Abolition of Slavery in the Americas

Abolition of Slavery in the Americas
Abolition of Slavery in the Americas

The history of chattel slavery in the Americas, from its beginnings in 1492 until its final demise in Brazil in 1888, has spawned a vast literature. So, too, has the process by which the institution of chattel slavery was formally and legally abolished.

A highly contentious, nonlinear, and uneven process that unfolded in different ways and followed distinct time lines in various parts of the Americas, abolition must be distinguished from manumission, in which slave owners granted freedom to individual slaves, which is not examined here.

Especially since the 1960s, historians have examined many different aspects of abolition in the Americas, including the intellectual and moral impulses impelling it; the history of diverse social movements devoted to compelling colonial, state, and national governments to implement it; and the role of various individuals and groups—including merchants, planters, bureaucrats, and colonial, national, and imperial governments, and slaves themselves—in retarding or accelerating the process.

The first formal abolition of slavery in the Western Hemisphere came not from a national government but from state legislatures in New England and the Mid-Atlantic states of the not-yet-independent United States of America.

In 1777 the Vermont state assembly became the first governmental entity in the Americas to abolish slavery within its jurisdiction. In 1780 the Pennsylvania state assembly passed a law requiring all blacks henceforth born in the state to become free upon reaching age 28.

State laws mandating the end of chattel slavery, each stipulating different time lines and provisions, were passed in Massachusetts and New Hampshire (1783), Rhode Island and Connecticut (1784), New York (1799), and New Jersey (1804).

Significantly, actual abolition sometimes lagged for decades following passage of such laws—as in New Jersey, where legal slavery persisted until ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1865.

Because slavery did not comprise an important component of any of these states’ economies, organized opposition to abolition was limited, and abolition itself carried few economic costs to slaveholders.

As individual states were passing laws for gradual emancipation, the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 banned slavery in the Northwest Territories, setting the stage for the sectional conflict between North and South that ultimately led to the American Civil War.

Far more consequential for the eventual abolition of slavery in the Western Hemisphere was the Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade passed by the British parliament in 1807, and put into effect in 1808, outlawing the transatlantic slave trade.

The law also authorized the British navy to suppress the slave trade among all slave traffickers, making Britain, in effect, the policeman of the high seas. The U.S. government passed less sweeping legislation in 1808 banning further import of slaves. Three years later, the British parliament made participation in the slave trade a felony.

Scholarly debates have swirled regarding the origins of and inspiration behind these laws. Some historians have emphasized the rise of a religion and Enlightenment inspired antislavery and humanitarian impulse among Quakers, evangelical Methodists, Unitarians, and others in providing the impetus behind the British abolition of the slave trade.

An expansive literature pays special attention to leading abolitionists like William Wilberforce and to the many antislavery societies, writers, and publications that blossomed in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Other scholars have stressed the growing commitment to the ideology of free wage labor on the part of Britain’s leading capitalists.

This interpretive school has located Britain’s intensifying opposition to slavery within the broader context of a rapidly developing global capitalist economy and a powerful domestic labor movement that used the symbol of slavery to portray the workers’ plight and denounce capitalism.

Ironically, while the 1807 law made Britain the first nation to outlaw the transatlantic slave trade, from the mid-1600s leading British economic interests had also been one of the main motors behind, and beneficiaries of, the slave trade.

While the 1807 law presaged the eventual demise of African slavery in the Americas, it did not abolish slavery, or call for the abolition of slavery, or free a single slave. Nor did the law prohibit individual nations or colonies from slave trafficking within their borders.

In nations and colonies with large slave populations—including Brazil, the United States, and throughout the Caribbean Basin—chattel slavery could, in theory, continue indefinitely by “natural population increases” among slaves (population increases resulting from births over deaths and excluding external influxes).

The outlawing of the Atlantic trade prompted slaveholders across the Americas to implement policies intended to increase slave populations, such as forced impregnation and rape of slave women.

Local slave markets reflected these changes, as prices of female slaves of childbearing years rose substantially in many areas. The 1807 law provoked fierce resistance in British colonies such as Jamaica, Antigua, and Trinidad, whose colonial assemblies at first rejected, then grudgingly accepted, the imperial mandate.

Similar patterns unfolded elsewhere, as imperial laws intended to place limits on slavery and the slave trade met stiff resistance by slave owners in the colonies.

Overall, such laws originated in national governments’ responses to mounting domestic and international opposition to chattel slavery and the actions of slaves themselves and their many forms of resistance to the fact and terms of their enslavement. A survey of the British, French, and Spanish colonial empires highlights these broad patterns.

Great Britain

In Britain the 1807 and 1811 laws were followed by the amelioration laws of 1823, meant to improve the living conditions of slaves. Far more consequential was the Abolition of Slavery Act of 1833, which went into effect on August 1, 1834.

The 1833 law abolished slavery throughout the empire, while stipulating a period of apprenticeship in which slaves over the age of six would continue working for four years for their former masters.

A major slave rebellion in Jamaica in December 1831 (the “Christmas revolt”) played a major role in prompting Parliament to pass the 1833 law—an illustration of the role played by slaves in advancing their own emancipation.

Christmas revolt in Jamaica
Christmas revolt in Jamaica

In 1838, over the vociferous objections of slaveholders, Parliament proclaimed complete emancipation. Upper and Lower Canada followed the same trajectory as British colonies elsewhere in the Americas, with final emancipation coming in 1838.

For the next 27 years Canada would serve as a refuge for escaped slaves from the United States, especially after the U.S. Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 made no state in the Union immune from slave-catchers and bounty hunters.

In France, with the convening of the Estates General in 1789, the Société des Amis des Noirs (Society of the Friends of the Blacks) called for the abolition of the slave trade and emancipation of slaves within the colonies.

The call was rejected after a powerful coalition of white colonists successfully prevented debate on the topic. With the eruption of the Haitian Revolution from 1791, the French assembly relinquished its jurisdiction over the question.

Three years later, in 1794, the Convention outlawed slavery throughout the empire and granted rights of citizenship to all adult males. In 1801, Haitian rebel leader Toussaint Louverture, whose forces had just gained control of all of Hispaniola, promulgated a constitution that prohibited slavery in perpetuity throughout the island.

The following year, in 1802, Toussaint was captured and transported to France, and Napoleon I reinstituted slavery throughout the French colonies. After France’s defeat in the Napoleonic Wars, in 1817 the French constitutional monarchy passed a law abolishing the slave trade by 1826.

A few months after the overthrow of the monarchy and establishment of the Second Republic, and under the leadership of prominent abolitionist Victor Schoelcher, on April 27, 1848, France abolished slavery throughout the empire.


In Spain the first effort to abolish slavery came soon after the overthrow of King Ferdinand VII and during the tumult of the Napoleonic occupation, when in 1811 the Cortes (parliament) abolished slavery throughout the empire.

The law was largely ignored. In 1820, following a major revolt against a restored constitutional monarchy, the Cortes abolished the slave trade while leaving slavery itself intact—though after the independence of Latin America in the early 1820s, Spain’s American empire had been reduced to one major colony: Cuba.

Abolitionist sentiment within Cuba mounted through the first half of the century, despite the colonial government’s success in crushing organized antislavery agitation. In 1865, in the wake of the U.S. Civil War, the Spanish Abolitionist Society was founded, its considerable influence rooted in mounting opposition to the constitutional monarchy.

In 1868 a liberal revolution triumphed in Spain, its leaders advancing as one of their principal aims the abolition of slavery in Cuba. In July 1870 the Cortes passed the Moret Law, which emancipated children born to slaves after 1868 and slaves age 60 and older.

Envisioned as a form of gradual abolition, the law’s provisions were undermined by both planters and slaves. Planters sought to delay the law’s implementation and subvert its provisions, while slaves pushed its boundaries in the effort to secure their freedom.

The Ten Years’ War on the eastern half of the island complicated the situation even further. Finally, on October 7, 1886, the Spanish government eliminated various legal categories of quasi slavery and abolished slavery throughout the island.

A brief summary of other European nations’ abolition laws once again highlights the partial and uneven nature of the process of emancipation. Sweden abolished the slave trade in 1813 and slavery in its colonies in 1843. In 1814 the Netherlands outlawed the slave trade and, nearly half a century later in 1863, abolished slavery in its Caribbean colonies.

In 1819 Portugal outlawed the slave trade north of the equator and in 1858 abolished slavery in its colonies while providing for a 20-year period of apprenticeship similar to the British model. Denmark abolished slavery in its colonies in 1848, the same year as France.

Turning to the independent nation-states of the Americas, most of the newly independent nation-states of Latin America abolished slavery in the first three decades after independence.

In 1821 Gran Colombia (comprising most of present-day Colombia, Venezuela, and Ecuador, and parts of Bolivia and Peru) became the first Latin American nation to adopt a law calling for gradual emancipation, though final abolition did not come for more than three decades (Ecuador in 1851, Colombia in 1852, Venezuela in 1854), final abolitions followed by prolonged periods of apprenticeship that closely resembled slavery.

Chile abolished slavery in 1823; Mexico in 1829; Uruguay in 1842; Argentina in 1843; and Peru in 1854. In 1850 Brazil outlawed the transatlantic slave trade, prompting a brisk internal trade in slaves that lasted until the final abolition of slavery in 1888.

United States

In the United States, in the aftermath of state laws abolishing or limiting slavery from the 1770s to the early 1800s, abolitionist and antislavery agitation mounted. The U.S. Constitution took an ambiguous stance toward slavery, neither prohibiting it nor precluding the possibility of its abolition and making unconstitutional any law passed before 1808 banning the importation of slaves.

After the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, controversies over the expansion of slavery into the territories sharpened the sectional conflict between North and South that dominated U.S. politics through much of the 19th century, culminating in the Civil War.

Such controversies brought the nation to the brink of civil war in 1820 (forestalled by the Missouri Compromise) and again in 1850 (forestalled by the Compromise of 1850). In the 1830s the rise to prominence of vocal abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips sharpened the sectional conflict even further.

In 1861, following the election of Abraham Lincoln as president, southern slaveholding states formed the Confederate States of America and announced their secession from the Union, inaugurating the Civil War.

Less than two years later Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which, despite its title and symbolic significance, freed no slaves. The final abolition of slavery came in December 1865 with the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution.


Brazil, the last nation in the Western Hemisphere to abolish slavery, offers an instructive contrast to the U.S. experience. Earlier generations of historians emphasized two key differences: Brazil did not have a comparable sectional conflict and Brazil abolished slavery without recourse to civil war.

More recent scholarship has blurred these distinctions, with greater attention to Brazil’s major regional differences and to the role played by the specter of violence and civil strife in accelerating the process of emancipation.

The British prohibition of the transatlantic slave trade from 1808 did not diminish the number of slaves imported into Brazil, as the government and slave traders ignored the law. An 1831 treaty between Brazil and Great Britain banning the importation of slaves also had little practical effect, as the Brazilian government did little to enforce its provisions.

Over the next 20 years, an estimated half a million slaves poured into the country. In 1850, in response to tremendous British pressure, Brazil passed a law putting teeth into the prohibition, after which the transatlantic slave trade diminished markedly. The 1850 law prompted two major shifts.

Planters began creating conditions under which natural population increases would permit perpetuation of slavery, including improved nutrition and living conditions, enhanced surveillance and control, and forced reproduction. Slave trafficking within the country also increased dramatically, with major flows from the Northeast to the booming coffee-based states of the South.

By the 1860s, however, the Atlantic world’s mounting moral opprobrium toward slavery, combined with the carnage of the U.S. Civil War, made clear to many Brazilians that abolition was inevitable and that a gradualist approach to the problem was preferable to civil war. What eventually emerged from these debates was the Rio Branco Law of September 28, 1871.

Dubbed the Law of Free Womb, the law called for all children born of slaves to be free, following a period of semibondage until they reached age 21. Many, however, including prominent abolitionists in the Chamber of Deputies such as Joaquim Nabuco, Jeronymo Sodré, and Rui Barbosa, saw the law as fatally flawed, permitting slavery’s survival well into the 20th century.

In the late 1870s abolitionist pressures intensified, as did urban violence, plantation uprisings, and civil strife. Slaves especially pushed the boundaries of the law, insisting on their own emancipation.

Finally, on May 13, 1888, the Brazilian parliament passed a law consisting of the following two provisions: “Article 1. From the date of this law slavery is declared abolished in Brazil. Article 2. All contrary provisions are revoked.” After 396 years, legal slavery in the Americas had ended.

The process by which chattel slavery was abolished in the Americas followed a number of distinct trajectories, as various groups of actors in conflict and alliance propelled and forestalled the outcomes.

Nowhere was abolition inevitable; everywhere its achievement resulted from the determined actions of many different individuals and groups. In all cases, the actions of slaves were integral to the process, a fact to which a large and growing body of scholarship amply attests.