“Abolition” is a word we use when we want to activate scholarship with a sense of urgency, relevance, or potential for the future. W. E. B. Du Bois deployed it in this manner when he coined the term “abolition-democracy” (1935/1999, 184) to summarize the grand, unrealized potential of social and economic change initiated during the Reconstruction era. Looking back on the progressive labor politics, liberal economic policies, and civil rights efforts of the late nineteenth century, Du Bois left little doubt that he intended abolition to be a critical modifier for democracy in his own time, providing a corrective to an imperialist, global capitalism bent on exploiting the “basic majority of workers who are yellow, brown and black” (16). “Abolition” continues to play this pivotal role in the vocabulary of American studies and cultural studies, interjecting the history of radical social justice movements into conversations about injustices that have not been abolished and charging U.S. history with unmet political needs and ambitions that render it neither finished nor secure.
“Abolition” entered the vocabulary of eighteenth-century Anglo-European liberalism with more specific ambitions. Modifying earlier usages that referenced the disestablishment of religion, the term emerged as a demand and mandate for the termination of the transatlantic slave trade. Laying bare a chain of atrocities that began on the coasts of West Africa, reformers in Britain, France, and colonial America defined this trade as the worst link of a corrupt, monopolistic, state-run international economy that converted Africans into articles of commerce, conveyed them through the horrors of the Middle Passage, and condemned them to punishing, coerced labor on American plantations. Joining a transatlantic consensus of liberal political economists, philosophers, religious figures, and politicians against the slave trade were formerly enslaved authors such as Ottobah Cugoano, Phyllis Wheatley, and Olaudah Equiano, giving abolition the repute of a cosmopolitan, universal ideal (Gould 2003; Nwankwo 2005). Abolition, in this context, linked the end of the slave trade to the claim that Anglo-Europeans and British Americans could halt the degeneration of their own nature, evinced by their barbaric mistreatment of enslaved Africans, and bring their management of the colonial economy and international capitalism under the ethical principles of a “humanitarian sensibility” that recognized all people’s interests and suffering (D. Davis 1975; Bender 1992). Because it promised to end the slave trade while upholding whites’ economic and political dominance, this usage of abolition ascribed an inhuman, reactive, and tragic violence to all acts of African and Afro-creole self-liberation, including those that led to the Haitian Revolution in 1795, positioning those more radical acts of abolition as threats to white capitalist rule in North America’s plantation-based societies (Blackburn 1988; Fischer 2003; Trouillot 1995; James 1938/1989; E. Williams 1944/1994).
When the U.S. Congress officially ended the importation of slaves into the United States in 1807, it linked this specific usage of the term to the project of nation formation by making the abolition of the international slave trade—but not the domestic slave trade—the ethical cornerstone of a nation whose freedom from colonialism was supposed to have revealed a universal human capacity for liberty. By the 1820s, this abolitionist decree had inspired a new generation of white national leaders to advocate eradicating the degrading colonial legacy of slavery in the United States once and for all, producing a movement that was committed to ending slaveholding and to removing African Americans from the nation’s borders (P. Goodman 1998; Jordan 1969). The nineteenth-century “colonization movement,” which enjoyed the broad support of religious and political elites and financed the emigration of freed slaves and free African Americans to Liberia, was an abolition movement in the eighteenth-century sense of the word, to the extent that it identified both slavery and enslaved Africans as obstacles to the moral and national development of whites in the United States.
Just a decade later, a broad coalition of former temperance reformers, free black community leaders, emergent feminists, labor activists, and Protestant evangelicals wrested “abolition” from its past usage and gave it lasting meaning as a synonym for radical social equality and integration. William Lloyd Garrison, a veteran white newspaper editor, affirmed northern African Americans’ participation in the struggle against southern slavery, extending the resources of a robust free black anticolonization movement and employing former slaves such as Frederick Douglass as spokespersons of a national abolition movement (Stauffer 2004; R. Levine 1997; Fanuzzi 2003). Garrison took further advantage of the crisis-oriented moral vocabulary that was flourishing within women’s Christian evangelical movements in pairing “abolition” with the modifier “immediate.” Linked to almost every socially insurgent, publicly visible movement of the antebellum era, abolition made the end of slavery the beginning of a state of racial and gender equality that more moderate opponents of slavery called “ultraism.”
Beginning in the 1960s and ’70s, American studies scholars made ample use of this nineteenth-century history, both to trace the origins of modern feminist and African American civil rights movements and to create an alternative narrative of national progress. Scholars in the emerging fields of African American studies and women’s studies turned the rich archive of nineteenth-century abolition newspapers, propaganda, and literature into the wellspring for a new kind of politics that accommodated categories of gender, race, and embodiment, as well as aesthetic modes of feeling, sentimentality, and interiority. Karen Sánchez-Eppler’s new coinage—“feminist-abolitionist” (1993, 16)—reflected an emerging consensus that abolition was, as Du Bois had suggested, not a fixed historical milestone but an open-ended category for imagining political formations that lay within the domains of literature and culture, outside the legal definition of U.S. citizenship.
Labor historians and cultural studies scholars of the 1980s and ’90s also followed Du Bois’s lead and placed the discussion of the abolition of slavery within ongoing capitalist, institutional, governmental, and cultural forces that were responsible for new and intractable forms of racial inequality. Scholars such as David Roediger (1994), Angela Davis (2003), and Ruth Wilson Gilmore (2007) worked from the assumption that the end of slavery in 1865 was a necessary but insufficient step in the process of eradicating a structurally racist capitalist system and that the full meaning and realization of abolition would require a succession of modifiers and new mandates, including the “abolition of whiteness” and “prison abolition,” in order to bring scholarship that much closer to understanding the roots of racial injustice, both historical and contemporary. Their accretions remind us that “abolition,” the byword for finality, is at bottom the symbol for urgent democratic social and political change that has not yet occurred.