"To Arouse Our Indignation and Our Pity": A Reconsideration of British Abolitionism's Emotional Appeal

Friday, January 6, 2012: 9:50 AM
Iowa Room (Chicago Marriott Downtown)
Michael E. Woods, University of South Carolina
Indignation was an essential affective component of the eighteenth-century culture of sensibility, and as such it played a crucial part in arousing British opinion against the Atlantic slave trade. This paper begins by analyzing indignation's central role in seminal texts such as Adam Smith's A Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), and then explores how British activists cultivated and deployed this politically formidable emotion. The public writings of Thomas Clarkson and other influential abolitionists reveal that a successful attack on the slave trade not only entailed inspiring sympathy for the oppressed, but also kindling indignation against their oppressors.

Historians of British abolitionism have long acknowledged the political potency of sympathy. They have disputed the exact roots of sympathy and sensibility, but generally agree that abolitionists self-consciously shared the sorrow and suffering of enslaved people and harnessed this fellow-feeling to the struggle against the slave trade, and later against slavery itself. This interpretation rightly emphasizes the causal role of emotions in political history, but its exclusive focus on benevolent emotions obscures the importance of irascible passions such as indignation. Moreover, the focus on bilateral emotional connections between abolitionists and slaves threatens to eliminate planters and slave traders from the political equation. Modern scholars can learn much from Adam Smith, who conceptually paired sympathy with indignation, arguing that when we sympathize with a victim, we adopt his or her righteous anger and become indignant against the wrongdoer. This interpretation of indignation and sympathy as necessarily intertwined profoundly shaped eighteenth-century understandings of emotion and moral judgment, validating the outrage with which abolitionists regarded slave traders and their allies. Abolitionists' indignation linked them to the victims and perpetrators of slave trafficking in a three-sided emotional relationship which defined the slave trade and its profiteers as immoral and deserving of an angry rebuke.