On 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.