Abolitionism in the United States
From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
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 Evangelicals sects 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 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 abolished 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.