If you’re like me, there are some things you would like to abolish. My list includes war, weapons, fossil fuel use, plutocracy, corporate personhood, health insurance corporations, poverty wages, poverty, homelessness, factory farming, prisons, the drug war, the death penalty, nuclear energy, the U.S. Senate, the electoral college, gerrymandering, electronic voting machines, murder, rape, child abuse, Fox News, CNN, MSNBC, and the Washington Post. I could go on. I bet you can think of at least one institution you believe we’d be better off without.
All of us, then, can almost certainly learn a thing or two from the men and women in the late 18th and early 19th centuries in England who abolished first the slave trade and then slavery within the British empire. I highly recommend watching a film about them called Amazing Grace. If you like it, you’ll love a book called Bury the Chains.
You’ll discover that this was in many ways the original activist movement. It created activist committees, with chapters, newsletters, posters, speaking tours, book tours, petitioning, boycotts of products, theatrical props, and investigative journalism — pioneering all of these now familiar tactics. It achieved great success without voting, as only a tiny fraction of the population could vote. That, in itself, should be a lesson to those who believe elections are the only tool available.
The abolition movement had stamina. Looking back, its gains appear stunningly swift. At the end of the 1700s the world was dominated by slavery. Slavery was the norm. Before the end of the 1800s it had been outlawed almost everywhere. Yet, those who worked night and day against the current of their times to create the abolition movement faced endless defeats. Many of the hardest working activists didn’t live to see the final success. And yet they kept working. That too may be a lesson for us.
A war between England and France halted progress, and could have stopped it cold. But the war ended, and the movement was revived — in large part with a new cast of characters, a younger generation of radicals. Freezing all forward momentum for wars has been the rule over the ages. It’s a hard lesson for us to face, as we’ve now accepted that we live in an era of permanent war. The difficult truth may be that we must escape that era if we are to make headway on numerous fronts.
When the abolition movement sprang into being in England, it was a moral movement demanding rights — but, unlike most movements we’ve seen — demanding rights for other people. The Britons were not demanding their own freedom. In fact, they were willing to make sacrifices, to risk a reduction in their own prosperity, and to boycott the use of slave-grown sugar. This is a useful fact in an age when we are often told that people can only care about themselves. Never mind the dead Afghans and Pakistanis, we’re advised, just make sure that Americans know the financial cost of the wars. Perhaps that advice can be questioned after all.
However, Adam Hochschild, the author of Bury the Chains, believes that Britons were able to appreciate the evil of the slave trade because of their own experience with the practice of naval impressment. That is to say, because they themselves lived in fear of being kidnapped and enslaved by the British Navy and forced to sail naval vessels around the world, and in fear of their loved ones meeting that fate, they were able to imagine the misery of Africans living in fear of being kidnapped and sold into slavery in the West Indies.
Where might this insight lead us? Americans do face random senseless gun violence. Can we appreciate the evil of a drone buzzing over a village and then blowing up a family because we know that our shopping mall or school could soon be the scene of mass murder? Americans have also been taught to fear foreign terrorism. Can we appreciate the need to stop funding foreign terrorism in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan, foreign terrorism carried out by the U.S. military?
We do have another tool available to us. We can make use of video, audio, and instantaneous reporting on the victims of war or other evils. Perhaps, understanding that morality can move people, we will figure out a better way to communicate what needs to be abolished. The original abolitionists did not have this ability.
The original abolitionists made great use of newspapers and books which — unlike those in France and other nations that failed to develop a similar mass movement — were completely uncensored. (We come back to the need to abolish our corporate media cartel.) The original abolitionists benefitted from the egalitarian organizing of the Quakers, at whose meeting any man or woman could speak — although they were remarkably slow to make use of the voices of freed slaves who could have spoken of slavery first-hand, and who eventually did so to great effect.
The movement to abolish the slave trade was aimed at Parliament. It did not demand freedom or rights for blacks. It threatened the livelihood of ship captains but not of the wealthy whose investments were in the plantations across the sea. The movement persuaded MPs of just enough to pass the legislation desired — and even less, as abolitionists slipped through Parliament a bill designed to damage the slave trade but not advertised that way or understood by its opponents until the vote had been taken.
The movement was launched in 1787 and by 1807 had outlawed the slave trade. By August 1, 1838, all slaves in the British empire were free.
The slaves themselves heard of these efforts, of course, and their own struggles for freedom may have done more than anything else to win the day. The rebellions in Saint-Domingue (Haiti), Jamaica, and elsewhere had a significant impact on British thinking about slavery. In fact, the first generation of abolitionists, now aging, failed to keep pace with public sentiment. Their proposals for a slow and gradual end to slavery had to make way for the demand of immediate emancipation advanced by younger men and the now very active groups of women. And ultimately a reform bill had to be passed to somewhat democratize the government before the popular demand for slavery’s abolition could be answered.
Activists were somewhat disappointed when Parliament chose to compensate slave owners for the liberation of their slaves. The slaves themselves were, of course, not compensated. They had little but hard times ahead.
But the compensation of slave owners offered a model that might have served the United States better than bloody civil war. During the American revolutionary war, the British had recruited slaves to fight on their side by promising them freedom. After the war, slave owners, including George Washington, demanded their slaves back. A British commander, General Sir Guy Carleton, refused. Thousands of freed slaves were transported from New York to Nova Scotia to avoid their re-enslavement. But Carleton did promise to compensate the slaves’ owners, and Washington settled for that.
The original British abolitionists, including Thomas Clarkson, greatly influenced Americans like William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglas Douglass. But few picked up on the idea of compensated emancipation, which had not originated with the abolitionists.
Elihu Burritt was an exception. From 1856 to 1860 he promoted a plan to prevent a U.S. civil war through compensated emancipation, or the purchase and liberation of slaves by the government, following the example that the English had set in the West Indies. Burritt traveled constantly, all over the country, speaking. He organized a mass convention that was held in Cleveland. He lined up prominent supporters. He edited newsletters. He behaved, in other words, like Clarkson and many an activist since.
And Burritt was right. Britain had freed its slaves without a civil war or a slave rebellion on the scale that was possible. Russia had freed its serfs without a war. Slave owners in the U.S. South would almost certainly have preferred a pile of money to five years of hell, the deaths of loved ones, the burning and destruction of their property, and the uncompensated emancipation that followed, not to mention the century and a half of bitter resentment that followed that. And not only the slave owners would have preferred the way of peace; it’s not as if they did the killing and dying.
When a former slave found his voice in London, told his story in a best-selling book, filled debating halls, and became a leader in the movement to free all others, he was a man who had been a slave in my home state of Virginia. His name was Olaudah Equiano. He was one of, if not the first, black to speak publicly in Britain. He did as much to end the slave trade as anyone, and it might have gone on considerably longer without him.
I’ve never seen a monument or memorial in Virginia to Equiano. In contrast, just down the street from my house in Charlottesville is a tree called Tarleton’s Oak. Next to it is a gas station by the same name. The tree is not old, having been planted to replace an enormous aging oak that I recall seeing. Under that one, supposedly, during the revolution, British troops camped. They were led by a young officer named Banastre Tarleton. He later got himself into Parliament, and there was no more obnoxious defender of the slave trade than he. Africans themselves, he maintained, did not object in the least to being enslaved. Tarleton lied at tremendous length without a hint of shame. His memory we mark, not Equiano’s.