Abolitionism in the United States

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

Abolitionism in the United States was the movement which sought to end slavery in the United States and it was active both before and during the American Civil War. In the Americas and western Europe, abolitionism was a movement which sought 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.

During the Age of Enlightenment rationalist thinkers criticized slavery for violating people's natural rights. A member of the British Parliament, James Edward Oglethorpe, was among the first to articulate the Enlightenment case against slavery. The 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 An Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery from 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, except as a punishment for crime for which the person has been "duly convicted".

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]

Definitions of abolitionism

Under the general heading of abolitionism were a number of sub-movements which did not get on particularly well. There was first the question of what was meant by abolitionism, and what conditions would be attached to it. Would it be immediate, or gradual? What would become of the freed slaves? Were they, or could they become citizens, with the right to vote? Would they be invited, or forced, to leave the United States, or set free on condition that they emigrate? (This was the policy in some Southern states; newly freed slaves had to leave the state.) Should they go "back to Africa"? Would slave owners be compensated for the loss of their investment in slaves? Would the slaves be paid for their forced labor by receiving their former owners' lands? Did the federal government have the authority to mandate its end? And was the abolition of slavery a religious obligation, what Christ mandated the faithful work toward, or was it a secular, ethical, and economic matter? Was slavery a positive good, which should be expanded into the new territories, or was it an evil, sin, or crime to be eliminated as soon and as completely as possible?

There were a number of antislavery movements, which at times made for strange bedfellows. There was a racist anti-black anti-slavery movement, primarily made up of white persons, which sought to do away with slavery in order to benefit the soul of the white owner, and destroy the economic basis of the black life of the time, and these people basically believed that black people should not exist, or at least, they should not exist here where we white people exist, and white slaveholders should not exist, or at least, they should not be a part of the society which we decent white folks inhabit. In distinct opposition to these folks, there was an anti-slavery movement, primarily made up of persons of color, which sought improved conditions of life for persons of color, ameliorations both material and spiritual. To cut across the division that was created by two such contrasting motivational patterns, there was an anti-slavery movement made up of persons who sought gradual, step-by-step, piecemeal practical improvements, new good amelioration following new good amelioration, a building process, and there was an anti-slavery movement made up of persons like William Lloyd Garrison, Theodore Dwight Weld, Arthur Tappan, and Lewis Tappan who demanded immediate utter freedom and emancipation regardless of the personal or social cost, a tear-it-all-down-and-start-over project, and they were willing to see great harm done to real people if only the result would be some change in the wording of a law, written on paper somewhere. There was an Old Abolitionism which was racist, and an Old Abolitionism which was paternalist. There was a New Abolitionism which was Evangelical and millenialist and sought total top-down changes in society, and there was a New Abolitionism which was immanentist and demanded total bottom-up personal transformation, within each individual's soul.[5]