The Breakthrough 1787–92

  • Seymour Drescher


Many historians of the late eighteenth century, especially of high politics, have been inclined to treat with scepticism the concept of public opinion as an autonomous causal factor.1 Popular abolitionism, located on the very cusp of the age of the modern social movements, is difficult to fit into a political frame of reference still so generally oligarchic.2 Yet it was the mobilization of public opinion which ushered in the consciousness that one was in a new period in the history of slavery; not in the sense of inaugurating an era of uninterrupted victories but in the sense that the terms of public discourse about the institution in Britain were dramatically and forever altered.


Public Meeting Slave Trade Late Eighteenth Century Quaker Network Privy Council 
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Notes and References

  1. 1.
    See, for example, A. D. Harvey, Britain in the Early Nineteenth Century (New York, 1978), 44–7. As with all political terms which imply the community as a whole, or its entire public space, the definition of ‘public opinion’ was always a matter of ideological conflict. Yet although political antagonists usually deny their opponents such an a priori advantage, antislavery opinion was never denied ‘popularity’.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Charles Tilly, ‘Britain creates the Social Movement’, in James E. Cronin and Jonathan Schneer (eds), Social Conflict and the Political Order in Modern Britain (New Brunswick, 1982), 21–51.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    E. M. Hunt, ‘The North of England Agitation for the Abolition of the Slave Trade 1780–1800’, MA thesis, University of Manchester, 1959.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    See John A. Phillips, Electoral Behavior in Unreformed England, Plumpers, Splitters and Straights (Princeton, New Jersey 1982), 15–19; alsoGoogle Scholar
  5. John Brewer, Party Ideology and Popular Politics at the Accession of George III (Cambridge, 1976), 41–56.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. 6.
    Voyage Philosophique d’Angleterre (London, 1786), 1, 176–83. Englishmen were often proud that the butcher, the grocer, the leather-seller, the apothecary and the fishmonger discussed the politics of Prussia, Canada and Africa every morning, and related the price of veal to the British policy towards Germany or Portugal. (See Lloyds Evening Post, 19 May 1762, 481; Morning Chronicle, 11 June 1788.) For further links between communications, commercialism and the broadening of civility, see John Brewer, ‘Commercialization and Polities’, in N. McKendrick The Birth of a Consumer Society: The Commercialization of Eighteenth-Century England (Bloomington, 1982), 197–262.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    J. A. W. Gunn, Beyond Liberty and Property: The Process of Self-Recognition in Eighteenth Century Political Thought (Kingston and Montreal, 1983, Chapter 8, ‘Public Spirit to Public Opinion’, esp. 281 ff., and 312. See also London Unmask’d, or the New Town Spy (London, 1783), 54, 60. The ‘Guide to the House of Lords Papers and Petitions’ (typescript Record Office Memo no. 20, 26), dates the modern system of public petitioning from 1779.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    The principal engine of Parliamentary reform during the 1780s, the Society for Constitutional Information, adopted an abolitionist position in the wake of the first Quaker initiative. See, inter alia, J. Walvin, ‘The Impact of Slavery on British Radical Politics: 1787–1838’ in V. Rubin and A. Tuden (eds), Comparative Perspectives on Slavery in New World Plantation Societies: Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 292 (1977), 343–55.Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    See George Rudé, Wilkes and Liberty (Oxford, 1962). In the Wilkes affair the initiative came from London: Till of late we were all very happy here in Yorkshire… when all of a sudden down comes a troop of your London patriots and Bill of Rights Men.’ (Public Advertiser, 14 November 1769.) The Wilkes petitions were usually freeholders’ petitions. For self-conscious concern over the social level of petitioners in the Wilkes affair, see Public Advertiser, 2, 4 November 1769.Google Scholar
  10. 12.
    Blanchard Jerrold (ed.), The Original, 2 vols (London, 1874), 1, 3. Lancashire petitioners claimed 80 000 signers. See Stockdale’s Parliamentary Debates, 5th ser. (London, 1785), 2, 208–9. Pitt was impressed and moved for immediate attention to their claims. D. A. Farnie notes that cotton from the mid-1780s began to differentiate its fiscal role from that of the woollen industry; The English Cotton Industry and the World Market 1815–1896 (Oxford, 1979), 38.Google Scholar
  11. 14.
    See S. Drescher, Econocide: British Slavery in the Era of Abolition (Pittsburgh, 1977), 58–60.Google Scholar
  12. 15.
    On Manchester’s development see John Bohstedt, Riots and Community Politics in England (Cambridge, Mass., 1983). For a parallel use of the newspaper as the foundation of a mass movement in the provinces,Google Scholar
  13. see Thomas Walter Laqueur, Religion and Respectability: Sunday Schools and Working Class Culture (New Haven, Conn., 1976), 23.Google Scholar
  14. 16.
    Thomas Cooper appealed particularly to Manchester’s new reputation as a leader of popular expression: Supplement to Mr. Cooper’s Letters on the Slave Trade (Manchester, 1787), 28.Google Scholar
  15. 17.
    See J. Walvin, ‘The Rise of British Popular Sentiment for Abolition, 1787–1832’, in C. Bolt and S. Drescher (eds), Anti-Slavery, Religion, and Reform (Folkestone, Kent/Hamden, Conn., 1980), 149–162;Google Scholar
  16. S. Drescher, ‘Public Opinion and the Destruction of British Colonial Slavery’, in J. Walvin (ed.), Slavery and British Society, (London, 1982) 1–22. Manchester decided to petition Parliament despite the fact that the London Committee felt that ‘the time was not yet ripe’, and that there was as yet no likelihood of success because of ‘the great “interests” involved in the trade’, Manchester Mercury, 11, 17 December 1787, and letters of Thomas Cooper, cited in Lillie Robinson, ‘Thomas Walker and Manchester Politics’, BA thesis, University of Manchester, 1931s 14.Google Scholar
  17. 20.
    The Morning Chronicle, 24 June 1788 reported 15 000; The Morning Post, on 13 March 1788, 14 000. An unsubmitted petition, intended for the House of Lords in 1796, is the largest Liverpool canvass I have been able to locate. It was drawn up as a ‘Merchant, Trader and Inhabitant’ document, but contained only 2320 names; Liverpool Public Library Mss, 900 MD 2 (1796). When one of Liverpool’s MPs claimed that he was deputed to support the slave trade by the Corporation of Liverpool and ‘ten thousand of its inhabitants’ he was challenged even in the Liverpool press. ‘The honorable general’, wrote a correspondent, ‘has never received so respectable a sanction.’ (Liverpool Chronicle and Commercial Advertiser, 27 February 1805, letter of ‘Argus.’) There is no doubt, however, that the trade had some popular support in Bristol and, above all, in Liverpool. In 1792 when the Commons voted for gradual abolition, the journeymen carpenters of Liverpool discussed pulling down some abolitionist houses if the trade were abolished. (PRO HO 42/20 (1792), fs 59–62, Henry Blundell, Mayor of Liverpool, to Henry Dundas, 14 April 1792.) See also S. Drescher, ‘The Slaving Capital of the World: Liverpool and National Opinion in the Age of Abolition’, Mss presented at the Nantes Colloquium on the Slave Trade (1985).Google Scholar
  18. 21.
    An antiabolitionist letter to the Morning Chronicle claimed that ‘4,580 gentlemen, of equal consequence to Mr. T. Walker’ signed a counter -petition, one gentleman employing 3000 manufacturers. (‘R.O.’ to T. Walker, esq., Morning Chronicle, 11 April 1788.) A reply in ibid., 9 May denied the existence of any such counter-petition of Manchester inhabitants, signed by 4580 gentlemen. There had been no public requisition for a meeting. If anything it must be a private petition of those interested in the African slave trade. The writer challenged R.O. to list the names, and boasted that if he could not offer ten equally respectable names for each of R.O.’s he would acknowledge ‘at least the shadow of truth for his side’. ‘R.O.’ never took up the challenge. Such scrutinies of Manchester opinion received national publicity (see Morning Chronicle, 24 March 1788). The Manchester petition was also quickly dispatched to Jamaica by its agent in England. Duke University Library, Stephen Fuller Letterbook, 1, 16 January 1788.Google Scholar
  19. 23.
    There is evidence that even the Quakers on the abolitionist committee were overtaken by events. In the summer of 1787, on the eve of mobilization, John Barton informed William Roscoe that he was afraid of Clarkson’s zeal and his lack of caution. (Liverpool Record Office 920 ROS, John Barton to Roscoe, 17 August 1787.) Public opinion helped to strengthen those on the London Committee who favoured immediate rather than gradual abolition. (Ibid., Barton to Roscoe, 6 March 1788.) As late as January 1788 the Quakers had not yet committed themselves to join the national petitioning. Abolitionism was probably the first social movement to use the provincial press systematically on a national scale. A special agent was hired to ensure the republication of the Manchester resolutions. (See Donald Clare, The Growth and Importance of the Newspaper Press in Manchester, Liverpool, Sheffield, and Leeds between 1780 and 1800’, MA Thesis, University of Manchester, 1960, 36.) Manchester also made contact with the Edinburgh Chamber of Commerce which petitioned Parliament as a corporation. (Gazetteer, 12 February 1788.)Google Scholar
  20. 25.
    When a Liverpool writer attacked Manchester for supporting abolition against its own ‘cotton interest’ a Manchester correspondent replied, ‘Why be alarmed for manufacturers and mechanics when they have no fears?’ (Manchester Mercury, 11 March 1788.) A year later, against a similar West Indian line of criticism, the following account appeared: I shall at once appeal to the conduct of the Manufacturers themselves, … they may be supposed to know their own interest as well as the Planters and Slave Merchants know theirs.… [The] inhabitants of Birmingham and Manchester respectively assembled… and with a unanimity which ought to be remembered to their honour, formed committees for the abolition of the slave trade.… At Birmingham a base attempt was lately made to defeat the benevolent purpose of their society by procuring a counter-petition.… In consequence of an advertisement on the preceeding day, the inhabitants assembled on the 19th of last month [May 1789] in such numbers that the public office could not contain them and they were obliged to adjourn to the hotel. A chairman having been elected, the constables were required to give up the names of those who had called the town together, when it was found to have been the influence of eight!! manufacturers chiefly interested in the trade. This paltry number of persons were, if possible, sufficiently disgraced and mortified by the Resolutions of the Meeting, to support their [the abolitionists’] former petition, and to thank Mr. Wilberforce for the able manner in which he had introduced the business of the Slave Trade into Parliament. Charles Fox wrote to Thomas Walker, early in January 1788, that he was ‘the more happy that the town of Manchester sees the matter in this light, because the cotton manufacturers were one of the classes of men who were expected to think less liberally than they ought upon this subject.… I think it will be difficult even for Liverpool, Bristol, etc. to appear openly in support of so invidious a cause.’ (Jerrold, The Original, 106–107, 11 January 1788.) In 1792 the petitioners of South Shields, including many shipowners and mariners, pointedly rejected the slave trade as a nursery of seamen. (Newcastle Courant, 24 March 1792.) A similar petition came from the fishing trade of Dartmouth. (Diary, 27 March 1792.) When Nottingham took the lead on 22 December 1791, and launched the 1792 campaign, some petitioners ‘reserved opinion’ on the resolution that the slave trade was not necessary for the well-being of the West Indies. But no one actually moved the contrary proposition. (The Derby Mercury, 3 January 1792.)Google Scholar
  21. 29.
    On the broadly humanitarian emphasis in the name of manufacturing and commercial realists, see Manchester’s national advertisement of 29 December 1787 (e.g. Public Advertiser, 10 January; The London Chronicle, 12–15 January; The London Gazette, 15 January 1788). Symptomatic of the difficulty of classifying abolitionists during the early years were the frustrated epithets of their opponents. The West Indians felt that they were figthing ‘mists’ and ‘phantoms’, not interests. See Duke University Library, Fuller Letterbooks, 1, 152, letter of 30 January 1787; S. Drescher, ‘Capitalism and abolition: values and forces in Britain, 1783–1814,’ in R. Anstey and P. E. H. Hair (eds), Liverpool, the African Slave Trade, and Abolition (Liverpool, 1976), 195, note 49.Google Scholar
  22. 31.
    ‘Is the imaginary cruelty of the West India Planters to be the theme of every drinking club and psalm singing meeting?… the cruelties… are become as familiar to children as the story of Blue Beard or Jack the Giant Killer.’ (Jesse Foot, A Defence of the Planters in the West Indies (London, 1792), 72, 75.) Antiabolitionists characterized abolitionism as a general ‘delusion’ prevailing ‘amongst all distinctions of people’. See ‘Agricola’, to the Public Advertiser, 10 March 1788.Google Scholar
  23. 38.
    Stephen Fuller, the agent for Jamaica, wrote despairingly that although the petitioners had no particular grievance or injury to complain of, their protests flowed in from all parts of the country. He openly recognized that ‘the sentiments of a vast majority of the people of Great Britain’ were hostile to the slave interest. See Fuller, Letterbook, 1, 20 February 1788, and Diary, 5 October 1790 (report of June 1790).Google Scholar
  24. 42.
    See Caricatures listed in M.D. George, Catalogue of Political and Personal Satires, 11 vols (London, 1978), no. 8074,Google Scholar
  25. by Gillray, ‘AntiSaccharites, or John Bull and his family leaving off the use of sugar’ (27 March 1792); no 8081, ‘The Gradual Abolition’ (15 April 1792). Cartoons related to abolition appeared in 1788, 1792, 1795, 1796, 1804, 1807, etc. For an early mention of the slave ship print, see the Morning Post, 3 April 1788.Google Scholar
  26. 43.
    S. Drescher, ‘Cart Whip and Bill Roller: Antislavery and reform symbolism in industrializing Britain’, Journal of Social History, 15, 1 (1982) 14.Google Scholar
  27. 45.
    The consumer was ‘the master-spring that gives motion to the whole Machine of Cruelties’, and abstention could unbend the spring of planter action. (The Duty of Abstaining from the Use of West India Produce. A Speech delivered at Coach-Maker’s Hall, London January 12, 1792, 7.) All could join: ‘Plebian, Peasant, Artist, this is a cause which you may engage secure of conquest; because far more glorious than that of sacking towns, or subduing kingdoms, is that of “bidding the oppressed go free”… ye have only to refuse the commodity which is the price of blood, of the blood of brethren… unite and conquer’. (Leicester Journal, 13 January 1792. See also T. Clarkson, History of the Rise, Progress and Accomplishment of the Abolition of the African Slave-trade (London, 1808), 2, 350.) On female initiatives, see the Newcastle Courant, 7 January 1792. The first known Welsh advertisement for free sugar was published in 1797. Specific reports on female-initiated abstentions and canvassing were published in Newcastle, Norwich, and Chester.Google Scholar
  28. 46.
    The advertisement for a London debate on the duty of ‘ABSTINENCE from Sugar, Rum, etc.’, observed that ‘since it had been resolved upon by women as well as men’, the debate would be ‘an appeal to the justice and humanity of both sexes’ at Coachmakers Hall. (Diary, 5 January and reports of 12 and 18 January 1792). The question was decided ‘by an almost unanimous vote of almost six hundred persons in favour of our African brethren’. (Ibid., 18 January.) Popular interpretations of the question at issue were often broader than their Parliamentary counterparts. The question debated was whether to abolish slavery and not just the slave trade, and ‘the iron mask of the Somerset case’ was brought forward. (Diary, 12 January 1792.) On London abstention, see also General Evening Post, 26–8 January 1792; and Morning Chronicle, 23 March 1792. At the ‘Society for Free Debate’ in Birmingham, sugar consumption was also voted down by ‘a very great majority’. (Sheffield Advertiser, 30 December 1791.) Apparently two itinerant Quakers made an actual enumeration of the sugar abstainers in Cornwall. (Star, 23 March 1792; Diary, 28 March 1792.) In Lincoln, ‘a party of economical and public spirited ladies’ led the campaign for abstention. The inhabitants of Biggleswade did a house-to-house canvass for pledges (Chester Chronicle, 2 December 1791. See also Newcastle Courant, 7 January 1792). Children in dissenting schools were not allowed to use sugar so that they would never feel deprived of it: Duke University Library, Fuller Letterbook, 2, 7 December 1791. On details concerning the spread of abstention see, inter alia, Shrewsbury Chronicle, 30 March 1792; Newcastle Courant, 7 January, 7 April, 30 June 1792; Northampton Mercury, 24 December 1791, 7 January 1792; Lincoln, Rutland and Stamford Mercury, 2 December 1791; 30 March 1792; Edinburgh Evening Courant, 4, 23 February 1792; Gloucester Journal, 6 February 1792; Norfolk Chronicle, 9 November, 3 December 1791; Leicester Journal, 6 January 1792; Chester Chronicle, 18 November, 2 December 1791; Manchester Herald, 14 April 1792; Sheffield Register, 11 November 1791. Sugar abstention was mentioned in London, Cornwall, Birmingham, Sheffield, Ipswich, Newcastle, North Yorkshire, County Durham, Northamptonshire, Leicester, Norwich, Boston, Manchester, Stamford, Edinburgh, Cork, Limerick, Leslie, Glasgow, Chester, Biggleswade, Derby, Belfast and Dublin. ‘Free’ sugar advertisements appeared, inter alia, in London, Manchester, Ipswich, Newcastle, Northampton, Norwich, Sheffield, Edinburgh, Chester and Birmingham. The West India merchants were sufficiently alarmed by the anitsaccharite movement to form a committee ‘for the sole purpose of counteracting the above practices’. Duke University Library, Fuller Letterbook, 2, 7 January 1792.Google Scholar
  29. 49.
    When news of the St Domingue uprising reached Britain late in 1791 with reports of over 200 sugar plantations destroyed, prices rose and British sugar surged into the Continental market. See the Shrewsbury Chronicle, 4 November and 25 November 1791. On the Paris sugar riots, see George Rudé, The Crowd in the French Revolution (Oxford, 1959), 95–8; Morning Chronicle, 30, 31 January, Public Advertiser, 16, 24 February 1792. In London, the most detailed reports on the riots, including excerpts from the National Assembly reports, appeared in the Diary, 22, 30 and 31 January 1792. There was also a small French radical current in favour of abstention. After the sugar riots ‘several sections of Paris and several societies in the Provinces, … abjured the use of these luxuries [coffee and sugar]. The Club of Jacobins … took an oath to the same effect.’ (Report dated Paris, 2 February 1792, in the Diary, 7 February 1792.)Google Scholar
  30. 50.
    Noel Deerr, A History of Sugar, 2 vols (London, 1949–50), 530.Google Scholar
  31. 56.
    Abolitionists actually welcomed Tarleton’s tactics on the petitions of 1792. He claimed that some were signed by ‘school masters, schoolboys, with the addition of other names, some real, some fictitious’. What did this prove, replied Sir Richard Hill, but that ‘Individuals of all sorts, conditions and ages, young and old, master and scholar, high and low, rich and poor, the risen and the rising generation had unanimously set every nerve on stretch.… Besides, it is not improbable that some of these lads had just been smarting under the operation of a severe flogging from some too rigorous master.’ Who else could so appropriately ‘sympathize with the poor African?’ Moreover, Tarleton had singled out less than two per cent of the documents. (Letter of Sir Richard Hill to Reverend J. Plymly, Chairman of the Abolitionist Society of Salop, a portion of his undelivered speech in the Commons (1792).) See also Thornton’s defence of ‘the peasant, the mechanic and the school boy’ as equal in judgment to any member of the House on such a matter (Diary, 4 May 1792). One of Tarleton’s targets, the Edinburgh petitioners, had deleted the schoolboys’ signatures before it went to Parliament. Some opponents of abolition admitted that the petitions in their own localities were valid reflections of local opinion (see Drake’s speech in the Diary, 26 April 1792). On calls for mass signatures, see Samuel Bradburn, An Address to the People called Methodists (Manchester, 1792), 12–15. Notices had to be circulated at Ipswich assuring the poor that signing would cost them nothing (Diary, 30 March 1792). The Chester Chronicle, 30 March 1792, took note of a ‘Reverend Gentleman’ in Manchester who refused to sign its abolition petition. On the Manchester figures for 1792 see the Chester Chronicle, 9 March 1792. For hostile acknowledgments of working-class petitioners in Leicester and Nottingham, see The Star, 7 March 1792. The author of Farther Reasons of a Country Gentleman for Voting against Mr. Wilber-force’s Motion (London, 1792), 1–2, denounced the abolitionists for ‘soliciting the ignorant and illiterate of every village’. An Appeal to the Candour and Justice of the People of England in Behalf of the West India Merchants and Planters (London, 1792), 69, condemned the signing up of ‘the sick, the indigent, the traveller’, the use of students to canvass, and ‘the indiscriminate signing of all’ in towns like Bolton.Google Scholar
  32. 69.
    In Belford and vicinity 433 persons signed, among whom were ‘Ladies anxiously desiring to show their abhorrence of this abominable trade.’ (Newcastle Courant, 3 March 1792). In Scotland several female petitions were drawn up in 1814. One at Inverkeithing obtained 200 signatures in 24 hours (Edinburgh Evening Courant, 21 July 1814). Gwynne E. Owen dates Welsh women’s antislavery petitions from 1831. ‘Welsh Anti-Slavery Sentiments 1790–1865: A Survey of Public Opinion’, MA thesis, University of College of Wales, Aberystwyth, 1964, 81.Google Scholar
  33. 71.
    Adam Smith, Lectures on Jurisprudence (Oxford, 1978), 186–7.Google Scholar
  34. 72.
    G. T. F. Raynal, Histoire Philosophique et Politique des etablissements et du commerce des Européens dans les deux Indes (Geneva, 1781).Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Seymour Drescher 1986

Authors and Affiliations

  • Seymour Drescher
    • 1
  1. 1.University of PittsburghUSA

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