Abolitionism (from "abolish") was a political movement in late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that sought to end the practice of slavery and the worldwide slave trade. Its chief impetus came from Protestantism, as most abolitionists, especially in Great Britain and America, were men and women of profound Christian faith who took their convictions from the Gospel that all people are equal before God. It is, however, a cause for reflection that many people of religious conviction supported slavery, arguing that the Scriptures elevate some over others.
The truth, self-evident, that all men are created equal, apparent to the framers of the U.S. Constitution, has not always been so self-evident for many humans throughout history, for whom slavery was a fact of life. The belief that some people are naturally “masters,” others “slaves” can be found in Aristotle (384–328 B.C.E.), who wrote, “it is manifest that by nature some are free and others slaves and that service as a slave is for the latter the both beneficial and just.”
By the late nineteenth century the abolitionist movement had largely succeeded in its goals. The Slavery Convention of 1926, the United Nations Universal Declaration on Human Rights (1945) and the Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery (1957) establish slavery as a crime in international law and recognize that slavery contravenes basic human rights.
The worldwide movement against slavery (still not entirely eliminated) can be seen as a coming of age for humanity. Theologically informed understandings of human life regard all people as of equal value in God's sight and as equally recipients of God's love. The anti-slavery movement can be understood as a necessary step towards realizing a single world, in which no one is enslaved or treated as less than equal due to their skin color, gender, ethnicity, creed, or economic means.
Although slavery was never widespread within England and even less in other parts of the United Kingdom, many British merchants became wealthy through the Atlantic slave trade. John Wesley dates the start of British slave trade soon after 1551 recording that in “1556, Sir John Hawkins sailed with two ships to Cape Verde, where he sent eighty men on shore to catch Negroes.” Between 1782 and 1807, Britain traded over one million human lives. In the colonies of the British Empire, slavery was a way of life. It is not known how many slaves died during the “middle passage,” the trans-Atlantic journey, but estimates range from 20 or 30 million to as high as 80 to 100 million. The peak was between 1740 and 1810 when an annual average of about 60,000 slaves actually reached the Americas. The “middle passage” sometimes took as long as three months (five weeks was the quickest) traveling east to west across the Atlantic. The slaves were chained two by two (the right wrist and ankle of one to the left wrist and ankle of another) and packed as tightly as possible to maximize profit. Each slave had only a few feet head space and about six square feet of deck space. Women were left free but as sexual prey to the crew. Those who tried to commit suicide were punished. Rice was occasionally fed them during brief visits topside. Sometimes, they were “danced” to keep them fit for sale! Disease and death were rampant. The inhumane conditions of the “middle passage,” its death, suffering, and misery symbolize the extreme cruelty of which humanity is capable and the evil of slavery itself. James Barbot, Jr., an English mariner on the Don Carlos sailing to the Congo in 1700 boasted that the English treated slaves far better than did the Portuguese. The Portuguese did baptize their slaves before they took them on board but according to Barbot they crammed far more into their slave decks than did the English. Uprisings did occur. Barbot recorded one such incident. Commenting on brutality towards the slaves, he concluded this account by observing:
In England in 1772 the case of a runaway slave named James Somerset, whose owner, Charles Stewart, was attempting to return him to Jamaica, came before the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield (1705–1793). Basing his judgment on Magna Carta and habeas corpus he declared: "Whatever inconveniences, therefore, may follow from a decision, I cannot say this case is allowed or approved by the law of England; and therefore the black must be discharged." It was thus declared that the condition of slavery could not be enforced under English law. This judgment did not, however, abolish slavery in England, it simply made it illegal to remove a slave from England against his will, and slaves continued to be held for years to come.
A similar case, that of Joseph Knight, took place in Scotland five years later, ruling slavery to be contrary to the law of Scotland.
By 1783, an anti-slavery movement was beginning among the British public. In that year, the first English abolitionist organization was founded by a group of Quakers. The Quakers continued to be influential throughout the lifetime of the movement.
In May 1787, the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade was formed. The "slave trade" was the Atlantic slave trade, the trafficking in slaves by British merchants operating in British colonies and other countries. Granville Sharp (1735–1813) and Thomas Clarkson (1760—1846) were among the 12 committee members, most of whom were Quakers. Quakers could then not become MPs, so William Wilberforce (1759–1833) was persuaded to become the leader of the parliamentary campaign. Clarkson was the group's researcher who gathered vast amounts of information about the slave trade. A network of local abolition groups was established across the country. They campaigned through public meetings, pamphlets, and petitions. The movement had support from Quakers, Baptists, Methodists and others, and reached out for support from the new industrial workers. Even women and children, previously un-politicized groups, got involved.
The Abolition of the Slave Trade Act was passed by the Parliament of the United Kingdom on March 25, 1807. The act imposed a fine of £100 for every slave found aboard a British ship. The intention was to entirely outlaw the slave trade within the British Empire, but the trade continued and captains in danger of being caught by the Royal Navy (British Navy) would often throw slaves into the sea to reduce the fine. In 1827, Britain declared that participation in the slave trade was piracy and punishable by death.
After the 1807 act, slaves were still held, though not sold, within the British Empire. In the 1820s, the abolitionist movement again became active, this time campaigning against the institution of slavery itself. The Anti-Slavery Society was founded in 1823. Many of the campaigners were those who had previously campaigned against the slave trade.
On August 23, 1833, the Slavery Abolition Act outlawed slavery in the British colonies. On August 1, 1834, all slaves in the British Empire were emancipated, but still indentured to their former owners in an apprenticeship system which was finally abolished in 1838. £20 million was paid in compensation to plantation owners in the Caribbean.
From 1839, the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society worked to outlaw slavery in other countries and to pressure the government to help enforce the suppression of the slave trade by declaring slave traders pirates and pursuing them. This organization continues today as Anti-Slavery International.
France first abolished slavery during the French Revolution in 1794 as part of the Haitian Revolution occurring in its colony of Saint-Domingue. The Abbé Grégoire and the Society of Friends of the Blacks (Société des Amis des Noirs) had laid important groundwork in building anti-slavery sentiment in the metropole. Slavery was then restored in 1802 under Napoleon Bonaparte, but was re-abolished in 1848 in France and all countries in its empire following the proclamation of the Second Republic. A key figure in the second, definitive abolition of French slavery was Victor Schoelcher.
Although serfs in 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 “the abolition of slavery” in Russia.
Although some prominent American writers were advocating the gradual abolition of slavery much earlier in the eighteenth century, the abolitionist movement in the U.S. was largely an outgrowth of the Second Great Awakening of the early nineteenth century, which encouraged Northern Protestantism—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. It has been argued that the evangelical awakening was much less influential in the Episcopal Church, which then dominated institutional church life in the South and that therefore the southern states continued to defend slavery. All officers in one Texas regiment are said to have been Methodist preachers. The Anglican (Episcopal) Church was concerned to placate the owners, who were wealthy while also converting slaves. In 1705, Bishop William Fleetwood published his The Relative Duties of Parents and Children, Husbands and Wives, Masters and Servants, in which he cited St Paul's "slaves, be obedient to your masters" (Ephesians 6:8). He later preached that the liberty slaves gained on conversion was entirely spiritual. Archbishop Thomas Secker told slave owners that conversion to Christianity “would make the slave's temper milder, their lives happier, and would instill in them dutiful obedience and loyalty.”
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 schools, 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.
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 that 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, although Rhode Island had already abolished it before statehood (1774). The first state to abolish slavery was Massachusetts, where a court decision in 1783 interpreted the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 (that 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 (1735–1826), first Vice-President and second President of the U.S. 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 that 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. They 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 (1800–1859) who liberated slaves in a series of raids, for which he was executed (refusing to allow supporters to “break him” out of jail); 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 activists 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 (1805–1879), 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 1850s the American abolitionist movement split into two camps over the issue of the United States Constitution. This issue arose in the late 1840s after the publication of The Unconstitutionality of Slavery by Lysander Spooner (1808–1887). The Garrisonians, led by Garrison and Wendell Phillips (1811–1884), 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 (1797–1874), 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.
Another split in the abolitionist movement was along class lines. The artisan republicanism of Robert Dale Owen (1801–1877) and Frances Wright (1795–1852) stood in stark contrast to the politics of prominent elite abolitionists such as industrialist Arthur Tappan (1786–1865) and his evangelist brother Lewis Tappan (1788–1873). While the former pair opposed slavery on a basis of solidarity of "wage slaves" with "chattel slaves," the Whiggish Tappans strongly rejected this view, opposing the characterization of northern workers as "slaves" in any sense.
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 (1820–1913), Henry Highland Garnet (1815–1882), Alexander Crummell (1819–1898), Amos Noë Freeman (1809–1893), and others continued regardless, with the final destination for slaves moved to Canada.
Although the question of states rights was a cause of the American Civil War, the institution of slavery was considered by many Southerners of equal or greater importance. Alexander Stephens (1812–1883), vice president of the Confederacy, said in a speech given on March 21, 1861:
The new (Confederate) constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution—African slavery as it exists amongst us—the proper status of the Negro in our form of civilization. Our new government's foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery—subordination to the superior race—is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.
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.
Abolitionist principles were the basis for the later U.S. Civil Rights Movement of the mid-twentieth century. The end of the Civil War in 1865 ended the formal practice of slavery in the U.S., though formal racial segregation would continue for another century, and aspects of racism and racial discrimination have persisted to current times.
Slavery was abolished in these nations in these years:
Slavery still exists in some parts of Africa. Groups such as Anti-Slavery International and Free the Slaves continue to campaign to rid the world of slavery.
The abolitionist movements and the abolition of slavery have 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 programs are connected to the initiative.
There is no doubt that slavery has been laid at the door of religion as an ethical and moral failing in as much as religion has been used to justify slavery. The slave owners referred to God's curse of Ham (Genesis 9:25) who was “enslaved” to serve his brother. They argued that the descendants of Ham (whom they identified as Africans) were therefore destined to serve others. Aristotle's view that some people are natural slaves, others natural rulers, was also cited. In South America, Juan Gines de Sepulveda (1490–1573) had famously depicted the enslavement of the Indians as retribution for their devil-worship. Slave owners in the Southern states cited Ephesians 6:5, “slaves, obey your masters” as proof of Christian endorsement of slavery.
Old Testament passages that refer to slavery were also cited. The Episcopalians who dominated the South believed in a social hierarchy to maintain order, thus women were subject to men, blacks to whites, slaves to masters. Similar arguments were later used to support segregation laws (and are still used by white supremacists and the Christian Identity Movement. It was claimed that neither Old nor New Testament explicitly condemn slavery, or demand that they be freed. Similar claims have been made about the Qur'an, as it has often been pointed out that Muslims have practiced slavery and that many of the slavers who sold Africans to the Europeans were Muslims. However, many of those who campaigned against slavery were deeply religious Christians. One of the earliest to free slaves was Queen Bathilde of France (d. 680), wife of King Clovis II, who as a widow became Abbess of Chelles. In the seventeenth century, the Anabaptists followed by the Quakers and the Mennonites started to criticize slavery. Much impetus was given by the founder of Methodism, John Wesley (1703–1791):
If, therefore, you have any regard to justice, (to say nothing of mercy, nor the revealed law of God) render unto all their due. Give liberty to whom liberty is due, that is, to every child of man, to every partaker of human nature. Let none serve you but by his own act and deed, by his own voluntary choice. Away with all whips, all chains, all compulsion! Be gentle toward all men; and see that you invariably do unto every one as you would he should do unto you.
Further impetus came from the conversion to evangelical Christian faith of former slaver, John Newton (1725–1807). It was his reading of the Bible that made him feel hypocritical as he saw in its pages a God who values all people equally, who desires human liberation not oppression. Thus, he liberated his people from Egypt. Becoming a minister and hymnwriter (he wrote, “Amazing Grace”) Newton campaigned against slavery. Verses such as "I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin…So, if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed" (John 8:34, 36) and Galatians 3:23 “in Christ there is neither male nor female, slave nor free” can be read as affirming equality. Others point out that Hebrew slavery was very different from what Africans experienced at the hands of Europeans. Hebrew slavery was governed by laws in the Bible demanding humane treatment, and every fifty years all Hebrew slaves had to be set free (Leviticus, 25:8–54, and 27:16–24). This did not apply to foreign slaves but humane treatment did, and the Hebrews were constantly told to remember their own enslavement (Deuteronomy 15:15) and to treat gerim (foreigners) as they would wish to be treated themselves (Exodus 23:9); rabbinical commentary stresses that slaves can be worked hard, but must be treated with mercy. Moses Maimonides (1165–1204) wrote:
It is permissible to work the slave hard; but while this is the law, the ways of ethics and prudence are that the master should be just and merciful, not make the yoke too heavy on his slave, and not press him too hard; and that he should give him of all food and drink. And thus the early sages used to do—they gave their slaves of everything they ate and drank themselves, and had food served to their slaves even before partaking of it themselves.… Slaves may not be maltreated or offended—the law destined them for service, not for humiliation. Do not shout at them or be angry with them, but hear them out… (Mishnah Torah, Avadim 9:8)
In both Europe and North America, the leading anti-slave campaigners were women and men of faith, such as John Rankin and William Wilberforce. While it is true that the Bible did not explicitly condemn slavery, the whole thrust of what it teaches about “man” and humanity's relationship with God, about freedom and human dignity, flies in the face of slavery. The Bible was not written as a social or political text, although it does contain legal and ethical material. There is no explicit endorsement of democracy either. On the other hand, when the Bible depicts model kingship this ideal is different from authoritarian, tyrannical rule since it is based on a relationship with God, and kingship is critiqued at 1 Samuel 8:11–22, when the Hebrews first demanded a king to be like other nations. Slavery is never praised, or advocated either, and when it is mentioned it is within the context of rules dealing with the humane treatment of the enslaved. While some black Americans blame Christianity for the enslavement of their forebears and reject Christianity, many distinguish the Christianity that supported slavery from authentic Christianity. Slaves themselves, turning to the Bible, found it a source of hope, of inspiration, and eventually as empowering. Negro spirituals were cries of freedom and salvation, which many mapped out both “spiritually” and physically. They contained instructions for the journey to liberty along the Underground Railroad. Abolitionism can fairly be described as a Christian-inspired movement
While some turn to Islam as an alternative to Christianity, which enslaved their forebears, others shift the blame from Christianity to Islam, claiming that Muslims were more implicated than Christians and that Islam has had no equivalent of the abolition movement. In response, it can be argued that attributing blame in this way misses the point that without the involvement of both Christians and Muslims, the cross-Atlantic slave trade could not have taken place. Sayyid Sa'eed Akhtar Rizvi (1987) argues that Islam's track record is better than Christianity's. While Muhammad allowed the taking of slaves captured in battle or who surrendered, this was better than killing them. Humane rules also governed the treatment of slaves. Traditions similar to Jewish ones cited above stipulate that if an owner hits a slave without legal justification, he should set the slave free. No Muslim could enslave another Muslim, which usually meant that converts were freed. Emancipation was encouraged. Qur'anic verses such as the following, arguably, are inconsistent with slavery:
It is not righteousness that you turn your faces towards the East and the West, righteousness is this that one should believe in Allah, the Last Day, the angels, the Book and the Prophets, and give away wealth out of love for Him to the near of kin, the orphans, the needy, the wayfarer, the beggars and to those in bondage and keep up prayers, pay the poor-rate; and those who fulfill their promise and the patient ones in distress and affliction and in the time of war—these are they who are the truthful and these are they who are pious (2:177).
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