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Abolitionism in the United States

Not to be confused with Prohibition in the United States.

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Abolitionism in the United States was the movement before and during the American Civil War to end slavery in the United States. In the Americas and western Europe, abolitionism was a movement to end the Atlantic slave trade and set slaves free. In the 17th century, English Quakers and Evangelicals condemned slavery as un-Christian. At that time, most slaves were Africans, but thousands of Native Americans were also enslaved. In the 18th century, as many as six million Africans were transported to the Americas as slaves, at least a third of them on British ships to North America. Abolition was part of the message of the First Great Awakening of the 1730s and 1740s in the Thirteen Colonies.

In the same period, rationalist thinkers of the Enlightenment criticized slavery for violating human rights. A member of the British Parliament, James Edward Oglethorpe, was among the first to articulate the Enlightenment case against slavery. Founder of the Province of Georgia, Oglethorpe banned slavery on humanistic grounds. He argued against it in Parliament and eventually encouraged his friends Granville Sharp and Hannah More to vigorously pursue the cause. Soon after his death in 1785, Sharp and More joined with William Wilberforce and others in forming the Clapham Sect. Although anti-slavery sentiments were widespread by the late 18th century, colonies and emerging nations, notably in the southern United States, continued to use and uphold traditions of slavery.

After the American Revolution established the United States, Northern states, beginning with Pennsylvania in 1780, passed legislation during the next two decades abolishing slavery, sometimes by gradual emancipation. Massachusetts ratified a constitution that declared all men equal; freedom suits challenging slavery based on this principle brought an end to slavery in the state. In other states, such as Virginia, similar declarations of rights were interpreted by the courts as not applicable to

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