Slavery, social institution defined by law and custom as the most absolute involuntary form of human servitude. England entered the slave trade in the latter half of the 16th century. In 1713 the exclusive right to supply the Spanish colonies was granted to the British South Sea Company. The English based their trading in the North America. In North America the first African slaves landed at Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619.
Brought by early English privateers, they were subjected to limited servitude, a legalized status of Native American, white, and black servants preceding slavery in most, if not all, the English colonies in the New World. The number of slaves imported was small at first, and it did not seem necessary to define their legal status. Statutory recognition of slavery, however, occurred in Massachusetts in 1641, in Connecticut in 1650, and in Virginia in 1661. Contrary to what is commonly believed, slaves did have some legal rights, such as support in age or sickness, a right to limited religious instruction, and the right to bring suit and give evidence in special cases.
Custom gave numerous rights also, such as private property, marriage, free time, contractual ability, and, to females, domestic or lighter plantation labor, which, however, the master was not bound to respect. Brutal treatment such as mutilation, branding, chaining, and murder were regulated or prohibited by law, but instances of cruelty were common before the 19th century. Statutory recognition of slavery, however, occurred in Massachusett in 1641, in Connecticut in 1650, and in Virginia in 1661. Abolitionists, reformers of the 18th and 19th centuries dedicated to eliminating slavery, especially in the English-speaking countries. Although the Quakers had long opposed slavery, abolitionism as an organized force began in England in the 1780's, when William Wilberforce and the Clapham Sect a group of wealthy evangelical Anglicans began agitating against the African slave traffic. Their success (1807) stimulated further political assaults on slavery itself.
With compensation to owners and apprenticeship arrangements, Parliament abolished West Indian slavery in 1833. British example, Quaker traditions, evangelical revivalism, and northern emancipation (1776-1827) aroused interest in abolitionism in the United States. The abolitionists differed from those of moderate antislavery feelings in that they called for an immediate end to slavery. The most extreme abolitionists denied the validity of any laws that recognized slavery as an institution; thus, they systematically violated the fugitive slave laws by organizing and operating the Underground Railroad, which concealed and transported runaway slaves to Canada. The activities and propaganda of the abolitionists, although discredited in conservative northern quarters and violently opposed in the South, made slavery a national issue. Most historians cite 1831 as the beginning of the United States abolitionist movement, when William Lloyd Garrison founded The Liberator in Boston.
This newspaper soon became the leading organ of American abolitionism. In 1833 the American Anti-Slavery Society was organized in Philadelphia under Garrison's leadership; this society was the most militant of all the antislavery organizations. Viewed as fanatics by the general public, the abolitionists were relatively few in number only about 160,000 in the period 1833 to 1840. Most were educated church people of middle-class New England or Quaker heritage. Support among the working and upper classes was minimal. In 1839 the society split into two main groups, the radicals and the gradualists.
The division was caused by disagreement concerning policy and tactics. The radical leaders, who besides Garrison included Wendell Phillips, Lucretia Mott, and John Brown, refused to join a party necessarily committed to gradual and legal emancipation of the slaves; these leaders retained control of The Liberator and the American Anti-Slavery Society. The gradualists, who included James Birney, Arthur Tappan and his brother Lewis Tappan, and Theodore Weld, believed that emancipation could be achieved legally by means of religious and political pressure. Many other activists eventually supported working through political organizations to abolish slavery, including the most famous antislavery orator, Frederick Douglass.
Douglass had escaped from slavery in 1838 and worked passionately for the antislavery cause. He joined other men and women, such as Sojourner Truth and Charles Lenox Re mond, who traveled throughout the North testifying against slavery and organizing moral and political opposition. Abolitionist women commonly organized fairs and concerts to raise funds for antislavery work. In 1840 the Tappan founded the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society, which, along with numerous state organizations, carried on most of the United States antislavery agitation.
One year earlier, a group led by Birney had founded the first antislavery political party, the Liberty party, in the United States. Birney was the unsuccessful presidential candidate (1840 and 1844) of the party, the adherents of which later helped found the Free-Soil party (1848) and the Republican Party (1854). By the 1850's advocacy of violence against slave owners had replaced the earlier "moral suasion". This was especially true during the bitter controversy over extending slavery into Kansas. Only with the victory of Union forces in the American Civil War, however, could abolitionists claim a triumph. Blood and iron, not pure idealism, won the day.
Most of the American antislavery societies were dissolved following the adoption in 1870 of the 15th Amendment to the United States Constitution. 315.