50 Essential Documents

Emancipation Proclamation
The Emancipation Proclamation
  1. Virginia slave laws – See how laws were created to support the system of slavery.
  2. Germantown Friends’ protest against slavery (1688) – The earliest American antislavery statement came from a group of Quakers in Germantown, Pennsylvania.
  3. Selling of Joseph by Samuel Sewall (1700) – Samuel Sewall wrote the first antislavery tract in New England.
  4. Some Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes by John Woolman (1754) – John Woolman was among the most influential Americans in the eighteenth-century antislavery movement, and this 1754 piece was his most influential  work.
  5. Epistle of Caution and Advice from the 1754 Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (1754) – Thanks to the agitation of Quakers like John Woolman, the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting issued this antislavery appeal.
  6. Short Account of that Part of Africa Inhabited by Negroes (1762) – Anthony Benezet republished antislavery writings around the Atlantic World. This French-born American reformer was widely read by Americans, Britons, the French, and others.
  7. Historical Account of Guinea by Anthony Benezet (1772) –Benezet had not traveled to Africa himself, but devotes much of this text to describing African civilization based on accounts from the eighteenth century. 
  8. Somerset Ruling (1772) – Justice William Murray, First Earl of Mansfield, effectively abolished slavery in Great Britain through judicial action. Murray held that slavery was unlawful in England. 
  9. Thoughts Upon Slavery by John Wesley (1774) – At the end of the eighteenth century, the antislavery movement began attracting support from non-Quakers. John Wesley, the founder of the Methodism, was one of the important early non-Quakers to join the movement.
  10. The Just Limitations of Slavery by Granville Sharp (1776) – Granville Sharp involved himself in numerous social causes, but devoted the majority of his time to the antislavery cause. After the American Revolution, Sharp was among the most vocal defenders of the rights of former American slaves who gained their freedom during the conflict. With Sharp’s support, these settlers and others established the colony of Sierra Leone.
  11. An Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery in Pennsylvania (1780) – Pennsylvania’s gradual abolition law became the model for most other northern states as they began the painfully slow process of abolishing slavery.
  12. The End of Legal Slavery in Massachusetts (1781-1783) – This collection of primary sources from the Massachusetts Historical Society explains the process of abolition in the Bay State.
  13. Belinda’s Petition to the Legislature of Massachusetts (1782) – Belinda, a slave in Massachusetts, petitioned the state legislature for her freedom in 1782.
  14. Rhode Island Manumission Act (1784) – Rhode Island followed Pennsylvania in adopting a gradual abolition law.
  15. Constitution of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society (1787) – Originally formed in 1774, the Pennsylvania Abolition Society was the first antislavery society in North America. 
  16. The Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa, the African (1789) – According to this famous autobiography, written in 1789, Olaudah Equiano was born in what is now Nigeria. Kidnapped and sold into slavery in childhood, he was taken as a slave to the New World. He eventually earned the price of his own freedom by careful trading and saving. He became involved in the movement to abolish the slave trade and published this strongly abolitionist autobiography.
  17. William Wilberforce, Speech Before Parliament (1789) – William Wilberforce campaigned tirelessly against the slave trade and slavery in Great Britain. This 1789 speech outlines many of the arguments he developed over several decades of abolitionist work.
  18. Richard Allen and Absalom Jones, A Narrative of the Proceedings of the Black People (1794) – These two well-respected black ministers published this response to accusations of African American treachery during the 1793 outbreak of yellow fever in Philadelphia.
  19. Prince Hall, The Charge (1797) – Prince Hall’s address to the African American Masons in Boston praises the revolution in Haiti and encourages black Americans to continue in their fight against slavery and racial injustice.
  20. Adam Carman, An Oration Delivered at the Fourth Anniversary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade (1811) – Free African Americans used the anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade as an opportunity to further the antislavery cause.   
  21. James Forten, Letters From a Man of Colour, on a late Bill before the Senate of Pennsylvania (1813) – In 1813 the state legislature of Pennsylvania considered a bill to prohibit the immigration of free black men and women. Forten published this letter as a protest against the proposed law.
  22. Jehudi Ashmun, History of the American Colony in Liberia (1826) – Beginning in 1816, the American Colonization Society, a group of powerful white Americans, sought to solve the problem of slavery by relocating black Americans to Africa. Eventually, black emigrants formed an American colony which became the country of Liberia. In this document Jehudi Ashmun, a white missionary who served as de facto governor for the colony, described the early years of the colony.
  23. David Walker, An Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World (1829) – David Walker’s Appeal marks a turning point in abolitionist discourse. Walker condemns colonization and gradualism, even offering a rationale for violent resistance.
  24. William Lloyd Garrison, First Issue of the The Liberator (1831) – From its very inception, this important abolitionist periodical marked a new militant tone in abolitionist discourse.
  25. William Lloyd Garrison, The Insurrection (1831) – William Lloyd Garrison describes Nat Turner’s rebellion as a message from God about the injustice of slavery.
  26. Richard Allen, Autobiography (1833) – Richard Allen, the founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, served as both a tool for spiritual edification and antislavery activism.
  27. An Act for the Abolition of Slavery throughout the British Colonies (1833) – The resolution of Great Britain to abolish slavery in the West Indies emboldened American abolitionists.
  28. Lydia Maria Child, An Appeal in Favor of that Class of Americans Called Africans (1833) – In 1833 Child was probably the best-known woman writer in America. She was the author of popular novels and a best-selling advice manual called The Frugal Housewife (1829), and founder of the nation’s first children’s magazine, The Juvenile Miscellany. But this book made her very unpopular with many former readers. Arguments in favor of admitting African Americans into full membership in society are some of the most radical by any white author of the era.
  29. Maria Stewart, Productions of Mrs. Maria Stewart (1835) – Maria Stewart was one of the first female abolitionist lecturers. As an African American woman, she blazed a trail for later female activists.
  30. Angelina Grimké, Antislavery Speech at Pennsylvania Hall (1838) – One of the earliest American campaigners for civil rights, abolition, and women’s suffrage, Grimké‘s speech points out the corrupting and demoralizing effects of slavery, and calls for women to exercise their political rights and take an active role in abolition.
  31. Platform of the Liberty Party (1843) – This party, formed with the single goal of abolishing slavery, managed to turn the election of 1844 in favor of Democrat James Polk, stealing support from Whig candidate Henry Clay.
  32. Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845) – One of the finest pieces of American literature, Frederick Douglass’s first autobiography chronicles his experiences under slavery and his escape to freedom.
  33. Platform of the Free Soil Party (1848) – Antislavery sentiment came from sources other than abolitionists. The Free Soil Party, following the model of the Liberty Party, drew support from antislavery supporters, but attracted intensely racist supporters as well.
  34. Sojourner Truth, Ain’t I a Woman? (1851) – Truth, a former slave herself, railed against the dual injustices of slavery and patriarchy.
  35. Frederick Douglass, The Heroic Slave (1852) – Frederick Douglass’s only attempt to write fiction draws heavily from the slave revolt on the Creole.
  36. William Still, Journal C of Station No. 2 (1852-1857) – Chairman of the Vigilance Committee (part of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society), William Still assisted fugitive slaves as they were secretly shuttled into Philadelphia in the mid-1800s. Still’s meticulous journal entries offer unique insight into the secretive network known as the Underground Railroad.
  37. Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) – This, the most widely read American novel in the nineteenth century, radicalized many northerners to take a stronger stand against slavery.
  38. Martin Delany, The Condition, Elevation, Emigration, and Destiny of the Colored People of the United States (1852) – Delany presaged later black nationalist rhetoric by advocating migration to Africa.
  39. Frederick Douglass, What to the Slave is the Fourth of July? (1852) – This inflammatory speech by Frederick Douglass critiques the ongoing hypocrisy of American claims to liberty while still supporting the preservation of slavery.
  40. Mary Ann Shadd Carey, The Provincial Freeman (1853) – When the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 in the United States threatened to return free northern blacks and escaped slaves into bondage, Shadd and her brother Isaac moved to Canada and settled in Windsor, Ontario, across the border from Detroit. In 1853 she became the first female African American newspaper editor in North America when she edited the Provincial Freeman. 
  41. Republican Party Platform (1856) – The primary question over the future of slavery did not revolve around abolition, but rather the expansion of slavery in the West. The Republican Party, ambivalent on abolition, took a strong stand against the expansion of slavery.
  42. Maria Mason and Lydia Maria Child, John Brown of Harper’s Ferry: Interesting Correspondence between Mrs. Mason of Virginia and Mrs. Child (1859) – Maria Mason, a southern woman, wrote Lydia Maria Child after the news of John Brown’s raid had spread throughout the nation. Their published letters reveal the different reactions to John Brown’s violent antislavery action.
  43. John Brown, Testimonies of Capt. John Brown (1860) – Abolitionists published the court testimony of John Brown. Celebrated by abolitionists as a martyr and decried by slaveholders as a terrorist, John Brown was one of the most polarizing figures in the nineteenth century.
  44. Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) – Harriet Jacobs, writing as Linda Brent, offers one of the most remarkable slave narratives, revealing her suffering under slavery and her difficult road to freedom.
  45. Frederick Douglass, Sudden Revolution in Northern Sentiment (1861) – This editorial illustrates the complicated position of abolitionists during the Civil War.
  46. Letter, Gen. Benjamin Butler to Gen. Scott (1861) – Slaves seized the opportunity of civil war to escape in droves. This letter illustrates the challenge faced by the Union Army in handling the slaves escaping to their lines.
  47. The First Confiscation Act (1861) – In response to the slaves escaping to the lines, the Union Army issued this act to provide a rationale for the freedom of these men and women.
  48. District of Columbia Emancipation Act (1862) – This act freed all of the slaves living in the nation’s capital while also offering compensation to slave owners.
  49. Emancipation Proclamation (1863) – Lincoln’s executive order that freed all of the slaves in Confederate-held territory.
  50. Sojourner Truth, Address to the First Annual Meeting of the American Equal Rights Association (1867) – The Equal Rights Association argued for full rights of citizenship and voting for both African Americans and women.
  51. Frederick Douglass, Convict Lease System (1893) – Frederick Douglass explains the convict lease system and the manner it was used to perpetuate white supremacy in the Jim Crow South.
  52. Trafficking in Persons Reports (2001-2014) – Since 2001, the U.S. State Department has summarized governmental antislavery efforts in a series of annual reports. These reports are the U.S. Government’s principal diplomatic tool to engage foreign governments on human trafficking.
  53. Modern Slavery Factsheet (2014) – This modern day abolitionist broadside summarizes key facts related to modern slavery.
  54. Profits and Poverty: The Economics of Forced Labor (2014) – This study from the International Labor Organization investigates the underlying factors that drive forced labour, of which a major one is illegal profits. Figures will include a breakdown of profits by area of forced labour and by region.
  55. United Kingdom Modern Slavery Bill (2014) – The bill would provide law enforcement with stronger tools to stamp out modern slavery, ensure slave drivers can receive suitably severe punishments and enhance protection of and support for victims.