Abolitionism in the United States

Collection box for the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society, circa 1850

Abolitionism in the United States was the movement before and during the American Civil War to end slavery in the United States. In the Americas and western Europe, abolitionism was a movement to end the Atlantic slave trade and set slaves free. In the 17th century, enlightenment thinkers condemned slavery on humanistic grounds and English Quakers and some Evangelical denominations condemned slavery as un-Christian. At that time, most slaves were Africans, but thousands of Native Americans were also enslaved. In the 18th century, as many as six million Africans were transported to the Americas as slaves, at least a third of them on British ships to North America. The colony of Georgia originally abolished slavery within its territory, and thereafter, abolition was part of the message of the First Great Awakening of the 1730s and 1740s in the Thirteen Colonies.

Rationalist thinkers of the Age of Enlightenment criticized slavery for violating natural 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. He argued against it in Parliament and eventually encouraged his friends Granville Sharp and Hannah More to vigorously pursue the cause. Soon after his death in 1785, Sharp and More joined with William Wilberforce and others in forming the Clapham Sect. Although anti-slavery sentiments were widespread by the late 18th century, many colonies, churches and emerging nations (notably in the southern United States) continued to use and defend the traditions of slavery.

During and immediately following the American Revolution, 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 the ensuing decades, the abolitionist movement grew in Northern states, and Congress regulated the expansion of slavery as new states were admitted to the Union. Britain banned the importation of African slaves in its colonies in 1807 and banned slavery in the British Empire in 1833. The United States criminalized the international slave trade in 1808 and made slavery unconstitutional in 1865 as a result of the American Civil War.

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, U.S. President during the Civil War, or the Republican Party, which called for the gradual ending of slavery.[1]

Abolitionism in the United States was an expression of moralism,[2] operating in tandem with other social reform efforts, such as the temperance movement.[3][4]

Calls for abolition

Thomas Paine's 1775 article "African Slavery in America" was one of the first to advocate abolishing slavery and freeing slaves.

The first Americans who made a public protest against slavery were the Mennonites of Germantown, Pennsylvania. Soon after, in April 1688, Quakers in the same town wrote a two-page condemnation of the practice and sent it to the governing bodies of their Quaker church, the Society of Friends. The Quaker establishment never took action. The 1688 Germantown Quaker Petition Against Slavery was an unusually early, clear and forceful argument against slavery and initiated the spirit that finally led to the end of slavery in the Society of Friends (1776) and in the state of Pennsylvania (1780). The Quaker Quarterly Meeting of Chester, Pennsylvania, made its first protest in 1711. Within a few decades the entire slave trade was under attack, being opposed by such leaders as William Burling, Benjamin Lay, Ralph Sandiford, William Southby, and John Woolman.[5]

Slavery was banned in the Province of Georgia soon after its founding in 1733. The colony's founder, James Edward Oglethorpe, fended off repeated attempts by South Carolina merchants and land speculators to introduce slavery to the colony. In 1739, he wrote to the Georgia Trustees urging them to hold firm: "If we allow slaves we act against the very principles by which we associated together, which was to relieve the distresses. Whereas, now we should occasion the misery of thousands in Africa, by setting men upon using arts to buy and bring into perpetual slavery the poor people who now live there free." The struggle between Georgia and South Carolina led to the first debates in Parliament over the issue of slavery, occurring between 1740 and 1742.[6]

Within the British Empire, the Massachusetts courts began to follow England when, in 1772, England became the first country in the world to outlaw the slave trade within its borders (see Somerset v Stewart) followed by the Knight v. Wedderburn decision in Scotland in 1778. Between 1764 and 1774, seventeen slaves appeared in Massachusetts courts to sue their owners for freedom.[7] In 1766, John Adams' colleague Benjamin Kent won the first trial in present-day United States to free a slave (Slew vs. Whipple).[8][9][10][11][12][13]

The Society for the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage was the first American abolition society, formed 14 April 1775, in Philadelphia, primarily by Quakers. The society suspended operations during the American Revolutionary War and was reorganized in 1784, with Benjamin Franklin as its first president.[14] Rhode Island Quakers, associated with Moses Brown, were among the first in America to free slaves. Benjamin Rush was another leader, as were many Quakers. John Woolman gave up most of his business in 1756 to devote himself to campaigning against slavery along with other Quakers.[15] One of the first articles advocating the emancipation of slaves and the abolition of slavery was written by Thomas Paine. Titled "African Slavery in America", it appeared on 8 March 1775 in the Postscript to the Pennsylvania Journal and Weekly Advertiser.[16]