It’s not all about Abe: the uncelebrated activists of the anti-slavery movement

Guilt by Lynn SteinsonAbe-lincoln-162x300 It's not all about Abe: the uncelebrated activists of the anti-slavery movement

Abraham Lincoln, Lincoln Square, Manchester

To Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States.
‘As citizens of Manchester, assembled at the Free-Trade Hall, we beg to express our fraternal sentiments towards you and your country. We rejoice in your greatness, as an outgrowth of England, whose blood and language you share, whose orderly and legal freedom you have applied to new circumstances, over a region measurably greater than our own…Since we have discerned, however, that the victory of the free North, in the war which has so sorely distressed us as well as afflicted you, will strike off the fetters of the slave, you have attracted our warm and earnest sympathy. We joyfully honour you as the PRESIDENT, and the Congress with you, for many decisive steps towards practically exemplifying your belief in the words of your great founders. ‘All men are created free and equal”.’

Manchester Free Trade Hall 31 December 1862

At a meeting at the Free Trade Hall, on New Year’s eve 1862, the working people of Manchester resolved to support the Union in its fight against slavery and sent an address to President Lincoln stating, ‘the vast progress which you have made in the short space of twenty months fills us with hope that every stain on your freedom will shortly be removed, and that the erasure of that foul blot on civilisation and Christianity – chattel slavery – during your presidency, will cause the name of Abraham Lincoln to be honoured and revered by posterity.’

Abraham Lincoln’s response to the working people of Manchester’s address ‘I know and deeply deplore the sufferings which the working-men of Manchester, and in all Europe, are called to endure in this crisis,’ is commemorated in the city’s Lincoln Square, albeit with a more politically correct, if inaccurate reference to ‘people’ rather than ‘men’. In fact the audience described themselves in different ways: ‘the industrious classes’, ‘working men and others’ and ‘artisans’.

Lincoln might have secured his pedestal, to look down at us from a marble plinth or cinema screen, acclaimed for posterity for achieving the abolition of chattel slavery in the USA, but for the abolitionists there had been no certainty, no trust that he had intended to end slavery, until the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation in September 1862. The real heroes of the anti-slavery movement rarely make the lead role in the cinema, witness Oloadah Equiano and Thomas Clarkson supporting the parliamentarian Wilberforce in the 2006 film ‘Amazing Grace’. The celebration of Lincoln’s life on film, the reverence accorded to him for posterity, was not inevitable. The anti-slavery movement embraced many, but the identity of so many, and particularly those who suffered the most has often been side-lined to the footnotes of history at best.

For over seventy-five years the deep-routed belief in the rights of man had enabled anti-slavery agitation to flourish in Manchester. The city was the hub of a dynamic region, bringing together towns of strangers who had been drawn in by an entrepreneurial spirit or had reluctantly moved in to seek work, exiles from a declining rural economy. The movement built on a tradition of political agitation which had been proven in campaigns to promote entrepreneurial self-interest or constitutional reform in the previous century and developed within a cultural and ideological context which was framed by the British Atlantic world and transatlantic evangelical Christianity. The anti-slavery movement was essentially inter-dominational in character, deriving from the peculiar nature of Manchester which was characterised by the presence of many Unitarians and Dissenters. The cultures of these churches encouraged, in different ways, women to participate in anti-slavery activities and, through their experiences, to develop their own political awareness. Manchester was a centre of working class agitation and also of free trade activists.
Economic interests were a constant theme in the agitation which resonated with the middle class leadership. Proposals for alternative trading with Africa or the East Indies rather than the West Indies permeated the pamphlets alongside calls for religious altruism. The free traders and anti-corn law league did not immediately find their economic interests allied with the Federalist north, but Quaker John Bright, greatly admired by Lincoln, became a great supporter of abolition. On the other side were the economic interests of the plantation owners allied with the established church.

The stories of violently uprooted African families had resonated in the industrialising north, above all in Manchester. It was told and promoted by local Mancunians and then the missionaries and black abolitionists on the anti-slavery lecture circuit re-told the story with their first-hand accounts of their atrocious experiences which were condoned or initiated by the planters, some of whom lived close by. The language of anti-slavery was appropriated by other radical causes. At Peterloo in 1819 the Royton Female Suffrage Society banner had declared, ‘Let us die like men and not be sold like slaves’. Images of slavery were widely used by both political and factory reformers. Manchester-based Engels and Marx, the latter a frequent visitor to Manchester, had also appropriated the language to describe the Lancashire working class. ‘As long as the English cotton manufacturers depended on slave grown cotton, it could be truthfully asserted that they rested on a two-fold slavery, the indirect slavery of the white man and the direct slavery of the black man on the other side of the Atlantic’. Both workers and slaves were depicted as sharing the same oppressors.

The Slave Trade Act of 1807 was followed in 1834 by an Act which abolished slavery in most of the British Empire – compensating the slave owners but deferring freedom for most slaves for a further six years- however, slavery persisted in the southern states of America and elsewhere. The anti-slavery movement was not finished, far from it.

From the 1840s American black free-men and fugitive slaves played an important part in the abolition movement in the UK. They aimed to create a unified international opposition to slavery and to isolate America by raising awareness of its continuing horrors. They also exposed the role of the American free churches, which, if not benefiting from slavery directly, supported it by their silence. The horrific stories which had been previously dramatised for the British in pamphlets and in the pulpit were now being told by those who had suffered directly under the system. These included free-born Sarah Remond and fugitive slaves such as James Watkins, Henry Box Brown, William Wells Brown and Frederick Douglass, all of whom were active in the north-west. Free black American William P. Powell, who was based in Liverpool, was a key link in the north-west, distributing anti-slavery propaganda and funnelling back funds to the Boston anti-slavery bazaar. He actively supported the lecture circuits of Sarah Remond and William Wells Brown.

Guilt by Lynn SteinsonAbe-lincoln-162x300 It's not all about Abe: the uncelebrated activists of the anti-slavery movement

Frederick Douglass

Guilt by Lynn SteinsonAbe-lincoln-162x300 It's not all about Abe: the uncelebrated activists of the anti-slavery movement

Henry Box Brown

Guilt by Lynn SteinsonAbe-lincoln-162x300 It's not all about Abe: the uncelebrated activists of the anti-slavery movement

William Wells Brown

In the 1840s the American anti-slavery movement split between William Lloyd Garrison’s ‘immediate abolitionists’ who were also supporters of women’s rights and the more conservative Quakers. The divisions were reflected in Britain in 1840 when the first world anti-slavery Conference in London became dominated by discussions over whether women should have the right to speak. They did not. Unitarian feminist Harriet Martineau, now resident in Westmoreland, and Liverpool-based activist George Thompson, both transatlantic commentators, and William Powell made the north-west a Garrisonian heartland.

Guilt by Lynn SteinsonAbe-lincoln-162x300 It's not all about Abe: the uncelebrated activists of the anti-slavery movement

Sarah Remond

As the civil war developed abolitionists like Powell, Martineau and Thompson were frustrated and concerned that emancipation was not being championed by the Federalists. The slave trade agitation in the UK on behalf of American slaves was widespread, but support for the Federal government was far from inevitable. As Douglas Lorimer states ‘the English expected the American struggle to be fought over slavery’ but the Union did not take this up. He argues that the distrust of Northern abolitionists’ claims meant that the slavery question was never a serious obstacle to British support for the South. The 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, which had declared that all runaway slaves, even in the north, were to be returned to their masters, had shown that there was no reason to trust the Federalists. There were suspicions that Lincoln was unprincipled and expedient. In 1861 as the Union’s blockade on the South prevented cotton supplies being shipped to Lancashire the ‘cotton famine’ began, causing great hardship to cotton workers over the next four years. Initial reactions to extreme hardship in Lancashire were articulated against the manufacturers not the Union. Finally, Lincoln declared abolition a war aim in September 1862 and earned a pedastal in Lincoln Square, Manchester over a century later.

Guilt by Lynn SteinsonAbe-lincoln-162x300 It's not all about Abe: the uncelebrated activists of the anti-slavery movement
Whilst it is common knowledge that Abel Heywood, Mayor of Manchester- although on this occasion acting in a personal capacity- chaired the “meeting of working men and others”on New Year’s eve 1862, it is not so well known that sharing the platform with him was escaped slave William A. Jackson who had been the coachman for the President of the Confederate States, Jefferson Davis, crossing enemy lines only in May. Jackson, it is now recognised, was a Union spy, a freeman who had infiltrated the confederate mansion and passed on secrets to the Union after his succesful escape.

Guilt by Lynn SteinsonAbe-lincoln-162x300 It's not all about Abe: the uncelebrated activists of the anti-slavery movement The Lincoln Memorial, Washington D.C.[/caption]

Blackett, R. J. M., Building on Antislavery wall: Black Americans in the Atlantic Abolitionist Movement, 1830-1860 (Baton Rouge; London: Louisiana State University Press, 1983)
Bush, M. L., ‘The Women at Peterloo: The Impact of Female Reform on the Manchester Meeting of 16 August 1819’, History, 89/294 (2004), 209-32.
Drescher, Seymour, ‘Cart Whip and Billy Roller: Antislavery and Reform Symbolism in Industrializing Britain’, Journal of Social History, 15/1 (Autumn 1981), 3-24.
—, Capitalism and antislavery : British mobilization in comparative perspective : the second Anstey memorial lectures in the University of Kent at Canterbury, 1984 (The Anstey memorial lectures in the University of Kent at Canterbury; 2nd.; Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1986) xv, 300.
Lorimer, D. A., ‘Role of Anti-slavery and British Reactions to the American Civil War’, Historical Journal, 19/2 (1976), p.405-20.
Midgley, Clare, Women against Slavery: The British campaigns, 1780-1870 (London: Routledge, 1992) xii,281
Ripley, C. Peter, The Black Abolitionist Papers (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985

Guilt by Lynn SteinsonAbe-lincoln-162x300 It's not all about Abe: the uncelebrated activists of the anti-slavery movementCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2013 Lynn Steinson
Guilt by Lynn SteinsonAbe-lincoln-162x300 It's not all about Abe: the uncelebrated activists of the anti-slavery movement
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About Lynn Steinson

Author of psychological thrillers "Deluded" and "Guilt" about members of The Sun pub quiz team.
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