views updated Jun 08 2018


Scholars often distinguish "abolitionism" from "antislavery," with the latter designating all movements aiming to curtail slavery, no matter how slowly or cautiously, and "abolitionism" reserved for the most immoderate opposition. This distinction echoes the usage of radical abolitionists, who described their goal as "immediate abolition" and disparaged other reformers' gradualism. The gradualists, for their part, labeled the radicals "ultraists," a term some "immediatists" embraced despite its intended derogatory connotations. As this war of labels suggests, controversies over methods and goals were recurrent in the history of organized opposition to slavery. In addition, rifts between black abolitionists and white abolitionists in the United States have led some scholars to speak of two abolitionisms.

If they cling to the radicals' narrow definitions, scholars may get a skewed perspective on the movement's progress: Immediatism emerged only in the early 1830s and was submerged in broad-scale political movements in the 1840s and 1850s. To stress sectarian disagreements is to obscure the success of slavery's foes in winning allies and eliminating a mammoth institution during a remarkably brief period of history.

In a series of sardonic letters, "To Our Old Masters," published in Canada West (now Ontario) in 1851, Henry Walton Bibb, an ex-slave speaking for all the "selfemancipated"those who had escaped from the American South's peculiar institutionplaced abolitionism in a broader context. Improving the opportunities that freedom provided for the study of history, Bibb had learned "that ever since mankind formed themselves into communities, slavery, in various modifications, has had an existency." The master class's own ancestors had experienced subjugation in eras when Romans and Normans invaded England. History proved other lessons, too: "the individuals held in bondage never submitted to their yoke with cheerfulness," and in slavery's entire history no moral argument had ever been "adduced in its favor; it has invariably been the strong against the weak." Modern masters were crueler than any before, in Bibb's view, but they also were broadly despised: "you elicit the contempt of the whole civilized world." Inevitably, they would have to "adopt one of the many proposed schemes which the benevolent have put forth for our emancipation," or they would reap the whirlwind. Bibb may have been wrong about past justifications for bondage, but his sense that slavery had lost legitimacy and was approaching its termination turned out to be accurate.

The economic historian Robert William Fogel points out, for example, "how rapidly, by historical standards, the institution of slavery gave way before the abolitionist onslaught." A small group of English reformers formed a society to abolish the slave trade in 1787; by 1807 they had won that fight, by 1833 the slave system in the British Empire was toppled, and slavery was abolished in its last stronghold, Brazil, in 1888. "And so, within the span of little more than a century, a system that had stood above criticism for three thousand years was outlawed everywhere in the Western world" (Fogel, 1989, pp. 204205). In the United States, where slavery was a deeply entrenched institution and antislavery coalitions looked comparatively weak, the period required to outlaw slavery was even shorter. Thus, discussion of abolitionist factionalism must be balanced by recognition of its triumph.

Early English and American Endeavors

In England, the Quakers, a small sect with little political influence, took most of the early steps against slavery. Alliances with other dissenting sects broadened support for antislavery in a political system increasingly responsive to popular agitation. When antislavery gained the support of

William Wilberforce, Granville Sharp, and other Anglican evangelicals, it acquired respectable voices in Parliament. While advancing the view that slavery was obsolete and immoral, English leaders ensured that no fundamental threat to property rights was associated with abolition.

Slave owners retained their human property during a six-year transitional "apprenticeship," and they received compensation for their losses. Having abolished its own immoral institution, England assumed responsibility for campaigns against the slave trade on the high seas, in the Islamic world, and in India. These campaigns had the effect of spreading British imperial influence and promoting British views of civilization.

As British antislavery approached its great triumphs, it began to send speakers, books and pamphlets, and some financial support to its American counterpart. Some Americans viewed British encouragement of American antislavery efforts as unwelcome meddling that endangered American independence and welfare. Both black and white abolitionists venerated names like Wilberforce and applauded the British example, but there was little resemblance between slavery in the two economies and political systems. American antislavery was compelled to address issues affecting a growing black population, a prosperous domestic economic institution, and sectional animosities in a federal political system for which England's experience offered little precedent. On the other hand, there was no existing English equivalent to the network of organizations among northern free blacks, who sought to embolden white reformers to pursue the cause of abolition more aggressively and to combat racial discrimination wherever it occurred.

As they had in England, Quakers took early leadership in American antislavery activities; they were joined, sometimes, by liberal and evangelical movements to whom old institutions no longer seemed sacred and unchanging. Unlike England, the United States experienced a revolution that supplemented religious reform motivations with strong new reasons for opposing traditional inequalities. Slavery not only violated the law of God, but in an age of liberation and enlightenment, it contradicted the rights of man. Neither religious nor secular arguments necessarily obliged whites to combat racial prejudice or extend humanitarian aid to free blacks. Though black abolitionists would often accuse whites of coldhearted bigotry, it may still be the case that the American Revolution "doomed" slavery.

In the 1780s abolitionist societies were formed in most states (including the upper South). A national abolitionist "convention" met annually from 1794 to 1806 and periodically thereafter. In the decades after the revolution, northern states abolished slavery, often after organized antislavery campaigns. In 1808 Congress, which had previously prohibited slavery in the Northwest Territory, ended the foreign slave trade. This was assumed to be a blow to North American slavery (though some slave owners supported the measure, and later experience showed that the slave population grew rapidly without imports). Appeals to the great principles of republican government seemed ready to transform American society.

Those who believed in an optimistic scenario of revolutionary liberation underestimated the ways in which persistent white hostility to blacks would impede antislavery activity. They also overlooked obstacles imposed by the Constitution. Most abolitionists accepted the prevailing consensus that the federal government lacked any constitutional power over slavery in the states. While antislavery coalitions prevailed in states like New York and Pennsylvania,

residents of a northern state had no way of influencing legislatures in South Carolina or Tennessee. When controversies over slavery arose in the U.S. Congress, as in debates over fugitive slave acts from 1793 to 1817, proslavery forces won repeated victories. With the elimination of slavery in northern states, abolition societies lost membership and purpose.

The Colonizationist New Departure

Only a change of direction, one that attracted support among southern slaveholders as well as black and white Northerners, revitalized antislavery commitments in the 1820s. Some southerners had long entertained hopes of deporting freed slaves (a solution to racial problems somewhat analogous to Indian removal). If ex-slaves could be relocated in the West, perhaps, or Africa or Central America, slaveholders might be less reluctant to free them, nonslaveholding whites might be less anxious about competition for work, and northern and southern townspeople might show less fear of the social consequences of emancipation. Some northern reformers believed that American society would never accept blacks as equals. Appealing simultaneously to those who hated or feared free blacks and those who deplored or regretted American racism, removal schemes raised hopes of forging an irresistible coalition that might, once and for all, end slavery.

The premier organization advancing these schemes was the American Colonization Society (ACS), founded in 1816, which rapidly won the approval of prominent leaders of church and government in both the North and South. It sent only a few thousand blacks to its colony Liberia before 1830, however, and it failed to get federal funding for its efforts. Enthusiasm for the movement began to subside (although the ACS survived into the twentieth century) as doubts of its practicality grew. Modern scholars frequently dismiss its efforts as futile and its objectives as racistboth irrefutable charges. Less often pointed out are that slavery's most implacable champions hated the ACS; that with its decline, hopes for a national antislavery movement virtually disappeared; and that its predictions of enduring racism and misery for free blacks were realistic. If it included in its numbers such slaveholders as Henry Clay, it also included many northerners who would hold fast to abolitionist purposes for decades to come. It attracted the support of some northern blacks, including John B. Russwurm, a Bowdoin College graduate who spent much of his life in Liberia, and free southern blacks, such as those who appealed to Baltimore's white community in 1826 for help in leaving a republic where their inequality was "irremediable." Not only did they seek for themselves rights and respect that America seemed permanently to withhold, but they also upheld an antislavery vision: "Our absence will accelerate the liberation of such of our brethren as are in bondage."

Black support for colonization was undeniable. It was also extremely limited, while rejection of such schemes by prominent black abolitionists intensified during the 1820s. As early as 1817 a Philadelphia meeting had protested against the ACS's characterizations of blacks as a "dangerous and useless" class; linking manumission to colonization, the meeting continued, would only strengthen slavery. Even such black leaders as James Forten, who privately favored emigration and believed African Americans would "never become a people until they come out from amongst the white people," joined in the protest. By 1829 militant documents, such as David Walker's Appeal, denounced "the Colonizing Plan" as evidence of the pervasive racism that caused "Our Wretchedness."

The Immediatist New Direction

Anticolonizationist societies were launched in free black communities throughout the North, and several efforts were made to establish national newspapers to coordinate the movement. (Russwurm edited one before his conversion to colonizationism.) It was clear, however, that blacks could never sink the ACS without enlisting white allies. This meant, in practice, that blacks would have to speak in a less militant voice than Walker and other leaders might have preferred: They could not stress the virulence of racism or doubt the responsiveness of whites to conciliatory tactics. They could not advocate violent resistance to slavery or discrimination. They might also have to accept subsidiary roles in a coalition movement led by whites. These risks seemed tolerable, however, in light of the emergence in the early 1830s of a new, radical, and interracial antislavery movement that defined itself in opposition to the ACS. What for whites was a bold new departure was for blacks an episode in prudent compromise and coalition building.

Black abolitionists discovered a white champion in William Lloyd Garrison. James Forten and other blacks emboldened him to reject colonizationism and embrace the idea of human equality. Black readers enabled him in 1831 to launch his Boston-based newspaper, the Liberator, and they made up the great majority of subscribers to this weekly organ of immediate abolitionism throughout its early years. David Walker was one of several blacks who named children after Garrison; others gave him financial support or protected him as he walked home at night. Many viewed the Liberator as their voice in American public life. Maria Stewart was one of many blacks who contributed articles condemning slavery, prejudice, and colonizationism. Garrison adopted a style of denunciation thrilling to his friends and infuriating to those whom he opposed: "I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice.I will not equivocateI will not ex cuseI will not retreat a single inchAND I WILL BE HEARD," proclaimed his first issue. He took up the view of the ACS that blacks had urged in the previous decade and gave it powerful and influential expression. In its first year the Liberator published ten times as many articles denouncing the ACS as explaining immediate abolition. Garrison's Thoughts on African Colonization (1832), a withering critique of racist and proslavery quotations from colonization leaders, was widely distributed and persuaded many young reformers to change loyalties and follow a new course.

The attack on the ACS was a means of redefining antislavery strategy that appealed to a new generation of reformers in the early 1830s. Besides Garrison, the most influential of these was Theodore Dwight Weld, a restless and charismatic leader from upstate New York who had traveled extensively and worked for causes ranging from religious revivals to educational reform. As a student at Cincinnati's Lane Seminary in the early 1830s, he worked with blacks in the student body and local community, precipitating a crisis by forcing discussion of slavery and racial prejudice. He had no peer at a style of earnest, emotional antislavery lecturing, facing down mobs and winning converts to the cause, that he taught to other abolitionist speakers. Though Garrison and Weld were (in a not fully acknowledged sense) rivals, the former's uncompromising editorial stance and the latter's confrontational lecture style joined in shaping an exciting new era for abolitionism. Other important abolitionist leaders included the brothers Lewis and Arthur Tappan, merchants in New York City, well connected with prominent evangelical reform movements, who furnished a sober counterpoint to Weld's and Garrison's romantic outbursts. John Greenleaf Whittier, early in a career that led to great fame as a poet, was a valued new convert.

Despite condemnation by Andrew Jackson and other public figures, anticolonizationism spread with remarkable velocity. In 1832 eleven persons formed the New England Anti-Slavery Society, "the first society of this kind created on this side of the Atlantic," as the South Carolina political leader James Henry Hammond later recalled. Though slaveholders initially mocked this news, by 1837 Massachusetts had 145 societies, and New York and Ohio, where the Tappans and Weld held influence, had 274 and 213, respectively. In December 1833 sixty-three men (three of them black) formed the American Anti-Slavery Society (AASS). Earlier that year, interracial female antislavery societies were formed in Boston and Philadelphia, and in 1837 the first "national" (northern) women's antislavery convention took place. By 1838 the AASS claimed 1,350 affiliated societies, with membership approaching a quarter million. Important new voices, including those of ex-southerners James G. Birney and Angelina and Sarah Moore Grimké, added to the excitement of the mid-1830s.

The positive meaning of the immediatist, anticolonizationist doctrines that stirred up so much commotion was never a simple matter to establish. For decades scholars have argued over which of two strategiespolitical coercion or nonviolent persuasionwas more consistent with the immediatist commitment of the early 1830s. The truth is that immediatism had more than two potential meanings, as it blended rather unrealistic expectations of religious transformation with cautious recognition of obstacles to reform. On the one hand, some abolitionists wished to persuade slaveholders to let their slaves go free, or they hoped, at least, to encourage antislavery majorities to form in southern states. Conceding the lack of federal authority to interfere with state institutions, founders of

the AASS were obliged to adopt a conciliatory stance toward the South. In particular, they denied any intention to use coercion; slavery must end by "moral suasion." On the other hand, the harsh, categorical denunciations of slavery that distinguished the new movement from the ACS were hardly conciliatory. In letters of instruction and training sessions for antislavery lecturers, Weld (who injured his own voice and retired from the field) insisted that they should not get bogged down in political or economic issues: "the business of abolitionists is with the heart of the nation, rather than with its purse strings." Slavery was, he taught, "a moral question," and the conviction to drive home was simply that "slavery is a sin." Once convinced of that, clergymen and other opinion leaders would exert pressure on slaveholders to give up their sin. Repentant slaveholders would soon be impelled to change their lives. If they did not, morally awakened democratic majorities had to compel them.

Schism and Variation

By decade's end it was obvious that slavery was not going to succumb to northern condemnation, no matter how conciliatory or intemperate. Disagreements among abolitionists, subdued during years of enthusiasm, took on new seriousness. The AASS split in two at its 1840 convention when the Tappans and other prominent reformers walked out after a woman, Abby Kelley, was elected to a committee. They protested that under Garrison's leadership the movement was too defiant of social conventions, thus offending the clergy and other respectable leaders of society, and too enthusiastic about new radical causes, especially a new form of nonviolent anarchism called "nonresistance." The departing abolitionists believed the cause could gain popular support by shunning "extraneous," controversial positions. Many on this side were moving toward more active participation in politics. For Garrison's loyal cadres in the AASS, including such radical pacifists as Henry C. Wright, abolitionist commitments led toward broad condemnation of coercive behavior and institutions. The AASS survived as a separate organization, open to all who chose to join, while in the Liberator and in speeches and writings, Garrisonians gave increasing attention to nonviolence, utopian communities, women's rights, and other enthusiasms of the 1840s. (They showed less sympathy with working-class reforms.) They remained adamant in opposing political ventures, some out of anarchistic convictions, others out of dismayed assessment of the receptiveness of American politicians to antislavery principles.

Many black abolitionists continued to admire Garrison, but they, too, often criticized the lengths to which he carried the logic of moral suasion. Some agreed with the charge that he depleted antislavery energy by his romantic penchant for adopting new causes. But he, at least, was unwilling to compromise the principle of equality in order to appease northern majorities. Although blacks tended to favor political action, they appreciated Garrison's scorn when political abolitionism bowed to necessity by accepting slavery where it existed in the South and segregation as it worsened in the North. They complained repeatedly that all factions of white abolitionists relegated blacks to subsidiary roles, at best, in their organizations. Such inability to accept blacks in visible leadership positions showed that white abolitionists had not really understood the links between bigotry and slavery. It was difficult, moreover, to interest whites in combating Jim Crow in northern streetcars with the zeal aroused by movements to keep slavery (and African Americans) out of the territories. After the schism of 1840 black abolitionists met more frequently in their own organizations, held their own conventions, and supported their own newspapers, such as Samuel E. Cornish's Colored American and Frederick Douglass's Paper.

In a powerful 1843 address to slaves, Henry Highland Garnet urged, "Resistance! Resistance! Resistance!" His controversial text was suppressed until 1848, but in the following years, similar militancy among other black leaders became increasingly noticeable. Talk of moral suasion gave way to insistence on the universal right of revolution. If whites did not concede to blacks the right to self-defense, some leaders asked, and if blacks never showed their willingness to fight, then how could southern slavery and northern injustice ever be ended? Blacks (with limited white support) engaged in civil disobedience against segregated schools and streetcars, and they used all available means to assist fugitives from slavery. But such militancy coincided with renewed interest in emigration, either to Canada, where tens of thousands of blacks, many of them fugitives, lived in constant rebuke to conditions in the northern and southern United States, or perhaps to Liberia (despite continuing black denunciation of the ACS), or Haiti, favored by Garnet as late as 1861. Douglass, James McCune Smith, and other black leaders deplored any possible abandonment of the cause of civil rights for free blacks and emancipation of the slaves.

After the war with Mexico from 1846 to 1848, a series of political events and court decisionsparticularly events and decisions returning fugitives to bondagestruck abolitionists as calamities. Not only were some black leaders resigned to emigration, but many white Garrisonians denounced the political system dominated by proslavery leaders. Theodore Parker, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, and some others began to contemplate acts of violent resistance to proslavery legislation. Wendell Phillips advocated disunion: the northern states must sunder connections with southern sinfulness. At one public meeting in 1854, Garrison denounced the Fugitive Slave Act and burned the Constitution as "a covenant with Death and an agreement with Hell." Southern extremists portrayed Garrisonians as men and women of enormous influence in the North. They had no such influence, but in taking positions of uncompromising moral purity, these skilled agitators created an atmosphere of escalating moral concern. While eschewing politics, they guaranteed that southern political victories brought the fate of slavery closer and closer to the center of national political debate.

Political abolitionists, meanwhile, tried various courses of action. Some, including many blacks, voted for the Whigs; others experimented with third parties. During a period of confusing political realignment, skilled publicists such as the journalist Horace Greeley and clergyman Henry Ward Beecher used newspapers, lecture platforms, and other popular institutions to disseminate selected elements of the abolitionist messagethat the slave power jeopardized the liberty and prosperity of all workers and farmersacross the North and much of the West. In this endeavor they gained the cooperation of antislavery politicians, who were usually reluctant to confront racial prejudice or clarify the meanings of equality. An antislavery majority probably could not have been assembled without ambiguous appeals to expediency and prejudice as well as to principle. It is important to note, nevertheless, that as political abolitionism augmented its small shares of the electorate (the Liberty Party garnered about 6,000 votes in the 1840 presidential election and 60,000 in 1844, and the Free Soil party polled about 290,000 in 1848), the clarity of its attacks on slavery blurred. Both Weld and Garrison had counseled abolitionists to stick to the moral high ground, to denounce the iniquity of slavery and racism. Antislavery opinion grew in the North and West, however, as slavery was seen as threatening to the economic welfare of whites. More often than not, antislavery public opinion of the kind that sustained the Republican Party's slim majority in 1860 was saturated by racial prejudice. It would have been content to tolerate slavery where it already existed, if proslavery politicians had not repeatedly fueled northern fears and resentments and if escalating violence, sometimes subsidized and carried out by abolitionists, had not made a final confrontation seem inevitable.

The Triumph of Antislavery

Abolitionism existed in a tense love-hate relation with Abraham Lincoln and the Republicans in the 1860s. Abolitionists took credit for preparing the ground for the new party's success, but some sought to oust Lincoln in 1864. If anything, Garrisonians were more willing than other factions to excuse the Republicans' slow advance toward the goal of abolishing slavery, a goal promoted by all abolitionists throughout the war. Abolitionists did what they could to pressure the Union army to mobilize black soldiers and treat them fairly once in uniform. Black abolitionists worked at recruitment, and some, including Martin R. Delaney, as well as whites such as Thomas Wentworth Higginson, served as officers. Pacifistic abolitionists volunteered for medical duties in hospitals and on the battlefield. Before slavery was abolished, abolitionist men and women went south to work among freedmen in

areas occupied by Union armies, thus setting a pattern for educational and related endeavors during Reconstruction and afterward.

At the end of the Civil War, and with enactment of the Thirteenth Amendment, abolitionists were jubilant. The Liberator ceased publication, and the AASS disbanded. But abolitionists, especially younger ones who had entered the movement in the 1850s, continued to promote education for African Americans and condemn violations of their civil rights long after the war. As the century approached its end, such endeavors increasingly seemed futile, and many victories of Civil War and Reconstruction days were overturned. At the same time, ironically, some northerners lauded abolitionists as an example of a principled minority who had led the nation to higher moral conceptions and practices.

Some of this glorification can be discounted as an expression of sectional pride and Republican partisanship. It was offset, for many decades, by scholarly condemnation of abolitionists as fanatics responsible, along with southern fire-eaters, for disrupting the Union. Nevertheless, the merging of abolitionist principles, espoused by a zealous minority, with the concerns and interests of a majority of citizens, led to the destruction of slavery, for so long an accepted social institution, and this triumph has gained a prominent place in the history of American democracy. Abolitionists tested the openness of democratic politics to reform, and they agitated successfully for the extension of the nation's founding principles to groups that had formerly been left out. Their triumph has served as an inspiring model for subsequent movements, on both the left and right, from woman's suffrage before 1920, to civil rights from the 1940s through the 1960s, to both gay rights and antiabortion activism in the early twenty-first century.

See also Douglass, Frederick; Emancipation; Forten, James; Frederick Douglass' Paper; Free Blacks 16191860; Liberator, The ; Manumission Societies; Slave Codes; Slavery; Thirteenth Amendment


Blackburn, Robin. The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery, 17761848. London: Verso, 1988.

Davis, David Brion. The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, 17701823. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1975.

Dillon, Merton L. Slavery Attacked: Southern Slaves and Their Allies, 16191865. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990.

Fogel, Robert William. Without Consent or Contract: The Rise and Fall of American Slavery. New York: Norton, 1989.

Goodman, Paul. Of One Blood: Abolitionism and the Origins of Racial Equality. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.

Jeffrey, Julie Roy. The Great Silent Army of Abolitionism: Ordinary Women in the Antislavery Movement. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.

McKivigan, John R., and Stanley Harrold, eds. Antislavery Violence: Sectional, Racial, and Cultural Conflict in Antebellum America. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1999.

Newman, Richard. The Transformation of American Abolitionism: Fighting Slavery in the Early Republic. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.

Pease, Jane H., and William H. Pease. They Who Would Be Free: Blacks' Search for Freedom, 18301861. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1974.

Perry, Lewis. Radical Abolitionism: Anarchy and the Government of God in Antislavery Thought. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1995.

Rael, Patrick. Black Identity and Black Protest in the Antebellum North. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.

Ripley, C. Peter, et al., eds. The Black Abolitionist Papers. 5 vols. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 19851992.

Stewart, James Brewer. Holy Warriors: The Abolitionists and American Slavery. New York: Hill and Wang, 1997.

Stauffer, John. The Black Hearts of Men: Radical Abolitionists and the Transformation of Race. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2002.

Yellin, Jean Fagan, and John C. Van Horne, eds. The Abolitionist Sisterhood: Women's Political Culture in Antebellum America. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1994.

lewis perry (1996)
Updated by author 2005


views updated Jun 11 2018


Historical studies of the ideas that gave rise to abolitionism, whether in the Caribbean, Latin and South America, Africa, or the United States, have provided analyses that are variously political, economic, social, demographic, or religious in focus. This entry examines the political, religious, and economic ideas surrounding abolitionism to illustrate that these factors were often intertwined. The role of ideas, ideologies, movements, tactics, and personalities are examined to demonstrate the complexity of this social movement in terms of gender, race, socioeconomic background of the participants, and time and location of the movement.

Political Ideas

The early abolitionist movement in the United States and Great Britain during the late eighteenth century was guided by the ideas of the Age of Enlightenment, the French and American revolutions, and Christian morality. The concept that individuals were created equal and had the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness led them to advocate abolitionism. The slave revolt in Saint-Domingue (Haiti) in 1791 led by Toussaint Louverture was based on these ideas of universal liberty and freedom. The importance of the Haitian revolution to the idea of abolitionism is important because it demonstrated that slavery could be abolished quickly and violently and that a gradual approach using persuasion and rationality might not be the answer. Moreover, the revolution radically transformed this former French possession, providing the slaves with full emancipation and political control. Although a visible antislavery movement did not emerge in Brazil until 1850, the political movement for abolitionism there can be traced to the early nineteenth century, infused with ideas from the Haitian, American, and French revolutions. The abolition of slavery in the British West Indies during the nineteenth century grew out of a liberal political reform agenda that sought to provide better treatment for slaves with the view that emancipation would occur gradually. Slave uprisings in Martinique, Cuba, Tortola, Trinidad, Grenada, and Dominica convinced colonial authorities that slavery needed to be reevaluated. For example, in Barbados, after slavery was abolished in 1834 the government instituted an apprenticeship program of six (unpaid) years for field workers and four years for household servants. Jamaica freed its slaves in 1833, and Antigua and Bermuda provided slaves with full emancipation in 1834; as in Barbados, apprenticeship programs served as a transitional institution for several years after emancipation. However, colonial offices throughout the Caribbean dealt with the former slaves in a harsh manner, inflicting punishment for various minor offenses, extending the apprenticeship period, and sending house servants into the fields to labor.


The ideas of abolitionism were linked to missionary, colonial, and commercial motives and ideologies of the French, British, and Americans. Quakers in the antislavery movement in the United States worked to settle slaves in Africa based on religious beliefs that slaves had the right to be free and that these political ideas only could be achieved through colonization in Liberia and Sierra Leone. The political ideas of justice, equality before the law, liberty, and the rule of law were meant to serve as the foundations of the colonies. It was equally important politically to utilize former slaves and re-captives in this endeavor to prove that people of African descent were capable of understanding laws, social responsibility, and the dignity of labor. The belief that people of African descent were inherently inferior to whites and could not be assimilated into a white society led many to advocate colonization. The connection between French abolitionism and colonization on the African continent were intimately linked according to some scholars. It has been argued that when the French government abolished slavery in 1848, it was merely replaced with colonization, starting with Algeria; therefore the master-slave relationship continued to leave the African in an inferior, subordinate position, and the French continued to gain from its economic exploitation of land and labor. The same argument can be made for Great Britain following its abolition of slavery, especially in Sierra Leone. Former slaves and recaptured Africans who ended up in Sierra Leone, along with indigenous Africans, were not viewed as having the same claim to citizenship and sovereignty as the Britishotherwise the former slaves and recaptured Africans would not have been colonized. In sum, some Europeans advocated abolitionism, but they did not support full citizenship, equality, and freedom for Africans, and whenever and wherever the slave trade ended, missionaries and commercial enterprises entered the African continent with the backing of the colonial state.

Religious Ideas

The religious ideas that fueled abolitionism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, especially in the United States and Great Britain, were firmly rooted in the Christian belief that all people are equal in the eyes of God; therefore, the practice of one person owning another was against Christianity. The doctrine of a divine sovereignty that made people accountable only to God was utilized. Under slavery, the slave was accountable to her or his owner and not to God. Another religious idea that served as a catalyst during the 1820s and 1830s included evangelicalism and revivalism, which supported the belief that slave owners and others associated with slavery and its institutions could experience personal salvation through instant conversion. The idea of "come-outism" is important in evangelicalism and abolitionism, adopted by American abolitionists who publicly took a stand against slavery by withdrawing from any institution, especially churches, that did not recognize the sinfulness of slavery.

Economic Ideas

Although religious ideas were important to abolitionism in the United States and Great Britain and for colonization, they were not as significant in South American, Latin American, and Caribbean abolitionism, which contained more economic and political ideas. This could be due to the fact that abolitionism operated in these regions within the colonial framework, and abolitionists were often fighting on several frontsto achieve independence, achieve freedom for the slaves, and achieve citizenship and other rights for free people of African descent. Throughout most of the nineteenth century, abolitionism in Cuba and Puerto Rico was hampered by the civil war and the revolution in Spain. Abolitionists had to contend with the economic interests of Spain, Cuba, and Puerto Ricomainly wealthy slave owners who were vehemently opposed to the abolition of slavery, especially in Cuba, which had a large slave population vital to its sugar industry in the western part of the island. Puerto Rico had a much smaller slave population, and by 1835 slavery was virtually nonexistent. In addition, the United States had significant economic investments that it wanted to protect in Cuba and Puerto Rico. But at the same time, there were American abolitionists who demanded an end to slavery in colonies controlled by Spain.

The debate among modern historians between the role of economics and the role of humanitarianism in abolishing slavery in British slaveholding colonies in the Caribbean was sparked by Eric Williams's Capitalism and Slavery (1944). According to Williams, capitalism, and not Christian humanitarianism, was the driving force to end slavery because the emerging capitalist system that evolved from the Industrial Revolution demanded free trade and more productive labor than slaves provided. Rational business practices were needed, including a literate workforce. The failing British West Indian plantation economies could not compete with industrial capitalism. This deviated sharply from the British imperial historiography that placed moral humanitarianism as the catalyst for abolitionism. However, Williams's analysis of abolitionism was subsequently rejected by several historians, most notably Roger Anstey and Seymour Drescher, who argued that slavery continued to be economically viable in the United States and Brazil, along with capitalism. They contended that in the late eighteenth century slavery and the slave trade were important to the British economy at the same time that abolitionism began. Still others have contended that abolitionism was a social movement that involved a variety of actors and organizations all grounded in the popular culture and trends of the time in their respective societies. Within the American context, this changing historiography over time includes: historians who supported the humanitarian view of abolitionists (that is, the belief that they were guided by moral and religious values); historians who downplayed the moral aspect and emphasized economic factors; historians who viewed abolitionists as one-sided fanatics who led the country into a needless civil war; and, during the 1960s, historians who again portrayed abolitionists in a more positive light as people who were committed to a just and social cause. Additionally, other scholarsmost prominently W. E. B. Du Bois, Eugene Genovese, and Herbert Apthekerhave given agency to the slaves themselves in bringing about emancipation.

The idea of free labor was another economic idea behind abolitionism in the Caribbean, South America, and Latin America, primarily the commercialization of agriculture, which made slave labor economically outdated. The urban-based abolitionist movement in Brazil responded to economic changes that included greater integration into the global economy, an increase in the urban population, expansion of its infrastructure, and creation of new industries and businesses in both rural and urban areas. As a result of these changes, a more liberal form of economics developed that supported free labor instead of slave labor. Moreover, as people became urbanized, traveled outside the country, and learned more about world developments, the institution of slavery seemed backward and made Brazilians appear uncivilized and out of step with a world that was developing new ideas based on science and rationality. Abolitionism in Puerto Rico, Brazil, Cuba, and other Caribbean islands did not mean immediate emancipation accompanied by full citizenship rights; rather, as outlined above, the practice of apprenticeships was employed to compensate slave owners. It was feared that ex-slaves would not be willing to work for wages, the economies would plummet, and a race war would ensue. The aim was to make a gradual transition from slavery to freedom that would not destabilize society.

Tactics, Organizations, and Individuals
in the Americas

In discussing abolitionism in the United States and Great Britain, it is important to divide the movement into periods because the tactics, organizations, and individuals the movement attracted evolved in response to changing religious and political ideas. Following the Revolutionary War, the Quakers in Pennsylvania were in the forefront of the abolitionist movement; their tactics and organizations reflected the elite status of their members (wealthy white men) and their belief in gradual abolitionism. They believed that slavery could be gradually abolished by pressuring government representatives to enact laws and statutes against slavery, providing legal aid to runaway slaves, petitioning the federal government to end the importation of slaves and halt the westward expansion of slavery, and pressuring state governments to grant slaves rights.

The Quakers were active in Great Britain as well. In 1783 they formed the London Committee to Abolish the Slave Trade. In 1787 they joined the Evangelical Christians led by William Wilberforce and Thomas Clarkson to form the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. They led petition drives and lobbied the government, and in 1807 the British slave trade was abolished. The goal in Britain now shifted to gradual abolition and then to immediate abolition. In 1823 Clarkson, Wilberforce, and Thomas Fowell Buxton formed the British Anti-Slavery Society after British West Indian plantation owners were reluctant to abolish slavery, and in 1833 the Emancipation Act (which applied to the British colonies but not to Great Britain itself) was passed. In France, Jacques-Pierre Brissot formed the Society of the Friends of Blacks in 1788, and in 1834 the French Society for the Abolition of Slavery was established. In the Netherlands, the Réveil movement associated with the Dutch Reform Church was formed in the 1840s after British Quakers convinced them that slavery was against the Bible. The Spanish Abolition Society was founded in Madrid in 1865. The major actors in abolitionism throughout the Caribbean and Latin and South America were the slaves and free people of African descent who staged revolts, work stoppages, and insurrections, and ran away. Significant slave uprisings occurred in the nineteenth century in Brazil in Bahia, Minas Gerais, Espírito Santo, Rio de Janeiro, and São Paulo. Slave revolts and desertions from the plantations led to the emergence of immediatism and the formation in 1880 of the Brazilian Anti-Slavery Society (Joaquim Nabuco was elected president), which started as a small group of abolitionists based in major urban areas. This movement grew in size to include people from various educational and social backgrounds. Other antislavery organizations in Brazil included the Cearense Liberator Society, Bahian Liberator Society, and Abolitionist Confederation.

People of African descent played a critical role in U.S. abolitionism before and after the movement became integrated; some of these include Richard Allen, Prince Hall, James Forten, Harriet Jacobs, and Mary Shadd Carey. Upstate New York had a major community of activists who believed in immediatism, among them Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Austin Steward, and Thomas James. Because they were kept out of the first wave of abolitionism, they were forced to establish their own organizations, newspapers, educational institutions, and churches. They realized early on the importance of using moralism and emotionalism as tactics, and the print media served as the vehicle. Some of those who had escaped slavery wrote and published their narratives, lectured, and helped slaves to escape, and many traveled to Europe to gain support (Frederick Douglass, Nathaniel Paul, Robert Purvis, William Wells Brown, Alexander Crummell, and Ellen and William Craft). People of African descent in both abolitionist periods advocated full emancipation and rights for the enslaved and free.

The role of women of African descent in the abolitionist movement was important and different because they had to deal with issues of race, sex, and class within the antislavery movement and the white women's movement. These women included Grace Bustill Douglass, an educator and founder of the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society, and her daughter Sarah Douglass; Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, who was a teacher and poet; Maria Miller Stewart, Sarah Forten, and Eliza Dixon Day. These woman helped to recruit members to the movement, gave public lectures, raised funds, and organized rallies and events.

Abolitionism and Feminism

The history of feminism in the United States is very directly linked to the abolitionist movement. Black and white women in northern cities in the United States were very active in various religious and benevolent organizations before they joined the abolitionist movement in the 1830s. The administrative and leadership skills and experience they had gained in these organizations were then utilized in the abolitionist movement. It is clear why black women were involved in the struggle to end slavery; however, white women from the working class to the upper middle class saw a correlation between the oppression of slaves and their oppression as women in terms of their legal status, which defined them as the property of their husbands and as their inferiors in society. Women found an outlet in the abolitionist movement for expressing their ideas toward marriage, divorce, and domestic violence. Men made up most of the leadership in abolitionist organizations, and their treatment of female members convinced many of these women that both slaves and women needed to be emancipated. Some abolitionist organizations did not allow African-Americans to join, while others curtailed the participation of women, especially in public speaking, voting, and business decisions. Many of these women continued their efforts to transform society through social movements by working on women's rights in the campaign for suffrage and property rights, along with the rights to file lawsuits, obtain a divorce, and obtain custody of children. The intersection of abolitionism and women's rights influenced the ideas and work of Sarah and Angelina Grimké, Abigail Kelley Foster, Lucretia Mott, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. The Grimké sisters, who were Quakers, believed they had been called to do God's work in the antislavery movement. Moreover, the linkages between abolition and women's rights in the work of black women abolitionists such as Sojourner Truth cannot be overstated. They were fighting for a double victoryone to end slavery and the other to end discrimination based on gender.

Tactics, Organizations, and Individuals in Africa

Following the end of the Revolutionary War, many slaves and free people of African descent, as well as some American and British whites, began to question the slaves' future, especially in terms of achieving full citizenship rights and economic independence. Colonization was used as a strategy to end slavery, and Freetown in Sierra Leone was established as a colony in 1787. The American Colonization Society was formed in 1816, followed by the colonization of Liberia in 1847. Individuals of African descent who advocated colonization included Paul Cuffee, who was independently wealthy and free. He made two trips to Sierra Leone with financial backing from the British governmentone in 1811 to inquire about the feasibility of African emigration and another in 1815 when he took thirty-eight free Africans with him. Others who shared these beliefs included Joseph Brown Russwurm, Martin Delany, Edward Blyden, and Thomas Peters from Nova Scotia, Canada, who petitioned the British government for assistance. They believed that human dignity, justice, hard work, and the rule of law could be put into practice in the new settlements and that this would prove that these outcasts and marginalized individuals could be given a second chance in life. These philosophical ideas were often intertwined with religious ideas that appealed to ex-slaves because they espoused the importance of God's authority and individual freedom that allowed them to employ petitions, preaching, and the print media as tactics. In addition, a number of Africans, people of African descent, Europeans, and Americans believed that worldwide emancipation would not be achieved as long as there remained a supply and demand for slaves. Therefore, to contain slavery at its source, the campaign against slavery had to shift from the West to the African continent. To do this, Africans, former slaves, and re-captives were mobilized to advance the idea that if slavery were to end, the antislavery movement had to be based on the African continent and Africans and people of African descent on the continent had to be in the forefront of the antislavery movement.

See also Capitalism ; Liberty ; Resistance ; Resistance and Accommodation ; Slavery .


Azevedo, Celia M. Abolitionism in the United States and Brazil: A Comparative Perspective. New York and London: Garland, 1995.

Baronov, David. The Abolition of Slavery in Brazil: The "Liberation" of Africans through the Emancipation of Capital. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2000.

Bender, Thomas, ed. The Antislavery Debate: Capitalism and Abolitionism as a Problem in Historical Interpretation. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.

Corwin, Arthur F. Spain and the Abolition of Slavery in Cuba, 18171886. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1967.

Eudell, Demetrius L. The Political Languages of Emancipation in the British Caribbean and the U.S. South. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.

Newman, Richard S. The Transformation of American Abolitionism: Fighting Slavery in the Early Republic. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.

Oostindie, Gert, ed. Fifty Years Later: Antislavery, Capitalism, and Modernity in the Dutch Orbit. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1996.

Sanneh, Lamin. Abolitionists Abroad: American Blacks and the Making of Modern West Africa. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999.

Schmidt-Nowara, Christopher. Empire and Antislavery: Spain, Cuba, and Puerto Rico, 18331874. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1999.

Sernett, Milton C. North Star Country: Upstate New York and the Crusade for African American Freedom. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 2002.

Temperley, Howard, ed. After Slavery: Emancipation and Its Discontents. London: Frank Cass, 2002.

Williams, Eric. Capitalism and Slavery. 1944. Reprint, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994.

Cassandra R. Veney


views updated May 17 2018


The objectives of the abolition movement of the nineteenth century in the United States were the ending of enslavement on the basis of race and the securing of social justice. Before the American colonies declared their independence from Great Britain in 1776, however, there had been a small but potent antislavery crusade to end the Atlantic slave trade as well as to eliminate the institution of slavery itself. This campaign was part of a larger struggle in the Atlantic world. As a result of these efforts, the system of human bondage that had existed throughout the British, Dutch, French, Portuguese, and Spanish empires in the Western Hemisphere since the 1740s had slowly disappeared by the late 1780s. Most of these efforts, however, remained relatively isolated and muted until well into the early 1790s. It was not until the early antebellum years that the call for the immediate end to slavery gained broader support and overshadowed many of the various other social reform movements in the United States. The prominence of the antislavery campaign led at least in part to the coming of the Civil War.

Early Abolitionism

As soon as slavery had been imported into the American colonies, Africans and African Americans tried to free themselves from bondage through such activities as court actions, self-purchases, and running away. For instance, Venture Smith (1729–1805), an enslaved African from Anamaboe, Guinea, successfully purchased his freedom from his Connecticut owner in 1765. More rarely—an action that had a greater psychological, emotional, and physical impact—some enslaved persons began to resort to overt rebellion to gain their freedom. One of the first recorded cases occurred in 1676, when some eighty Africans joined the white rebel Nathaniel Bacon's failed campaign to overthrow the ruling class of gentry in colonial Virginia (Aptheker 1993, p. 37). Several decades later, in 1712, another incident occurred when thirty enslaved Africans, along with several Native Americans and a group of white indentured servants, participated in a sporadic rebellion in New York City that led to the burning of several buildings and the death of at least nine innocent people (Aptheker 1963, p. 173). Finally, in 1739, approximately one hundred fugitives in rural South Carolina armed themselves with guns, knives, and sticks, and started a revolt to obtain their freedom. These African rebels began to march south toward the Spanish settlement of St. Augustine, Florida, but were quickly headed off before they could attract a larger following (Wood 2000, p. 96). Despite the lack of success of most slave insurrections, some white Americans began to argue that slavery should be done away with immediately.

The Antislavery Movement

The outset abolitionism in America during the Civil War, whether led by either African Americans or white Americans, consisted of two movements distinguished by geography and chronology. The first movement began in the South. It was led mostly by enslaved persons of color but involved some free black Americans and a few sympathetic Caucasians. Active in the eighteenth century, before the American Revolution, these antislavery advocates and their organizations merely sought to free persons in bondage but did not seek to destroy the entire system. In essence, however, this first phase of the antislavery movement and the activities that followed contributed to the elimination of slavery in the North during and soon after the American Revolution.

The second wave of the antislavery movement of the American Civil War, which occurred during the antebellum period, was based primarily in the North. In these states, Caucasian involvement and control was enormous because Caucasians led most of the larger antislavery organizations above the Mason-Dixon Line; however, many black Americans used their personal narratives and life experiences to influence the entire movement. For example, Frederick Douglass (1818–1895) escaped from enslavement in Maryland and became a powerful orator, abolitionist, and political activist throughout the rest of his adult life. His third autobiography, The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, written in 1881 and revised in 1892, spoke volumes when it described the harshness, brutality, and horror acts associated with the inhumanity of slavery.



Douglass, Frederick. The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass. New York: Collier Books, 1962 [1892].

Harrold, Stanley. American Abolitionists. New York: Longman, 2001.

One of the first groups of antislavery whites that emerged was the Society of Friends, commonly known as the Quakers. Labeled as religious dissenters and thus persecuted during their early years in Great Britain, a small group of Quakers first arrived in New Jersey during the 1670s. In 1681 William Penn (1644–1718), himself a member of the Society, established the colony of Pennsylvania for them. Many Quakers settled in other American colonies and became slaveholders; however, others believed that the Christian faith required them to teach that God loves all human beings, that people should not go to war with one another, and that slaves who had received Christian baptism should be free according to civil law (Nash 1988, p. 17). A few Quakers even believed that God would punish all people who held slaves in any capacity. Such a stance led to members of the Society of Friends in Germantown, Pennsylvania, adopting a resolution in early 1688 that declared slavery evil, and immoral, and contrary to their Christian faith. Several years later, in 1693, a Philadelphia Quaker named George Keith (1638–1716) echoed similar sentiments in a publication titled "An Exhortation and Caution to Friends Concerning Buying and Keeping of Negroes" (Aptheker 1993, p. 74).

During the 1730s, Benjamin Lay, who had lived in Barbados for several years and owned a number of enslaved Africans, moved to Pennsylvania and quickly joined the local antislavery movement. Here he was befriended by Anthony Bénézet (1713–1784), a French immigrant who had become a Quaker in 1727, and Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790), already well known as a journalist and inventor. It was Bénézet, along with John Woolman (1720–1772), an itinerant preacher, who dominated the Quaker antislavery movement from the 1740s through the 1760s. Woolman traveled primarily throughout New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia, and into the New England colonies in order to spread his antislavery message, while Bénézet became a proliferate antislavery writer who fiercely denounced slavery in many of his publications, such as A Short Account of that Part of Africa Inhabited by the Negroes (1762) and A Caution and Warning to Great Britain and her Colonies (1767). Most importantly, most of Bénézet's essays and articles rested on the notion that African Americans were not an inferior race (Aptheker 1993, p. 79). A schoolmaster for many years, Bénézet held night classes for black slaves in the Philadelphia area from 1750 onward and started a school for black children in 1770.

Abolitionism during the Revolutionary Era

It took a major religious, economic, and ideological upheaval during the late eighteenth century to transform the assault on human bondage from an African American- and Quaker-led struggle to a widely held assumption that all people deserve to be free. Among the various important developments that led to this change was the spread of such powerful social and intellectual movements as evangelicalism, revivalism, rationalism, and political revolution.

In contrast to the more traditional forms of religious doctrine that had dominated earlier decades throughout the American colonies, the widespread religious movement known as the Great Awakening, which took place during the early and mid-eighteenth century, began to weaken some forms of church organization, de-emphasize some traditional religious rituals, and stress the belief that all who had faith in God, despite differences of race, class, and gender, could gain salvation and everlasting life through a personal and intimate relationship with the Creator. This religious trend enabled George Whitefield (1714–1770), Samuel Davis, Gilbert Tennent (1703–1764), Isaac Backus (1724–1806), and other evangelical leaders to establish a movement that was "nothing short of guerilla warfare" (Hatch 1989, p. 34). In other words, these "new" religious leaders were using a more earthy language, everyday reasoning, and a commonsense approach to appeal to regular people in ways in which the previously established church-leaders could not counter.

Simultaneously, rationalist tendencies in philosophy, which emerged from the European intellectual movement known as the Enlightenment, began to dominate political thought in the American colonies. Influenced by such individuals as the physicist Isaac Newton (1643–1727) and the political philosophers Francis Bacon (1561–1626), David Hume (1711–1766), and John Locke (1632–1704), some American colonists began to argue that there must be natural laws to assist human beings in ordering a society. It was the American Revolution, however, that fused these various intellectual movements into a broader socioeconomic and political campaign that transformed abolitionism from a struggle led primarily by Quakers and African Americans to a more broadly based movement. The American Revolution helped to spread the notion that natural rights, equality, and liberty apply to all people (Frey 1991, p. 45).

Rise of Immediate Abolitionism

The aggressive proslavery arguments that began to circulate in the South during the late 1790s helped in part to create an atmosphere in which a more integrated, vocal, comprehensive, and militant Northern assault on slavery could take shape during the late 1820s and early 1830s. Another important factor was the activities and ultimate objectives of the American Colonization Society (ACS). Formed in 1816 by a group of prominent white Virginians, most members of the ACS wanted to resettle free blacks in what is now Liberia without challenging the idea of individual property rights or disturbing the Southern way of life. The ACS believed that slavery was unsustainable over the long term but did not consider the integration of free blacks into American society a viable option.

As the previous generation of isolated and passive antislavery individuals and organizations faded away, however, a new cadre of African American and white abolitionists appeared and began to argue for the immediate emancipation of all enslaved persons of color from a Christian, nationwide, and self-reflective standpoint. Gradually such abolitionist figures as James G. Birney (1792–1857), Frederick Douglass (1818–1895), Lewis Hayden (1811–1889), George Julian (1817–1898), Elijah Lovejoy (1802–1837), Charles Sumner (1811–1874), and Thaddeus Stevens (1792–1868) spread their militant antislavery message to all of who would listen. By the mid-1830s, internal divisions began to appear in the movement, however, as disagreements developed over tactics, political action, the role of the church, race, and especially the participation of women.

Abolitionism and Gender

The role of gender in the abolition movement was both powerful and complex. More specifically, immediate abolitionism during the 1830s led to the origins of the early women's rights movement that began with the Seneca Falls, New York, meeting in 1848. Once the two movements were linked, women participated in almost every aspect of the abolition crusade from political action to the formation of local organizations to working with fugitive slaves. Women were not only welcomed as participants by male abolitionists, but they were also encouraged to challenge wider societal norms regarding the role of women. For example, while Elizabeth Chandler (1807–1834), a white woman from Delaware, wrote a monthly column for Benjamin Lundy's antislavery newspaper, the Genius of Universal Emancipation, and helped to organize women's antislavery groups in Pennsylvania and Michigan, Maria W. Stewart (1803–1879), an African American widow from Boston, traveled to several East Coast cities to encourage all women who would listen to her to strive for both gender and racial equality. Despite the various activities and powerful speeches of many women such as Chandler and Stewart, most female abolitionists occupied separate and subordinate positions in the antislavery movement compared to their male counterparts.

Race and Abolitionism

When the American Anti-Slavery Society (AASS) was established in 1833, its leaders announced five main goals: 1) an immediate end to slavery; 2) to constitute the AASS as an interracial organization; 3) to strive for racial equality for all African Americans; 4) to reject any plan to end slavery based on colonization; and 5) to reject violence as a tactic to be used to end slavery. What black and white abolitionists, both men and women, meant when they agreed to these objectives were not necessarily the same, however. For instance, a precursor to the rise of the immediate abolition movement was the effort of some individuals to send black Americans as colonists to West Africa, Haiti, and other locations outside the United States mainland. During the early 1800s, when white supremacy and racial intolerance became were intense throughout the United States, some African American abolitionists, such as Bishop Henry McNeal Turner (1834–1915) and Martin Delany (1812–1885), found the prospect of migrating to another country very appealing. They maintained that African Americans should consider emigrating to Latin America or the Caribbean Islands (Painter 1988, p. 155). As a result of these discussions, most black abolitionists had to make an individual decision on the merits of any colonization plan or idea.

In the area of interracial cooperation, despite their great efforts, most white abolitionists never overcame their racial and cultural biases. White abolitionists could easily oppose the system of human bondage, but to embrace the entire African American community as an equal partner was a different matter. Many white abolitionists tended to associate only with those black American abolitionists whom they deemed respectable and intelligent, such as Samuel Cornish (1790–1859), Frederick Douglass, James Forten (1766–1842), Henry Highland Garnet (1815–1882), and Robert Purvis (1810–1898). Even white women abolitionists maintained this same elitist perspective when it came to their African American counterparts Thus, many black female abolitionists eventually had to establish separate antislavery facilities and organizations.

Violence and Abolitionism

As abolitionists became more aggressive and vocal during the middle of the antebellum period, the reference to violence in many antislavery speeches as well as in the some of the deeds that were carried out by various individuals gradually surfaced. More specifically, many abolitionists who had pledged nonviolence had not only begun to take part in some violent activities but also started to openly express admiration for those who used force to oppose slavery, such as Denmark Vesey (1767–1822), David Walker (1785–1830), Nat Turner (1800–1831), Augustus W. Hanson, and Henry Highland Garnet. Influenced by the Underground Railroad and other forms of resistance to the fugitive slave laws, many of the activities and the rhetoric around these actions brought many African American and white abolitionists closer together. Such an alliance reached its high point with the failed attempt by John Brown (1800–1859) to end slavery with an assault on a federal armory in Harpers Ferry, Virginia, in 1859. Yet, despite this internal dilemma and many heated debates, for the most part abolitionists remained on the side of peaceful persuasion (Harrold 2001, p. 73).


Aptheker, Herbert. American Negro Slave Revolts. New York: International Publishers, 1963.

Aptheker, Herbert. Abolitionism: A Revolutionary Movement. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1989.

Aptheker, Herbert. Anti-Racism in U.S. History: The First Two Hundred Years. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 1993.

Collins, Patricia Hill. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Davis, Angela Y. Women, Race and Class. New York: Vintage Books, 1983.

DuBois, Ellen Carol, and Lynn Dumenil. Through Women's Eyes: An American History with Documents. Boston: Bedford and St. Martin's, 2005.

Frey, Sylvia R. Water from the Rock: Black Resistance in a Revolutionary Age. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991.

Harrold, Stanley. American Abolitionists. New York: Longman, 2001.

Hatch, Nathan O. The Democratization of American Christianity. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989.

Nash, Gary B. Forging Freedom: The Formation of Philadelphia's Black Community, 1720–1840. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988.

Nash, Gary B. Race and Revolution. Madison, WI: Madison House, 1990.

Painter, Nell Irvin. "Martin R. Delany: Elitism and Black Nationalism." In Black Leaders of the Nineteenth Century, ed. Leon Litwack and August Meier. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988.

Ripley, C. Peter, et al., eds. Witness for Freedom: African American Voices on Race, Slavery, and Emancipation. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993.

Wood, Peter H. Black Majority: Negroes in Colonial South Carolina—From 1670 through the Stono Rebellion. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1974.

Wood, Peter H. "Africans in Eighteenth-Century North America." In Upon These Shores: Themes in the African American Experience—1600 to the Present, ed. William R. Scott and William G. Shade. New York: Routledge, 2000.

Eric R. Jackson


views updated May 21 2018


More than 200 years before the first shot was fired during the American Civil War, early Quaker colonists protested against the institution of slavery in the New World. Their struggle to end the practice of human bondage in the colonies and the United States was called the "abolitionist movement," and many of the advocates of the abolitionist cause were opposed to slavery based on their religious beliefs and moral values. In 1693, Pennsylvania Quakers instituted a policy that its citizens should only purchase African slaves in order to set them free because of their view that slavery, in any form, was abhorrent to their religious beliefs (Horton 2001, p. 35). In his antislavery publication "All Slave-Keepers That Keep the Innocent in Bondage, Apostates" (1737), Benjamin Lay (1681-1760) encouraged his fellow Quakers to completely reject the institution of slavery in America. Lay believed that slavery was a morally corrupt institution, and he was vehemently opposed to its continuation in America. Lay declared:

[Y]ou that practice Tyranny and Oppression for Slave-keeping is such, he that assumes in arbitrary Manner, unjustly, Dominion over his Fellow-Creature's Liberty and Property, contrary to Law, Reason or Equity, He is a wicked sinful Tyrant, guilty of Oppression and great Iniquity: But he that trades in Slaves and the Souls of Men, does so; therefore . Beside, Friends, the very Name of the Tyrant is odious, to God, to good men, yea to bad Men too; and the Nature and Practice is much worse. And Friends, you that follow this forlorn filthy Practice, do you not consider that you are opening the Door to others, or setting them an Example to do the like by you, whenever it shall please the Almighty to suffer them to have power over us, as a Scourge to us for our Sins, what Reason then shall we have to complain. (Lay 1737, pp. 43–44)

Because of Lay's almost fanatical opposition to slavery and his theatrical stunts that attempted to call attention to the horrors of slavery, many members of Quaker meeting houses banned him from their premises (Soderlund 1985, pp. 14–18). By 1758, Quaker abolitionists condemned slavery at their yearly meeting and decided that any Quakers who participated in the slave trade through buying, selling, or importing slaves would be expelled from the Quaker congregation. Because of the efforts of early abolitionists such as Lay, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania abolished slavery in 1780 (Horton 2001, pp. 35–36).

One of the earliest African American abolitionists was David Walker (1785-1830), the son of a free black mother and a father who was a slave in North Carolina. Walker was an antislavery advocate who published David Walker's Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World on September 28, 1829, in Boston. David Walker's Appeal was one of the earliest and most important abolitionist writings of the time, and it was smuggled into towns and cities across the country. Walker was considered a dangerous man: He encouraged slaves to rebel against their masters by running away, insurrection, or by whatever means necessary, including outright rebellion and violence, to obtain their own freedom and to bring down the institution of slavery (Hinks 1997, pp. 237–240). He wrote:

[I]f you commence, make sure work—do not trifle, for they will not trifle with you—they want us for their slaves, and think nothing of murdering us in order to subject us to that wretched condition—therefore, if there is an attempt made by us, kill or be killed. Now, I ask you, had you not rather be killed than to be a slave to a tyrant, who takes the life of your mother, wife, and dear little children? Look upon your mother, wife and children, and answer God Almighty; and believe this, that it is no more harm for you to kill a man, who is trying to kill you, than it is for you to take a drink of water when thirsty; in fact, the man who will stand still and let another murder him, is worse than an infidel, and, if he has common sense, ought not to be pitied. (Walker 1830, pp. 29–30)

Walker warned white slave owners and all white citizens of the United States that it would be better to free the African American slaves than to wait for them to free themselves; slaves eventually would be free, no matter what their white masters did to try to impede theiefforts:

Remember Americans, that we must and shall be free and enlightened as you are, will you wait until we shall, under God, obtain our liberty by the crushing arm of power? Will it not be dreadful for you? I speak Americans for your good. We must and shall be free I say, in spite of you. You may do your best to keep us in wretchedness and misery, to enrich you and your children, but God will deliver us from under you. And wo (sic), wo (sic), will be to you if we have to obtain our freedom by fighting. Throw away your fears and prejudices then, and enlighten us and treat us like men, and we will like you more than we do now hate you. You are not astonished at my saying we hate you, for if we are men we cannot but hate you, while you are treating us like dogs and tell us now no more about colonization, for America is as much our country, as it is yours. (Walker 1830, pp. 79–80)

In his Appeal, Walker also encouraged white Americans to end the institution of slavery in a peaceful way so that people of European and African descent could live together harmoniously:

—Treat us like men, and there is no danger but we will all live in peace and happiness together. For we are not like you, hard hearted, unmerciful, and unforgiving. What a happy country this will be, if the whites will listen…But Americans, I declare to you, while you keep us and our children in bondage, and treat us like brutes, to make us support you and your families, we cannot be your friends. You do not look for it, do you? Treat us then like men, and we will be your friends. And there is not a doubt in my mind, but that the whole of the past will be sunk into oblivion, and we yet, under God, will become a united and happy people. The whites may say it is impossible, but remember that nothing is impossible with God. (Walker 1830, p. 80)

Walker's words were thought to be incendiary and seditious, and a reward was posted for his capture, dead or alive, by Southerners in the slaveholding states. The Appeal encouraged slave rebellions and incidents of slaves standing up to their masters, and it is considered to be one of the most important works of antislavery literature written by a black abolitionist.

Impact of Antebellum Abolitionists on the Civil War

During the 200 years that slavery was legal in the American colonies and the United States, European Americans, as well as free and enslaved black people, struggled to bring an end to the institution of slavery. White citizen activists used methods different from blacks', including individual and group protests, legal actions in the courts, or appeals to state and federal governmental actors who were sympathetic to the abolitionist cause. None of these approaches was entirely effective on its own, but in combination with other means, their efforts were the driving impetus that led to the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, and the eventual abolition of slavery completely after the end of the Civil War in 1865.

The abolitionist movement in the United States included both white and black members, although most historical accounts focus mainly on the efforts of well-known African Americans such as Frederick Douglass (1818-1895), an escaped slave and abolitionist. After his escape from slavery, Douglass became associated with the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison (1805–1879) and worked with him and other white abolitionists to spread the word about the evils of slavery in the United States. Douglass had a unique perspective as an abolitionist because he was an African American former slave and had personally experienced the horrors of slavery. He was strongly influenced by Garrison's abolitionist newspaper the Liberator, and although he preferred a peaceful solution to the slavery problem, he knew that a totally nonviolent approach probably would not be possible in the Southern slaveholding states. Douglass, Garrison, and other antislavery advocates resolved to hold 100 conventions in one year to help spread the abolitionist message. According to Douglass:

The year 1843 was one of remarkable anti-slavery activity. The New England Anti-Slavery Society at its annual meeting, held in the spring of that year, resolved, under the auspices of Mr. Garrison and his friends, to hold a series of one hundred conventions. The territory embraced in this plan for creating anti-slavery sentiment included New Hampshire, Vermont, New York, Ohio, Indiana, and Pennsylvania. I had the honor to be chosen one of the agents to assist in these proposed conventions, and I never entered upon any work with more heart and hope. All that the American people needed, I thought, was light. Could they know slavery as I knew it, they would hasten to the work of its extinction. (Douglass 1881, p. 229)

In addition to his other abolitionist work, from 1847 to 1863 Douglass published the North Star newspaper. Its mission was to work to "abolish slavery in all its forms and aspects, advocate universal emancipation, exalt the standard of public morality, and promote the moral and intellectual improvement of the colored people, and hasten the day of freedom to the Three Millions of our enslaved fellow countrymen" (Douglass 1881, p. 233).

Many of Douglass's and Garrison's writings induced the men and women of America to fight to abolish slavery permanently in the United States, at any cost. Garrison believed that the United States should abolish slavery immediately, and one solution would be to separate the Southern slaveholding states and the Northern antislavery states (Richman 1981, pp. 328–329).

One of the most active abolitionist organizations in the United States during the pre—Civil War period was the American Anti-Slavery Society. Antislavery activists, including Garrison and Arthur and Lewis Tappan, established the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1833 to campaign for the eradication of slavery in the United States. Its members included prominent members of Philadelphia society, and its goal was to end slavery through legal and peaceful methods, though some of its members advocated revolution as a means to end the abominable practice. Article III of the American Anti-Slavery Society provided:

The objects of this society are the entire abolition of slavery in the United States. While it admits that each State in which slavery exists has, by the constitution of the United States, the exclusive right to legislate in regard to its abolition in said State, it shall aim to convince all our fellow-citizens, by arguments addressed to their understandings and consciences, that slaveholding is a heinous crime in the sight of God, and that the duty, safety, and best interests of all concerned require its immediate abandonment, without expatriation. The society will also endeavor, in a constitutional way, to influence Congress to put an end to the domestic slave trade, and to abolish slavery in all those portions of our common country which come under its control, especially in the District of Columbia, and likewise to prevent the extension of it to any State that may be hereafter admitted to the Union. (Garrison 1833)

Some abolitionists favored the use of any means necessary to end slavery in the United States, including violent slave uprisings and rebellions, and direct confrontation with the proslavery forces in American society. Some of these antislavery advocates planned slave insurrections and collaborations between abolitionist whites, free blacks, and African slaves (Higginbotham 1980, pp. 26–30). These actions were partly responsible for precipitating the Civil War, and had a direct and lasting impact on both proslavery and antislavery Americans. One of the most famous proponents of this approach was John Brown (1800-1859), a religious man who vehemently believed that slavery was an abomination that violated biblical precepts. Douglass met Brown in 1847 and later described Brown's mission to fight slavery at any cost, even if he had to kill slave owners:

He denounced slavery in look and language fierce and bitter, thought that slaveholders had forfeited their right to live, that the slaves had the right to gain their liberty in any way they could, did not believe that moral suasion would ever liberate the slave, or that political action would abolish the system…. An insurrection he thought would only defeat the object, but his plan did contemplate the creating of an armed force which should act in the very heart of the south. He was not averse to the shedding of blood, and thought the practice of carrying arms would be a good one for the colored people to adopt, as it would give them a sense of their manhood. No people he said could have self respect, or be respected, who would not fight for their freedom. (Douglass 1881, pp. 279–280)

Most other religious abolitionists favored peaceful resolution of the issue of slavery. For example, William Henry Furness (1828-1867) was a Philadelphia minister who favored using peaceful methods to hasten the end of slavery and maintaining the union between the slaveholding and free U.S. states. In an 1860 speech he declared:

[I]f Slavery be peacefully abolished,—and most earnestly do I pray that it may be so abolished, and only so,—for no other than a peaceful abolition of it, would I ever lift a finger or breathe a word, for no other could be really successful: if, I say, Slavery is peacefully abolished, it will only be through the united effort of the whole people of the land. And, being united in the accomplishment of so humane a work, the people will naturally, and almost unconsciously, have a bond of union formed between them all, so strong that no geographical divisions, no diversity of their lesser interests, will be able to break it. (Furness 1860, p. 9)

Some moderate antislavery activists believed that an amendment to the U.S. Constitution would be the best legal method to abolish slavery, but it was an unlikely solution because of the number of proslavery legislators in Congress: It would be impossible to get Congress to vote for its passage and the president to ratify the amendment. The abolitionist Wendell Phillips (1811–1884), a colleague of Garrison's, said that "[t]he distant hope of Constitutional amendment not only allows but makes it necessary that we should remain in The Union, performing its sinful requirements while they continue the law of the land, in order to effect our object" (Richman 1981, p. 328).

Positive Outcomes

The infamous Dred Scott v. Sandford Supreme Court case (1857) galvanized the abolitionist movement and helped to precipitate to the Civil War. In the decision, Chief Justice Taney wrote that a black person, whether free or slave, could not be a citizen of the United States, and that blacks were "so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect." The decision also declared that the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional, thereby allowing the expansion of slavery into the western territories. The written opinion of Chief Justice Taney, a former slave owner from Mary-land, so inflamed both antislavery and proslavery forces that it eventually led to bloody conflicts in Kansas and, in the end, the Civil War (Simon 2006, pp. 1, 9).

On April 16,1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed the District of Columbia Compensated Emancipation Act. This law made slavery illegal in Washington, DC. It was the first time that the U.S. government had taken any legislative action to abolish slavery. Lincoln freed the slaves in the slaveholding states when he signed the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. Ultimately, after the end of the Civil War, Congress passed the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, effectively abolishing slavery in the United States and entitling African Americans to enjoy the rights and privileges of American citizenship.


Chapman, Maria Weston. "'How Can I Help Abolish Slavery?' or, Counsels to the Newly Converted." Antislavery Tracts No. 14, New York: Office of the American Antislavery Society, 1855. Available from the Antislavery Literature Project of Arizona State University, http://antislavery.eserver.org/tracts/.

Douglass, Frederick. Life and Times of Frederick Douglass: His Early Life as a Slave, His Escape from Bondage, and His Complete History to the Present Time. Hartford, CT: Park Publishing, 1881. Available from Documenting the American South, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, http:// docsouth.unc.edu/neh/douglasslife/.

Foster, Stephen Symons. "Revolution the Only Remedy for Slavery." Antislavery Tracts No. 7. New York: Office of the American Antislavery Society, 1855. Available from the Antislavery Literature Project of Arizona State University, http://antislavery.eserver.org/tracts/.

Furness, W. H. "The Blessings of Abolition: A Discourse Delivered in the First Congregational Unitarian Church." Sunday, July 1, 1860. Philadelphia: C. Sherman and Sons, 1860. Available from the Antislavery Literature Project of Arizona State University, http://antislavery.eserver.org/religious/.

Garrison, William Lloyd. "The Declaration of the National Anti-slavery Convention." The Liberator, Philadelphia, December 14, 1833.

Higginbotham, A. Leon, Jr. In the Matter of Color, Race, and the American Legal Process: The Colonial Period. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980.

Hinks, Peter P. To Awaken My Afflicted Brethren: David Walker and the Problem of Antebellum Slave Resistance. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997.

Horton, James Oliver, and Lois E. Horton. Hard Road to Freedom: The Story of African America. New Brunswick, NJ and London: Rutgers University Press, 2001.

Lay, Benjamin. "All Slave-Keepers that Keep the Innocent in Bondage, Apostates." Philadelphia: Author, 1737. Available from the Antislavery Literature Project of Arizona State University, http://antislavery.eserver.org/religious/.

Richman, Sheldon. "The Antiwar Abolitionists: The Peace Movement's Split Over the Civil War." Journal of Libertarian Studies 5, no. 3 (Summer 1981): 327-340.

Simon, James F. Lincoln and Chief Justice Taney: Slavery, Secession, and the President's War Powers. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2006.

Soderlund, Jean R. Quakers and Slavery: A Divided Spirit. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1985.

Walker, David. Walker's Appeal, in Four Articles; Together with a Preamble, to the Coloured Citizens of the World, but in Particular, and Very Expressly, to Those of the United States Of America, Written in Boston, State of Massachusetts. September 28, 1829. Boston: Author, 1830.

Jocelyn M. Cuffee


views updated May 29 2018


The abolition of slavery in the Americas occurred in fits and starts, some of them convulsive, between the outbreak of the Haitian Revolution in 1791 and the promulgation of the golden law of Brazil in 1888. Slavery was an institution entrenched both in economic life and in the social fabric of essentially hierarchical societies. The commodities produced by slave labor, particularly sugar, cotton, and coffee, were crucial to the expanding network of transatlantic trade. In Brazil and Cuba slaveholding was also widespread in the cities and in some food-producing regions. Thus while the ideological transformations accompanying the growth of capitalism in Great Britain set the stage for a general critique of chattel slavery and championing of "free labor," it took more than a changing intellectual climate to dislodge the institution. Abolitionism took on its greatest force when it coincided with economic change and domestic social upheaval, and particularly when it became an element in the defining of new nations or new colonial relationships.

It was often slaves themselves who forced the question to the center of the stage, threatening or carrying out revolt, and offering or withholding support for republican challenges to colonialism. Slaves seized upon moments of division within the free population to expand or redefine their customary rights, advance new claims, flee their owners, or join in the warfare that might finally bring slavery to an end. At times they found allies among free people of color, whose civil rights were in continual danger as long as slavery was recognized in law and in social practice.

Over the past decades scholars have moved from a chronicling of the political process of formal abolition to an examination of the dynamics of emancipation as a social and economic process, one intertwined with the politics of abolitionism but not simply derivative of it. While different studies vary in the weight given to slave initiatives and economic necessity, external pressures and internal conflicts, elite ideology and popular resistance, there is no necessary contradiction involved in recognizing the importance of each of these. As Robin Blackburn has argued, the key turning points in the campaign against slavery generally occurred when some combination of class conflict, war, and pressure for new forms of government brought into question the rights of property and encouraged a widening of the concepts of citizenship and national interest. Internal and external forces were thus inextricable.

In Latin America, the ending of slavery took place in three successive stages. The first was marked by emancipation in the context of and as a consequence of war. The Haitian Revolution opened the age of emancipation and helped to place abolition on the agenda when anticolonial rebellions erupted in Spanish America. This emancipationist phase was consolidated in Haiti, remained incomplete in most of the Spanish American republics, and was thwarted in Brazil and Cuba. The second stage was a more gradual one, marked by the slow breakdown and elimination of slavery through the nineteenth century in the mainland republics. But concurrent with this phase was the expansion of what one scholar has termed the "second slavery"—vigorous export economies based on slave labor in Cuba, Brazil, and the United States. The third and final phase of emancipation was initiated by the Civil War in the United States, the Liberal Revolution of 1868 in Spain, and the definitive suppression of the transatlantic slave trade. Nominal abolitionism finally became part of the Liberal creed in Spain, while a more militant opposition to slavery became central to Cuban anticolonial struggles. In Brazil a cautious abolitionism emerged as an element in the public moral stance of the imperial state. But in both cases the pace and character of emancipation were shaped by slave initiatives, including participation in insurgency in Cuba and widespread flight from plantations in Brazil.


The French colony of Saint Domingue (the western part of Hispaniola) was between 1791 and 1804 the site of the first successful large-scale slave revolt in the Americas, which established the second independent state in the hemisphere—one founded on a repudiation of slavery. The mobilization of rebellion rested on a longstanding tradition of slave resistance, combined with the cultural creations of a new, shared language (Creole, or Kreyol) and a vigorous popular religion (Vodun), as well as brilliant military leadership under Toussaint Louverture and Jean Jacques Dessalines. The opening for revolt was provided by an unparalleled international conjuncture, marked by the ideological innovations and ambiguities of the French Revolution, the fragmentation of colonial authority during that upheaval, and the military and political divisions with France itself. At the same time, events in Haiti illustrated the ambiguous role of free populations of color, torn between an isolated struggle for group privilege, allegiance to established authority in defense of property and order, or allegiance to slaves in revindication of broader rights. The insurgents were eventually able to achieve independence from France and establish the new nation of Haiti, while continuing to resist multiple efforts by both the French and British to recolonize them. Under Toussaint Louverture's leadership, the insurgents were also able to take over Spanish Santo Domingo (the eastern part of Hispaniola) and abolish slavery there in 1801, but this accomplishment was reversed one year later by a French military expedition.

The Haitian Revolution frightened slaveholders throughout the Americas and had an important direct effect on the course of the Spanish American wars of independence. After being thwarted in his initial revolutionary efforts, the "Liberator" Simón Bolívar went in 1815 to Jamaica and then to Haiti to seek assistance. President Alexandre Pétion of Haiti insisted on a commitment to emancipation as a condition for support, and Bolívar made such a commitment. Opposition to slavery became an element in a new Spanish American ideal of citizenship, expanding the possibility of recruiting among slaves and others opposed to the power of slaveholders. Material and strategic support from Pétion gave Bolívar's cause new life, but many of the leaders of the independence movement continued to temporize when faced with the choice between forthright abolitionism and the mobilization of slaves and free people of color on the one hand, and the continued protection of property rights as a means for obtaining or retaining elite support on the other.

It was thus not surprising that antislavery commitments were ratified by some of the early republican congresses, such as that of the Republic of Gran Colombia at Cúcuta in 1821, but encumbered with conditions and timetables that stalled the actual process of emancipation. The republicans of Peru were even more cautious, putting property rights and social stability first and not declaring emancipation, even as they sought to recruit among slaves and free people of color. In what was later to become the Dominican Republic, however, nationalists were overtaken by events, as Haitian forces under President Jean-Pierre Boyer invaded in 1822, declaring the freedom of all slaves for a second time, promising land to the freedmen, and enforcing these policies through a military occupation.


In the newly established mainland Spanish American republics, the question of slavery continued to be a contested one. Chile, where slaves were few in number and largely engaged in domestic service, was the first to make a definitive abolition of slavery, through a Senate decree in 1823. Abolition was declared in Central America in 1824. In Mexico, slavery, already in decline, was suppressed by decree during the presidency of Vicente Guerrero in 1829. In most of South America, however, there was sparring over the mode and timetable for conforming to this element of the republican credo. Estate owners and other slaveholding elites generally stalled, while some leaders, including Bolívar, argued for abolition as a matter of moral authority and nation building. Weak manumission laws and "free womb" legislation (declaring free the children of slave mothers) initiated very gradual processes of abolition, but final emancipation was delayed for decades in Venezuela, Colombia, Paraguay, and Argentina.

Around mid-century, as much of Latin America moved into a new and more externally oriented political economy, the aging slave populations of the remaining republics finally achieved juridical freedom. Slavery was legally abolished in Uruguay in 1846; in Colombia in 1850; in the Argentine Republic in 1853; in Venezuela and Peru in 1854; and, finally, in Paraguay in 1870. In each case formal abolition was essentially a coda to a longer process of gradual emancipation. The development of new economic sectors largely rested on modes of labor in which workers were nominally free—though the exaction of their labor might contain significant elements of coercion. Chattel slavery, the holding of property rights in men and women, had become a relic.

Symbolically and to some extent juridically, emancipation in the Spanish American republics can be seen as an outgrowth of the independence struggles, in which many slaves and free people participated. The ideology of those struggles and the mobilization of so many persons of color during them made a full reimposition of slavery nearly impossible. In that sense, the independence movement brought the ending of slavery. In practical terms, however, slavery died a more lingering death. Juridically, drastic inequalities of power within the nation and within the slaveholding household blocked full revindication of the rights of slaves and their freeborn children, keeping gradual abolition to a slow pace and minimizing its social consequences. Economically, free labor gradually supplanted slave labor and diminished the vested interests of slaveholders in the institution.


Resisting the tide of emancipation and republicanism, the elites of colonial Cuba and imperial Brazil constructed vigorous slave-based export economies in sugar and coffee. They purchased new slaves from Africa, oversaw the opening of new lands on the frontier, and developed new and expanded overseas markets. In Cuba, the most prosperous planters also purchased modern processing equipment, hired technicians from overseas, and established massive sugar factories. Into the 1870s, the work of Cuban sugar plantations continued to be done by slave men and women, as well as indentured Chinese immigrants and small numbers of free workers. In Brazil, the internal trade in slaves from north to south enabled coffee plantations to expand on the basis of slave labor, despite the attacks on the transatlantic trade.

Scholars differ in their opinions of the viability of this "second slavery." On one level, it was a great success for the planters, yielding numerous fortunes for Brazilian coffee "barons" and Cuban sugar "aristocrats." On another level, it was increasingly vulnerable, as the British campaign against the slave trade threatened its labor supply and increased labor costs. Some historians have argued that slave-based prosperity was founded on a central contradiction, and that rising slave prices, and a necessarily uneducated work force, would block the full modernization of the plantation complex. Slavery was a rapacious form of economic development, exploitative of those who labored and of the land they worked. Whether such rapaciousness had truly led to crisis, however, remains in dispute. One view is that slavery was essentially incompatible with the development of capitalism and that the resulting decline in profitability was leading unavoidably to abolition. Others argue, however, that planters were highly adaptable capitalists, preferring a gradual substitution of free laborers to taking substantive steps toward full emancipation.

Wherever one stands on the question of "internal contradictions," it is clear that by the late 1860s the slave economies of both Cuba and Brazil faced major challenges. The victory of the Union Forces in the Civil War in the United States was a major ideological blow to modernizing slaveholders in Cuba and Brazil. It cast doubt on the compatibility of slavery and sustained economic progress and removed a key example that proslavery apologists had cited in debates with proponents of free labor. Equally important, the transatlantic slave trade was definitively abolished by the 1860s. Since the slave populations of Cuba and Brazil did not, overall, sustain their numbers through natural reproduction, planters would have to find some alternative sources of labor. And many feared—correctly—that free immigrants would shun societies based on coerced labor.

In Cuba, these latent contradictions became an open crisis when the question of abolition was taken up by anticolonial insurgents. Spain, the colonial power, was placed on the defensive by the Cuban rebels who rose up in 1868. To try to undercut the appeal of the rebellion, and to bring Spain into belated conformity with liberal principles, a cautious law of gradual abolition, the Moret Law, freeing children and the elderly, was approved by the Spanish Cortes in 1870. It was enforced even more cautiously by the colonial authorities in Cuba. (In Puerto Rico, where the stakes were lower, it was followed by abolition in 1873.) By 1879, however, continued nationalist rebellion in the eastern end of Cuba, and resistance to work on the part of slaves, forced the issue. The Spanish Cortes declared all Cuban slaves free in 1880, though it imposed upon them an eight-year "apprenticeship" to their former masters. This apprenticeship was drastically undermined by multiple initiatives on the part of the apprentices, many of whom achieved their own freedom through flight, self-purchase, and legal challenge, hastening the arrival of formal emancipation, finally declared in 1886.

In Brazil, the balance of forces within the elite was changing, particularly with the growth of urban professional sectors. Moreover, many believed that the future of agriculture lay with the attraction of immigrant labor. But Brazilian slaveholders remained very powerful and were able to help shape and control the cautious responses to abolitionist pressure. Although abolition was formally carried out through a series of parliamentary and executive maneuvers, much of the driving force came from slaves themselves. Legal abolition began with the Law of the Free Womb (Free Birth Law) in 1871, followed by municipal and provincial legislation in selected areas of the Northeast. In the final phase, slave initiatives accelerated what was intended to be a controlled process, and flights from the estates became widespread in the period just prior to the proclamation of final abolition in the Lei Aurea, or Golden Law, of 1888.

By 1888, almost a century after the Haitian Revolution, formal chattel slavery was gone from Latin America. In some areas, particularly Mexico and Argentina, the descendants of former slaves were absorbed, at least in theory, by a larger process of mestizaje, though death and social denial also figured in their apparent disappearance. In Colombia, the descendants of slaves remained regionally isolated, their presence viewed as anomalous within a nation defined by its elite as European and mestizo. In Cuba and Brazil, where the descendants of slaves constituted a large fraction of the population, class divisions continued to be marked by distinctions of "race." Though legal freedom made new forms of struggle possible, people of African descent generally faced discrimination and lack of access to productive resources, which together undermined the juridical equality that was the legacy of abolition.

See alsoDebt Peonage; Slavery: Spanish America.


Emília Viotti Da Costa, Da senzala à colônia (1966).

Robert Conrad, The Destruction of Brazilian Slavery, 1850–1888 (1972).

Robert Brent Toplin, The Abolition of Slavery in Brazil (1975).

Manuel Moreno Fraginals, El ingenio: Complejo económico social cubano del azúcar (1978).

George Reid Andrews, The Afro-Argentines of Buenos Aires, 1800–1900 (1980).

Leslie Bethell, ed., The Cambridge History of Latin America, vol. 3 (1985), pp. 299-346.

Rebecca J. Scott, Slave Emancipation in Cuba: The Transition to Free Labor, 1860–1899 (1985).

Herbert S. Klein, African Slavery in Latin America and the Caribbean (1986).

Robin Blackburn, The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery, 1776–1848 (1988).

Rebecca J. Scott et al., The Abolition of Slavery and the Aftermath of Emancipation in Brazil (1988).

Dale W. Tomich, "The 'Second Slavery': Bonded Labor and the Transformation of the Nineteenth Century World Economy," in Rethinking the Nineteenth Century: Movements and Contradictions, edited by Francisco O. Ramirez (1988).

Peter Wade, Blackness and Race Mixture: The Dynamics of Racial Identity in Colombia (1993).

Additional Bibliography

Andrés Gallego, José. La esclavitud en la América española. Madrid: Ediciones Encuentro; Fundación Ignacio Larramendi, 2005.

Graden, Dale Torston. From Slavery to Freedom in Brazil: Bahia, 1835–1900. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2006.

Landers, Jane, and Barry Robinson. Slaves, Subjects, and Subversives: Blacks in Colonial Latin America. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2006.

Mendonça, Joseli Maria Nunes. Entre a mão e os anéis: A lei dos sexagenários e os caminhos da abolição no Brasil. Campinas: Editora da UNICAMP: CECULT, 1999.

Schmidt-Nowara, Christopher. Empire and Antislavery Spain, Cuba, and Puerto Rico, 1833–1874. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1999.

Vila Vilar, Enriqueta and Luisa Vila Vilar. Los abolicionistas españoles: Siglo XIX. Madrid: Ediciones de Cultura Hispánica, 1996.

                                            Rebecca J. Scott


views updated May 23 2018


The destruction, annihilation, abrogation, or extinguishment of anything, but especially things of a permanent nature—such as institutions, usages, or customs, as in the abolition ofslavery.

In U.S. legal history, the concept of abolition generally refers to the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century movement to abolish the slavery of African Americans. As a significant political force in the pre-Civil War United States, the abolitionists had significant effect on the U.S. legal and political landscape. Their consistent efforts to end the institution of slavery culminated in 1865 with the ratification of the Constitution's thirteenth amendment, which outlawed slavery. The abolitionist ranks encompassed many different factions and people of different backgrounds and viewpoints, including European and African Americans, radicals and moderates. The motives of the abolitionists spanned a broad spectrum, from those who opposed slavery as unjust and inhumane to those whose objections were purely economic and focused on the effects that an unpaid Southern workforce had on wages and prices in the North.

Efforts to abolish slavery in America began well before the Revolutionary War and were influenced by similar movements in Great Britain and France. By the 1770s and 1780s, many antislavery societies, largely dominated by Quakers, had sprung up in the North. Early American leaders such as benjamin franklin, alexander hamilton, john jay, and thomas paine made known their opposition to slavery.

The early abolitionists played an important role in outlawing slavery in Northern states by the early nineteenth century. Vermont outlawed slavery in 1777, and Massachusetts declared it inconsistent with its new state constitution, ratified in 1780. Over the next three decades, other Northern states, including Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey, passed gradual emancipation laws that freed all future children of slaves. By 1804, every Northern state had enacted some form of emancipation law.

In the South, where slavery played a far greater role in the economy, emancipation moved at a much slower pace. By 1800, all Southern states except Georgia and South Carolina had passed laws that eased the practice of private manumission—or the freeing of slaves by individual slaveholders. Abolitionists won a further victory in the early 1800s when the

United States outlawed international trade in slaves. However, widespread smuggling of slaves continued.

During the first three decades of the 1800s, abolitionists continued to focus largely on gradual emancipation. As the nation expanded westward, they also opposed the introduction of slavery into the western territories. Although abolitionists had won an early victory on this front in 1787, when they succeeded in prohibiting slavery in the Northwest Territory, their efforts in the 1800s were not as completely successful. The missouri compromise of 1820 (3 Stat. 545), for example, stipulated that slavery would be prohibited only in areas of the louisiana purchase north of Missouri's southern boundary, except for Missouri itself, which would be admitted to the Union as a slave state. Slavery in the territories remained one of the most divisive issues in U.S. politics until the end of the Civil War in 1865.

Beginning in the 1830s, evangelical Christian groups, particularly in New England, brought a new radicalism to the cause of abolition. They focused on the sinfulness of slavery and sought to end its practice by appealing to the consciences of European Americans who supported slavery. Rather than endorsing a gradual emancipation, these new abolitionists called for the immediate and complete emancipation of slaves without compensation to slave-owners. Leaders of this movement included william lloyd garrison, founder of the abolitionist newspaper the Liberator; frederick douglass, a noted African American writer and orator; the sisters Sarah Moore Grimké and Angelina Emily Grimké, lecturers for the American

Anti-Slavery Society and pioneers for women's rights; Theodore Dwight Weld, author of an influential antislavery book, American Slavery as It Is (1839); and later, harriet beecher stowe, whose 1852 novel Uncle Tom's Cabin was another important abolitionist tract.

In 1833, this new generation of abolitionists formed the American Anti-Slavery Society (AAS). The organization grew quickly, particularly in the North, and by 1840 had reached a height of 1,650 chapters and an estimated 130,000 to 170,000 members. Nevertheless, abolitionism remained an unpopular cause even in the North, and few mainstream politicians openly endorsed it.

To achieve its goals, the AAS undertook a number of large projects, many of which were frustrated by Southern opposition. For example, the organization initiated a massive postal campaign designed to appeal to the moral scruples of Southern slaveowners and voters. The campaign flooded the South with antislavery tracts sent through the mails. Although a law that would have excluded antislavery literature from the mails was narrowly defeated in Congress in 1836, pro-slavery forces, with the help of President Andrew Jackson's administration and local postmasters, effectively ended the dissemination of abolitionist literature in the South. The AAS was similarly frustrated when it petitioned Congress on a variety of subjects related to slavery. Congressional gag rules rendered the many abolitionist petitions impotent. These rules of legislative procedure allowed Congress to table and effectively ignore the antislavery petitions.

By the 1840s, the evangelical abolitionist movement had begun to break up into different factions. These factions differed on the issue of gradual versus radical change and on the inclusion of other causes, including women's rights, in their agendas. Some abolitionists decided to form a political party. The Liberty party, as they named it, nominated James G. Birney for U.S. president in 1840 and 1844. When differences later led to the dissolution of the Liberty party, many of its members created the free soil party, which took as its main cause opposition to slavery in the territories newly acquired from Mexico. They were joined by defecting Democrats who were disgruntled with the increasing domination of Southern interests in their party. In 1848, the Free Soil party nominated as its candidate for U.S. president martin van buren, who had served as the eighth president of the United States from 1837 to 1841, but Van Buren did not win. (zachary taylor won the election.)

After passage of the fugitive slave act of 1850 (9 Stat. 462), which required Northern states to return escaped slaves and imposed penalties on people who aided such runaways, abolitionists became actively involved in the Underground Railroad, a secretive network that provided food, shelter, and direction to escaped slaves seeking freedom in the North. This network was largely maintained by free African Americans and is estimated to have helped 50,000 to 100,000 slaves to freedom. Harriet Tubman, an African American and ardent abolitionist, was one organizer of the Underground Railroad. During the 1850s, she bravely traveled into Southern states to help other African Americans escape from slavery, just as she had escaped herself.

Whereas the vast majority of abolitionists eschewed violence, john brown actively participated in it. In response to attacks led by pro-slavery forces against the town of Lawrence, Kansas, Brown, the leader of a Free Soil militia, led a reprisal attack that killed five pro-slavery settlers in 1856. Three years later, he undertook an operation that he hoped would inspire a massive slave rebellion. Brown and 21 followers began by capturing the U.S. arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia). Federal forces under Robert E. Lee promptly recaptured the arsenal, and Brown was hanged shortly thereafter, becoming a martyr for the cause.

In 1854, abolitionists and Free Soilers joined with a variety of other interests to form the republican party, which successfully stood abraham lincoln for president in 1860. Although the party took a strong stand against the introduction of slavery in the territories, it did not propose the more radical option of immediate emancipation. In fact, slavery ended as a result of the Civil War, which lasted from 1861 to 1865. Not a true abolitionist at the start of his presidency, Lincoln became increasingly receptive to antislavery opinion. In 1863, he announced the emancipation proclamation, which freed all slaves in areas still engaged in revolt against the Union. The proclamation served as an important symbol of the Union's new commitment to ending slavery. Lincoln later supported the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment, which officially abolished slavery in the United States.

After the war, former abolitionists, including radical Republicans such as Senator charles sumner (R-Mass.), continued to lobby for constitutional amendments that would protect the rights of the newly freed slaves, including the fourteenth amendment, ratified in 1868, which guaranteed citizenship to former slaves and declared that no state could "deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person … the equal protection of the laws." Former abolitionists also lobbied, albeit unsuccessfully, for land redistribution that would have given exslaves a share of their former owners' land.

further readings

Edwards, Judith. 2004. Abolitionists and Slave Resistance: Breaking the Chains of Slavery. Berkeley Heights, N.J.: Enslow.

Greenburg, Martin H., and Charles G. Waugh, eds. 2000. The Price of Freedom: Slavery and the Civil War. Nashville, Tenn.: Cumberland House.

Hessler, Katherine. 1998. "Early Efforts to Suppress Protest: Unwanted Abolitionist Speech." Boston University Public Interest Law Journal 7 (spring).

Kingaman, William K. 2001. Abraham Lincoln and the Road to Emancipation, 1861–1865. New York: Viking.

Merrill, Walter M. 1971. Against the Wind and Tide: A Biography of William Lloyd Garrison. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard.

Tackach, James. 2002. The Abolition of American Slavery. San Diego, Calif.: Lucent Books.


Compromise of 1850; Dred Scott v. Sandford; Emancipation Proclamation; Fourteenth Amendment; Fugitive Slave Act of 1850; Lincoln, Abraham; Missouri Compromise of 1820; Prigg v. Pennsylvania; Slavery; Sumner, Charles; Thirteenth Amendment.


views updated May 29 2018


In colonial North America, the nonviolent Society of Friends stood almost alone in condemning slavery, which has led to the common misperception that the American antislavery movement was ideologically committed to nonviolence. In fact, decades of frustrating campaigning eventually led most American abolitionists to accept the proposition that slavery could not be ended peacefully.

violence and nonviolence

The post-Revolutionary antislavery movement got its start in the early 1830s and condemned slavery largely on evangelically inspired moral grounds. Although it represented a minority of the population, its cause and tactics played a significant role in the outbreak of war in 1861. By means of lecturing agents, petition drives, and a wide variety of printed materials, the American Anti-Slavery Society promoted the cause of immediate emancipation and racial equality. The targets of abolitionist efforts, the individual slaveholders and the national religious institutions, rejected antislavery appeals and attempted to suppress the abolitionist agitation by mob violence and by legal and ecclesiastical enactments.

The widespread rejection of the antislavery program forced abolitionists to reconsider their strategy. Many followed the lead of the Boston abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison and abandoned the churches as hopelessly corrupted by slavery. These Garrisonians adopted pacifist political practices and counseled Northerners to withhold their sanction from the U.S. Constitution by refusing to vote, since the Constitution contained clauses supporting slavery. The Garrisonians also actively championed women's rights and a program of "universal reform," which led them into quarrels with abolitionists who wanted to focus strictly on freeing the slaves. The Garrisonians won control of the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1840 when opponents quit in protest over the election of a female officer.

Some non-Garrisonian abolitionists continued their attempts to reform the churches, but others shifted their energies to the political arena, launching the Liberty Party in 1840. Like the original antislavery societies, the Liberty Party called for an immediate abolition of slavery wherever constitutionally possible and for the repeal of all racially discriminatory legislation. The Liberty Party's presidential candidate, James G. Birney, received just 7,000 votes (0.29 percent) in 1840 and only 62,000 (2.31 percent) in 1844—an indication that the single issue of slavery was not yet strong enough to sway many voters.

The dismissal of antislavery arguments by every major American institution forced abolitionists to reconsider their original nonviolent strategy. Black abolitionists already had been employing violent means to assist runaway slaves and to thwart the capture of fugitive slaves. A small but active minority of white abolitionists also began condoning more militant ways of combating slavery. In the 1840s, public controversy over such issues as the congressional gag rule that tabled all antislavery petitions, the annexation of Texas as a new slaveholding state, and the disposition of territory won in the Mexican War made opposition to slavery more respectable in Northern circles. The Liberty Party merged with Northern Whigs and Democrats who opposed the further spread of slavery into the western territories, creating first the Free Soil Party in 1848 and then the Republican Party in 1854.

violent abolitionism

In the 1850s, the apparent inability of antislavery politicians in the newly formed Republican Party to block Democratic Party efforts to bring Kansas into the Union as a slave state spurred the growth of violent abolitionism. A well-organized effort recruited and armed hundreds of antislavery activists to settle in Kansas and thwart proslavery statehood settlers, who were also armed. Out of the guerrilla skirmishes in "bleeding Kansas" emerged John Brown, who killed several proslavery Kansas settlers. In October 1859, leading a small, integrated company, which was financed by a clandestine group of wealthy Northern abolitionists, Brown attacked the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry in the forlorn hope of sparking a slave insurrection. Such militant abolitionist agitation helped fan the flames of sectionalism and provoke Southern secession in 1861.

The Civil War caused considerable alterations in abolitionist strategies. All abolitionist factions realized that Southern secession made slavery preeminently a political question. In particular, they recognized that the war gave them an unprecedented opportunity to press the federal government to adopt an emancipation policy. Longtime pacifists joined veteran political abolitionists in endorsing the war and in calling on the government for decisive antislavery action. When the Republican Congress and the Lincoln administration hesitated to take such a revolutionary step, abolitionists worked to embolden them by producing evidence of Northern public support for emancipation.


The culmination of this agitation came when Lincoln issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation in the fall of 1862. Although it exempted at least one million slaves from its provisions and was surrounded with an aura of expediency, most abolitionists responded favorably to Lincoln's actions. A few, however, complained that Lincoln still shrank from immediate and complete emancipation, and they unsuccessfully attempted to replace Lincoln as the Republican nominee with a more committed antislavery candidate. After Lincoln's reelection in 1864, abolitionists worked for permanent emancipation by lobbying Congress to pass the Thirteenth Amendment, abolishing slavery everywhere.

Abolitionists also actively advocated the use of African-American troops in the Union army. When Lincoln belatedly began recruiting African Americans in 1863, many younger abolitionists volunteered as officers for black units. After the war, abolitionists argued that since African Americans had served in the military they deserved equal rights. Some abolitionists went south to work for Freedmen's Aid societies, and later the Freedman's Bureau, to assist the former slaves in their transition to freedom.

Although Garrison believed the Thirteenth Amendment had fulfilled the American Anti-Slavery Society's original goals, the organization remained active until two additional amendments ensured African Americans' citizenship and (male) suffrage. When Southern white resistance during postwar Reconstruction nullified many of the hard won gains African Americans had made, abolitionists vainly attempted to pressure Northern politicians not to sacrifice racial equality for the sake of sectional reconciliation. The sectional passions unleashed by the Civil War had enabled abolitionists to achieve the partial victory of emancipation, but true racial equality would require additional generations of struggle.

Abolitionism began as a small, idealistic protest movement against slavery, and its proponents used moral suasion, political power, civil disobedience, and in some cases violence to promote their cause. But it was the Civil War that brought their movement to power by adding to the original purpose of the war, which was to restore and preserve the Union, the abolition of slavery and the granting of citizenship to African Americans. With the passage of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth amendments, the abolitionists successfully codified the ideals of the Declaration of Independence into the Constitution and helped lay the groundwork for a multiracial society. The success of the abolitionists' struggle marked the end of that movement but also the beginning of a nearly 100 years of struggle by African Americans to achieve the equal rights promised under the law.


Dillon, Merton L. Slavery Attacked: Southern Slaves and Their Allies, 1619–1865. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984.

Harrold, Stanley. American Abolitionists. Harlow, UK: Longman, 2001.

McPherson, James M. The Struggle for Equality: Abolitionists and the Negro in the Civil War and Reconstruction. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1964.

John R. McKivigan

See also:Douglass, Frederick; Slavery; Stanton, Elizabeth Cady; Tubman, Harriet.


views updated May 11 2018


The Abolition movement wanted to put an end to (abolish) slavery. The success of the anti-slavery campaign in Great Britain, which prohibited the slave trade in 1807, significantly strengthened the cause in the United States. The U.S. government outlawed slave trade the following year, and in the 1830s the revival of evangelical religion in the North gave the movement to emancipate African American slaves an even stronger impetus. Those Abolitionists believed that it violated Christian beliefs for one human being to own another. They called for an end to slavery, although the system was crucial to the agrarian economy of the southern states.

Leaders of the abolition movement included journalist William Lloyd Garrison (180579), founder of an influential anti-slavery journal; Theodore Dwight Weld (180395), leader of student protests and organizer of the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society; and brothers Arthur and Lewis Tappan (17861865; 17881873), prominent New York merchants who co-founded the American Anti-Slavery Society. Writers such as Harriet Beecher Stowe (181196), author of Uncle Tom's Cabin (185152), helped strengthen the abolitionist cause and were instrumental in swaying public opinion. But the nation remained mostly split along North-South lines. A middle ground was occupied by the Free-Soilers, who would tolerate slavery in the South but believed it should not be extended into new parts of the country. The slavery controversy deepened with the Compromise of 1850, which proved a poor attempt to assuage tensions. The legislation was prompted by the question of whether slavery should be extended into Texas and into territories gained in the Mexican War (184648). The Congressional compromise allowed for Texas to be a slave state. California was to be admitted as a free state (slavery was prohibited). Voters in New Mexico and Utah would decide the slavery question themselves, while the slave trade was to be prohibited in Washington, DC. Congress also passed a strict fugitive slave law. The question arose again in 1854 when Kansas and Nebraska were added to the Union. Kansas became a proving ground for both sides, but the slavery question remained unresolved. In the hands of some activists the abolition movement became violent: In 1859 ardent abolitionist John Brown (180059) led a raid on the armory at Harper's Ferry (in present-day West Virginia), which failed to emancipate slaves by force. The slavery question for the South was not answered until President Abraham Lincoln (186165) issued the Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863. The Thirteenth Amendment, passed by Congress in January 1865, banned slavery throughout the United States.

See also: Emancipation Proclamation, Fugitive Slave Act, Harpers Ferry Armory, Kansas-Nebraska Act, Slavery, Thirteenth Amendment


views updated Jun 27 2018

abolitionists Person who sought to end slavery. In the UK, William Wilberforce headed the Clapham Sect that led to the cessation of Britain's role in the slave trade in 1807. In 1831, William Lloyd Garrison published The Liberator, an antislavery journal. The American Anti-Slavery Society was formed in 1833, and within five years such societies boasted more than 250,000 members. Harriet Beecher Stowe's abolitionist novel Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) sold more than 300,000 copies in its first year. The militant actions of abolitionists culminated in the raid on the US arsenal at Harper's Ferry, Virginia, led by John Brown. The bitter antagonism between North and South over slavery was a major cause of the American Civil War.


views updated May 11 2018

abolitionism A term associated with protest on grounds of inhumanity and call for the abolition of: first, slavery (see, for example, the work of William Wilberforce , 1759–1833
); and, more recently, prisons and imprisonment. The latter stance developed within Scandinavian criminology (see T. Mathiesen , The Politics of Abolition, 1974)
but has since been taken up within wider critical criminology. Abolitionists argue that prisons are ineffective, their justification untenable, and their violations of human rights widespread. The abolitionist stance rejects reformism on the grounds that this perpetuates and legitimizes the existing system. Abolitionism proposes new responses to crime, offending, and disputes—for example community-based alternatives to incarceration—and argues that the urge to punish and inflict pain must be challenged.

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