Antislavery and Capitalism

  • Seymour Drescher


In accounting for the destruction of British slavery it is necessary to emphasize how closely it was embedded in its social and economic world even when it chose to shift or change one element of that world. Without the context of a rising industrial order there would have been no social leverage available to destroy one of the original components of the old order. Yet linking the rise of antislavery to the evolution of capitalism alone leaves us far short of explaining the dynamic of abolitionism. I have taken issue with accounts whose point of departure is a capitalist political domination of antislavery, its socially controlling methods, its ideological hegemony, or its artful transference of one form of social domination into another. I have attempted to change the frame of reference by emphasizing abolitionism’s broad social base and the heuristic utility of viewing its history as a power struggle rather than a display of hegemonic symbol manipulation.


Slave System Slave Trade Chattel Slavery Social Domination Divine Comedy 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Notes and References

  1. 1.
    For the most recent historical analysis of the abolition debate in Britain in relation to labour discipline see David Eltis, ‘Abolitionist Perceptions of Society after Slavery’, in J. Walvin (ed.), Slavery, 195–213, extended with great subtlety in ‘Economic Growth and Coercion’, Chapters 5–7. The debate over the cheapness of free versus slave labour was not always assumed to be settled even among avowed abolitionists: The time is not, perhaps, yet come, when this question can meet with a fair discussion.’ (See James Anderson’s The Bee, 6, 86 (16 November 1791) and above, Chapter 6, note 84. Social engineering plans by the more conservative abolitionists usually allowed for special legislation to limit the alternatives for ex-slaves. For Britain, see Eltis, ‘Abolitionist Perceptions of Society after Slavery’, 195–213;Google Scholar
  2. for France, S. Drescher, Dilemmas of Democracy: Tocqueville and Modernization (Pittsburgh, 1968), Chapter 6. All abolitionists did not, however, assume that the continuity of plantation production was a sine qua non of post-emancipation economies. In 1827, an extended essay in the Edinburgh Review by T. B. Macaulay demonstrated how the free-labour ideology could undermine arguments for restrictions on labour mobility after emancipation. Responding to protests that free blacks in the British colonies never worked the fields, the essayist replied: It by no means follows that a man feels an insurmountable dislike to the business of setting canes, because he will not set canes for six-pence a day, when he can earn a shilling by making baskets.… We will grant that the free blacks do not work so steadily as the slaves, or as the labourers in other countries … To us it appears to be the universal effect of an advance in wages, an effect not confined to tropical countries, … [It is] an unsteadiness which cannot surprise any person who has ever talked with an English manufacturer, or ever heard the name of Saint Monday … [The] great general principle is the same in all [countries]. All will work extremely hard rather than miss the comforts to which they have been habituated; and all, when they find it possible to obtain their accustomed labour, will not work so hard as they formerly worked, merely to increase them …; for the Chinese peasant would work as irregularly as the Englishman, and the Englishman as irregularly as the negro, if this could be done without any diminution of comforts. Now it does not appear from any passage in the whole Report, that the free blacks are retrograding in their mode of living. It appears, on the contrary, that their work, however irregular, does in fact enable them to live more comfortably than they ever did as slaves. The unsteadiness, therefore, of which they are accused … is equally an argument for coercing the spinners of Manchester and the grinders of Sheffield.… We never denied, that of two kinds of coercion, the more severe is likely to be the more efficient. Men can be induced to work only by two motives, hope and fear.… We hold that, in the long run, hope will answer best. ‘Major Moody’s Report’,in The Edinburgh Review, 45 (March 1827), 399–410).Google Scholar
  3. The ideological shift to the ‘longer run’ superiority of free labour was so complete that even for colonies the necessity of forced labour was now a new philosophy. (Ibid., 394–5.)Google Scholar
  4. See also Howard Temperley, ‘Anti-slavery as Cultural Imperialism’ in C. Bolt and S. Drescher (eds), Anti-Slavery, Religion, and Reform (Folkestone, Kent/Hamden, Conn., 1980), 335–50. The most important point, however, is not the argument over economic efficiency but how peripheral this whole argument was to popular antislavery rhetoric. See George Thompson’s speech as the agent for the antislavery society in the great electoral campaign of 1832. (See Speech on British Colonial Slavery, delivered at the Wesleyan Methodist Chapel, Irwell-Street, Salford, Manchester, Monday, 13 August 1832.) Thompson met the question of possibly reduced export production head on. If Haitian exports were down by two-thirds, so what? If the West Indies decreased its consumption of British exports this was simply irrelevant. Would Ireland be any worse off if she exported less,’“if instead of so much pork, she were to keep it for home consumption?” (Loud Cheers).’Google Scholar
  5. 3.
    Historiographical concern with the ‘problem’ of labour in the Atlantic economies has obscured some of the anthropological roots of hostility to Afro-American slavery. Thomas Clarkson established his abolitionist credentials with an essay, On the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species. It was the corruption of the market mechanism which bore the first brunt of the antislavery onslaught. Just as the definition of slaves does not reside primarily in their deprivation of the means of production, so the ideology of freedom does not reside in the transformation of a special form of extra-economic coercion. See Muhammad A. Dandamaev, Slavery in Babylonia from Nabopallassar to Alexander The Great (626–331 B.C.), rev. edn transl. by V. A. Powell et al., (De Kalb, 111., 1984), 73–4,Google Scholar
  6. citing the work of K. K. Zel’in, Formy Zavisimosti v vostochnom Sredizemnomor’e ellinisticheskogo perioda (Moscow, 1969), 6f., 23.Google Scholar
  7. 4.
    D. B. Davis, Slavery in … Revolution (Ithaca, New York, 1984), 381–2. Early abolitionism overwhelmingly focused on slaving as a capitalist enterprise rather than a ‘feudal’ or seigneurial system.Google Scholar
  8. 6.
    J. Bohstedt, Riots and Community Politics in England (Cambridge, Mass., 1983), Chapter 3.Google Scholar
  9. 7.
    For early examples see Newbery, The Newtonian System, 121 as well as letters and petition advertisements: General Evening Post, 10–13, 13–15 November, 25–7 December, 1787; Morning Chronicle, 2, 4, 7, 14, 16 February, 12 May, 9, 11 July, 3 October, 11 November 1788; Public Advertiser, 29 January, 4, 14, 29 February 1788; Leeds Mercury, 23 October, 18 December 1787; 24 January 1788; Chelmsford Chronicle, 22 February 1788; Lincoln, Stamford and Rutland Mercury, 30 December 1791; York Chronicle, 13, 27 January 1792; York Courant, 21 February 1792; Sheffield Advertiser, 22 February 1792; Manchester Herald, 12 May 1792; Food for National Penitence, or a Discourse intended for the Approaching Fast Day (London, 1792), 10; Charles Pigott, Political Dictionary, Explaining the True Meaning of Words (London, 1795), 131;Google Scholar
  10. Thomas Hall, Achmet to Selim, or, the Dying Negro (Liverpool, 1792), 5–10;Google Scholar
  11. S. Bradburn, An Address to the People called Methodists (Manchester, 1792), 2–3; The Horrors of the Negro Slavery existing in our West Indian Islands (London, 1805), 32 (the principal propaganda pamphlet of the abolitionist campaign of 1805–1806); Cowdroy’s Manchester Gazette, 16 March 1805; Robert Aspland, Divine Judgements on Guilty Nations (Cambridge, 1804), 22; Speech of the Bishop of St. Asaph, June 24, 1806 (London, 1806) 3. For similar arguments towards the end of the abolitionist era see the petitions to Parliament and organizational literature such as The Wesleyan Preacher, 3 vols (1832–3), 2, 175 ff.Google Scholar
  12. 10.
    For a contrary view, see D. B. Davis, Slavery and Human Progress (New York, 1984), 109–10, 249. Too much emphasis has been placed upon the government’s ‘handling’ of the issue of emancipation in 1832–3 (or in 1788–92). What appears to emerge from a process that dragged out for a year after the summer of 1832 was the government’s utter bewilderment under cross-pressure: it feared to approach the problem in the face of a public mobilization that would not go away and thirty or forty million in slave capital that could not go away.Google Scholar
  13. See Izhak Gross, ‘The Abolition of Negro Slavery and British Parliamentary Politics 1832–3’, The Historical Journal, 23, 1 (1980), 63–85, esp. 81–5; andCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. ‘Parliament and the Abolition of Negro Apprenticeship 1835–1838’, English Historical Review, 96, 380 (July 1981), 560–76.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. 12.
    Ibid., 351, note, 171; see also Lawrence Stone, ‘Madness’, New York Review of Books, 16 December 1982, 28–36.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Seymour Drescher 1986

Authors and Affiliations

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

Personalised recommendations