Anniversary Post: Slave Trade Act of 1807

William Wilberforce - Slave Trade Act of 1807On this day in 1807, the Parliament of the United Kingdom passed the Slave Trade Act — pushed most notably by William Wilberforce. It outlawed the slave trade in the British Empire. But it was just part of the process of ending slavery. Slavery itself wouldn’t be outlawed until 1833. But slavery in England itself had been illegal since 1772 with the decision in Somerset v Stewart.

Now the timing of that last one is quite interesting. This had an impact on the American Revolutionary War. It is discussed in Slave Nation: How Slavery United the Colonies and Sparked the American Revolution by Alfred and Ruth Blumrosen. Somerset v Stewart was extremely well reported on here in the colonies. And slave owners could see the writing on the wall. We can’t say how big a factor there was with regard to this, but it was certainly a force pushing for the war.

In the musical 1776, the biggest part of the drama circles around the southern states walking out because of an anti-slavery clause in the Declaration of Independence. But we don’t actually know what was said because the secretary of the Second Continental Congress thought it unimportant to write it down. In the movie, the discussion is all about how the south would not accept independence if it meant losing their slaves. But I have a hard time believing that people were not making rather the opposite argument, “We are in favor of independence because of the threat to our peculiar institution; why would we sign a document that threatens it?!”

Political progress is always made slowly — step by tiny step. There are broader features of it, however. Slavery was going to end. America bought itself 30 years of slavery with the Revolutionary War. And I can’t say it bought much more. Democracy was in the air. It’s hard to say that progress has been made more quickly in the United States. In fact, it seems rather the opposite. And here we are in America fighting over economic issues that were considered settled in the 1950s.

But we continue on. And this was an important day for humanity in 1807.

5 thoughts on “Anniversary Post: Slave Trade Act of 1807

  1. As you point out, the 1807 act abolished the slave trade, but not slavery itself. The 1833 act which abolished slavery in the British Empire had an exception for the East India Company and its lands. (Rupa Viswanath’s The Pariah Problem: Caste, Religion, and the Social in Modern India, despite the “Modern” in its title, has some interesting accounts of large landowners in 19th-century India getting the British to wink at their effective slavery of “religious” outcastes, Queen Victoria having prohibited interference with religious customs after the Sepoy Rebellion. English is not the author’s first language, so the text of the book, while grammatically correct as far as I could tell, was somewhat excruciating to read.)

    Alan Taylor’s The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832 is an interesting book about American slavery and the British, particularly during the War of 1812. The British dropped anchor off the coast of Virginia and spread the word on land that they would accept and provide for any runaway slaves. There were occasional forays into Maryland. (Some of the officers did make a good-faith effort after the war to resettle the runaway slaves in the Caribbean under better conditions, but it didn’t work out so well in the long run.) What I found particularly interesting was that some Virginian leaders realized and argued that its slave-based economy was not sustainable; however, a concern about slave uprisings and what to do with freed slaves prevented any action on that front.

    On a related note, Stephanie McCurry’s Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War describes a Confederacy that, out of necessity, became a centralized welfare state–having to provide for the “soldiers’ wives” (whose husbands, fathers, or sons were not at home to provide for their families) and being torn between sending troops off to war and keeping a sufficient number behind to prevent slave rebellions.

    • Those sound like terrific books. I put them on my library list. Can’t read them anytime soon, but that’s the nice thing about history books; time is not of the essence. Reading them sooner won’t make anyone in them any less dead.

    • I’m sure that’s all true. That’s part of the problem is that anyone can grab onto a single narrative and say that it is the narrative. But when it comes to slave owners who saw that slavery would not work in the long term, it reminds me of the housing bubble. I know that many of them understood that too, but they were more than willing to keep riding the wave. It’s hard to give them much credit except that they were not completely blind.

  2. All this makes an interesting point, in that in some ways our republic can be much more dangerous for those shut off from any hope of access to the levers of power than an (at least notionally) monarchy. The Framers – possibly for the very reasons you discuss above – ensured that a fractious minority could block any change they didn’t like, at least for a significant time. And in the case of slavery, well, the minority effectively broke the system and forced their opponents to use naked force to beat them into submission.

    What I find interesting about that is the degree to which the modern “movement conservative” Right has become as intransigent as the pre-1860 slave faction, and as willing to use every legal and procedural tactic to break the system. As what point does their opponents have to repeat the lesson of 1865? As Bill Sherman said, sometime fear is the beginning of wisdom.

    • That’s absolutely right. We’ve been hearing more and more from the Republicans about nullification. What I find interesting is that the slave owners actually were losing something. Conservatives have seen success after success and yet they act as those they’ve been losing. This is why I think it is all about xenophobia and the changing demographics in America.

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