Moral Blight of Slavery Is a Modern Problem
From the March 6, 2007, Chicago Sun-Times
March 8, 2007
by John O'Sullivan
One of the great battles for human liberty was won exactly 200 years ago when the British Parliament passed a law abolishing the international slave trade. Slavery itself had been outlawed in England 35 years before in a famous legal verdict, prompting poet William Cowper to write proudly:
Slaves cannot breathe in England; if their lungs Receive our air, that moment they are free.
But almost everywhere else -- including both Britain's overseas colonies and the infant United States after 1776 -- slavery was the norm. It was not seen as shameful or immoral by most people. It had been a universal institution throughout history, after all, and in the main it happened far away. Few of those who benefitted financially from the slave trade saw the terrible scenes of brutal abuse on the ships or the sugar plantations. Many of them had consciences, but those consciences slept undisturbed.
In the 1790s a small number of British evangelical Christians, known as the Clapham Sect, determined to arouse these sleeping consciences. They organized a boycott of West Indian sugar, distributed a drawing of a slave ship depicting the deadly overcrowding of slaves, sued a slave ship captain for murder, made the cameo of a slave in manacles under the words "Am I not a man and a brother?" the public symbol of their cause, and published the memoirs of an escaped slave. In short, as the Economist wrote recently, they invented most of the techniques now used in human rights campaigning.
They focused on the slave trade rather than on slavery itself because they calculated that if Britain, the world's maritime superpower, were to abolish the international trade in human beings, the Royal Navy would enforce this law on all nations. That is what happened. British anti-slavery naval squadrons waged a permanent war on slavers not only in the Atlantic but also in Asia and East Africa. As late as the 1930s, Royal Navy ships patrolled the Red Sea to prevent the transport of slaves to Arabia.
At the beginning, William Wilberforce, a wealthy and eloquent young Tory MP, was the parliamentary leader of the anti-slavery campaign. He was a popular figure, a close friend of William Pitt (the prodigy who became Tory prime minister at the age of 23), and a brilliant debater. As a young man, he experienced a powerful religious awakening and contemplated leaving public life to become a Christian recluse. Pitt sent him a long and deeply felt letter arguing that a Christian with Wilberforce's gifts and privileges could accomplish more good by pursuing God's will through politics. After praying for guidance, Wilberforce decided to devote himself to two great causes: the abolition of slavery internationally and the reformation of morals in Britain.
These causes were, of course, linked. If the social conscience of the British could be aroused, they would be bound to abolish slavery in time. Wilberforce and his Claphamite allies succeeded in both causes.
His best-selling book, Real Christianity, along with John Wesley's preaching and the missionary work of the Methodists, saved the English upper and middle classes from a selfish cynicism and the working class from the squalor and drunkenness that followed the social disruption of the Industrial Revolution. Sure enough, 20 years after Wilberforce introduced his first parliamentary bill, the law abolishing the slave trade was passed.
All this is now told in a superb film that opened on the 200th anniversary of Wilberforce's triumph: "Amazing Grace." It has high politics, true friendship, a great cause, resourceful villains, dramatic parliamentary scenes, great speeches and even a dash of romance -- since, at a low point in his struggles, Wilberforce, a confirmed bachelor, met, fell in love with, and within a few weeks married Barbara Spooner, who shared his passionate Christian conscience.
If I have some quibbles about its account of 18th century politics, they are overwhelmed by the beautiful photography, by a script that is alternately witty and moving, and by the fine acting. The film is based on a fine and important book of the same name by Eric Metaxas. Both borrow their titles from the great hymn by John Newton, a former slave ship captain who was converted to Christianity and campaigned against slavery with a powerful account of its brutalities.
Slavery did not, alas, disappear as quickly as the Claphamites had hoped. Wilberforce spent the rest of his life fighting it. Only three days before his death, he was given the news that the British government had abolished slavery throughout its colonies by buying out the slaveowners for half the market value of their slaves. Thereafter, wherever the British empire expanded, slavery was abolished.
It took a civil war for the United States to accomplish the same result. By the start of the 20th century, however, slavery was thought to be an evil banished into the past.
As the credits of "Amazing Grace" roll up, however, we are told that there are in today's world more slaves than in Wilberforce's time. Chattel slaves are mainly to be found in countries such as Sudan, Mauritania and Arabia. As in the past, they are hidden from our view.
We might therefore be inclined to let our consciences sleep about today's slavery as England's did before Wilberforce. But we cannot afford such complacency, for there are slaves in our society, too. International sex trafficking brings women from Asia and Eastern Europe into America and Europe where, coerced by pimps and virtually imprisoned in brothels, they are beaten and raped. Some are very young; some are forced to have sex 30 or 40 times a day.
We have turned a blind eye to this new slavery, and our libertarian morality about the sex trade encourages us to keep that eye closed. "Amazing Grace" is an opportunity to awaken our consciences to it.
John O'Sullivan was a Senior Fellow at Hudson Institute and editor-at-large of National Review.