Abolitionism/Antislavery Movement

The international campaign against slavery produced such eloquent leaders as William Wilberforce in Britain and Frederick Douglass in the United States, as well as endur-ingly powerful works of art with a political purpose, including Harriet Beecher Stowe’s (1811-1896) novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) and J. M. W. Turner’s (1775-1851) painting The Slave Ship (1840).

The origin of the antislavery movement can be traced to Britain—where the importation of slaves stood at odds with both Christianity and the traditional liberty of British subjects—and France—where the idea of liberty took hold in the writings of thinkers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712— 1778). Eloquent abolitionists included the former slave Olaudah Equiano (1745—1797), whose autobiography entitled The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gus-tavas Vassa, the African . . . Written by Himself was published in London in 1789. British an-tislavery activists included the member of Parliament William Wilberforce (1759— 1833) and writer Thomas Clarkson (1760— 1846). Clarkson collected a wealth of data on the nature of the slave trade, including diagrams showing how slaves were packed into ships to maximize cargo space. In 1807 the British Parliament abolished the slave trade, and in 1833 it moved to abolish slavery throughout the British Empire. The British movement remained active, ensuring that the law was applied and campaigning against slavery in other parts of the world. British anti-slavers helped fund abolitionism in the United States.

The foundations of American antislavery were laid by the evangelical religious revivals of the early nineteenth century, which stressed the need to morally cleanse American life. Advocates of abolition as a Christian imperative included the free-born African American David Walker (c. 1796—1830), who was best known for his 1829 Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World, which called upon black people in the United States and beyond to collectively resist their oppression. The Quaker campaigner Benjamin Lundy (1789—1839) founded the abolitionist journals Philanthropist (1819) and Genius of Universal Emancipation (1821). Coeditor of the latter journal beginning in 1829, William Lloyd Garrison (1805—1879) went on to become the preeminent abolitionist. Garrison founded his own newspaper, The Liberator, and launched the New England Anti-Slavery Society in 1831 and the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1833. Other important figures included Arthur Tappan (1786—1865) and his brother Lewis Tappan (1788—1873). The abolitionists’ views terrified the slaveholders of the American South, who engineered “gag rules” to block discussion of the issue in Congress. Defenders of the slave system included Senator John C. Calhoun (1782—1850) of South Carolina. Calhoun’s arguments included the notion that slavery was part of the divine plan for the world. Proslavers also pointed to the danger of abolitionists inciting slave rebellions such as the 1831 uprising led by Nat Turner (1800—1831). The effective Southern defenses of gagging and physical attacks on antislavers proved powerful propaganda for the abolitionist cause in the North. Emotive events included the murder of the abolitionist printer and preacher Elijah Love-joy (1808—1837).

By the late 1830s abolitionism had become a large and diverse movement and a conduit for religious and regional feeling. The movement recruited many women. Powerful abolitionist speakers included former African American slaves like Sojourner Truth (1797—1883) and Frederick Douglass (c. 1817—1895). Some abolitionist propaganda material included stories selected for their sensational value, stressing the violence and sexual abuse within slavery. Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a relatively late addition to the abolitionist arsenal but proved an influential best-seller both in the United States and overseas. The most significant opponent of slavery among the nonslaveholding whites of the South was Hinton Rowan Helper (1829—1909).

Antislavery sentiments produced a variety of potential policy solutions. Some abolitionists became involved in political action through the Republican Party, arguing that the West should be developed as “Free Soil.” In Illinois the debate over this issue solidified the reputation of Abraham Lincoln (1809—1865). In 1856 an attempt to hold a plebiscite in Kansas to determine whether the territory should be free or slave ended in violence. Antagonists included John Brown (1800—1859), who mixed the religious rhetoric of a stump revivalist with a belief in the power of direct action to inspire or lay “restraining fear” on others. Brown’s actions included involvement in the murder of five proslavers alongside Pot-tawatomie Creek in Kansas. In 1859 Brown launched what he hoped would be the decisive inspirational event, namely, a raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry (in present-day West Virginia). He intended to sweep across the South, arming slaves as he went. Although his plan was foiled, his trial and execution became propaganda in their own right. In his final statement Brown prophesied endless bloodshed over the issue of slavery and claimed for himself the status of a martyr, which he retained in the iconography of the Union side during the Civil War.

The abolitionists remained active during the American Civil War. Although the issue of slavery had precipitated the war, it seemed plausible that the Union might be rebuilt based on a compromise rather than complete abolition. The abolitionists campaigned hard to link the Union cause to complete emancipation and were rewarded by Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, which freed the slaves in Confederate territory. In 1865, following the war’s end, the Thirteenth Amendment made abolition part of the U.S. Constitution.

The antislavery struggles continued in Brazil (where slavery was only abolished in 1888), the Ottoman Empire, and elsewhere in Africa and Asia. Major international declarations against slavery include the Brussels Act of 1890, the International Slavery Convention of 1926, and clauses of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights of 1948. At the start of the twenty-first century slavery remains a major concern for the United Nations and human rights activists, with antislavery issues overlapping with the problem of human trafficking associated with illegal migration.

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