Moral Capital: Foundations of British Abolitionism

Moral Capital: Foundations of British Abolitionism

Moral Capital: Foundations of British Abolitionism

Moral Capital: Foundations of British Abolitionism


Revisiting the origins of the British antislavery movement of the late eighteenth century, Christopher Leslie Brown challenges prevailing scholarly arguments that locate the roots of abolitionism in economic determinism or bourgeois humanitarianism. Brown instead connects the shift from sentiment to action to changing views of empire and nation in Britain at the time, particularly the anxieties and dislocations spurred by the American Revolution.

The debate over the political rights of the North American colonies pushed slavery to the fore, Brown argues, giving antislavery organizing the moral legitimacy in Britain it had never had before. The first emancipation schemes were dependent on efforts to strengthen the role of the imperial state in an era of weakening overseas authority. By looking at the initial public contest over slavery, Brown connects disparate strands of the British Atlantic world and brings into focus shifting developments in British identity, attitudes toward Africa, definitions of imperial mission, the rise of Anglican evangelicalism, and Quaker activism.

Demonstrating how challenges to the slave system could serve as a mark of virtue rather than evidence of eccentricity, Brown shows that the abolitionist movement derived its power from a profound yearning for moral worth in the aftermath of defeat and American independence. Thus abolitionism proved to be a cause for the abolitionists themselves as much as for enslaved Africans.


The story often has been told but never well explained. In June 1783, just months after the conclusion of the American War of Independence, the Religious Society of Friends, then ending its annual summer gathering in London, presented a petition to the House of Commons. Signed by 273 Quakers, this petition called for abolition of the British traffic in African men, women, and children. In the months that followed, a much smaller group of Friends gathered to compose and publish abolitionist texts and distribute those pamphlets across the nation. James Ramsay, an aging Anglican clergyman, seized on the opportunity in 1784 to describe in print what he had learned about colonial slavery during his twenty-five years on the British Caribbean island of Saint Kitts. Inspired by these examples, twenty-five-year-old Thomas Clarkson, then completing his studies at Saint John’s, Cambridge, came forward just two years later with a book that presented the British slave trade as a tragedy and a crime. The evident interest of William Wilberforce, the young member of Parliament for Yorkshire and a recent convert to Evangelicalism, encouraged these and other like-minded enthusiasts to launch a national campaign that would force a discussion in the House of Commons and galvanize antislavery sentiment that had circulated through British culture in recent years. This campaign, organized in the summer of 1787 under the stewardship of Granville Sharp (long a public opponent of human bondage), quickly caught fire—the preferred metaphor for observers in these months—so that by the spring of 1788 it seemed that the British public had declared, nearly in unison, that a pillar that long had sustained British wealth and power now must fall. Although the story is well known, it remains poorly understood.

The inspiration for this book lay in my confusion and frustration with this deceptively simple tale of origins. It grows out of a desire to explain the decisions to act, to make sense of the relation between cultural prescription and individual action. The British abolition movement that began in the 1780s did not follow inevitably from enlightened sensibilities, social change, or a shift in economic interests. Nor did it spring forth spontane-

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