Curatorial Projects > Battle Emblems (2006)


Abolitionism sought to end the Atlantic slave trade and enslavement of Africans and people of African descent in Europe and the Americas in the 18th and 19th Centuries. Members of the Society of Friends, commonly known as Quakers, were early leaders of abolitionism, believing everyone, regardless of race, was equal under God. Quakers established Britain’s first antislavery society in 1783, and with other abolitionists, initiated petition drives, propaganda efforts, and lobbying to success, when Parliament abolished the slave trade in1807. Abolitionism didn’t spread beyond the Quakers in the U.S. until the American Revolution. It became problematic for Americans, who fought for independence in the name of liberty and universal rights, to justify slavery. In 1787, Congress banned slavery in the Northwest Territory, and by the mid-1800s, all Northern states followed suit. Following Lincoln's 1860 presidential election, slaveholding states seceded to form the Confederate States of America, launching the Civil War. Abolitionists compelled Lincoln to make abolition the war’s main objective, ultimately leading to his 1863 Emancipation Proclamation. Many slaves escaped to the North and served in the Union Army, which conquered the South by 1865. This victory and continued abolitionist pressure led to the 13th Amendment’s ratification to the U.S. Constitution in December 1865, banning involuntary servitude nationwide. While abolitionism liberated millions, it also reflected the triumph of modern ideas of freedom and human rights over older social forms based on privilege. Abolitionism ended after the Civil War, and although technically free, black southerners continued to face systematic segregation, political disenfranchisement, and lynching well into the 20th century.

This Jasperware cameo was the first and most identifiable image of abolitionism. Britain’s Society for Abolition of the Slave Trade commissioned member Josiah Wedgwood in 1787 to design a seal at his pottery factory of “a supplicating African in chains” surrounded by a slogan echoing the idea of universal rights widely accepted during the Enlightenment, “Am I Not a Man and a Brother?” The figure signified nobility and confinement, combining the European idea of conversion from heathenism and the concept of emancipation into a posture of gratitude. A consignment of these cameos was shipped to Philadelphia in 1788, where they became fashion statements for American abolitionists and anti-slavery sympathizers. Worn as bracelets and hair ornamentation, the symbol extended to the general public and later surfaced in cartoons and engravings. A well-known version was made in 1835 by Patrick Reason, a black printmaker whose works appeared in many abolitionist publications.