Wilberforce, Lincoln, and the Abolition of Slavery

This exhibition presents a variety of original documents and images highlighting the story of the abolition of slavery between 1787 and 1865 in England and America. Each item has its own historic significance as well as a place in the broader progress of abolitionist thinking, from the moment William Wilberforce joined the British abolition campaign through the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. Although its implementation proceeded in fits and starts, abolitionism was an idea whose force ultimately proved unstoppable across the English-speaking world. —James G. Basker

'Am I Not A Man and A Brother,' detail from title page of Some Historical Account of Guinea by Anthony Benezet (London, 1788) (Private Collection, on deposit at the Gilder Lehrman Collection) & 'Am I Not A Woman and A Sister,' drawing by Nicholas Setteducato, adapted from an American medallion (1838).

Created by Josiah Wedgwood in 1787 for the British Abolition Society, “Am I Not A Man and A Brother” represented the anti-slavery movement on both sides of the Atlantic. This version was printed in London in 1788 in a book by Philadelphia abolitionist Anthony Benezet.

American abolitionists used the iconic image of “Am I Not A Woman and A Sister,” from the early 1800s until the Civil War. This sketch is based on an 1838 medallion, depicting the slave as a woman.

Diagram of an African slave ship, printed in Thomas Clarkson, The History of the Rise, Progress, and Accomplishment of the Abolition of the Slave-Trade by the British Parliament, Vol. 2 (London, 1808). (Gilder Lehrman Collection)

An illustration from Thomas Clarkson’s landmark book about the abolition of the slave trade, this diagram displays kidnapped Africans packed on board a slave ship crossing the Atlantic.

Letter from William Wilberforce to John Young, November 20, 1805. (Private Collection, on deposit at the Gilder Lehrman Collection)

In this 1805 letter, published here for the first time, Wilberforce advised a fellow abolitionist on the best way to emancipate an elderly slave and to prevent his re-enslavement by predatory slavetakers.

Letter from William Wilberforce to Thomas Pringle, May 9, 1832

Writing late in life (he was to die in 1833) to the Secretary of the Anti-Slavery Society, Wilberforce endorsed the Society’s activities and encouraged them to appoint stalwart “enemies to the Slave trade & Slavery” as their leaders. He also welcomed the launch of a new abolitionist journal, but worried that the public was wearying of the subject.

Abraham Lincoln, Speech fragment concerning the abolition of slavery, ca. July 1858. (Gilder Lehrman Collection)

Just six years after Frederick Douglass invoked the memory of Wilberforce, Lincoln also reminded Americans of the successful abolition movement in England: “School-boys know that Wilbe[r]force . . . helped the [abolitionist] cause forward; but who can now name a single man who labored to retard it?”

Abraham Lincoln, Emancipation Proclamation, 1863. (Gilder Lehrman Collection)

Issued January 1, 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation was a carefully crafted document in which Lincoln, as commander in chief, implemented emancipation as a military act against the states in rebellion.

Title page of Twenty-Two Years a Slave, and Forty Years a Freeman; Embracing a Correspondence of Several Years, While President of Wilberforce Colony, London, Canada West (Rochester, NY: 1857). (Gilder Lehrman Collection)

The Wilberforce Colony flourished under Austin Steward’s leadership during the early and mid-1830s. His autobiography records his own flight to freedom and the struggles of other former slaves who found sanctuary in the Wilberforce Colony.

Portrait of Abraham Lincoln, by Alexander Gardner, November 8, 1863. (Gilder Lehrman Collection)

President Lincoln at the age of 54, in a photograph taken just eleven days before he delivered the Gettysburg Address.

Portrait of an African-American family in Calhoun, Alabama, cyanotype by Richard Riley, ca. late 1800s. (Gilder Lehrman Collection)

This photograph depicts a free black family living in the post–Civil War American South. The dignity and pride in their bearing suggest how consciously they were throwing off the legacy of slavery for themselves and their children.

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