Brinkley - The Unfinished Nation: ee Book Cover
The Unfinished Nation: A Concise History of the American People, 5/e
Alan Brinkley, Columbia University

Chapter 12: The Abolition of Slavery

The United States abolished slavery through the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1865, in the aftermath of a great Civil War. But the effort to abolish slavery did not begin nor end in North America. Emancipation in the United States was part of a worldwide antislavery movement that had begun in the late eighteenth century and continued through the end of the nineteenth.

The end of slavery, like the end of monarchies and aristocracies, was one of the ideals of the Enlightenment, which inspired new concepts of individual freedom and political equality. As Enlightenment ideas spread throughout the western world in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, introducing the idea of human rights and individual liberty to the concept of civilization, people on both sides of the Atlantic began to examine slavery anew and to ask whether it was compatible with these new ideas. Some Enlightenment thinkers, including some of the founders of the American Republic, believed that freedom was appropriate for white people, but not for people of color. But others came to believe that all human beings had an equal claim to liberty and their views became the basis for an escalating series of antislavery movements.

Opponents of slavery first targeted the slave trade--the vast commerce in human beings that had grown up in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and had come to involve large parts of Europe, Africa, the Caribbean, and North and South America. In the aftermath of the revolutions in America, France, and Haiti in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the attack on the slave trade quickly gained momentum. Its central figure was the English reformer William Wilberforce, who spent years attacking Britain's connection with the slave trade. He argued against it on moral and religious grounds, and eventually, after the Haitian revolution, he argued as well that the continuation of slavery would create more slave revolts. In 1807, he persuaded Parliament to pass a law ending the slave trade within the entire British empire. The British example--when combined with heavy political, economic, and even military pressure from London--persuaded many other nations to make the slave trade illegal as well: the United States in 1808, France in 1814, Holland in 1817, Spain in 1845. Trading in slaves continued within countries and colonies where slavery remained legal (including in the United States), and some illegal slave trading continued throughout the Atlantic world. But the sale of slaves steadily declined after 1807. The last known shipment of slaves across the Atlantic--from Africa to Cuba--occurred in 1867.

Ending the slave trade was a great deal easier than ending slavery itself, in which many people had major investments and on which much agriculture, commerce, and industry depended. But pressure to abolish slavery grew steadily throughout the nineteenth century, with Wilberforce once more helping to lead the international outcry against the institution. In Haiti, the slave revolts that began in 1791 eventually abolished not only slavery, but also French rule. In some parts of South America, slavery came to an end with the overthrow of Spanish rule in the 1820s. Simón Bolívar, the great leader of Latin American independence, considered abolishing slavery an important part of his mission, freeing those who joined his armies and insisting on constitutional prohibitions of slavery in several of the Constitutions he helped frame. In 1833, the British parliament passed a law abolishing slavery throughout the British empire and compensate slaveowners for freeing their slaves. France abolished slavery in its empire, after years of agitation from abolitionists within France, in 1848. In the Caribbean, Spain followed Britain in slowly eliminating slavery from its colonies. Puerto Rico abolished slavery in 1873; and Cuba became the last colony in the Caribbean to end slavery, in 1886, in the face of increasing slave resistance and the declining profitability of slave-based plantations. Brazil was the last nation in the Americas, ending the system in 1888. The Brazilian military began to turn against slavery after the valiant participation of the slaves in Brazil's war with Paraguay in the late 1860s; eventually educated Brazilians began to oppose the system too, arguing that it obstructed economic and social progress.

In the United States, the power of world opinion--and the example of Wilberforce's movement in England--became and important source of the abolitionist movement as it gained strength in the 1820s and 1830s. American abolitionism, in turn, helped reinforce the movements abroad. Frederick Douglass, the former American slave turned abolitionist, became a major figure in the international antislavery movement and was a much-admired and much-sought-after speaker in England and Europe in the 1840s and 1850s. No other nation paid such a terrible price for abolishing slavery as did the United States during its Civil War, but American emancipation was nevertheless a part of a worldwide movement toward emancipation. - Africans in America: Efforts to End the Slave Trade - BBC: British Antislavery


Peruse the articles above. Why do you think slavery ended in England before the United States? Why was it so much easier to end the slave trade rather than to end slavery itself? How did the British antislavery movement aid the American abolitionists? - Spartacus: William Wilberforce - "On the Horrors of the Slave Trade," William Wilberforce


Examine the links above on British abolitionist William Wilberforce. What role did he play in the abolition of slavery and/or the slave trade in England? How do his arguments or methods compare to those of British abolitionists?