The anniversary of the introduction of slavery to the English colonies in North America inspired me to think a little more about how and why it was abolished. This is a more interesting question. Slavery in some form was universal until it suddenly (in terms long history) it was largely abolished in the course of a few generations.
You cannot get far talking about abolition w/o considering William Wilberforce. The Wikipedia entry featured a paragraph I found especially interesting.
“In the 1940s, the role of Wilberforce and the Clapham Sect in abolition was downplayed by historian Eric Williams, who argued that abolition was motivated not by humanitarianism but by economics, as the West Indian sugar industry was in decline.Williams’ approach strongly influenced historians for much of the latter part of the 20th century. ”
I see no contradiction here. Economics, the great enrichment and the market revolution, enabled the implementation of the moral revolution pushed by leaders like Wilberforce.
Moral leaders in many past societies inveighed against forced labor, but never succeeded over large areas of for long periods of time. Maybe they failed not only because they could not convince enough people of the righteousness of their cause, but also for the practical reason that the world – all the world – was too poor and poorly coordinated to allow it.
We take for granted the wealth and capacity for progress we now enjoy. We often are unaware of the quantum change humanity experienced from around the middle of the 17th Century. The leap is ongoing and accelerating, but a lot of the basic ingredients came into being in the roughly two centuries from abound 1650-1850.
Reasonable people might disagree about the precise time period, but this encompasses the establishment of the scientific, democratic & market revolutions. We can point to individuals like Issac Newton, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, Adam Smith, David Hume, John Locke, and many more, but the remarkable things was the combination. Ideas passed from science to society to morality to philosophy to politics.
These sorts of ideas created the United States and it was in the USA that many of them best developed in a practical sense.
In 1550, abolishing forced labor was just beyond that capacity of any society because of their lack of wealth in all senses. They had not developed the technologies of production (engines, mills, precision techniques) to make stuff. They had not developed the technologies of the mind (differential calculus, scientific theory) to allow what we call progress, had not yet developed the technologies of administration (statistics, limited liability corporations, communications) to allow modern economies or the technologies of governance that allowed countries to put it all together.
All these things enabled a higher morality. Our ancestors, the people of the past could produce wonderful structures, great literature and impressive philosophy, but their physical and intellectual technologies did not permit them to take the steps we can and that our more recent ancestors could and did.
A note on Wilberforce. He should be better remembered.