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What Factors Brought about the Abolishment of Slavery?

By Nya Bruce
Updated May 17, 2024
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In 1865 the United States ended slavery with the 13th amendment to the United States Constitution. The abolishment of human slavery, however, was a long and difficult process spanning nearly a century from the time of the country's founding. There were many factors involved in bringing it to an end, most of which fall under economic developments, various forms of activism, political action, and the Civil War of 1860.

Forced servitude began as a result of economic concerns centering around the desire for cheap labor. In the end, though, evolving global economic conditions helped contribute to the abolishment of slavery. Working class Americans in the South became frustrated at competing with slave labor and began to migrate north and west. Economic interests inspired these workers to successfully oppose the spread of slave labor into new states admitted to the Union. It is widely speculated that had it not been for the Civil War, industrialization would have led to the abolishment of slavery by the dawn of the 20th century.

A more well-known factor that led to the abolishment of slavery was the abolitionist movement. Anti-slavery activists in America grew to include all races, religions and walks of life. Frederick Douglass, a former slave, gave the famous speech "What to the slave is the 4th of July?", while William Lloyd Garrison, the son of British immigrants, formed the New-England Anti-Slavery Society. Harriet Tubman, a former slave woman, became famous for smuggling slaves out of captivity through the Underground Railroad, and ultimately fought in the Civil War as a spy. Feminist leaders such as Susan B. Anthony also joined the anti-slavery movement.

Religious opposition to slavery always existed in the United States, but the Second Great Awakening, which began in the early 1800s, accelerated religion's role in the abolition of slavery. Charles Grandison Finney, an evangelical Christian, preached heavily against forced servitude. The Religious Society of Friends, or Quakers, were another prominent religious organization that opposed slavery. These various groups often interacted with each other, and their combined influence served to push American public opinion even further in favor of abolitionism.

From a political perspective, slavery was protected against Congressional action by the Constitution under Article I until 1808. Despite this, every state north of the Mason-Dixon line had outlawed slavery by 1804. As of January 1, Congress started the entire country's journey toward the abolishment of slavery by passing a law that forbade the importing of slaves into the country. Abraham Lincoln's election as the 16th President in 1860, however, led to the final factor in the abolishment of slavery, that being the Civil War.

The Civil War of 1860 started with the attempt by the South to secede from the United States, and the refusal of President Buchanan to allow this. Abraham Lincoln became President the next year and pursued a war against the resulting Confederate States of America. During the war, in 1863, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which declared almost all slaves in America to be free, including all of those in the Confederate States.

When the war ended with the Confederacy's defeat in 1865, the 13th Amendment to the Constitution was passed. It was pushed in order to prevent the Emancipation Proclamation from being revoked by future leaders. The Amendment itself is a short text which absolutely forbids slavery anywhere in the United States and its territories, as well as any form of forced servitude except as punishment for a crime.

America Explained is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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