“How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?”
Dr. Samuel Johnson
“Il est surprenant de voir des hommes vendre leur liberté, leur vie, leurs concitoyens aussi tout étourdiment que font ces malheureux noirs. Passion! Ignorance que de morts vous faites au genre humain.”
Voltaire, Essai sur les moeurs, ch. 197
IN 1752, a prince known as William Ansah Sessaracoa, from Anamabo, on the Gold Coast, returned home to Africa after a stay in England. Visits of that kind had been made before, but no previous African had been so successful in English society. The expedition had arisen because the prince’s father, John Corrantee, had entrusted his son and a friend to a Liverpool slave captain to go to England to learn manners. The captain treacherously sold these African noblemen as slaves. The captain died and the officers on the slave ship informed the authorities in Jamaica what had happened. The prince and his companion were then taken to England and were looked after by the earl of Halifax, then president of the Board of Trade and Plantations.I They were educated, were introduced to the king and, according to the peerless letter-writer Horace Walpole, became the “fashion at all the assemblies.”1 They even went to the presentation of one of the many theatrical versions of Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko, at Covent Garden: “The dialogue between Oroonoko and Imoinda so affected the Prince that he had to retire weeping . . .” Walpole reported. The visit underpinned the existing disposition of humanitarians to romanticize the “noble negro,” the prince unjustly enslaved—forgetting the humbly born slaves whose sufferings were as many and as great.
By this time, the combination of popular poetry and of journalism was beginning to have its effect on cultivated imaginations in England and in North America on the subject of slavery. Several authors were critical of the institution in the periodical press in the mid-eighteenth century. The existence of that press was the main reason for the circulation of these ideas, which soon began to be taken up in elected assemblies. The fourth estate began to discuss the matter of slavery before the other three did. The relative freedom of expression in Britain explains why, despite the imaginative force with which French philosophers wrote, “abolitionism” prospered first in the Anglo-Saxon countries (though under Louis XV and Louis XVI criticism of the slave trade was not as a rule itself censored, any criticism of the Church or the established order of things in France risked persecution). The ease with which correspondence could be carried on in North America and Britain was another important explanation for the rise of the movement.
Thus, in 1738, the English Weekly Miscellany published an article which declared that, if Africans were to seize people from the coast of England, one could easily imagine the screams of “unjust” which would be heard. In July 1740, the Gentleman’s Magazineincluded a letter by a certain “Mercatus Honestus,” addressed to “the Guinea merchants” of Bristol and Liverpool. It declared that men were born with a natural right to liberty; that they could only forfeit that by taking away the property of another; that the loss of liberty by a parent was no reason that a child should be enslaved; that the merchants in Guinea dealt with men, women, and children; that they stimulated war among Africans; that the blacks in Africa were more virtuous there, at home, than after they had been brought to America; and that the treatment of the Africans in the West Indies was shocking. The cheerfulness which the slaves showed in dying, the letter continued, proceeded not from ignorance but from “a natural nobleness of soul.” The writer suggested that some who carried on the trade—“among whom there are no doubt wise and good men,” he added with a good dose of English hypocrisy—should give their reason for it.2
A reply appeared in the London Magazine. The inhabitants of Guinea, the writer argued, “are in the most deplorable state of slavery under the arbitrary powers of their princes both as to life and property. In the several subordinations to them, every great man is absolute lord of his immediate dependents. And lower still; every master of a family is proprietor of his wives, children and servants, and may consign them to death or a better market. . . . Such a state is contrary to nature and reason, since every human creature hath an absolute right to liberty . . . yet it is not in our power to cure the universal evil and set all the kingdoms of the world free from the domination of tyrants. . . . All that can be done in such a case is to communicate as much liberty and happiness as such circumstances will admit, and the people will consent to: and this is certainly by the Guinea trade. For by purchasing, or rather ransoming, the negroes from their national tyrants, and transplanting them under the benign influences of the law and Gospel, they are advanced to much greater degrees of felicity, tho’ not to absolute liberty. . . .”3
There was a further rejoinder in the December issue of the Gentleman’s Magazine. Thomas Astley, who had edited a famous collection of voyages in 1745, wrote, in relation to Captain Snelgrave’s argument,II that, if the Africans benefited from slavery in the Americas, then they themselves should be asked to make the decision as to whether to go there. But as yet there was no public controversy on a large scale, for, though influential, the Gentleman’s Magazine had a tiny circulation, as did the London Magazine. No parliamentarian as yet touched the issue.
In 1750, as has been explained,III and despite some forceful statements by certain Georgians about the iniquities of the institution, the trustees of the colony decided to allow slavery and the slave trade after all. Many prudent people at home in England were pleased at that decision, though others were critical, Horace Walpole among them. “We, the temple of liberty, and bulwark of Protestant Christianity,” he wrote to his favorite correspondent, Sir Horace Mann, the British envoy in Florence, “have this fortnight been [in Parliament] pondering methods to make more effectual that horrid traffic of selling negroes. It has appeared to us that six and forty thousand of these wretches are sold [annually] in the English colonies alone. It chills one’s blood.”4
Walpole’s comments show what an educated Englishman of the mid-eighteenth century was beginning to think. They suggest, if not opposition to the trade, a clear sign that the morality of the matter, that “morally speaking,” in the words of Captain Pery earlier in the century, was now discussable. The same implication might well have been drawn from a British naval report of 1750, which insisted that government money would be well spent in sending out good instructors to the forts of the Gold Coast, “for the Africans are very tractable to learn trades.”
The issue of the legality of freedom was thus already on the agenda, so to speak, of English public opinion: and in 1755, Professor Francis Hutcheson’s A System of Moral Philosophy was published. The author, an Irish Protestant who had become professor of philosophy at Glasgow, had actually died some years before. His main interest was the definition of happiness; and it was he who coined the phrase made famous by Bentham concerning the desirability of ensuring the “greatest happiness of the greatest numbers.” The originality of his work with regard to slavery lay in his conclusion that “all men [without exception] have strong desires of liberty and property,” and that “no damage done or crime committed can change a rational creature into a piece of goods void of all right.”5, IV Four years later, another professor at Glasgow, Adam Smith who, when young, had been to Hutcheson’s well-delivered lectures, wrote, in his The Theory of Moral Sentiments, “There is not a negro from the coast of Africa who does not . . . possess a degree of magnanimity which the soul of his sordid master is scarce capable of conceiving.” Many of Smith’s pupils at Glasgow, like Hutcheson’s, absorbed these views.6
But the arguments were not always so straightforward. Five years later still, the Gentleman’s Magazine published an article complaining that Africans in the neighborhood of London “cease to consider themselves as slaves . . . and no more willingly perform the laborious offices of servitude than our own people.”7 Late-eighteenth-century London had, after all, many “Saint Giles’ blackbirds”—from the region near Saint Giles’ Church. When the Gentleman’s Magazine said that slaves could not breathe in Britain, it implied that they, and all blacks, should be required to leave.
Other Scottish intellectuals took up the matter. One of them was George Wallace, a lawyer who published his System of the Principles of the Laws of Scotland in 1761. He was influenced by Montesquieu, as he admitted, and he was almost paraphrasing L’Esprit des lois when he wrote, “An institution so unnatural and so inhuman as that of slavery ought to be abolished.”8 Another Scotsman of considerable influence was Adam Ferguson, professor of philosophy at Edinburgh. In his Institutes of Moral Philosophy, based on his lecture notes and published in 1769, he argued that “no one is born a slave; because everyone is born with all his original rights. [Further], no one can become a slave; because no one, from being a person, can, in the language of the Roman law, become a thing, or subject of property. The supposed property of the master in the slave, therefore, is a matter of usurpation, not of right.”9, V
What Wallace did for Montesquieu in Scotland, Sir William Blackstone did in England. That judge’s Commentaries on the Laws of England, published in Oxford between 1765 and 1769, stated the case against slavery more directly than Montesquieu had done.VIThus he derided the three causes of slavery named in Justinian’s Code of Laws—slavery following on defeat in war, by selling oneself, and by being born a slave. He declared, too, that the law of England “abhors and will not endure the state of slavery within this nation,” and went on to insist that “a slave or a negro, the moment he lands in England, falls under the protection of the laws and, with regard to all natural rights, becomes, eo instanti, a freeman.”10 The effect of this firm statement was, however, much weakened by the qualification in the second edition of the book that, even so, “the master’s right to his service may probably still continue”; and “probably” was itself altered to “possibly” in the fourth edition, published in 1770.11 These changes were almost certainly due to the influence of Blackstone’s friend and benefactor Lord Mansfield, at the time chief justice of England, a tolerant but cautious man. (Mansfield himself had in his household a mulatto girl, Dido, daughter of his nephew, Rear Admiral Sir John Lindsay, by a slave mother, whom he had captured in a Spanish vessel during the siege of Havana.)
Blackstone’s fluent work had immediate success. His remarks about slavery probably influenced Isaac Bickerstaffe when he wrote his immensely successful play The Padlock, performed in 1768. A song, sung by Mungo, a slave, includes the verse:
Dear heart, what a terrible life am I led,
A dog has a better, that’s shelter’d and fed,
Night and day ’tis de same,
My pain is dere game.12
In the same mood, in 1766, Horace Walpole wrote his “Account of the Giants Lately Discovered,” which mocked the slave trade by suggesting that a newly discovered tribe of Patagonian giants should be enslaved and used in the sugar trade, bearing in mind the experience of planters in North America that a slave could be worked to death after four years, because by then he would have earned his purchase price.13
Perhaps more important, though, in the late 1760s was the clear sign that the Quakers, who had already pronounced against their members’ participation in the slave trade, were beginning to carry the argument about slavery beyond their own movement. Friends still traded slaves, and certainly still owned them. But Anthony Benezet, a “worthy old Quaker” as Granville Sharp called him, from Philadelphia (if born in Saint-Quentin in France, and briefly educated in England), was talking to the world beyond Friends’ House, and to England as well as to North America, when, between 1759 and 1771, he wrote a series of works such as A Caution and Warning to Great Britain and Her Colonies and then Some Historical Account of Guinea. These and other studies were remarkable for their use of material taken from far outside the normal range of Quaker reading. For example, the first cited Montesquieu, Wallace, and Hutcheson; it also used numerous firsthand accounts of trading slaves in Africa, including those of Bosman, Barbot, and Brüe. Benezet, a tiny ugly man with no presence, was also influenced by his reading of Wallace’s work. He was affected too by the determination and dedication of John Woolman. Benezet had begun to work on the question of the slave trade in the 1750s, and the decisions of the Quakers in Philadelphia owed a good deal to his persuasion. The quiet persistence of these two men led Quakers to form “little associations in the middle provinces of North America, to discourage the introduction of slaves among people in their own neighbourhoods”: including people who were not members of their Society. Perhaps the energies of these two men were specially fired by the knowledge that, in the late 1750s and the 1760s, the import of slaves into Philadelphia was higher than it had ever been; or perhaps the wide experience of Benezet, himself from a persecuted minority, was the prime cause of the ignition of his exertions.VII
A retired teacher when, only in 1766, he began his work of agitation, Benezet had as a young man been in business in Philadelphia, though not the slave business. In the second edition of A Caution and Warning, published in 1767, he quoted (and took as his theme thereafter) a West Indian visitor’s comment that “it is a matter of astonishment how a people [the English] who, as a nation are looked upon as generous and humane, . . . can live in the practice of such extreme oppression and inhumanity without seeing the inconsistency of such conduct.”14
Benezet did, it is true, argue, falsely, that the troubles of Africa all derived from the Atlantic slave trade. But, as Las Casas knew, and many others have realized since, exaggeration is the essence of successful propaganda. Benezet embarked upon a campaign of converting fellow Quakers to his way of thinking, largely by correspondence. Nor did he confine his letters to Quakers; for he wrote to Edmund Burke and the archbishop of Canterbury, as to John Wesley.
Dr. Benjamin Rush—a Presbyterian, not a Quaker—on Benezet’s encouragement wrote some admirable and still-readable pamphlets in the 1770s, and helped to form, in Philadelphia, the first society devoted to abolition.
In the history of abolition, Benezet, like Aphra Behn and the half-forgotten Tomás de Mercado, should have a place of honor. He was not only a link between the writings of the moral philosophers, such as Montesquieu and the Quakers, but also one between America and Britain; and indeed the Anglo-Saxons and the French.
Still, for the moment, the thrust of the humane influences in England was legal, not religious; and it is in the context of someone who had read Blackstone, not Benezet, that the case of the slave Somerset, heard in 1771 before Lord Mansfield, should be considered. The judgment determined unsensationally, it is true, that there could be no slaves in England. Though the case had nothing directly to do with the slave trade, and though the significance of it has been dismissed by some modern historians as sentimental, the occasion was, all the same, a turning point in the history both of the traffic and of the institution.
The story is well known, so need only be summarized. The case was initiated by Granville Sharp, then a junior clerk in the Ordnance Office, who came from a family of successful Anglican clergymen. Grandson of an archbishop of York, Sharp is a good example of those patient English philanthropists whose capacity for dull, hard, meticulous and above all effective work is so striking an aspect of English public life.
Sharp had in 1765 befriended a slave, Jonathan Strong, in the streets of London. He had been badly wounded by his master, David Lisle of Barbados. Sharp and his brother William, a surgeon, helped to restore Strong to health, and he went to work for an apothecary. But then he was accidentally seen by Lisle who, without physically repossessing him, sold him to a planter in Jamaica, on the understanding that the price of £30 would not be paid till Strong was on a ship ready to sail to Kingston. Two slave hunters captured Strong and took him to a private prison, the Poultry Compter. Sharp secured Strong’s release on the ground that he had been confined without warrant. The Jamaican planter who had bought Strong then sued Sharp, while Lisle challenged him to a duel. Sharp was left to his own devices. This obliged him to investigate the law of slavery. He was disturbed to find that English law did not really deal with the matter.
In the days of Queen Elizabeth, a certain Cartwright had brought back from Russia a slave, who was declared free, on the ground that “England was too pure an air for slaves to breathe in”—a view which was remembered in 1772 by one of the lawyers, Serjeant Davy, during discussion of the case of Somerset. But that judgment may have been spurious, and certainly black slaves were to be seen in Elizabethan and Jacobean London. It was true that, in 1672, Edward Chamberlayne had written, in The Present State of England, “Foreign slaves in England are none since Christianity prevailed. A foreign slave brought into England is, upon landing, ipso facto free from slavery but not from ordinary service.” That work was, however, a copy of a similarly titled book about France, where the same statement, similarly false, was made.
There were several late-seventeenth-century judgments on the matter, inspired by the increase in the slave trade. The Court of King’s Bench and the Court of Common Pleas both found that slaves could be reclaimed in England. But, in the case of Smith v.Brown and Cooper, in 1706, the Chief Justice Sir John Holt apparently determined that “one may be a villein in England, but not a slave”; and even “as soon as a negro comes into England, he becomes free.” But Holt’s judgment received little attention, and one of those who sat with him, Mr. Justice Powell, thought, on the contrary, that “the laws of England take no notice of a negro.” The judgment was anyway, as it seemed, reversed in 1729, when Sir Robert Walpole’s attorney-general and solicitor-general, Sir Philip Yorke and Mr. Charles Talbot (a patron of the poet Thomson), gave it as their opinion, in reply to a deputation of West Indian planters, that a slave in England was not automatically free, nor did baptism “bestow freedom on him, nor make any alteration in his temporal condition in these kingdoms.” A master could also legally compel “a slave to return to the plantations.” These were decisions which Yorke confirmed twenty years later in a judgment, when lord chancellor (and Lord Hardwicke), in the case of Pearnev. Lisle.
Yorke had the reputation of being one of the hardest men ever to become lord chancellor, as his conduct in relation to the execution of the Jacobite peers showed, as also in the case of Admiral Byng.VIII But Talbot was known as a man of wit and charm. Their decisions are difficult to explain. It also became evident that even baptism did not make a man free, as had come to be assumed (by, for example, the slave Olaudah Equiano who in 1761, two years after being christened, was sold at Gravesend and then spirited away by Captain James Doran on his vessel, the Charming Sally.
So there seemed in England in the 1760s no clear law on the matter: one judge had said one thing, another another. There was no Code Noir as there was in France, explaining the way that slaves were to be treated. The opinion of Yorke was, however, so well known that it was spoken of as if it had been a judgment. In 1788, an inquiry in the House of Commons into the condition of slavery in Barbados led to the following declaration being made: “The general power which a master exercises . . . over his slaves is rather by implication (from slaves being bought as chattels in the same way as horses or other beasts) than by any positive law defining what the power of a master shall be in this island.” In practice, therefore, the law of a master over a slave was “unlimited.” The further question “What is the protection granted by the law to slaves in Barbados?” received the answer “Effectually none.”15
That lack of “positive law” about slavery seemed to obtain in England too. The matter was important, for all the black slaves in London might sue if they thought that they were free. Some people of African origins were free: Francis Barber, for example, Dr. Johnson’s servant, was so, having been emancipated by his previous owner, Colonel Bathurst; a black valet in the service of Sir Joshua Reynolds was also free. Some were, however, not free. Had not King William III, of “glorious memory,” owned a favorite black slave whose bust was still to be seen at Hampton Court? Slaves as such were often put up for public sale in Bristol or Liverpool. There was some ambiguity about the legal status of the black domestics in the homes of returning West Indian planters, such as the Halletts of Stedcombe, a property outside the minor slaving port of Lyme Regis. But when John Hallett had died in 1699 and gave freedom to “my boy Virgil” on his deathbed, he presumably believed that he was granting something real.
Most black slaves then in England had been brought back by sea captains. But, whatever their status, there had been a constant increase of them to England in the early eighteenth century, and many were rented out by their masters to shipowners, or even slave captains, as casual labor.
Granville Sharp acted as if the judgments of Attorney-General Yorke had no authority. He based his arguments on the Habeas Corpus Act of 1679, and insisted that a master only had rights in a slave if he could prove that the captive in question had in writingwillingly “bound himself, without compulsion or illegal duress.” Whatever might be the custom in the colonies, in England, he argued, an African slave immediately became entitled to the king’s protection.
Sharp’s arguments made headway, and his opponents in the case of Jonathan Strong did not press their suit. His success, and his subsequent pamphlet, A Representation of the Injustice and Dangerous Tendency of Tolerating Slavery in England, published in 1769, made him a natural recipient of other complaints by blacks in England who were either kidnapped or threatened with kidnapping.16 Sharp put this matter further to the test in the case of the slave Thomas Lewis who, belonging to a West Indian planter, escaped in Chelsea. When he was recaptured, and shipped to begin the journey to Jamaica, Sharp served the captain on his boat with a writ of habeas corpus. The case came before Lord Chief Justice Mansfield, who put to the jury the question whether the master had established his claim to the slave as his property. If they decided affirmatively, he would rule whether such a property could persist in England. The jury decided that the master had not established his claim. So the main question was left unsettled. Lord Mansfield said, rather curiously, that he hoped that the question whether slaves could be forcibly shipped back to the plantations would never be discussed.
In 1772, Sharp acted similarly, as indicated above, on behalf of the slave James Somerset, who had been brought from Jamaica to England by his master, Charles Stewart of Boston, in 1769. He escaped in 1771, was recaptured, and was then put on board the Ann and Mary, whose captain was John Knowles, bound for Jamaica, where he was to be sold. On this occasion, there could be no doubt about the master’s right to the slave. But Sharp succeeded in arranging the transfer of the case to the Court of King’s Bench. There, after a long trial which spread over several months, in which the fundamental questions were well put by defending counsel, Lord Mansfield decided that there was no legal definition as to whether there could, or could not be, slaves in England. He was not the most convincing of friends of liberty, since he evidently wished to avoid pronouncing on the fundamental question; to begin with, he urged a settlement out of court, and even suggested that Parliament might introduce a law to secure property in slaves. When none of these things availed, after further procrastination, Mansfield decided the case on the simple ground that slavery was so “odious” that nothing could be suffered to support it even if positive law about the matter did not exist. Somerset therefore was freed. Mansfield, as he himself said in 1779, “went no further than to determine that the master had no right to compel the slave to go into a foreign country.”17 He did not make a general declaration of slave emancipation in England. Blacks continued to be kidnapped in Britain and taken back to Jamaica or elsewhere if their masters could so arrange it.
Admittedly, the agent of the North American colonies in LondonIX taunted the English for freeing old slaves in England while continuing to make new ones on the African coast. Yet the new judgment affected public opinion. Provincial newspapers, including even the Liverpool General Gazette, carried good accounts of the case.
After the “Mansfield judgment,” there was, of course, general celebration among the many blacks present in the Court of King’s Bench, which was then in Westminster Hall. But little changed in the Caribbean, or in Africa. A young sugar planter who went out to Nevis or Jamaica in the late 1770s would have written much as John Pinney did ten years before, when, after his first visit to a market where slaves were being sold, “I can assure you I was shock’d at the first appearance of human flesh exposed to sale. But surely God ordained ’em for the use and benefit of us. Otherwise, his Divine Will would have made itself manifest by some particular sign or token.”18
The case of Somerset had, all the same, the consequence of putting Granville Sharp and Anthony Benezet in touch with each other, and they now embarked upon correspondence. The latter came to London in 1773 and argued publicly that, if the trade in slaves could be abolished, “I trust the sufferings of those already amongst us . . . would be mitigated.”19 The visit of Benezet to London, as also that of John Woolman (he would die of smallpox in York after addressing the Quakers there), testified to the growing transatlantic dimension of the opposition—a thing made easy by the English origins of several of the leading North American Quakers. In 1774, William Dillwyn, a pupil and amanuensis of Benezet, also came from North America with the declared aim of helping the English Quakers to organize their movement in favor of abolition. The same year, inspired by letters from Benezet (indeed, he used Benezet’s words in extenso), John Wesley published his Thoughts upon Slavery. Influenced by his own memories of Georgia, where he had lived forty years before, as by conversations with the German Moravians there, he castigated the slave trade. He also eulogized the Africans. They seemed to him capable of a sensibility which the captains of slave ships could not approach. He asked those captains rhetorically: “Do you never feel another’s pain? Have you no sympathy? . . . No pity for the miserable? When you saw the flowing eyes, the heaving breasts, or the bleeding sides or tortured limbs of your fellow beings, were you a stone or a brute . . . ?” In America—Georgia, no doubt he meant—one saw “mothers hanging over their daughters, bedewing their naked breasts with tears and daughters clinging to their parents till the whipper soon obliges them to part.” Was that not a proof of Africans’ humanity? Wesley said that it would be better for the West Indies to be sunk “in the depth of the sea, than that they should be cultivated, at so high a price.”20
Where Wesley, as the great Methodist, struck a new note was his prediction that the time for repentance would soon come for England, whose worst crime, he insisted, was its indulgence in the slave trade. Given the appeal of Methodism, which already extended much farther than that of the Quakers, and the attention which anything written by Wesley received, this pamphlet constituted the most serious onslaught on slavery, as well as the trade, that had yet been made.
Dr. Johnson had been keenly interested in the growing controversy. He dictated to Boswell a note on the matter: “It is impossible not to conceive that men in their original state were equal. A man may accept life from a conquering enemy on condition of perpetual servitude; but it is very doubtful whether he can entail that servitude on his descendants. . . . The sum of the argument is . . . [that] no man is by nature the property of another. [So] the defendant is by nature free. The rights of nature must be seen [to be] . . . forfeited before they can be justly taken away. . . . That the defendant has by any act forfeited the rights of nature we require to be proved.”21
Boswell spoke, however, for what was still conventional opinion when he commented that he entered his “most solemn protest against [Johnson’s] general doctrine with respect to the slave trade. For . . . his unfavourable notion of it was owing to prejudice, and to imperfect or false information. . . . To abolish a status which in all ages God has sanctioned . . . would not only be robbery to an innumerable class of our fellow subjects, but it would be extreme cruelty to the African savages, a portion of which it saves from massacre or intolerable bondage in their own country; and introduces into a much happier state of life. . . . To abolish this trade would be,” he added with a surrealistic extravagance, “to shut the gates of mercy on mankind.”22
Still, Johnson had always opposed slavery, and once, when he was with “some very grave men at Oxford,” his toast had been, “Here’s to the next insurrection of the negroes in the West Indies.” Boswell professed himself shocked. Johnson’s “violent prejudice against our West Indian and American settlers,” wrote Boswell, “appeared whenever there was an opportunity.” Towards the end of the doctor’s Taxation No Tyranny, he wrote, “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty [in the American colonies, from the British] among the drivers of negroes?” In conversation with John Wilkes, he once mockingly asked, “Where did Beckford [lord mayor of London] and Trecothick learn English?” Both were from famous West Indian as well as West Country families.23
A different but even more effective criticism appeared in Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, published in 1776. Though, curiously enough, that work did not mention the trade in slaves at all, Smith recognized that the discovery of America was one of the two greatest events in history (the other was the discovery of the route to India), and he did speak of slavery. Following his Theory of Moral Sentiments of seventeen years before, Smith argued that the institution was just one more artificial restraint on individual self-interest. If a man had no hope of gaining property, Smith thought, he would obviously work badly, for “it appears . . . from the experience of all ages and nations . . . that the work done by freemen comes cheaper in the end than that performed by slaves.” That sentence was immensely influential, but it was even less sustainable than Smith’s curious contention that Irish girls had good complexions because they ate potatoes.24
In 1775, prompted by Quakers, a commission of the House of Commons was appointed to take evidence on the slave trade. After it had done so, in 1776, David Hartley, member of Parliament for Hull, son of a doctor who, like Pope, had written an Essay on Man, introduced a debate on the theme “that the slave trade is contrary to the laws of God and the rights of men.” He was seconded by a philanthropist, Sir George Savile. The subject was thus clearly put on the political agenda in England, though Hartley was an inappropriate standard-bearer for a great cause: a dull, self-opinionated, vain, charmless, and naïve bore, it was he who inspired the comment, “No one can have a complete idea of a bore who has not been in Parliament.”25
On the other side of the Atlantic, the American Revolution delayed a full debate on the matter. That upheaval, of course, began as a tax rebellion: a revolt against paying taxes imposed by a distant, unrepresentative legislature. It was unrelated to the matter of slavery. After all, there were still fewer slaves in the mainland British colonies than in the “islands”: only 22 percent of the population of the thirteen colonies in 1770, whereas, in “the islands,” the percentage was over 90. About 80 percent of the slaves in the mainland colonies, too, had been born in America. In contradistinction to the rest of the Americas, natural increase seemed already, in the mainland colonies, the determining element in the size of the slave population.
Still, from the point of view of the abolitionist Quakers, the language used by the rebels against the Crown had an uneasy ring. In December 1771, the weekly Boston Gazette published a letter “from an American” to King George III. This included an attack on the doctrine that the acts of the British Parliament could bind North Americans; “to say the contrary is to say that we are slaves, for the essence of liberty is to be subject only to laws made by ourselves; and, being subject to laws made by other people, is the essence of slavery.” This surely dangerous language was repeated incessantly: “the endless and numberless curses of slavery”; “my sons scorn to be slaves”; the “British plan of slavery”; “abject slaves as France and Poland can shew in wooden shoes”; or “to receive them is worse than death—it is SLAVERY!” These comments by such contemporary leaders as Joseph Warren of Massachusetts, or John Dickinson of Delaware, were an interesting reminder, as Dr. Johnson realized, of how men could use metaphors without reflection: especially since Dickinson came from a family concerned in slaving, and his father-in-law, Isaac Norris, was concerned in the trade, too.
The rebellion began with a decision by the so-called Association, a union of the colonies, to end commercial intercourse with the mother country. Since the slave trade was an important part of that, it was one of the first branches of business to come to an end. This was a move opposed by the merchants of Liverpool and Bristol, sustained by the president of the Board of Trade in London, the earl of Dartmouth, who said, “We cannot allow the colonists to check or discourage in any degree a traffic so beneficial to the nation.”26, X
After several declarations by the assemblies of individual colonies, the Continental Congress in October 1774 resolved that no more slaves should be introduced into the United States after December 1 of that year, and trade with other nations engaged in the traffic would be prohibited. But this statement was swiftly forgotten and—except in Georgia, whose leaders were so naïve as to suppose that it would be acted upon—it was indeed hardly commented upon.
The events in Massachusetts were interesting. There, before the war, the Assembly had made two attempts to stop the import of slaves, on the usual ground that to have too many might risk a black rebellion. But the idea was thwarted by the governor, General Thomas Gage. The colony, or commonwealth, therefore, entered the War of Independence with no law limiting the trade. Then, on September 13, 1776, a resolution was introduced into the new House of Representatives there which declared—in a direct echo of the French philosophes—that the “selling and enslaving of the human species is a direct violation of the natural rights vested in all men.” If any sale were to be made henceforth, it would be “null and void.” (The author must have read Diderot’s Encyclopédie.)But on September 16, a second draft was written. That transformed the original phraseology, and merely stated, “Any blacks taken on the high seas and brought as prisoners shall not be allowed to be sold.”27
Slavery was in truth taken for granted by most American rebels. So was the slave trade. Thus Samuel Phillips Savage, who presided at the famous meeting in Old South Church in Boston which decided that tea should not be landed if duty had to be paid, was an insurer of slave ships, though, to be sure, of other ships as well. Prominent slavers or ex-slavers, such as Philip Livingston or Henry Laurens, our constant point of reference, and the merchants of Newport and Philadelphia, supported the revolution with their purses: at their head, Robert Morris, the Liverpool-born “financier of the revolution” who, as a partner of Willing and Morris of Philadelphia, had himself been concerned in slaving in the 1760s.XI The board of naval commissioners of the Eastern states included, as its senior member, William Vernon of Newport, one of the best-known slave merchants of that city.
Several seamen who now enjoyed their hour of glory had also been concerned in the slave trade; for example, Esek Hopkins, a slave captain of Newport, who had sailed to Africa and Surinam for the Browns of Providence, became, first, commander-in-chief of the Rhode Island forces in 1775, and later the first chief of the American congressional navy, even though it was an office from which he was dismissed in ignominy. The brave John Paul Jones, captain of the famous Bonhomme Richard, had had a long service as a mate or second mate on board slavers sailing from Fredericksburg, on the Rappahannock River, in Virginia. James de Wolf of Bristol, Rhode Island, carried out operations at sea against the British which made him a hero; and so began one of the great slave-trading careers, and fortunes. Even Benjamin Franklin, the most thoughtful of North Americans, was cautious about abolition: “Slavery is such an atrocious debasement of human nature,” he rather curiously said, “that its very extirpation, if not performed with solicitous care, may sometimes open a source of serious evils.”28 The Quakers were, meantime, discredited in these years because of their refusal to support armed action in the war against the English, even if they did, in 1776, call on all Quaker slaveowners to resign from their community.
Still, the discussion leading to the Declaration of Independence included critical talk of the slave trade, and Jefferson’s first draft of that document contained, among other general statements, a condemnation of King George III as waging “cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere”: a statement as historically inaccurate as it was unfair, even though the king would later appear enthusiastic for the trade. Jefferson eventually explained that these words were finally omitted “in complaisance to South Carolina and Georgia, who had never attempted to restrain the importation of slaves and who, on the contrary, still wished to continue it.” He added, “Our northern brethren also, I believe, felt a little tender under those censures; for, though their people had very few slaves themselves, yet they had been pretty considerable carriers of them to others.” The Articles of Confederation were in the end silent on the question of the slave trade.29
So it was scarcely surprising that it should have been the loyalist earl of Dunmore, governor of Virginia, who was the only commander to free slaves in an attempt to win black support for his side. But though some of these ex-slave warriors were inspired to wear emblems saying “Liberty for Slaves,” they were not much help militarily. The British government rejected Dunmore’s audacious scheme for reconquering the Southern colonies with a black army, even though many more slaves fought on the British side in the conflict than on that of the rebels (as many as fifty thousand may have been evacuated by the British to Canada or Nova Scotia; some of them later returned). The American revolutionary army also did use blacks (free blacks, at Lexington and Bunker Hill), then banned them, and afterwards allowed their reenlistment. John Laurens, son of the repentant Henry, tried to found an army of three thousand slaves in South Carolina, but failed to receive congressional support.
Meantime, the rich British Caribbean colonies, led by Barbados and Jamaica, refused any idea of standing alongside the mainland colonies. They feared for their slaves. Britain was relieved: in 1773, British imports from Jamaica alone were five times the combined import from the thirteen colonies.
One further contemporary comment should be noted. Edmund Burke, the philosopher-statesman, supported, as is well known, a policy of conciliation with the American colonies. But he was at that time a member of Parliament for Bristol, still one of the foremost slaving ports of Britain; and his fellow member Henry Cruger, a North American by birth, had often invested in slaving voyages. In his speech in the House of Commons in March 1775, advocating negotiations with the colonists, Burke opposed the idea of punishing the colonists by liberating their slaves. An offer of freedom, he said, “would come rather oddly, shipped to them in an African vessel, which is refused an entry into the ports of Virginia and Carolina with a cargo of 300 negroes. It would be curious to see the Guinea captain attempting at the same instance to publish his proclamation of liberty and to advertise his sale of slaves.”30 But while the fighting for one kind of liberty was going on, there was not much thought given to the idea of liberty for slaves.
Once the war was over, the subject of slavery began immediately to be discussed. Several states accepted not just an abolition of the slave trade, but actual emancipation. The motor of these remarkable changes was once more the Quakers, who recovered their standing at the peace; and the Society of Friends, at that time, was a transatlantic movement, in which members on both sides of the ocean were in constant touch. New polemicists took up the cudgels: David Cooper, for example, pointed out that Washington and his friends had asked God to deliver the Americans from oppression, when “sighs and groans” were to be heard in consequence of worse oppressions.31
Thus Pennsylvania abolished slavery in 1780. The law admittedly applied only to future generations, and delayed freedom for any slaves till after they had reached the age of twenty-eight; participation in the slave trade by Pennsylvanians was not prohibited until 1789. Between 1780 and 1804, similar acts of gradual or qualified emancipation were carried through, not without opposition, in New York, New Jersey, and even in Rhode Island. Upper and Lower Canada, still British, with their small store of slaves, followed suit. By 1786, slaves could only legally be introduced into Georgia. How ironic, considering that that was the state which had legalized slavery as lately as 1750!
There were numerous qualifications to these seeming acts of philanthropy. Rhode Island might have abolished slavery, but that did not mean that it outlawed slave merchants: indeed, in its Act of 1774 prohibiting the importation of slaves, Rhode Island had preserved the interests of her merchants by providing that, if they were unable to dispose of their slaves in the West Indies, they could bring them to the home state for a limited period of a year, and then re-export them at will. In New York, all existing slaves were to remain so, and slave merchants were still legally able to operate from that state’s ample shores.
Enlightened opinion in England, with a somewhat larger number of slaves to consider than in the United States (there were probably close to 800,000 in the West Indies alone and, in the new United States, about 650,000), was, meantime, beginning to think not that slavery or the slave trade should be abolished, but that it was desirable to make slavery less cruel and better regulated. In 1780, for example, Burke conceived a scheme to make the slave trade and slavery humane, as well as to civilize the coast of Africa. He retreated, however, when he thought of the strength of the West Indian interest in the House of Commons.XII But the opposition of Scottish thinkers to slavery as such continued. Thus the historian William Robertson, who was a member of a debating society in Edinburgh to which both Adam Ferguson and Adam Smith belonged, explained, in his History of America, published in 1777, that the slave trade was “an odious commerce no less repugnant to the feelings of humanity than to the principles of religion.”
More energetic opposition to slavery was now being expressed in France, which, in these years, seemed further from social upheaval than did England. In 1769, the poet Charles-François Saint-Lambert created, in his novel Zimeo, the curious personage of Wilmouth, the philanthropic Quaker; while in 1770, Louis-Sébastien Mercier, in L’An 2440: Rêve s’il en fut jamais, describes how the hero, awakened from a sleep of 772 years, finds a Paris where all injustices have vanished; where Greek and Latin are spoken in the street; and where he sees a “singular monument,” made of marble, depicting, “on a magnificent pedestal, a black, bare-headed, his arm outstretched, with a proud look, his attitude noble, imposing. Around him was the debris of twenty scepters. At his feet, one could read the legend ‘to the Avenger of the New World.’ ” The book was, of course, proscribed.32
Then, in his Histoire philosophique et politique . . . des deux Indes, the Abbé Raynal (and his collaborators, who included Diderot) again argued that slavery was contrary to nature, and so universally wrong. The book now reads confusedly, though the language is eloquent and, at the time of its first publication—in Amsterdam, in 1770—its effect was electric. Raynal had been a Jesuit, a journalist on the Mercure de France, and had frequented the salons of Paris, including that of the famous Madame Geoffrin. One of his biographers has suggested that he himself had invested in trading slaves. All the same, he first described polemically the vile conditions in which most Africans lived in the New World, and said that the women were given such hard work that they could not think of having children. He thought that, whereas the Spaniards made their slaves the companions of their indolence, the Portuguese the instruments of their debauches, the Dutch the victims of their avarice, the English treated them as purely physical beings, and would never become familiar with them, never smile at them, or even talk to them. The French, Raynal thought, were less proud and so less disdainful, according their slaves a kind of a morality which enabled them to forget their intolerable condition. The Protestants, the abbé went on, allowed their captives to stew in their “mahommedanism” or their idolatry, provided they worked, whereas the Catholics thought themselves obliged to afford some sort of baptism, if only rudimentary.
Raynal did think it necessary to try to make the conditions of existing slaves more supportable. Give them more music, he argued, let them dance, let the women be encouraged to have families so that there would be some laborers accustomed from childhood to the light of the Americas. “I shall . . . prove,” Raynal said proudly, “that there is no reason of state which can authorize slavery. I shall not be afraid to denounce to the tribunal of reason and justice those governments which tolerate this cruelty, or which are not even ashamed to make it the basis of their power.” He then systematically destroyed the arguments of all who, “executioners of their brothers,” sought to justify slavery, reserving a final thrust at those who argued that the enslavement of Africans was “the only way to conduct them to the eternal beatitude through the great benefit of holy baptism. Oh pious Jesus,” Raynal wrote, “would you have predicted that your sweet doctrines could be made the justification of such horror?”
The gradual disappearance of slavery in Europe, Raynal argued, had been the result not of religion but of the decisions of various monarchs who had thought that they would thereby ruin their feudal tenants. The Americas had offered an unlimited new field for the exploitation of human beings; and European expansion into America had been from the beginning marked by oppression. The slave trade, since the Renaissance, was to be attributed to a generation of pirates from both France and Britain. “Whoever justifies such an odious system deserves mocking silence from the philosopher,” said the abbé, “and a stab with a dagger from the black.”
Raynal thought that the abolition of slavery would come as a result of a revolution of slaves led by a hero who would render “the Americans drunk with long-awaited blood” (such as had indeed nearly happened in a terrible slave rebellion on the Danish island of Saint John in 1731). The Code Noir, which was supposed to govern the treatment of slaves by their masters in French territories, would disappear and, in its place, there would be a Code Blanc, which would, he thought, be terrible enough if it were only to reflect the right of vengeance.33
Though the clergy of Bordeaux demanded that Raynal’s work be prohibited because of its outrage to religion, and the parlement of Paris even ordered it burned by the public executioner, his influence quickly percolated throughout society. Thus it was because of having read him that a Huguenot merchant, A. Triquier, spoke out firmly in a meeting of the Academy at Marseilles in 1777: “But how can we pass over in silence the means which we have invented to ruin America after having devastated it? . . . Barbarians that we are!” Raynal, too, had addressed his fellow Europeans as “barbarians,” adding, “Will you persuade me that a man can be the property of a sovereign, a son of a father?” God, after all, was the Father, not the master. The speaker gained a prize for this lecture.34
Still, for the moment, administrative action in response to the issues raised by the Quakers, by the philosophes, by Granville Sharp, by a few enlightened Portuguese friars, and by Raynal was confined to trying to draw a line between what pertained in the empires concerned, and what happened, or was allowed, at home. In 1773, in what was presented as an enlightened measure, “people of color” from Brazil were forbidden to enter Portugal. (Portugal had abolished slavery at home in 1750.)
The last public sale of a black slave in England appears to have been in Liverpool in 1779. In 1777, a royal declaration forbade the entry of any black into France, because “they marry Europeans, they infect brothels, and colors are mixed.” Whether this law had any effect is doubtful: six years later, in 1783, a ministerial circulaire complained that black servants were still being disembarked: “They are daily confiscated; and their masters insist that they have not heard of the law of 1777.”35
IHe had a great fortune, which he had inherited from his wife’s grandfather, Sir Thomas Dunk, a clothier of Kent, whose woolens could scarcely have been absent from the ships of London slave dealers at the turn of the eighteenth century.
IIIn his account of a journey to West Africa, to which several references have been made.
IIISee page 272.
IVIn these ideas Hutcheson was influenced by the enlightened third earl of Shaftesbury, Anthony Cooper, a man supposed by Voltaire to have been “the greatest English philosopher” and whose work Characteristicks of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times (published in 1701) gave a generous picture of the idea of benevolence. This was recognized by the slave captain John Newton, who found the book by chance when in the great Dutch slave port of Middelburg. But the modern reader cannot find much of interest in Shaftesbury except a few important phrases such as “moral sense,” which occurs in his Inquiry Concerning Virtue, of 1712.
VFerguson had been chaplain to the Black Watch, in which capacity he had, to the astonishment of his colonel, charged the enemy at Fontenoy at the head of his men.
VIIt should not, however, escape the present generation that this classic statement of the nature of English law was profoundly influenced by a great Frenchman.
VIIBenezet’s favorite quotation from Montesquieu was that philosopher’s comment that slavery “is neither useful to the master nor slave; to the slave since he can do nothing through principle (or virtue); to the master because he contracts with his slave all sorts of bad habits and insensibly accustoms himself to want all moral virtues.”
VIIIAdmiral John Byng’s squadron was defeated off the island of Minorca. He was court-martialed and executed on his own quarterdeck, the distant view of which tragedy caused Voltaire’s Candide to turn his ship round and return to France.
IXBritish colonies usually had representatives in London to act on their behalf.
XIt was he who nominated John Newton to the curacy of Olney. Richardson, when asked by Newton who was the original of his Sir Charles Grandison, replied, “Dartmouth, were he not a methodist.” He is described in the Dictionary of National Biography as “entirely without any administrative capacity.” But he was all the same one of the promoters of Dartmouth College.
XIMorris was also an associate of Anthony Bacon, one of Liverpool’s most astute merchants who had provided slaves to the British colonies in the 1760s on the government’s behalf—though he had moved on to iron before the American Revolution and, the founder of the South Wales iron trade, was making money out of providing guns for the British army in North America.
XIISome years earlier (despite his admiration for Montesquieu), he had shown that he was in no way concerned about the slave trade, when he wrote to a friend, Harry Garnet: “I shall only trouble you with one point more which is to recommend to your very serious consideration the consequences which will probably attend any project for altering the present constitution of the Royal African Company. The act upon which it stands was made by the most experienced men upon the most mature deliberation.”