Building Support for the Abolition of Slavery

Thomas Clarkson was born to a religious family. His dad was a priest in the Anglican Church. Thomas also was very religious and studied to be a priest, but never completed the ordination process. While in college, an essay he submitted would become the focus of his life’s work. The title of the essay was: Is it lawful to make slaves of others against their will?” He won the competition by doing extensive research on the topic including interviews with those who had experience in the trading of slaves.

Thomas’ essay was published as a pamphlet, and that led him to become acquainted with others holding similar views. A Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade was formed with Thomas playing a leading role. The slave traders took strong offense to the Committee and Thomas in particular. A gang of sailors on slave ships were hired to kill him. He survived their attempts to kill him.

Thomas was not discouraged and as he went from city to city, he began to find support. What was especially effective was his demonstration of equipment used to subdue slaves. He also displayed items made by The effective abolition of slavery ultimately resided with Parliament. Thomas found a supporter who would become the champion of abolition laws. William Wilberforce MP became that champion. Thomas provided Wilberforce with documentation to make the case of abolition. The first bill for abolition was defeated soundly. It took 16 years for the bill to eventually pass after the public became outraged at slave trading practices.

While William Wilberforce is generally recognized for his efforts to stop slave trading in England, Thomas Clarkson was the hidden hero behind the abolition movement. Without his writings and advocacy across England, public support for abolition would never have developed. Hidden heroes are often the “ground troops” for social justice reforms. They are the persons who generate public support when those in public positions are reluctant to do so. Hidden heroes often don’t concern themselves with the credit for reforms as long as the positive change does result from their efforts.

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“You may choose to look the other way but you can never say again you did not know.” – William Wilberforce (British Member of Parliament)

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