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What Is the Anti-Slavery Movement?

By Andy Josiah
Updated May 17, 2024
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An anti-slavery movement is a movement for the abolition of slavery. In United States history, it was called abolitionism, or the abolition movement. The anti-slavery movement is most commonly associated with the transatlantic slave trade, which involved the transportation of millions of Africans across the Atlantic Ocean to the Western world as slaves. It is considered one of the great social movements of the 19th century, when it exhibited its greatest influence due to the slave trade and slavery hitting its peak during that period.

The origin of the anti-slavery movement can be traced as far back as the mid-16th century, when the African slave trade was in its beginning stages. In 1542, Charles I, the King of Spain, established the Leyes Nuevas, or New Laws, which abolished slavery of the original inhabitants of the lands in newly discovered America under his domain. Charles I was greatly influenced by friar Bartolome de las Casa, who deplored the forced Indian labor in the colonies.

By the late 18th century, when the African slave trade was in full swing, the anti-slavery movement had begun to take form. England led the charge, drawing inspiration from cases in Scotland that challenged the legality of slavery. A judge of Scottish origin, Lord Mansfield, was responsible for declaring slavery in England unlawful in 1772. The Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, spearheaded by abolitionists such as William Wilberforce, campaigned for the abolition of the slave trade and slavery in the British Empire, which was achieved with the Slave Trade Act 1807 and Slave Abolition Act 1833, respectively. Black people themselves, which included Olaudah Equiano, were prominent in Britain’s anti-slavery movement.

In the United States, members of the anti-slavery movement included William Lloyd Garrison, who co-founded the American Anti-Slavery Society; Frederick Douglass, a former slave who became one of the abolitionist group’s greatest members; John Brown, who preferred violent to pacifist techniques; and Harriet Beecher Stowe, best known for the slavery-era novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Although the U.S. had abolished slave trading in 1808, slavery still existed in the country. It was particularly entrenched in the economic and social system of the South.

By 1860, the number of slaves in the South had climbed to four million. A secession of Southern states, collectively called the Confederate States of America, in response to their slavery system being threatened, led to the American Civil War. By the end of 1865, the Confederacy had been defeated, and the 13th Amendment to the Constitution had been ratified, thus abolishing slavery in the U.S. The anti-slavery movement began to subside afterward, as one country after the other adopted anti-slavery legislation. Abolitionist groups, however, still exist in modern day to combat slavery practiced illegally in several parts of the world.

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Discussion Comments
By Talentryto — On Mar 16, 2014

@rundocuri- I use to live in a town that had several homes along a river that were part of the Underground Railroad. I toured several of them, and was in awe at the history in them. Several of them had hidden rooms where many slaves lived for weeks and months at a time as they made their way to freedom. I recommend that anyone who has the chance to visit such historical buildings to take advantage of such opportunities.

By Rundocuri — On Mar 16, 2014

I find the history of the Underground Railroad that helped free many slaves to be very interesting. This is part of the anti-slavery movement that gave many former slaves new lives.

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