Academic journal article Anglican and Episcopal History

British Abolitionism and the Question of Moral Progress in History

Academic journal article Anglican and Episcopal History

British Abolitionism and the Question of Moral Progress in History

Article excerpt

British Abolitionism and the Question of Moral Progress in History. Edited by Donald A. Yerxa. (Columbia, South Carolina: The University of South Carolina Press, 2012, Pp. vi, 286. $29.95.)

British Abolitionism and the Question of Moral Progress in History is an edited volume produced from the proceedings of a 2007 conference, which was field in London and sponsored by the Templeton Foundation and the Historical Society. While there are chapters by an economist and a philosopher, historians hold a clear majority among the contributors. It is also worth noting that the authorial team is entirely male, and, with few exceptions, comprised of scholars of European descent. What the collection of authors lacks in diversity, it compensates for in accomplishment and expertise. Prominent senior historians such as David Brion Davis and George Marsden, along with other leading scholars, are among the contributing authors.

The book is straightforward in structure, with an introduction and four clusters of chapters. Donald Yerxa, the volume's editor, offers a cohesive summation of the authors' collective theoretical aim in the introduction. To this end, Yerxa describes, and to a limited extent laments, historians' reluctance to apply principles from the past to contemporary issues-that is, to find a "usable past" in history. He also articulates the question that the authors were tasked with answering; they were "to consider whether in fact abolitionism provides a clear example of moral progress that could offer clues to human betterment in the twenty-first century" (4).

''British Abolitionism," the book's first section, opens with David Brion Davis's chapter, which was a plenary address at the conference. Documenting slavery's ubiquity in Western history and its economic might in the modern Atlantic world, Davis demonstrates how improbable the abolitionists' vision and subsequent victory were. Jeremy Black situates the British abolition of the slave trade and slavery among other nations' efforts on this front, and he strikes a defiant tone as he concludes with a comparison to the nineteenth-century "Islamic world," in which he does not detect a similar ideological leaning toward abolition. …

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