The End of Slavery in the North of the United States

The End of Slavery in the United States

The last quarter of the XVIII century will witness the transformation of the British colonies in North America into independent societies where liberal values introduced by the Enlightenment and the industrialization of the cities crashed frontally with the extended practice of slavery, which then has its days numbered.

Slavery was a commonly accepted practice in all the thirteen British colonies in America. However, the institution was never widespread North of the Mason-Dixon line (the border between Pennsylvania and Maryland that symbolized the North and the South) like it was in the South. Although profitable, slavery was not indispensable to the economic survival of the north. Additionally, by the turn of the eighteenth century, northern masters were against the slave trade, arguing that the north was overstocked with slaves. The Revolution finished the job by inflaming the public conscience, giving strength to the abolitionist crusaders and paving the way for the introduction of anti-slavery legislation. As a consequence, by 1804 every northern state had introduced some kind of abolition bill.

Since the mid-18th century, slavery was doomed to extinction. It was then, that the first voices against this peculiar institution, as well as against the slave trade, started to be heard. The War of Independence against Britain (1775-1783) granted the coup de grace to human bondage, spreading anti-slavery feelings and Enlightenment ideas of human rights and freedom across the colonies.

The Independence War against Great Britain

On the eve of the American Revolution, northern slavery was a commonly accepted institution.

The Revolutionary War converted human bondage, for the first time, into a social issue with Americans questioning the morality of slavery. This came together with a widespread fear of slave revolts existed among the white population in the northern colonies, causing that part of the population saw slavery as a threat to social stability and peace.

The War also brought Enlightenment thoughts of tolerance and justice, which were rapidly spreading across Europe and the North American colonies. Soon, the inconsistency between these values and the existence of a society wedded to slavery was far too obvious.

These Enlightenment feelings were further fed by the anti-slavery criticism from Europe. Additionally, the increment of European immigration hostile to slavery had the effect of spreading anti-slavery feelings across the colonies. Public opinion became more aware of the sin of involuntary servitude and this sentiment was transformed, among other things, into a major number of manumissions.

In the last years of the XIII century, the abolitionist ideas were already present in all sectors of the society, claiming their place on the political agenda of the Continental Congress, representative of Britain in the hostile colonies.

The Revolution influenced slavery in other senses, too. In September 1775, the Continental Congress, which represented the revolting colonies, banned black participation in the colonies’ forces, the Continental Army. That same year, Lord Dunmore, Virginia’s loyalist Governor, announced the liberation of all those slaves who joined the British Army. Anxious for freedom, thousands of slaves fled to the British side providing the Royal Forces with considerable strength. Realising this fact, Americans had no other choice but to accept the presence of blacks in their lines. Consequently, in January 1776, the Continental Congress allowed black enlistment and, after the War, some legal steps were taken to guarantee that most of those slaves were freed in exchange for their military services.

The Economic Factor and the Era of Industrialization

The economic element influenced anti-slavery feelings as non-slaveholders saw slavery as a threat to their economy’s interest because a salaried worker was more expensive than a slave.

On the other hand, slavery, although profitable, was not indispensable to the survival of the northern economy. The boom of the industrialization from 1800 stimulated the construction of railroads, steamboats, canals, etc., as well as the appearance of a substantial number of factories. Besides converting the farms into a no longer important factor to the region’s economy, industrialization provoked the spread of the capitalist ideas of free labour, which questioned slavery and believed that a free labourer was a happier labourer.

The End of Slavery

After the Independence War against Britain, abolitionist crusaders, Afro-Americans (free and slaves), religious figures and humanitarian groups led the fight for freedom and were responsible for keeping alive the anti-slavery sentiment and the values of the Rights of Man that were introduced by the Revolutionary War.

The fight of the abolitionists did not finish with the end of the war as some states resisted the introduction of total abolition while the illegal slave trade persisted. At the same time, a racist sentiment took over the northern white population. Afro-Americans were excluded from public places, state schools and the political process and this discrimination resulted in the apparition of a new generation of more aggressive and better organised generation of abolitionists. These new abolitionists founded new societies such as, the New England Anti-Slavery Society (1832), the Anti-Slavery Society in Philadelphia (1833) and the American Anti-Slavery Society (1833).

During that period free Afro-Americans also intensified their activities. They organised new societies such as the Massachusetts General Coloured Association or the New York Committee of Vigilance (1835).

They were especially active in spreading anti-slavery feelings through lectures and publications such as the Freedom’s Journal (1827), The Weekly Advocate (1837) and the North Star (1847). Furthermore, northern blacks with the help of Quakers, organised the “underground railroad” the name given to the practice of helping running slaves. Through this practice thousands of southerner slaves were helped to escape.

Another issue, which helped to end slavery was the belief among whites that blacks were gradually accepting the American lifestyle and were better prepared for freedom, and that human bondage was against Christianity.

In a few years, the indefatigable fight of the white abolitionists and the Afro-Americans, together with the ideas brought by the Enlightenment and the industrialization bored fruit. As a result, gradually the already independent Northern States introduced laws that protected human freedom until the day that, in 1846, New Jersey took the last step becoming the last of the Northern States in abolish slavery.

Meanwhile, in the South the large plantations sustained by the work of slaves lived in splendor while the differences between those States that joined the new industrial era and those other that decided to remain in the past were every time bigger. Finally, slavery became an insuperable disagreement between the two societies in which the country seemed to be divided and, in 1861, it took a bloody Civil War to eradicate this sin from the United States as a whole.


Quarles, B., Black Abolitionists (New York: Oxford University Press, 1969).

Dillon, M.L., The Abolitionists: The Growth of a Dissenting Minority (Dekalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1974).

Franklin, J.H., From Slavery to Freedom: A History of the American Negro (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1956).

Brawley, B.G., A Short History of the American Negro (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1913).

Litwack, L.F., North of Slavery: The Negro in the Free States, 1790-1860 (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1961).

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