The Abolition of Slavery and the Truth of History

The Abolition of Slavery and the Truth of History

The Abolition of Slavery and the Truth of History
A Speech Given at the The Gettysburg 150th Commemoration
St Peter’s Eastern Hill, Melbourne, Tuesday 192019 November
Mark Durie
A version of this address has been published by Quadrant, see here.

Memories shape us powerfully.  For all of us there are certain defining events, the memories of which stay with us and determine how we view the world.  Not only individuals, but communities and nations have landmark, watershed memories.  The Gettysburg address of Abraham Lincoln is one such.

I remember one of my birthdays, above all others.  Ten years ago, as it so happened, on my 45th birthday, I had the pleasure, together with my teenage son David, of attending a Melbourne Writer’s Festival head-to-head debate between Keith Windschuttle and Robert Manne about their respective recent books on the fabrication of Australian history.

The spirited debate was conducted in front of a sell-out crowd sympathetic to Robert Manne.  I remember the evening because of a single moment – no more than a few seconds – in question time when Windschuttle announced that of course in colonial 19th century Australia most government officials believed human beings were created equal – and thus that aboriginal people were equal to white people.  This was, he said, because they were all either humanists or evangelical Christians.

At this point, a loud guffaw erupted from the crowd.

What struck me was the depth of the crowd’s historical amnesia.   Because of research I had done many years earlier, I knew Windschuttle’s words were true. The literary elite of our great city of Melbourne could not remember how our ancestors came to the belief that all people are created equal.  They found the truth about this important matter simply ridiculous.

At any time in history the institution of slavery has been, and continues today to be, as one of the greatest affronts to human equality: to what Abraham Lincoln in his Gettysburg address referred to as “the proposition that all men are created equal”.  It is vital for us not to forget the pathway of human thought and action that led to the abolition of slavery, a political victory which was foundational for establishing the now commonplace concept that human beings have equal rights.

Lincoln was citing the Declaration of Independence, which linked belief in human equality to theology, namely belief in a Creator:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

The battle for the abolition of slavery was a long one, and hard fought.  The shockingly bloody American Civil War was but a latter phase of a global program against slavery led primarily by English-speaking evangelical Christians.

I say ‘shockingly bloody’ of the Civil War because it is hard for us, living in comfortable early 21st century Australia, to comprehend a war which caused the death of around 30% of Southern men of military age – aged 18 to 40 – and 10% of Northerners.  There were also hundreds of thousands maimed.  It is difficult for contemporary Australians to comprehend what intensity of conviction could incite a nation to go to war against itself so ferociously and with such devastating consequences.

At the time the American population was about 30 million, not much greater than Australia today.  One may well ponder: What cause could motivate Australians today to engage in a civil war which would cost one million of our citizen’s lives?  What might be worth fighting for, at such a grave cost?

I referred to the struggle against slavery as ‘global’.  It was fought first in the parliament of Britain, and by extension throughout the British Empire, upon which the sun never set.  The name of William Wilberforce stands out.  He served in Parliament for 45 years.  The first great victory of his life-long campaign against slavery was the Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade of 1807, which ended the trade in human chattels throughout the British Empire.  The second was the abolition of slavery itself, in 1833:  Wilberforce was given the news of his second victory just three days before his death.

I have a particular interest in this chapter of global history because the church where I serve, St Mary’s Caulfield, was founded on the benevolence of Sir George Stephen, who lived a stone’s throw away in Helenslea mansion, where Shelford Girls Grammar School stands today.  It was Sir George who gave the first piece of land to the church, and paid for the construction of the first church building.

Sir George Stephen was one of Melbourne’s more interesting figures in the mid 19th century.  He was first person knighted by the young Victoria after her coronation in 1837, twelve years before he emigrated in 1855 to Caulfield, together with his son James Wilberforce Stephen.  James was to become one of the founders of the law school at Melbourne University, Attorney General for Victoria, and a judge of its Supreme Court from 1874 to 1881.  James Wilberforce Stephen is a good example of the 19th century Australian leaders Windschuttle was referring to.

The son James’ middle name – Wilberforce – was not chosen by Sir George merely in admiration of the great anti-slavery campaigner, but because Wilberforce was Sir George’s uncle by marriage, his father having married Wilberforce’s sister after the death of his first wife.  Born in St Kitts in the West Indies, Sir George was brought up in the Clapham Sect, an influential network of evangelical Christians of whom Wilberforce was a chief member.   When he was a young boy the Stephen family dinner-table conversation undoubtedly canvassed the great struggles against slavery that his circle was engaged in.  He would have been around around 13  years old when the abolition of the slave trade was accomplished in 1807.

Sir George Stephen had attracted the favourable attention of the young Queen Victoria – and indeed of many other young people across the nation – because he spearheaded an aggressive, innovative and highly successful political campaign, leading to a landmark 1833 victory in Parliament, the passing of the Slavery Abolition Act.

Frustrated with slow progress under the management of the aging Anti-Slavery Committee, whose decades-long campaign was languishing in the doldrums, George Stephen, with the backing of the Agency Committee, a group of wealthy Quakers, masterminded a national agitation of the British conscience.  Sir George’s team divided the country into regions, and employed gifted public speakers to scour the country, inciting the emotions of the common people against slavery.  The Agency Committee managed in less than 10 days to gather together a petition of 187,000 signatures to present to Parliament.

West Indian business interests had fought long and hard for the retention of slavery.  However, impressed and no doubt intimidated by the exhibitions of public feeling which swept across the country as a result of the Agency Committee’s campaign, the parliamentarians agreed in 1833 to abolition.  There was a cost: £20 million pounds’ compensation awarded to slave owners across the Empire.  This would amount to tens of billions of pounds in today’s currency: at the time it represented around 40% of total public expenditure for the nation.  The cost was enourmous.

Although the abolition of slavery was achieved in Britain by an Act of Parliament, it was far from bloodless:  the British navy spent years pursuing slave traders through the dominions.  Yet, whatever blood was shed in that mission, it was but a drop compared to the American Civil War.

The American anti-slavery campaign in many respects followed and was shaped by the British experience and Sir George had a personal connection with the American effort. Harriet Beecher Stowe had published Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1852, after serialising it in the newspapers.  The book was an outstanding publishing success and it was soon translated into 20 European languages.

It was during Beecher Stowe’s visit to London and Europe in 1853 – on a book tour and fund-raising campaign for the US abolitionist cause –  that she met Sir George. She urged him to publish an account of the British campaign, and so it was that in 1854 he released a history of the British anti-slavery movement.  By this time Sir George was one of the few survivors of the chief players in the British abolitionist struggle.  A year later he came out with his family to Caulfield

In the prolix style favoured in that era, Sir George’s history of the movement was entitled Antislavery recollections in a series of letters, addressed to Mrs. Beecher Stowe, written by Sir George Stephen, at her request.  The book is indeed composed as a series of letters addressed to Beecher Stowe.

Sir George, like his son James, was a devout and active Anglican churchman.  He taught Sunday school at St Mary’s, and, like other members of the Clapham Sect, was deeply concerned with social justice issues.  He attributed the victory of the anti-slavery bill to the Christian conscience of the less affluent members of British society, which itself was a produce of the Weslyan revival in that nation.  He wrote to Harriet Beecher Stowe:

“The main strength of the abolition party lay among the middle and lower classes, and this support had been created by faithful adherence to the text, that to uphold slavery was a crime before God, and consequently that its abolition must be immediate and unconditional.”

The older, gradual approach to abolition had resulted in a stalemate of the pro- and anti-slavery parties.  This was swept aside by Sir George’s philosophy, which came to known as immediatism:  today we might call this ‘zero tolerance, right now’.  It was considered to be a matter of personal conscience that Christians could make no compromise with a practice regarded as evil in the sight of God.  Immediatism shared with the romanticism popular in the Victorian era the assumption that the human being can rise above self-interest; and true ideas, intensely adhered to, can result in irresistible moral action.

Lincoln was not an immediatist:  his politics could have allowed for gradualism.  But his sense of human destiny, and of his own personal destiny, was shaped by a belief in the God of the Bible, a God of justice whose character is revealed in the Exodus story, where the Egyptians are destroyed for resisting the will of God to set the Israelites from their bondage.

In his second inaugural address, Lincoln, informed by this theological vision, cited Psalm 19 ‘ the judgements of the Lord are true and righteous altogether’:

“Fondly do we hope – fervently do we pray – that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether”

Lincoln believed in a God of covenant.  The phrase ‘inalienable’ in respect to human rights simple means ‘granted by covenant’ (see Goldman on this).  He believed that God would avenge violations of covenantal, God-given rights, and regarded the Civil War, with all its horrors, as the ‘sword of the Lord’ at work.

The Australian public followed the events of the Civil War with great interest, and the speeches and battles of that conflict were extensively reported on in the newspapers here.  The Gettysburg address was also duly reported a few months after the event, although no Australian journalist at the time seemed to have grasped its significance.

(At least no-one in Australia called the speech ‘silly’ and Lincoln a ‘jester’.  This error was the fate of the The Harrisburg Patriot and Union, a Harrisburg newspaper, which concluded its report with these words:

“We pass over the silly remarks of the President. For the credit of the nation we are willing that the veil of oblivion shall be dropped over them and that they shall be no more repeated or thought of.”

This past week the Patriot-News – as the newspaper is now known –apologized for their embarrassing error.)

In another speech reported in the Adelaide Advertiser the day after Gettysburg, Lincoln said:  “Let as diligently apply the means, never doubting that a just God, in His own good time, will give us the rightful result.”  It was with this conviction that the men of New England marched to war singing the Battle Hymn of the Republic:

Mine eyes have seen the glory
of the coming of the Lord;
He is trampling out the vintage
where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning
of His terrible swift sword:
His truth is marching on.

What Sir George Stephen and Abraham Lincoln had in common was a conviction that there are some things which, in George Stephen’s words, are ‘crimes before God’, and which every person with a Christian conscience has a duty to oppose, as a matter of inescapable urgency.

I commenced with an observation about memory: that Australian elites today do not appear to remember the convictions which delivered the moral treasures of the present to us.  My focus tonight has been on the decades-long battle for the abolition of slavery, in which the Gettysburg address was a landmark event, and remains to this day as a cherished memory.

Nowadays it is taken for granted that equality is a value which everyone respects, but we must never forget that it was not always so.  It is regrettable that for many a ‘veil of oblivion’ has indeed fallen over the convictions about God and his dealings with the world which provided the inspiration and impetus for such great struggles and victories for human equality as were wrung out, at enormous cost, in Britain and America during the 19th century.

It is deeply concerning that people-trafficking and human bondage are on the rise all around the world today, as the legacy of the 19th century’s great anti-slavery legacy continues to erode.  The issue is not just the proliferation of ways and means by which people are being trafficked, from the millions of bonded labourers in Mauritania and India, to the labour camps of North Korea – or the brothels of Melbourne.  The challenge for us as a society runs much deeper than the specific manifestations of human abuse that seem to be mushrooming around the globe, international human rights standards notwithstanding.

A fundamental issue is truth.  In a spirit of truth, do we, as a nation, have the will to remember, understand and honour convictions which have led us into the positive inheritance we now enjoy.  Are we even willing, as a society and as a nation to believe in moral truth anymore?

David Goldman has made the telling observation that “It was the supreme folly of the past generation’s policy-making to believe that peoples who do not know the God of Covenants might reproduce the American model.”   He was referring of course to the failed American experiment over the past twenty years of attempting to manufacture new states out of warzones in which Biblical faith did not form part of the cultural base.  This folly was the bitter fruit of bad remembering.

The deeper issue for us is whether a nation which has abandoned the God of Covenant – the source of the 19th century conviction that inalienable human rights exist and should be respected by nation states as a matter of Christian conscience – will be able, over time, to maintain moral conviction.*  And without such moral conviction how could we ever be willing to pay the heavy price required to protect and nurture such rights?

This is a deep and serious question, because if we do not understand and own our past, and the great price our forebears paid to win our freedoms, how can we be sure that the moral victories they won – at such a stupendous cost – will not be reversed by the death of a thousand cuts.  The danger is the manifest, steady deterioration of adherence to a standard of truth which eclipses narrow self-interest.

It is good tonight to be remembering the Gettysburg Address of Abraham Lincoln, and the stirring sentiments it espoused. To echo Lincoln’s sentiments: can we still ‘take increased devotion to that cause for which they [the combatants of Gettysburg] gave the last full measure of devotion that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain’?  Can we be ‘dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced’?

Certainly we cannot do so if truth is cast down to the ground, and we have lost our memories.


Dr Mark Durie is a theologian, human rights activist, Anglican pastor, a Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and Adjunct Research Fellow of the Centre for the Study of Islam and Other Faiths at Melbourne School of Theology.

*Mark Steyn has made the point that “contemporary ‘human rights’ are pseudo-rights that the state confers on those citizens who meet its approval.”  States will need no moral conviction to sustain such ‘rights’ as enhance its power at the expense of the freedom of individuals. See Mark Steyn. ‘Canada’s Chief Censor. Jennifer Lynch, QC, 1953-2013.’ November 27, 2013.  Steyn Online.

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