|Digital History ID 4568|
The abolition of slavery represents one of the greatest moral achievements in history. As late as 1750, slavery was legal from Canada to the tip of Argentina. Each of the 13 American colonies permitted slavery, and before the Revolution, only one colony--Georgia--had sought to prohibit the institution. The governments of Britain, France, Denmark, Holland, Portugal, and Spain all openly participated in the slave trade, and no church had discouraged its members from owning or trading in slaves.
Yet within half a century, protests against slavery had become widespread. By 1804, every state north of Maryland and Delaware had either freed its slaves or adopted gradual emancipation schemes. In 1807, both the United States and Britain outlawed the Atlantic slave trade.
When Congress prohibited the trans-Atlantic slave trade, there were grounds for believing that slavery was a declining institution. In 1784, the Continental Congress fell one vote short of passing a bill that would have excluded slavery forever from the trans-Appalachian West. In 1787, Congress did bar slavery from the Old Northwest, the region north of the Ohio River and east of the Mississippi. During the 1780s and 1790s, the number of slaves freed by their masters rose dramatically in the Upper South. At the present rate of progress, one religious leader predicted in 1791, within fifty years it will "be as shameful for a man to hold a Negro slave, as to be guilty of common robbery or theft." But when William Lloyd Garrison called for an immediate end to slavery in 1831, the grounds for optimism had evaporated. Despite the end of the Atlantic slave trade, the slave population in the United States had grown to 1.5 million in 1820 and over two million a decade later. The cotton kingdom had expanded into Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, Texas, Arkansas, and Missouri. In the North, free blacks faced increasingly harsh discrimination.