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The Demise of Slavery

J. William Harris
Professor of History
University of New Hampshire
National Humanities Center Fellow
©National Humanities Center

The institution of slavery was central to the economy and politics of the United States from the colonial era to the Civil War, and its demise was connected to almost every significant development of the country’s history. That demise came in two broad waves of reform—one gradual, largely peaceful, in areas with relatively few slaves; the other climaxing in a violent clash of sections resulting in the liberation of four million slaves. A confluence of changing ideological currents, resistance by both slaves and their free allies (black and white), and political developments that were, at first, not directly related to slavery, brought about its end. (Its demise was also part of broader, Atlantic-wide movement, but developments outside the U. S. are beyond the scope of this essay.)

The first wave of emancipation was prepared by new ideas and convictions from both secular (“Enlightenment”) and religious sources in the eighteenth century. Political thinkers such as Montesquieu began to argue that slavery violated basic rights belonging by nature (“natural rights”) to all human beings—most obviously, the rights to liberty of person. Other Enlightenment writers, especially in Scotland, condemned slavery on humanitarian grounds—that is, for its cruelty more than its violation of rights. At about the same time, a separate stream of antislavery thought sprang from adherents of certain religious denominations. Writers such as the Quaker John Woolman became convinced that holding slaves was a serious sin; his concern for slaves spread first to other Quakers, and then beyond. By the 1770s, much polite opinion in both Britain and British America had become at least nominally antislavery.

Still, even if antislavery ideas were in the air, not until the American Revolution was there any actual movement to outlaw slavery or emancipate slaves. From 1765, American resistance to British policies was framed as resistance to “enslavement,” and Americans appealed to natural rights philosophy, eloquently summarized by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence, to justify their rebellion. If Americans had failed to notice the contradiction between resisting their own “enslavement” and holding hundreds of thousands of slaves, British critics were ready to point it out to them. As Samuel Johnson put it, “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of Negroes?” Even before 1776, some Americans denounced slaveholding, and African American slaves in Massachusetts petitioned the legislature to abolish slavery.

The coming of war dramatically escalated the movement against slavery by involving the slaves themselves. Virginia’s royal governor, Lord Dunmore, promised freedom to slaves who fought with the British, and General Henry Clinton made a similar promise to slaves of “rebels” in South Carolina. Tens of thousands of slaves, from New York to Georgia, fled their owners, including slaves owned by Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. In New Hampshire and Massachusetts, new state constitutions in the 1780s effectively outlawed slavery. Pennsylvania became the first state to end slavery legislatively, freeing all children (though only at the age of 28) born of slaves after March 1, 1780. This kind of post-natal emancipation (preserving for owners much of their economic stake in slaveholding) was copied by Connecticut and Rhode Island in 1784, New York in 1799, and New Jersey in 1804, although there were still a few slaves in New Jersey as late as 1850. The Northwest Ordinance in 1787 extended this area of “free soil” to the territories north of the Ohio River.

From Maryland to Georgia, though, slavery persisted. Some state laws did make it easier for individual masters to emancipate, and thousands of slaves became free in Virginia and Maryland. Beyond this, though, moves to free slaves stalled. One reason was economic—slavery was far more important to the rice and tobacco economies of the southern states than in the North. Secondly, most whites in both the North and South could scarcely conceive of a society in which blacks and whites lived peacefully as equals. In northern states, where the black population was small, this did not matter so much, but further south, where slaves formed one-third or even two-thirds (in South Carolina), whites feared the consequences of a large, free, African-descendant population. The violent overthrow of slavery in Haiti in a huge slave rebellion in the 1790s seemed to confirm southern whites’ fears, and after 1800 most southern states made it harder to free slaves and passed harsh restrictions on the rights of the free blacks. (Most northern states also discriminated sharply against free African Americans.)

This division of the country into a slave section and a non-slave section was affirmed by the Constitution. The Constitution allowed for the ending of the Atlantic slave trade after 20 years—which was accomplished in 1808. It forbade states to interfere with the recovery of fugitive slaves from other states, and it counted 3/5 of slaves in the formulas for representation and electoral votes. The language of the Constitution was ambiguous enough that later antislavery writers sometimes argued that it was fundamentally antislavery (for example, the document referred not to “slaves” or “slavery,” but instead to “other persons,” or “such persons,” or persons “held to service or labour”). It is perhaps most accurate to say that the authors of the Constitution put off a solution to the problem of slavery to a later day. Certainly, any frankly antislavery clause would have prevented its ratification in Georgia and South Carolina.

As the first wave of antislavery reform waned, slavery grew more entrenched in the southern states, especially after the perfection of a cotton gin in 1793 added another great staple crop based on slave labor. After 1800, cotton and slavery moved together into the old southwest. A faint echo of earlier antislavery views appeared in the form of the American Colonization Society in 1816, supported by some as a way to make emancipation possible by sending former slaves to distant colonies. The ACS, however, had virtually no impact on the number of slaves in the U.S.

Not until the late 1820s did a second great wave of antislavery reform grow. The most important ideological development was the Second Great Awakening, which led many thousands into evangelical Christian denominations. Many of these converts set out to improve the world so as to prepare for Christ’s second coming, and among the improvements sought was the end of slavery. As in the first wave of emancipation, the actions of African Americans were crucial. Most northern blacks emphatically opposed colonization, insisting that they were as “American” as whites were. Meeting some of these free African Americans helped turn William Lloyd Garrison from a supporter of colonization into a crusader for an immediate end, not only of slavery, but of racial discrimination. Garrison was only the most famous of the new style of antislavery activists, soon known as “abolitionists.” They denounced slave owners as un-Christian sinners whose cruelties—from whippings to separation of families—must be ended immediately, but they also blamed northerners for toleration slavery. Some abolitionists adopted rather paternalist attitudes toward blacks, but others welcomed African Americans such as Frederick Douglass into their movement. Abolitionists formed societies, hired professional lecturers to spread the word, published and distributed hundreds of thousands of pamphlets, and collected tens of thousands of names on petitions to Congress. Many of these activists were women, who were brought in large numbers into public debates.

Nonetheless, abolitionists were a tiny and unpopular minority, and not just in the South; mobs attacked abolitionist meetings in northern cities and burned their meeting halls. Elijah Lovejoy, an abolitionist editor in Illinois, was killed by a mob in 1837. Politicians denounced abolitionists as a threat to the Union, and the new Democratic and Whig parties, just being formed, tried to keep the entire subject of slavery out of political discourse. Frustrated with a seeming lack of progress in their cause, some abolitionists, most famously John Brown later turned to violence.

Southern resistance, however, helped to spread antislavery sentiment. White southerners claimed that abolitionist agitation would do nothing but produce slave insurrections—like the one led by Nat Turner in Virginia in 1831, which took the lives of about 60 whites. Southerners burned abolitionist pamphlets mailed to the South, and southern representatives succeeded in having Congress ban all discussion of antislavery petitions. These actions, for many northerners, turned the issue from one of slavery for blacks to one of civil liberties for whites. Another political conflict was provoked by slaves who resisted by running away from their masters. Southerners insisted on a new, more powerful Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, but many northerners were outraged that the Act potentially made them personally responsible for the capture and return of fugitive slaves. (Harriet Beecher Stowe’s sensational 1852 novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, stoked this outrage.) Ultimately the most divisive political issue was whether slavery should be allowed in new territories. While most northern whites were content to see slavery continue in the South, by the 1850s a substantial majority were opposed (sometimes for moral reasons, sometimes for racist ones) to slavery’s expansion. The issue was first confronted in 1819, when the Missouri Compromise divided territories into “free” and “slave” areas, but this compromise broke down after new territory was taken from Mexico in 1848, and many southerners began to insist that they had the right to carry their slaves into any territory. By 1860, a substantial majority of northerners supported the policy of the new Republican Party, to exclude slavery totally from all territories.

The election of Republican Abraham Lincoln in 1860 prompted the secession of seven southern states even before he took office, and his refusal to recognize the legitimacy of their Confederacy led four more states to secede. The resulting Civil War eventually produced a decision by Lincoln to issue his Emancipation Proclamation, freeing slaves in the Confederacy. The freedom of other slaves—including those held in the Union states of Kentucky and Delaware—was not insured until passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution in 1865.

Guiding Student Discussion

These are complex developments, but they will be covered in more or less straightforward chronological fashion in any good U.S. history text. The barriers to interesting and lively discussion with students—at least based on my own experience—are that many will think they already know the “why” of slavery’s demise. Not uncommonly, students will think in narrow terms: “Lincoln freed the slaves.” Students who think more broadly may argue that slavery’s end was an inevitable by-product of moral progress—a simple triumph of good over evil. More “realistic” (or cynical) students may believe that northerners wanted to end slavery because they thought it endangered their own industrial system, or that slavery was doomed because it was inefficient and unprofitable.

Taking these arguments in reverse order: While contemporary critics of slavery believed that it was, indeed, economically backward, it is important for your students to understand that slavery was a quite profitable economic system for slave owners, and that it was, in narrow, technical terms, quite efficient in the production of valuable commodities. Furthermore, the slave states—especially the cotton states—were flourishing economically in the 1850s. Whatever the long-term prospects for slave labor, there is no reason whatsoever to think that slavery was in danger of economic collapse on the eve of the Civil War.

As for a conflict between slave and free labor societies, challenge your students to explain just why such a conflict was inevitable. Cotton, for example, provided profits not only for southerners, but also for northern merchants who sold the cotton (the most valuable commodity in U.S. foreign trade) and factory owners who used it to make cloth that they then sold back to the South. Or, ask why farmers in Illinois and Ohio—mainly agricultural states—should have any economic reason to oppose slavery in Kentucky or Mississippi. If they bring up the issue of tariffs, a source of real disagreement at times, point out that conflict over tariffs had almost disappeared by the 1850s, just when sectional disputes intensified.

The argument based on moral progress raises different sorts of questions. Students, for example, may believe that the main historical problem is to decide why slavery, a self-evidently immoral system, existed at all, rather than why it was ended. Here, the challenge is to get them to understand that the existence of antislavery, not slavery, is the greater historical problem. New World slavery is no historical anomaly. Slavery is one of the most widespread institutions in human history, familiar to the Hebrews of the Old Testament, central in ancient Greece and Rome, and accepted without controversy by early Christians. To be sure, slaves in all systems have resisted their own enslavement in a variety of ways, but it was not until the middle of the eighteenth century that a broad spectrum of intellectual and religious leaders began to argue that slavery itself, and as a system, was wrong, and should be abolished. Historian David Brion Davis, for example, has written that the eight years between 1746 and 1754, which saw a series of classic antislavery publications, “represented a turning point in the history of Western culture.” If students are puzzled by this lack of recognition that slavery was immoral, you might introduce them to a clever analogy suggested by historian Thomas L. Haskell. Suppose that, 200 years from now, the eating of meat has been completely banned and the killing of animals for meat is seen as a heinous crime. Would that give future historians the right to look back on us, in the twenty-first century, as hopelessly evil and immoral people? The goal is to get students to see that even some of their most powerful moral perceptions may be time-bound, that moral perception itself can undergo historical change. Thinking about it this way may also help them to understand what the abolitionists were up against as they campaigned against this powerful and profitable institution, and why they were seen, as they so often were, as mere cranks and troublemakers.

For the U.S. story, easily available documents can help. Passages from Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia (1784) can demonstrate how powerful moral condemnations of slavery could coexist with racial fears and prejudices, to the extent that Jefferson was paralyzed when it came to any actual, practical policies designed to end slavery. Garrison’s denunciations of the Constitution as a pact with the devil, or Frederick Douglass’s notable address, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?,” or a consideration of John Brown’s use of violence, may explain why many northerners saw abolitionists as unpatriotic subversives, as dangerous as Communists would appear in the 1950s. Discussion of this point may open the way to a consideration of the benefits and costs of radical vs. gradual reforms, especially when improvement in one area may endanger a “good” in a different area.

Such issues are relevant also to any discussion of Lincoln’s role in ending slavery. Give your students a few pages of the exchanges on slavery and race from the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858. These pages should disabuse them of making the easy and mistaken equations, South = Slavery = Racism; North = Freedom = Racial Equality. To judge from my own classes, perhaps no other document will provoke such sharp discussions as Lincoln’s straightforward statement that “I have no purpose to introduce political and social equality between the white and black races. There is a physical difference between the two, which in my judgment will probably forever forbid their living together upon the footing of perfect equality, and inasmuch as it becomes a necessity, that there must be a difference, I, as well as Judge Douglas, am in favor of the race to which I belong, having the superior position.” Some will be shocked, and others may dismiss Lincoln as just another typical politician. This is not unreasonable, but try to get them to go beyond initial outrage to read, carefully, Lincoln’s equally consistent statements that “there is no reason in the world why the negro is not entitled to all the natural rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence, the right of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” and that “in the right to eat the bread, without leave of anybody else, which his own hand earns, he is my equal and the equal of Judge Douglas, and the equal of every living man.” To Lincoln, the Union was the highest good, and since slavery was protected by the Constitution, those opposed to slavery must be patient until history worked things out. In the meantime, though, the nation should do nothing to prolong slavery’s life or, even worse, to give it the stamp of moral approval. Hence the policy of no slavery in the territories, but also Lincoln’s insistence, even in the secession crisis, that “I have no purpose directly or indirectly to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists.”

This will present students with yet another important question—why did Lincoln eventually issue an Emancipation Proclamation, and why did the Civil War end slavery in the United States? Here the actions of southern slaves, on the one hand, and the contingencies of war, on the other, proved crucial. Long before the Emancipation Proclamation was issued in 1863 (the preliminary proclamation in September 1862), tens of thousands of slaves had run away to Union lines, presenting both a practical problem and a potential opportunity. After more than a year of war, northern armies had suffered severe defeats and northern manpower was becoming difficult to tap. Emancipation was a war measure, designed to cripple the southern states economically and militarily and to open the way to recruitment of black soldiers. Eventually about 180,000 African Americans, roughly ten percent of all Union forces but a higher percentage of those engaged in the final year of the war, fought in Union ranks and helped tilt the military balance. Emancipation was thus a complex, often messy, and never purely idealistic process. It was the beginning, not the end, of the long road toward genuine racial equality in the United States.

Historians and the end of slavery

No historian has contributed more than David Brion Davis to our understanding of the rise of antislavery. Davis has published many books, some of them prize-winners, but the best introduction to his work, and to the subject, is his recent Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World (2006). Based on Davis’s undergraduate lectures at Yale, the book not only summarizes what we know, but also introduces the reader to many of the historiographical debates about both slavery and anti-slavery. One of the most important of these debates has concerned the link, if any, between the rise of antislavery in Britain and the simultaneous development of modern capitalism. This debate is carried on at a high level in essays that first appeared in the American Historical Review, and later were edited by Thomas Bender as The Antislavery Debates: Capitalism and Abolitionism as a Problem in Historical Interpretation (1992).

The appearance of a new style of abolitionism in the U.S. about 1830 raises its own set of questions. One recent book that explores the relationship between the first and second waves of antislavery reform is Richard S. Newman, The Transformation of American Abolitionism: Fighting Slavery in the Early Republic (2002). Newman highlights, among other factors, the influence of free African Americans in the transformation of his title.

Given the unpopularity of the abolitionists and the widespread racism shared by the great majority of northern and southern whites, a central question has been how conflicts over slavery nevertheless entered politics. James Oakes’s recent study, The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics (2007) explores this question through an examination of the relationship between the great African American abolitionist and the president who ultimately issued a proclamation to free slaves. Oakes’s bibliographical essay is also an excellent guide to the historical literature on the antislavery movement of the antebellum and Civil War years.

J. William Harris is Professor of History at the University of New Hampshire. He was a National Humanities Center Fellow in 1992–93. He is the author of Plain Folk and Gentry in a Slave Society (1995) and Deep Souths: Delta, Piedmont, and Sea Island Society in the Age of Segregation (2001).

To cite this essay:
Harris, J. William. “The Demise of Slavery.” Freedom’s Story, TeacherServe©. National Humanities Center. DATE YOU ACCESSED ESSAY. <>


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