Greatest Emancipations: How the West Abolished Slavery


From time immemorial until the eighteenth century, slavery was an accepted fact of life in most of the world. It was hardly ever questioned, and there were no mass movements calling for its abolition. That finally changed as a result of the success of capitalism. Once people no longer had to labor unceasingly just to satisfy their basic needs, some turned their attention to the suffering of others–prisoners, children in orphanages, animals, and especially slaves. They began criticizing the cruelty of slavery and formed organizations dedicated to ending it.

Historian Jim Powell’s latest book deals with the most momentous of all humanitarian movements, the effort to abolish slavery. He gives us a fascinating, detailed investigation of the antislavery campaigns in Britain, the United States, Brazil, Cuba, Haiti, and the Belgian Congo. We meet courageous heroes and unspeakable villains. Powell digs into the arguments, plans, and tactics of pro- and antislavery forces. A focal point of the book is the relative efficacy of nonviolent and violent methods of rooting out slavery. Probably the most controversial aspect of Greatest Emancipations will be Powell’s conclusion that nonviolence is better.

The first problem that slavery’s opponents faced was the absence of a clear reason why people should rise up against it. Slavery was approved by both law and religion. Slaveholders had persuaded many that economic prosperity depended on it, and some of their political allies pushed the idea that it was necessary for national defense. (One of the wonderful contributions of the book is how it illustrates the timelessness of arguments against liberty: Today we often hear similar claims that the economy will deteriorate or the nation’s defenses will crumble unless the government continues some authoritarian policy.)

So how could abolitionists get any traction with the deck stacked against them? They advanced the idea of universal human rights. That concept had begun to take hold in seventeenth-century England, and opponents of slavery logically extended it to cover the terrible violation of rights entailed by slavery. Great abolitionists such as Thomas Paine, William Wilberforce, and William Lloyd Garrison won people to their side by arguing that slavery was inconsistent with a coherent theory of individual rights, no matter what the church or the law might say.

Of the six historical cases Powell examines, half involved warfare (the United States, Haiti, and Cuba) and half were mostly peaceful (England, Brazil, and the Congo). What the abolitionists accomplished in the latter instances was to turn public opinion so strongly against slavery that support for it collapsed. Englishmen, Brazilians, and Belgians worked tirelessly and often at great personal risk to tell people the truth about slavery. With gusto, Powell relates the stories of those heroic individuals.

We learn, for instance, about Joaquim Nabuco, a Brazilian who used his magnificent speaking skills to rouse the people against slavery in his country, organizing and speaking at antislavery rallies around the country. When challenged by proslavery advocates who said that ending it would mean economic devastation, he replied, “I fear that the destruction of slavery would affect property as much as I fear that the ending of piracy would destroy commerce.”

There are many more stories like this, reminding us that it is possible to stop evil laws and practices if individuals with the right convictions devote themselves to the cause.

Powell’s examination of the abolitionist campaign in the United States and the Civil War will be of utmost interest to readers. He argues that, had peace been maintained, in time slavery would have ended in the southern states without enormous death and destruction, and also without the later recriminations against freed blacks that produced in the postwar era, as another writer puts it, “slavery by another name.”

Slavery is based on violence, and Powell argues that it could not persist for long without assistance from government, such as our notorious fugitive slave law. Instead of having the State employ violence to abolish slavery, Powell shows that the vastly better course was for abolitionists to work to get it to stop supporting slavery.


October 2009



George Leef is the former book review editor of The Freeman. He is director of research at the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.



Jim Powell, senior fellow at the Cato Institute, is an expert in the history of liberty. He has lectured in England, Germany, Japan, Argentina and Brazil as well as at Harvard, Stanford and other universities across the United States. He has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Esquire, Audacity/American Heritage and other publications, and is author of six books. 


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