The Significance of the American Revolution

Important as these initiatives were, however, they did not yet constitute an organized movement. Here, an important catalyst came in the shape of the American Revolution. At an ideological level, the fate of Britain’s North American colonies unleashed a heated debate about political representation that was quite often framed in terms of slavery (disfranchisement) and freedom (the vote).

The revolutionaries’ commitment to freedom and equality necessarily led to growing unease over the legitimacy of slavery, as did the valor of the African Americans who enlisted in the Patriot cause. As physician and signer of the Declaration of Independence Benjamin Rush put it, "It would be useless for us to denounce the servitude to which the Parliament of Great Britain wishes to reduce us, while we continue to keep our fellow creatures in slavery just because their color is different."

Significantly, the Revolution witnessed the emergence of the first broad-based abolitionist organizations, in the shape of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society (organized in 1775, reorganized in 1784) and the New York Manumission Society (1784). Soon, other groups appeared in New Jersey, Connecticut, and Rhode Island and, for a short time, in Maryland, Virginia, and Kentucky. Moreover, in 1794 an American Convention of Abolition Societies was formed in an unsuccessful effort to give the early abolitionist movement national scope.

The progress of abolition in America was initially swift. By 1788 no fewer than six states had legislated for the immediate abolition of the slave trade and two more, South Carolina and Delaware, had suspended it temporarily. Others, like Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, had also gone further and made some provision for the gradual or immediate abolition of slavery itself. This was state action, however.

At the federal level there was no getting away from the fact that the Constitutional Convention of 1787 had agreed to leave the slave trade intact until 1808. How this proposal had come to be adopted, first at Philadelphia and later by the ratifying conventions, bewildered many abolitionists, but nevertheless it was part of the Constitution, as was the clause recognizing slaves as three-fifths of a person for the purposes of representation in the House of Representatives.

Of course, there was an obvious irony here. If the Revolution stimulated interest in abolition, the truth was that there were evident limits to the American conception of freedom, particularly where enslaved Africans were concerned. It was one thing to attack slavery in New England or the Middle Atlantic states, where it had been of only marginal significance, quite another to attack it in Virginia, Maryland, Georgia, or the Carolinas. Here, American ideals of freedom and equality came into conflict with a southern plantocracy that jealously protected its economic and political interests; indeed, many of the principal revolutionaries, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, were themselves slaveholders, and showed little inclination to abolish the institution of slavery. Instead, the Founding Fathers agreed to disagree over slavery, as part of a series of compromises that underpinned the adoption of the Constitution in 1787.