Skip to main content Skip to Search Box

Definition: abolitionism from Merriam-Webster's Collegiate(R) Dictionary

(1808) : principles or measures fostering abolition esp. of slavery

ab•o•li•tion•ist \-ist\ n or adj

Summary Article: abolitionism
From The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

A movement culminating in the late 18th and early 19th centuries that aimed first to end the slave trade, and then to abolish the institution of slavery and emancipate slaves. The movement took place in Europe, mainly in the UK, and in the USA.

Slavery was never widespread within the UK, but many UK citizens were involved with the slave trade and slavery flourished in the British colonies. The leading abolitionist in the UK was William Wilberforce, who persuaded parliament to ban the slave trade in 1807; all slaves within the British Empire were freed in 1833. In the USA, abolitionism was one of the key issues dividing the northern and southern states, leading to the American Civil War (1861–65). Slavery was officially abolished in the USA by the Emancipation Proclamation (1863) of President Abraham Lincoln, but could not be enforced until Union victory in 1865.

Although governments made the final and official decision to end slavery, abolition was the culmination of the work of numerous antislavery groups who had campaigned over many decades. The groups were inspired by a number of beliefs, ranging from religious faith to liberalism. Their leaders and membership were drawn from a wide variety of social classes, from the wealthy and powerful to the poorest workers and farmers.

UK abolitionism The end of the slave trade in Britain was brought about through the work of such groups as the Society of Friends (Quakers), the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, the Society for the Mitigation and Gradual Abolition of Slavery, the Glasgow Ladies Emancipation Society, and the Darlington Ladies' Anti-Slavery Society. These organizations used newspapers, books, and public meetings to spread their cause. They also worked hard to influence members of Parliament and the House of Lords to support abolitionism.

Individuals involved in the movement included the reformer William Wilberforce; the philanthropist Thomas Clarkson, who campaigned for abolition of slavery in the British Empire; Elizabeth Pease, leader of the Women's Abolition of Slavery Society; the Quaker Jane Smeal, founder of the Glasgow Ladies Emancipation Society; Granville Sharp, who in 1772 won a legal decision that gave freedom to any slave that set foot in England; and Mary Ann Rawson, who formed an independent women's antislavery group in Sheffield.

The British government outlawed the slave trade within the British Empire between 1807 and 1833. The first major act was the Abolition of the Slave Trade Bill passed in 1807. The bill made it illegal for British ships to carry slaves, but its effect was limited as the ownership and sale of slaves was still legal, and ship-owners worked hard to get round the law. In 1825 the government made the slave trade illegal in all parts of the British Empire, and in 1833 all slaves in the British Empire were freed, bringing the trade to an end.

British abolitionists achieved their success through the combined efforts of individuals, campaigning groups, popular pressure, religious belief, and parliamentary power.

US abolitionism The achievement of abolition in the USA took longer and was far more controversial, as slavery existed in much of the country. The slave states of the southern USA had built their economies on the labour of millions of slaves since the 1600s, and the constitutional arrangements that followed independence from Britain in 1783 had allowed slavery to continue in those states where it was already practised. However, even in the 18th century, the existence of slavery had caused disagreement between those who drafted the Constitution and Articles of Confederation. By the middle of the 19th century, with the USA expanding westwards, the continued existence of slavery led to bitter conflict between north and south.

One of the first US antislavery organizations was the Anti-Slavery Society, established in New York by Arthur Tappan and Lewis Tappan in 1831. Within ten years the society was nationwide, and had over 250,000 members in 2,000 separate groups. The Anti-Slavery Society drew its support from the same radical Christian groups that had fuelled British abolitionism during the previous 50 years. The Society of Friends (Quakers) and Methodists provided a fertile recruiting ground for the antislavery supporters. Abolitionism also attracted support from the large numbers of free blacks in the northern US states.

Abolitionists argued that slavery was immoral, brutal, and un-Christian. Gradualists, such as the Tappan brothers, worked on stopping the spread of slavery rather than trying to abolish the entire institution at once. Immediatists, such as the reformer William Garrison, who founded the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1833, demanded immediate emancipation of all slaves. The campaigners came from a variety of backgrounds: religious, such as Theodore Weld and Angelina Grimke; political, such as John Quincy Adams and Benjamin Franklin; and literary, such as John Greenleaf Whittier and Harriet Beecher Stowe. Black abolitionists included Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman. More abolitionist groups sprang up in the 1840s and 1850s. In 1840 the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society was formed as an offshoot from the Anti-Slavery Society.

Southern slave owners reacted against abolitionism and sought to protect their right to own slaves, especially after Nat Turner's rebellion in 1831. The fugitive slave laws, the most far-reaching passed in 1850, angered many Northerners and generated more support for the abolitionist cause. In defiance of these laws, abolitionists established escape routes to help southern slaves reach the safety of the north, the most celebrated route being the Underground Railroad, set up by Harriet Tubman, who had escaped the south in 1849. Between 1840 and 1854 three national political parties, the Liberal Party, the Free Soil Party, and the Republican Party adopted abolitionism as a policy. Tensions between North and South over slavery were further heightened with the pro-slavery Supreme Court Dred Scott Decision (1857) and the raid led by extremist abolitionist John Brown on the US arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia in 1859.

In 1861, following the election of the Republican Abraham Lincoln as president of the USA, the country was plunged into a four-year Civil War, with slavery being one of the major issues; abolitionists supported the Union. In 1863 Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation and in December 1865, at the end of the Civil War, the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution formally abolished slavery in the USA.

Despite its eventual success abolitionism was never a reform movement of a unified North. Although abolitionists mostly came from the North, most Northerners were not abolitionists. Moreover, most white American abolitionists, while fighting against the institution of slavery, still did not regard African Americans as their equals. Immediatists such as Garrison were regarded, even among other abolitionists, as crazed extremists. Other reform movements linked to abolitionism, such as the women's movement, further divided abolitionist leaders.


Brown, John: I Feel No Consciousness of Guilt

Douglass, Frederick: The Nature of Slavery

Douglass, Frederick: I Hear the Mournful Wail of Millions

Douglass, Frederick: Who Would Be Free, Themselves Must Strike the Blow

Douglas, Stephen A: Statement at Alton (Seventh Lincoln-Douglas Debate)

Garrison, William Lloyd: On the Death of John Brown

Seward, William H.: The Irrepressible Conflict


Anti-Slavery Campaign in Britain

Anti-Slavery Movement: a Brief Chronology (1831-1860)

Slave Trade

Studies in the World History of Slavery, Abolition and Emancipation

© RM, 2018. All rights reserved.

Related Articles

Full text Article Abolition
Encyclopedia of African American Society

The movement that advocated the liberation of enslaved African Americans. Even as white Americans won their independence from Great Britain in...

Full text Article Abolitionism
American Masculinities: A Historical Encyclopedia

Although opposition to the institution of slavery in North America dates back into the eighteenth century, the 1831 publication of William Lloyd...

Full text Article Slavery, Abolition of
The Encyclopedia of Christian Civilization

Slavery is virtually as old as human life. It was operative in Africa and in the Middle East before it made its way to Europe. By the time of Christ

See more from Credo