Abolitionism in the United States

Collection box for the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society, circa 1850.[1]

Abolitionism in the United States was a movement which sought to end slavery in the United States, being active from the colonial era until the American Civil War, which saw the abolition of American slavery. The abolitionist movement originated in Western Europe during the Age of Enlightenment, seeking to end the transatlantic slave trade and outlaw the institution of slavery in European colonies in the Americas. In Colonial America, German settlers issued the 1688 Germantown Quaker Petition Against Slavery, which would initiate the American abolitionist movement. Before the Revolutionary War, evangelical colonists were the primary advocates for the abolition of slavery and the slave trade, doing so on humanitarian grounds. Georgia, the last of the Thirteen Colonies to be established, originally prohibited slavery upon its founding, a decision which was eventually reversed.

During and after the Revolutionary War, all Northern states, beginning with the issuing of An Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery by the state of Pennsylvania in 1780, passed legislation abolishing slavery. These acts, however, did not usually lead to the emancipation of enslaved African-Americans living in the north, as their intention was primarily to outlaw the slave trade rather than the institution itself. Massachusetts ratified their constitution in 1780, and included within was a clause which declared all men equal. Based upon said clause, several freedom suits were filed by enslaved African-Americans living in Massachusetts, which eventually led to the abolition of the institution in the state. In the state of New York, the enslaved population was transformed into indentured servants before being granted full emancipation in 1827. In other states, abolitionist legislation passed only provided freedom for the children of the enslaved. In the American South, similar freedom suits were rejected by the courts, who issued statements which said that the rights in the state constitution did not apply to African Americans. All U.S. states abolished the transatlantic slave trade by 1790. South Carolina, which had abolished the slave trade in 1787, reversed said decision in 1803.[2] 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. The federal government abolished the transatlantic slave trade in 1808, prohibited it in the District of Columbia in 1850, and made slavery unconstitutional altogether in 1865. This was a direct result of the Union victory in the American Civil War. The central issue of the war was slavery.

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 opponents of slavery such as Abraham Lincoln, the U.S. president during the Civil War, or the Republican Party, which called for the gradual abolition of slavery in the years preceding the outbreak of war.[3]

The religious component of American abolitionism is fundamental. It began with the Quakers, then moved to the other Protestants with the Second Great Awakening. Many leaders were ministers. Saying slavery was sinful made its evil easy to understand, and tended to arouse fervor for the cause. The debate about slavery was often based on what the Bible said or didn't say about it. John Brown, who had studied the Bible for the ministry, proclaimed that he was "an instrument of God".

As such, abolitionism in the United States has been identified by historians as an expression of moralism,[4] It often operated in tandem with another social reform effort, the temperance movement. Slavery was also attacked, to a lesser degree, as harmful on economic grounds. Evidence was that the South, with many enslaved African-Americans on plantations, was definitely poorer than the North, which had few.

  1. ^ For the famous image see Jonathan Rinck, "Abolition's Indelible Image." Michigan History Magazine (Nov/Dec 2009) 93#6 pp 8–11.
  2. ^ "Nic Butler, "The End of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade" (Charleston County Public Library, 2018)". Archived from the original on 24 February 2020. Retrieved 24 February 2020.
  3. ^ James M. McPherson (1995). The Abolitionist Legacy: From Reconstruction to the Naacp. Princeton University Press. p. 4. ISBN 9780691100395.
  4. ^ Robins, R. G. (2004). A. J. Tomlinson: Plainfolk Modernist. Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780199883172.