Feeling Their Pain

Origin myths are as much about the present as they are about the past, which is why they can be so contentious. Is a monkey your great-uncle? Who cares? And nobody would, except that the answer has implications for how we think about ourselves, and for how we run our society.

Adam Hochschild’s Bury the Chains: Prophets, Slaves, and Rebels in the First Human Rights Crusade is, as the title suggests, not a dry-as-dust account of the dead past, but rather an origin story complete with a Moral Lesson for Our Time. As is usual with such things, this last serves primarily to muck up a perfectly entertaining narrative.

And make no mistake: Bury the Chains is entertaining, with enough drama, irony, and blood to fill a wildly successful Ken Burns mini-series. The book traces the rise and fall and final success of abolitionism in Britain during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Along the way, it talks about the horrible conditions under which British seamen lived, slave revolts in Haiti, the French Revolution, growing crops in Africa, and the state of infrastructure in England. Slavery, Hochschild argues, touched virtually everyone in the world during its heydey, and the narrative breadth of Bury the Chains goes a long way towards proving that point.

But while the theme is epic, the handling of it is merely serviceable. Hochschild writes with the ingratiating self-consciousness of a determined popularizer. Every historical figure, it seems, is described with a burst of pseudo-Dickensian enthusiasm: thus, Granville Sharp, a leading British anti-slavery campaigner, has “thin lips, a long nose, [and] a fierce, determined gaze accentuated by an outward jut of the chin.” Nor will Hochschild say “attitudes towards slavery changed” when he can say instead that “forces burst into life.”

This is not great prose, obviously, but it bounces along quickly enough in the breezy style of a Time magazine article. That contemporary touch is intentional. Hochschild is a progressive — he is one of the founders of Mother Jones magazine — and he is using the past as a tool to inspire present-day liberals. For Hochschild, abolition in Britain was the grand-daddy of all progressive movements. Abolitionism, he argues, was the first human-rights campaign. Moreover, it was the abolitionists who, during the mid-1700s, first developed the tactics of activism: the boycott, petitions, the left-wing-celebrity book tour. The abolitionists even had perhaps the first radical reporter; a man named Thomas Clarkson.

Clarkson is a neglected figure, much less well-known than William Wilberforce, the Member of Parliament most associated with anti-slavery legislation. But though he’s been largely forgotten, Clarkson’s story is a compelling one. While a clergyman-in-training at Cambridge, he wrote a prize-winning essay in Latin denouncing slavery. This was merely meant to be an exercise, but the details Clarkson uncovered while researching his composition so horrified him that he devoted the rest of his life to abolition. After making this decision, he threw himself into the cause, spending sixteen-hour-days looking through the records of slave-ships to learn all he could about the industry and its practices. Later, he traveled incessantly to drum up support for emancipation; on one trip he logged almost two thousand miles, a phenomenal distance in the late 18th century. His greatest work was probably a pamphlet called the Abstract, which summarized the anti-slavery evidence placed before Parliament; it became, according to Hochschild, the best-selling non-fiction anti-slavery document in history, and the first piece of modern investigative journalism ever published.

Hochshchild makes every effort to spread credit around in his book. He does not, for example, try to deny Wilberforce’s contribution. In addition, as a politically correct liberal, he takes care to point out the important contributions of female anti-slavery societies and of blacks themselves — the Haitian revolution made it clear that if the slaves were not freed by law, they might well free themselves in a much more bloody manner. Yet, despite this even-handedness, it is Clarkson who Hochschild singles out early in the book as his “central character.” Why?

There seem to be two reasons. First, Clarkson lived a long time. He was there when Parliament first debated abolition in the late 1780s, he was there when the cause foundered in the 1790s, and he was there when it was taken up again in the early 1800s. He saw the slave trade banned in 1807, and was still alive to celebrate when all British slaves were finally freed in 1838. Large sections of Bury the Chains don’t mention Clarkson at all, but the narrative always comes back to him, still committed, still working away.

The second reason for the focus on Clarkson, however, is probably more important. Clarkson is the hero of the piece because he is the figure who seems most analogous to a modern human rights activist. Clarkson, like other abolitionists, devoted his life to fighting for the “rights of others people, of a different skin color, an ocean away….” But where men like the Evangelical Wilberforce were clearly motivated by religious concerns, Clarkson was more secular. Earlier anti-slavery literature had relied on arguments from Scripture, or on the religious doctrines of the Quakers, who were, as Hochschild acknowledges, the leading force behind the early abolition movement. Clarkson eventually became a kind of honorary Quaker himself, but his anti-slavery writing were based less on theology than on humanity, in both senses of the term. His best-selling Abstract read “more like a report by a modern human rights organization than [like] the moralizing tracts against slavery that had preceded it.” Clarkson relied on reports of atrocities against bodies, not against souls, to move his audience.

For Hochschild, then, the great achievement of the abolitionists is the replacement of God with “empathy” as a motivating force in world affairs. This substitution is, of course, an unalloyed good in Hochschild’s view. God was for remorseless hypocrites like John Newton, the Evangelical slave ship captain, who thanked his Lord for allowing him to prosper in his chosen profession. Empathy is both more honest and more trustworthy.

But is it? The empathy of the abolitionists was, as Hochschild points out, closely linked to condescension. One of the most powerful images of the abolition movement was a drawing of a slave kneeling in chains with the inscription, “Am I Not a Man and A Brother?” Hochschild points out that abolitionists preferred to see slaves as helpless victims begging for aid, rather than as dignified men and women like themselves. But while Hochschild sees this as lamentable, he does not view it as an essential part of the anti-slavery ideology. Liberals, he feels, can take the empathy and leave out the contempt.

Well, perhaps. But the history of modern activism suggests that things aren’t quite so simple. Hochschild says that the abolitionists would be thrilled by the trial of Slobodan Milosevich, for example, but I think that their imaginations would be much more fired by a less distant, less legalistic campaign: pro-life. The anti-abortion movement — with its ties to evangelicals, its focus on helpless victims, its gripping horror stories — is much closer to the abolitionists in spirit than any left-wing movement I can think of. And the pro-lifers are perfectly aware of the connection, as you’ll find if you type “William Wilberforce” and “pro-life” into a search engine.

The truth is that the abolitionist’s legacy of liberalism and progressivism belongs at least as much to the political right as it does to the political left. It was Kipling, an imperialist, who argued in “The White Man’s Burden” that imperialism is justified on humanitarian grounds. It is The Economist, a libertarian magazine, that provides the best investigative coverage of world events. It is George W. Bush who speaks idealistically of a democratic — but not a Christian — Middle East. We live in a world where all have been injured, and all must have empathy. Morality used to be measured by how loudly you prayed; now its measured by how loudly you sympathize. Perhaps this is an improvement, though I doubt it makes much different to the vast mass of humanity, who just wish we’d shut up and leave them alone.

A version of this essay first appeared in The Chicago Reader