Déjà Vu All Over Again: Grass Roots Organizing And the Abolition of the Slave Trade

The first popular political movement to use the techniques of what we call grass roots organizing was the movement to abolish the slave trade in the eighteenth century.

The Society of Friends, also known as the Quakers, were the first group to take a public stand against slavery and the slave trade, even though Quakers were prominent slave traders in the seventeenth century and American Quakers had owned slaves since the founding of Pennsylvania in 1681. By the 1770s, the Quaker church took the position that all slaves should be freed. In fact, some congregations excommunicated Quakers who continued to own slaves.

The Quakers found natural allies for their campaign to abolish slavery in a group of wealthy businessmen, derisively known by their contemporaries as the Saints, and later called the Clapham Sect. The members of the Clapham Sect were evangelical Christians, whose beliefs emphasized personal salvation and a commitment to principles of individual and social responsibility, which they called “practical humanity” .

The Quakers and their allies were opposed by powerful economic interests. The owners of West Indian sugar plantations–some of the wealthiest men in Britain–were only the most obvious opponents. The slave trade was a key part of Britain’s extensive maritime trade industry in the eighteenth century: one-third to one-half of the ships that sailed out of Liverpool were related to the slave trade in one form or another. It provided work for ship owners and builders, sail and rope makers, customs officials, dock laborers and seaman, chandlers, and nautical-instrument makers. The growth of shipping and the slave trade contributed to Britain’s overall prosperity. The shipping trade also contributed to the growth of new business institutions, such as banks and marine and fire insurance. Many businessmen reinvested profits from the slave trade, and other imperial ventures, not only in more slave voyages but in agricultural improvements, canals, textile factories, and other forms of manufacturing. The slave trade reached beyond British ports. In the rural areas surrounding each slave port, manufacturers, merchants and farmers benefited by providing trade goods and supplies for outgoing slave ships.

Faced with a pro-slavery lobby of interests from all levels of society, anti-slave trade activists had to find ways to educate people about the evils of the slave trade and to put pressure on those with the power to change the law. They developed political tactics that we take for granted today.

They organized local action groups, building on the existing network of Quaker meeting houses. They collected and published information condemning the slave trade, including a bestselling first-hand account by former slave Olaudah Equiano.** They organized boycotts against products created using slave labor, particularly sugar, which had made the leap from a luxury to a necessity.** They bribed the doorkeepers of both houses of Parliament to give their pamphlets to every member.*** They visited elite schools to talk to future members of Parliament (including the sons of wealthy West Indian plantation owners) about the evils of slavery. Activists went door to door to canvas support for the cause. (One woman visited 3000 homes during a sugar boycott to explain the issue to individuals.) They even created the nineteenth century equivalent of a t-shirt: the image of an African man in chains with the slogan “Am I not a Man and a Brother?” appeared on personal seals, cufflinks and other jewelry, snuffboxes, tea sets, and even a cameo produced by luxury potter Josiah Wedgewood.

The first bill to abolish before the slave trade came before Parliament in 1789. The bill was postponed for further review. It finally came to a vote two years later,*** after parliamentary hearings on the slave trade produced 1700 pages of eyewitness accounts and other testimony before the House of Commons. The timing was bad. News arrived that a violent slave revolt had broken out on the British island of Dominica in the Caribbean. The pro-slavery advocates blamed the revolt on the abolitionists and argued that ending the slave trade would damage the British economy, which was already suffering from the war with France, Many members of Parliament opposed a bill they feared would encourage more slave revolts. The motion was defeated.

In response to the bill’s failure, abolitionist force sought to broaden their base of popular support with a flood of books, pamphlets and public speeches denouncing the sale of human beings. They focused on winning over Anglican ministers, who then preached to their congregations about the evils of the slave trade. When Wilberforce proposed a new bill for abolishing the slave trade in 1792, it was supported by petitions signed by hundreds of thousands of British subjects. The debate lasted all night. To the disappointment of Wilberforce and his supporters, the House of Commons passed a compromise measure that called for the gradual abolition of slavery. The bill was subsequently killed in the House of Lords.

It would be another fifteen years before Parliament passed a law abolishing the slave trade in British territories and making it illegal to carry slaves in British ships. During that time, the Quakers and the Clapham Sect worked on, winning over one member of Parliament at a time. That’s the way you change the world.

*The pro-slavery lobby produced witnesses who testified that life on a plantation as a slave was better for than life as a freeman in Africa. Can you say “alternative facts”?

**In 1700, the average Englishman ate four pounds of American-grown sugar a year. By 1900, that amount had increased to 100 pounds.

***Not recommended as a political tactic today.

****Yes, you read that correctly. Two years later. Holding up a bill in committee is not a new tactic.

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