On New Year's Day 1863, it is announced that Lincoln has emancipated the slaves in rebel territory. African-American men may now enlist in the Union forces; two of Douglass' sons go to war. In December 1865, the Thirteenth Amendment is ratified, banning slavery in all states - forever.