Factors Leading to the Abolition of the Slave Trade

The Economic, Social and Political Factors of the Abolition of the Slave Trade by Jessica Comeau The Trans-Atlantic slave trade had deep and far-reaching effects on the continent of Africa and its people. Prior to the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, there was an active slave trade within Africa, although the connotation of the word slave was not the same for the Africans as it was for the Europeans. In an African society, a slave could eventually marry into the master’s family and rise to a prominent position within the state.

Similarly, in the African society slaves were often taken solely to pay off debts and once the debt had been worked off, the ‘slave’ was free to go. This understanding of the word slave did not denote an entire lifetime of slavery but merely was used to describe a person who was in a position similar of that to a servant or ward. In the European society at this time, the term slave was used to describe a human who was reduced to the status of being property to another human being.

When the Trans-Atlantic slave trade came to be abolished in the 19th century, the economic, social and political landscapes were very different than they had been leading into the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.

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There are historians who have tried to make a case for economic factors being the largest contributor to the end of the slave trade, but it was the total summary of social, political and economical aspects which led to the eventual abolition of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.

The politics of the abolition of the slave trade were diverse and complex. Abolitionist efforts were taking place on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, with abolitionists working to change laws both in Europe and the United States of America. The first attempt to abolish slavery was the British Act of 1807. Coming shortly after the period of the Haitian Revolution, it would not be hard to say that one led to the other. [1] The Haitian revolt frightened slaveholders everywhere while inspiring other slaves and free blacks to action.

It also convinced religiously motivated whites that only peaceful emancipation could prevent more bloodshed in the abolition of slavery. [2] Haiti became the first independent black republic in the world. Having vied for the abolition of the slave trade for almost eighteen years prior to this, the Act of 1807 was a large accomplishment for British abolitionists. [3]

Abolition of the Slave Trade in the United States

In the United States, President Jefferson was the first president to formally address the public on their ability to push for the prohibition of the slave trade.

Jefferson went on to announce that no law prohibiting the slave trade could take effect until 1808, which prompted Senator Bradley of Vermont to push a bill through the Senate detailing how to abolish the slave trade. After much complication and debate, Bradley’s bill went on to become the Act of March 2, 1807. [4] However, during this period of time the Southern United States still did not have the majority public opinion behind the abolition of the slave trade, and this new law was regarded as one which could easily be broken with limited consequences because very few people were willing to enforce it.

Despite the lenient attitudes that were present in the United States, public opinion was slowly forcing politicians to stand up against the slave trade. The 19th century was a volatile century in regards to the abolition of the slave trade in both the United States and in Europe. When it came to looking at the United States, politics were quickly changing to accommodate the abolitionists. Although attitudes were changing towards the abolition of the slave trade, in the beginning of the 19th century, it was still commonplace for people to consider slaves to be a necessary evil in society.

When discussing what to do with slaves should they be freed from their masters, it was thought that “…to have among us in any considerable quantity persons of this description is an evil far greater than slavery itself” [5]. Therefore, despite laws being passed in the interest of abolition, a large majority of them were not immediately enforced due to the previously stated opinion, where it was considered much worse to have former slaves ‘running free’ in society instead of safely enslaved by the plantation masters.

There were both abolitionists and people who were pro-slavery in the political playing field, and one side of the argument was that “…Negroes are “entitled to their freedom as clearly and absolutely as we are;””[6], with the ‘we’ representing the white population. However, it took decades before that became a majority opinion in the United States. “The development of scientific racism, the idea that blacks were biologically inferior to whites and were intellectually and morally incapable of self-government, encouraged state and national legislation that limited the rights of free blacks. [7]

Abolition of the Slave Trade in Europe

Therefore, it can be seen how difficult it would have been for the abolitionists to have successfully pushed any bills through the Senate, with the majority opinion still believing that Africans were inferior to the Caucasian race. Abolitionists in Europe, more specifically in Britain, were quickly pushing the public to hold politicians accountable for the abolition of the slave trade. In 1787 Prime Minister William Pitt became sympathetic to politicizing the subject of the abolition of the slave trade. [8]

As the 19th century dawned, politicians would increasingly submit petitions to the public in order for ordinary citizens to speak up about certain topics. The most common topic of these petitions was the slave trade. Between 1811 and 1815, a total of 1,370 petitions were sent to Parliament. The public was called upon to sign these petitions and the majority of these were in favor of abolishing the slave trade. [9]

In 1814, Britain was titled as the ‘public of Europe’ which gave the country the ability to conduct courts and nations with authority. 10] After this naming of Britain, the 1814-1815 Congress of Vienna took place. Major delegates from across Europe attended the conference and went on to issue a joint declaration that the slave trade “desolate Africa, degraded Europe and afflicted humanity” and should be ended. ” [11]

Contrary to what was taking place in the United States, where a slower, almost stagnant approach was happening, the abolitionist movement was quickly gaining momentum in Britain.

The industrial revolution would soon contribute to the speed of the antislavery movement, both in Europe and the United States, with the economics of slavery changing. As items were being produced through quicker, less expensive manufacturing methods, the idea of using plantations and slavery- especially in regards to sugar, was becoming a thing of the past. From a social point of view, the abolition of the slave trade was quickly gaining public support in Britain.

The first human rights movements were being spawned and entire societies formed that were dedicated to the equal and fair treatment of every individual, regardless of their origins or skin color. By 1814, some of the first human rights organizations had begun and were quickly altering much of the Western world’s perspective on the future of slavery as an institution. [12]

The public was choosing to engage in a more active role with the abolitionists, and as a direct result, “… Abolitionists could threaten to call forth the booming public voice of the nation at will. [13] The abolitionists were able to call upon the public so easily due to new networks of communication, forged by newspapers and petitions. According to Drescher, these were key to the abolitionists’ success in transforming national opinion into opposition to the slave trade. [14]

Public Discussions of Slave Trade

In the United States, there was a great discussion taking place surrounding the morality of the slave trade. The public was beginning to ask how a nation that called itself a Christian nation could engage in a trade where people were dehumanized and mistreated as a means to gain profit.

Religion played a significant role for some abolitionists, who believed that “…all people, regardless of race, had a divine spark inside them and were equal in the eyes of God. ”[15] There was a portion of the population that believed that America was in need of moral regeneration by dedicated Christians. The Enlightenment was beginning in the middle of the 19th century, with people searching for answers through religion. Whereas slavery was a widely accepted ideology prior to the Enlightenment, people were now starting to question the morality of the slave trade and its disregard for basic human rights.

Legislation on Abolition of the Slave Trade in the United States

Due to pressure from the public, a series of reforms that were designed to eliminate evils in American society was created. These reforms included women’s rights, temperance, educational improvements, humane treatment for the mentally ill, and the abolition of slavery. [16]

Apart from the social and political elements surrounding the abolition of the slave trade, there were significant economic aspects to the abolition as well. Despite this, it cannot be said that the economy was the main contributing factor to the abolition of the slave trade. …British slavery did not decline because of any major shift in the institution’s contribution to the British economy. ”[17]

With all of the petitions and bills being passed with regards to abolishing the slave trade, in less than 5% of those petitions was there any added promise of economic advantage. [18] In Britain, there was a nationwide campaign that was launched by abolitionists to the general public. The aim was to convince the general public to abstain from the consumption of sugar that was grown on slave plantations.

This was seen as an instrument of direct economic coercion against the whole slave interest. [19] By convincing the public to abstain from consuming slave-grown sugar, a major toll was taken on the profits being made from plantation sugar. By 1807, British-controlled territories produced well over half of the sugar reaching Europe, which was largely produced on plantations where slavery existed. This was up from less than one-third in 1775. [20] The British government invested approximately 6–9 hundred thousand pounds annually in the slave trade.

However, in the house of parliament, opponents to the abolitionists maximized the economic risk of ending the slave trade by nearly 100%, causing the abolitionists to be defeated again in 1791-92 while trying to pass new antislavery reforms. [21]

In the United States, antislavery reforms were being passed that bore heavy fines for anyone who dared to break the new laws. Stiff penalties were put in place for any person who was caught participating in the slave trade, with amounts ranging from 8-20 thousand dollars. “Any American who purchased an illegally imported slave would lose that slave and be fined $8,000 for every one purchased. [22]

The idea behind these reforms is that no person would risk being caught with a slave due to the enormous financial cost of illegally importing a slave. However, despite this reform, there was still the question of what to do with slaves that had been illegally imported despite the high cost of doing so. Jefferson was unwilling to have Africans running free in the country, and he was also unwilling to spend the money to send them back to Africa despite the Africans being brought to the United States illegally.

Therefore, the law provided that slaves illegally found in the United States would be treated according to the law of the state in which they were found — or brought to. In practice, this meant they would become slaves in the United States, and that the states would profit by selling them. [23] This set back the abolitionists as they tried to pass new laws and reforms, only to find that the laws would benefit the people illegally transporting slaves into the United States. After much thought and discussion, it can be determined that there were many contributing factors to the end of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.

Although there was no single defining factor, there were numerous events that caused the eventual abolition of the slave trade. On both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, there were efforts to eliminate the slave trade. The Haitian Revolution spurred change, with the British Act of 1807 becoming the first defining event in the abolition of the slave trade. Meanwhile, in the United States, the Act of March 2, 1807, was passed shortly thereafter, which led the antislavery movement in the United States.

Majority public opinion was slow to follow the legislature in the United States, with lenient attitudes leading to the first antislavery laws not being heavily enforced by officials who felt that slavery was a necessary evil in society. The Congress of Vienna led the antislavery movement with international powers meeting to discuss how to end the trade. The British Parliament was given hundreds of petitions signed by the public, all encouraging the abolition of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.

Public opinion quickly moved to support the abolitionists in the antislavery movement, which led to further social reforms that continued to push politicians into making changes. The industrial revolution opened the door for economic changes in both domestic and international trade, with the use of plantation sugar coming to a halt by the end of the 19th century. Although there were no significant economic gains to come from ending the slave trade, the economic risk of ending the trade was largely exaggerated.

In the United States, strict regulations were enforced through the first half of the 19th century, with steep fines being placed on anyone whose actions contributed to the illegal importation of African slaves. By the end of the 19th century, Europe and its colonies no longer engaged in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. The United States had abolished slavery, but racism was still ingrained in the American society. The shift from slavery was gradual, with many battles left to be fought by human rights groups long into the 20th century.

The end of the slave trade was just the beginning of a new battle for Africans who remained in the United States.


  1.  W. E. Burghardt Du Bois. The Suppression of the African Slave Trade to the United States of America. (Corner House Publishers, 1970) P 94-95.
  2. “Abolitionist Movement,” Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2000 http://encarta. msn. com © 1997-2000 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.
  3. Seymour Drescher. Abolition: A History of Slavery and Antislavery. (Cambridge University Press, 2009) 211 http://uncpress. unc. edu/pdfs/TeachersGuides/AbolitionAST_TeachersGuide. pd

Cite this page

Factors Leading to the Abolition of the Slave Trade. (2017, Dec 16). Retrieved from https://paperap.com/paper-on-factors-leading-to-the-abolition-of-the-slave-trade-653/

Factors Leading to the Abolition of the Slave Trade
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