Abolition in Colonial America


The concept of Abolition existed in Colonial America, however, there was not a consistent inter-colonial effort to eliminate slavery. Over time, anti-slavery sentiment grew throughout the British Colonies but was localized in places like Philadelphia, and among religious sects, such as the Quakers. As the Abolition Movement started to take shape, it was much stronger in colonies that did not rely on slave labor for agriculture.

Benjamin Lay, Abolition, Colonial America, NPG

This painting depicts Benjamin Lay, a prominent Abolitionist in Pennsylvania during the Colonial Era. Image Source: National Portrait Gallery.

Facts About Abolition During the Colonial Era

  • The first recorded Abolition incident in Colonial America, the Germantown Petition Against Slavery, took place in 1688 when a group of Pennsylvania Quakers drafted a formal anti-slavery petition.
  • Slavery was a common practice throughout the world during the Colonial Era and eventually spread to the English Colonies, beginning with Virginia in 1619.
  • In the aftermath of wars between the English Colonies and Native American Indian Tribes, captive Indians were often sold as slaves to tribes allied with the English or plantations in the West Indies.
  • Slavery was not only practiced by the English, but also the Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese, and Indians.
  • Colonists lived in fear of slave uprisings and revolts, which led to the adoption of laws that infringed on the rights of slaves. Some of the prominent uprisings involving slaves took place in Virginia, New York, and South Carolina.
  • During the Colonial Era, the 13 Original Colonies took shape, but they were not well-connected. They were divided by geographic and economic differences. It was the American Revolution that ultimately created a union between them.
  • Anti-slavery sentiment was stronger in the Northern Colonies and Middle Colonies because they were not as dependent on slave labor for plantations as the Southern Colonies.

Abolition in Colonial America

Although there was no formal organization associated with Abolition during the Colonial Era, the seeds of an organized movement in America were undoubtedly planted, as early as 1688. That year, four Quaker men wrote the first formal anti-slavery petition, known as the Germantown Petition Against Slavery.

Quakers were not the only ones who were troubled by the practice, and there were many instances of slave owners freeing their slaves in their wills when they died, including George Washington.

Although the colonies were not closely connected during this time, pockets of Abolitionist thought formed, especially in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

Examples of Slavery in Colonial America

The Abolition Movement was a response to the practice of enslaving people. During the Colonial Era from 1607 to 1763, people from the lower social classes, including blacks and Native American Indians, were often at risk of being captured and taken as slaves, whether it was due to war or a byproduct of the slave trade in Africa and Europe.

Transatlantic Slave Trade — The White Lion Arrives at Virginia

In 1619, the White Lion, an English ship under the command of Captain John Jope, arrived at Point Comfort — present-day Hampton, Virginia. Jope was a privateer, operating with permission from Maurice, the Prince of Orange and leader of most of the provinces of the Dutch Republic. Jope and his crew had seized captive Africans from a Portuguese ship. In Virginia, the Englishmen traded approximately 20 of those people for food. The people were not enslaved but were indentured servants. However, the incident is widely viewed as the first time the Transatlantic Slave Trade reached America. From this point forward, thousands of captive Africans were transported to North America over the Middle Passage.

Virginia, Arrival of Africans, 1619, Pyle
This illustration by Howard Pyle depicts the arrival of the first Africans in Virginia. Image Source: Slavery in America, Jean Bashfield.

War Captives Sold into Slavery — Displacement of the Pequots

It was common for captive Indians to be sold into slavery after major conflicts, including the Pequot War (1634–1638). After the war, many of the survivors from the Pequot Tribe were sold as slaves to Indian Tribes that were allied with the English during the war. This contributed to the near-extermination of the Pequots and the disbandment of the tribe. Some became the Mashantucket — Western Pequots — who are still recognized today by Connecticut. Some members of the Brothertown Indians of Wisconsin also trace their lineage to the Pequot Indians.

Burning of Fort Mystic, Pequot War
This illustration depicts the burning of Fort Mystic during the Pequot War. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Domestic Slave Trade — New Amsterdam Slave Auctions

The Dutch were heavily involved in the Transatlantic Slave Trade, and people were enslaved in the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam. In 1655, the first large shipment of slaves arrived at New Amsterdam — present-day New York City — where they were sold at a public slave auction. Slave auctions became a common practice in the large port cities during the Colonial Era.

The Rise of Abolition in Colonial America — Pennsylvania and the Quakers

Quakers, also known as the Religious Society of Friends, is a Christian denomination founded in the 17th century by George Fox. Quakers believe in the “inner light,” or the presence of God within each individual, and place a strong emphasis on social justice and equality. They are known for their commitment to nonviolence and their refusal to take oaths. In 1657, Fox advised his followers who owned slaves to treat them well and to consider freeing them.

Founding of Pennsylvania

William Penn founded the colony of Pennsylvania as a haven for Quakers but also advocated religious freedom and tolerance. The Quakers published writings and advocated within their religion to prohibit the purchase, sale, and ownership of slaves. They opposed involuntary servitude based on their belief that anyone who sought to live without sin, regardless of their background, could receive the Holy Spirit, which they referred to as the “inner light.”

William Penn, Landing in Pennsylvania, 1682
This painting by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris depicts the arrival of William Penn in Pennsylvania in 1682. Image Source: Library of Congress.

Germantown Protest and Petition Against Slavery

The first captive Africans to be sold as slaves arrived in Philadelphia in 1684, and Quakers, despite Fox’s warnings against slavery, were known as prominent slave traders.

In 1688, the first official demonstration against slavery was made by Quakers living in Germantown. Four men, Francis Daniel Pastorius, Garret Hendericks, Derick op den Graeff, and Abraham op den Graeff signed a petition that showed respect for enslaved Africans and considered them as social equals.

Increasing Anti-Slavery Sentiment in the Middle Colonies

However, as Pennsylvania and the other Middle Colonies grew, the need for workers increased, and many landowners turned to purchasing slaves. 

This led to more protests against the practice of slavery. In 1712, William Southeby petitioned the Pennsylvania legislature to emancipate all slaves in the colony. 

In nearby New Jersey, John Hepburn published “The American Defence of the Christian Golden Rule, or An Essay to prove the Unlawfulness of making Slaves of Men” in 1715.

Changing Viewpoints in Philadelphia

In the 1750s, the views held by members of the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends toward slavery shifted. The members became active against slavery, under the leadership of men like John Woolman and Anthony Benezet, who were both abolitionists. 

In 1754, the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting issued “An Epistle of Caution and Advice,” condemning slavery. Woolman also published his essay “Some Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes.”

Four years later, in 1758, men involved in the slave trade were excluded from leadership roles in the organization. 

The Abolition Movement started to gain traction in both England and the Northern Colonies. In 1758, the London Yearly Meeting also recommended the exclusion of men involved in the slave trade. In 1773, slavery was banned by the New England Yearly Meeting.

By the time the American Revolutionary War started, many Quaker slave owners chose to free their slaves. Quakers who refused to follow suit were generally shunned by their fellow Friends.

The First Great Awakening and Equality

The First Great Awakening swept through the colonies from the 1730s to the 1760s. It was the most significant religious movement of the Colonial Era and fueled the ideology of the American Revolution by emphasizing the power of the individual over the power of the clergymen or monarchs.

The evangelists associated with the First Great Awakening, including Jonathan Edwards, did not necessarily preach against slavery. However, they did speak to the opportunity — and equality — of all people as being able to be saved by God’s grace.

The First Great Awakening is widely recognized as the first movement that encompassed all 13 Colonies.

Jonathan Edwards, Preacher, Great Awakening, NYPL
Jonathan Edwards. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Early Abolitionists from the Colonial Era

Samuel Sewell

In 1700, Boston judge Samuel Sewall wrote “The Selling of Joseph,” in which he argued that all people, as descendants of Adam, had the right to equality and liberty. It was the first anti-slavery publication in New England and it was the first anti-slavery publication that was throughout the colonies.

Benjamin Lay

During the 1730s, Benjamin Lay rose to prominence in Pennsylvania for his stance against slavery. At one point, he abducted the child of a family that owned slaves, to show them what it felt like to have a child stolen from them. 

In 1737, he published a book called All Slave Keepers That keep the Innocent in Bondage, Apostates, which was printed by Benjamin Franklin. 

A year later, in 1738, Lay caused a commotion at the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting when he appeared in military uniform. He carried a sword with him and a book resembling the Bible, which he filled with a red liquid. Lay proceeded to stab the book with his sword and sprinkle the “blood” on the meeting attendees. Lay was promptly escorted from the meeting.

Franklin’s wife, Deborah Read, commissioned a painting of Lay, which she gave to her husband as a gift.

Prince Hall

Around 1735, Prince Hall was born, either in Barbados or Boston, Massachusetts. Hall’s mother was black and his father might have been William Hall. The traditional story of Prince Hall is that he was enslaved to William Hall, who taught him a trade. Prince Hall would go on to play an important part in the Abolition Movement in Boston.

Prince Hall, Illustration
Prince Hall. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Slave Uprisings and Slave Codes Before the American Revolution

During the Colonial Era, there was a persistent fear of slave uprisings, which led to the establishment of Slave Codes. 

These codes gradually restricted the freedoms of slaves, including the right to carry weapons to protect themselves, associate with white colonists, and receive an education. 

Over time, Abolitionists worked to overturn Slave Codes — which were sometimes referred to as Black Laws — via legal means.

Some of the most prominent slave uprisings, or rebellions that included slaves, were:

Bacon’s Rebellion in Virginia (1676–1677)

Slaves were part of Nathanial Bacon’s “army” that took control of Virginia. Bacon’s Rebellion contributed to the expanded use of Virginia’s Headright System and the expansion of slavery.

New York Slave Revolt (1712)

Slaves in New York planned a violent revolt in 1712. They set fire to buildings in the city and attacked people who responded to the alarm. The militia restored order and New York passed laws to restrict the freedoms of enslaved people.

Stono Rebellion (1739)

In 1739, slaves in South Carolina attempted to escape to Fort Mose in Florida, where the Spanish government would grant them freedom. The Stono Rebellion contributed to the conflict between Georgia and Florida, which was part of the War of Jenkins’ Ear.

New York Slave Conspiracy (1741)

In 1741, rumors of a slave uprising led to a conspiracy, similar to the Salem Witch Trials. The rumors were used to arrest hundreds of people in New York, leading to the execution of approximately 30 innocent people. In the aftermath, New York tightened its slave laws.

Slave Auction, South Carolina
This illustration depicts a slave auction in Charleston, South Carolina. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Significance of Abolition During the Colonial Era

The idea of Abolition in America took root during the Colonial Era. The 1688 Germantown Petition Against Slavery can be looked at as the catalyst for the Abolition Movement, and the beginning of the struggle between Abolitionists and slaveholders that divided the nation and led to the Civil War.

Abolition in Colonial America APUSH Review

Use the following links and videos to study Abolition, Colonial America, and the 13 Original Colonies for the AP US History Exam. Also, be sure to look at our Guide to the AP US History Exam.

Abolition in Colonial America APUSH Definition

Abolition in Colonial America refers to the early efforts to eradicate the institution of slavery in the American Colonies before the American Revolution. While slavery was entrenched in the colonial economies and societies, abolitionist voices started to emerge as early as 1688. Some religious groups, such as the Quakers, condemned slavery, and individual colonists like Anthony Benezet and Benjamin Lay advocated for the emancipation of enslaved people and helped form the ideology that formed the Abolition Movement in America. 

Abolition in Colonial America APUSH Video

This video from CrashCourse discusses the 1688 Germantown Protest.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations, including APA Style, Chicago Style, and MLA Style.

  • Article Title Abolition in Colonial America
  • Date 1607—1763
  • Author
  • Keywords Abolition, Colonial America. Abolition Movement,
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date July 12, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update February 10, 2024