Who ended the slave trade?

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As I think I have mentioned before in the blog, I don't read American book reviews. The New York Times Book Review, the New York Review of Books, and Washington Post Book World seem to be dominated totally by the mindless fashionable left, and I find that the reviews on things I know something about tend to be annoying and, more important, unenlightening. The whole point of reading book reviews is to learn a whole lot of what you would have learned if you had read the whole book, especially when it's a book you never would have gotten around to reading on your own. And, yes, I know that there are good pieces in the TBR, the NYRB and even WPBW from time to time that I would enjoy and learn from. But life is short and one must make choices.

My choice is to subscribe to the Times Literary Supplement, known even on its cover as the TLS, edited in London by Peter Stothard and owned by News Corp., which is to say by Rupert Murdoch, which also owns the Times of London, the Sun (the largest circulation paper in Britain and, I think, in the whole English-speaking world), the New York Post, and our fair and balanced Fox News Channel. An interesting bunch of sister publications/networks.

The TLS is not, of course, a monopoly of conservatives; to the contrary, some mindless lefties find their way into its pages. But its editors--Stothard and, before him, Ferdinand Mount--have a gift for finding interesting reviewers for interesting books. Not all of them are British, but the review's contents are guided by British publication dates. Fortunately, thanks to amazon.co.uk, you can easily and not too expensively buy books that have been published in the UK but not yet (or ever) in the United States.

Which brings me to my subject, English academic Howard Temperley's review of David Brion Davis's Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World. Davis is a veteran scholar who won a Pulitzer prize for one of his books published 40 years ago; Temperley delivers a fascinating appreciation of a distinguished body of work (I prefer book reviews that appreciate good work to those that slam bad work, though the TLS runs some Englishly pungent examples of the latter). I'd like to put a spotlight on three of the last four paragraphs of Temperley's review, which I trust it will not violate copyright laws to quote:

While it is easy to account for the rise of American slavery, its abandonment is harder to explain. At first glance the reason may appear obvious. Quite simply, slavery was wicked. The problem, it might be argued, is rather how supposedly Christian societies had put up with it for as long as they did. Yet the fact remains that, up to 1770, not only had it been all but universally accepted, but the Bible had been one of its principal mainstays. Recent revelations regarding the strength and flexibility of slavery make its demise all the more puzzling. Why, if it was so successful, did people turn against it?

Britain's behaviour is particularly hard to account for. As Davis points out, the British are not thought of as having been particularly humane in other respects, including their treatment of their own working population. He sees the intermittent slave rebellions that shook Britain's colonies as having been a response to the growing tide of abolitionist feeling rather than its cause. Indeed, on the basis of the available evidence it would appear that Britain's interests would have been best served by expanding the slave trade and broadening the frontiers of its slave empire. Just as the US expanded its slave system westward along the Gulf Coast into Texas, so Britain could have established new slave regimes in Trinidad, British Guiana and other recently acquired territories. Instead of seeking to suppress the slave trade, it could have dominated it, and in the process outproduced Brazil and Cuba, increased its own wealth, and contributed to the economic growth of the Americas. No wonder Disraeli called abolition "the greatest blunder in the history of the English people."

In his History of European Morals from Augustus to Charlemagne (1869), W. E. H. Lecky describes England's crusade against slavery as "among the three or four perfectly virtuous acts recorded in the history of nations." Great powers do not as a rule behave selflessly. Not surprisingly, Lecky's comment has generally been regarded with scepticism. Now, knowing vastly more than he did about slavery and its abolition, Davis believes Lecky was basically right. Although the American abolition movement came later and assumed a somewhat different character, the same might equally well be said of it. Slaves had never liked being slaves, but the rise of a climate of opinion that objected to slavery on moral grounds was something new. There had been nothing like it in ancient or medieval times or in any other society of which we have record. The upsurge of popular support for abolition both in Britain and the northern USA was unprecedented. Perhaps, David Brion Davis hypothesizes, moral progress is possible.

This is not the lesson that today's transnational and multicultural elites in the United States and the United Kingdom like to tell. They like to portray American slavery as particularly vicious and slavery as a system imposed by evil Dead White European Males on a virtuous but unfortunately powerless Rest of the World. Davis and Temperley know better. Almost all human societies had slavery. Only one human society--the Anglosphere, starting in Britain and then in America--set out to abolish first the slave trade (enormously profitable to many Britons) and then slavery itself (enormously profitable to many Americans). "There had been nothing like it in ancient or medieval times or in any other society of which we have record." The philosophes of France, with their emphasis on pure reason, did not think to advocate the abolition of the slave trade and slavery. (See Gertrude Himmelfarb's The Road to Modernity: the British, French, and American Enlightenments on this point: The French philosophes' idea of a good society was one ruled by enlightened despots, i.e., despots governed by themselves, which their successors tried to put into place during the French Revolution.) English Evangelical Christians, like William Wilberforce and Granville Sharp, did--and accomplished their goal. So, in their wake, did Americans like William Lloyd Garrison, the Grimke sisters, and Frederick Douglass. Britain abolished the slave trade in 1807 (much to its economic detriment) and the United States followed, at the earliest date permissible under the Constitution, in 1808 (though the economic detriment to the United States was much less).

Secular elites of our day, or for that matter their counterparts of a century or two centuries ago, like to think that all human progress is due to secular reason. But Christian belief in the moral equality of every person played a key role in inspiring the Britons and then the Americans who led the fight to abolish the slave trade and then slavery. Others followed in their wake. This, I think, is a lesson also of Adam Hochschild's Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire's Slaves, a book I have written about with admiration before but that I have not yet read all of; I'm putting it on my carry-on for reading on my next long flight on my tour to flog the paperback version of The New Americans: How the Melting Pot Can Work Again.

Hochschild, I gather, approaches the subject from the perspective of the American left; but he is also a gifted writer who eschews annoying cant, has immersed himself in the documents that tell this story, and gives the Christian inspiration of the first opponents of the slave trade--the first opponents of the slave trade in human history--its due. As we try to fathom the mindset of Islamofascists who fight violently for genuine evil, it is worthwhile to take some time to fathom the mindset of people--Evangelical Christians, most of them, in this case--who fought nonviolently for genuine goodness.

Thanks are due to David Brion Davis, Howard Temperley, and Adam Hochschild for helping us to do that.