In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Antislavery Movement

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Primary Sources
  • Biographical Studies

African American Studies Antislavery Movement
Margot Minardi
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 February 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190280024-0111


In the eighteenth and especially nineteenth centuries, the antislavery movement attracted a significant number of Americans who believed that slavery was a moral evil and a political and economic detriment to the United States. Although abolitionists were, throughout most of their struggle, a beleaguered minority in the United States, their efforts to uproot an entrenched institution constituted one of the most significant social movements in American history. Abolitionists were a diverse lot in terms of their backgrounds, and they often disagreed intensely with one another about how broadly to define their movement’s aims and how best to achieve them. This complexity has engendered rich and multifaceted scholarship, and the bibliography that follows emphasizes several recent developments in that literature. While earlier generations of scholarship sometimes lionized (or reviled) individual white abolitionists, recent studies emphasize the many ways in which Black activists were at the vanguard of the movement. This new work highlights the connections between the antislavery struggle and early efforts to secure racial equality in both the North and the South. It also suggests that enslaved people ought not to be considered as merely the objects of abolitionists’ benevolent regard but instead active participants in antislavery struggles in their own right. Recent scholarship has also expanded the chronological and geographical scope of the antislavery movement. While studies of abolitionism have often focused on the decades just before the Civil War, recent work has shown antislavery to have been a century-long struggle extending from the American Revolution through Reconstruction (and even beyond). Scholars of antislavery have also traced the movement’s robust transnational dimensions by tracking fugitives from slavery across the borders of the United States and making connections between antislavery activism in the United States and in other places throughout the Atlantic World. It should be noted that some scholars differentiate “antislavery” and “abolitionist,” with the latter term connoting opposition not only to the institution of slavery but also to anti-Black racism more broadly. However, this distinction is not employed consistently across the scholarship, and it does not line up with 19th-century usage. Consequently, in this bibliography, the terms “antislavery” and “abolitionist” are used more or less interchangeably.

General Overviews

The history of antislavery movements is complex, and the most effective overviews of this topic acknowledge that complexity by embedding American slavery and antislavery within the broader context of the Atlantic world and by treating the dismantling of slavery as a protracted process rather than a singular event. Rael 2015 reinforces these points in a study of “the long death of slavery in the United States,” while Blackburn 2013 is especially notable for its hemispheric scope. Sinha 2016 offers the most comprehensive, up-to-date synthesis of abolitionism in the United States in an exhaustively researched, six-hundred-page volume. Readers looking for more concise overviews should consult Stewart 1997 or Newman 2018. Davis 2014 represents the culmination of a trilogy of works by a scholar who has perhaps done more than anyone else to shape modern scholarship on abolitionism. Surveying the rich scholarship on antislavery is the focus of the article-length overviews offered by McDaniel 2014 and Brooks 2018.

  • Blackburn, Robin. The American Crucible: Slavery, Emancipation, and Human Rights. London: Verso, 2013.

    Examining slavery’s rise and fall throughout the Western Hemisphere, Blackburn bridges the gaps between studies of slavery and abolition, which are often treated separately. In this transnational history, Blackburn brings together many key developments of recent historiography, such as the significance of industrial capitalism to the maintenance of the slave system and the importance of enslaved people’s resistance (especially the Haitian Revolution) to the institution’s eventual dismantling.

  • Brooks, Corey M. “Reconsidering Politics in the Study of American Abolitionists.” Journal of the Civil War Era 8.2 (June 2018): 291–317.

    DOI: 10.1353/cwe.2018.0029

    From a special issue titled “The Future of Abolition Studies,” this review essay focuses on a wide variety of works published since 2014. Brooks emphasizes scholarship that focuses on the relationship between abolitionist activism and formal politics and argues that integrating these two long-separated strands of scholarship will enrich scholars’ understanding of the coming of the Civil War and the process of emancipation.

  • Davis, David Brion. The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014.

    The final volume in the author’s series on slavery and antislavery, this long-in-the-making work examines abolitionism and emancipation in the English-speaking Atlantic world. More than the earlier two volumes (The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture and The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution), this book centers the work of free and formerly enslaved Black people whose efforts and examples were essential to overturning slavery.

  • McDaniel, W. Caleb. “The Bonds and Boundaries of Antislavery.” Journal of the Civil War Era 4.1 (March 2014): 84–105.

    DOI: 10.1353/cwe.2014.0021

    A survey of scholarship on American abolitionism that emphasizes recent work in the field. McDaniel argues that while earlier historiography highlighted divisions among different subsets of antislavery activists, recent studies have shifted attention to the connections among diverse abolitionists. McDaniel also examines how recent work reintegrates the study of abolitionism and formal politics and calls for more attention to the continuation and transformation of antislavery activism after the Civil War.

  • Newman, Richard S. Abolitionism: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018.

    DOI: 10.1093/actrade/9780190213220.001.0001

    An excellent introduction to the topic, readable in a single sitting. Newman surveys American antislavery from the Revolutionary period through the Civil War era, while also raising important interpretive questions about how (and by whom) slavery was ultimately dismantled in the United States.

  • Rael, Patrick. Eighty-Eight Years: The Long Death of Slavery in the United States, 1777–1865. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2015.

    Rael reads the abolition of slavery in the United States as a protracted process, extending from Vermont’s constitutional abolition in 1777 to the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865. In tracking efforts to end slavery between those years, Rael brings together periods of antislavery history often treated separately and situates emancipation in the United States in a transnational context.

  • Sinha, Manisha. The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2016.

    The most extensive history of the American abolitionist movement published in recent years, Sinha’s study bridges the Revolutionary period through the Civil War. Throughout, she argues that enslaved people’s resistance was integral to the abolitionist movement. Contrary to many studies that position antislavery as a bourgeois movement, Sinha stresses the radicalism of abolitionism, in terms of the movement’s challenge to capitalism and its advancement of democratic principles.

  • Stewart, James Brewer. Holy Warriors: The Abolitionists and American Slavery. Rev. ed. New York: Hill and Wang, 1997.

    A highly readable narrative history of efforts to abolish slavery in the United States, from the Revolutionary era through the Civil War. This revised edition incorporates insights from new scholarship published since the original edition in 1976.

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