The movement toward the abolition of the system of enslavement has been remembered as one of the great humanitarian initiatives in modern history. Occurring as it did in a world that was rent by the slaveholding republics and empires of America and Western Europe, abolition was in some ways “anti-modern” in that in sprung from those intellectuals and moralists who denied that progress benefits us all if it comes at a human cost. Therein lies the paradox. How could a system so responsible for the modern world’s economic progress, like enslavement, be ended by those who enjoyed its benefits?
There are a few factors to consider here. There first is a moral claim. If we are to take the theorists of natural rights at their word, then it was immoral to reduce human beings to chattel. Much of this claim was buttressed by an incipient radical Christianity that emerged within dissident factions of the Protestant movement. Out of those movements came many of the first abolitionist organizations in history. The second factor has to do with political economy. Slaveholding republics like the United States and slaveholding empires like those of Great Britain, France, and Spain, among others, faced a dynamic economic situation at the beginning of the nineteenth century.
The economics of slavery—primitive accumulation—had begun to give way to what were the beginnings of an industrialized economy. While this did not occur in the same way or at the same time across the landscape of the modern world—not just the Atlantic world—it is important to emphasize that things were moving to a critical juncture as the costs borne by maintaining systems of enslavement were not bearing the same economic fruit. A third factor is the threat of violence. Enslaved Africans resisted their enslavement. As a result of that resistance, slaveholding empires fought costly wars to maintain control of these economies. This proved to be unsustainable in the long run, compromising the efficacy of a centuries-old system. Historians have offered different versions of each of these three factors and continue to debate which of them was most consequential to the ultimate undoing of slavery. Here, we will take them up in turn.