The Mighty Experiment: Free Labor vs. Slavery in British Emancipation

The Mighty Experiment: Free Labor vs. Slavery in British Emancipation

The Mighty Experiment: Free Labor vs. Slavery in British Emancipation

The Mighty Experiment: Free Labor vs. Slavery in British Emancipation

Synopsis

By the mid-eighteenth century, the transatlantic slave trade was considered to be a necessary and stabilizing factor in the capitalist economies of Europe and the expanding Americas. Britain was the most influential power in this system which seemed to have the potential for unbounded growth. In 1833, the British empire became the first to liberate its slaves and then to become a driving force toward global emancipation. There has been endless debate over the reasons behind this decision. This has been portrayed on the one hand as a rational disinvestment in a foundering overseas system, and on the other as the most expensive per capita expenditure for colonial reform in modern history. In this work, Seymour Drescher argues that the plan to end British slavery, rather than being a timely escape from a failing system, was, on the contrary, the crucial element in the greatest humanitarian achievement of all time. The Mighty Experiment explores how politicians, colonial bureaucrats, pamphleteers, and scholars taking anti-slavery positions validated their claims through rational scientific arguments going beyond moral and polemical rhetoric, and how the infiltration of the social sciences into this political debate was designed to minimize agitation on both sides and provide common ground. Those at the inception of the social sciences, such as Adam Smith and Thomas Malthus, helped to develop these tools to create an argument that touched on issues of demography, racism, and political economy. By the time British emancipation became legislation, it was being treated as a massive social experiment, whose designs, many thought, had the potential to change the world. This study outlines the relationship of economic growth to moral issues in regard to slavery, and will appeal to scholars of British history, nineteenth century imperial history, the history of slavery, and those interested in the history of human rights.

Excerpt

On the eve of emancipation in the early 1830s, abolitionists had found a plausible, if contested, premise for radical change in the British colonial system. In the early 1800s, the population principle had done service as a conceptual foundation for the abolition of the British slave trade. By the 1820s, often employing contradictory premises, abolitionists again found it immensely useful as a basis for demanding some alternative to a tangibly shrinking labor force in the Caribbean. Yet one could only go so far with the population principle. One could grant the need to alleviate a contraction of labor in the sugar colonies, but how could one be assured that a radical shift from slave to free labor would not make things worse rather than better? To achieve conviction on this point, abolitionists had to return to the principle of free labor superiority. Held in abeyance while the African slave trade remained the focus of political debate from the late 1780s until after Waterloo, the free labor ideology experienced a sharp revival as abolitionists began their mass campaigns for emancipation in the 1820s. It was high time to update Adam Smith's invaluable legacy with a fresh appeal to the political economists.

The most remarkable single fact about this search was the reluctance of Smith's heirs to renew his legacy. At the time of the great mass petition against the slave trade, Smith's colleague John Millar had added his name to the thousands who signed the abolitionist petition from Glasgow. But the Glasgow petition, like almost all others, eschewed political economy and confined itself to an appeal to humanity. Neither then, nor at any point thereafter did Millar inject his earlier historical critique of slave . . .

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