Garrison and the Trans-Atlantic Abolition Movement

A view by the author/researcher/collector, Horace Seldon

Offered here is a brief outline which encourages a deeper exploration of the role of the “trans-Atlantic” Abolition Movement as a context for abolitionist activity in the United States.   My personal commitment to study the life and work of Garrison led me to recognize the significance of that larger context, and now I hope will point others to a more thorough study.

On the masthead of the Liberator was that quite remarkable, “My Country, the World, My Countrymen, All Mankind”, serving as a constant reminder of the editor’s “internationalist” sensitivity.  A glance at the categories of items listed in the liberatorfiles, will indicate how carefully Garrison noted actions in other nations which either encouraged or discouraged his hope for the elimination of slavery.

In the Liberator Garrison  regularly called attention to what was happening abroad as people struggled against slavery and the slave trade. When the news was good news from another nation, it became the source of new hope for the movement at home. When the news was not good, but told of extensions of either slavery or the trade, that news was reported as a way to stimulate vigilance at home.

A brief look at the paper takes one to items about slavery or anti-slavery in Sweden, Brazil, China, Cuba, Denmark, France, Haiti, Russia, Turkey, Venezuela, and Holland.  Today we might claim that Garrison was a “globalist”, a name he would probably be happy to affirm.  From that international perspective Garrison constantly reminded his Abolition friends that they were involved in a world-wide movement. Visits to England gave heart to that broad outreach of conviction.

Garrison’s first of four trips to England, engaged him there with leaders of the British Anti-Slavery Society, including the celebrated Thomas Clarkson, and William Wilberforce.   His close association with George Thompson, led to a lifetime friendship, emphasized by the naming of the first Garrison child for Thompson, and in later years the Thompson visits to America.  In 1833 England, Garrison solidified his relationship to the Liverpool merchant and Liberator agent, James Cropper, and began a sometimes troubled relationship with the Irish “Liberator”, Daniel O’Connell.  In that first visit Garrison joined friend Nathaniel Paul’s already strong union with anti-colonization forces in England

“Truth and justice make their best way in the world when they appear in bold and simple majesty”, wrote Elizabeth Heyrick, the Leicester abolitionist.  Her pamphlet, “Immediate Not Gradual Abolition, or An Inquiry Into the Shortest, Safest, and Most Effectual Means of Getting Rid of West Indian Slavery”, was printed in 1824 in London, and in the same year in Philadelphia.  Benjamin Lundy had printed her words in his paper, in Baltimore, which is where Garrison first became influenced by this remarkable woman. We know that in these two places this English woman’s words were quickly distributed in America, another indication of the international character of the movement.  We can assume her influence on Garrison, who was soon to become a leading figure in American “immediatism”.  We might also wonder of the affect on Garrison of these further words by Heyrick, when she urged abolitionists to conduct themselves “with more the spirit of Christian combatants, and less of worldly politicians”.

Before Garrison called for Immediate Abolition, there were at least two other men in America who were calling for the same, both natives of England,.  John Hepburn, in 1715, a New Jersey Friend, called for end to slavery “at once”, and urged that slaveholders must repent and make restitution for their evil.   Rev. George Bourne, an immigrant from England, serving a pastorate in Virginia, wrote The Book and Slavery Irreconcilable.  In 1816 his call for immediate abolition without compensation so enraged the local Presbytery, that he was suspended

While in England, in 2007, I visited several exhibitions, celebrating two hundred years after the ending of the slave trade in the Empire.  Numerous times those exhibits illustrated the connections between abolitionists on the two sides of the Atlantic. At Bristol the name and work of Anthony Benezet was prominently displayed, acknowledging the influence this French-American Quaker had in Britain.  His Some Historical Account of Guinea, and its comments on the slave trade were accompanied by an extract of a treatise by Granville Sharpe.   In 1766, two thousand copies of Benezet’s A Caution and a Warning to Great Britain and Her Colonies, were circulated to students in Eton, Harrow, Westminster, Winchester, and St. Paul’s where many leaders of the British movement were trained. Thomas Clarkson, while preparing his Cambridge prize essay, in 1785, was one of those who were greatly influenced by Benezet.

In Scotland, Francis Hutcheson, the Professor of Moral Philosophy, in Glasgow, argued that “no one has a right to assume power over others without their consent”.  One of his students was Adam Smith, later economist, who argued that slavery in the British colonies was detrimental to all free and competitive labour, and that slavery was repugnant to human feelings, and unnecessary to promote either happiness or prosperity. Adam Ferguson, at Edinburgh University, announced that there was no natural justification for slavery, and James Beattie, at the University of Aberdeen, consistently denounced slavery in his lectures.

One clear influence in the United States, from the movement in Scotland, can be seen in the life witness of Benjamin Rush, who earned his medical degree from Edinburgh.  His 1773 pamphlet, An Address to the Inhabitants of the British Settlements in America, Upon Slave Keeping, was printed widely in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia.  He argued that, scientifically, there was no proof that Negroes were either intellectually or morally inferior.

In London, at the Friends Library, minutes of a Friends Womens Anti-Slavery organization, 1818-1846, give ample testimony to regular communication with similar anti-slavery groups in Philadelphia, Baltimore, North Carolina, and Rhode Island.  Those minutes tell of exchanges which occurred regularly between groups on either side of the Atlantic.

On both sides of the Atlantic women  were active in the movement.  The Female Society of Birmingham (1825) and the Darlington Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society (1839) were especially active, but represent only part of the history of 73 ladies associations which were active in England between 1825-1840.  Testimony to the effectiveness of those groups is the word of George Thompson, who said that “the women did everything … in a word they formed the cement of the whole Antislavery building … without their aid we never should have prevailed.”   On the western shores of the ocean, Garrison echoed a tribute to women as the “backbone” of the Abolition movement.

Abolitionists on the two shores shared common goals and common obstructions to their work; differences in culture, in political structures, in geography, also posed different obstacles.  Some of the differences were rooted in the proximity which abolitionists felt to actual slave-holding:

In England most of the instances of the evil of slavery were about events which happened in the West Indies, more distantly removed from abolitionists than they were in America, where enslaved or formerly enslaved people lived more frequently in proximity to or even among abolitionists.

The fears of slave rebellions were felt differently by people in the US and in the UK. Rebellions in the Indies posed mostly a fear of economic loss for people in the UK; in the US, slaveholders feared the loss of both property and life. The dynamics of that different “fear” posed different strategic problems on either side of the ocean.

The different constitutional/political structures in the UK and the US posed both different obstacles and different possibilities for getting anti-slavery or abolition legislation passed.  A law passed in Parliament, affecting slavery in the distant Indies, carried an explicit authority, coming from a body acting with clear authority over a colony.  The “authority” of the US Congress to enact anti-slavery legislation was often vigorously denied by political/constitutional arguments presented in the American south.

Abolitionists in the UK did not experience the same level and intensity of violent opposition which they met in the US.

In the US abolitionists were subject to laws such as the Fugitive Slave Law, whereas those in the UK did not suffer similar                      threats from the law.

It was the issue of “proximity” which led to the expansion of the BritishAntislavery Society into the British and Foreign Antislavery Society, in 1839, and the consequent calling of the 1840 international convention.  It became clear to abolition leaders in England that slavery could never be eliminated in the islands, so long as slavery existed in the United States.  The islands were just too physically close to the United States, facilitating easy trade and cooperation to keep slavery alive in both.

It was in London, at the 1840 world convention, that the “woman question” was raised in public debate in England for the first time.  It was there that Garrison stated that the debate was about a “human issue”, lifting gender into its larger meaning.  A larger meaning in full accord with the Liberator masthead.  “My Country, the World, My Countrymen, All Mankind”.