Towards the Abolition of Slavery

Emerging out of the political crisis of the 1770s and 1780s, the early abolitionist movement was to prove one of the earliest examples of Anglo-American cooperation, at least in the reform sphere. Working through channels that stretched from London to New York, Philadelphia, and beyond, abolitionists exchanged ideas and information, in the process creating an "imagined community" of reformers, who offered one another support, advice, and encouragement.

On both sides of the Atlantic, moreover, abolitionists faced concerted opposition, something else that bound them together. Yet it is also important to be aware of the differences between British and American abolitionism. In Britain, debate was limited by a profound sense that, in the first instance, the fight had to be carried against the transatlantic slave trade; in fact, Wilberforce and his supporters often were at pains to point out that they had no intention of attacking Caribbean slavery.

American abolitionists, on the other hand, quite willingly embraced the abolition of slavery, albeit gradual abolition, just as they interested themselves in the welfare of free blacks. Similarly, while British abolitionists openly adopted tactics such as mass petitioning, American abolitionists were more cautious and, in a sense, more wary of alienating elite opinion.

After 1807-08 abolitionism entered a new phase; for many, it was synonymous with the 1830s movement led by William Lloyd Garrison. However, this shift or transformation should not detract from the historical significance of the early abolitionist movement or, indeed, its bearing on our understanding of Anglo-American reform.

Between 1807 and 1808 Britain and America moved to abandon their legal involvement in the transatlantic slave trade, committing themselves to a course of action that other nations viewed with surprise and bewilderment. Abolition of the transatlantic slave trade did not mean the end of British and American involvement in slavery, of course; Britain still had its slave colonies in the Caribbean, and the United States remained a slaveholding republic.

But what happened in 1807-08 was to prove the opening salvo in a campaign that would lead ultimately to the abolition of slavery in the British Caribbean in 1833-34 and the United States in 1865.

John Oldfield
University of Southampton