An International Movement

There was always an international dimension to the early abolitionist movement; indeed, foreign support and intervention were deemed vital to the success of the movement at home. In pursuit of these aims, British abolitionists made contact with the French Société des Amis des Noirs, following its organization in 1788.

More significant, certainly in the long term, were the links that British abolitionists established with their counterparts in the United States. Personal contacts between British and American abolitionists had been forged during the colonial period. Granville Sharp, for instance, had been introduced to Benjamin Franklin through Anthony Benezet and corresponded with Benjamin Rush of Philadelphia, while for years Quakers on both sides of the Atlantic had been united in their efforts to alleviate the sufferings of the black population.

If anything, the Revolution strengthened these ties, at the same time setting them on a more formal basis. One of the first acts of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, following its reorganization in 1784, was to open a correspondence with Thomas Clarkson. Eager to repay the compliment, in July 1787 the SEAST wrote to the societies at Philadelphia and New York to inform them of the measures they had taken for the abolition of the slave trade.

The SEAST’s long-term objective was to stimulate enough interest to encourage mass petitioning. In fact, the history of the early abolitionist movement in Britain can be told in terms of two major petition campaigns. The first took place in 1788, when over one hundred petitions dealing with the slave trade were presented to the House of Commons.