HIST2F90: Money & Power in the Atlantic World


This week's big question is

How did Americans and Britons, both largely liberal societies, accept the place of human bondage in their nations?

Video introduction


Learning outcomes

At the end of this week you should:

Questions to consider, and learning activity

Some questions to think about are the following:


Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me,
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now, I see.

John Newton, “Amazing Grace” (1779)

John Newton was one of the major figures in the first wave of abolitionist politics in Britain in the 1780s. His Thoughts Upon the African Slave Trade (1788) was one of the best known pieces of his days. And, as you can see above, he wrote more than political commentary. But the connection between religion and reformist politics was not unusual. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Quakers and evangelical Christians were among the most important groups not only leading the campaign to abolish slavery, but also forceful advocates for women's suffrage and the rights of workers. Newton’s story is very much one of that age. His early life was spent on merchant and naval vessels, before eventually working for some years on slaving vessels plying between West Africa and the Caribbean. The hymn is typically interpreted as a tale of Christian awakening. But given the timing and some of the details of the song it's clear that it's also about his awakening to the evils of slavery. By 1754, after years working in the trade, he was reading, training for the Anglican priesthood, and preparing for a life of devotion. If "Amazing Grace" reflects both a spiritual and political reawakening, Thoughts Upon the African Slave Trade also reflected his new thinking on humanity, but it was equally truly a religious tract – “a confession which … comes too late”. Written at the height of the first major Parliamentary debate on the slave trade in 1788, the text was in many ways a blueprint for many of the abolitionist arguments that would come.
The Atlantic slave trade, the forced relocation and sale of twelve million people, is one of the most compelling stories in human history. The abolition of the trade and eventually of slavery itself, as contested and gradual as the story was, is one of the most contentious issues in modern history. Today, few question the illegitimacy of slavery (though it certainly continues to exist in some places), and so we think of its abolition as fairly obvious: of course people should own their own selves, their own bodies, their own children. And yet it wasn’t fairly obvious, and the process making it illegal took two hundred years. Criticisms of the Atlantic slave trade began in the English-speaking world in the 17th century. In Britain, and to a lesser extent the United States, anti-slavery politics gained strength over the course of the 18th century but did not have its first major success until Britain’s abolition of the slave trade in 1807 and of slavery in 1837. In the United States, slavery was eliminated state-by-state beginning in Massachusetts in 1783, but not nationally until 1862, and not without provoking one of the biggest wars in modern history, the American Civil War of 1861-65. Brazil, the biggest slave society in the world, did not abolish slavery until 1888.

We are then faced with some basic and difficult questions. Why was it so difficult to successfully argue that human beings should not considered property? Given the success of anti-abolitionists, we also need to ask how they preserved slavery for as long as they did? What were the motivations of the trade’s supporters? What were the motivations of the abolitionists? How did they argue their case? Which of the many different arguments were effective and which weren’t? Historians have generally come down on two basic positions: one rooted in liberal humanitarianism, one rooted in a changing capitalist economy. First, they have argued that abolition was part of the broad trend in an emergent liberal-humanitarianism that fundamentally changed many aspects of life in Western society. Combining various degrees of humanitarian – often secular, more often evangelical – concern for the oppressed, and a liberal position on the natural rights of human beings, abolitionists were part of a gradual process of democratic natural rights-based reform that offered support to the poor, women, religious and racial minorities, and other disadvantaged peoples. Slavery was ended, these historians argue, because humanity was progressing, and developing sophisticated ideologies rooted in the notions of human and political rights; humans were learning to protect their fellow humans from gross exploitation. The second position argues that while the humanitarians certainly pushed abolition along, what really made the difference were changes in the British and American economies. In particular, these historians emphasize the relative decline in the importance of the colonial plantation products (sugar, coffee, cotton, tobacco), and the relative rise of domestic industrial production. This was particularly the case in the British economy where the industrial economy grew sooner, and where the plantation economy was geographically separate. As economic interests, and therefore political power shifted, the ability of the plantation economy to hold sway against the moral argument weakened. Slavery was ended, this second group of historians argues, because it was no longer the major producer of wealth. 

Few historians pose the argument as starkly as we have here. All acknowledge aspects of the other’s arguments. It’s a question of where one sees the balance. It’s also complicated by lots of contradictory evidence. Evangelical Christians, for example, were certainly leaders in the campaign for abolition, but many Christians argued that the Bible approved of slavery. And whatever one might say about trans-Atlantic trends in capitalism, the plantations of the British Caribbean and the US south were still very profitable. Of course all of this seems to ignore the slaves themselves. As we saw last week, the “Age of Revolutions” also entailed slave revolts, and a full-scale democratic revolution in Haiti. The fear of violent slave revolt gripped most slaveholders. Many anti-abolitionist writers also argued that social unrest would surely emerge after emancipation. ​As William Lloyd Garrison observed, the memory of harsh treatment would not easily be forgotten. And while slave-owners and propagandists protested that their treatment of slaves was kind, they knew very well that violence begets violence, and thus the prospect of violent reprisals were very real possibilities. Squaring all these circles is hard, and we won’t solve that debate here in this course! But we can look at some of the arguments, and some of the evidence, in an attempt to understand the basic issues. 

Our primary texts this week cover an incredible range of perspectives. Two hundred years later, we might imagine the debate over slavery and abolition as a simple either/or proposition. To the extent that people simply believed it was legitimate or not, it was a binary debate.  But it was also much more complex. Once, in the West, told as a heroic tale of white crusaders liberating the poor helpless black victims of a cruel legal institution, we can now see that there were many strands to the debate, and many dimensions to their positions. Some defenders emphasized that slavery was necessary to the economic well-being of western economies; others argued that slavery was a social good, elevating non-Christian peoples from a state of barbarism and guiding them (slowly!) toward Christian civilization. Some abolitionists demanded the immediate end to an inhuman practice; others advocated for gradual amelioration. Among African-Americans, perspectives were  highly varied. As we saw two weeks ago, Jupiter Hammon urged his fellow slaves to accept their suffering as Christian penance; some of the free blacks of Haiti imagined a slave-free future, but just as many knew that slavery secured their own futures. Some African Americans imagined free blacks as agents in Christianizing Africa; others saw white "civilization" as inherently evil. Some urged violent resistance, others Christian forbearance. What today seems simple and obvious, was in fact complex and fraught.

Primary sources

Secondary sources

Supplemental material

For Britons, slavery is a single moment in a longer history, a very embarrassing one but still one. For Jamaicans and citizens of the other former slave colonies – the sugar islands – it is the reason for their nations’ existence, and its legacy is everywhere. In 2015, David Cameron visited Jamaica:
On slavery’s Scottish legacy:
Liam Hogan, blogpost on “Slavery and Moral Relativism”:

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