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Abolitionism, or the abolitionist movement, was the movement to end slavery. This term can be used both formally and informally. In Western Europe and the Americas, abolitionism was a historic movement that sought to end the Atlantic slave trade and set slaves free.
The British abolitionist movement only started in the late 18th century, however, when English and American Quakers began to question the morality of slavery, as noted at the Yearly Meetings of London and of Philadelphia in 1758. James Oglethorpe was among the first to articulate the Enlightenment case against slavery, banning it in the Province of Georgia on humanitarian grounds, and arguing against it in Parliament, and eventually encouraging his friends Granville Sharp and Hannah More to vigorously pursue the cause. Soon after his death in 1785, Sharp and More united with William Wilberforce and others in forming the Clapham Sect.
The Somersett Case in 1772, in which a fugitive slave was freed with the judgement that slavery did not exist under English common law, helped launch the British movement to abolish slavery. Though anti-slavery sentiments were widespread by the late 18th century, many colonies and emerging nations continued to use slave labor: Dutch, French, British, Spanish and Portuguese territories in the West Indies, South America, and the Southern United States. After the American Revolution established the United States, 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. Vermont, which existed as an unrecognized state from 1777 to 1791, abolished adult slavery in 1777. In other states, such as Virginia, similar declarations of rights were interpreted by the courts as not applicable to Africans and African Americans. During the following decades, the abolitionist movement grew in northern states, and Congress regulated the expansion of slavery in new states admitted to the union.
In 1787 the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade was formed in London. Revolutionary France abolished slavery throughout its empire in 1794, although it was restored in 1802 by Napoleon as part of a programme to ensure sovereignty over its colonies. Haiti (then Saint-Domingue) formally declared independence from France in 1804 and became the first sovereign nation in the Western Hemisphere to unconditionally abolish slavery in the modern era. The northern states in the U.S. all abolished slavery by 1804. The United Kingdom (then including Ireland) and the United States outlawed the international slave trade in 1807, after which Britain led efforts to block slave ships. Britain abolished slavery throughout its empire by the Slavery Abolition Act 1833 (with the notable exception of India), the French colonies re-abolished it in 1848 and the U.S. abolished slavery in 1865 with the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. In 1888 Brazil became the last country in the Americas to abolish slavery.
In Eastern Europe, groups organized to abolish the enslavement of the Roma in Wallachia and Moldavia, and to emancipate the serfs in Russia. Slavery was declared illegal in 1948 under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Mauritania was the last country to abolish slavery, with a presidential decree in 1981. Today, child and adult slavery and forced labour are illegal in almost all countries, as well as being against international law, but human trafficking for labour and for sexual bondage continues to affect tens of millions of adults and children.
Pre-Modern Abolitionist Views
Insurrection and tactical abolition
A number of military leaders from antiquity offered liberty to slaves in the hope that this would strengthen their own position and capacity of gaining power or, otherwise, deprive the enemy of power. In the 1st century in ancient China, Wang Mang led an insurrection against the ruling power and then abolished slavery in the hope that this would deprive the powerful landowning families that opposed him of power and draw support from the masses so that they would not revolt against his takeover. However, this failed, and his opponents would soon oust him from power. In 1st century Judea, an insurrectionist named Simon bar Giora, in the midst of the First Roman-Jewish War, offered liberty to slaves if they would join him in battle. In the Second Servile War of Rome, during a slave revolt, both the leader of the revolting slaves and masters of slaves offered liberty to slaves joining their side. Some slaves accepted their masters' offer, but, once they had gained victory, their masters revoked their offer and refused to free them.
Philo of Alexandria, a Jewish philosopher of the 1st century, offers a description of a group of Jews called the Essenes in his Every Good Man is Free. He describes this isolated Jewish sect as rejecting many of the institutions of civilization, including that of the institution of slavery, on the basis that it violates the equality between all people that nature gives. A second ascetic Jewish group he mentions as rejecting slavery were the Therapeutae. While it is unlikely that Philo invented these traditions in order to affirm an anti-slavery view of his own, for Philo accepted the institution of slavery, there is still doubt regarding the accuracy of Philo's claims. While scholars affirm the historicity of the rejection of slavery among these ascetic groups, they attribute it to ritualistic reasons on the part of these Jewish ascetics, primarily including their rejection of the ownership of property. Philo may have been engaging in a common practice among Hellenistic Jews where ritualistic Jewish attitudes are post facto ascribed a background philosophical purpose.
The one Stoic philosopher who appears to have thought that holding slaves was illegitimate, on the basis that all means whereby humans are reduced to slavery are illegitimate, was Dio Chrysostom in his 15th Oration.
When it comes to the words of Jesus, slaves are most frequently mentioned in parables that depict the master as God and the slaves as the disciples. These parables served to sympathize the plight of Jesus and his disciples in terms of the plight of slaves. In addition, Jesus teaches his disciples that in order to be a true leader in your community, you must become the “slave of all” (Mark 10:44), intentionally subverting the economic order. This is paralleled by John 13:1-20, where Jesus performs a typical slaves task by washing the feet of one of his disciples. In his Epistle to Philemon, Paul requests the manumission of a slave named Onesimus writing "Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever—no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother" (Philemon 15-16). In 1 Corinthians 7:20-23, Paul warned his readers from becoming slaves and instructed individuals to make use of their opportunity to gain freedom from slavery if the opportunity became available. Some scholars have proposed that the Book of Revelation condemns the slave trade on the basis that it involves the marketing of human souls and their bodies as if they were cargo.
In the fourth century, the bishop Gregory of Nyssa articulated a fundamentally Christian conception of the world that embedded a thorough rejection of the notion that one human could be owned by another and a condemnation of the institution of slavery. The historian Kyle Harper writes:
Humans were granted mastery over the animals by God. But in practicing slavery, humans overstepped the boundaries of their appointment. Gregory proceeded to attack slavery by questioning, philosophically, the paradigmatic act of the slave system: the sale. With penetrating insight, he asked how the human being, the rational creation of God, could be given a “price.” What, he asked, could have the same market value as human nature? “How much does rationality cost? How many obols for the image of God? How many staters did you get for selling the God-formed man?” Here Gregory offers a logic that was entirely novel in the ancient world but would reverberate in later centuries with tremendous consequence.
In addition, in a homily on 1 Corinthians, John Chrysostom reports that his readers understood 1 Corinthians 7:21 as instructing the escape from slavery when the opportunity is available to a slave. However, Chrysostom introduced a new interpretation asserting that the meaning of this passage was the opposite of what it is commonly understood as saying, and that it is implying that slaves should forego their opportunity to become free. Thus, Chrysostom set the trend for interpreting 1 Corinthians 7:21 for many centuries until modern scholars re-established the primary reading it had beforehand, although the original meaning was not forgotten and was often used to counter biblical arguments among American slaveowners who appealed to Chrysostom's interpretation of 1 Corinthians 7:21 to justify slavery.
Shenoute, an abbot and founder of the White Monastery in Egypt that had thousands of members by the time of his death, denied the allowance for slavery to exist in his monastery, writing "Therefore let us not blasphemously say, 'Those who rule us are our masters and we are beneath them like servants.' Those who rule us are not over us, but we are over them and they are beneath us; indeed, they are our servants because they take care of us, with God’s help, in everything." Shenoute, subverting the economic order of his day with a proclamation resembling the words of Jesus in Mark 10:44, argues that the superiors in his monastery will be as servants to their inferiors rather than the other way around.
The Synod of Gangra in the 4th century was a local assembly of a number of bishops that condemned what they claimed were heresies within their community. Among those heresies were Christians who were reported to have been encouraging slaves to escape the slavery imputed onto them by their masters, this being condemned in their Third Canon. One of the individuals targeted by this council was a bishop named Eustathius of Sebaste, who is recorded by the historian Socrates Scholasticus in the Second Book and 43rd Chapter of his Church History to have "snatched slaves from their masters under the pretext of piety". He is reported to have submitted to the council, but then again, under an Antiochan synod, was accused of having perjured, or lied about his submission and continued the practice. Over a century after the Council of Gangra, the same issue was still significant enough that the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD had to issue the a similar condemnation over monasteries helping slaves escape from the slavery of their masters. Even by the sixth century, the emperor Justinian had to declare that masters have the legal authority to reclaim fugitive slaves from monasteries for up to three years.
J. Albert Hill argues that the evidence from both the Council of Gangra and the writings of John Chrysostom referring to a more widely held opinion regarding the freeing of slaves when possible or the censorship of an active group of Christians engaged in attempts to free slaves has been seen as evidence indicating a more widely held opinion among commoners, and it "thus more likely points to the unmarked voices of rustics and traders, artisans and manual laborers, farmers and fishermen, and other raucous “middling” social inferiors below the aristocratic elite in Chrysostom’s congregation at Antioch". Ilaria Ramelli concludes analogously that that the one place where slavery was under debate as an institution in the ancient world was in the monasteries.
In 1315, Louis X, king of France, published a decree proclaiming that "France signifies freedom" and that any slave setting foot on the French ground should be freed. This prompted subsequent governments to circumscribe slavery in the overseas colonies.
Some cases of African slaves freed by setting foot on the French soil were recorded such as this example of a Norman slave merchant who tried to sell slaves in Bordeaux in 1571. He was arrested and his slaves were freed according to a declaration of the Parlement of Guyenne which stated that slavery was intolerable in France, although it is a misconception that there were 'no slaves in France'; thousands of African slaves were present in France during the eighteenth century. Born into slavery in Saint Domingue, Thomas-Alexandre Dumas became free when his father brought him to France in 1776.
Code Noir and Age of Enlightenment
As in other New World colonies, the French relied on the Atlantic slave trade for labour for their sugar cane plantations in their Caribbean colonies; the French West Indies. In addition, French colonists in Louisiane in North America held slaves, particularly in the South around New Orleans, where they established sugarcane plantations.
Louis XIV's Code Noir regulated the slave trade and institution in the colonies. It gave unparalleled rights to slaves. It included the right to marry, gather publicly, or take Sundays off. Although the Code Noir authorized and codified cruel corporal punishment against slaves under certain conditions, it forbade slave owners to torture them or to separate families. It also demanded enslaved Africans receive instruction in the Catholic faith, implying that Africans were human beings endowed with a soul, a fact French law did not admit until then. It resulted in a far higher percentage of blacks being free in 1830 (13.2% in Louisiana compared to 0.8% in Mississippi). They were on average exceptionally literate, with a significant number of them owning businesses, properties, and even slaves. Other free people of colour, such as Julien Raimond, spoke out against slavery.
The Code Noir also forbade interracial marriages, but it was often ignored in French colonial society and the mulattoes became an intermediate caste between whites and blacks, while in the British colonies mulattoes and blacks were considered equal and discriminated against equally.
During the Age of Enlightenment, many philosophers wrote pamphlets against slavery and its moral and economical justifications, including Montesquieu in The Spirit of the Laws (1748) and Denis Diderot in the Encyclopédie. In 1788, Jacques Pierre Brissot founded the Society of the Friends of the Blacks (Société des Amis des Noirs) to work for the abolition of slavery. After the Revolution, on 4 April 1792, France granted free people of colour full citizenship.
The slave revolt, in the largest Caribbean French colony of Saint-Domingue in 1791, was the beginning of what became the Haitian Revolution led by formerly enslaved people like Georges Biassou, Toussaint L'Ouverture, and Jean-Jacques Dessalines. The rebellion swept through the north of the colony, and with it came freedom to thousands of enslaved blacks, but also violence and death. In 1793, French Civil Commissioners in St. Domingue and abolitionists, Léger-Félicité Sonthonax and Étienne Polverel, issued the first emancipation proclamation of the modern world (Decree of 16 Pluviôse An II). The Convention sent them to safeguard the allegiance of the population to revolutionary France. The proclamation resulted in crucial military strategy as it gradually brought most of the black troops into the French fold and kept the colony under the French flag for most of the conflict. The connection with France lasted until blacks and free people of colour formed L'armée indigène in 1802 to resist Napoleon's Expédition de Saint-Domingue. Victory over the French in the decisive Battle of Vertières finally led to independence and the creation of present Haiti in 1804.
First general abolition of slavery (1794)
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The convention, the first elected Assembly of the First Republic (1792–1804), on 4 February 1794, under the leadership of Maximilien Robespierre, abolished slavery in law in France and its colonies. Abbé Grégoire and the Society of the Friends of the Blacks were part of the abolitionist movement, which had laid important groundwork in building anti-slavery sentiment in the metropole. The first article of the law stated that "Slavery was abolished" in the French colonies, while the second article stated that "slave-owners would be indemnified" with financial compensation for the value of their slaves. The French constitution passed in 1795 included in the declaration of the Rights of Man that slavery was abolished.
Re-establishment of slavery in the colonies (1802)
During the French Revolutionary Wars, French slave-owners massively joined the counter-revolution and, through the Whitehall Accord, they threatened to move the French Caribbean colonies under British control, as Great Britain still allowed slavery. Fearing secession from these islands, successfully lobbied by planters and concerned about revenues from the West Indies, and influenced by the slaveholder family of his wife, Napoleon Bonaparte decided to re-establish slavery after becoming First Consul. He promulgated the law of 20 May 1802 and sent military governors and troops to the colonies to impose it. On 10 May 1802, Colonel Delgrès launched a rebellion in Guadeloupe against Napoleon's representative, General Richepanse. The rebellion was repressed, and slavery was re-established. The news of this event sparked another wave of rebellion in Saint-Domingue. Although from 1802, Napoleon sent more than 20,000 troops to the island, two-thirds died mostly due to yellow fever. He withdrew the remaining 7,000 troops and slaves achieved an independent republic they called Haïti in 1804. Seeing the failure of the Saint-Domingue expedition, in 1803 Napoleon decided to sell the Louisiana Territory to the United States. The French governments initially refused to recognize Haiti. It forced the nation to pay a substantial amount of reparations (which it could ill afford) for losses during the revolution and did not recognize its government until 1825.
France was a signatory to the first multilateral treaty for the suppression of the slave trade, the Treaty for the Suppression of the African Slave Trade (1841), but the king, Louis Philippe I, declined to ratify it.
Second abolition (1848) and subsequent events
On 27 April 1848, under the Second Republic (1848–52), the decree-law of Schœlcher abolished slavery in the remaining colonies. The state bought the slaves from the colons (white colonists; Békés in Creole), and then freed them.
At about the same time, France started colonizing Africa and gained possession of much of West Africa by 1900. In 1905, the French abolished slavery in most of French West Africa. The French also attempted to abolish Tuareg slavery following the Kaocen Revolt. In the region of the Sahel, slavery has however long persisted.
Passed on 10 May 2001, the Taubira law officially acknowledges slavery and the Atlantic Slave Trade as a crime against humanity. 10 May was chosen as the day dedicated to recognition of the crime of slavery.
The last known form of enforced servitude of adults (villeinage) had disappeared in England by the beginning of the 17th century. In 1569 a court considered the case of Cartwright, who had bought a slave from Russia. The court ruled English law could not recognize slavery, as it was never established officially. This ruling was overshadowed by later developments; It was upheld in 1700 by the Lord Chief Justice John Holt when he ruled that a slave became free as soon as he arrived in England. During the English Civil Wars of the mid-seventeenth century, sectarian radicals challenged slavery and other threats to personal freedom. Their ideas influenced many antislavery thinkers in the eighteenth century.
In addition to English colonists importing slaves to the North American colonies, by the 18th century, traders began to import slaves from Africa, India and East Asia (where they were trading) to London and Edinburgh to work as personal servants. Men who migrated to the North American colonies often took their East Indian slaves or servants with them, as East Indians have been documented in colonial records.
Some of the first freedom suits, court cases in the British Isles to challenge the legality of slavery, took place in Scotland in 1755 and 1769. The cases were Montgomery v. Sheddan (1755) and Spens v. Dalrymple (1769). Each of the slaves had been baptized in Scotland and challenged the legality of slavery. They set the precedent of legal procedure in British courts that would later lead to successful outcomes for the plaintiffs. In these cases, deaths of the plaintiff and defendant, respectively, brought an end before court decisions.
African slaves were not bought or sold in London but were brought by masters from other areas. Together with people from other nations, especially non-Christian, Africans were considered foreigners, not able to be English subjects. At the time, England had no naturalization procedure. The African slaves' legal status was unclear until 1772 and Somersett's Case, when the fugitive slave James Somersett forced a decision by the courts. Somersett had escaped, and his master, Charles Steuart, had him captured and imprisoned on board a ship, intending to ship him to Jamaica to be resold into slavery. While in London, Somersett had been baptized; three godparents issued a writ of habeas corpus. As a result, Lord Mansfield, Chief Justice of the Court of the King's Bench, had to judge whether Somersett's abduction was lawful or not under English Common Law. No legislation had ever been passed to establish slavery in England. The case received national attention, and five advocates supported the action on behalf of Somersett.
In his judgement of 22 June 1772, Mansfield declared:
The state of slavery is of such a nature that it is incapable of being introduced on any reasons, moral or political, but only by positive law, which preserves its force long after the reasons, occasions, and time itself from whence it was created, is erased from memory. It is so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it, but positive law. 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.
Although the exact legal implications of the judgement are unclear when analysed by lawyers, the judgement was generally taken at the time to have determined that slavery did not exist under English common law and was thus prohibited in England. The decision did not apply to the British overseas territories; by then, for example, the American colonies had established slavery by positive laws. Somersett's case became a significant part of the common law of slavery in the English-speaking world and it helped launch the movement to abolish slavery.
After reading about Somersett's Case, Joseph Knight, an enslaved African who had been purchased by his master John Wedderburn in Jamaica and brought to Scotland, left him. Married and with a child, he filed a freedom suit, on the grounds that he could not be held as a slave in Great Britain. In the case of Knight v. Wedderburn (1778), Wedderburn said that Knight owed him "perpetual servitude". The Court of Session of Scotland ruled against him, saying that chattel slavery was not recognized under the law of Scotland, and slaves could seek court protection to leave a master or avoid being forcibly removed from Scotland to be returned to slavery in the colonies.
But at the same time, legally mandated, hereditary slavery of Scots persons in Scotland had existed from 1606 and continued until 1799, when colliers and salters were emancipated by an act of the Parliament of Great Britain (39 Geo.III. c. 56). Skilled workers, they were restricted to a place and could be sold with the works. A prior law enacted in 1775 (15 Geo. III. c. 28) was intended to end what the act referred to as "a state of slavery and bondage," but that was ineffective, necessitating the 1799 act.
In the 1776 book The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith argued for the abolition of slavery on economic grounds. Smith pointed out that slavery incurred security, housing, and food costs that the use of free labor would not, and opined that free workers would be more productive because they would have personal economic incentives to work harder. The death rate (and thus repurchase cost) of slaves was also high, and people are less productive when not allowed to choose the type of work they prefer, are illiterate, and are forced to live and work in miserable and unhealthy conditions. The free labor markets and international free trade that Smith preferred would also result in different prices and allocations that Smith believed would be more efficient and productive for consumers.
Prior to the American Revolution, there were few significant initiatives in the American colonies that led to the abolitionist movement. Some Quakers were active. Benjamin Kent was the lawyer who took on most of the cases of slaves suing their masters for personal illegal enslavement. He was the first lawyer to successfully establish a slave's freedom. In addition, Brigadier General Samuel Birch created the Book of Negroes, to establish which slaves were free after the war.
In 1783, an anti-slavery movement began among the British public to end slavery throughout the British Empire.
After the formation of the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade in 1787, William Wilberforce led the cause of abolition through the parliamentary campaign. Thomas Clarkson became the group's most prominent researcher, gathering vast amounts of data on the trade. One aspect of abolitionism during this period was the effective use of images such as the famous Josiah Wedgwood "Am I Not A Man and a Brother?" anti-slavery medallion of 1787. Clarkson described the medallion as "promoting the cause of justice, humanity and freedom". The Slave Trade Act was passed by the British Parliament on 25 March 1807, making the slave trade illegal throughout the British Empire. Britain used its influence to coerce other countries to agree to treaties to end their slave trade and allow the Royal Navy to seize their slave ships. Britain enforced the abolition of the trade because the act made trading slaves within British territories illegal. However, the act repealed the Amelioration Act 1798 which attempted to improve conditions for slaves. The end of the slave trade did not end slavery as a whole. Slavery was still a common practice.
In the 1820s, the abolitionist movement revived to campaign against the institution of slavery itself. In 1823 the first Anti-Slavery Society, the Society for the Mitigation and Gradual Abolition of Slavery Throughout the British Dominions, was founded. Many of its members had previously campaigned against the slave trade. On 28 August 1833, the Slavery Abolition Act was passed. It purchased the slaves from their masters and paved the way for the abolition of slavery throughout the British Empire by 1838, after which the first Anti-Slavery Society was wound up.
In 1839, the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society was formed by Joseph Sturge, which attempted to outlaw slavery worldwide and also to pressure the government to help enforce the suppression of the slave trade by declaring slave traders to be pirates. The world's oldest international human rights organization, it continues today as Anti-Slavery International. Thomas Clarkson was the key speaker at the World Anti-Slavery Convention it held in London in 1840.
Moldavia and Wallachia
In the principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia, the government held slavery of the Roma (often referred to as Gypsies) as legal at the beginning of the 19th century. The progressive pro-European and anti-Ottoman movement, which gradually gained power in the two principalities, also worked to abolish that slavery. Between 1843 and 1855, the principalities emancipated all of the 250,000 enslaved Roma people.
In the Americas
Bartolomé de las Casas was a 16th-century Spanish Dominican priest, the first resident Bishop of Chiapas (Central America, today Mexico). As a settler in the New World he witnessed and opposed the poor treatment and virtual slavery of the Native Americans by the Spanish colonists, under the encomienda system. He advocated before King Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor on behalf of rights for the natives.
Las Casas for 20 years worked to get African slaves imported to replace natives; African slavery was everywhere and no one talked of ridding the New World of it, though France had abolished slavery in France itself and there was talk in other countries about doing the same. In fact, from a purely economic point of view Africans were better slaves, stronger and healthier, because the "Middle Passage" had selected for these traits. However, Las Casas had a late change of heart, and became an advocate for the Africans in the colonies.
His book, A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies, contributed to Spanish passage of colonial legislation known as the New Laws of 1542, which abolished native slavery for the first time in European colonial history. It ultimately led to the Valladolid debate, the first European debate about the rights of colonized people.
During the early 19th century, slavery expanded rapidly in Brazil, Cuba, and the United States, while at the same time the new republics of mainland Spanish America became committed to the gradual abolition of slavery. During the Spanish American wars for independence (1810–1826), slavery was abolished in most of Latin America, though it continued until 1873 in Puerto Rico, 1886 in Cuba, and 1888 in Brazil (where it was abolished by the Lei Áurea, the "Golden Law"). Chile declared freedom of wombs in 1811, followed by the United Provinces of the River Plate in 1813, Colombia and Venezuela in 1821, but without abolishing slavery completely. While Chile abolished slavery in 1823, Argentina did so with the signing of the Argentine Constitution of 1853. Peru abolished slavery in 1854. Colombia abolished slavery in 1851. Slavery was abolished in Uruguay during the Guerra Grande, by both the government of Fructuoso Rivera and the government in exile of Manuel Oribe.
Throughout the growth of slavery in the American South, Nova Scotia became a destination for black refugees leaving Southern Colonies and United States. While many blacks who arrived in Nova Scotia during the American Revolution were free, others were not. Black slaves also arrived in Nova Scotia as the property of White American Loyalists. In 1772, prior to the American Revolution, Britain determined that slavery could not exist in the British Isles followed by the Knight v. Wedderburn decision in Scotland in 1778. This decision, in turn, influenced the colony of Nova Scotia. In 1788, abolitionist James Drummond MacGregor from Pictou published the first anti-slavery literature in Canada and began purchasing slaves' freedom and chastising his colleagues in the Presbyterian church who owned slaves. In 1790 John Burbidge freed his slaves. Led by Richard John Uniacke, in 1787, 1789 and again on 11 January 1808, the Nova Scotian legislature refused to legalize slavery. Two chief justices, Thomas Andrew Lumisden Strange (1790–1796) and Sampson Salter Blowers (1797–1832) were instrumental in freeing slaves from their owners in Nova Scotia. They were held in high regard in the colony. By the end of the War of 1812 and the arrival of the Black Refugees, there were few slaves left in Nova Scotia. The Slave Trade Act outlawed the slave trade in the British Empire in 1807 and the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 outlawed slavery all together.
With slaves escaping to New York and New England, legislation for gradual emancipation was passed in Upper Canada (1793) and Lower Canada (1803). In Upper Canada, the Act Against Slavery of 1793 was passed by the Assembly under the auspices of John Graves Simcoe. It was the first legislation against slavery in the British Empire. Under its provisions no new slaves could be imported, slaves already in the province would remain enslaved until death, and children born to female slaves would be slaves but must be freed at the age of 25. The last slaves in Canada gained their freedom when slavery was abolished in the entire British Empire by the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833.
The 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 or the Republican Party, which called for the gradual ending of slavery.
Benjamin Franklin, a slaveholder for much of his life, became a leading member of the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery, the first recognized organization for abolitionists in the United States. Following the American Revolutionary War, Northern states abolished slavery, beginning with the 1777 Constitution of Vermont, followed by Pennsylvania's gradual emancipation act in 1780. Other states with more of an economic interest in slaves, such as New York and New Jersey, also passed gradual emancipation laws, and by 1804, all the Northern states had abolished it, although this did not mean that already enslaved people were freed. Some had to work without wages as "indentured servants" for two more decades, although they could no longer be sold.
Also in the post-Revolutionary years, individual slaveholders, especially in the Upper South, manumitted slaves, sometimes in their wills. (In the Deep South manumission was made difficult; in South Carolina every manumission required legislative approval, and the freed slaves had to leave the state immediately.) Many noted that they had been moved by the revolutionary ideals of the equality of men. The number of free blacks as a proportion of the black population increased from less than one percent to nearly ten percent from 1790 to 1810 in the Upper South as a result of these actions.
By 1840 more than 15,000 people were members of abolitionist societies in the United States.
In the 1850s in the fifteen states constituting the American South, slavery was legally established. While it was fading away in the cities as well as in the border states, it remained strong in plantation areas that grew cotton for export, or sugar, tobacco, or hemp. According to the 1860 United States Census, the slave population in the United States had grown to four million. American abolitionism was based in the North, although there were anti-abolitionist riots in several cities. In the South abolitionism was illegal, and abolitionist publications, like The Liberator, could not be sent to Southern post offices. Amos Dresser, a white alumnus of Lane Theological Seminary, was publicly whipped in Nashville, Tennessee for possessing abolitionist publications.
Abolitionism in the United States became a popular expression of moralism, operating in tandem with other social reform efforts, such as the temperance movement, and much more problematically, the women's suffrage movement.
The white abolitionist movement in the North was led by social reformers, especially William Lloyd Garrison, founder of the American Anti-Slavery Society; writers such as John Greenleaf Whittier and Harriet Beecher Stowe. Black activists included former slaves such as Frederick Douglass; and free blacks such as the brothers Charles Henry Langston and John Mercer Langston, who helped found the Ohio Anti-Slavery Society. Some abolitionists said that slavery was criminal and a sin; they also criticized slave owners of using black women as concubines and taking sexual advantage of them.
The Republican Party wanted to achieve the gradual extinction of slavery by market forces, because its members believed that free labor was superior to slave labor. White southern leaders said that the Republican policy of blocking the expansion of slavery into the West made them second-class citizens, and they also said it challenged their autonomy. With the 1860 presidential victory of Abraham Lincoln, seven Deep South states whose economy was based on cotton and the labor of enslaved people decided to secede and form a new nation. The American Civil War broke out in April 1861 with the firing on Fort Sumter in South Carolina. When Lincoln called for troops to suppress the rebellion, four more slave states seceded. Meanwhile, four slave states (Maryland, Missouri, Delaware, and Kentucky) chose to remain in the Union.
Civil War and final emancipation
On 16 April 1862, Abraham Lincoln signed the District of Columbia Compensated Emancipation Act, abolishing slavery in Washington D. C. Meanwhile, the Union suddenly found themselves dealing with a steady stream of escaped slaves from the South rushing to Union lines. In response, Congress passed the Confiscation Acts, which essentially declared escaped slaves from the South to be confiscated war property, called contrabands, so that they would not be returned to their masters in the Confederacy. Although the initial act did not mention emancipation, the second Confiscation Act, passed on 17 July 1862, stated that escaped or liberated slaves belonging to anyone who participated in or supported the rebellion "shall be deemed captives of war, and shall be forever free of their servitude, and not again held as slaves." Later on, Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation was an executive order of the U.S. government issued on 1 January 1863, changing the legal status of 3 million slaves in the Confederacy from "slave" to "forever free". Slaves were legally freed by the Proclamation and became actually free by escaping to federal lines, or by advances of federal troops. Many served the federal army as teamsters, cooks, laundresses, and laborers, as well as scouts, spies, and guides. Confederate General Robert Lee once said "The chief source of information to the enemy is through our negroes." Plantation owners sometimes moved the Blacks they claimed to own as far as possible out of reach of the Union army. By "Juneteenth" (19 June 1865, in Texas), the Union Army controlled all of the Confederacy and liberated all its slaves. The owners were never compensated, nor were freed slaves compensated by former owners.
The border states were exempt from the Emancipation Proclamation, but they too (except Delaware) began their own emancipation programmes. When the Union Army entered Confederate areas, thousands of slaves escaped to freedom behind Union Army lines, and in 1863 many men started serving as the United States Colored Troops.
As the war dragged on, both the federal government and Union states continued to take measures against slavery. In June 1864, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which required free states to aid in returning escaped slaves to slave states, was repealed. The state of Maryland abolished slavery on 13 October 1864. Missouri abolished slavery on 11 January 1865. West Virginia, which had been admitted to the Union in 1863 as a slave state, but on the condition of gradual emancipation, fully abolished slavery on 3 February 1865. The 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution took effect in December 1865, 7 months after the end of the war, and finally ended slavery throughout the United States. It also abolished slavery among the Indian tribes, including the Alaska tribes that became part of the U.S. in 1867.
White and Black opponents of slavery, who played a considerable role in the movement. This list includes some escaped slaves, who were traditionally called abolitionists.
- William Wilberforce – Wilberforce was a leader of the abolitionism movement. He was an English politician who became a Member of Parliament. His involvement in the political realm lead to a change in ideology. Wilberforce became very interested in reform and dedicated his efforts to abolishing the practice of slavery and discrimination.
- Henry Dundas Achieved the first victory in the House of Commons for the abolition of the Atlantic Slave Trade in 1792.
- Toussaint Louverture
- Abbé Grégoire
- Jeremy Bentham
- John Stuart Mill
- Harriet Martineau
- Harriet Tubman
- John Brown
- Harriet Beecher Stowe
- John Gregg Fee
- Johns Hopkins
- Isabel, Princess Imperial of Brazil
- John Laurens
- William Lloyd Garrison
- William B. Preston
- José do Patrocínio
- Frederick Douglass
- Henry David Thoreau
- Oren Burbank Cheney
- John Woolman
- Charles Miner
- Joaquim Nabuco
- David Walker
- Nat Turner
- Sarah Mapps Douglass
- William Wells Brown
- Ellen and William Craft
- Frances Ellen Watkins Harper
- Henry Highland Garnet
- Sojourner Truth
- John Quincy Adams
- Angelina and Sarah Grimké
- The Emancipator (1819–20): founded in Jonesboro, Tennessee in 1819 by Elihu Embree as the Manumission Intelligencier, The Emancipator ceased publication in October 1820 due to Embree's illness. It was sold in 1821 and became The Genius of Universal Emancipation.
- Genius of Universal Emancipation (1821–39): an abolitionist newspaper published and edited by Benjamin Lundy. In 1829 it employed William Lloyd Garrison, who would go on to create 'The Liberator.
- The Liberator (1831–65): a weekly newspaper founded by William Lloyd Garrison.
- The Emancipator (1833–1850): different from The Emancipator above. Published in New York and later Boston.
- The Slave's Friend (1836–38): an anti-slavery magazine for children produced by the American Anti-Slavery Society (AASS).
- The Philanthropist (1836–37): newspaper published in Ohio for and owned by the Anti-Slavery Society.
- The Liberty Bell, by Friends of Freedom (1839–58): an annual gift book edited and published by Maria Weston Chapman, to be sold or gifted to participants in the National Anti-Slavery Bazaar organized by the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society.
- National Anti-Slavery Standard (1840–70): the official weekly newspaper of the American Anti-Slavery Society, the paper published continuously until the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1870.
- The Unconstitutionality of Slavery (1845): a pamphlet by Lysander Spooner advocating the view that the U.S. Constitution prohibited slavery.
- The Anti-Slavery Bugle (1845–1861): a newspaper published in New Lisbon and Salem, Columbiana County, Ohio, and distributed locally and across the mid-west, primarily to Quakers.
- The National Era (1847–60): a weekly newspaper which featured the works of John Greenleaf Whittier, who served as associate editor, and first published, as a serial, Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1851).
- North Star (1847–51): an anti-slavery American newspaper published by the escaped slave, author, and abolitionist, Frederick Douglass.
- Slave narratives, books published in the U.S. and elsewhere by former slaves or about former slaves, relating their experiences.
- Anti-Slavery International publications
National abolition dates
In societies with large proportions of the population working in conditions of slavery or serfdom, stroke-of-the-pen laws declaring abolition can have thorough-going social, economic and political consequences. Issues of compensation/redemption, land-redistribution and citizenship can prove intractable. For example:
- Haiti, which effectively achieved abolition due to slave revolt (1792–1804), struggled to overcome racial or anti-revolutionary prejudice in the international financial and diplomatic scene, and exchanged unequal prosperity for relative poverty.
- Russia's emancipation of its serfs in 1861 failed to allay rural and industrial unrest, which played a part in fomenting the revolutions of 1917.
- The United States of America achieved theoretical freedom for its slaves in 1864–1865, but faced ongoing slavery-associated racial issues (Jim Crow system, civil-rights struggles).
- Queensland deported most of its blackbirded Pacific Islander labour-force in 1901–1906.
Emancipation proved arguably less disruptive in areas such as Prussia or Sweden.
People in modern times have commemorated abolitionist movements and the abolition of slavery in different ways around the world. The United Nations General Assembly declared 2004 the International Year to Commemorate the Struggle against Slavery and its Abolition. This proclamation marked the bicentenary of the proclamation of the first modern slavery-free state, Haiti. Numerous exhibitions, events and research programmes became associated with the initiative.
2007 witnessed major exhibitions in British museums and galleries to mark the anniversary of the 1807 abolition act – 1807 Commemorated 2008 marked the 201st anniversary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade in the British Empire. It also marked the 175th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in the British Empire.
The Faculty of Law at the University of Ottawa held a major international conference entitled, "Routes to Freedom: Reflections on the Bicentenary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade", from 14 to 16 March 2008.
No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.
Although outlawed in most countries, slavery is nonetheless practised secretly in many parts of the world. Enslavement still takes place in the United States, Europe, and Latin America, as well as parts of Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. There are an estimated 27 million victims of slavery worldwide. In Mauritania alone, estimates are that up to 600,000 men, women and children, or 20% of the population, are enslaved. Many of them are used as bonded labour.
Modern-day abolitionists have emerged over the last several years, as awareness of slavery around the world has grown, with groups such as Anti-Slavery International, the American Anti-Slavery Group, International Justice Mission, and Free the Slaves working to rid the world of slavery.
In the United States, The Action Group to End Human Trafficking and Modern-Day Slavery is a coalition of NGOs, foundations and corporations working to develop a policy agenda for abolishing slavery and human trafficking. Since 1997, the United States Department of Justice has, through work with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, prosecuted six individuals in Florida on charges of slavery in the agricultural industry. These prosecutions have led to freedom for over 1000 enslaved workers in the tomato and orange fields of South Florida. This is only one example of the contemporary fight against slavery worldwide. Slavery exists most widely in agricultural labour, apparel and sex industries, and service jobs in some regions.
In 2000, the United States passed the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act (TVPA) "to combat trafficking in persons, especially into the sex trade, slavery, and involuntary servitude." The TVPA also "created new law enforcement tools to strengthen the prosecution and punishment of traffickers, making human trafficking a Federal crime with severe penalties."
In 2014, for the first time in history major Anglican, Catholic, and Orthodox Christian leaders, as well as Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist leaders, met to sign a shared commitment against modern-day slavery; the declaration they signed calls for the elimination of slavery and human trafficking by the year 2020. The signatories were: Pope Francis, Mātā Amṛtānandamayī (also known as Amma), Bhikkhuni Thich Nu Chân Không (representing Zen Master Thích Nhất Hạnh), Datuk K. Sri Dhammaratana, Chief High Priest of Malaysia, Rabbi and rector of the Seminario Rabínico Latinoamericano in Buenos Aires, Dr. Abraham Skorka, Rabbi Dr. David Rosen, Dr. Abbas Abdalla Abbas Soliman, Undersecretary of State of Al Azhar Alsharif (representing Mohamed Ahmed El-Tayeb, Grand Imam of Al-Azhar), Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi al-Modarresi, Sheikh Naziyah Razzaq Jaafar, Special advisor of Grand Ayatollah (representing Grand Ayatollah Sheikh Basheer Hussain al Najafi), Sheikh Omar Abboud, Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, and Metropolitan Emmanuel of France (representing Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew.)
The United States Department of State publishes the annual Trafficking in Persons Report, identifying countries as either Tier 1, Tier 2, Tier 2 Watch List or Tier 3, depending upon three factors: "(1) The extent to which the country is a country of origin, transit, or destination for severe forms of trafficking; (2) The extent to which the government of the country does not comply with the TVPA's minimum standards including, in particular, the extent of the government's trafficking-related corruption; and (3) The resources and capabilities of the government to address and eliminate severe forms of trafficking in persons."
- Abolitionism (disambiguation), other movements to address perceived social ills, such as the Prison abolition movement
- Abolition of slavery timeline
- Anti-Slavery Society (disambiguation), various organisations referred to by this name
- History of slavery
- List of abolitionist forerunners
- London Society of West India Planters and Merchants, a lobby group representing slave owners
- Monument to the abolition of slavery, in Puerto Rico
- Representation of slavery in European art
- Slavery in the British and French Caribbean
Organisations and commemorations
- International Day for the Abolition of Slavery
- International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition
- Wilson, Thomas, The Oglethorpe Plan, 201–06.
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- "Slavery's last stronghold", CNN. March 2012.
- Martin Klein, Historical Dictionary of Slavery and Abolition, 108-9
- Junius Rodriguez, “Red Eyebrow Rebellion (17-23 C.E.)” in Junius Rodriguez (ed.), Encyclopedia of Slave Resistance and Rebellion: Volume 2, Greenwood Press, 2007, 420-1
- "The Inner Cohesion of Jeremiah 34:8–22, on the Liberation of Slaves during the Siege of Jerusalem, and its Relation to Deuteronomy 15", in (eds. Spronk & Barstad) Torah and Tradition, Brill, 2017, pp. 239-250
- Philo of Alexandria, Every Good Man is Free, 75-79
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- Edmund Neufeld, “Vulnerable Bodies and Volunteer Slaves: Slave Parable Violence in the Rest of Matthew”, BBR 2020
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- Byron, John. "Paul and the background of slavery: the status quaestionis in New Testament scholarship." Currents in Biblical Research 3.1 (2004): 129
- J. Albert Hill, The Manumission of Slaves in Early Christianity, 1995, 68–128.
- Glancy, Jennifer. Slavery in Early Christianity, Oxford University Press, 2002, pg. 85. "When great Babylon falls, writes John of Patmos in the Book of Revelation, all the rich merchants of the earth will mourn it. Their grief will emanate from their loss of trade. With the destruction of Babylon, no one will buy their cargoes. John details the luxury wares that made traders wealthy: from gold to linen, from purple to ivory, from cinnamon to myrrh, from olive oil to sheep—to the bodies and souls of human beings. The list thus culminates with a reference to the human merchandise from which traders throughout the Roman Empire profited. By emphasizing that not only bodies but also souls were for sale, John implicitly condemned the practice of trading in human flesh."
- Ramelli, Ilaria. Social Justice and the Legitimacy of Slavery: The Role of Philosophical Asceticism from Ancient Judaism to Late Antiquity, Oxford University Press, 2016, pg. 118. "Another passage outside the Gospels and the Pauline corpus, Revelation 18:13, far from suggesting that slavery is an ‘indifferent thing’, sounds like a condemnation of slavery understood as the buying and selling of humans. The author is describing the ruin of Babylon the courtesan, which is generally assumed to represent Rome—the Apocalypse was probably written after the Jewish war and the fall of Jerusalem. Merchants are depicted as lamenting this ruin, because nobody will buy their goods anymore. Among the goods that they buy and sell there are also σωμάτων, καὶ ψυχὰς ἀνθρώπων, ‘bodies, and souls of humans’. Within this picture, the traffic of humans (which comes at the end of a long list of goods sold by merchants to Babylon the harlot) is presented in highly negative terms."
- Vasser, Murray. "Bodies and Souls: The Case for Reading Revelation 18.13 as a Critique of the Slave Trade." New Testament Studies 64.3 (2018): 397-409. See also footnote 1 for more sources.
- Kyle Harper, “Christianity and the Roots of Human Dignity in Late Antiquity” in Shah and Hertzke, eds, Christianity and Freedom: Volume 1, Historical Perspectives, 133-134. ISBN 978-1107124585.
- Full section on Gregory's condemnation available in English here.
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- Rebecca Krawiec, Shenoute & the Women of the White Monastery, 2002, pp. 139-40
- Jennifer Glancy, Slavery in Early Christianity, 2002, pg. 90. Full text of the Council's canons available here.
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- Youval Rotman, Byzantine Slavery and the Mediterranean World, 144-5.
- Harrill, "Revisiting the Problem of 1 Corinthians 7:21", Biblical Research (2020)
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- Rodney Stark, For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-hunts, and the End of Slavery, Princeton University Press, 2003, 0p. 322. Note that there was typo in the original hardcover stating "31.2 percent"; this was corrected to 13.2% in the paperback edition and can be verified using 1830 census data.
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- The portrait is now at the National Gallery of Scotland. According to Thomas Akins, this portrait hung in the legislature of Province House (Nova Scotia) in 1847 (see History of Halifax, p. 189).
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- Jeffrey, Julie Roy. "Stranger, Buy... Lest Our Mission Fail: the Complex Culture of Women's Abolitionist Fairs". American Nineteenth Century History 4, no. 1 (2003): 185–205.
- Kolchin, Peter. Unfree Labor; American Slavery and Russian Serfdom (1987)
- Kolchin, Peter. "Reexamining Southern Emancipation in Comparative Perspective", Journal of Southern History, (Feb. 2015) 81#1 pp. 7–40.
- Oakes, James. The Crooked Path to Abolition: Abraham Lincoln and the Antislavery Constitution (W.W. Norton, 2021).
- Oakes, James. Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861-1865 (W. W. Norton, 2012)
- Palen, Marc-William. "Free-Trade Ideology and Transatlantic Abolitionism: A Historiography". Journal of the History of Economic Thought 37 (June 2015): 291–304.
- Reckord, Mary. "The Colonial Office and the Abolition of Slavery." Historical Journal 14, no. 4 (1971): 723–34. online
- Rodriguez, Junius P., ed. Encyclopedia of Emancipation and Abolition in the Transatlantic World (2007)
- Rodriguez, Junius P., ed. The Historical Encyclopedia of World Slavery (1997)
- Sinha, Manisha. The Slave's Cause: A History of Abolition (Yale UP, 2016) 784 pp; Highly detailed coverage of the American movement
- Thomas, Hugh. The Slave Trade: The Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade: 1440–1870 (2006)
- Wyman‐McCarthy, Matthew. "British abolitionism and global empire in the late 18th century: A historiographic overview." History Compass 16.10 (2018): e12480. https://doi.org/10.1111/hic3.12480
|Wikiquote has quotations related to: Abolitionism|
|Wikisource has the text of the 1921 Collier's Encyclopedia article Abolitionists.|
- Largest Surviving Anti Slave Trade Petition from Manchester, UK 1806
- Original Document Proposing Abolition of Slavery 13th Amendment
- "John Brown's body and blood" by Ari Kelman: a review in the TLS, 14 February 2007.
- "Scotland and the Abolition of the Slave Trade" – schools resource
- Report of the Brown University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice
- Twentieth Century Solutions of the Abolition of Slavery
- Elijah Parish Lovejoy: A Martyr on the Altar of American Liberty
- Brycchan Carey's pages listing British abolitionists
- Teaching resources about Slavery and Abolition on blackhistory4schools.com
- "The Abolition of the Slave Trade", The National Archives (UK)
- Towards Liberty: Slavery, the Slave Trade, Abolition and Emancipation. Produced by Sheffield City Council's Libraries and Archives (UK)
- The slavery debate
- John Brown Museum
- American Abolitionism
- American Abolitionists, comprehensive list of abolitionists and anti-slavery activists and organizations in the United States
- History of the British abolitionist movement Archived 6 April 2007 at the Wayback Machine by Right Honourable Lord Archer of Sandwell
- "Slavery – The emancipation movement in Britain", lecture by James Walvin at Gresham College, 5 March 2007 (available for video and audio download)
- Underground Railroad: Escape from Slavery[permanent dead link]. Scholastic.com
- "Black Canada and the Journey to Freedom"
- 1807 Commemorated
- The Action Group
- Trafficking in Persons Report 2008, US Department of State
- National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, Ohio
- The Liberator Files, Horace Seldon's collection and summary of research of William Lloyd Garrison's The Liberator original copies at the Boston Public Library, Boston, Massachusetts.
- University of Detroit Mercy Black Abolitionist Archive, a collection of more than 800 speeches by antebellum blacks and approximately 1,000 editorials from the period.
- Abolitionist movement Archived 7 April 2011 at the Wayback Machine
- Raymond James Krohn, "Abolitionist Movement", Encyclopedia of Civil Liberties in the United States