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God’s Work: Antislavery and Religious Mobilization

  • Seymour Drescher
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Abstract

Having explored the magnitude and impact of political mobilization for abolition one must turn towards its social sources. The religious dimension of British abolition has always claimed and usually received pride of place in such discussions, from Thomas Clarkson in 1808 to Roger Anstey and David Brion Davis. The abolitionist leaders were known to contemporaries and to posterity as the ‘Saints’. Nothing in the abolitionist historiographical tradition infuriated the iconoclastic Eric Williams so much as Reginald Coupland’s imaginary interview with Wilberforce. To the historian’s question on the significance of the abolition of British slavery, Wilberforce was made to reply: ‘It was God’s work. It signifies the triumph of His will over human selfishness. It teaches that no obstacle of interest or prejudice is irremovable by faith and prayer.’1

Keywords

Eighteenth Century Slave System Slave Trade Social Base Skilled Artisan 
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Notes and References

  1. 1.
    E. Williams, Capitalism and Slavery (Chapel Hill, 1944), 178,Google Scholar
  2. quoting R. Coupland, The Empire in These Days (London, 1935), 264.Google Scholar
  3. 2.
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  24. 22.
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    C. Duncan Rice, ‘The Missionary Context of the British Anti-Slavery Movement’, in J. Walvin (ed.), Slavery, 150–63. By 1830 newspapers with abolitionist sympathies had headlines like: ‘PRAYING PUNISHED BY FLOGGING!’ (Sheffield Iris, 16 July 1830).Google Scholar
  31. 42.
    W. R. Ward, Religion and Society in England, 1790–1850 (London, 1972), Chapter 1. The popular antisaccharite crusade of the early 1790s had relatively little recourse to Christian symbolism. It appealed to the ‘law of nature, that individual felicity keep a fixed pace with the well-being of the aggregate of the species’, Morning Chronicle, 23 March 1792.Google Scholar
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  34. P. Fryer, Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain, (London and Sydney, 1984), 106–7.Google Scholar
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    The ‘Rights of Man’ was completely legitimized in Methodist antislavery rhetoric. (Liverpool Courier, 15 October 1832). See also R. Anstey, ‘Parliamentary Reform, Methodism and Anti-Slavery Politics, 1829–1833’, in Slavery and Abolition 2:3 (1981), 220–223 (posthumous) D. B. Davis, ed.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. 58.
    See, inter alia: E. Hurwitz, Politics and the Public Conscience, 48, 79 and 81 (although there is a later statement that all strata supported emancipation); Davis, Slavery inRevolution, 357, 361–5, 385, 421 and 450; Dixon, ‘Politics of Emancipation’, 208–11; Williams, Capitalism and Slavery, 181; Patricia Hollis, ‘Anti-slavery and British working-class radicalism’, in Bolt and Drescher, Anti-Slavery, 294–313. T. Haskell, ‘Capitalism and the Origins of the Humanitarian Sensibility’ in The American Historical Review, 90, 2 (June 1985); H. Temperley ‘The Ideology of Antislavery’, in Eltis and Walvin, The Abolition, 28. Howard Temperley, following E. M. Hunt, remarks that the constituency of popular abolitionism, in the early period at least, ‘drew its support from a broad range of social classes’; see his ‘Anti-Slavery’, in P. Hollis (ed.), Pressure from Without, 33. For emphasis on a broader social base, see also Walvin, ‘The Public Campaign in England’, 63–79; Drescher, ‘Two Variants’, 57–9; and ‘Cart Whip’, 3–24.Google Scholar
  38. 63.
    It seems unlikely that the ‘new’ Dissenters were higher on the social ladder in the late eighteenth century than in 1830. Data on Keighley Round, West Riding, for 1763, sets the percentage of ‘manufacturers’ at 65.1 (i.e. excluding labourers and agriculturalists on the one hand and merchants and professionals on the other). From Charles Isaac Wallace, ‘Religion and Society in Eighteenth Century England: Geographic, Demographic and Occupational patterns of Dissent in the West Riding of Yorkshire, 1715–1801’, PhD dissertation, Duke University, 1973, 219. The Quakers were also still two-thirds artisanal in the last quarter of the eighteenth century. (Ibid., 235–6.) The Methodist leaders were quite self-conscious about their heavily collier-miner-mechanic constituency in dealing with the government (Ward, Religion and Society, 62).Google Scholar
  39. 65.
    Thomas Hardy, like Tom Paine, came out of eighteenth-century dissent. The Memoirs of Thomas Hardy (London, 1832), 4.Google Scholar
  40. Equiano wrote his memoirs at Hardy’s house in 1792 and the London Corresponding Society made its public appearance on the very day of the Parliamentary debate on the slave trade (ibid., 15–16).Google Scholar
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    John Iliffe, The Emergence of African Capitalism (London, 1983), 33–4.Google Scholar
  42. 68.
    A miner or manufacturing worker of the eighteenth century was more likely than a farm labourer or small farmer to be a Methodist or dissenter. John Rule, The Experience of Labour in the Eighteenth Century (London, 1981), 208.Google Scholar
  43. See also Iain McCalman, ‘Anti-Slavery and Ultra-Radicalism in Early Nineteenth-Century England: The Case of Robert Wedderburn’, Mss given at the Nantes international colloquium on the slave trade, 1985.Google Scholar
  44. 69.
    For E. P. Thompson the ideological break with paternalism dates from the 1790s, following a path from middle-class dissenters to urban artisans. ‘Eighteenth-century English society: class struggle without class?’, Social History, 3: 2 (May 1978), 163–4. Abolitionism calls our attention to a break with paternalism which preceeded the 1790s and originated in the dissenting urban artisanry. John Wesley’s victories in Cornwall were due to the fact that he was regarded as an insurgent against traditional institutions. John Rowe, Cornwall in the Age of the Industrial Revolution (Liverpool, 1953), 32. Dissent entered a critical period of mass mobilization at the end of the 1780s. It reflected a crisis (especially in the West Riding and Lancashire) created by an Anglican clergy which was literally rising into the gentry class. ‘The Methodists might put on displays of loyalty; but they were plainly severing the natural links between the upper and the lower orders at a time when everything else seemed to be conspiring in the same direction.’ Ward, Religion and Society, 50–3.Google Scholar
  45. See also W. R. Ward, ‘The Tithe Question in England in the Early Nineteenth Century’, Journal of Ecclesiastical History, 16:1 (April 1965), 72ff. The Bishop of Chester estimated that the tract from Manchester through Yorkshire to Richmond might already have had a majority of dissenters full of the ‘democratic spirit’, before the end of the French wars (Ward, Religion and Society, 54). Among rural immigrants to northern industrial towns, religious antagonism was especially sharpened by social distance. At least in the first two decades of abolitionism ‘the Methodist flock had been so much on one side of the social divide as to leave the preachers no real option but to follow them’ against the wealthier trustees.Google Scholar
  46. W. R. Ward, ‘Popular religion and the problem of control’, in C. J. Cumeng and Derek Baker (eds), Popular Belief and Practice (New York, 1972), 242–3. In some areas, such as Cornwall, class tension remained relatively muted until after the age of popular abolitionism. Michael Flinn stresses the upward trend of real wages and the standard of living for colliers until 1830: The History of the British Coal Industry, vol. 2, The Industrial Revolution 1700–1830, 395, 440–1. Cornish miners seem to have become active abolitionists in the early 1790s, following the revival of the copper industry. Rowe, Cornwall in the Age of the Industrial Revolution, 91.Google Scholar
  47. 70.
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  53. 74.
    In his relation to his tools and his product the artisan was a capitalist. In his relation to his apprentices he was a master of his craft, a relationship akin to a professor with his students. See Karl Marx, Capital, trans. Ben Fowkes (London, 1976), 1, 1029.Google Scholar
  54. The radical society of Sheffield in 1792 was founded by ‘mechanics’, with the leaven of ‘a few Quakers’ and ‘a number of Methodists’. (C. Wyvill, Political Papers, 5, 47–48, letter of May 1792.)Google Scholar
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    Temperley, ‘The Ideology of Antislavery’, 21–35, esp. 28; D. Eltis, ‘Abolitionist Perceptions of Society after Slavery’, in Walvin, Slavery, 195–213, esp. 213. See also H. Temperley, Abolition and the National Interest’, in Out of Slavery: Abolition and After, J. E. S. Hayward (ed.) (London, 1985). For Davis, Slavery inRevolution, 450, British abolitionism was predominantly a middle-class articulation which ‘filtered down’ by the 1820s to dissenting and improving working men.Google Scholar
  58. 84.
    Adam Smith argued that the cost of maintaing slave labour was everywhere greater than that of maintaining free labour: An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (New York, 1937), 80. He also treated slavery in the tobacco and sugar colonies as ‘exceptional,’ in that European demand enabled the British colonists in those areas not only to bear the extra cost of slave management, but ‘to dispose of their produce to buyers for more than what was sufficient to pay the whole rent, profit and wages necessary for preparing it and bringing it to market’. In this general statement Smith never mentioned the reduced cost of ‘wear and tear’ created by the African slave trade, where the function of ‘replacing or repairing’ was not managed by ‘a negligent master or careless overseer’, but by a competitive enterprise for buying, transporting and selling stolen people. Smith’s second premise was that slave labour was the dearest of all because universal experience showed that labour could be ‘squeezed’ out of a slave only by violence (ibid., 365).Google Scholar
  59. But for Smith at least one system, the French slave colonies, also proved that slaves could be managed so that ‘the slave was rendered not only more faithful, but more intelligent and therefore upon a double account more useful’. (Ibid., 554.) There, ‘the slave approaches more to the condition of a free servant and may possess some degree of integrity and attachment to his master’s interest, virtues which frequently belong to free servants, but which never can belong to a slave, who is treated as slaves commonly are in countries where the master is perfectly free and secure.’ (Ibid., 554.) The same phenomenon occurred in British North America, where masters worked alongside slaves and treated them almost as ‘friends and partners’. (Lectures on Jurisprudence, 185.) Thus the universal rule was sufficiently malleable in certain environments to drastically reduce the motivational difference between free and slave labor. The slave/free dichotomy seemed less clearcut in the fields of the Americas than in the mines of Europe. Smith never actually broached the question of whether well-managed slaves on transatlantic sugar plantations, fed by an efficient slave trade, were in the end cheaper for a master than production by freemen. However, his abolitionist users, if not all of his disciples, were more than satisfied by his unequivocal general statement. On citations of the free-labour argument in early abolitionism, see Morning Chronicle, 3 April, 8 November, 27 November 1788; Public Advertiser, 19 February 1788; Diary, 26 March 1792. The free-labour ideology did not depend on Smith. Compulsion was regarded as a source of inefficiency primarily because of actual metropolitan experience. ‘The fruitlessness of compulsive labour’ was proved every day in ‘every workhouse in the kingdom. There is in proof too, the felons in the hulks, who produce not a fourth part of the ballast which is raised by the adjoining barges, where the men are working on their own account.’ Morning Chronicle, 15 September 1785.Google Scholar
  60. See also ibid., 3 October 1785; London Chronicle, 29 September–1 October and 1–4 October 1785. Usually the more radical the abolitionist, the more sanguine was his faith in the exportability of the free-labour principle. An unqualified version of the free-labour ideology was propounded by the early socialist,Google Scholar
  61. William Thompson, in An Inquiry into the Principles of the Distribution of Wealth (London, 1824, reprinted 1963), 44–5,174. The problem was always whether this ‘law’ was transferable beyond the line. In the early 1790s Sierra Leone was considered to be the first test case for ‘free’ tropical staple agriculture. Clarkson anticipated that sugar would be the most profitable crop of the new colony, and regarded the experiment as a straightforward test of freemen versus slaves. (Huntington Library, Clarkson Papers, CN54 (1702), 17.) He anticipated that each hundredweight of sugar from Sierra Leone would be two-thirds cheaper than from the slave islands.Google Scholar
  62. The rate of profit ‘will be precisely one hundred per cent’. (Ibid., 19.)Google Scholar
  63. Joseph Priestly’s A Sermon on the Slave Trade (Birmingham, 1788), 28, note, also assumed that African sugar could be raised at half the cost of the West Indian product. On the other hand, just prior to the Sierra Leone venture, the more conservative William Paley stated that free labor would cost the British planters about one-twelfth more than slavery (from 6d to 6½d per pound). See Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy (London, 1787), Book III, Pt. 2, Chapter 3. In 1792 Arthur Young called for competitive experimentation before deciding on abolition. Annals of Agriculture 17 (1792), 524. After Sierra Leone’s failure as a staple exporter, attention moved toward the Caribbean. During the abolition debates there were calls to use undeveloped Trinidad as an experimental area for Adam Smith’s assumption that ‘slave labour was the dearest of all’. Wilberforce was almost drawn into supporting such an experiment. He was warned off by James Stephen, who believed that the very opposite was the case in the colonial situation. (Duke University Library, William Smith papers, William Wilberforce to William Smith, 18 August and 5 September 1806.) James Stephen fought against all free labour experiments. He anonymously denounced the Chinese free labour experiment in Trinidad as ‘preposterous,’ in The Dangers of the Country (London, 1807), 205. Stephen had already stated his belief in the decisive advantage of slave labor for sugar production. The Crisis of the Sugar Colonies (London, 1803), 191. (See also S. Drescher, Econocide, 156–7). He openly re-iterated this opinion in Parliament, in opposing a motion for a government-sponsored free labor experiment. Stephen cited the Chinese experiment as proof that ‘while slavery existed in the West Indies, it was impossible that free labour could succeed in competition with it’. Parliamentary Debates, 19 (4 April 1811), 710. Governor Picton of Trinidad agreed with Stephen. Sugar could not be ‘advantageously cultivated or manufactured’ without slaves. (PRO CO 295/2, Trinidad, April 12, 1802.) The Dutch were still unable to make Java competitive with the American sugar colonies at the end of the eighteenth century, despite record prices for sugar and the fact that the daily price of common labour in Java was between one-third and one-half that of hired slaves in the West Indies. (PRO CO 295/2, Trinidad, 16 July 1802.) On the ambivalence of British political economists right down to slave emancipation itself, see S. Drescher, ‘Cart Whip’, 5–6. Doubts were not confined to British political economists. J. B. Say, referring to Steuart, Turgot and Smith as free labourites, cautioned: ‘I fear that these respectable writers wanted to justify by reason, an opinion which was inspired by humanity.’Google Scholar
  64. J. B. Say, Traité d’Economie politique 2 vols (Paris, 1814), I, 283. For Say it was unsupervised free labour which was more efficient when done by free men. A German translation of James Steuart’s Political Economy restricted the advantage of free labor to manufacturing enterprises. Say, Traiti 5th edn (Paris, 1826), 357. For Say, the issue of relative profitability was settled by the master’s choice, but he drew a distinction between long term development and profitability.Google Scholar
  65. See Say’s reply to Adam Hodgson’s A Letter to M. Jean Baptiste Say on the Comparative Expense of Free and Slave Labour, 2nd edn (London, 1823), 60.Google Scholar
  66. Charles Ganilh’s An Inquiry into the Various Systems of Political Economy, trans. D. Boileau (London, 1812), 150, cautioned against inferring ‘that at all times, in all places, and under all circumstances, the labour of the free man ought to be substituted for that of the slave’. ‘Although it appears demonstrated that the labour of the free man is more advantageous than that of the slave, it is perhaps equally true, that, in the present colonial system, the labour of the slave is more advantageous than that of the free man.’ In La Théorie de l’economie politique fondu sur les faits résultans des statistiques de la France et de l’Angleterre 2 vols (Paris, 1815), I, 278, 284–90, Ganilh offered perhaps the most elaborate analysis of free versus slave labour before British emancipation. He estimated that the annual yield on metropolitan agricultural capital was only 8 per cent, compared with 12 per cent in the islands. Because of the higher cost of colonial capital, however, Ganilh found the difference in profitability to be only 3½ per cent in favour of slave agriculture. The superiority of slave production was due to causes extrinsic to the efficiency of slave labour, but those causes did make slavery more profitable in the colonies, (ibid., 288). West Indians were even more adamant about the distinction between making ‘a negro, a free-man’, and making him a ‘labourer’.Google Scholar
  67. See J. R. Gosset, Remarks on West India Affairs (London, 1824), 76. ‘Who would not wish,’ said Jon Braithwaite to the Privy Council in 1788, ‘to have labour performed freely rather than on compulsion’, but the free blacks of Barbados would not ‘work for pay, but be idle and vicious’. No medium existed between compulsion and idleness. (PRO BT 6/9, Evidence before the Privy Council, f. 31.) The distinction between the cost of labour in the metropolis and in the colonies was just as relative for Eric Williams as it had been for planters and political economists. Williams took issue not with Adam Smith’s general premise, but with Smith’s failure to distinguish between early and late stages of colonial development. Slave labour was necessary during the ‘rise’ of British slavery, even though ‘other things being equal’, free men would be preferred. (Williams, Capitalism and Slavery, 6, also noted in S. L. Engerman and David Eltis, ‘Economic aspects of the abolition debate’, in Bolt and Drescher, Anti-Slavery, 277. The continuance of the frontier situation for British slavery casts doubt on whether ‘other things’ were ‘equal’ even by 1833.)Google Scholar
  68. 87.
    The decisive shift in attitude was in the outlook of the working, not the entrepreneurial, sector. When Britain was creating its overseas slave system, ‘only the vanguard of entrepreneurs operated as economic rationalists’. Only in the next century did such rationalism become internalized by workers, as well as by investors, both as consumers and as producers (Joyce Appleby, ‘Ideology and Theory: The Tension between Political and Economic Liberalism in Seventeenth-Century England’, The American Historical Review, 81:3 (June 1976), 499–515. Ironically, just when such ‘rationalism’ had been internalized by workers they rejected the immorality of the market-rationalized slave trade. The necessary catalysts were, as always, particularly sensitized individuals, whether Anstey’s men of the gospel, or Haskell’s men of the marketplace, or some combination of Davis’s conservative evangelicals, ambivalent philosophes, and pioneering Quakers. But abolitionism as a social movement arose out of the shared experience of less exceptional people among the middle and working classes. The key question in this respect is not how abolitionism was diffused ‘from above’, but whether economic activity was infused with a prior ethical logic by working men and women themselves. The producers and consumers’ ideologies of late eighteenth-century England were apparently easily transferred to the problem of colonial slavery: ‘Labour is the most unequivocal kind of property; the labour of the negroes has not only been unpaid for, but has cost multitudes of them their lives and liberties.’ (Letter by ‘Common Sense’ on the need to abstain from slave sugar, Manchester Herald, 28 April 1792). The productivity of labour was thus ironically less significant in the producer’s ideology of metropolitan artisans than for political economists. A publication which claimed to speak for the ‘better sort of mechanics’, ‘the men in this country whose voices loudest and longest maintain the cry against injustice’, completely rejected the centrality of the low cost, free-labour argument in the emancipation debate. ‘Were slave labour even ten times more productive than free labour, what of that? Would it give one man a right to take possession of his brother, and compel him to work against his will for the benefit of his oppressor?’ The Mechanics Magazine vol. 1, 342, 24 January 1824; vol. 18, 79, 3 November 1832; and vol. 19, 416, 7 September 1833.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Seymour Drescher 1986

Authors and Affiliations

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

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