Purpose of the Conference

The 200th anniversary of the abolition of British slave trade provides an opportune occasion for a small group of distinguished scholars to explore a series of questions related to moral progress in history. Without presuming any outcomes in advance, the conference participants will traverse a huge expanse of intellectual terrain, in the process of which they will offer suggestions on the content of a potential research initiative on Ethical Progress in History.

Conference Narrative

After receiving hundreds of antislavery petitions and debating the issue for years, the British Parliament passed the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act in March 1807. Starting May 1, 1807, no slaver could legally sail from a British port. Following the Napoleonic Wars, British abolitionist sentiment increased, and substantial public pressure was brought to bear on Parliament to gradually emancipate all British slaves. In August 1833, Parliament passed the Great Emancipation Act, which made provision for the gradual emancipation of slaves throughout the British Empire. Abolitionists on both sides of the Atlantic hailed it as one of the great humanitarian achievements in history. Indeed, the prominent Irish historian W.E.H. Lecky famously concluded in 1869 that “[t]he unwearied, unostentatious, and inglorious crusade of England against slavery very may probably be regarded as among the three or four perfectly virtuous acts recorded in the history of nations.”[1]

As the distinguished historian David Brion Davis observes, however, in his brilliant synthesis of slavery in the New World, British abolitionism is “controversial, complex, and even baffling.”
[2]  It has occasioned a significant historiographical debate lasting over sixty years. The key issue has been how to account for abolitionists’ motives and the groundswell of public support for the antislavery cause. Davis suggests that historians find it difficult to accept that something as economically significant as the slave trade could be abolished on essentially religious and humanitarian grounds. After all, by 1805 “the colonial plantation economy,” he informs us, “accounted for about one-fifth of Britain’s total trade.”[3]  Prominent abolitionists like William Wilberforce, Thomas Clarkson, and Thomas Fowell Buxton used Christian arguments to combat “inhuman bondage,” but surely other, material factors were in play. A great deal of ink has been spilled assessing the relationship of antislavery to capitalism and free market ideology. And the upshot of this research is that the antislavery impulse went against British economic interests, both real and perceived. So how do we explain the successes of a humanitarian movement advocating reforms that could have precipitated economic disaster? Davis concludes that while it is important to appreciate the complex interplay of economic, political, and ideological factors, we must recognize the significance of a moral vision that “could transcend narrow self-interest and achieve genuine reform.”[4]

The 200th anniversary of the abolition of the British slave trade is an appropriate occasion to evaluate the significance of this humanitarian movement and to consider the particular dynamics in Britain that brought about this reform. Of special concern is the
question of how to assess the relative importance of religious and humanitarian impulses in a complex economic and political context. Abolitionism flirted with what one historian has called “economic suicide,” and yet the movement generated considerable public pressure on politicians. Why is this so difficult for contemporary historians to embrace in the specific context of British abolitionism?

Consideration of the particulars of British abolitionism raises a number of historiographical questions. In terms of the roles played by religious and humanitarian impulses, how typical was the experience of British abolitionism in history? What connection is there between religious belief and social transformation? How frequently do reform movements originate from essentially religious and/or spiritual impulses? Do profound spiritual transformations always have significant societal and historical impact? What models might we employ to understand the complexity of morality-induced cultural transformation?  How do we understand altruism? What material and cultural structures are needed to translate altruism into a successful political movement?

Given these questions, it is also important to ask how well historians account for religious dynamics in history, particularly religion as an agent of positive cultural transformation. Do historians, on the whole, appreciate the power of religious dynamics to effect positive change in societies? Do they instinctively tend to resort to a hierarchy of causal factors, which routinely relegates religious and moral impulses to the lower tiers where they are cast primarily as rhetorical window dressing for more important and measurable material factors? Is religion more often seen as a constraining force harnessed to tradition than as something fostering ethical progress? Assessing multiple, interrelated factors requires empirical historical analysis as well as exploration across disciplinary lines.

Investigating the dynamics of positive cultural transformations in the past inevitably raises a number of methodological issues. How do we assess religious experience? Although it seems to have a much higher profile in the academy these days, George Marsden, whose biography of Jonathan Edwards received multiple book awards, laments that religious history still has not made it into the mainstream narrative of American history. One reason, he suspects, is that the historical profession is uncomfortable with exclusivist religious claims.
[5]  Is he correct? How should historians study religion in such a way that “gets it right”? How detached should the historian be? How do we assess the “reality” of religious experience? Are the religious worlds that people construct amenable to scholarly investigation without being tamed or mutilated in the process? Robert Orsi, prominent practitioner of “the new religious history,” brackets the ontological questions of belief in God, saints, or other supernatural forces when he studies the history of American Catholics. They must remain “rich and imaginative creations,” but they “acquire a vivid life of their own and in an important historically relevant sense break free of their creators.”[6]  Is the past a “universal and public manuscript” meant to be read only in the way prescribed by critical history? Or is it amenable to a variety of tradition-specific readings that give it meaning and texture? For example, is a reading of British abolitionism as an example of “amazing grace” legitimate? And if so, what explanatory benefit is there to it?

Exploration of such historiographical and methodological matters also prompts consideration of a range of very large-scale—or “big”—questions. The first of these involves change: How do we account for it? Does it have directionality? Is there such a thing as progress—be it material or moral—in history? Each of these suggests a host of related questions. Since not all change is reforming, nor
are all transformations positive, what constitutes a “positive” change in history, and what are the dynamics (catalysts/engines) that yield positive change? What are the dynamics of retrograde or atavistic change? How do we account for major shifts in moral perceptions? What is the relative importance of morality and religion in cultural transformation? What is the nature of the interplay between human agency and larger forces in historical change?

Assigning value and direction to change introduces the controversial notion of progress. Historians have been extremely reluctant to embrace progress in history. It
smacks of teleology. They readily admit to increasing societal and economic complexity, but get very uneasy if anything like progress, especially moral progress, is asserted. Are historians missing the obvious? What is the nature of their objections? Is moral progress an illusion given the dismal history of genocide and ethnic cleansing of the last century? Or does focus on the manifest evils of the modern world overshadow steady, less dramatic developments in health care, human rights, and material prosperity? Does progress fall outside the boundaries of historical warrant? Do historians have the tools to make moral discriminations? What is the linkage between reform and progress? If we cannot admit to progress in history, are we similarly proscribed from embracing decline? Why do economists seem to have an easier time accepting progress than historians? How do we define and measure progress?

These questions point to even more expansive—some would say speculative—meta-historical questions: Does the past have overarching meaning, shape, or coherence? Is the only meaning, shape, or coherence we derive from the past limited to whatever historians read into it?
[7]  Is the project of doing so legitimate? Essential? Are big questions like these automatically ruled off limits because of methodological constraints? If so, is methodology dictating ontology? More importantly, to what extent do humans have a profound need to make sense out of the past? And should historians play a more active role in exploring “the grander scheme of things”? Do they have any responsibility to show how the past might help us to make sense of it all? These matters clearly take us beyond the narrow warrant of historical method and practice, but certainly not beyond the boundaries of human curiosity and interest. None of this is meant to diminish the importance of what historians ordinarily do, nor to endorse the specifics of these provocative examples. But this line of thinking does raise the question of whether historians might contribute more broadly to exploring big questions than they presently do.

This last point suggests yet another layer of investigation: the instrumental. Historians are familiar with the notion of a usable past, but they are frequently uncomfortable with it. One of the big questions that ought to be addressed more often is: So what? Just as we may ask: What lessons can we learn from the history of British abolitionism? Shouldn’t we also ask: What is the ultimate benefit to humanity of the entire project of historical inquiry? Historians have a number of stock responses that offer varying degrees of satisfaction to themselves and presumably to others—ranging from satisfying intellectual curiosity to providing social memory and essential context. As we commemorate the success of British abolitionism, it might be helpful to consider German theologian Adolf von Harnack’s bold claim (made in 1923): “We study history in order to intervene in the course of history and we have a right and duty to do so.” Obviously, Harnack’s assertion needs considerable qualification, but it does prompt a very important question: Can and should the study of the past lead to human betterment, variously understood and measured? Can investigating the end of the slave trade in Britain in the 19th century assist us in dealing with the persistence of slavery and other forms of human degradation in our time? Similarly, can historical investigation of “big” topics like human accomplishment, innovation, moral progress, and world values yield not only more insight about the past, but also inspire and assist us in improving the lot of humanity and our world today and in the future?

Historical inquiry unfolds simultaneously and fruitfully at multiple levels—from microhistories that illuminate the particular to grand meta-narratives like “big history.” We have such an astonishing range of historical analyses because we interrogate the past in so many different ways—from asking what happened at this place and at this time to pondering whether the whole thing has any overarching meaning or shape. The occasion of the bicentennial commemoration of a very inspiring moment in British history offers an opportunity to consider a number related and layered historical, methodological, and metahistorical issues and questions, some of them cutting to the core of current historical practice and convention, some of them touching on matters beyond the ordinary warrant of the guild despite deep human interest in them.


1. Lecky quoted in David Brion Davis, Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the World (New York, Oxford University Press, 2006), 234. This paragraph relies heavily on Davis’s chapter, “Explanations of British Abolitionism,” 231-249 as well as Hugh Thomas, The Slave Trade: The Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1440-1870 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997), 537-557.

2. Davis, Inhuman Bondage, 231.

3. Ibid., 245.

4. Ibid., 249.

5. George Marsden, “Can Jonathan Edwards (and His Heirs) Be Integrated into the American History Narrative?” Historically Speaking: The Bulletin of the Historical Society V:6 (July/August 2004), 13-15.

6. Randall J. Stephens, “Beyond the Niebuhrs: An Interview with Robert Orsi on Recent Trends in American Religious History,” Historically Speaking: The Bulletin of the Historical Society VII:6 (July/August 2006), 9.

7. See Allan Megill, “Coherence and Incoherence in Historical Studies: From the Annales School to the New Cultural History,” New Literary History XXXV (2004), 207-231.

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