Unchained by Idealism

By Michael Gerson
Wednesday, June 20, 2007

In many quarters, the role of religion in public life and foreign policy is under question as a source of hatred and extremism. But this year marks the 200th anniversary of history's strongest counterexample -- the strange, irrational end of the British slave trade.

By 1820, some 2.6 million Europeans had left their homes for the Americas. And perhaps 9 million Africans had also made the journey -- in chains, branded like cattle and packed like cordwood. Every slave voyage involved murder, since expected losses were more than 10 percent. Some captives died from disease; some starved themselves to death, thus willing the only form of freedom available to them.

The trade had been developed and expanded by the most enlightened and culturally progressive nations of Europe. Investors over the years included Isaac Newton, John Locke, the British royal family and the Church of England. Little stigma was attached to this mainstream form of commerce in the late 18th century. Opposition was confined to a handful of religious extremists (Quakers) and a few abolitionist societies in London, Paris and Philadelphia. Yet within a hundred years of these efforts, slavery was illegal everywhere in the Americas.

For decades, historians have attempted to give an impersonal, "structural" explanation for this change -- that the end of the slave trade and slavery somehow served the interests of rising industrial capitalism for free labor. In a recent London lecture, David Brion Davis of Yale University, one of the leading historians of slavery, offered a different view. The slave trade, he says, was a "modern and economically successful system" that "fueled the first great wave of globalization." From Caribbean sugar plantations to Peruvian mines to American tobacco plantations, slavery was essential to the economic development of the New World and to the consolidation of European strategic gains against the Islamic world.

Slavery, Davis argues, "was not doomed by some implacable force of historical progress. And here I give most credit to the abolitionists, since without them I think that from the 1780s to the 1880s very little would have been done."

"The abolitionists" were actually an exceptional alliance. Some, such as the large, intense Thomas Clarkson -- whom the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge described as a "moral steam engine" -- were political radicals influenced by the French Revolution; forerunners of the modern human rights movement. Others, such as William Wilberforce -- a charming, diminutive Tory member of parliament -- were passionate evangelicals; forerunners of modern religious conservatism. Using research, lobbying, posters, petitions and boycotts, these allies invented the political pressure campaign. They also created a new way of political thinking. In their view, says Davis, "Providence could reveal itself only through a new human ability -- the ability of an enlightened and righteous public to control the course of events."

Given today's rise of radical Islam, and the tendency of a few American religious leaders to attack the prophet Muhammad and advocate the assassination of foreign leaders, the role of religion in foreign policy is much debated.

The abolitionists demonstrated that religion and conscience can be a force for good in the world, that the darkest instincts and destructive interests of humanity can sometimes be overcome, and that idealism is possible and powerful. "While there is little evidence that human nature has changed for the better over the past two millennia," concludes Davis, "a few historical events, like Britain's abolition of its extremely profitable slave trade, suggest that human history has also been something more than an endless contest of greed and power."

Modern Clarksons and Wilberforces have much to occupy them. It was recently reported in Britain that brothel owners meet at a coffee shop outside Gatwick Airport to openly bid on the victims of the international sex trade -- the new slaves. And I imagine the old abolitionists would react with puffing outrage to the fact that millions in Africa and elsewhere die of diseases that we could treat with our pocket change. Their example should haunt us.

But their example should also inspire us. After centuries of slavery, in which every day brought seemingly permanent brutality, another day eventually arrived -- the British abolition of slavery itself, 27 years after the transatlantic trade ended. "On the last night of slavery," records historian G.M. Trevelyan, "the negroes in our West Indian islands went up on to the hill-tops to watch the sun rise, bringing them freedom as its first rays struck the waters."

It is a hopeful thing that such days are possible.


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