Dr. Coleson is Professor of Social Science at Spring Arbor College in Michigan.
Oppression is as old as mankind and unfortunately is still with us. A few decades ago we were certain that we were rapidly outgrowing this ancient affliction with the advance of civilization, but these hopes have not materialized. Still the quest continues. There are those who look back to a golden age of freedom and brotherhood in the past, while others seek to find their earthly paradise with the children of nature on a remote tropical island somewhere. It may be an interesting exercise of the imagination to dream up an idyllic state of nature where "noble savages" are truly brothers and they all live happily ever after. Yet, Rousseau and a lot of other romantic visionaries notwithstanding, there have been relatively few Utopias over the ages.
Hobbes’ much more realistically described life in this state of nature as "nasty, brutish and short." It is not only that primitive man finds it difficult to satisfy his needs with his bare hands or crude tools, but that men prey upon each other. To Hobbes men were brutes so life degenerated into a perpetual condition of "war of every man against every" other in a struggle not just to survive, as Darwin would say, but to dominate his fellows. For man is possessed of "a perpetual and restless desire of power after power that ceaseth only in death." President Wilson pressed for "self determination" as a right of all peoples during World War I on the assumption that they wanted to rule themselves. According to Hobbes, they want to rule each other. Nor is this view unique.
Adam Smith2 suggests that this lust for power may be the principal motive for slavery: "The pride of man makes him love to domineer,… therefore, he will generally prefer the service of slaves to that of freemen." In fact Smith couldn’t find much excuse for the "peculiar institution" but this urge to dominate others. He was convinced that "work done by slaves… is in the end the dearest of any," for the slave "can have no other interest but to eat as much, and to labor as little as possible." He was certain that "the cultivation of corn degenerated" and became unprofitable under slave labor in ancient Italy and Greece. He observed that "a small part of the West of Europe is the only portion of the globe that is free from slavery," but that this small part "is nothing in comparison with the vast continents where it still prevails." Smith thus linked prosperity with freedom and believed that the human family paid dearly for the luxury of permitting a few to enslave their fellows. If slavery is immoral and uneconomic, how can we banish this ancient evil from the earth?
Total Tyranny and Split-Level Freedom
Historically, slavery has existed on two levels. Sometimes there have been slave states where almost everyone was subject to the whim of a despotic monarch. Long ago the Near East had its rulers who could execute their subjects, even those about the throne, on command without even the pretense of a trial. Ancient Greece had its tyrants, too, who were often not much more restrained, in spite of all their democratic pretensions. We used to think that tyranny belonged to the dark ages of the past or to some primitive area of the earth inhabited by cannibals, but Joseph Stalin demonstrated that a ruler today can hold a nation in bondage as no ancient despot could have done. We are finding that the tools of modern science which we hoped would liberate us can most effectively enslave us, and perhaps we have seen only the beginnings of scientific despotism in the "Brave New World" of the future. Whether the masters who run the apparatus will get caught in the machinery and will also be enslaved is a good question, but historically it has been found that the other end of the slave’s chain also bound the master.
The world has had considerable experience with societies which were presumed to be half slave and half free. The democratic Greeks attempted to operate at both levels, and the aristocratic masters of our Old South claimed all the "rights of Englishmen" which they denied to their own slaves while they were fighting George III. Even slaveholders recognized their inconsistency and sought to have the situation remedied as they set up their new government. At the time of the Constitutional Convention, Colonel George Mason of Virginia, himself a slaveholder, condemned slavery, the great evil of his day, in words that were indeed prophetic:
The western people are already calling out for slaves for their new land. Slavery discourages arts and manufacture. The poor despise labor when performed by slaves. They produce the most pernicious effect on manners. Every master of slaves is born a petty tyrant. They bring the judgment of Heaven on a country. As nations cannot be rewarded or punished in the next world they must be in this. By an inevitable chain of cause and effect Providence punishes national sins by national calamities.3
The Foundations of Our Freedom
Our Founding Fathers quite properly had a bad conscience because of their own inconsistencies, for their claims to freedom were based on an appeal to a Higher Power, not just to some abstract principles as with the French Revolution a few years later. After all, their ancestors had resisted the tyranny of their rulers for centuries by insisting that "the King is also under God and under the Law." The Puritans had even fought a war with Charles I a little more than a century and a quarter before our Revolution to maintain their God-given right to freedom. Patrick Henry later reminded George III that Charles I had had his Cromwell just as Caesar had had his Brutus, but the figure of speech was not appropriate. It would have been more fitting to remind His Majesty that David had had his Nathan, Ahab his Elijah, Belshazzar his Daniel, and Herod his John the Baptist, to name a few kings and their prophets; like Byron’s "Prisoner of Chillon,"4 the Puritans were wont to "appeal from tyranny to God." This was more than a pious gesture or a political gimmick, more than high sounding rhetoric without any basis in reality. The Puritans were men of a Book and they found principles therein that applied to the Old Testament era and to the England of the Stuarts as well.
The typical oriental despot of the ancient Near East was a god-king, head of both Church and State. When religion was a powerful force, this gave his subjects no appeal from his authority. The Hebrew prophets resisted similar pressures from their rulers and never let them forget that "the most High ruleth in the kingdom of men…." (Daniel 4:25) This was the Puritan approach. In like manner a few hardy Germans more recently reminded Hitler, "Gott is mein Führer." Such thinking is so foreign to modern philosophy and legal theory that Hitler had his way with the German nation — to its ultimate destruction. But it has not always been so.
The men who founded our nation were very conscious of the concept of a Higher Law. It would not be an exaggeration to say our government was founded on this principle. Ten years before our "embattled farmers fired the shot heard round the world" at Lexington and Concord, William Blackstone began the publication of his famous Commentaries on the Laws of England, dedicated to the proposition that God is the ultimate authority. The colonists so avidly seized on his writings that a decade later Burke told Parliament, on the eve of the American Revolution, that there were more copies of Blackstone’s Commentaries in the Colonies than in England.
It has been customary in the "debunking era" of the recent past to insist that our colonial leaders were not saints and that those who may have made any religious pretensions were more apt to be Deists than Christians. Certainly there was a considerable influence from the Enlightenment on this side of the Atlantic, but at least Deists believed in God’s Law. Even such a notorious enemy of the "religious establishment" as Voltaire is quoted as saying that if there were no God, we should have to invent one. By contrast, contemporary philosophers say, according to Harvey Cox,5 "If God did exist, we should have to abolish Him." We have come a long way since the founding of this nation and it has not all been uphill. If they did not always live up to the standards set by their own consciences, as in the case of slavery, they were still painfully aware of their shortcomings. They also believed in their accountability to the Judge of all the earth "God is not dead, nor doth he sleep," as Longfellow tells us in the familiar Christmas carol.
God’s Law and Human Freedom
A significant but little-known development of the pre-Revolutionary era was the abolition of slavery in England. In 1765, the same year Blackstone began publication of his Commentaries, an obscure government clerk, Granville Sharp, met an injured slave on the streets of London near the office of his brother, a kindly physician. The slave had been severely beaten by his master and cast out into the street to die. The Sharps eventually nursed him back to health and strength, and got him a job. That might have ended it all but the ex-master later saw his slave, now recovered in value, and attempted to get him back. When the slave resisted capture, he was thrown into jail; but Granville Sharp got word of it and had the man released because he had been arrested without a warrant, contrary to English law. When Sharp took the unfortunate man to his home for shelter, the master prosecuted him for theft of his slave.
In the ensuing litigation and other cases that came up in the next few years, Granville Sharp began pressing for the abolition of slavery. Although no lawyer and certainly no part of the ruling class, his propaganda campaign, largely directed toward the legal profession at this time, was so effective that the "King’s Bench," the British Supreme Court, finally liberated all the slaves in England. This historic decision of Lord Chief Justice Mansfield was passed down on June 22, 1772, just two centuries ago. Said Mansfield, "Tracing the subject to natural principles (the Moral Law), the claim of slavery can never be supported." Actually, the number of slaves freed was relatively small, perhaps fourteen or fifteen thousand, mostly servants of retired West Indian sugar planters, but it was a start. Here was a clear application of Blackstone’s principle that the Law of God should be the ultimate standard.
Sad to say, Blackstone had not been that helpful in the protracted litigation: he was also concerned with previous legal opinions and property rights. After all, the market value of the freed slaves may easily have exceeded seven hundred thousand pounds sterling,6 no small loss to the slave-holding class. Nevertheless, it was Blackstone’s doctrine of the Moral Law which was clearly basic to the decision, though the concept was neither new nor unique. John Wesley, the popular preacher of the day, said the same thing: "In spite of ten thousand laws, right is right and wrong is wrong still." Can it be that the law-abiding habits of the English people are rooted in the ancient conviction that there is an ultimate right and wrong which even the king is powerless to alter? With lawlessness threatening to destroy our nation, perhaps it is about time to reexamine the foundations of our legal code. Why should anyone respect law when he knows that too much of it represents the conniving of pressure groups, seeking to rig the market in their favor and to rook the rest of us?
The next success in the campaign against slavery was slow in coming and was largely the work of another, William Wilberforce. Unlike Sharp, Wilberforce was an aristocrat, a member of Parliament, and an astute politician. He was also recognized as a gifted speaker, even in an age of great orators. In spite of his obvious talents, Wilberforce almost left Parliament when he rather suddenly became a Christian convert of the Reverend John Newton, a former slave-trading sea captain turned preacher and author of "Amazing Grace". Wilberforce nearly decided that politics was unsuited to a Christian. At this crucial point in his career his friends enlisted him in the war against slavery, and the fight dominated the rest of his life.
The abolitionists chose first to attempt to stop the commerce in slaves across the Atlantic. Wilberforce gave his first great antislavery address in Parliament in the spring of 1789, introducing his bill for the abolition of the slave trade. Two months later, the Bastille was stormed in Paris across the Channel and the French Revolution was on. Unlike Edmund Burke, Wilberforce was enthusiastic about the changes coming in France ("Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive," said Wordsworth), and had high hopes that "Liberty, Equality and Fraternity" meant freedom for the slaves. The French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars which followed no doubt hindered the English abolition campaign, but finally in 1807 Wilberforce pushed the antislave-trade bill through Parliament. The big job then was to enforce it. The Royal Navy policed the tropical waters of the Atlantic between Africa and the Americas, the notorious "Middle Passage," for the next half century and more until our Civil War effectively stopped the trade (the importation of slaves had been illegal here also for decades but smuggling continued as long as there was a market).
The British naval patrol operated out of the excellent harbor at Freetown in Sierra Leone, West Africa. Here the maritime court sat, and here captured slavers were brought for judgment. If they were convicted, they lost their ship and cargo, an assorted collection of several hundred Africans. The liberated slaves were settled in villages about Freetown to be civilized, educated and, hopefully, Christianized. English missionary societies invested many pounds and many lives in the venture. After all, this was the "White Man’s Grave." Since the slaves came from any point along the Guinea Coast of Africa where they could be obtained, they were very diverse linguistically and culturally. It was said that a hundred different languages and dialects were spoken on the streets of Freetown in those days. It was a costly project, and often a heart-rending one too; and the British stood to gain nothing in the transaction. Yet, Wilberforce and others continued to press the battle on every front in spite of continuing frustration.
The final victory in the English abolition campaign came long after the slave trade was outlawed. The remaining step was emancipation of the slaves in the British colonies, mostly plantation workers on the sugar islands of the West Indies. Wilberforce had grown old in the fight. He died in 1833 as the emancipation bill was making its way through Parliament, but he lived long enough to know it would be enacted. An interesting feature of the law being passed was the provision that the slaveholders should be compensated by the British government for the loss of their slaves. "Thank God," said the aged Wilberforce7 a few days before his death, "that I should have lived to witness a day in which England is willing to give twenty millions sterling for the abolition of Slavery."
Opponents of the bill and the faint hearted promised dire calamities when the law became effective on the first of August the following year (1834). Military reinforcements were sent to the Caribbean to maintain order, but they were never needed. As Ralph Waldo Emerson tells us, writing ten years later, everything went off smoothly:
On the night of the 31st of July, they met everywhere at their churches and chapels, and at midnight, when the clock struck twelve, on their knees, the silent, weeping assembly became men; they rose and embraced each other; they cried, they sang, they prayed, they were wild with joy, but there was no riot…. The first of August came on Friday, and a release was proclaimed from all work until the next Monday. The day was chiefly spent by the great mass of the negroes in the churches and chapels. The clergy and missionaries throughout the island were actively engaged, seizing the opportunities to enlighten the people on all the duties and responsibilities of their new relation, and urging them to the attainment of that higher liberty with which Christ maketh his children free.8
Good Works and Laissez Faire
The reformers who abolished slavery throughout the British Empire are a fascinating group, both for what they did and for what they believed. It is standard socialist doctrine that the men who made the Industrial Revolution in England, the laissez-faire economists and practical businessmen from the time of Adam Smith through the reign of Queen Victoria, were a money-grabbing lot devoid of compassion and "social concern" (to use the contemporary jargon). No doubt part of them fit the stereotype perfectly; but there were many others who were Christian gentlemen, in the best sense of that much abused term, and used their wealth and influence for the good of mankind.
A recent writer, Robert Langbaum,9 has prefaced his book on the Victorian Age with an interesting contrast between the men who pushed reform in England, including the abolition of slavery, in the decades before and after 1800, and their grandchildren who belonged to the Fabian Society a century later and laid the foundations for the British welfare state as instituted by the Labor government of our own time. The former group, William Wilberforce, his relatives and friends, were devout Christians who used their political power — they had an influence out of all proportion to their numbers — to promote worthy causes. They also invested large sums of their own money in private charity. This "power elite," derisively nicknamed the "Clapham Sect" or the "Saints" by their political enemies, believed, said Langbaum, "in piety, reform of church and state moral action and laissez-faire economics." Their posterity a hundred years later (the famous "Bloomsbury Circle," including John Maynard Keynes) "disbelieved in religion and moral action, and did believe in government regulation or ownership of industry…." Thus, too briefly, is described "the century-long migration of English liberal intellectuals from Clapham to Bloomsbury," from a Christian free enterprise philosophy to a secular socialism.
It should be remembered that to speak of the Bloomsbury Circle as the children of the Clapham Sect is no figure of speech; they came of the same distinguished families and were in fact the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the Evangelicals who had been Wesley’s disciples and who had successfully promoted so many reforms. Yet today, a multitude of Americans consider socialism as the moral and ethical alternative and laissez-faire capitalism as utterly unchristian. Obviously, someone is confused, then or now; or the question is irrelevant.
What makes the problem so fascinating is that the next British attempt to promote the abolition of slavery, beyond continuing anti-slave-trade naval patrol, was to no small degree the work of that arch free trader and free enterpriser, John Bright of the Anti-Corn-Law-League. Shortly after the last slaves were liberated in the colonies, a new propaganda campaign was launched in England to abolish protective tariffs. We don’t commonly associate slavery and tariffs, but Frederic Bastiat, a French contemporary of Bright, connects the two in a famous passage, discussing the problems of the United States:
… look at the United States (in 1850). There is no country in the world where the law is kept more within its proper domain: the protection of every person’s liberty and property. As a consequence of this, there appears to be no country in the world where the social order rests on a firmer foundation. But even in the United States, there are two issues — and only two — that have always endangered the public peace.
What are these two issues? They are slavery and tariffs. These are the only two issues where, contrary to the general spirit of the republic of the United States, law has assumed the character of a plunderer.
Slavery is a violation, by law, of liberty. The protective tariff is a violation, by law, of property.
It is a most remarkable fact that this double legal crime — a sorrowful inheritance from the Old World —should be the only issue which can, and perhaps will, lead to the ruin of the Union. It is indeed impossible to imagine, at the very heart of a society, a more astounding fact than this: The law has come to be an instrument of injustice. And if this fact brings terrible consequences to the United States — where the proper purpose of the law has been perverted only in the instances of slavery and tariffs — what must be the consequences in Europe, where the perversion of the law is a principle; a system?10
Certainly Bastiat’s words have been prophetic. Slavery nearly wrecked our nation in the 1860′s and the Smoot-Hawley Tariff of 1930, following the Crash of ’29, intensified the Depression and precipitated an international trade war that helped to bring on World War II. And the problem is still with us. John Bright did not help us rid ourselves of our tariffs, although he did do much to promote free trade for Britain in 1846 and thereafter; but he made a real contribution to our attempt to free the slaves at the time of our Civil War. We owe him much.
John Bright’s Role
John Bright, a prominent member of a new generation of reformers that grew up with the passing of the Clapham Sect, makes an interesting character study. He was an earnest Christian, a humble Quaker who never outgrew the little Meeting House which he had attended in his childhood. He was a self-made man, a successful cotton manufacturer from the Manchester area and long a member of Parliament; but he took his faith into his business and politics, and refused to compartmentalize his religion. When Bright11 found free trade in the Scriptures and proclaimed, "As a nation of Bible Christians, we ought to realize that trade should be as free as the winds of heaven," the cynical could smirk that he stood to gain by the Repeal of the Corn Laws and free trade in general; to them he was just using religion to bolster his economic position. The criticism was not fair. It is true that when he promoted the repeal of the Corn Laws, he was a national figure and was exceedingly popular; but when he bitterly opposed the Crimean War a decade later, England turned violently against him. Still, he did not adjust his conscience to the whims of the passing moment.
The American Civil War was the real test of Bright’s character. He abhorred war, although he was not a complete pacifist; he abhorred slavery also, but he was a cotton manufacturer and was well aware of the dependence of the Manchester area on Southern cotton. His good friend Richard Cobden, with whom he had labored so mightily in the days of the Corn Law agitation, tended to favor the Southern free traders as against Northern protectionists; but Bright convinced him there were more important principles at stake. Many Englishmen openly sympathized with the South and there were enough incidents like the Trent Affair (the capture by a Northern naval commander of a British ship carrying a couple of Southern agents) to bring the North and England to the brink of war.
On the Side of Freedom
Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, is credited with having helped to avert a conflict in this case, but he was fatally ill at the time and died soon afterward. It was John Bright who remained the constant friend of Mr. Lincoln’s government throughout the war, although his self-interest as a textile manufacturer would have inclined him in the opposite direction. The American people expressed their gratitude, too, in a number of ways. Perhaps the most interesting tribute was contained in an address given by a distinguished American to a group of English school children after the war. He told them that, of course, American school children loved George Washington first of all, then Abraham Lincoln, but John Bright’ 2 came third "because he is the friend of our country."
This friendship should not be minimized because it is quite obvious that the North had about all it could handle in defeating the South without European intervention. Had Britain gone to the aid of the Confederacy, it would no doubt have changed the course of history. And it was the English conscience, the deep-seated opposition to slavery throughout the nation, that tipped the balance in favor of the North. Once again the English were prepared to pay for their convictions, this time in widespread unemployment, particularly in the cotton mills, and economic distress for the nation. But freedom is more important than prosperity, when that is the choice.
Conscience and Laissez Faire
The freedom story is fascinating, but one can read it as a human interest story and still miss the point. Present-day scholars who know of the mighty labors of a couple or three generations of free enterprisers who sought to rid the world of the blight of slavery long ago, tend to feel that the English abolitionists were inconsistent. If laissez faire means noninterference by government in business, then why should the slave business have been singled out for destruction. Of course, those who raise such questions today are not defending slavery but questioning the logic of laissez faire.
This is an exceedingly important consideration because it reveals a total lack of comprehension by our contemporaries of the motives and philosophy of those engaged in that earlier effort. If Wilberforce, Bright, and their associates had been anarchists, the point would be well taken; then all they could have done consistently would have been to wait for slavery to wither away of itself as the Soviet government is supposed to do some day. While it is true that there are and have been laissez-faire anarchists over the years, these abolitionists cannot be so classified; nor was Adam Smith, the father of the free enterprise tradition, out to abolish government.
Smith did want to do away with the innumerable and senseless mercantilist restrictions so characteristic of his age, because he was certain that they reduced productivity (which they were intended to do) and hence resulted in needless poverty and suffering. But Smith’s¹³ "obvious and simple system of natural liberty" was based on "the laws of justice" (the Moral Law); he was no anarchist. He believed, as did many of his contemporaries, in a natural harmonious order; that God had so arranged His Creation that "all things work together for good," if we but obey Him (Romans 8:28). If this is true, the endless attempts to rig the market and rook the neighbors were unnecessary, immoral, and a cause of needless conflict. As Bastiat14 asked, "How could God have willed that men should attain prosperity only through injustice and war?"
Mercantilism, ancient and modern, is based on the "frightful blasphemy," that God has so ordered the world that the right is impractical, common decency is suicidal, and the oppression of the weak and helpless is good business. This view Adam Smith and his followers emphatically rejected on philosophical and ethical grounds. While they might disagree as to how much government is necessary and appropriate, they did agree that slavery is contrary to the Higher Law and should be abolished. To them it was bad business and worse morals.
It may seem preposterous to a multitude of people to speak of the laissez-faire economists and practical businessmen of the Industrial Revolution as Christian gentlemen much concerned with reform. According to the popular notion, as T. S. Ashton15 tells us, ".. the course of English history since about the year 1760 to the setting-up of the welfare state in 1945 was marked by little but toil and sweat and oppression." There was some of this certainly, but this is only part of the story. A contemporary historian, Earle E. Cairns,16 writing of Wilberforce and the Clapham Sect in the decades before and after 1800, insists that they accomplished more of a constructive nature than any reform movement in history and there were others who followed them who accomplished much also.
Then why the very bad reputation of this era? Certainly few periods of history are more notorious than the early Industrial Revolution. Generations of Socialists blackened the good name of these men who did have their failings and this age which did have its problems. Some of their bitterest critics were their own grandchildren, the Bloomsbury Circle. Today, sadder and wiser, we realize that we could certainly learn much from them, if we would forget our prejudices long enough to examine the record. Indeed, a contemporary scholar, Karl Polanyi,17 tell us that the four great institutions of the nineteenth century — the balance of power, the gold standard, the market economy and limited government —"produced an unheard-of material welfare" and also "a phenomenon unheard of in the annals of Western civilization, namely a hundred years’ peace" (1815 to 1914). He is, of course, aware of the Crimean War and the Franco-Prussian War, for instance, which he regards with some reason as fairly minor disturbances (since he is speaking from a European point of view, the American Civil War doesn’t count). It should be added also that Polanyi is a Socialist, according to his own testimony, so his kind remarks about Capitalism take on additional significance.
Perhaps we have come full circle back to our beginnings, as one Englishman wrote recently: "In our own unpleasant century we are mostly displaced persons, and many feel tempted to take flight into the nineteenth as into a promised land…." Retreating to the past is clearly impossible, if it were desirable, but we can face the future with courage, as did our Fathers, and take as our motto John Bright’s slogan: "In working out our political problem, we should take for our foundation that which recommends itself to our conscience as just and moral."
1 Michael Curtis (ed.) The Great Political Theories, Vol. I, from Plato and Aristotle to Locke and Montesquieu, pp. 296-302.
2 Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations (Modern Library edition), p. 365.
3 Garet Garrett, The American Story,
4 Lord Byron, "On the Castle of Chillon."
5 Harvey Cox, The Secular City, p. 61.
6 Edward C. P. Lascelles, Granville Sharp and the Freedom of Slaves in England, p. 27.
Sir Reginald Coupland, Wilberforce, a Narrative, pp. 516-517.
8 Emerson’s Essays (Modern Library edition), pp. 839-840.
9 Robert Langbaum, The Victorian Age, pp. 9-10.
15 Frederic Bastiat, The Law, pp. 18-19.
11 Asa Briggs, Victorian People, p. 207.
12 George Barnett Smith, The Life and Speeches of John Bright, M.P., Vol. 2, pp. 113-114.
13 Adam Smith, p. 651.
14 Frederic Bastiat, Economic Sophisms, p. 88.
15 F. A. Hayek (ed.), Capitalism and the Historians, p. 32.
16 Earle E. Cairns, Saints and Society, p. 43.
17 Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation, pp. 3-5.