"But if these things are so, how evidently against reason, nature, and every thing human and divine, must they act, who not only force men into slavery, against their own consent; but treat them altogether as brutes, and make the natural liberty of man an article of public commerce! and by what arguments can they possibly defend that commerce, which cannot be carried on, in any single instance, without a flagrant violation of the laws of nature and of God?"
Thomas Clarkson was a British anti-slavery activist who used creative methods of publicity to fight for the end of slavery. While attending Cambridge University, Clarkson researched and wrote an influential essay on the horrors of slavery that led him to devote his entire life to ending the slave trade in England. Clarkson’s award-winning essay was published in a pamphlet that was widely read by leading abolitionists of the day. In the essay, Clarkson described first-hand accounts from those involved in slave trafficking to illustrate the gross mistreatment of slaves and the effects of slavery on society. This graphic narrative sparked a nationwide effort to end slavery. Clarkson’s essay and his other anti-slavery writings inspired a 20-year campaign in British Parliament to make slavery illegal, led by the politician William Wilberforce.
In advancing the anti-slavery movement, Clarkson traveled thousands of miles and interviewed tens of thousands of people in port cities throughout England to gather evidence of the torture and abuse of slaves. His efforts nearly cost him his life when slave traders at one port discovered what he was doing and tried to capture and kill him.
Unique to his time, Clarkson used visual aids to reinforce his public speeches against slavery. In his travels, he collected items that showed the ugly realities of slavery. At each lecture or public meeting, he displayed these artifacts that he carried around with him in a specially-made box.
Clarkson’s efforts to display the horrific artifacts of slavery were highly effective. Many people in England and the United States had not personally seen the evils of slavery. Clarkson’s displays showed it to them firsthand.
Clarkson’s campaign against slavery led to the passage of the Slave Trade Act in 1807, which abolished the slave trade but did not make owning slaves illegal. For the rest of his life, Clarkson tirelessly worked to completely end slavery in England and free all slaves. He also participated in campaigns to end slavery in America.
CENTERED ON CHRIST
Clarkson, a devout Christian, was an ordained deacon in the Anglican Church. He credits a spiritual revelation from God for his calling to devote his entire life to ending slavery. In his famous essay, Clarkson wrote that slavery is a violation of God’s laws and incompatible with Christian doctrines found in the Bible, such as loving your neighbor as yourself. The aim of his message was that anyone who claimed to be a Christian must join the effort to end the practice of slavery.
Clarkson concluded his essay with this moving quote:
“For if liberty is only an adventitious right; if men are by no means superiour to brutes; if every social duty is a curse; if cruelty is highly to be esteemed; if murder is strictly honourable, and Christianity is a lye; then it is evident, that the African slavery may be pursued, without either the remorse of conscience, or the imputation of a crime. But if the contrary of this is true, which reason must immediately evince, it is evident that no custom established among men was ever more impious; since it is contrary to reason, justice, nature, the principles of law and government, the whole doctrine, in short, of natural religion, and the revealed voice of God.”