A Brief History of Slavery and Abolitionism

In the final pages of his biography of James Madison, James Madison and the Making of America, historian Kevin Gutzman describes the day of Madison’s death. He writes that as part of the former president’s morning routine, “…a slave who had attended him for nearly seventy years brought his breakfast…”

Seventy years!

Reading these words conjures the image of an elderly man going about his normal tasks, a man who had spent his entire life in slavery, had never lived a day in which someone else did not claim ownership over him. He had spent every day of his long life as someone else’s uncompensated servant, unable to have full control over his own decisions. Worst of all, he had lived without a realistic hope that his condition would ever change.

It’s hard for most of us living in the twenty-first century to grasp the reality of slavery. We know it was evil, but we don’t have any real appreciation for just how little freedom slaves had. In his book Greatest Emancipations, historian Jim Powell describes the power a slave owner had over a slave:

“Slaveholders had complete control over a slave’s life, determined what work a slave did, where a slave lived, whether a slave had any privacy, and whether a slave could have a family life. If a chattel slave had children, the slaveholder owned them too. Slave families could be broken up and their members sold separately, as a slaveholder wished. Slaveholders had the power to determine whether chattel slaves would be tortured or executed.”

Slavery was one of the most brutal, inhuman institutions in history. While the physical abuse that slaves endured was ghastly, slavery’s greatest evil was that of depriving the slave of the rights and simple humanity due him. The scale of suffering endured by slaves throughout history was epic and unimaginable.

In modern times we tend to think of slavery as a uniquely Western, if not uniquely American, problem. But slavery has existed for millennia and in nearly every human society. The great cultures in history – the ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Chinese – all held slaves. Slavery was so rampant in the Roman Empire that slaves made up nearly half of the population of Italy. Africans enslaved Europeans for centuries and slavery persisted in Africa and the Middle East decades after Westerners ended it.

The universality of slavery presents uncomfortable implications for humanity. Were slavery a unique feature of a few societies, we might be able to chalk it up to a few uncommonly evil people throughout history. But slavery was so widespread because it is based on greed and the desire for power, motives that are common to us all. These truths led philosopher Adam Smith to conclude of slaveholders that, “The pride of man makes him love to domineer…”

It was this moral frailty that led Europeans to look for sources of “free” labor as they extended their empires into the New World. With the cooperation of indigenous captors, the African slave trade was born in the fifteenth century and, according to Powell, “some 10 million slaves survived voyages across the Atlantic” during the next 400 years.

Over those four centuries slavery became an ingrained part of the cultures and economies into which they were placed, which made it difficult for many people, especially those who benefited from it, to see any way that society could survive without it. Nevertheless, beginning in the 1600s, criticism of what came to be known in the United States as “the peculiar institution” became increasingly common.

Abolitionist momentum built in the West and by the end of the eighteenth century several states in the Northern U.S. had ended slavery or put it on the path to extinction while European powers were beginning to prohibit their citizens from participating in the slave trade. Beyond that, abolitionist societies emerged all across the Western Hemisphere, appealing to Christian values and the doctrine of inalienable natural rights.

By the turn of the twentieth century, slavery had been abolished in the West. That an institution that had blighted humanity since the time of the ancients was ended over a large portion of the world in the course of fewer than 150 years was a remarkable, if overdue accomplishment.

In most cases emancipation was the result of decades-long, mostly peaceful processes. In only two instances, Haiti and the southern United States, was the end of slavery the result of large-scale violent conflict.

As context to the Civil War, the history of slavery and abolitionism holds two important lessons. First, slavery was, as Abraham Lincoln said, “a monstrous injustice” to those who suffered under it. We do it and its victims a disservice if we too easily dismiss how terrible it was – or how wonderful was its end.

The other lesson is that peaceful emancipation was not only possible, but was the norm in most of the Western world. While Americans typically associate emancipation with war, this was not the course that most societies took in ending slavery. Knowing this, we can feel confident that reappraising certain facets of the war does not prevent us from recognizing how tremendous the end of slavery in the United States was.

The Civil War was, as we will see, an extremely complicated period in American history. As we investigate some of the hard questions surrounding the war, the one truth that is abundantly clear is that the end of slavery was an undeniable leap forward for human happiness and civilization.

Note: This article is part of a series on the Civil War. Click here to see all the articles in the series.