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Abolitionism is a movement to end slavery, whether formal or informal. In Western Europe and the Americas, abolitionism was a historical movement to end the African slave trade and set slaves free. The Spanish government enacted the first European law abolishing colonial slavery in 1542, although this law was not widely enforced. Later, in the 17th century, English Quakers and evangelical religious groups condemned slavery (by then applied mostly to Africans) as un-Christian; in the 18th century, abolition was part of the message of the First Great Awakening in the Thirteen Colonies; and in the same period, rationalist thinkers of the Enlightenment criticized it for violating the rights of man. James Edward Oglethorpe was among the first to articulate the Enlightenment case against slavery, banning it in the Province of Georgia on humanistic grounds, arguing against it in Parliament, and eventually encouraging his friends Granville Sharp and Hannah More to vigorously pursue the cause. Soon after his death in 1785, they joined with William Wilberforce and others in forming the Clapham Sect. The Somersett's case in 1772, which emancipated a slave in England, helped launch the British movement to abolish slavery. Though anti-slavery sentiments were widespread by the late 18th century, the colonies and emerging nations that used slave labor continued to do so: French and English territories in the West Indies, South America, and the South of the United States.
After the American Revolutionary War established the United States, northern states, beginning with Pennsylvania in 1780, passed legislation during the next two decades abolishing slavery, sometimes by gradual emancipation. Massachusetts ratified a constitution that declared all men equal; freedom suits challenging slavery based on this principle brought an end to slavery in the state. In other states, such as Virginia, similar declarations of rights were interpreted by the courts not applicable to Africans. During the following decades, the abolitionist movement grew in northern states, and Congress regulated the expansion of slavery in new states admitted to the union.
Revolutionary France abolished slavery in 1794, but it was restored by Napoleon in the French colonies in 1802. Haiti achieved independence from France in 1804 and brought an end to slavery in its territory, establishing the second republic in the western hemisphere. Britain banned the importation of African slaves in its colonies in 1807, and the United States criminalized the international slave trade in the same year. Britain abolished slavery throughout the British Empire with the Slavery Abolition Act 1833, the French colonies abolished it in 1848 and the United States in 1865.
In Eastern Europe, groups organized to abolish the enslavement of the Roma in Wallachia and Moldavia; and to emancipate the serfs in Russia (Emancipation reform of 1861). It was declared illegal in 1948 under the Universal Rights of Man of the United Nations. The last country to abolish legal slavery was Mauritania, where it was officially abolished by presidential decree in 1981. Today, child and adult slavery and forced labour are illegal in most countries, as well as being against international law, but a high rate of human trafficking for labor and for sexual bondage continues, believed to affect millions of adults and children.
In 1315, Louis X, king of France, published a decree proclaiming that "France signifies freedom" and that any slave setting foot on the French ground should be freed. This prompted subsequent governments to circumscribe slavery in the overseas colonies.
Some cases of African slaves freed by setting foot on the French soil were recorded such as this example of a Norman slave merchant who tried to sell slaves in Bordeaux in 1571. He was arrested and his slaves were freed according to a declaration of the Parlement of Guyenne which stated that slavery was intolerable in France.
As in other New World colonies, the French relied on the Atlantic slave trade for labor for their sugar cane plantations in their Caribbean colonies; the French West Indies. In addition, French colonists in Louisiane in North America held slaves, particularly in the South around New Orleans, where they established sugar cane plantations. Over time in all these areas, a class of free people of color (Gens de couleur libres) developed, many of whom became educated, property owners and sometimes slave owners.
Louis XIV's Code Noir regulated the slave trade and institution in the colonies. Although the Code Noir authorized and codified corporal punishment against slaves under certain conditions, it forbid slave owners to torture them and encouraged them to instruct them in the Catholic faith. It was instrumental in asserting that Africans were human beings endowed with a soul.
During the Age of Enlightenment, many philosophers wrote pamphlets against slavery and its moral and economical justifications, including Montesquieu in The Spirit of the Laws (1748) or in the Encyclopédie. In 1788, Jacques Pierre Brissot founded the Society of the Friends of the Blacks (Société des Amis des Noirs) to work for abolition of slavery.
After the Revolution, on 4 April 1792, France granted free people of color full citizenship.
The revolt of slaves in the largest Caribbean French colony of Saint-Domingue in 1791 was the beginning of what became the Haïtian Revolution led by Toussaint L'Ouverture. Rebellion swept through the north of the island, and many whites and free people of color were killed, as well as slaves. Slavery was first abolished in 1793 in St. Domingue by Sonthonax, a French Commissioner sent by the Convention in order to safeguard the allegiance of the population to revolutionary France.
The Convention, the first elected Assembly of the First Republic (1792–1804), on 4 February 1794, under the leadership of Maximilien Robespierre, abolished slavery in law in France and its colonies. Abbé Grégoire and the Society of the Friends of the Blacks were part of the abolitionist movement, which had laid important groundwork in building anti-slavery sentiment in the metropole. The first article of the law stated that "Slavery was abolished" in the French colonies, while the second article stated that "slave-owners would be indemnified" with financial compensation for the value of their slaves. The French constitution passed in 1795 included in the declaration of the Rights of Man that slavery was abolished.
During the French Revolutionary Wars, French slave-owners massively joined the counter-revolution and, through the Whitehall Accord, they threatened to move the French Caribbean colonies under British control, as Great-Britain still allowed slavery. Fearing secession from these islands, successfully lobbied by planters and concerned about revenues from the West Indies, Napoleon Bonaparte decided to re-establish slavery after becoming First Consul. He promulgated the law of 20 May 1802 and sent military governors and troops to the colonies to impose it. On 10 May 1802, Colonel Delgrès launched a rebellion in Guadeloupe against Napoleon's representative, General Richepanse. The rebellion was repressed, and slavery was re-established. The news of this event sparked another wave of rebellion in Saint-Domingue. Although from 1802, Napoleon sent more than 20,000 troops to the island, two-thirds died mostly due to yellow fever. He withdrew the remaining 7,000 troops and slaves achieved an independent republic they called Haïti in 1804. Seeing the failure of the Saint-Domingue expedition, in 1803 Napoleon decided to sell the Louisiana Territory to the United States. The French governments initially refused to recognise Haiti. It forced the nation to pay a substantial amount of reparations (which it could ill afford) for losses during the revolution and did not recognise its government until 1825.
On 27 April 1848, under the Second Republic (1848–52), the decree-law of Schœlcher abolished slavery in the remaining colonies. The state bought the slaves from the colons (white colonists; Békés in Creole), and then freed them.
At about the same time, France started colonising Africa and gained possession of much of West Africa. In 1905, the French abolished slavery in most of French West Africa. The French also attempted to abolish Tuareg slavery following the Kaocen Revolt. In the region of Sahel, slavery has however long persisted.
Passed on 10 May 2001, the Taubira law officially acknowledges slavery and the Atlantic Slave Trade as a crime against humanity. 10 May was chosen as the day dedicated to recognition of the crime of slavery.
The last known form of enforced servitude of adults (villeinage) had disappeared in England by the beginning of the 17th century. In a 1569 court case involving Cartwright, who had bought a slave from Russia, the court ruled that English law could not recognise slavery, as it was never established officially. This ruling was overshadowed by later developments. It was upheld in 1700 by the Lord Chief Justice John Holt when he ruled that a slave became free as soon as he arrived in England.
In addition to English colonists importing slaves to the North American colonies, by the 18th century, traders began to import slaves from Africa, India and East Asia (where they were trading) to London and Edinburgh to work as personal servants. Men who migrated to the North American colonies often took their East Indian slaves or servants with them, as East Indians have been documented in colonial records.
Some of the first freedom suits, court cases in the British Isles to challenge the legality of slavery, took place in Scotland from 1755 to 1778. The cases were Montgomery v. Sheddan (1755), Spens v. Dalrymple (1769), and Knight v. Wedderburn (1778). Each of the slaves had been baptized in Scotland and challenged the legality of slavery. They set the precedent of legal procedure in British courts that would later lead to successful outcomes for the plaintiffs. In the first two cases, deaths of the plaintiff and defendant, respectively, brought an end before court decisions. The Knight case was decided in favor of the plaintiff, the former slave.
African slaves were not bought or sold in London but were brought by masters from other areas. Together with people from other nations, especially non-Christian, Africans were considered foreigners, not able to be English subjects. At the time, England had no naturalization procedure. The African slaves' legal status was unclear until 1772 and Somersett's Case, when the fugitive slave James Somersett forced a decision by the courts. Somersett had escaped, and his master, Charles Steuart, had him captured and imprisoned on board a ship, intending to ship him to Jamaica to be resold into slavery. While in London, Somersett had been baptised; three godparents issued a writ of habeas corpus. As a result, Lord Mansfield, Chief Justice of the Court of the King's Bench, had to judge whether Somersett's abduction was lawful or not under English Common Law. No legislation had ever been passed to establish slavery in England. The case received national attention, and five advocates supported the action on behalf of Somersett.
In his judgment of 22 June 1772, Mansfield declared:
"The state of slavery is of such a nature that it is incapable of being introduced on any reasons, moral or political, but only by positive law, which preserves its force long after the reasons, occasions, and time itself from whence it was created, is erased from memory. It is so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it, but positive law. Whatever inconveniences, therefore, may follow from a decision, I cannot say this case is allowed or approved by the law of England; and therefore the black must be discharged."
Although the exact legal implications of the judgement are unclear when analysed by lawyers, the judgement was generally taken at the time to have determined that slavery did not exist under English common law and was thus prohibited in England. The decision did not apply to the British overseas territories; by then, for example, the American colonies had established slavery by positive laws. Somersett's case became a significant part of the common law of slavery in the English-speaking world and it helped launch the movement to abolish slavery.
After reading about Somersett's Case, Joseph Knight, an enslaved African who had been purchased by his master John Wedderburn in Jamaica and brought to Scotland, left him. Married and with a child, he filed a freedom suit, on the grounds that he could not be held as a slave in Great Britain. In the case of Knight v. Wedderburn (1778), Wedderburn said that Knight owed him "perpetual servitude". The Court of Sessions of Scotland ruled against him, saying that chattel slavery was not recognised under the law of Scotland, and slaves could seek court protection to leave a master or avoid being forcibly removed from Scotland to be returned to slavery in the colonies.
But at the same time, legally mandated, hereditary slavery of Scots persons in Scotland had existed from 1606 and continued until 1799, when colliers and salters were emancipated by an act of the Parliament of Great Britain (39 Geo.III. c. 56). Skilled workers, they were restricted to a place and could be sold with the works. A prior law enacted in 1775 (15 Geo.III. c. 28) was intended to end what the act referred to as "a state of slavery and bondage," but that was ineffective, necessitating the 1799 act.
In the principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia (both now part of Romania), the government held slavery of the Roma (often referred to as Gypsies) as legal at the beginning of the 19th century. The progressive pro-European and anti-Ottoman movement, which gradually gained power in the two principalities, also worked to abolish that slavery. Between 1843 and 1855, the principalities emancipated all of the 250,000 enslaved Roma people. Many migrated to Western Europe and North America.
Bartolomé de las Casas was a 16th-century Spanish Dominican priest, the first resident Bishop of Chiapas. As a settler in the New World he witnessed and opposed the poor treatment of the Native Americans by the Spanish colonists. He advocated before King Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor on behalf of rights for the natives. Originally supporting the importation of African slaves as laborers, he eventually changed and became an advocate for the Africans in the colonies. His book, A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies, contributed to Spanish passage of colonial legislation known as the New Laws of 1542, which abolished native slavery for the first time in European colonial history. It ultimately led to the Valladolid debate.
During the Independence Wars (1810–1822), slavery was abolished in most of Latin America. It continued in the region until 1873 in Puerto Rico, 1886 in Cuba, and 1888 in Brazil by the Lei Áurea or "Golden Law." Chile declared freedom of wombs in 1811, followed by the United Provinces of the Río de la Plata in 1813, but without abolishing slavery completely. While Chile abolished slavery in 1823, Argentina did so with the signing of the Argentine Constitution of 1853. Colombia abolished slavery in 1852. Slavery was abolished in Uruguay during the Guerra Grande, by both the government of Fructuoso Rivera and the government in exile of Manuel Oribe.
With slaves escaping to New York and New England, legislation for gradual emancipation was passed in Upper Canada (1793) and Lower Canada (1803). In Upper Canada the Assembly ruled that no slaves could be imported; slaves already in the province would remain enslaved until death, no new slaves could be brought into Upper Canada, and children born to female slaves would be slaves but must be freed at age 25. In practice, some slavery continued until abolished in the entire British Empire in the 1830s.
The historian James M. McPherson defines an abolitionist "as one who before the Civil War had agitated for the immediate, unconditional, and total abolition of slavery in the United States." He does not include antislavery activists such as Abraham Lincoln or the Republican Party, which called for the gradual ending of slavery.
The first attempts to end slavery in the British/American colonies came from Thomas Jefferson and some of his contemporaries. Despite the fact that Jefferson was a lifelong slaveholder, he included strong anti-slavery language in the original draft of the Declaration of Independence, but other delegates took it out. Benjamin Franklin, also a slaveholder for most of his life, was a leading member of the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery, the first recognized organization for abolitionists in the United States. Following the Revolutionary War, Northern states abolished slavery, beginning with the 1777 constitution of Vermont, followed by Pennsylvania's gradual emancipation act in 1780. Other states with more of an economic interest in slaves, such as New York and New Jersey, also passed gradual emancipation laws, but by 1804, all the northern states had abolished it. Some slaves continued in servitude for two more decades but most were freed.
Also in the postwar years, individual slaveholders, particularly in the Upper South, manumitted slaves, sometimes in their wills. Many noted they had been moved by the revolutionary ideals of the equality of men. The number of free blacks as a proportion of the black population increased from less than one percent to nearly ten percent from 1790 to 1810 in the Upper South as a result of these actions.
As President, on March 2, 1807, Jefferson signed the Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves and it took effect in 1808, which was the earliest allowed under the Constitution. In 1820 he privately supported the Missouri Compromise, believing it would help to end slavery. He left the anti-slavery struggle to younger men after that.
In the 1850s in the fifteen states constituting the American South, slavery was established legally. While it was fading away in the cities and border states, it remained strong in plantation areas that grew cotton for export, or sugar, tobacco or hemp. By the 1860 United States Census, the slave population in the United States had grown to four million. American abolitionism was based in the North, and white Southerners alleged it fostered slave rebellion.
The white abolitionist movement in the North was led by social reformers, especially William Lloyd Garrison, founder of the American Anti-Slavery Society; writers such as John Greenleaf Whittier and Harriet Beecher Stowe. Black activists included former slaves such as Frederick Douglass; and free blacks such as the brothers Charles Henry Langston and John Mercer Langston, who helped found the Ohio Anti-Slavery Society. Some abolitionists said that slavery was criminal and a sin; they also criticized slave owners of using black women as concubines and taking sexual advantage of them.
The Republican Party wanted to achieve the gradual extinction of slavery by market forces, for its members believed that free labor was superior to slave labor. Southern leaders said the Republican policy of blocking the expansion of slavery into the West made them second-class citizens, and challenged their autonomy. With the 1860 presidential victory of Abraham Lincoln, seven Deep South states whose economy was based on cotton and slavery decided to secede and form a new nation. The American Civil War broke out in April 1861 with the firing on Fort Sumter in South Carolina. When Lincoln called for troops to suppress the rebellion, four more slave states seceded. In 1863, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed slaves held in the Confederate States; all the border states (except Delaware) began their own emancipation programs. Thousands of slaves escaped to freedom behind Union Army lines, and in 1863 many men started serving as the United States Colored Troops. The 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution took effect in December 1865 and finally ended slavery throughout the United States. It also abolished slavery among the Indian tribes.
The abolitionist movements and the abolition of slavery have been commemorated in different ways around the world in modern times. The United Nations General Assembly declared 2004 the International Year to Commemorate the Struggle against Slavery and its Abolition. This proclamation marked the bicentenary of the birth of the first black state, Haiti. Numerous exhibitions, events and research programmes were connected to the initiative.
2007 witnessed major exhibitions in British museums and galleries to mark the anniversary of the 1807 abolition act – 1807 Commemorated 2008 marks the 201st anniversary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade in the British Empire. It also marks the 175th anniversary of the Abolition of Slavery in the British Empire.
The Faculty of Law at the University of Ottawa held a major international conference entitled, "Routes to Freedom: Reflections on the Bicentenary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade", from 14 to 16 March 2008. Actor and human rights activist Danny Glover delivered the keynote speech announcing the creation of two major scholarships intended for University of Ottawa law students specializing in international law and social justice at the conference's gala dinner.
Brooklyn, New York has begun work on commemorating the abolitionist movement in New York.
No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.
Although outlawed in most countries, slavery is nonetheless practiced secretly in many parts of the world. Enslavement still takes place in the United States, Europe, and Latin America, as well as parts of Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. There are an estimated 27 million victims of slavery worldwide. In Mauritania alone, estimates are that up to 600,000 men, women and children, or 20% of the population, are enslaved. Many of them are used as bonded labour.
Modern-day abolitionists have emerged over the last several years, as awareness of slavery around the world has grown, with groups such as Anti-Slavery International, the American Anti-Slavery Group, International Justice Mission, and Free the Slaves working to rid the world of slavery. Zach Hunter, for example, began a movement called Loose Change to Loosen Chains when he was in seventh grade. Also featured on CNN and other national news organizations, Hunter has gone on to help inspire other teens and young adults to take action against injustice with his books, Be the Change and Generation Change.
In the United States, The Action Group to End Human Trafficking and Modern-Day Slavery is a coalition of NGOs, foundations and corporations working to develop a policy agenda for abolishing slavery and human trafficking. Since 1997, the United States Department of Justice has, through work with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, prosecuted six individuals in Florida on charges of slavery in the agricultural industry. These prosecutions have led to freedom for over 1000 enslaved workers in the tomato and orange fields of South Florida. This is only one example of the contemporary fight against slavery worldwide. Slavery exists most widely in agricultural labor, apparel and sex industries, and service jobs in some regions.
In 2000, the United States passed the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act (TVPA) "to combat trafficking in persons, especially into the sex trade, slavery, and involuntary servitude." The TVPA also "created new law enforcement tools to strengthen the prosecution and punishment of traffickers, making human trafficking a Federal crime with severe penalties."
The United States Department of State publishes the annual Trafficking in Persons Report, identifying countries as either Tier 1, Tier 2, Tier 2 Watch List or Tier 3, depending upon three factors: "(1) The extent to which the country is a country of origin, transit, or destination for severe forms of trafficking; (2) The extent to which the government of the country does not comply with the TVPA's minimum standards including, in particular, the extent of the government's trafficking-related corruption; and (3) The resources and capabilities of the government to address and eliminate severe forms of trafficking in persons."
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