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Eighteenth-Century Studies 34.4 (2001) 559-576
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Race and Slavery
Britons Never Will be Slaves": National Myth, Conservatism, and the Beginnings of British Antislavery
According to a virtual consensus in modern scholarship on the abolition of slavery, this event marked a historic victory for nonconformist, radical, or otherwise antiestablishment elements in British culture. A recent historian has connected the rise of antislavery with "Wilkite" tendencies in the British middle class, and others have located abolitionism in a "reform complex" devoted to the radical overhaul of the British political system. 1 It has been widely assumed that British slavery was generally excused by the established Anglican church and that the abolitionist movement was dominated by "Quakers, evangelicals and Rational Dissenters." 2 Some major scholars of abolitionism have acknowledged the participation of Anglicans and social conservatives in early antislavery, but even they agree in interpreting abolition as a social revolution instigated by intellectual and economic upheaval, as argued by David Brion Davis and Roger Antsey, or by the alienation of workers in nascent industrial capitalism, as maintained by Seymour Drescher. 3
This scholarship exemplifies a "Whig" historiography that routinely looks for the sources of social change in the attack of peripheral or nontraditional groups on the center. In the words of Louis d'Anjou, the first abolition campaign shows how capitalism created "new groupings," which, having been "left out in the cold" both politically and religiously, set out to recreate their society, beginning with the abolition of forced labor. 4 Yet, this picture of abolitionism as the assault [End Page 559] of marginalized elements on a self-protecting establishment seems inconsistent with important facts. First, major radical figures in British politics, such as John Wilkes and John Horne-Tooke, played no significant role in the early stages of British antislavery. Some radicals were even directly implicated in the slave-trade: William Beckford came from a prosperous family of Jamaican slave-owners, yet was one of the most vociferous opponents to the administration in this day. Second, the most resonant voices against slavery during the eighteenth century belonged to men and women with strong backgrounds in the Anglican Church and conservative views on social and political issues in Britain. These include Samuel Johnson, William Warburton, Edmund Burke, James Ramsay, William Wilberforce, Hannah More, and even, as I will argue, Granville Sharpe, whose reputation for "radicalism" has been exaggerated.
Should it surprise us that these socially conservative Anglicans, not radicals or dissenters, first led the charge against slavery? In the following essay, I will maintain that there was no inconsistency between social conservatism or religious conformity and opposition to slavery in the eighteenth century. Looking back over the origins of antislavery during the course of the century, we find that these humanitarian objections emerged from within the groups and ideologies that conceived of Britain as fundamentally Anglican, royal, and hierarchical. In the history of anti-slavery, as in other areas of eighteenth-century thought, we must begin to question the assumption that social progress always emanates from groups outside a self-protective and intransigent establishment. For it is, in fact, inaccurate to identify mainstream British values with the merchants and colonists who controlled the slave-trade. As I will contend, antislavery took shape amidst an essentially ideological conflict about the very nature of "Britain" between proponents of unbridled free-market capitalism and the essentially conservative and traditionalist outlook of those who wished to contain capitalism within the constraints of morality, religion, and their patriotic image of Britons as a freedom-loving people.
In a story told by Boswell, Samuel Johnson made the following toast in the company of "some very grave men at Oxford": "Here's to the next insurrection of the negroes in the West Indies." 5 The sentiment was typical of Johnson, who never disguised his deep repugnance with slavery, and who strongly supported the earliest legal efforts to end slavery in Britain. Yet Johnson was no radical thinker who usually offended the establishment. In the same decade that he made most of his...