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This article is about the abolition of slavery. For a page on the general concept of abolition, see abolition. For information regarding the abolition of suffering, see abolitionist society.

Abolitionism, a political movement that sought to abolish slavery and the slave trade, started with The Enlightenment and became a large movement in several nations of the 19th century. The movement continues to this day.


Roots of abolitionism

Saint Patrick, the 5th-century British bishop who popularized Christianity in Ireland, was perhaps the first writer to advocate the abolition of slavery.

For details see the main articles Second Great Awakening and Origins of the American Civil War.

Although some prominent American writers were advocating the gradual abolition of slavery much earlier, in the 18th century, the abolitionist movement in the USA was largely an outgrowth of the Second Great Awakening of the early nineteenth century, which encouraged Northern Protestants - especially those among the emerging middle classes - to assume a more active role in both religious and civic affairs. Belief in abolition contributed to the foundation of some denominations, such as the Free Methodist Church.

The abolitionism of the mid-nineteenth century was generally close to the era's other influential reform movements, such as the temperance movement, anti-Catholic nativism, public schooling, and prison- and asylum-building. Although the movement was quite diverse, from the standpoint of the mainstream abolitionists, slaveholding interests went against their conception of the "Protestant work ethic". Abolitionism was a feature of an era marked by various approaches to deal with society's outcasts.

Abolition of slavery in various countries

United States

For further details see Origins of the American Civil War, History of slavery in the United States.

Although there were several groups that opposed slavery (such as The Society for the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage), at the time of the founding of the Republic, there were few states which prohibited slavery outright. The Constitution had several provisions which accommodated slavery, although none used the word.

All of the states north of Maryland gradually and sporadically abolished slavery between 1789 and 1830. The first state to abolish slavery was Massachusetts, where a court decision in 1783 interpreted the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 (which asserted in its first article, "All men are created free and equal . . .") as an abolition of slavery. This was later explicitly codified in a new version of the Massachusetts Constitution written by John Adams. The institution remained solid in the South, however, and that region's customs and social beliefs evolved into a strident defense of slavery in response to the rise of a stronger anti-slavery stance in the North. The anti-slavery sentiment which existed before 1830 among many people in the North, quietly and unobtrusively, gave way to the rise among a vocal few of the abolitionist movement. The majority of Northerners did not accept the extreme positions of the abolitionists. Abraham Lincoln, while an opponent of slavery, did not accept abolitionism.

Abolitionism as a principle was far more than just the wish to limit the extent of slavery. Most Northerners recognized that slavery existed in the South and did not push to change that fact. Most Northerners favored a policy of gradual and compensated emancipation. Abolitionists wanted it ended immediately and everywhere. A few were willing to use insurrection, as exemplified by the activities of John Brown, but most tried to get legal reform to immediately emancipate slaves, or worked to rescue slaves. The abolitionist movement was begun by the activities of African-Americans, especially in the black church, who argued that the old Biblical justifications for slavery contradicted the New Testament. African-American activisits and their writings were rarely heard outside the black community; however, they were tremendously influential to some sympathetic whites, most prominently the first white activist to reach prominence, William Lloyd Garrison, who was its most effective propagandist. Garrison's efforts to recruit eloquent spokesmen led to the discovery of ex-slave Frederick Douglass, who eventually became a prominent activist in his own right. Eventually, Douglass would publish his own, widely distributed abolitionist newspaper, the North Star.

In the early 1850's the American abolitionist movement split into two camps over the issue of the United States Constitution. This issue arose in the late 1840's after the publication of The Unconstitutionality of Slavery by Lysander Spooner. The Garrisonians, led by Garrison and Wendell Phillips, publicly burned copies of the Constitution, called it a pact with slavery, and demanded its abolition and replacement. Another camp, led by Spooner, Gerrit Smith, and eventually Douglass, considered the Constitution to be an antislavery document. Using an argument based upon Natural Law and a form of social contract theory, they said that slavery existed outside of the Constitution's scope of legitimate authority and therefore should be abolished.

In the United States, abolitionists were involved in the conflict between North and South. While the Quakers were particularly noted for activity in this movement, it was by no means limited to Quaker participation. This issue was one of several that led to the creation of the Free Methodist Church, a group which split from the Methodist Episcopal Church in the 1860s.

Many American abolitionists took an active role in opposing slavery by supporting the Underground Railroad. This was made illegal by the federal Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, but participants like Harriet Tubman, Henry Highland Garnet, Alexander Crummell , Amos NoŽ Freeman and others continued regardless with the final destination for slaves moved to Canada.

After the Emancipation Proclamation, American abolitionists continued to pursue the freedom of slaves in the remaining slave states, and to better the conditions of black Americans generally. From these principles the US civil rights movement would eventually take form.


France first abolished slavery during the French Revolution in 1794 as part of the Haitian Revolution occurring in its colony of Saint-Domingue. Slavery was then restored in 1802, but was re-abolished in 1848 in France and all countries in its empire.

United Kingdom

Although slavery was never widespread within England, many English merchants became wealthy through the slave trade. In a 1772 case, the judge William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield held that slavery had no basis in law. He famously wrote, "the air of England is too pure for a slave to breathe, and so everyone who breathes it becomes free. Everyone who comes to this island is entitled to the protection of English law, whatever oppression he may have suffered and whatever may be the colour of his skin." Essentially this ruling held that if slavery is prohibited in a jurisdiction, then any slave taken into that territory was free. The ruling did not apply to British colonies; hence, slavery remained in the future United States. However, the decision was used by American abolitionists to justify Personal Liberty Laws, and was overturned in the United States by 1843 Supreme Court decision of Prigg v. Pennsylvania. Although the decision prohibited slavery in the United Kingdom, corporations also continued to engage in the slave trade outside England. Between 1782 and 1807, Britain traded in over one million human lives.

A statesman named William Wilberforce led the antislavery movement in England, and in 1807 he helped persuade Parliament to pass a bill outlawing the slave trade throughout the British Empire. The ban was enforced by the Royal Navy. Even after 1807 slaves were still held, though not sold, within British states.

A concerted campaign led by William Wilberforce, Thomas Clarkson and members of the Clapham Sect led to the abolition of all slavery throughout the empire in 1833. £20 million was paid in compensation to plantation owners in the Caribbean.


Although serfs in the Imperial Russia were technically not slaves, they were nonetheless forced to work and were forbidden to leave their assigned land. The Russian emancipation of the serfs on March 3, 1861 by Tsar Alexander II of Russia is known as 'abolition of slavery' in Russia.

Other nations

Slavery was abolished in these nations in these years:

International abolition

Slavery still exists in many parts of Africa and Southeast Asia. Concerted campaigns to rid the world of slavery are ongoing.

On December 10, 1948, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 4 states:

No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.

Commemoration of the abolition of slavery

The abolitionist movements and the abolition of slavery has been commemorated in different ways around the world in modern times. The United Nations General Assembly has declared 2004 the International Year to Commemorate the Struggle against Slavery and its Abolition. This proclamation marks the bicentenary of the birth of the first black state, Haiti. A number of exhibitions, events and research programmes are connected to the initiative.

Notable American abolitionists

Notable British abolitionists

Literature relating to abolition in the United States

External links

Last updated: 06-02-2005 03:33:58
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