Abolitionist Movement is a reform movement during the 18th and 19th centuries

May 3, 2013 9:01 am
Abolitionist Movement is a reform movement during the 18th and 19th centuries. Often called the antislavery movement, it sought to end the enslavement of Africans and people of African descent in Europe, the Americas, and Africa itself (see Slavery in Africa). It also aimed to end the Atlantic slave trade carried out in the Atlantic Ocean between Africa, Europe, and the Americas.

The historical roots of abolitionism lay in black resistance to slavery. Such resistance began during the 15th century as Africans enslaved by Europeans often sought to kill their captors or themselves. By the late 1700s Christian morality, new ideas about liberty and human rights that came about as a result of the American and French revolutions, and economic changes led to an effort among blacks and whites to end human bondage.

Those who employed slave labor in the Americas resisted abolitionist efforts. First, slaveholders believed that their economic prosperity demanded the continuation of slavery. In order to work the large plantations in the Americas, huge amounts of labor were required. African slaves were cheaper and more readily available than white indentured laborers from Europe, and because they already had some immunity to European diseases, Africans were less likely to die from those diseases than were Native Americans. Second, employers of slave labor feared for their own safety if the slaves were freed. Due to the large number of slaves brought to the Americas, several regions had slave majorities. Slave owners worried that if slaves were suddenly freed, they might take over or exact revenge on their former masters. Although abolitionism existed in Europe and in the American colonies of several European nations, the struggle between antislavery and proslavery forces was most protracted, bitter, and bloody in the United States.

As a result of the abolitionist movement, the institution of slavery ceased to exist in Europe and the Americas by 1888, although it was not completely legally abolished in Africa until the first quarter of the 20th century. While the abolitionist movement’s greatest achievement was certainly the liberation of millions of black people from servitude, it also reflected the triumph of modern ideas of freedom and human rights over older social forms based on privileged elites and social stratification.

The Atlantic slave trade began in Africa in the mid-1400s and lasted into the 19th century. Initially, Portuguese traders purchased small numbers of slaves from kingdoms on the western coast of Africa and transported them for sale in Portugal and Spain. The Atlantic slave trade did not become a huge enterprise until after European nations began colonizing the Americas during the 1500s. During the 1600s the Dutch pushed the Portuguese out of the trade and then contested the British and French for control of it. By 1713 Britain had emerged as the dominant slave-trading nation. In all, the trade brought more than 10 million Africans to America, and at least another 1 million Africans died in passage.

The brutality of the Atlantic slave trade and of slavery itself played an important role in the origins of the abolitionist movement. Those subjected to the trade suffered horribly: They were chained, branded, crowded onto disease-ridden slave ships, and abused by ship’s crews. Many Africans died on the ships well before they arrived in the Americas. Once in the colonies, slaves were deprived of their human rights, made to endure dreadful conditions, and forced to perform backbreaking labor. Despite the horrors of the slave trade and slavery, white opposition to the institution developed slowly. The economies of many of the colonies were based on huge plantations that required large labor forces in order to be profitable. Also, views of society at the time were very hierarchical, and many people simply accepted the fact that classes of people they considered lower than themselves should be enslaved. In addition, the widespread perception that blacks were culturally, morally, and intellectually inferior to whites contributed to the longevity of the system. It was not until the early 18th century that attitudes began to change.


Black resistance to enslavement, Christian humanitarianism, economic change, and intellectual developments all contributed to the rise of abolitionist movements in European countries—most notably Great Britain—and in the colonial Americas. Black resistance was the most important of these factors. Since the 1500s Africans and persons of African descent had attempted to free themselves from slavery by force. Revolts were most common in the West Indies and Brazil, where the majority of the population was black. But there were also uprisings in Mexico, Venezuela, and the British colonies in North America.


Until the end of the 18th century, rebellious slaves did not really challenge the institution of slavery itself. Instead, they simply sought to free themselves from it. While this rebellion occasionally took the form of slave revolts or uprisings, more frequently slaves tried to free themselves by escape. Sometimes, especially in the West Indies and Latin America, escaped slaves formed maroon communities. These settlements were located in inaccessible areas, to prevent recapture by the authorities, and were usually heavily fortified. Maroon communities, many of which endured for years or decades, became havens for escaped slaves and bases for attacks on plantations and passersby. In a way, these communities encouraged antislavery sentiment among whites: The inability of local authorities to recapture escaped slaves and the periodic violent raids by members of maroon communities made some whites disturbingly aware of their vulnerability in a slave society. In addition, whites became more aware of the inherent cruelty of slavery because slaves were willing to risk severe punishment and even death to escape from their masters or to rise up against them. If slaves had submitted meekly to their masters, slavery would not have been perceived to be oppressive and sinful.

The Quakers

The first whites to denounce slavery in Europe and the European colonies were members of the Society of Friends—commonly known as Quakers. Unlike the prevailing idea of the time that blacks were inferior to whites, Quakers believed that all people, regardless of race, had a divine spark inside them and were equal in the eyes of God. These beliefs led them in the mid-18th century to take steps against slavery in Great Britain and the British colonies in North America. The first goal of the Quaker abolitionists was to end slave trading among fellow Quakers because the barbarity of the buying and selling of slaves was more obvious than that of the institution of slavery as a whole. It was also generally assumed that if the slave trade was abolished slavery itself would soon cease to exist. After slave trading among Friends had been stopped, during the 1760s Quaker congregations began expelling slaveholders. Under the influence of Quakers in the American colonies, British Quakers established Britain’s first antislavery society, the London Committee to Abolish the Slave Trade, in 1783.

Revolutionary Ideas

In the late 18th century an age of revolution began to bring ideas about equal rights to the forefront, ideas that became a powerful force against slavery in the Atlantic world. In the past, servitude and slavery had been taken for granted as part of a class system where the rich dominated the poor and those of the lower classes were prevented from social advancement. But the Industrial Revolution, which brought increased economic opportunity and power to the lower and middle classes, began to undermine this system. Also, an 18th-century European intellectual movement known as the Age of Enlightenment asserted that all human beings had natural rights. The American Revolution (1775-1783) and the French Revolution (1789-1799), widely seen as revolutions by citizens against oppressive rulers, transformed this Enlightenment assertion into a call for universal liberty and freedom.

The successful slave revolt that began in the French colony of Saint-Domingue in 1791 was part of this revolutionary age. Led by François Dominique Toussaint Louverture, black rebels overthrew the colonial government, ended slavery in the colony, and in 1804 established the republic of Haiti, the first independent black republic in the world (see Haitian Slave Revolt). The revolt frightened slaveholders everywhere, inspired other slaves and free blacks to action, and convinced religiously motivated whites that only peaceful emancipation could prevent more bloodshed.


Eighteenth Century

In Europe, Great Britain had the strongest abolitionist movement. The major turning point in its development came in 1787 when Evangelical Christians (see Evangelicalism) joined Quakers in establishing the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade. Led by William Wilberforce, an Evangelical member of the British Parliament, and Thomas Clarkson, a Quaker skilled in mass organization, the society initiated petition drives, mass propaganda efforts, and lobbying in an attempt to end British involvement in slave trafficking. Although opposed by English merchants, West Indian planters, and King George III—who equated abolitionism with political radicalism—the society nevertheless managed to achieve its goal. In 1807 the British Parliament abolished the slave trade and the British, through diplomacy and the creation of a naval squadron to patrol the West African coast, began forcing other European nations to give up the trade as well.

Abolitionism fared less well in continental Europe in the 18th century. Antislavery societies in continental Europe were narrow, ineffective, elitist organizations. In France, Jacques Pierre Brissot, a supporter of the French Revolution, established the Société des Amis des Noirs (Society of the Friends of Blacks) in 1788, but this group failed in its effort against the slave trade. Despite its complete lack of success, the French antislavery effort was the strongest in continental Europe.

Nineteenth Century

During the 19th century British abolitionism became more radical. Wilberforce, Clarkson, and their associates had assumed that ending the slave trade would lead directly to general emancipation (freeing of all slaves). When it became clear that this would not happen, Clarkson joined with Thomas Fowell Buxton in 1823 to form the British Anti-Slavery Society, which at first advocated a gradual abolition of slavery. However, when West Indian planters refused to make concessions, the abolitionists hardened their stance, and by the late 1820s abolitionists were demanding immediate slave emancipation. The great pressure they exerted, combined with continuing slave unrest, led Parliament to pass the Emancipation Act in 1833. This enacted gradual, compensated emancipation, which meant that slaves were freed but were forced to work for their former masters for a period to compensate them for monetary loss. By 1838 all slaves in the British Empire were free. Thereafter, British abolitionism fragmented into efforts against the illegal slave trade, slavery in Africa, and slavery in the United States.

During the 19th century abolitionist societies in other European countries were far less significant than abolitionist societies in Britain. British abolitionists influenced The Netherlands and especially France, where they inspired the creation of Société Française pour l’Abolition de l’Esclavage (French Society for the Abolition of Slavery) in 1834. This tiny organization had some success in lobbying the French government. However, it was the overthrow of the French monarchy and the establishment of a republic in February 1848, followed three months later by a major slave revolt in the French colony of Martinique in the Caribbean, that led to the emancipation of all slaves within the French empire in 1848.

In a similar manner, a domestic revolution and colonial unrest led Spain to abolish slavery in its colonies of Puerto Rico and Cuba, in 1873 and 1886 respectively. Earlier, negotiations between government officials and planters had produced emancipation in the Swedish (1847), Danish (1848), and Dutch (1863) colonies in the West Indies.


Abolitionism in the British colonies in North America developed within the broader Atlantic antislavery movement. But, unlike the case in Europe, slavery was a domestic institution in the United States and was primarily under local (state) control. In addition, slaveholders often dominated the country’s national government.

As elsewhere, black slaves in colonial America encouraged abolitionism by seeking to free themselves. Although maroon settlements like those in the Caribbean existed in colonial America, they were much smaller and less widespread. Slave rebellions, however, were frequent. A major uprising took place in New York City in 1712, when black and Native American slaves killed nine whites and wounded seven more. In 1739 a much larger rebellion took place near Charleston, South Carolina. About one hundred slaves marched along the Stono River, destroying plantations and killing a few whites. Slaveholders with the aid of Native Americans put down the rebellion, killing 44 of the rebels.

American Quakers, like their British counterparts, responded to these uprisings by advocating gradual abolition. By the 1740s Quaker abolitionists John Woolman and Anthony Benezet were urging other Quakers to cease their involvement in the slave trade and to break all connections with slavery. It was not until the American Revolution began in 1775, however, that abolitionism spread beyond the Society of Friends.

Revolutionary Abolitionism

The American Revolution invigorated the abolitionist movement. It became difficult for white Americans, who had fought for independence from Britain in the name of liberty and universal natural rights, to justify the continuation of slavery. These ideas, black service in American armies during the revolution, black abolitionist petitions for emancipation, and the actions of white antislavery societies, motivated all of the Northern states by 1804 either to end slavery within their borders or to provide for its gradual abolition. In 1787 Congress had banned slavery in the Northwest Territory (a region comprising the present states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and the eastern part of Minnesota, ceded to the United States by the British after the American Revolution). Also, during the 1780s and 1790s large numbers of slaveholders in the Southern states of Maryland and Virginia freed their slaves.

Despite these early successes, by the mid-1780s the revolutionary abolitionist movement was in decline. Beyond the freeing of slaves in Maryland and Virginia, the movement had a negative impact on the South, where the large majority of American slaves lived. The Haitian Slave Revolt in 1791 and an aborted revolt conspiracy led by the slave Gabriel in Virginia in 1800 convinced Southern whites—who feared they could not control free blacks—that the slave system had to be strengthened rather than abolished. Meanwhile, the growth of the cotton industry, fueled by the invention of the cotton gin by Eli Whitney in 1793, made slavery a vital part of both the Southern and the national economies. At the same time, the development of scientific racism, the idea that blacks were biologically inferior to whites and were intellectually and morally incapable of self-government, encouraged state and national legislation that limited the rights of free blacks.

The Colonization Movement

This deteriorating situation made schemes to colonize black Americans in Africa, Haiti, and other locations beyond the borders of the United States attractive to whites and—in the beginning at least—to substantial numbers of blacks. Massachusetts Quaker Paul Cuffe became the most prominent black advocate of migration to West Africa. Despite early enthusiasm, by the 1810s most African Americans questioned the justice of mass expatriation, coming to the conclusion that it was less a movement to emancipate slaves than an attempt to rid America of its free blacks.

In contrast, white abolitionists during these years supported the program of the American Colonization Society (ACS), a group established in 1816 in Washington, D.C., by such prominent slaveholders as Henry Clay and Francis Scott Key. This organization proposed to abolish slavery gradually in the United States and relieve white fear of free blacks by transporting emancipated slaves to West Africa and giving them their own country. Five years after its founding, the ACS purchased land for a colony in West Africa and began transporting African Americans there. Named Liberia, the colony would eventually become the destination for more than 12,000 African Americans. Faced with increasing black opposition and the insurmountable logistical difficulties involved in transporting an exponentially rising American slave population to Africa, the ACS had no chance for success. As these shortcomings became clear during the late 1820s, Northern abolitionists formed a more radical movement.


Two factors account for the radicalization of American abolitionism during the late 1820s and early 1830s. First, the growing agitation of black abolitionists and signs of black unrest in the South inspired urgency among white abolitionists, who feared that maintaining slavery would lead to more violence. In 1822 free black Denmark Vesey unsuccessfully conspired to lead a massive slave revolt in Charleston, South Carolina; in 1829 David Walker of Boston published his inflammatory Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World; and in 1831 Nat Turner launched a short-lived but bloody slave uprising in Virginia.

Second, a wave of evangelical revivalism called the Second Great Awakening inspired a reform spirit in the North. The revivalists argued that America was in need of moral regeneration by dedicated Christians. They channeled their fervor into a series of reforms designed to eliminate evils in American society. These reforms included women’s rights, temperance, educational improvements, humane treatment for the mentally ill, and the abolition of slavery. Although not all revivalists were abolitionists, during the mid-19th century the abolitionist movement acquired a new urgency and energy because of their support.

These two developments influenced the extraordinary career of William Lloyd Garrison, a white New Englander who became the leading American abolitionist. Garrison began publishing a weekly abolitionist newspaper called The Liberator in 1831. In 1833 Garrison, convinced that slavery was a sin and hoping to avoid more violence, brought together Quaker abolitionists, evangelical abolitionists, and his New England associates to form the American Anti-Slavery Society (AASS). It aimed at immediate, uncompensated emancipation and equal rights for blacks. Among early leaders of the AASS were white abolitionists such as Arthur and Lewis Tappan, Lucretia Coffin Mott, Theodore Weld, and Lydia Maria Child, and black abolitionists such as James Forten and Robert Purvis.

Although the so-called immediate abolitionists were never more than a tiny minority of Americans, the AASS spread rapidly across the North. By 1838 the society claimed 1,350 affiliates and 250,000 members. It employed speakers, sent petitions to the U.S. Congress, and mailed abolitionist propaganda into the South. These efforts produced a fierce reaction. North and South, angry white mobs opposed changes in race relations. Southern postmasters refused to deliver antislavery literature, and in 1835 President Andrew Jackson unsuccessfully petitioned Congress to ban the mailing of abolitionist pamphlets. The following year, the House of Representatives passed the gag rule (see Gag Rules), which banned the introduction of abolitionist petitions in that body. In 1837 abolitionist newspaper publisher Elijah P. Lovejoy was killed in Illinois while trying to protect his printing press from a mob.

By the late 1830s, the AASS also faced internal division. Fierce resistance to abolitionism convinced Garrison and his associates that the entire nation—not just the South—had to be cleansed of oppression. In addition to their abolitionist activities, so-called Garrisonians became advocates of women’s rights, denounced organized religion as proslavery, and condemned all governments for their use of force. It was sinful, Garrisonians contended, to vote or to hold office. Other abolitionists had a more traditional view of women, hoped to get the churches to join the abolitionist cause, sought to engage in politics, and were not entirely opposed to using violent means.

The result was the fracturing of the AASS. While the Garrisonians retained control of a much-reduced version of that organization, two new groups emerged. In 1840 Lewis Tappan led evangelical abolitionists of both races in forming the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society to foster abolitionism in the nation’s churches. The same year, other non-Garrisonians formed the Liberty Party to nominate abolitionist candidates for public office.

The Liberty abolitionists were themselves divided into two factions. The radical political abolitionists of western New York, under the leadership of Gerrit Smith, declared slavery to be illegal everywhere and urged Northerners to go to the South to help slaves escape. A more numerous Liberty group, centered in Cincinnati, rejected these provocative tactics. It contended that Northerners must concentrate on ending slavery where Congress had jurisdiction—in the territories and the District of Columbia—while encouraging the formation of abolitionist political parties in the Southern states.


The Underground Railroad

It was the radical political abolitionists who were most attractive to prominent black leaders, including former slaves Henry Highland Garnet and—by 1851—Frederick Douglass. Garnet and Douglass worked closely with the radicals, especially in their support for the Underground Railroad—the collective name for a variety of regional semisecret networks that helped slaves escape into the North and Canada. Many other blacks and whites joined in such work, among the more famous were Charles T. Torrey, a white Northerner who helped slaves escape from Virginia and Maryland; John Rankin of Ohio, a white man who sheltered slaves escaping from Kentucky; and Harriet Tubman, a former slave who led bands of escapees northward from Maryland.

The Underground Railroad probably aided around 1,000 slaves per year in escaping. Its success helped raise awareness in the North about slavery and pushed supporters of slavery into defensive measures that contributed to worsening relations between North and South. One of these measures was the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, which made it a crime to help slaves escape and made it easier for masters to reclaim escapees.

Territorial Disputes

The annexation to the United States of the slaveholding state of Texas in 1845 and of the Mexican provinces of California and New Mexico in 1848 led to an irrevocable division between North and South. The question of the extension of slavery into new territories, not abolition itself, became the most prominent issue and in 1848 led most Liberty abolitionists to merge into the larger Free-Soil Party, which opposed the extension. In 1854 the opening of Kansas Territory to slavery led to the formation of the even larger Republican Party as the defender of Northern antislavery interests.

Although overshadowed by political developments, abolitionists remained active. In 1852 Harriet Beecher Stowe, the daughter of a Connecticut clergyman, published Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a forceful indictment of slavery. The book quickly became one of the most popular works of the time, and it was important in spreading antislavery sentiment in the North. At the same time, black and white abolitionists violently resisted enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law. When fighting broke out between proslavery and antislavery forces in Kansas, abolitionists helped arm the latter group. Most of them became convinced that slavery could not be abolished peacefully. Acting on this belief, white abolitionist John Brown led a tiny biracial band in a raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia), in October 1859, hoping to spark a slave rebellion. Although Virginia militia and United States troops easily thwarted his plan, Brown’s actions and his subsequent trial and execution aroused great sympathy in the North. Along with the victory of Republican presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln in 1860, Brown’s raid and the Northern reaction to it convinced Southern whites that their proslavery interests were no longer secure within the United States.

The Civil War and Emancipation

During the months following Lincoln’s election, most of the slaveholding states seceded from the Union and formed the Confederate States of America. As the American Civil War began in April 1861, President Lincoln aimed only to return those states to the Union. From the start of the war, however, abolitionists pressured him not only to make abolition an objective of the war but to enlist black troops as well. Military necessity had the most influence on Lincoln’s actions, but abolitionist efforts contributed to his Emancipation Proclamation of January 1863, which declared the freedom of slaves within the bounds of the Confederacy.

Meanwhile, Southern slaves used the war as an opportunity to leave their masters in large numbers. Over 180,000 black men—most of them former slaves—served in the Union Army, which had conquered the South by the spring of 1865. The Northern victory and continuing abolitionist agitation led in December 1865 to the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, which banned involuntary servitude throughout the country. With that achievement, the American abolitionist movement disintegrated, allowing white southerners to replace slavery with a caste system that persisted for decades. Although technically free, the great majority of black southerners remained impoverished agricultural workers well into the 20th century. They faced systematic segregation, inadequate schools, political disenfranchisement, and lynching.




In addition to the Caribbean island colonies of European nations and the United States, slavery existed throughout Latin America. Local circumstances varied widely in this vast region. Except in Brazil, formal abolitionist movements played a minor role in the emancipation of blacks. Instead, a variety of circumstances gradually pushed slavery toward extinction.



The Former Spanish Colonies

There were 1.5 million slaves in Brazil—a former Portuguese colony—in 1870, but otherwise slave populations in independent Latin American countries never approached the numbers of those in Caribbean colonies or in the United States. There were only 3,000 people to be freed in Mexico in 1823 when that country abolished slavery and only 13,000 in Venezuela when it abolished the institution in 1854. These small numbers reflected a gradual decline in the profitability of slave labor and a corresponding decline in the political influence of slaveholders. This decline was a result of changing economic ideas, as well as the introduction of cheap labor in the form of contract workers from China. All of these circumstances contrasted with those in the United States and the Caribbean colonies.

Several other factors contributed to the decline of slavery in Latin America. As elsewhere, black resistance to enslavement played an important role. Escape, maroon settlements, and rebellion all weakened Latin American slavery. Unlike in the United States, the slave population in Latin America had never sustained itself through natural reproduction, so the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade struck a telling blow. Other important factors were the new ideas of equality arising from the Age of Enlightenment and the revolutions of the late 18th century. During the early 19th century, such revolutionaries as Simón Bolívar fought for independence from Spain for the region’s Spanish colonies and endorsed universal freedom. The independent governments they created either weakened slavery or abolished it entirely.

Chile and Mexico in 1823 and the United Provinces of Central America in 1824 abolished slavery as a direct result of their independence movements. Economic and political forces led Uruguay in 1842, Bolivia and Colombia in 1851, Ecuador in 1852, Argentina in 1853, and Peru and Venezuela in 1854 to terminate the institution. When Brazilian troops invaded and occupied Paraguay in the 1860s at the end of the War of the Triple Alliance, the government they established abolished slavery. Since by then the United States had also abolished slavery, this left Brazil as the only independent slaveholding nation in the western hemisphere.


Although it started at a later date, the Brazilian struggle for abolition had more in common with the British and American movements than with the movements in other Latin American countries. In Brazil politically powerful sugar and coffee planters staunchly defended slave labor, while abolitionists established organizations to achieve their goals. It was emancipation in the United States that inspired a determined Brazilian antislavery movement. In 1868 Joaquim Nabuco, Rui Barbosa, and former slave Luis Gama led an effort that prodded the Brazilian government to undertake gradual abolition. In 1871 legislation was passed that called for freeing the children of slaves. However, the process began to stall in the late 1870s, leading Nabuco to organize the Sociedade Brasileira contra a Escravidão (Brazilian Anti-Slavery Society) in 1880, which secured the emancipation of elderly slaves after 1885. The society grew into an increasingly radical movement, and by 1888 unrest on plantations and the refusal of the army to step in to halt the flight of slaves from their masters brought the slave system to the brink of chaos. This resulted in the total abolition of slavery in Brazil later that year.


With emancipation in Brazil, legal slavery disappeared from the western hemisphere, although it lingered in Africa into the 20th century. The abolition of slavery also did not end comparable systems of labor exploitation, such as contract labor, sharecropping, child labor, and sweatshops. Nor did abolitionism succeed in ending racism or in establishing equal political and social rights for people of African descent in the Americas.

Nevertheless, in the United States, the various European empires, and the independent states of Latin America, abolitionism destroyed human bondage as an acceptable institution. It established equal rights principles that have outlasted post-emancipation efforts by former slaveholders to create caste systems, and provided a basis for more recent efforts countering racial segregation and supporting racial justice.

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