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While the term abolition in general refers to the repeal of different kinds of social institutions, rules, or laws, in the Americas it is usually related to the movement to outlaw the (transatlantic) slave trade and the prohibition of slavery in the Atlantic World which spanned more than a century from the first emancipation laws in Vermont in 1777 to the Golden Law, which granted freedom to the last slaves in the Western Hemisphere, in Brazil in 1888.

To achieve their goals, abolitionists in the Americas and in Europe used diverse methods and tactics, from mass mobilization, letter campaigns, and consumer boycotts to more violent forms of resistance and the incitement of uprisings. In some respects, the abolitionist movement of the nineteenth century has been considered a forerunner of the modern human rights activism in the latter part of the twentieth century. Even so, the motivation of some of the leading figures of abolitionism was not only inspired by humanitarian convictions, but also included fierce rejection of people of African descent.

Abolitionism and Abolition processes in the Americas

Although anti-slavery sentiments were already raised in the late seventeenth century by members of Christian religious groups, like the Quakers and Mennonites in Pennsylvania, abolitionism as a popular movement only gained momentum in the British-American world at the end of the eighteenth century. In 1772 the ruling of Chief Justice Lord Mansfield, granting freedom to the fugitive slave James Somerset, gave an important boost to anti-slavery supporters in Great Britain. Mansfied argued that slavery is not only morally and politically wrong, but also that it has never been legally introduced in England by positive law. Soon after, these mainly religiously motivated activists turned their attention toward the legal ending of the transatlantic slave trade. The Society for Effecting the Abolition of Slavery (1787), founded by Thomas Clarkson and Granville Sharp, among others, became the center of the British anti-slavery movement and began to lobby the Parliament. After long campaigning, in 1807 the international slave trade was prohibited in the British Empire, four years after a similar Danish law. Even though, the struggle for the suppression of slavery in the British Colonies itself continued into the 1830s. The Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 declared the emancipation of all slaves in the British dominions as of August 1, 1834. The abolitionist movement then focused its attention on the suppression of the inter-African slave trade and on a worldwide ban on slavery (Hochschild, 2005).

During and soon after the American Revolution, several northern state legislatures began to free slaves, beginning with Vermont in 1777. However, the Constitution of 1787 did not rule on the legality of the institution in the United States. It only outlawed new arrivals of slaves after 1807. The consequence of this was the creation of a virtual border between the northern free states, most of them had legally banned slavery by the early 1800s and the southern slave holding states. This division was to become the most controversial topic of internal political debates in the U.S. in the first half of the nineteenth century. The abolitionist movement gained momentum in the North from the 1830s onwards, instigated by activists, such as newspaper editor William Lloyd Garrison, but also driven by writers, such as Harriet Beecher Stowe, the testimonies of fugitive slaves, like Frederick Douglass and Harriett Jacobs, or the radical and violent attacks on slavery by men, like John Brown. As a side effect, some prominent members of the North American anti-slavery society, like Angelina and Sarah Moore Grimke or Elizabeth Cady, became founding members of the emergent women’s right movement. Having experienced disregard and exclusion by male abolitionist themselves, they began to see similarities between African American bondage and the legal situation of women in the Anglo-American world. While the Suffrage movement did not impose the right to vote until after the First World War, President Abraham Lincoln issued the liberation of slaves in the South through the Emancipation Proclamation during the American Civil War (1861-1865). This presidential order was expanded and ratified after the end of the war by the 13th Constitutional Amendment in 1865.

In continental Latin America laws prohibiting slavery were issued by several of the new republican governments during and shortly after the Independence Struggles between 1810 and 1822. In most cases, this was initiated by prohibiting the entrance of new slaves and liberating the new born children of slave mothers. Consequently, persons already held in slavery did not immediately benefit from these provisions, although not few used the channels of the law to claim their liberty (Aguirre 1993). But, only in the early 1850s did Latin American states like Colombia, Argentina, Peru, and Venezuela officially put an end to slavery.

Alongside the Southern States of the United States, Cuba and Southern Brasil became the centers of the so-called “Second Slavery” period during the nineteenth century (Zeuske 2013). Despite international treaties signed by the Spanish and Portuguese government with Great Britain in 1817 and 1818, legally prohibiting the introduction of new African slaves, the contraband commerce flourished until the 1860s. An estimated 700.000 Africans were illegally transported to Cuba during that period, while 1.1 million slaves disembarked in Brazil after the government prohibited the maritime slave trade in 1831 (Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database).

In comparison with the development in the Anglo-American world, popular participation in the abolition struggles differed sharply in these two areas. While some major Cuban intellectuals of the early nineteenth century condemned slavery as a social ill, people like Francisco Arango y Parreño or José Antonio Saco can hardly be described as humanitarian abolitionists. Their reasoning was that mass slavery impeded Cuban independence, as only Spain could prevent an uprising like the one which had taken place in the neighboring French colony of Saint Domingue (Haiti). When Cuban revolutionaries took arms against Spain in 1868, the question of the emancipation of slaves became one of the most controversial issues amongst the insurgents (Scott, 1985).

Slavery was finally brought to an end in the remaining Spanish colonies in the Caribbean by means of imperial laws, advocated in Madrid by the Spanish Abolitionist Society, founded in 1865. In Puerto Rico, where slaves were never of crucial economic importance, freedom came in 1873. In Cuba, the Moret Law of 1871 freed the unborn children of slave mothers (rule of the free womb). After the end of the First War of Independence (1868-1878), the Spanish government introduced the system of Patronato in 1880, which formally outlawed slavery while tying the newly liberated slaves for a certain period of time to their former owners as apprentices. This system was brought to an end in 1886.

The emancipation process in Brazil resembles the Cuban case in many ways. Like their Caribbean counterparts, the Brazilian planter aristocracy, arguing from a strictly economic standpoint, did not oppose a gradual liberation process. What they were keen to preserve was a cheap and sufficient work force on their estates and the hierarchical economic and social power relations (Baranov 2000). When slave imports finally stopped in 1851, government and private companies invested heavily to foster European immigration to fill in the labour demand needed in the booming coffee provinces São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. In 1871, a parliament act (Lei Rio Branco) granted freedom to future children of slaves. The final emancipation declaration of 1888 (Lei Aurea), however, came only after extensive and hot-headed public and parliamentary debates, involving as abolitionist advocates respected statesmen, such as Joaquim Nabuco, but also Afro-Brazilian activists, such as Luiz Gama or José de Patrocinio. In this respect, the final chapter of the struggle to abolish slavery on American soil combines characteristics of prior developments and strategies seen in the British Caribbean, the United States, and Spanish Cuba.

Critical Acclaim

Against a triumphalist vision that explained abolitionism in the Western Hemisphere as a consequence of moral and religious outrage and the spread of humanitarian convictions during the nineteenth century, the Caribbean historian Eric Williams introduced the so-called "decline thesis", arguing that slavery was abolished not for altruistic reasons, but because of its fading economic viability (Williams 1944). In this regard, the transatlantic slave trade and the slave economies of the Americas are seen as catalysts of Western capitalism and modernity. However, this argument was challenged from various angles, most decidedly by economic historianians such as Seymour Drescher, who in 1977 published his influential book Econocide. Focusing on the abolition of the slave trade and slavery in the British Colonies and the United States, Drescher proved that both enterprises were still highly profitable at the moment of their legal outlawing (Drescher 1977, 2009, Bender 1992). Even though this turns out to be the case in other slave societies as well (Fogel/Engerman 1974, Scott 1985), the mechanization of the sugar refinery, demanding heavy investments in technology, was followed by land concentration processes. Slave ownerships, widespread among artisans, widows, and small farmers in the Circumcaribbean slave societies of the nineteenth century (Kemner, 2010), were transformed into an economic actitvity of the economic elites which undermined its social acceptance among the masses. While economically still profitable, the moral expenditures became an ever growing burden for future prospects of development for slave holding societies.

Furthermore, the role the enslaved themselves played in abolishing slavery has also generated historiographic controversy. In the case of the Haitian Revolution, the uprising of the enslaved in 1791 was clearly inspired by their will to end slavery (Fischer 2004). It had a direct impact on the first emancipation declaration issued in 1793 by French Commissioner Sonthonax in Saint Domingue and ratified in February 1794 by the French National Assembly. But, in other cases slave, revolts, and maroon resistance had more limited objectives, seldom attacking the institution of slavery itself, as historian João Pedro Marques concluded (Drescher, 2010). Still, the question of how much slave resistance and political abolitionism influenced each other, remains open to debate.

Jochen Kemner

Please cite as:
Kemner, Jochen. 2015. “Abolitionism.” InterAmerican Wiki: Terms - Concepts - Critical Perspectives. www.uni-bielefeld.de/cias/wiki/a_Abolitionism.html.


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Baronov, David. 2000. The abolition of slavery in Brazil. The 'liberation' of Africans through the emancipation of capital, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press.

Bender, Thomas. Ed. 1992. The antislavery debate. Capitalism and abolitionism as a problem in historical interpretation. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Davis, David Brion. 1967. The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture. Ithaca, NY: Cornell Univ. Press.

Drescher, Seymour. 1977. Econocide. British slavery in the era of abolition. Pittsburgh, Pa.: Univ. of Pittsburgh Press.

Drescher, Seymour. 2009. Abolition. A History of Slavery and Antislavery. Cambridge [u.a.]: Cambridge University Press.

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Fischer, Sibylle. 2004. Modernity disavowed. Haiti and the cultures of slavery in the age of revolution, Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

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Kemner, Jochen. 2010. Dunkle Gestalten. Freie Farbige in Santiago de Cuba (1850-1886). Berlin: Lit.

Rodriguez, Junius P., Ed. 2007. Encyclopedia of Emancipation and Abolition in the Transatlantic World. London: Routledge.

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Zeuske, Michael. 2013. Handbuch Geschichte der Sklaverei. Eine Globalgeschichte von den Anfängen bis zur Gegenwart. Berlin/Boston: De Gruyter.

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