Abolition wasn’t an Anachronism.
The state of slavery is of such a nature that it is incapable of being introduced on any reasons, moral or political, but only by positive law, which preserves its force long after the reasons, occasions, and time itself from whence it was created, is erased from memory. It is so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it, but positive law.
-William Murray, Baron Mansfield, Lord Chief Justice
June 22, 1772, R v Knowles, ex parte Somersett
With these words William Murray, Lord Chief Justice of England struck the first legal blow against African slavery in England.
There’s a tendency to excuse America’s founders for the sins of slavery and oppression of native people. They were merely men of their times, we’re told. To judge them on the standards of our modern world does them a disservice. They should be judged in the context of their times, in the imperfection of the enlightenment.
Let’s judge them, then, on the standards of their century.
While fruits of abolition were gathered in the 19th century, the seeds of the movement were well in place by the mid-18th. English law had abolished domestic slavery by the 13th century while serfdom had withered away by the end of Gloriana’s reign. By the time the 18th century had come along, the first slave narratives written of the horrors of the trade had started the rejection of the practice among Whig intellectuals.
As was typical in Anglo-Sphere history, it was religious dissidents who agitated for progress. Quakers were the first to take against the practice, including the North American Quakers of Pennsylvania. By 1761 a rejection of slavery was a precondition to being a Quaker.
English intellectuals were no less driven on the subject. John Locke wrote some of the earliest tracts against slavery, while legal minds ranging from John Holt to William Murray began a systematic attack against the practice in court. Parliamentarians from William Wilberforce to the conservative icon par excellence Edmund Burke worked to secure an abolition of slavery in incremental steps.
The oppression of non-English peoples was also an issue that was of substantial importance. The Irish question which started in the 17th century and the issue of Catholic emancipation was until the failed uprising of 1797 one of the hallmarks of Whig society. Again Edmund Burke was one of the leading voices against English dominion of Ireland, a view that was then extended to Britain’s control of India.
Nor was Burke the only one. Hume argued that conquests led to the moral decay of the conquerors. Diderot, Raynal, Kant, and closer to America were Paine and Jefferson railing against the evils of colonialism.
In that context, then, the Enlightenment was full of thinking against the ownership of other human beings and the exploitation of lands owned by others. There’s nothing anachronistic of expecting men like Jefferson to have understood the evil of his economic well-being. It would have been one thing if he had no access to the writings of the Enlightenment. His purchase of slaves, his embrace of the slavery model of economy and his later colonial expansion into Western North America might be forgiven if one accepted he was an ignoramous.
He wasn’t. He had the pretension to regard himself an educated gentleman. By the standards of his own time, he was a hypocritical tyrant. The failings within the founding generation to make more of an effort toward humanity should be indictment of their morality. At the very least it should be an acceptance of their fallibility and a rejection of their status as some sort of pantheon of liberty.