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The earliest proponents of the abolition of slavery were Quakers, starting with William Edmundson's denunciation at Newport, R.I., in 1676 and an antislavery declaration written in April 1688 by the Germantown, Pa., Monthly Meeting. Every yearly meeting of the Quakers, or Society of Friends, between 1770 and 1776, forbade slaveowning. By 1779 over 80 percent of Quaker slaves were free, but not until 1796 were the last released from bondage.
The American Revolution led to the abolition of slavery in Vt. (1777), Pa. (1780), Mass. (1783), Conn. (1784), R.I. (1784), N.Y. (1799), and N.J. (1804). In 1787 Congress excluded slavery from the Northwest Territory. Every southern state but N.C. passed laws making it easier for masters to free their own slaves. The American Colonization Society also originated as a means of encouraging voluntary emancipation by masters. The proportion of blacks who were free rose from about 2 percent in 1770 to 11 percent by 1810.
Although northern whites held strong convictions about keeping slavery out of unsettled territories, they demonstrated little interest in abolitionism after 1800. It would again become politically influential after William Lloyd Garrison founded the Liberator in 1831 and the American Antislavery Society was formed in 1833. Abolitionism was a major cause of southern alienation from the Union, because its fanatical wing advocated the disregard of slavery's constitutional protections and routinely disparaged southern society in a highly insulting fashion.
In the Civil War, Congress's first Confiscation Act (6 August 1861) allowed the military to free any slaves seized while being used for Confederate military purposes, and a second Confiscation Act (17 July 1862) permitted the army to liberate all slaves owned by active rebels. On 16 April 1862, Lincoln signed a law to free slaves in the District of Columbia and compensate their owners. A proposal made in March 1862 to pay federal subsidies for reimbursing owners if any legislature adopted gradual emancipation failed because of opposition by the border states. After Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, Md., W.Va., Mo., and Tenn. voluntarily abolished human bondage, and the Thirteenth Amendment finally ended the institution in Del. and Ky.