The British Movement After 1783

Like its American counterpart, the British movement had emerged in the years immediately following the American Revolution. The timing was again significant. The Revolution galvanized political debate in Britain, at the same time giving slavery (disfranchisement) an immediate significance by linking it to the political condition of thousand of native-born Britons. But the Revolution also had a more far-reaching effect.

Defeat in the American war brought with it a searching and sometimes painful reevaluation of Britain’s standing as a once victorious Protestant nation. One result of the loss of the American colonies was a move to tighten the reins of empire elsewhere, notably in Canada, Ireland, and the British Caribbean. Another, however, was a rise in enthusiasm for political and religious reform, for virtually anything, in fact, that might prevent a similar humiliation in the future.

The loss of the American colonies forced Britons to think about themselves and about their failings. Naturally enough, slavery and the slave trade also came under the microscope, leading some Britons to contemplate alternative visions of empire, including, significantly, an empire without slavery. If the debate was rarely framed in these precise terms, we should not underestimate the impact of the American Revolution and imperial crisis on British political thought.

Seen in this light, the abolition of the slave trade was inextricably linked with the character, virtue, and destiny of the British nation, at least until the rising tide of revolutionary violence in France shifted the terms of debate yet again. The American Revolution also had a vital impact on British abolitionism because it effectively divided British America, at the same time halving the number of slaves in the British Empire. Abolitionists were well aware of the importance of these events. "As long as America was ours," wrote abolitionist Thomas Clarkson in 1788, "there was no chance that a minister would have attended to the groans of the sons and daughters of Africa, however he might feel for their distress."

War — or, more precisely, defeat — created a climate in which abolitionism could take root. Early abolitionist activity in Britain was channeled through the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade (SEAST), organized in May 1787, which, with some justification, has been described as the prototype of the nineteenth-century reform organization. Its task was to create a constituency for abolition through the distribution of circular letters, books, and pamphlets. Abolitionists were also quick to exploit the influence of the press and, in the case of Wedgwood’s famous cameo of the kneeling slave, visual images and artifacts.

Moreover, in Thomas Clarkson they possessed the movement’s only full-time, professional reformer. An indefatigable and obsessive man, Clarkson not only popularized abolition through his various letters and pamphlets, but as the SEAST’s traveling agent (he made three tours of England and Scotland between 1788 and 1791), he provided a vital link between London and the provinces.