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The destruction, annihilation, abrogation, or extinguishment of anything, but especially things of a permanent nature—such as institutions, usages, or customs, as in the abolition of Slavery.

In U.S. Legal History, the concept of abolition generally refers to the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century movement to abolish the slavery of African Americans. As a significant political force in the pre-Civil War United States, the abolitionists had significant effect on the U.S. legal and political landscape. Their consistent efforts to end the institution of slavery culminated in 1865 with the ratification of the Constitution's Thirteenth Amendment, which outlawed slavery. The abolitionist ranks encompassed many different factions and people of different backgrounds and viewpoints, including European and African Americans, radicals and moderates. The motives of the abolitionists spanned a broad spectrum, from those who opposed slavery as unjust and inhumane to those whose objections were purely economic and focused on the effects that an unpaid Southern workforce had on wages and prices in the North.

Efforts to abolish slavery in America began well before the Revolutionary War and were influenced by similar movements in Great Britain and France. By the 1770s and 1780s, many antislavery societies, largely dominated by Quakers, had sprung up in the North. Early American leaders such as Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and Thomas Paine made known their opposition to slavery.

The early abolitionists played an important role in outlawing slavery in Northern states by the early nineteenth century. Vermont outlawed slavery in 1777, and Massachusetts declared it inconsistent with its new state constitution, ratified in 1780. Over the next three decades, other Northern states, including Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey, passed gradual emancipation laws that freed all future children of slaves. By 1804, every Northern state had enacted some form of emancipation law.

In the South, where slavery played a far greater role in the economy, emancipation moved at a much slower pace. By 1800, all Southern states except Georgia and South Carolina had passed laws that eased the practice of private manumission—or the freeing of slaves by individual slaveholders. Abolitionists won a further victory in the early 1800s when the United States outlawed international trade in slaves. However, widespread Smuggling of slaves continued.

During the first three decades of the 1800s, abolitionists continued to focus largely on gradual emancipation. As the nation expanded westward, they also opposed the introduction of slavery into the western territories. Although abolitionists had won an early victory on this front in 1787, when they succeeded in prohibiting slavery in the Northwest Territory, their efforts in the 1800s were not as completely successful. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 (3 Stat. 545), for example, stipulated that slavery would be prohibited only in areas of the Louisiana Purchase north of Missouri's southern boundary, except for Missouri itself, which would be admitted to the Union as a slave state. Slavery in the territories remained one of the most divisive issues in U.S. politics until the end of the Civil War in 1865.

Beginning in the 1830s, evangelical Christian groups, particularly in New England, brought a new radicalism to the cause of abolition. They focused on the sinfulness of slavery and sought to end its practice by appealing to the consciences of European Americans who supported slavery. Rather than endorsing a gradual emancipation, these new abolitionists called for the immediate and complete emancipation of slaves without compensation to slave-owners. Leaders of this movement included William Lloyd Garrison, founder of the abolitionist newspaper the Liberator; Frederick Douglass, a noted African American writer and orator; the sisters Sarah Moore Grimké and Angelina Emily Grimké, lecturers for the American Anti-Slavery Society and pioneers for Women's Rights; Theodore Dwight Weld, author of an influential antislavery book, American Slavery as It Is (1839); and later, Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose 1852 novel Uncle Tom's Cabin was another important abolitionist tract.

In 1833, this new generation of abolitionists formed the American Anti-Slavery Society (AAS). The organization grew quickly, particularly in the North, and by 1840 had reached a height of 1,650 chapters and an estimated 130,000 to 170,000 members. Nevertheless, abolitionism remained an unpopular cause even in the North, and few mainstream politicians openly endorsed it.

To achieve its goals, the AAS undertook a number of large projects, many of which were frustrated by Southern opposition. For example, the organization initiated a massive postal campaign designed to appeal to the moral scruples of Southern slaveowners and voters. The campaign flooded the South with antislavery tracts sent through the mails. Although a law that would have excluded antislavery literature from the mails was narrowly defeated in Congress in 1836, pro-slavery forces, with the help of President Andrew Jackson's administration and local postmasters, effectively ended the dissemination of abolitionist literature in the South. The AAS was similarly frustrated when it petitioned Congress on a variety of subjects related to slavery. Congressional gag rules rendered the many abolitionist petitions impotent. These rules of legislative procedure allowed Congress to table and effectively ignore the antislavery petitions.

By the 1840s, the evangelical abolitionist movement had begun to break up into different factions. These factions differed on the issue of gradual versus radical change and on the inclusion of other causes, including women's rights, in their agendas. Some abolitionists decided to form a political party. The Liberty party, as they named it, nominated James G. Birney for U.S. president in 1840 and 1844. When differences later led to the dissolution of the Liberty party, many of its members created the Free Soil Party, which took as its main cause opposition to slavery in the territories newly acquired from Mexico. They were joined by defecting Democrats who were disgruntled with the increasing domination of Southern interests in their party. In 1848, the Free Soil party nominated as its candidate for U.S. president Martin Van Buren, who had served as the eighth president of the United States from 1837 to 1841, but Van Buren did not win. (Zachary Taylor won the election.)

After passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 (9 Stat. 462), which required Northern states to return escaped slaves and imposed penalties on people who aided such runaways, abolitionists became actively involved in the Underground Railroad, a secretive network that provided food, shelter, and direction to escaped slaves seeking freedom in the North. This network was largely maintained by free African Americans and is estimated to have helped 50,000 to 100,000 slaves to freedom. Harriet Tubman, an African American and ardent abolitionist, was one organizer of the Underground Railroad. During the 1850s, she bravely traveled into Southern states to help other African Americans escape from slavery, just as she had escaped herself.

Whereas the vast majority of abolitionists eschewed violence, John Brown actively participated in it. In response to attacks led by pro-slavery forces against the town of Lawrence, Kansas, Brown, the leader of a Free Soil militia, led a Reprisal attack that killed five pro-slavery settlers in 1856. Three years later, he undertook an operation that he hoped would inspire a massive slave rebellion. Brown and 21 followers began by capturing the U.S. arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia). Federal forces under Robert E. Lee promptly recaptured the arsenal, and Brown was hanged shortly thereafter, becoming a martyr for the cause.

In 1854, abolitionists and Free Soilers joined with a variety of other interests to form the Republican Party, which successfully stood Abraham Lincoln for president in 1860. Although the party took a strong stand against the introduction of slavery in the territories, it did not propose the more radical option of immediate emancipation. In fact, slavery ended as a result of the Civil War, which lasted from 1861 to 1865. Not a true abolitionist at the start of his presidency, Lincoln became increasingly receptive to antislavery opinion. In 1863, he announced the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed all slaves in areas still engaged in revolt against the Union. The proclamation served as an important symbol of the Union's new commitment to ending slavery. Lincoln later supported the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment, which officially abolished slavery in the United States.

After the war, former abolitionists, including radical Republicans such as Senator Charles Sumner (R-Mass.), continued to lobby for constitutional amendments that would protect the rights of the newly freed slaves, including the Fourteenth Amendment, ratified in 1868, which guaranteed citizenship to former slaves and declared that no state could "deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without Due Process of Law; nor deny to any person … the Equal Protection of the laws." Former abolitionists also lobbied, albeit unsuccessfully, for land redistribution that would have given exslaves a share of their former owners' land.

Further readings

Edwards, Judith. 2004. Abolitionists and Slave Resistance: Breaking the Chains of Slavery. Berkeley Heights, N.J.: Enslow.

Greenburg, Martin H., and Charles G. Waugh, eds. 2000. The Price of Freedom: Slavery and the Civil War. Nashville, Tenn.: Cumberland House.

Hessler, Katherine. 1998. "Early Efforts to Suppress Protest: Unwanted Abolitionist Speech." Boston University Public Interest Law Journal 7 (spring).

Kingaman, William K. 2001. Abraham Lincoln and the Road to Emancipation, 1861–1865. New York: Viking.

Merrill, Walter M. 1971. Against the Wind and Tide: A Biography of William Lloyd Garrison. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard.

Tackach, James. 2002. The Abolition of American Slavery. San Diego, Calif.: Lucent Books.


Compromise of 1850; Dred Scott v. Sandford; Emancipation Proclamation; Fourteenth Amendment; Fugitive Slave Act of 1850; Lincoln, Abraham; Missouri Compromise of 1820; Prigg v. Pennsylvania; Slavery; Sumner, Charles; Thirteenth Amendment.

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

ABOLITION. An act by which a thing is extinguished, abrogated or annihilated. Merl. Repert, h.t., as, the abolition of slavery is the destruction of slavery.
     2. In the civil and French law abolition is used nearly synonymously with pardon, remission, grace. Dig. 39, 4, 3, 3. There is, however, this difference; grace is the generic term; pardon, according to those laws, is the clemency which the prince extends to a man who has participated in a crime, without being a principal or accomplice; remission is made in cases of involuntary homicides, and self-defence. Abolition is different: it is used when the crime cannot be remitted. The prince then may by letters of abolition remit the punishment, but the infamy remains, unless letters of abolition have been obtained before sentence. Encycl. de d'Alembert, h.t.
     3. The term abolition is used in the German law in the same sense as in the French law. Encycl. Amer. h.t. The term abolition is derived from the civil law, in which it is sometimes used synonymously with absolution. Dig. 39, 4, 3, 3.

A Law Dictionary, Adapted to the Constitution and Laws of the United States. By John Bouvier. Published 1856.
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