Abolitionism Essay


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The growth of the abolitionism movement can be traced back in the 18th century when the committee for the abolition of the slave trade was formed on May 1787 in direct opposition to the growing Atlantic slave trade that was taking place between Britain and its colonies. The opposition to slave trade was greatly influenced by mainly Christian organizations in Britain who saw it as one of the most savage way of human degradation. Members of the Quakers, the evangelicals and the Clapham sect who included such renowned people as James Ramsay, Granville Sharp and Thomas Clarkson greatly influenced abolition through the presentation of various petitions against the slave trade. (David N. G 121)

On the parliamentary campaign in the British Parliament, William Wilberforce who was an Anglican evangelist was enlisted to spearhead the campaign. The activities of all the abolitionists’ movements led to the enactment of the Slave Trade Act on 25th March 1807 by the British parliament, which illegalized slave trade in the Empire. Punitive measures were put to enforce it, where any slave found on board a British ship attracted a fine of 100 Sterling Pounds. However, slavery continued to take place in various other British colonies, which led to the enactment of the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 that illegalized the institution of slavery in all British colonies resulting to the emancipation of all slaves in the British Empire. (David N. G 123)

Despite the abolishment of slavery in the British Empire the use of slaves continued unabated in the US. However, in colonial America black slaves sought to free themselves thus played a key role in the abolishment movement in America. A good example was in 1712 that saw an outbreak of an uprising in New York that led to the killing of nine whites and seven of them were left wounded by black and Native American slaves. Another far much larger uprising took place in South Carolina, near Charleston when over one hundred slaves carried out protest marches and killed whites while destroying plantations. About 44 slaves were killed during this offensive when slave owners retaliated. (Jane H. & William H. P 923)

Because of this uprisings and their magnitude it attracted the attention of the American Quakers who started agitating for the abolition of slavery. Among notable Quakers of that time, that played significant roles included John Woolman and Anthony Benezet. The two agitated for ceasation of slavery amongst other Quakers. However the abolition movement started spreading in 1775 during the American Revolution. (Jane H. & William H. P 925)

The American Revolution played a key role in shaping the abolitionist movement in the US. The American whites were at great pains to justify their involvement in slavery yet they were at the forefront in fighting the British for their liberty and individual universal national rights. Various factors also played a major role in bringing an end to slavery especially in the northern states. This factors included

-The involvement of blacks in the American Revolution armies’

-The emancipation petitions forwarded by black abolitionists

-The widespread agitation activities of the white anti-slavery societies

All these factors led to the abolition of slavery in the northern states and the states neighboring them by 1804. This also led to congress banning slavery in the territories in the northwest, which included Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Indiana and Illinois. Virginia and Maryland that were in the southern states also followed suit and set their slaves free by the 1780s-1790s. (Jane H. & William H. P 923)

However the situation was quite different in the south when the abolitionist movement activities started declining in the 1780s. The south bore the majority of the slaves and here slavery was being strengthened. The reason behind the strengthening of slavery in this area was a result of the fear the whites inhibited against the slaves. The fears stemmed from the consequences of the 1791 Haitian slave revolt and another failed revolt in 1800 that was led by a slave called Gabriel. The whites used this revolts to justify that the blacks once freed could not be controlled and would turn out violent.

All these coincided with the development of the cotton Gin in 1793 by Eli Whitney. This particular invention led to the unprecedented growth of the cotton industry, thereby more slave labor was required than ever before in the southern economies. Another development that was the belief that blacks were inferior compared to their white counterparts, which meant that they could not be able to “morally or intellectually govern themselves”. This later form of scientific racism saw the enactment of various legislations that limited the freedom of the black community. (Jane H. & William H. P 937)

Henry Clay and Francis Scott Key were major slaveholders who supported the American colonization society (ACS) that had been established in 1816 with the intention of advocating for the gradual abolishment of slavery in the US. They advocated for a gradual abolishment program as a way of relieving the fear the whites had for the free blacks. The program would entail the transportation of all the slaves that had been freed to West Africa, where their own country would be created. Infact the organization bought a colony in West Africa that was named Liberia. Here about 12,000 freed slaves were brought in amidst great logistical challenges including increased black opposition at home.

The abolitionists’ movement took a more militant angle in the 1930s. This was after the rise of evangelical religious movements that strongly opposed slavery and provided the much-needed spiritual guidance to the society at this time. Among some of the strong preachers in these movements included Lyman Beecher, Nathaniel Taylor and Charles G. Finny among others. They led great religious revivals in the 1820s, which greatly strengthened the abolitionists’ movements that were on a decline path. Such, massive revivals came to be known as the Second Great Awakening which also led to the formation of such agitation movements to fight against temperance, pacifisms and workers rights. . (Jane H. & William H. P 937)

Theodore D.Weld and other crusaders heightened their agitation for  “immediate emancipation.” This inspired such people like Garrison to start publishing a newspaper called the Liberator in 1831 which was supported by African-Americans that had been already set free. In 1833, the Americans Anti-slavery society was founded in Philadelphia by Garrison, Tappans and other sixty delegates across the races. . (Jane H. & William H. P 937)

The American Anti-slavery society strongly denounced slavery and in its view, slavery was depicted as a sin that was supposed to be strongly shunned and condemned by those who engaged in it. The society also called for non-violence protests including of all forms of racial prejudice. Through the support of many African-American communities in the north, the society was further strengthened, increasing the number of branches in major centers in the free states. The centers through out the free states were used as advocacy points where anti-slavery literature was distributed and advocacy agents were stationed to agitate for Congress to end slavery. The society was in direct conflict with the American Colonization Society. They vehemently opposed the laters support of the black emigration to West Africa.  (Van der Weyde & William M 20)

All this advocacy activities attracted widespread resistance in the south and in the north that saw the burning of email bags that were suspected to contain any anti-slavery literature. This also led to the enactment of the “gag rule” that sought to frustrate the petitions against slavery. Such hostile response led to the murder of Elijah Lovejoy who was an abolitionist editor. However these activities also were a blessing in disguise, which saw the election of anti-slavery politicians especially in the north where the citizens became more fearful of their own civil liberties. Such anti-slavery politicians included Edmond Quincy, Gernit Smith and Wendell Phillips. (Van der Weyde & William M 20)

In America the abolitionists included all the members of the American anti-slavery society and those who joined other movements as the former fragmented. The frequented movements of the 1820s and 1840s included such groups as the American and Foreign Anti-slavery society, the American Missionary Association and the Liberty Party. It is important to note that most northerners did not support the abolitionists’ movements but favored the gradual slave emancipation policy. This is because they believed that it would lead to violence if the slaves were left unattended. This was not the true picture because the only known abolitionist to have planned a violent resurrection was John Brown. (Zilversmit, A 44)

Fredrick Douglas became very prominent in anti-slavery activism after William Lloyd Garrison as a spokesman recruited him. Douglas would later publish and distribute the North Star an abolishment newspaper. However in the 1850s, a split was experienced in the American abolishment movement on the certain issues. One issue was about the US constitution, another issue was the involvement of fight for women’s rights in the abolition movement by the Garrisonians. On the other hand, other abolitionists did not find it fit to include such issues and with the traditional view of women and their support for some form of violence led to the eminent breakup. (Zilversmit, A 44)

In 1865, the movement split over the enactment of the 13th amendment that led to the abolishment of slavery in America. This amendment rendered the American anti-slavery society useless. However under Wendell Phillips the movement continued to agitate for land education and voters rights for the freed slaves. This saw the enactment of the 15th amendment, which extended the male suffrage to the African-Americans.

Therefore what marked the end of slavery in the US was the 1865 13th amendment, which came after 1st January 1863 Emancipation Proclamation. The activities of the abolitionist’s movements are usually credited to the Emancipation Proclamation greatly shaping the future of the US.   (Zilversmit, A 44)

Works Cited
David Nathaniel Gellman: Emancipating New York: The Politics of Slavery And  Freedom, 1777-1827 Louisiana State :University Press, 2006. 121-125

Jane H. and William H. Pease: “Confrontation and Abolition in the 1850s”:

Journal of American History (1972) 58(4): 923-937.

Van der Weyde and William M.: The Life and Works of Thomas Paine. New

 York: Thomas Paine National Historical Society, 1925, p. 19-20

Zilvermit, Arthur. The First Emancipation: The Abolition of Slavery in the          North. University of Chicago Press, 1967.43-55

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