Simon Schama examines British, American differences in abolishing slave trade

Maggie Skortcheva/Stanford Daily Simon Schama

Simon Schama, a professor of history and art history at Columbia, delivered a Presidential Lecture Oct. 29.

This year marked a noteworthy bicentenary: The transatlantic slave trade was abolished first with an act of Congress on March 2, 1807, followed with a British act of Parliament on March 25.

In England, the anniversary was remembered with saturation media coverage, academic conferences, a proliferation of websites and splashy celebrations, some of them government sponsored.

But in America … silence.

"The commemoration was ignored on this side of the pond," said Simon Schama, a professor of history and art history at Columbia University and also an award-winning author and broadcaster. The contrast led him to examine the two nations' different responses to the abolition of the slave trade two centuries ago.

Delivering the first Presidential Lecture in the Humanities and Arts of the 2007-08 academic year, Schama's Oct. 29 talk was titled "The Abolition of the Slave Trade Two Hundred Years On—America and Britain: Two Diverging Destinies?" The British historian most recently authored the 2006 book Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves and the American Revolution, which won the National Book Critics' Circle Award for general nonfiction.

In America, history tends to be "an exercise in elegiac self-congratulation," he said. In reality, history is "merciless self-criticism."

"History is the memory of come-uppance," he said. "History, our history, is nobody's cheerleader."

Slavery had been sidestepped during the Constitutional Convention of 1787 with an agreement to pass no legislation on slavery for 20 years—a move that triggered the record importation of slaves during the next two decades of procrastination, Schama said.

When the moratorium ended, the fledgling nation quickly became embroiled in complicated maneuvers. Headed by President Thomas Jefferson, whose attitudes toward slavery were "schizophrenic," the debates "pirouetted around moral issues," Schama said.

For example, serious difficulties broke out over potential punishments for those continuing to import slaves from Africa. Some suggested executing the malefactors, but an opponent of this idea said the South, which asserted that slave trade was "a political evil but never a crime," would never consent, according to Schama.

More controversy ignited over the possible fate of slaves released from captured ships. The notion of a free black population within the United States threatened to "kindle the fires of insurrection," some said. Anti-abolitionists warned it was "a greater evil than slavery itself."

Significantly, the South made its first threat to secede over attempts to regulate slave traffic between states, Schama said. "The abolition of the slave trade pointed to a future of disunion, … an accounting to be paid in blood," he said.

Schama said the United States was a nation "whose fate depended on not grasping the nettle." The new country faced "powerful incentives to let sleeping dogs lie."

On the other side of the Atlantic, British defeat in the American Revolution led to soul searching, Schama said, and part of that soul searching concerned abolition.

A concerted religious effort spearheaded by William Wilberforce, a Member of Parliament, put moral principles first. Britain faced "an unprecedented mobilizing of public opinion" spurred by the "Clapham saints," a group of Church of England reformers, Schama said.

"The saints had refused to sweep under the carpet the most repugnant aspects of slavery," Schama added.

Hanoverian England was presented as corrupt—"a Nineveh, indeed, a Sodom," "a temple of corruption," Schama said—characterized by its inhumanity to man. Slavery was seen as "an affront to the basic assumptions of Christian theology."

Rather than a formidable foe needing appeasement, anti-abolitionists were "marginalized as an alien entity," such as the "West Indian lobby."

Wilberforce and others attempted to reframe England as a virtuous Christian nation. In a case pursued by abolitionist Granville Sharp, the British courts decided, "The air of England is too pure for a slave to breathe, and so everyone who breathes it becomes free"—words memorized by subsequent generations of English schoolchildren.

"That we might think they're deluded does not, in any way, diminish the force of their coherence," said Schama, who described himself as a lapsed Jew.

During the bicentenary, the British "had engaged with abolition as an actual, moral act with protagonists who meant what they said."

He said this "quirky, strange Christian moment" in history forces us to reconsider "what the relationship of belief and action is about." Schama said that the power of religious belief to change history was something that he, as a historian, had to relearn after a generation of scholars looked to social, economic and scientific models to describe human experience as a tool of other forces, rather than a constituent force in itself.

At the question-and-answer session the following day, Schama's listeners challenged him on some of his points—particularly his notion that British abolition represented an "authentic moment of good faith" and "an amazing moment of possibilities" based on "a coherent philosophy of Christian reform."

History Professor Richard Roberts said that abolition also marked a "change in the control of Parliament itself," with a diminishing Old Guard that was linked to the slave-based sugar economy.

Schama said he did not wish to present a case of "naively projected belief" but emphasized the abolitionists' "adamant, forthright and unequivocal" views were "not just an adjustment to social structure." He noted that abolition was championed by non-conformist churches that remained minorities afterward—for example, the Methodists, whose leader John Wesley declared "color does not modify admission to God's grace," and the Quakers, who had opposed slavery from the 17th century onward. Wilberforce and others saw their enemies as the church hierarchy and were looking for a way to "rebaptize the Church of England."

Humanities Center fellow James Clifford, a Stanford alumnus who is on the faculty of the University of California-Santa Cruz, noted that, in the United States, the Civil War provided the repository of "the public memory of race." The iconic meeting of Grant and Lee at Appomattox, however, was a Grand Illusion moment that ushered in an era not of justice but of Jim Crow laws, segregation and racism, Clifford said.

History Professor Jack Rakove observed that the 400th anniversary of Jamestown "was a bust," and that he expected no bicentenary conference for the Missouri Crisis in the next dozen years. He suggested that part of the reason for the bicentenary neglect is that the event is "no big deal" and that 19th-century "congressional finagling seems to me to be tinkering at the margins."

"Slavery was a self-reproducing system entrenched in the nation" and not dismantled by the 1807 ban, he added.

Schama said slavery was a "deeper wound" in the United States than in Britain. Britain did not face a potential "critical mass" of freed slaves that would make the issue of insurrection and assimilation pressing and volatile. Benjamin Franklin, in an attempt to "puncture British hypocrisy," noted that America was "cutting off the limbs of the most thriving part of the economy" by abolishing the slave trade.

Given the depth of the national wounds caused by atrocities, Schama said, the current vogue for public apologies is largely meaningless. "If a perfectly nice German came up to me and said, 'Really sorry about Auschwitz,' I would say, 'That doesn't cut it, really.'"

He recounted an incident at the bicentenary service at Westminster Abbey. A black activist, Toyin Agbetu, dashed in front of the queen and prime minister, and began haranguing and screaming at the queen about the inadequacy of the public gestures to compensate for the evils of slavery. The incident took a full four minutes to unfold, Schama said, before security was able to wrestle Agbetu out of the building.

The queen was "perceptibly clutching her handbag" during the incident, Schama said. Nevertheless, he said, it showed that even British monarchs "are sometimes capable of taking truth on the royal chin."