In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Abolition of Slavery

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Textbooks and Surveys
  • Bibliographies and Encyclopedias
  • Journals
  • Antislavery and Abolition
  • Abolition of the Slave Trade
  • Emancipation, Manumission, and Colonization
  • Rebellions and Revolution
  • Latin America and the Caribbean
  • United States

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Atlantic History Abolition of Slavery
Michael Guasco, Matthew Wyman-McCarthy
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 June 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 June 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0001


The abolition of slavery in the Atlantic world occurred during the 19th century, but its origins are generally recognized to be the intellectual ferment of the 18th-century Enlightenment, the political turmoil of the Age of Revolution, and the economic transformations associated with the development of modern industrial capitalism. Although antislavery ideas circulated much more widely beginning in the 1760s, the first sustained effort to do something about slavery began in the 1780s, particularly with the British campaign to end the slave trade. The revolution in Saint Domingue added a new sense of urgency to the issue in France, Great Britain, and the United States (as did each of the increasingly troubling slave rebellions that erupted elsewhere in the region during this era), but it was not until the first decade of the 19th century that the British and US governments abolished the trade and made efforts to suppress it throughout the Atlantic world. Slowly thereafter, slavery would be outlawed in many of the newly independent Latin American nations, throughout the British Empire in 1833, and in the French colonies in 1848. Not until the 1860s would slavery come to a halt in the United States, followed by Cuba and Brazil in the 1880s. Scholars have demonstrated that there were many reasons for the abolition of slavery, including the heroic efforts of enslaved people and radical abolitionists alike. As important as moral outrage and popular pressure were to the effort, however, abolition was also facilitated by changing economic and political circumstances. The language of liberty that pervaded the revolutionary Atlantic world inevitably destabilized the ideological foundation of the Atlantic slave system. At the same time, new agricultural and technological innovations made it possible for European elites to imagine viable, and profitable, alternatives to the plantation complex that had been constructed during the preceding centuries. Much has been written about the end of slavery, but scholars are nonetheless still trying to figure out how the component parts of transatlantic abolitionism fit together into a seamless whole.

General Overviews

The abolition of slavery was once imagined as the logical outgrowth of intellectual transformations associated with the Enlightenment. The economic interpretation in Williams 1944, however, forever altered scholarly analyses of both the rise and fall of slavery in the Atlantic world. There is now little support for the argument that the plantation complex was in decline during the 19th century, but scholarly works such as Blackburn 1988 have been sympathetic to the idea that economic self-interest motivated Europeans to abolish slavery. Others, such as Davis 1975, Davis 2006, and Drescher 2009, emphasize the determinative power of radical social ideas and humanitarian impulses. Klein 1993 demonstrates that the effort to end slavery was a long and often frustrating global phenomenon. Hochshild 2005 is among the most readable synthetic works designed for a general audience.

  • Blackburn, Robin. The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery, 1776–1848. London: Verso, 1988.

    A sweeping synthetic work demonstrating that a combination of economic, political, and intellectual changes brought about an end to slavery. Particularly valuable for its comprehensive approach to the subject.

  • Davis, David Brion. The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, 1770–1823. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1975.

    Classic political and intellectual history that privileges the actions and ideas of elites over the actions of rebels and revolutionaries. Especially attuned to developments in the United States.

  • Davis, David Brion. Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

    Thematic presentation that emphasizes the author’s idiosyncratic interests in various aspects of slavery. The final four chapters detail the history of abolitionism in Great Britain and the United States.

  • Drescher, Seymour. Abolition: A History of Slavery and Antislavery. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511770555

    Impressive survey with greater geographic coverage and a lengthier temporal scope than most works. Emerging as the standard by which other surveys are measured. Drescher’s earlier works are also worth consulting, particularly Econocide: British Slavery in the Era of Abolition (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1977), and Capitalism and Antislavery: British Mobilization in Comparative Perspective (London: Macmillan, 1986).

  • Hochshild, Adam. Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2005.

    An engaging narrative written primarily for an audience of nonspecialists. Served as the basis for the film Amazing Grace (2006). Largely concerned with the British world.

  • Klein, Martin A., ed. Breaking the Chains: Slavery, Bondage, and Emancipation in Modern Africa and Asia. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1993.

    Although they stray well into the modern era and far beyond the confines of the Atlantic world, the essays in this volume are an important reminder of the pervasiveness of slavery and the long struggle to abolish it worldwide.

  • Williams, Eric. Capitalism and Slavery. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1944.

    Classic work in which the author contends not only that slavery financed the Industrial Revolution but also that the rise of capitalism led to the downfall of slavery. Often criticized for the author’s economic determinism, but still routinely cited.

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