Academic journal article Journal of the Early Republic

The Root of the Evil: Free Produce and Radical Antislavery, 1820-1860

Academic journal article Journal of the Early Republic

The Root of the Evil: Free Produce and Radical Antislavery, 1820-1860

Article excerpt

These two poems bear witness to an important, but largely forgotten, strain of trans -Atlantic abolitionism. Between the rise of antislavery sentiment in the eighteenth century and the abolition of involuntary servitude in the United States during the 1860s, thousands of activists struggled to deliver themselves, their families, and their neighbors from the immoral products of slave labor, such as sugar and cotton. Advocates of "free produce" touted the superiority of free over slave labor, creating businesses and associations that offered producers and consumers economic alternatives to slavery. Appealing to religious notions of purity, they urged Americans to construct a moral economy through individual abstinence. Though often ignored by historians, these reformers actually preceded William Lloyd Garrison in calling for immediate emancipation. Moreover, as abolitionists like Garrison rejected "free produce," many female and black activists continued to support the cause. Emphasizing the power of individual morality, antislavery women viewed free produce as a reaffirmation of their ideological opposition to slavery. African American abolitionists increasingly promoted a boycott as a practical response to slavery, asserting their independence from the American Anti-Slavery Society. Despite these varied motivations, free produce remained a mark of radical commitment to abolition and racial equality through the Civil War.

Historical neglect flows from the hostility of many abolitionists themselves. Lucretia Mott's granddaughter, Anna Davis Hallowell, called candy made from free sugar an "abomination." In an article titled "Free Produce among the Quakers" published in 1868, Wendell Phillips Garrison, son of the abolitionist leader, mocked advocates of free produce as inconsistent and irrelevant "sentimentalists," whose only value lay in "the conspicuousness of their testimony against slavery." Garrison proudly recalled that his family would attend a lecture on free produce, then return home to eat slave-produced sugar. The movement's lone historian, Ruth Ketring Nuermberger, describes free produce as an idea "not compelling enough to attract outsiders." She concludes, "Whether it is viewed as just another crackbrained scheme or as the sincere effort of earnest people, it could scarcely be called a success."2

The movement's marginality can be attributed in part to its perceived association with the Society of Friends. Wendell Garrison was both amused and annoyed by the obsessive devotion of Quaker adherents. He derided the traveling minister John Woolman, an early abstainer, for his "morbidly sensitive conscience." Garrison noted the inevitable hypocrisy of Quaker reformer Elias Hicks, who printed his free-produce tracts on paper made from cotton. Nuermberger similarly portrays free produce as a "Quaker protest," oversimplifying the movement's appeal.3

From its origins in the British abolition campaign in the early 1790s, when hundreds of thousands of ordinary citizens boycotted sugar, the free-produce movement was never solely a Quaker undertaking. While the Hicksite schism in the Society of Friends provided much of the initial impetus for the American free-produce movement, prominent supporters included non-Friends Henry Ward Beecher, David Lee Child, Frederick Douglass, Henry Highland Garnet, Mary Grew and her father Henry, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, J. Miller McKim, Gerrit Smith, Calvin and Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Samuel Ringgold Ward.4

Far from being marginal, the American abstinence campaign is essential to understanding the rise and decline of Garrisonian antislavery. Free produce helped provoke the first calls for immediate abolition by forcing reformers to confront the profound connection between northern consumers and slaves. In the 1830s, free produce offered abolitionists a concrete way to attack slavery. As the antislavery movement split after 1840, female and African American activists continued to view abstinence as a test of radicalism. …

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