The 18th century may seem like ancient history. But today's antislavery activists can learn a lot from the campaigners who, within a few short years, created a mass movement in Britain that swayed first public opinion and finally Parliament to abolish the slave trade and later slavery itself within the British Empire.
They overcame many of the obstacles faced by activists in our world: lobbying by elites invested in the status quo, a legislature that delayed action in favor of "further study," and a reactionary wartime political climate, to name a few. And, as Adam Hochschild points out in his lively abolitionist history Bury the Chains, antislavery organizers pioneered many tactics used today: speaking tours, mass boycotts, local chapters of national groups, and voter guides, all to fight an unjust economic system with global reach.
Throughout the 1700s, many thinkers were against slavery—in theory. Plays and other forms of popular culture milked the plight of slaves for sentimental drama. The founder of Methodism, John Wesley, wrote a tract called "Thoughts on Slavery" in 1774 that proposed a boycott of slave-produced sugar and rum. Quakers went the furthest, banning slave owners from their denomination.
But a concerted, large-scale movement to end slavery seemed out of reach. Other than Wesley, many evangelicals, inside and outside the Church of England, spent the first four decades after the Great Awakening more interested in converting slaves than freeing them. John Newton, who penned the hymn "Amazing Grace," worked as a slave ship officer for six years after his conversion and did not publicly oppose the slave trade until he had been a minister for decades.
But by the mid-1780s, the time was ripe for change. Several court cases had raised public outrage about the slave trade. Former Caribbean resident James Ramsay's detailed eyewitness account of slavery became a bestseller in 1784. Three years later, a young man named Thomas Clarkson and others, many of them Quakers, began organizing a mass movement of antislavery societies all over Britain. The middle class, whose power and identity were on the increase, jumped in with both feet. In 1788, prominent author Hannah More published Slavery: A Poem, aimed at an upper-class audience. Wesley, whose audiences were largely working and middle class, preached against slavery in the slave-trading port of Bristol, producing a near-riot. In 1789, former slave Olaudah Equiano's autobiography became a bestseller, and William Wilberforce brought a bill to abolish the slave trade before Parliament.
The key to antislavery forces' successes was a broad coalition, energized by Quakers and evangelical Christians but reaching across the political and social spectrum, including people of prophetic faith and shrewd politicians, progressives and conservatives, elites and outsiders.
THE SURPRISING THING was that people with such different outlooks could work together and even, often, be friends. The privileged Wilberforce, for example, was friends with Clarkson, who greeted the French Revolution with little-disguised rapture. Petitions to Parliament now suddenly drew from everyone in town, including signers barely educated enough to write.
One key factor was the conversion of several members of Britain's political and intellectual elite, most notably Wilberforce and More, to "vital religion"—an evangelical faith that saw religion not just as a nondescript commitment to morality, but rather as a passionate enthusiasm for Christ's atoning work. Previously, evangelicalism had been a working-class and middle-class phenomenon; many in the upper class regarded converts as déclassé, puritanical whackos. The Church of England relegated most evangelical ministers to what were considered extremely marginal positions—for example, as chaplain to a charity hospital for people with venereal disease.
Wilberforce's life strikingly demonstrated—and transcended—the tensions between evangelicals and political elites of his day. As the son of a rich merchant family, he was in a position to turn wealth into increased social standing. Hence, his mother was deeply alarmed when the boy's aunt and uncle took him to hear John Newton preach, threatening to make the child a hopelessly middle-class evangelical. Elizabeth Wilberforce hastily called her son home and immersed him in fashionable card parties. Wilberforce returned to script, enrolling in Cambridge University, where he befriended future Prime Minister William Pitt, the son of an earl. At the age of 21, Wilberforce got himself elected to Parliament, his political career smoothed by the fact that he was a profoundly eloquent speaker in public and witty in private.
WILBERFORCE'S journey took a sudden swerve from the high life to the redeemed life in 1785-86, when discussions with a traveling companion led him to a gradual but profound conversion experience. And this is where things get interesting: While Wilberforce immediately left off theater-going and gambling following his conversion, instead of leaving Parliament, he decided to serve God in public life, braving both the ridicule and the seductions of the upper-class world.
And, by God, Wilberforce made it work. First, his mother's circle was won over by the fact that, far from being a rabid fanatic, he remained cheerful and fun to be around. "If this is madness, I hope he will bite us all," commented a family friend. In larger circles, he endured some mockery—the close-knit group of evangelical friends he would gather around himself in Parliament and in his neighborhood were called "the Saints"— but Wilberforce's gentle personality and benevolence gradually won him widespread respect. Wilberforce championed many causes, and some of his issues—such as making labor unions illegal and preventing music concerts and tavern-going on the Sabbath—haven't stood the test of time. But in the fight against slavery, Wilberforce found a cause that appealed to many parts of society—and society found its previously vague sentiment galvanized by a worker of tireless energy. In Parliament, "the Saints" not only formed a swing vote and a group willing to do grueling committee work, they also won respect for rising above the bitterly partisan politics of the day.
From 1789 on, Wilberforce regularly introduced bills to ban the slave trade, only to be stymied by fierce opposition from big-money slave interests, who insisted the issue needed more study. An anti-slave-trade bill passed the House of Commons in 1792—but with the fatal amendment that the ban should be "gradual," which the proslavery interest sought to get interpreted as "never."
Meanwhile, outraged at the delay, the swelling ranks of antislavery societies nationwide had begun to take matters into their own hands. After a 1791 bill was rejected, they flooded Parliament with petitions, which totaled an unprecedented 390,000 signatures. Abolitionists also initiated a direct action that sidestepped Parliament entirely (and unsettled the conservative Wilberforce): a boycott of Britain's largest import, slave-grown sugar.
The sugar boycott, which had perhaps 400,000 participants at its height, was one example of how women fought slavery in their daily lives. In the 1780s, Lady Margaret Middleton, an unsung hero of the abolitionist movement, had used her role as hostess to prod James Ramsay into writing his book and to help recruit More, Clarkson, and Wilberforce. Now, women all over Britain—who were unable to vote—used their position as household grocery buyers and social networkers to spread the boycott.
They were aided by several bestselling pamphlets, which vividly drew the connection between faraway injustice and local consumption of sweets "steeped in the blood of our fellow-creatures." Pamphleteer William Fox pointed out, "If we purchase the commodity we participate in the crime," adding that, in each pound of slave-grown sugar, "we may be considered as consuming two ounces of human flesh."
Unfortunately, the abolitionist cause was about to be dealt a sharp setback by the fog of war. In early 1793, the revolutionary French government declared war on England. With this, plus the news of a successful slave revolt in Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) and France's abolition of slavery in its colonies in 1794, abolition fell off the British national agenda. It was not until Napoleon re-established slavery in 1802 that British abolitionists, finally free of the association with France, could gain traction once again. The British slave trade was finally outlawed in 1807; debate on the bill included an emotional tribute to Wilberforce in which fellow legislators spontaneously cheered him, reducing him to tears.
With the abolition of the trade in abducted Africans, plantation owners would no longer find it feasible to literally work slaves to death. Many abolitionists believed this improvement was good enough, or at least all they were likely to get. Mainstream antislavery activists turned their attention to enforcing the trade ban or slightly improving slaves' living conditions. When a campaign formed in 1823 to push for emancipation, its name showed it was still pulling its punches: "The London Society for Mitigating and Gradually Abolishing the State of Slavery Throughout the British Dominions."
At this point, many of the 230 local branches of the antislavery movement, and particularly women's groups, became markedly more radical than the national committee. They resurrected the sugar boycott, recruited and publicized ceaselessly—and began to reject the word "gradual," no doubt remembering that proslavery interests had been singing that tune since 1792.
ONE LEADER was Elizabeth Heyrick, an activist who authored (anonymously, to avoid the criticism given politically active women) an 1824 pamphlet called Immediate, Not Gradual Abolition. Heyrick came from a wealthy manufacturing family that embraced evangelical religion (John Wesley once preached at her parents' home). No doubt they were taken aback when she converted to Quakerism and not only started a school, but also championed the cause of local striking workers, even though her brother was one employer targeted by the strikers.
Heyrick's pamphlet—whose cover quoted Acts 17:26 ("He hath made of one blood all nations of men")—not only strongly urged a sugar and rum boycott, but also refuted then-common arguments against immediate emancipation. It is nonsensical, she argued, to say that slaves could not handle sudden freedom; you might as well tell someone in a plague-ridden house, "Here will I keep you, till I have given you a capacity for the enjoyment of pure air." Immediate emancipation, she predicted, would lead the grateful ex-slave "into habits of sober contented industry."
In an argument particularly telling for evangelicals, she pointed out that slavery prevented missionary work: "Your Christian instructions will be lost on [a slave], so long as he both knows and feels that his instructors are grossly violating their own lessons." (This seemingly obvious point had escaped the Church of England's Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, which actually owned a slave plantation in Barbados.) Following the evangelical conviction that nations would be judged for their sins, Heyrick reminded Britons, "With what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again." In short, "GRADUAL ABOLITION has been ... the very master-piece of satanic policy," one that "'deceived the very elect.'"
Among the deceived were her brother and brother-in-law, officers in the local men's anti-slavery group; its 1824 report said its members would "deprecate an immediate emancipation almost as much as the planters themselves." But many women and women's societies, radicalized by the sugar boycott and by their self-image as the selflessly moral gender, took a different view. As a Quaker woman wrote, "Men may propose only gradually to abolish the worst of crimes [but] ... We must not talk of gradually abolishing murder, licentiousness, cruelty, tyranny."
After a few years, the male emancipationists dropped their gradualism, and other conditions for emancipation started to line up. In late 1831, a strike led by Samuel Sharpe, a Baptist slave in Jamaica, transmuted into a revolt and was bloodily suppressed. Plantation owners blamed Baptist missionaries, imprisoned several, and burned down Baptist and Methodist churches, outraging those denominations back in England. Privately, British officials realized that maintaining slavery in Jamaica might involve a costly war. Finally, in 1833, the Slavery Abolition Bill passed, triumphing in the House of Commons three days before Wilberforce's death and in the House of Lords shortly thereafter.
The bill was not perfect; it paid reparations to slave owners, rather than to former slaves. Worse, it required slaves to work for their former masters as unpaid "apprentices" for six years, a term later shortened to four after mass petitions by British women and mass demonstrations by Caribbean "apprentices." But in August 1838, the act officially freed about 800,000 people throughout the British Empire—"'a sacrifice of sweet savour,'" as Heyrick had imagined it more than a decade earlier, "to the Great Parent of the Universe."
Elizabeth Palmberg is assistant editor of Sojourners.