Abolitionist Movement in the United States


Introduction: Abolitionism in the United States was the movement before and during the American Civil War to end slavery in the United States. Historian James M. McPherson defines an abolitionist “…as one who before the Civil War had agitated for the immediate, unconditional and total abolition of slavery in the United States.” He does not include antislavery activists such as Abraham Lincoln or the Republican Party, which called for the gradual ending of slavery

In the Americas and Western Europe, abolitionism was a movement to end the Atlantic slave trade and set slaves free. In the 17th century, English Quakers and evangelical Protestants condemned slavery as un-Christian. By that time, most slaves were Africans, but thousands of Native Americans remained enslaved.

In the 18th century, as many as six million Africans were taken to the Americas as slaves. At least a third of the newly enslaved Africans were carried on British ships. Abolition was part of the message of the First Great Awakening of the 1730s and 1740s in the Thirteen Colonies.

In the same period, rationalist thinkers of the Enlightenment criticized slavery for violating human rights. A member of the British Parliament, James Edward Oglethorpe, was among the first to articulate the Enlightenment case against slavery. Founder of the Province of Georgia, Oglethorpe banned slavery on humanistic grounds.  Although anti-slavery sentiments were widespread by the late 18th century, colonies and emerging nations, notably in the southern United States, continued to use and uphold traditions of slavery.

After the American Revolution established the United States, Northern states, beginning with Pennsylvania in 1780, passed legislation during the next two decades abolishing slavery, sometimes by gradual  emancipation. Massachusetts ratified a constitution that declared all men equal; freedom suits  challenging slavery based on this principle brought an end to slavery in the state.

In other states, such as Virginia, similar declarations of rights were interpreted by the courts as not applicable to Africans. During ensuing decades, the abolitionist movement grew in Northern states, and Congress regulated the expansion of slavery as new states were admitted to the Union. 

The Beginnings: The first attempt to end slavery in the English colonies in North America began with Roger Williams and Samuel Gorton, who made slavery illegal in Rhode Island in 1652, because slavery contradicted their Protestant beliefs. However, this anti-slavery law was disregarded in 1700 when the Rhode Island colony became involved in the slave trade. In the 18th century, Thomas Jefferson and some of his contemporaries had plans to abolish slavery. Despite the fact that Jefferson was a lifelong slaveholder, he had included strong anti-slavery language in the original draft of the Declaration of Independence, but other delegates removed it. Benjamin Franklin, also a slaveholder for most of his life, was a leading member of the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery, the first recognized organization for abolitionists in the United States.  Following the Revolutionary War, Northern states abolished slavery, beginning with the 1777 constitution of Vermont, followed by Pennsylvania’s Gradual Emancipation Act in 1780. While some of these laws were gradual, these states enacted the first abolition laws in the entire New World.  States with a greater economic interest in slaves, such as New York and New Jersey, passed gradual emancipation laws. By 1804, all the northern states passed laws to abolish it. Some slaves continued in servitude for two more decades, but most were freed.

In addition, individual slaveholders, particularly in the upper South, freed slaves, sometimes in their wills. Many noted they had been moved by the revolutionary ideals of the equality of men. The number of free blacks as a proportion of the black population increased from less than 1 percent to nearly 10 percent from 1790 to 1810 in the upper South as a result of these actions.

President Jefferson signed the Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves on March 2, 1807. It took effect in 1808, the earliest allowed under the Constitution. In 1820, he privately supported the Missouri Compromise, believing it would help to end slavery, but his views on slavery were complicated, and possibly contradictory. His will freed only a small fraction of Monticello plantation slaves.

William Lloyd Garrison, founder of the American Anti-Slavery Society: In the 1850s, slavery remained legal in the 15 states of the American South. While it was fading away in the cities and border states, it remained strong in plantation areas that grew cash crops such as cotton, sugar, rice, tobacco or hemp. By the 1860 United States Census,  the slave population in the United States had grown to four million. American abolitionism was based in the North, and white Southerners alleged it fostered slave rebellion.

The white abolitionist movement in the North was led by social reformers, especially William Lloyd Garrison, founder of the American Anti-Slavery Society, and writers such as John Greenleaf Whittier and Harriet Beecher Stowe. Black activists included former slaves such as Frederick Douglass, and free blacks such as the brothers Charles Henry Langston and John Mercer Langston, who helped found the Ohio Anti-Slavery Society. Some abolitionists said that slavery was criminal and a sin; they also criticized slave owners of using black women as concubines and taking sexual advantage of them.

The Republican Party wanted to achieve the gradual extinction of slavery by market forces, because its members believed that free labor was superior to slave labor. Southern leaders said the Republican policy of blocking the expansion of slavery into the West made them second-class citizens, and challenged their autonomy. With the 1860 presidential victory of Abraham Lincoln, seven Deep South states whose economy was based on cotton and slavery decided to secede and form a new nation. The American Civil War  broke out in April 1861 with the firing on Fort Sumter in South Carolina. When Lincoln called for troops to suppress the rebellion, four more slave states seceded.

In 1863, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation,  which freed slaves held in the Confederate States. Border states, except Delaware, began their own emancipation programs. Thousands of slaves escaped to freedom behind Union Army lines, and in 1863 many men started serving as the United States Colored Troops. The 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution took effect in December 1865 and ended slavery throughout the United States. It also abolished slavery among the Indian tribes.

Source: First two Sections from Wikipedia,The Free Encyclopedia – www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abolitionism_in_the_United_States





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