On the eve of the American Revolution, slavery was recognized and accepted throughout the New World. All of the major European powers at one time or another entered the Atlantic slave trade, just as most of them possessed slave colonies. Yet it was the British who came to dominate the Atlantic slave system. British Empire ships carried more African captives than any nation (an estimated three million); Britain's colonies in the Caribbean and mainland North America produced vast quantities of tropical goods (sugar, tobacco, rice, indigo) for the home market; and the country as a whole grew rich on the profits of enslaved African labor.

Within two decades, however, Britain (1807) and the United States (1808) had acted decisively to abandon the transatlantic slave trade. In fact, "abolition" was to emerge as one of the most important reform movements of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

How and why this came about are questions that continue to puzzle historians. By and large, interpretations of abolition tend to fall into two camps. The first, popularized during the nineteenth century, tends to explain abolition in terms of a moral or humanitarian movement.

The second, which can be traced back to the publication of Eric Williams's book Capitalism and Slavery, in 1944, places much greater emphasis on economic factors. Controversially, Williams argued that abolition coincided with periods of general economic decline in the British Caribbean. Abolition, in other words, was motivated purely by economic self-interest. Williams's "decline thesis" remains a subject of ongoing historical inquiry. But if many of his arguments have been questioned, Williams was surely right in drawing attention to the connection between abolition and capitalism.

This is not to suggest that the spread of abolitionist ideas had to rest on the growth of the factory system and free-labor ideology, but that there was a link of some sort, perhaps a transformation of consciousness, evident in the desire on both sides of the Atlantic to dignify and honor labor, now seems indisputable. Abolition is perhaps best understood as the confluence of a number of different factors, some of them moral, some of them economic, and some of them ideological.

The Early Movement

Properly speaking, the early abolitionist movement dates from the late eighteenth century. But there were attacks on slavery and the slave trade before this period. Enlightenment figures, such as French philosophers Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Montesquieu, both expressed their disapproval of the Atlantic slave system, as did writers like Aphra Behn, the author of Oroonoko (1688), the story of an African enslaved in Suriname.

For the most part, these early critics focused on the inhumanity, cruelty, and immorality of the slave trade, themes that would be picked up by abolitionists in the 1780s. The case against colonial slavery was also greatly strengthened by political economists such as the Scottish Adam Smith, who argued that slave labor was costly and inefficient, certainly when compared to free wage labor. Others went further, condemning slavery on the grounds that it was harmful to personal industry, profitable economy, and family life. Slavery was increasingly viewed by many eighteenth-century Britons (and Americans, too) as part of a "system" that appeared outmoded and in urgent need of repair.

An important lead also came from the Religious Society of Friends, known as Quakers. Convinced of the utter sinfulness of physical coercion, American Quaker activists, following Anthony Benezet and John Woolman, succeeded in making abolition a test of religious truth. In 1758, the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting made involvement in the slave trade a disciplinary offence, leading to exclusion from all its business meetings.

Two years later Quakers in New England similarly changed their policy relating to slave merchants. Interestingly, there was an international or transatlantic dimension to this reform activity. In 1761 the London Yearly Meeting also announced that any of its members found guilty of involvement in the slave trade would merit disownment. Underpinned by an intricate web of family connections and business contacts, international Quakerism would prove to be one of the most dynamic and enduring factors in the campaign against both slavery and the slave trade.

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.

American Abolitionists

American abolitionists sought to circumvent the Constitution by appealing directly to the U.S. Congress. On February 11, 1790, two Quaker delegations from New York and Philadelphia presented petitions to the House of Representatives calling for an immediate end to the international slave trade. This was followed the next day by a petition from the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, signed and endorsed by Founding Father Benjamin Franklin, this time urging Congress to adopt measures against slavery as well as the slave trade.

The ensuing debate determined the broad lines of Congressional action for the next eighteen years. On March 23, the House of Representatives affirmed that it could neither abolish the slave trade, at least not before 1808, nor take any action affecting the emancipation of slaves. The Constitution, in other words, meant exactly what it said, a point made forcefully by figures like future president James Madison, who feared that any concessions to abolitionists might only invite the disunion of the infant American republic.

Nevertheless, the House of Representatives did go on to reserve its right to regulate the trade. In 1794, for instance, following intense pressure from abolitionists, Congress prohibited United States citizens from supplying slaves to foreigners. Similar commitments were also made regarding the "humane" treatment of Africans during the Middle Passage.

Increasingly, after 1790 American abolitionists would look to Britain to take deliberate action against the transatlantic slave trade, thereby setting an example for others to follow.

The British Movement After 1783

Like its American counterpart, the British movement had emerged in the years immediately following the American Revolution. The timing was again significant. The Revolution galvanized political debate in Britain, at the same time giving slavery (disfranchisement) an immediate significance by linking it to the political condition of thousand of native-born Britons. But the Revolution also had a more far-reaching effect.

Defeat in the American war brought with it a searching and sometimes painful reevaluation of Britain’s standing as a once victorious Protestant nation. One result of the loss of the American colonies was a move to tighten the reins of empire elsewhere, notably in Canada, Ireland, and the British Caribbean. Another, however, was a rise in enthusiasm for political and religious reform, for virtually anything, in fact, that might prevent a similar humiliation in the future.

The loss of the American colonies forced Britons to think about themselves and about their failings. Naturally enough, slavery and the slave trade also came under the microscope, leading some Britons to contemplate alternative visions of empire, including, significantly, an empire without slavery. If the debate was rarely framed in these precise terms, we should not underestimate the impact of the American Revolution and imperial crisis on British political thought.

Seen in this light, the abolition of the slave trade was inextricably linked with the character, virtue, and destiny of the British nation, at least until the rising tide of revolutionary violence in France shifted the terms of debate yet again. The American Revolution also had a vital impact on British abolitionism because it effectively divided British America, at the same time halving the number of slaves in the British Empire. Abolitionists were well aware of the importance of these events. "As long as America was ours," wrote abolitionist Thomas Clarkson in 1788, "there was no chance that a minister would have attended to the groans of the sons and daughters of Africa, however he might feel for their distress."

War — or, more precisely, defeat — created a climate in which abolitionism could take root. Early abolitionist activity in Britain was channeled through the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade (SEAST), organized in May 1787, which, with some justification, has been described as the prototype of the nineteenth-century reform organization. Its task was to create a constituency for abolition through the distribution of circular letters, books, and pamphlets. Abolitionists were also quick to exploit the influence of the press and, in the case of Wedgwood’s famous cameo of the kneeling slave, visual images and artifacts.

Moreover, in Thomas Clarkson they possessed the movement’s only full-time, professional reformer. An indefatigable and obsessive man, Clarkson not only popularized abolition through his various letters and pamphlets, but as the SEAST’s traveling agent (he made three tours of England and Scotland between 1788 and 1791), he provided a vital link between London and the provinces.

African Abolitionists

A key role was also played by a small group of black abolitionists who formed a group known as the Sons of Africa. Among them was Olaudah Equiano, of Nigerian origin. An ex-slave who traveled widely and was at one time or another a servant, a hairdresser, a miner, and a ship’s steward, Equiano emerged in his forties as an important spokesman for the early abolitionist movement. He described some of his experiences in his enormously successful Interesting Narrative (1789), which remains probably the most complete account of the enslaved experience in the eighteenth century.

In 1791 Equiano spent more than eight and half months touring Ireland. The following year he visited Scotland and spoke to meetings in Manchester, Nottingham, Sheffield, Durham, and Hull. At the same time, he wrote articles and reviews for the Public Advertiser and was personally acquainted with abolitionists Granville Sharp and Sir William Dolben.

Together with Sharp and another free African, Ottobah Cugoano—a Fante from Ghana who had been enslaved in Grenada—Equiano also helped to publicize the 1781 Zong case, in which the British owners of the slave ship Zong attempted to claim insurance on 133 Africans from São Tomé who had been thrown overboard when an epidemic spread.

An International Movement

There was always an international dimension to the early abolitionist movement; indeed, foreign support and intervention were deemed vital to the success of the movement at home. In pursuit of these aims, British abolitionists made contact with the French Société des Amis des Noirs, following its organization in 1788.

More significant, certainly in the long term, were the links that British abolitionists established with their counterparts in the United States. Personal contacts between British and American abolitionists had been forged during the colonial period. Granville Sharp, for instance, had been introduced to Benjamin Franklin through Anthony Benezet and corresponded with Benjamin Rush of Philadelphia, while for years Quakers on both sides of the Atlantic had been united in their efforts to alleviate the sufferings of the black population.

If anything, the Revolution strengthened these ties, at the same time setting them on a more formal basis. One of the first acts of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, following its reorganization in 1784, was to open a correspondence with Thomas Clarkson. Eager to repay the compliment, in July 1787 the SEAST wrote to the societies at Philadelphia and New York to inform them of the measures they had taken for the abolition of the slave trade.

The SEAST’s long-term objective was to stimulate enough interest to encourage mass petitioning. In fact, the history of the early abolitionist movement in Britain can be told in terms of two major petition campaigns. The first took place in 1788, when over one hundred petitions dealing with the slave trade were presented to the House of Commons.

Abolitionists, Planters, and Saint Domingue

It was against the background of this campaign that, on February 11, 1788 a committee of the Privy Council was appointed to look into the state of the slave trade. In May, William Wilberforce, working in close cooperation with the London Committee of the SEAST, introduced a motion in the House of Commons calling for an early abolition of the trade. But the Commons resolved to hear its own evidence, a compromise measure that left abolitionists playing a dangerous waiting game. Wilberforce and his supporters did win one concession, however. Late in the same session both Houses passed Sir William Dolben’s Slave Limitation (or Middle Passage) Bill, which reduced the number of captives that British ships could carry.

The Commons’ hearings dragged on until February 1791. Undaunted, the SEAST went on collecting evidence, distributing tracts, and lobbying MPs. Despite these efforts, Wilberforce’s motion was again defeated, this time by a vote of 163 to 88. The size of this defeat prompted him to propose launching another petition campaign. Everything indicated that public support for abolition was still strong. Help also came from William Fox’s Address to the People of Great Britain, on the Utility of Refraining from West India Sugar and Rum (1791). Fox’s pamphlet, which went through fourteen editions, inspired a nationwide boycott of West Indian sugar and rum that at its peak involved some 300,000 families.

Not to be outdone, in 1792 the powerful Society of West India Planters and Merchants set up its own publications committee, whose activities mirrored exactly those of the SEAST. The propaganda war was further intensified by debates over the meaning and significance of the slave insurrection in Saint Domingue (future Haiti) in 1791. The SEAST was eager to refute the charge that abolition of the slave trade, or even abolitionist activity, might in any way lead to the destruction of West Indian property.

The revolt in Saint Domingue, abolitionists countered, had not been caused by "the friends of the blacks in France," but by "the pride and obstinacy of the whites who drove them to their fate, by an impolitic and foolish dissention with the mulattoes, and with each other." Yet for many, Saint Domingue would remain a potent symbol of violence, instability, and unrest, conjuring up images that made explicit the link between abolition, liberty, and the rising tide of revolutionary violence in France.

Decline of the British Abolition Movement

Despite these obstacles, the petition campaign of 1792 was a huge success. In all, 519 petitions were presented to the House of Commons, the largest number ever submitted to the House on a single subject or in a single session. In 1792, the House of Commons resolved, by a vote of 230 to 85, that the slave trade ought to be gradually abolished. After lengthy debate, January 1, 1796, was fixed for its abolition.

The Lords, however, rejected the Commons’ resolution and on June 5, 1792, voted to postpone the business until the following session, when they would hear their own evidence for and against the slave trade. Abolitionists suffered further humiliation in 1793, when the House of Commons refused to revive the subject of the slave trade, in effect reversing the resolution of the previous year.

In desperation the SEAST considered and then rejected a proposal to endorse a nationwide boycott of slave-grown produce. The abolitionist movement lost momentum and, ultimately, purpose. As the hearings in the Lords spluttered to a halt, even the gathering of fresh evidence began to lose significance. The result was disintegration and decay.

In 1793 the London Committee of the SEAST met thirty-three times; in 1794 the figure fell to just nine. That same year, Clarkson withdrew from the fight, his health broken by a punishing round of tours and meetings. Thereafter, the SEAST went into a steep decline, finally ceasing operations in 1797.

American Abolitionists, Elitism and Education

In the United States, meanwhile, the movement had evolved in a different, if complementary, direction. The style was different as well. Whereas British abolitionists committed themselves to grass-roots activity, appealing directly to local electors, by and large, early American abolitionists conceived of anti-slavery as an elite movement, espousing carefully worded legal and political challenges to slavery and the slave trade.

Discretion was the by-word of groups like the Pennsylvania Abolition Society: hence the emphasis on persuading legislators to take action by emphasizing their "honorable" and "gentlemanly" credentials. If groups like the SEAST took obvious pride in depicting themselves as "respectable," a key word in the abolitionists’ vocabulary, they also attached great weight to their ability to speak for the British "people," thereby helping to redefine the shape of British politics.

Moreover, American abolitionists, frustrated in their efforts to get Congress to implement a federal ban on the slave trade, spent an increasing amount of their time defending state abolition plans. They also took a keen interest in the welfare of free blacks, sponsoring African schools and, where possible, extending legal aid to distressed blacks, particularly those kidnapped or caught up in the domestic slave trade.

The New York Manumission Society, for instance, established its first school for African Americans, the African Free School, in New York City in 1787, and was responsible for educating thousands of pupils, including Rev. Alexander Crummell, the scholar and missionary who served twenty years in Liberia, and former runaway and abolitionist Rev. Henry Highland Garnett, an advocate of emigration. If anything, these legal and educational activities would assume greater importance as time went on, helping to give American abolitionism its own distinctive shape and character, especially after 1790.

The Abolition of the Slave Trade

By century’s end, abolitionism seemed to have reached something of an impasse on both sides of the Atlantic. But then in 1804 the British movement sprang back into life, presumably at the instigation of William Wilberforce. The government was clearly in favor of the measure. Furthermore, the entry into Parliament of a batch of new "liberal" Irish MPs, following the Act of Union of 1801, subtly altered the disposition of pro- and anti-slavery forces in the House of Commons.

By 1807 it also looked as though it would be possible to build an international coalition against the transatlantic slave trade, something that had proved impossible during the 1790s. Denmark had already abolished it in 1792. The United States was expected to follow suit in 1808, while for different reasons Holland, Portugal, and France were all highly susceptible to diplomatic pressure. Perhaps just as important, a modest increase in slave births over deaths in the British Caribbean, notably in Barbados, held out the prospect that the British sugar colonies might be able to supply themselves.

In this sense, the abolition of the slave trade was a pragmatic decision made in the knowledge that Britain could probably afford to dispense with it. Yet there is little doubt that public opinion was behind the measure, or that many MPs were swayed by the moral arguments put forward by Wilberforce and his supporters.

The death of William Pitt in 1806 also proved an important turning point. The new government, Lord Grenville’s "Ministry of All the Talents," was known to be in favor of the measure. In 1806 it brought in a bill prohibiting the slave trade to conquered Dutch Guiana. Seizing this opportunity, Wilberforce began to attach the provisions of his own Foreign Slave Bill to the proposed legislation. The Foreign Slave Bill was passed into law in 1806, paving the way for the Abolition Act of 1807, which finally outlawed all British involvement in the Atlantic slave trade. As predicted, a year later the United States also officially abandoned the slave trade, in accordance with the constitutional ban agreed to in 1787.

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


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