Ideas and the Abolition of Slavery

By Davies, Stephen | Ideas on Liberty, December 2002 | Go to article overview

Ideas and the Abolition of Slavery


Davies, Stephen, Ideas on Liberty


The history of slavery is a subject of great interest to contemporary historians. The intense interest it evokes today is partly a consequence of one huge reality: slavery has been a feature of almost every historical epoch except for the last 200 years. So the big question is, Why and how did an institution so universal and accepted come to disappear from almost the entire world in less than a hundred years?

For many years the answer went roughly as follows: Slavery and the slave trade were accepted features of life until in the later eighteenth century a movement arose for its abolition, initially in Britain, led by figures such as William Wilberforce and Thomas Clarkson. Motivated by humanitarian concerns, the movement spread from Britain to other countries and gained a series of victories, culminating in the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire in 1807, the abolition of slavery in the British West Indies in 1832, and the eventual extinction of slavery in the New World by 1882.

This view of abolitionism, as a humanitarian movement motivated by high ideals, was sharply criticized in a path-breaking work written in 1944. This was Capitalism and Slavery, by Eric Williams (who later became prime minister of Trinidad). Williams argued that the abolition of slavery owed little to humanitarian motives. It was rather a consequence of the appearance of modern capitalism, which had made the slave system unprofitable. It was self-interest and not humanitarian feelings that led people to abandon an age-old system. (He also argued that the earlier profits of the slave trade and the institutions it had created played a major part in Britain's industrial revolution; but that is a separate issue, which does not concern us here.) This view became predominant for some time, not least because it appealed to people from both ends of the traditional political spectrum, although for different reasons. Supporters of capitalism argued that this showed how it was incompatible with slavery because of simple selfinterest. Capitalism's critics could use it to show how claims for human rights and liberty were merely camouflage for selfish class interests.

Williams's work was good history in terms of its method. It rested on empirical evidence and made a number of specific claims, all of which could be tested by further research. Unfortunately for Williams, later work by many historians has undermined his thesis to the point where it is not sustainable. There had always been some serious difficulties. One was the persistence and strength of slavery in places such as Brazil and the United States. If slavery had become economically unviable because of capitalism, why had it survived so long in such a clearly capitalist economy as that of the United States?

Another difficulty was the articulation of an explicitly proslavery ideology in the American South after the 1820s, precisely when, according to Williams, the selfinterest of American plantation owners should have been leading them to support abolition. This last point led supporters of Williams's thesis into intellectual gymnastics as they sought to portray plantation owners as a "pre-capitalist" elite, despite overwhelming evidence as to their commercial-- mindedness.

However the real damage to Williams's argument was done by the work of two historians, Roger Anstey and Seymour Drescher. They were able to demonstrate two things. First, slavery and the slave trade had been at their most profitable and their economic importance for the British economy had been greatest precisely when they became controversial, after the mid-1780s. …

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