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?