Back to Book Reviews

Back to Cercles



British Abolitionism and the Question of Moral Progress in History


Edited by Donald A. Yerxa


Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2012

Hardcover. vii+286 pp. ISBN 978-1611170153. $29.95


Reviewed by Ryan Hanley

Wilberforce Institute for the Study of Slavery and Emancipation

University of Hull




The very concept of ‘moral progress’ in history seems to be at odds with the prevalent conceptualisation of social, cultural and political change as complex and multi-causal. Implying the existence of a static ‘route’ through which human civilisation has morally ‘progressed’ has been, perhaps understandably, anathema to many modern scholars concerning themselves with the history of the transatlantic slave trade. ‘Historians,’ as Donald Yerxa states in the introduction to this collection, ‘routinely invoke a sad litany of the horrific violence of the past […] to mock naïve notions of moral progress’ [3]. Moreover, historians’ longstanding preference for specificity over abstraction – the language of ‘this time, that place, these events’ – leads them to leave such ‘speculative matters’, according to Yerxa, to ‘philosophers, theologians, and pundits’ [2]. Yet, as the essays collected here show, the debate over the role of morality in effecting political and social change is still at the centre of the way the past is understood, both within the academy, and as Eric Anesen’s contribution amply illustrates, among the wider reading public.

The collection begins in earnest with David Brion Davis considering slavery and emancipation from the perspective of cultural progress throughout history. Davis’ even-handed treatment of the question situates slavery and emancipation in frameworks of cultural and moral progress while giving due consideration to the centrality of human agency and contingent circumstances in effecting such changes. Readers new to the study of slavery may be surprised to see its economic structures linked here with cultural progress, and to learn that, for example, ‘slave-trading undergirded the Italian Renaissance of Ficino and the Platonic Academy, to say nothing of Michelangelo, Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, and appropriately Machiavelli’ [16].

Some of the other essays are not quite so even-handed. For example, David Hempton’s chapter on popular evangelicalism and abolitionism in Britain concerns itself almost completely with the Arminian Methodist movement, at the risk of marginalising the contributions of other evangelical organisations – the Quakers, for example. Similarly, Jeremy Black’s decision to focus exclusively on Western activism’s role in the ending of transatlantic slavery, by his own admission, ‘opens up debates about intentionality’ [52]. However, it might be unfair to criticise essays for partisanism in a collection whose stated purpose is to reinvigorate old debates. Accordingly, Hempton and Black’s contributions are nicely balanced by Lamin Sanneh’s essay, a comparative overview of moral debates concerning slavery and antislavery in historical Islamic and Christian politics. The section of the book concerning itself directly with British abolitionism is rounded off by Arnesen’s review of recent academic and popular historiography and a reflective essay by C. Behan McCullagh on what, if any, moral ‘lessons’ can be learned from this episode in history. This in itself is a controversial undertaking, dredging up old questions about the moral ‘utility’ of studying the past, but McCullagh avoids being needlessly provocative and provides a clear-sighted perspective on the value of ethical traditions and transformations – albeit one which takes a teleological moral perspective for granted.

From here the collection moves on to the issue of moral progress in history more generally. The range of methodological approaches presented here is impressive, leading to varied and often violently opposing conclusions. Peter Harrison and Allan Megill take a thematic approach, examining the question of moral progress through the microscopes of early modern science and the Kantian philosophical heritage respectively, while Gary Walton brings statistical analysis to bear. Using indices of wealth, life expectancy and education, Walton argues that human society, culture, and perhaps morality, has indeed ‘progressed’ significantly during the modern period. This position is flatly rejected in the next essay, in which Bruce Kuklick describes the notion of moral progress in history as ‘a relic of the period when history and the supernatural were more entangled than they now are’ [181]. Mediating between these two viewpoints is Wilfred McClay’s overview of the key literature on the subject of moral progress in history. McClay writes with enviable succinctness and clarity, but his discernible inclination towards a ‘chastened but strengthened understanding of the idea of progress, and of the possibility of genuine human altruism’ at times endangers his objectivity in recounting old debates [214].

The final section of the book considers ‘Moral Progress in Specific Christian Traditions’. Jon Roberts looks at American Liberal Protestantism between 1870 and 1930, revising the popular misconception of liberal Protestants as ‘exponents of a naive and superficial optimism’ to merely ‘wrong-headed’ but nevertheless ‘worthy of our intellectual respect’ [237, 238]. George Marsden brings a theological-historical perspective to the debate, considering the ‘disturbing question’ of to what extent theologically conservative Christianity has contributed to moral progress as manifested in political change, and what contributions might be made in the future. He concludes that ‘[i]ndividual Christians or groups should use political means to promote good causes so long as they recognise that they have only a partial vision of God’s will’ [257].

From the introduction onwards, British Abolitionism and the Question of Moral Progress in History is quite open about its lack of any definitive answers. Religious and secular historians alike engage with the subject in this collection from a startling breadth of perspectives, with some rejecting it out of hand as a quaint anachronism (Kuklick), and others venturing to suggest a trajectory for moral progress in the future (Marsden). In his afterword to the text, Felipe Fernandez-Armesto acknowledges the stalemate and calls for a closer examination of cultural change in history, even if only as a frame of reference for discussions of moral change.

The individual essays in this book are, on the whole, illuminating, useful and thought-provoking. But as a collection, the text struggles to remain coherent. For example, it is something of a misnomer to describe this book as being about British abolitionism. In fact, less than a third of the essays on offer here take the movement to abolish the slave trade as their primary subject matter. As a consequence, scholars of British abolition may find little to interest them beyond the first section. Similarly, the forensic treatments of moral progress found in section II, ‘Moral Progress in Specific Historical Contexts’ and section IV, ‘Moral Progress in Specific Christian Traditions’ are interrupted by the much more abstract and broad-ranging essays in Section III, ‘Is Moral Progress Possible?’ The result is a text which emphasises the multifaceted nature of the current debate, rather than positing an agenda for progressing with it. However, what is clear from the vigorous debate played out in the later sections of the book is that the ‘Question of Moral Progress in History’ is no less relevant today than it was during the movement for abolition. It is only the way we approach the question that has changed. Historians are now turning the tools of their trade – the language of ‘this time, that place, these events’ – to the cause of answering the ‘big questions’, confronting abstract concepts with concrete evidence. While it may not be possible to answer the question of moral progress in history definitively, for historians of British abolitionism, evangelicalism, science and philosophy, this collection illustrates the value of asking it.


Cercles © 2013

All rights are reserved and no reproduction from this site for whatever purpose is permitted without the permission of the copyright owner.

Please contact us before using any material on this website.