The abolitionist movement against slavery began far earlier than I was taught in American history class. The most memorable example of it was the Underground Railroad during the early to mid-1800s. But abolitionism as a moral philosophy began with King Louis X of France, who abolished slavery in France way back in 1315. King Charles I of Spain, aka known as Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire issued laws in 1542 to abolish slavery in the South American colonies. These laws were only partially successful, as powerful landowners objected. However, they did result in the liberation of thousands of indigenous workers, who had been held in a state of semi-slavery.
In the 1600s, the Roman Catholic Church officially condemned the slave trade. But Catholic religious orders in the Americas, such as the Jesuits, continued to own slaves up until it was abolished.
Spanish America freed their slaves in wills. So did New France. By 1775, free blacks in the Spanish and French colonies outnumbered black slaves. In Spanish and French America, free blacks outnumbered slaves. Color marked status, but not the difference between slavery and freedom.
Britain established far more brutal racial regime, one that imagined only black and white, and two statuses, slave and free.
One of the first abolitionists in the American colonies was Benjamin Lay, born in England, a strident anti-slavery activist as early as 1718, first in Barbados and then in Philadelphia. He offended his fellow Quakers by his outspoken denunciations of slavery.
The abolitionist movement really got started in the mid-1700s when James Oglethorpe, British founder of the colony of Georgia for the “worthy poor” so they could avoid debtors prisons. He sought to ban slavery in Georgia. After his death, his friends joined with William Wilberforce to create the Clapham Sect, to advocate for the abolition of slavery in England.
James Otis Jr., who coined the phrase “taxation without representation is tyranny,” that became the slogan of early American revolutionaries, was also an abolitionist, speaking out against slavery in a 1764 tract. He was elected Speaker of the Massachusetts Assembly, but because of his firebrand nature and erratic behavior, the royal governor refused to accept him.
In 1766, Boston in a town meeting voted to abolish slavery.
The Somersett Case in 1772, in which a fugitive slave was freed with the judgement that slavery did not exist under English common law, helped launch the British and American movement to abolish slavery. Judge ruled that British common law did not support slavery. As a result, many slaves in the American colonies sought to escape to England. Forty-seven slaves ran away from George Washington’s estate.
Frank Peters was kidnapped as a child in Sierra Leone, sold into slavery and sent to South Carolina. He escaped and joined the British army in 1779. Two weeks after he arrived in Sierra Leone, at the age of 29, an old woman found him, held him, and pressed him close: she was his mother. (Click.)
As the video above notes, the abolitionist movement was fueled largely by Quakers.
Abolitionist movement videos.
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