Decline of the British Abolition Movement

Despite these obstacles, the petition campaign of 1792 was a huge success. In all, 519 petitions were presented to the House of Commons, the largest number ever submitted to the House on a single subject or in a single session. In 1792, the House of Commons resolved, by a vote of 230 to 85, that the slave trade ought to be gradually abolished. After lengthy debate, January 1, 1796, was fixed for its abolition.

The Lords, however, rejected the Commons’ resolution and on June 5, 1792, voted to postpone the business until the following session, when they would hear their own evidence for and against the slave trade. Abolitionists suffered further humiliation in 1793, when the House of Commons refused to revive the subject of the slave trade, in effect reversing the resolution of the previous year.

In desperation the SEAST considered and then rejected a proposal to endorse a nationwide boycott of slave-grown produce. The abolitionist movement lost momentum and, ultimately, purpose. As the hearings in the Lords spluttered to a halt, even the gathering of fresh evidence began to lose significance. The result was disintegration and decay.

In 1793 the London Committee of the SEAST met thirty-three times; in 1794 the figure fell to just nine. That same year, Clarkson withdrew from the fight, his health broken by a punishing round of tours and meetings. Thereafter, the SEAST went into a steep decline, finally ceasing operations in 1797.