ABOLITION, A CLASS-FREE ENDEAVOR
While I’m grateful for the attention Daniel Lazare gives to my book Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves [“Intolerable Cruelty,” Feb. 14], in some of his comments I don’t recognize the story I told. With such phrases as “Hochschild…structures his tale as a middle-class epic” and “Abolition did not succeed in Britain until it transcended the narrow middle-class moralism that Hochschild celebrates,” he implies two things: (1) that the British antislavery movement was–at least until the very end–an entirely middle-class affair; and (2) that this is something I celebrate. Neither is so.
While it’s true that the great majority of the public figures in the movement were middle or even upper class, important voices in the very early years included two former slaves, Quobna Ottobah Cugoano and Olaudah Equiano, both of whom wrote widely sold books and made extensive speaking tours. Furthermore, as I show, one of the remarkable things about this movement is how right from the beginning it drew support from across the class spectrum. The workers in the new industrial city of Manchester made it an antislavery stronghold; at one point nearly a third of the city’s population signed petitions to Parliament against the slave trade. Throughout the country, more people signed such petitions than were eligible to vote; in some small towns signers included every literate inhabitant. In 1789, 769 metalworkers from Sheffield put their names to such a petition, saying that even though they stood to lose income if the knives and razors they made were no longer used by slave ship captains to trade for slaves, nonetheless “your petitioners…consider the case of the nations of Africa as their own.” Narrow middle-class moralism?
Finally, of course, there were the tens of thousands of men and women who took part in the great uprisings that shook the British West Indies. The huge revolt that put the plantations of northwest Jamaica in flames in 1831-32 beyond doubt speeded up Parliament’s passage of emancipation: High British officials openly acknowledged that they might not be able to contain the next rebellion. The more than 500 people who lost their lives in this fighting and the executions that followed were not middle class, they were slaves. They are the “rebels” of my book’s very title.
New York City
Adam Hochschild’s logic is difficult to follow. Nowhere in my review did I suggest that British abolitionism was “an entirely middle-class affair.” No movement ever is, and in fact the mark of a middle-class movement is often its ability to draw from a broad social spectrum. Because the middle class sees itself as the golden mean–neither rich nor poor, radical nor conservative–it often attracts those above and below in search of the happy compromise it purportedly represents. The participation of urban workers and ex-slaves in a subordinate capacity therefore proves nothing. Rather than undermining the movement’s middle-class character, it confirms it.