Moral Capital: Foundations of British Abolitionism

October 31, 2020
Moral Capital: Foundations of British Abolitionism

Revisiting the origins of the British antislavery movement ofthe late eighteenth century, Christopher Leslie Brown challengesprevailing scholarly arguments that locate the roots ofabolitionism in economic determinism or bourgeois humanitarianism.Brown instead connects the shift from sentiment to action tochanging views of empire and nation in Britain at the time,particularly the anxieties and dislocations spurred by the AmericanRevolution. The debate over the political rights of the NorthAmerican colonies pushed slavery to the fore, Brown argues, givingantislavery organizing the moral legitimacy in Britain it had neverhad before. The first emancipation schemes were dependent onefforts to strengthen the role of the imperial state in an era ofweakening overseas authority. By looking at the initial publiccontest over slavery, Brown connects disparate strands of theBritish Atlantic world and brings into focus shifting developmentsin British identity, attitudes toward Africa, definitions ofimperial mission, the rise of Anglican evangelicalism, and Quakeractivism. Demonstrating how challenges to the slave system couldserve as a mark of virtue rather than evidence of eccentricity,Brown shows that the abolitionist movement derived its power from aprofound yearning for moral worth in the aftermath of defeat andAmerican independence. Thus abolitionism proved to be a cause forthe abolitionists themselves as much as for enslaved Africans.