New Perspectives on British Abolition: Antecedents, Affections, and Activism

AHA Session 41
Friday, January 6, 2012: 9:30 AM-11:30 AM
Iowa Room (Chicago Marriott Downtown)
Seymour Drescher, University of Pittsburgh
Srividhya Swaminathan, Long Island University

Session Abstract

            Great Britain's abolition of the Atlantic slave trade in 1807 has been interpreted as, among other things, a rare instance of humanitarian altruism, a cynical maneuver made by grasping capitalists, a fearful response to the Haitian Revolution, and an expression of middle-class Protestantism. Scholarly backlash against the rigid economic determinism of Eric Williams's Capitalism and Slavery (1944) allowed for the dominance, for most of the final third of the twentieth century, of cultural and intellectual interpretations of British abolitionism. Recent works by historians such as Christopher Leslie Brown (2006) and David Beck Ryden (2009), however, have perceptively criticized this prevailing interpretation by showing that some of its proponents have simply replaced economic determinism with an equally mechanical cultural determinism. The presenters in this panel have found these critiques inspiring, but remain convinced of the need to understand the intellectual heritage and cultural values which eighteenth-century British abolitionists deployed against the slave trade. Our panel thus seeks to support a cultural and intellectual interpretation of British abolitionism by revising some of the arguments and assumptions made by our predecessors in the field. Comprised of three distinct but complementary interventions in this rich and still-growing field, this panel will be of interest to historians of Atlantic slavery and abolition, early modern Britain, the British Atlantic, and the Enlightenment.

            Madeline Wood opens the panel with an analysis of the intellectual and legal prehistory of British abolitionism. She shows that the movement against the slave trade was more than the product of eighteenth-century intellectual and cultural developments and cannot be understood as simply a natural outgrowth of the Enlightenment or the Age of Sensibility. Drawing on literary, legal, philosophical, and theological sources, Wood shows that early modern British intellectuals, from Shakespeare to Sewell, began to articulate critiques of slavery that proved indispensable to later abolitionists.

            Michael Woods continues the exploration of abolitionism's cultural and intellectual roots by revisiting the affective influence of eighteenth-century "sensibility." Long recognized as important impetuses for humanitarian reform, benevolent emotions such as sympathy in fact only account for part of abolition's emotional appeal. Irascible passions directed against slave traders and planters, most importantly moral indignation, played a central role in the theories of Adam Smith and other architects of sensibility, and were equally important for abolitionists. The public writings of Thomas Clarkson and other influential abolitionists suggest that a successful attack on the slave trade not only required inspiring sympathy for the oppressed, but also kindling indignation against their oppressors.

            Julie Holcomb closes the panel with a more focused analysis of the origins of the consumer and gender politics embedded in the first organized boycott of slave-produced sugar. She argues against the assumption that this campaign was naturally gendered female from its inception, demonstrating that the abolitionists' rhetorical shift away from male-dominated Parliament to female-dominated tea tables was a complicated process. Ultimately, however, it garnered significant additional support for the boycott, while also allowing British women to take an active role in the political struggle over British slavery.

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