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One Man’s Quest to Abolish Slavery


By William “Doc” Halliday

Slavery has existed in nearly every culture, nation, and religion from time immemorial through today. The Code of Hammurabi (c 1760 BC) refers to it as an established institution. Slavery was a legally recognized system in which human beings were legally considered the chattel or property of another. In Abolition: A History of Slavery and Antislavery © 2009, Seymour Dresche writes "The most crucial and frequently utilized aspect of the condition is a communally recognized right by some individuals to possess, buy, sell, discipline, transport, liberate, or otherwise dispose of the bodies and behavior of other individuals." While slavery has been made de jure illegal in all countries, there are an estimated 25-30 million people currently enslaved in various parts of the world.

Perhaps the first recorded effort to abolish slavery began in the third century BC. Ashoka Maurya who at that time was the emperor of the Maurya Dynasty ruling almost all of the Indian subcontinent abolished the slave trade and encouraged people to treat slaves well, but did not abolish slavery itself.

In 1688, in a section of what is now Philadelphia, “The Germantown Petition Against Slavery” was presented to the local meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). It was forwarded to the monthly, quarterly, and yearly meetings of that group without any action being taken. This was the first public document in the colonies of its kind to protest slavery, and was also one of the first public documents to define universal human rights. It was overlooked for the next 156 years.

Joy Hakim states in A History of the US © 1993; that the importation of future slaves was banned by the United States in 1808. In 1811 the British Empire made slave trading a felony. Throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, northern states banned slavery in separate actions by the individual states. Throughout the nineteenth century country after country followed the trend and abolished slavery.

In Black Texans: A History of African Americans in Texas © 1996, Alwyn Barr states that in 1830 Mexican president Anastasio Bustamante ordered the abolition of slavery to be implemented also in the Mexican Territory of Texas. He was never committed to the idea, and allowed Anglo colonists to circumvent the law by converting their slaves into "indentured servants for life". In 1836 when Texas won its independence, slavery again became legal there.

In 1845, the British assigned 36 ships of the Royal Navy to its Anti-Slavery Squadron. It became one of the largest fleets in the world combating slavery.

In 1850, the United States passed the Fugitive Slave Act, a law which mandated that authorities in Free states aid in the return of escaped slaves and imposed penalties on those who aided in their escape. Throughout the 1850s John Brown became more steadfast in his abolitionist views and his militant methods. During the last half of that decade John Brown was involved in several deadly encounters, particularly in Kansas.

By 1859, trans-Atlantic slave trade had completely ended. On the evening of October 16, 1859, the militant abolitionist John Brown led a group of 22 men in an attack on a U. S. Army arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. Many of those men had participated with Brown in previous raids in Kansas. The objective here was to obtain arms to supply an insurrection by slaves in the area. The raid was ultimately a failure after a brief success. Brown and his men killed five people in the raid and wounded nine others. One hundred and fifty-nine years ago, on December 2, 1859, John Brown was executed by hanging. He had been convicted the previous month of numerous crimes, including the murder of four whites and a black, and treason against the state of Virginia. Harper’s Ferry is now located in West Virginia.

In less than thirteen months (on December 20, 1860), South Carolina would secede from the Union, beginning the movement towards the American Civil War.

In 1863, the “Emancipation Proclamation” was issued by President Lincoln, purporting to free slaves in those states that are in armed conflict with the Union. On December 18, 1865, the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution was adopted. This officially ended slavery in the United States, although less than 44,000 were still enslaved at that time.

Alton Hornsby Jr. documents in A Companion to African-American History © 2008 that separate treaties were signed by the United States and each of the Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Seminole tribes to end slavery in the Indian Territory (Oklahoma) in 1866.

In 1886, slavery was abolished in Cuba. This was the last area of the Americas to take this action.

John Brown’s efforts to abolish slavery were not only illegal, but futile. The wave of abolition was already sweeping the world. Combined with the mechanization of farms and plantations, it was inevitable that slavery would end.