Abolition Movement

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Abolition Movement












The history of the movement to abolish slavery is virtually coeval with the establishment of racial slavery in the New World. In the Western Hemisphere, millions of enslaved Africans were embedded in the workforces of all of the Americas and the Caribbean Islands from 1502 to 1888. Unlike slavery elsewhere in the modern world, these societies had economies dependent on chattel slavery or the labor of individuals who could be bought, sold, bequeathed, rented, or pawned as if they were inanimate property. Consequently, abolition caused tremendous dislocation in western slave societies. Between the first Quaker disavowal of slavery in Pennsylvania in 1688 and the formal abolition of bondage in Brazil in 1888, the process of abolition covered two centuries, occasioned civil war in Haiti and the United States, and led to bartering for the liberation of slave soldiers in Central America.


The first European protests against certain types of racial slavery occurred in the early colonial era. A few individuals, mostly Dominican and Jesuit priests, were sickened by the Spanish destruction and enslavement of Indian populations, and they recorded their objections to slavery. Among these clerics was Bartolomé de Las Casas, who in 1518 started his long crusade against Indian slavery. These efforts culminated in the famous Valladolid debate of 1550–1551, in which he was opposed by the learned Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda. At bottom, the debate was about which was the morally superior choice of slave workers in Spanish America: Native Americans or enslaved Africans. Ironically, while Las Casas argued against the enslavement of the Native population, he suggested that Africans, whom he considered hardier workers, replace Indian slaves in the Spanish colonies. Sepúlveda supported the continued use of Native Americans, but as serfs (encomienderos) responsible for providing goods and services to their Spanish masters. Spain subsequently employed both arrangements, using Africans as individual slaves and Native Americans as community slaves. Many European colonists used white indentured workers, as well as Native Americans, but eventually enslaved Africans became their primary source of labor. The Atlantic slave trade and establishment of African slavery in the New World, especially in plantation economies that produced staple cash crops for the world market, were an important part of European commercial and geographical expansion in the early modern world. Racial slavery existed in all the American colonies by the end of the seventeenth century, and white settlers developed elaborate slave codes and racist ideas to justify and legitimize it.

With the expansion of Europe and the economic exploitation of overseas settlements, racialist thought became a powerful bulwark of slavery. Montesquieu criticized racial slavery but made an exception for warmer climes. John Locke, who wrote the fundamental constitutions of the colony of South Carolina that established slavery, characterized the state of slavery as outside the social contract but justified the enslavement of Africans as prisoners taken in a “just war.” American slaveholders would use his notion of the right to property to defend chattel slavery. Similarly, while Adam Smith criticized all forms of servitude in favor of free labor, his notion of individual economic self-interest could justify modern racial slavery. Enlightenment thinkers such as David Hume, Voltaire, Immanuel Kant, and, later, Thomas Jefferson made racially derogatory remarks against Africans. Some Christians, Jews, and Arab Muslims twisted the biblical story of “Ham’s Curse” by claiming that Africans were the descendants of Ham, who had been cursed by God for disrespecting Noah, and that this justified their enslavement. Enlightenment thought about “universal nature,” “natural rights,” and Western religious traditions of sin and punishment bequeathed a mixed heritage to the Americas: It fostered a critical attitude toward slavery but also gave birth to an intellectual racism that saw Africans as less than fully human, thus legitimizing their enslavement by Europeans. Abolitionism was to emerge from this mixture of traditions, with the abolitionists eventually arguing that the slave owners, and not the slaves, were sinners in danger of God’s wrath.

In colonial British North America, a few extraordinary Quakers and Puritans started criticizing slavery and, at times, its racist justifications. One of the first protests against the enslavement of Africans came from four Dutch Quakers in Germantown, Pennsylvania, who sent an antislavery petition to the Monthly Meeting of Quakers in 1688. No action was taken on this petition, at least in part because the Quakers were deeply involved in European commercial expansion. In 1693 the Philadelphia Quaker George Keith published An Exhortation and Caution to Friends Concerning Buying and Keeping of Negroes, in which he argued against the abuses of slavery and for the humanity of Africans. Following Keith, other Quakers—such as Robert Piles, John Hepburn of New Jersey, Ralph Sandiford of Philadelphia, and Elihu Coleman of Nantucket, Massachusetts—wrote against slavery and slaveholders. The Puritan Judge Samuel Sewall, in his 1700 pamphlet The Selling of Joseph, also condemned slavery as “man stealing,” and hence contrary to the word of the Bible. He concluded, however, that free black people could never be incorporated into “our Body Politick” and must exist “as a kind of extravasat Blood [involuntary resident].”

In 1735 the British philanthropist James Oglethorpe founded the convict colony of Georgia as an alternative to the slavery-based plantation colonies of the South. However, with England’s subsequent permission, white settlers, mainly from South Carolina, successfully introduced slaves and plantation agriculture to Georgia, leading to the first southern antislavery petition, which came from eighteen Scotsmen in Darien, Georgia, in 1739. By 1755, Georgia’s experiment in free labor had come to an end, and like the other southern colonies, it instituted a slave code.

From the 1730s to the 1760s, three Quaker abolitionists, Benjamin Lay, John Woolman, and Anthony Benezet, devoted their lives to the abolitionist effort. Lay, who had been a West Indian slaveholder, came to abhor slavery, and he became known for his dramatic antislavery tactics, such as kidnapping the child of a slaveholder to acquaint him with the grief of slaves. Woolman wrote a pamphlet, Some Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes (1754), in which he presented a strong critique of the racist justifications of slavery. He argued that “Negroes are our fellow creatures” and that justice should take precedence over profit. Benezet, who stayed mainly in Philadelphia, wrote a number of pamphlets against the slave trade, collected antislavery writings and documents on slavery, and corresponded with early British abolitionists such as Granville Sharp. He taught slave children from his home, and in 1770 he set up the Negro School, which eventually served more than 250 pupils, both slave and free. Under Woolman’s and Benezet’s leadership, Quaker meetings passed resolutions against the slave trade and excluded slaveholders from positions of leadership.

Following the American Revolution, a Quaker-led Anglo-American antislavery movement burgeoned during the last quarter of the eighteenth century. This movement led to the abolition of slavery in the northern states of the new American Republic. The British and American prohibition of the Atlantic slave trade occurred in 1807–1808. Revolutionary ideology, with its emphasis on natural rights and a criticism of “political slavery,” furnished the first theoretical challenge to the existence of slavery in the Western world, according to historian David Brion Davis. A few American revolutionaries such as James Otis and Benjamin Rush, who wrote An Address to the Inhabitants of the British Settlements in America upon Slave Keeping (1773), wrote and spoke out against racial slavery.

The First Great Awakening (1730–1770) of evangelical Protestant sects (e.g., the Methodists, whose founder John Wesley opposed slavery, and the Baptists) and the rise of religious egalitarianism also led to a questioning of slavery. Many of these sects preached spiritual equality regardless of race. They appealed to the common man and woman in mass revival meetings, leading to what one historian has called “the democratization of American Christianity.” While the famous evangelical preacher George Whitfield defended slavery even as he pleaded for the Christianization of slaves, other ministers—such as the Calvinists Nathaniel Niles and Thomas Cooper and the Methodists Francis Asbury and Thomas Coke—spoke out against slavery. Deacon Benjamin Coleman, of Newbury, Massachusetts, fought against his slave-owning minister on the slavery issue. Among the Congregationalists, New Divinity theologians such as Jonathan Edwards Jr. and Samuel Hopkins became strong abolitionists. Hopkins not only wrote one of the most effective abolitionist tracts of the period, A Dialogue Concerning the Slavery of Africans (1776), he also tried to educate black men to send them back to Africa as missionaries. Another aggressive opponent of slavery and proponent of revolutionary republicanism was the black clergyman Lemuel Haynes of Vermont.


The role of Africans and African Americans in the abolition movement stood unappreciated for a long time. Africans had obviously opposed slavery from the first moments of enslavement. There were rebellions and runaway slave communities on the African coast, shipboard rebellions during the Atlantic slave trade (known as the “Middle Passage”), and colonial slave revolts and conspiracies in New York (1712 and 1741) and South Carolina (1739). During the American Revolution, blacks brought freedom suits against their masters, ran away in massive numbers, and fought on both sides in often successful efforts to win their freedom.

As early as the 1765 Stamp Act crisis, slaves in Charleston, South Carolina, marched in protest, crying “Liberty!” and alarming their masters. African-American writers such as the slave preacher Jupiter Hammon of Long Island, New York, the poet Phillis Wheatley of Boston, and, more explicitly, the former slave essayist Caesar Sarter of Newburyport, Massachusetts, critiqued the existence of slavery and defied racist pronouncements that claimed Africans were incapable of learning and suited only for hard, physical labor. In the 1770s, groups of slaves in New England petitioned their colonial governments, demanding an end to slavery and the rights of citizenship or transportation back to Africa.

In Massachusetts, early black abolitionists such as Prince Hall, founder of the African Masonic Lodge, and Paul Cuffe, the black Quaker sea captain who inaugurated the first Back-to-Africa movement, headed petition drives. Cuffe, in his petition, applied the slogan “no taxation without representation” in asking for relief from taxation because he did not have the right to vote. The black freedom petitions pointed to the shortcomings of the revolutionary statements of white leaders that did not include African Americans, thus laying the foundations of black abolitionism. Thousands of black loyalists— runaway slaves freed by British proclamations in 1779 and by Virginia governor Lord Dunmore in 1775 for joining the British—left the American colonies to be reset-tled in Nova Scotia, Canada, and then Africa in their search for freedom.


Antislavery sentiment among African Americans and whites during the Revolutionary era gave birth to the American abolition movement. In 1775 the first abolition organization, the Society for the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage, was founded in Philadelphia. The organization was reorganized as the Pennsylvania Abolition Society in 1787. In 1785, the Society for Promoting the Manumission of Slaves was founded in New York. Prominent revolutionary leaders such as Alexander Hamilton and John Jay were members of the society, and Benjamin Franklin would assume the presidency of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society before his death. By the end of the Revolution, all the states had antislavery societies, except for Georgia and South Carolina, the two states most committed to slavery and the slave trade. Whites dominated the organized antislavery movement, and they saw African Americans as the objects of their benevolence. Nonetheless, these societies provided valuable legal and political services to the slaves and free blacks who fought against enslavement, kidnapping, and attempts to bypass emancipation laws. In 1794 all the antislavery societies met in Philadelphia and formed a national antislavery convention. Yet while the Founding Fathers of the new American republic expressed their abhorrence of slavery, many were slave owners themselves, and only those in the North joined antislavery societies. Men such as Thomas Jefferson undermined their antislavery pronouncements with their intense racism, though others, such as Thomas Paine, George Mason of Virginia, Luther Martin of Maryland, and Gouverneur Morris of Pennsylvania, were unequivocal in their condemnation of slavery.


In the North, where slavery was not the mainstay of the economy and society, antislavery sentiment made greater headway. In 1777, Vermont became the first state to abolish slavery in its constitution. In 1780, Pennsylvania passed a gradual emancipation law, which served as a model for similar laws passed in other northern states. Rhode Island and Connecticut, for example, adopted similar laws in 1784. In New Hampshire and Massachusetts, judicial interpretation of the states’ constitutions led to the abolition of slavery in 1783.

In Massachusetts, slaves themselves initiated the emancipation process by suing their masters for freedom. In 1765 Jenny Slew of Ipswich successfully brought her master to court. In 1781, Elizabeth “Mumbet” Freeman won her freedom by suing her master for abuse and appealing to the notion of universal natural rights. A similar case, Commonwealth v. Jennison, brought by Quock Walker, outlawed slavery in Massachusetts.

The battle for abolition was more protracted in New York and New Jersey, where slavery was widespread. New York passed its gradual emancipation law in 1799, and New Jersey in 1804. In New York, additional laws had to be passed to prevent masters from selling their slaves in the South and to prevent the kidnapping of free blacks into southern slavery. In 1827 a law freed all remaining slaves in the state. In New Jersey, despite emancipation, a handful of slaves survived to the very eve of the Civil War (fifteen slaves were counted in the 1860 census). However, the Revolution did abolish northern slavery, creating a nation that was half slave and half free.

Abolitionist efforts did not make any headway in the South, however, though Virginia passed a manumission law in 1782 that eased restrictions on individual slave-holders who wanted to emancipate their slaves. In the Upper South, some slaveholders were so influenced by Revolutionary ideas and the decline of the tobacco economy that they freed their slaves, creating a large free black population in Virginia, Maryland, and Delaware. In 1787, the Northwest Ordinance prohibited the expansion of slavery north of the Ohio River. Jefferson’s original version of this ordinance would have banned slavery in the Southwest, but it lost by one vote in Congress, thus ensuring the expansion of slavery into Alabama, Mississippi, and the trans-Mississippi West. The continued expansion of slavery in the southern states ensured that there were more slaves in the United States after the Revolution than in the thirteen American colonies before it.


More thoroughly than the American Revolution, the Haitian Revolution (1791–1804) sounded the death knell of racial slavery in the New World. What began as a slave rebellion and a fight for the rights of citizenship by Haiti’s mixed-race population, who were inspired by the 1789 French Revolution, ended with the abolition of slavery and the founding of the first modern black republic and the second independent nation in the Americas. Led by the remarkable former slave Toussaint Louverture, the Haitian Revolution is the only instance of a successful slave rebellion in world history. It thus inspired generations of black and white abolitionists throughout the nineteenth century.

As early as 1770, Guillaume Thomas François (Abbé) Raynal had published his searing indictment of slavery and the African slave trade in his multivolume history of European colonization. He also predicted a black revolution that would drench the New World in blood. In 1788,

revolutionaries such as Jean-Pierre Brissot and Honoré Mirabeau founded the French abolition society, Société des Amis des Noirs (Society of the Friends of the Blacks), which included among its ranks Julien Raimond and Vincent Ogé, men of mixed-race origins, who led the mulatto revolt in Haiti, and other luminaries such as the French thinker and mathematician Marquis de Condorcet, the Marquis de Lafayette, and Bishop Henri Grégoire, a champion of black equality. In 1794, under the Jacobins, France abolished slavery, though this decree was later revoked by Napoleon.

The Haitians, some of whom had fought in the American Revolution with Lafayette, defeated the French, including Napoleon’s army that had conquered so much of Europe, the British, and the Spanish. Despite Toussaint’s capture and death, the Haitian Republic declared its independence in 1804 under the leadership of Jean-Jacques Dessalines. It would not be until the 1848 revolutions in Europe that France and Denmark would abolish slavery in their colonies. By the 1820s the Latin American Wars of Independence had abolished slavery in most Latin American countries, including Mexico. At the end of the Age of Revolution only Brazil, the Spanish colonies of Cuba and Puerto Rico, and the United States South had not abolished racial slavery. The Constitution of the United States not only recognized slavery as a legal institution, it also postponed the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade until 1808.


After American independence, a mainly British movement to abolish the slave trade picked up in the 1780s. In 1787 the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade was founded. English Quakers such as John Fothergill and the indefatigable Granville Sharp, a champion of slaves and free blacks, led the movement to abolish the slave trade. Earlier, in the landmark 1772 Somerset v. Steuart case, Sharp had defended a runaway Virginian slave, James Somerset. The Somerset decision was widely interpreted as having abolished slavery in Britain. Sharp also publicized the famous Zong slave ship case in which the ship’s captain, in order to collect insurance, threw 133 Africans overboard after the outbreak of disease. The anti-slave trade effort was led by Thomas Clarkson, who had published An Essay on the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species in 1786. Black abolitionists such as Quobna Ottobah Cugoano and Olaudah Equiano (both former slaves) contributed to the cause, first by bringing Sharp’s attention to the Zong incident, and then by writing popular narratives of their capture and enslavement. Cugoano published Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil and Wicked Traffic of the Commerce of the Human Species, the first black abolitionist tract, in 1787, and Equiano published The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa in 1789.

In 1788 the British government regulated the number of slaves that could be carried in a ship and in 1789 William Wilberforce headed the fight against the slave trade in Parliament. At his behest, Parliament formed a select committee, whose hearings on the slave trade still provide the best evidence historians have on the conduct of the trade. Throughout the 1790s Wilberforce and abolitionists such as James Stephens led the fight to end the slave trade. After successive defeats, they were finally successful in 1807, when the law that abolished the British slave trade passed Parliament. Britain would go on to negotiate treaties with France, Spain, and Portugal to end the slave trade, and it used its navy to enforce the law and the treaties.


Across the ocean, African Americans emerged as strong critics of slavery in the early republic, writing most of the abolitionist pamphlets of the time. In 1794, addressing “those who keep slaves and uphold the practice,” Reverend Richard Allen and Absalom Jones, founders of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, stated, “you … have been and are our great oppressors.” They implied that America, like Egypt, would be destroyed for its “oppression of the poor slaves” by God, “the protector and avenger of slaves.” Daniel Coker, another AME clergyman, wrote in a fictional 1810 dialogue between a slaveholder and a black minister that the slave’s right to liberty outweighed the slaveholder’s right to property. In his 1813 Series of Letters by a Man of Colour, James Forten, a black sail maker and Revolutionary War hero, strongly criticized racial discrimination against free blacks (he was writing in response to a Pennsylvania law that limited the migration of blacks to that state) by appealing to the principles of republicanism.

In the South, where any sort of writing by enslaved blacks was illegal, there were at least four abortive slave rebellions and conspiracies against the tightening and expansion of the slave regime in the United States. In 1800 Gabriel Prosser, inspired by French and American revolutionary ideals, headed a conspiracy of a thousand slaves in Henrico County, Virginia. In 1811 Charles Deslandes, inspired by the Haitian Revolution, sparked a rebellion of 500 slaves about forty miles northwest of New Orleans. In the fighting, federal troops killed sixty blacks in battle, and they executed twenty-one others, including Deslandes. The former slave Denmark Vesey led a failed slave conspiracy in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1822. In 1831 Nat Turner headed a slave rebellion in Southampton County, Virginia, that left nearly sixty whites dead before he and his comrades were captured. An intense white backlash of paranoia and violence followed Turner’s rebellion.


Black abolitionism arose more strongly in the 1820s as a response to the 1817 founding of the American Colonization Society (ACS). The colonization movement, which included prominent national politicians from the North and South, proposed to remove all free blacks to Africa, a plan first conceived by Thomas Jefferson. An overwhelming majority of African Americans opposed the colonization movement, believing it to be a racist scheme to strengthen slavery and deny blacks equal citizenship in the United States. Black abolitionists thus developed the “immediatist” program of anticolonization and the immediate abolition of slavery and racial discrimination. In

1827, the first black abolitionist newspaper, Freedom’s Journal , founded by Reverend Samuel Cornish and John Russwurm (who would later change his mind and emigrate to Liberia), espoused this program, as did the Massachusetts General Colored Association (MGCA), a Boston black abolitionist organization founded in 1826.

The famous black abolitionist pamphleteer, David Walker, who was an agent for Freedom’s Journal and a member of the MGCA, published his Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World in 1829 in Boston. Walker roundly critiqued colonization and American pretensions to being a republican and Christian country. He demanded an immediate end to slavery and vowed to alert the world of “black sufferings” in this “Republican land of liberty!” Walker died suddenly a year later, but his Appeal would be reprinted several times and remained the founding document of black abolitionism. The pioneer black feminist Maria Stewart of Boston, a follower of Walker’s, became the first American woman to speak in public on abolition and black rights.

Though not an African American, William Lloyd Garrison, an intrepid political journalist, became an effective spokesman for black freedom and equality. A convert to the agenda and uncompromising rhetorical style of the new black abolitionists, Garrison had earlier met black leaders such as William Watkins, Hezekiah Grice, and James Forten. Through them, Garrison was converted from colonization to immediatism. In 1831, financed mainly by blacks in Boston and Philadelphia, he started publishing an extraordinary newspaper, The Liberator, in which he wrote his famous words, “I will not equivocate—I will not excuse—I will not retreat a single inch—and I will be heard.” Garrison’s newspaper, which remained the premier voice of abolitionism until the end of the Civil War, was bankrolled by Forten, and African Americans made up 400 of its first 450 subscribers. Garrison also founded the New England Anti-Slavery Society in 1832, into which the MGCA merged, in the basement of the African Meeting House in Boston, and he formed close personal and professional ties with black abolitionists.


The founding of the American Anti-Slavery Society (AASS) in Philadelphia in 1833 marked the start of the interracial antebellum abolitionist movement and the coming together of three important antislavery groups: African Americans, Quakers, and a handful of radical whites such as Garrison. The Declaration of Sentiments of the AASS, written by Garrison while he was staying in the Philadelphia home of Dr. James McCrummill, a black dentist, committed the new movement to immediatism, anticolonization, blacks rights, and the tactic of “moral suasion.” White evangelical Christians such as Theodore Dwight Weld and the wealthy brothers Arthur and Lewis Tappan of New York City would be important converts to Garrisonian abolitionism. The Tappan brothers, along with prominent black abolitionists such as Samuel Cornish, Theodore Wright, and William Hamilton, led the movement in New York. African Americans participated as members of the board of the AASS, and as its agents, but they also retained their separate independent organizations, such as the American Society of Free People of Color, the antislavery Bethel Church Free Produce Society and American Moral Reform Society. The all-black Female Anti-Slavery Society of Salem was founded in 1832, followed by two important interracial female abolitionist organizations, the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society and the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society. Members of these and other groups collectively supported the National Black Conventions that met periodically from 1830 to 1864. The black press was represented by the Colored American, Frederick Douglass’ Paper and the Anglo-African Magazine. In Canada, the runaway slave Henry Bibb published Voice of the Fugitive, that nation’s first black-owned newspaper, from 1851 until 1853 and Mary Ann Shadd Cary published the Provincial Freeman.

Women also formed an important part of the new abolition movement. Starting with Lucretia Mott, Lydia Maria Child, and the Grimké sisters, Angelina and Sarah, some women joined the antislavery lecture circuit and societies. Others organized antislavery fairs, picnics, and bazaars, raising hundreds of dollars for the movement. In the 1840s and 1850s, many charismatic white female abolitionists, such as Lucy Stone and Abby Kelley Foster, as well as black female activists, such as Sojourner Truth, Sarah Parker Remond, and Francis Ellen Watkins Harper, lectured for the antislavery societies. However, many clergymen and evangelical Christians were strongly

opposed to abolitionist women who spoke in public or sought leadership positions within the movement. Women were expected to remain silent but active in raising monies and circulating antislavery petitions.

In the 1830s the interracial and radical nature of immediate abolitionism aroused intense opposition in both the North and South. Abolitionist mail was confiscated and burned by proslavery vigilantes in the South, and prominent politicians and merchants—“gentlemen of property and standing”—led mobs against abolitionist meetings, which were seen as “promiscuous” because they included women and blacks. In 1834 anti-abolition sentiments led to a riot in New York City that resulted in the torching of black churches and the Tappans’ home. In 1837 the abolitionist editor Elijah Lovejoy was killed defending his press in Alton, Illinois. Garrison himself barely escaped the anger of an anti-abolition mob in Boston. Finally, the United States Congress instituted a “Gag Rule,” temporarily silencing Congressional discussion of abolitionist petitions from 1836 to 1844.

Nevertheless by 1838, the AASS, with its large numbers of paid antislavery agents and more than a million pieces of abolitionist literature, comprised 1,346 local antislavery societies with around 100,000 members. A new cadre of black abolitionists, most of them former slaves, became prominent in the movement and the country at large. The most famous of these was Frederick Douglass, whose slave narrative and oratory established him as one of the foremost leaders of the movement. Douglass began his abolitionist career as a Garrisonian, but he split with Garrison over the issue of politics by the early 1850s. While Garrison denounced the Constitution as a “compact with the devil and covenant with hell” and advocated “No Union with Slaveholders,” Douglass supported antislavery parties and saw the constitution as antislavery. Other black abolitionists included the black doctor James McCune Smith, William Cooper Nell, William Wells Brown, James W. C. Pennington, Samuel Ringgold Ward, and Henry Highland Garnet. Penning-ton and Brown wrote narratives describing their experiences as slaves, while Ward and Garnet became famous orators. Garnet is best remembered for his 1843 Address to the Slaves, in which he urged slave resistance.

Most abolitionists in the 1840s and 1850s justified the use of violence in self-defense in controversies over the rendition of fugitive slaves and the kidnapping of free blacks. David Ruggles, the black abolitionist who in 1835 had founded the New York Vigilance Committee to defend fugitive slaves and protect free blacks from kidnappers, stated that self-defense was the first law of nature. The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 mandated citizen participation in chasing and apprehending alleged fugitive slaves anywhere in the nation. Hundreds of fugitives fled to Canada in fear, and this sweeping law gave birth to active opposition among free blacks and abolitionists. In 1851 in Christiana, Pennsylvania, a group of free blacks defended four runaway slaves who were being pursued by their owner, who was from Maryland. The slave owner and a federal marshal were killed in the altercation. In Boston the abolitionist Thomas Wentworth Higginson and others managed to prevent the rendition of a number of runaway slaves. In Syracuse, New York, abolitionists succeeded in rescuing the slave Jerry McHenry, and in Ohio’s Western Reserve district abolitionist “riots” made the law a dead letter in parts of the North that were strongholds of abolitionists and antislavery politics.


Along with physical resistance, political resistance to slavery expanded. The annexation of Texas in 1845 and the Mexican-American War of 1846–1848 made slavery into a national political issue. Many northerners in Congress supported Pennsylvania Representative David Wilmot’s attempt to restrict the expansion of slavery into the newly acquired Mexican territories. In the 1848 presidential elections, the newly formed Free Soil Party made antislavery a potent force in northern politics. Thus, thousands of readers were primed for the 1852 publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s antislavery novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The novel was America’s first runaway bestseller, with some 300,000 copies being sold in twelve months.

The passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 reignited the issue of slavery expansion into the west and led to a fierce and violent contest over the fate of Kansas between free state migrants and southern slaveholders. The antislavery and nonextensionist Republican Party was founded as a result of a new coalition between Free Soilers, Antislavery Whigs and Democrats, and political abolitionists. In the Dred Scott v. Sandford case of 1857, the U.S. Supreme Court essentially held that the Constitution did not curtail the rights of slaveholders to move their human property anyplace within the United States. The Court also declared that the rights enunciated in the Constitution did not apply to blacks because they were not American citizens. John Brown’s failed 1859 raid on the federal armory at Harper’s Ferry made him into an abolitionist martyr. The question of slavery became a part of the famous 1858 debates between the antislavery Republican congressman Abraham Lincoln and the Democrat Stephen A. Douglas, who were running against each other for one of the Senate seats from Illinois. The debates made Lincoln a national figure and paved the way for his successful presidential campaign in 1860.

Lincoln’s election led to the secession of the states of the Deep South (South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, Texas, Florida, and Louisiana), and the formation of the Confederacy would spell the doom of slavery. After the Confederates fired the first shot at Fort Sumter, inaugurating the American Civil War, four states from the Upper South (Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas) seceded. Abolitionists such as Wendell Phillips and Frederick Douglass, as well as Radical Republicans in Congress, pressured President Lincoln to make the war for the Union a war against slavery. In 1863 Lincoln not only issued the Emancipation Proclamation, he also enlisted black men—some 130,000 of them former slaves—into the Union Army. In 1865 the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution finally ended racial slavery in the United States. The war, which cost around 600,000 American lives, resulted in the emancipation of four million enslaved Americans of color. Millions more were peacefully freed when slavery was abolished in Puerto Rico in 1873, in Cuba in 1886, and in Brazil in 1888.

By the end of the nineteenth century, racial slavery had ended in the New World. Among the causes of its demise was a general belief that chattel slavery was both an outmoded and morally unacceptable labor system. The efforts of countless abolitionists and slaves also helped governments to end one of the worst instances of human bondage in world history.

Throughout the Western Hemisphere, even though slavery had ended, the problem of race continued to bedevil former slave societies. Only in the United States did the legacy of abolitionism live on beyond the end of slavery. Following the Civil War, the United States became the only slave society to adopt a policy of systemic reconstruction based on interracial democracy. Unfortunately, the U.S. Reconstruction era, which lasted from 1865 until 1875, was overthrown, and, just as in other former slave societies, freed persons were subjected to new coercions and relegated to second-class citizenship. With the start of the U.S. civil rights movement in the twentieth century, and similar struggles elsewhere, the abolitionist dream of creating a society based on racial justice re-emerged. In the 1960s, civil rights workers, recalling the long history of the struggle for black equality, called themselves “the new abolitionists.” Thus, while the abolitionists succeeded in ending slavery, if not racism, the legacy of their fight for racial justice lived on.

SEE ALSO American Anti-Slavery Society; Cuffe, Paul; Douglass, Frederick; Dred Scott v. Sandford; Emancipation Proclamation; Forten, James; Garnet, Henry Highland; Garrison, William Lloyd; Indian Slavery; Phillips, Wendell; Slave Codes; Stowe, Harriet Beecher.


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Manisha Sinha