“It appears first, that liberty is a natural, and government an adventitious right, because all men were originally free.” Thomas Clarkson
In his book, “The Heart of America: Ten Core Values That Make Our Country Great”, Bill Halamandaris listed ten core values that built America. Ten values with proven ability to build a world superpower:
Compassion Opportunity Responsibility Equality
Valour Ambition Liberty Unity Enterprise Spirituality
In this case study of the value Liberty, we look at an individual who provides an excellent example of what it means and what it does for a country.
Born on 28 March 1760, Thomas Clarkson was the son of Rev. John Clarkson, an Anglican priest. Thomas attended Wisbech Grammar School where his father was headmaster; then he went on to St Paul’s School in London in 1775. In 1779, he attended St John’s College, Cambridge and received his B.A. degree in 1783.
Whilst furthering his studies, in 1785, Clarkson entered a Latin essay competition that was to set him on the course for most of the remainder of his life. The topic of the essay, set by the Cambridge University Vice-chancellor Peter Peckard, was, Is it lawful to enslave the unconsenting? and it led Clarkson to read everything he could on the subject, including the works of Anthony Benezet, a Quaker abolitionist. He also met and interviewed those who had personal experience of the slave trade and of slavery. Appalled and challenged by what he discovered, Clarkson changed his life.
After winning the essay competition, Clarkson had what he called a spiritual revelation from God as he travelled between Cambridge and London. He later wrote that, when he stopped, “A thought came into my mind… that if the contents of the Essay were true, it was time some person should see these calamities to their end.” This experience and sense of calling ultimately led him to devote his life to abolishing the slave trade.
In 1786, Clarkson published the essay in a pamphlet form as An essay on the slavery and commerce of the human species, particularly the African, translated from a Latin Dissertation. The essay was influential, resulting in Clarkson’s being introduced to many others who were sympathetic to abolition, some of whom had already published and campaigned against slavery.
In 1787, an informal committee was set up between small groups from the petitioning Quakers, Clarkson and others, with the goal of lobbying Members of Parliament (MPs) and that became the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. Clarkson also approached William Wilberforce, who was one of the few parliamentarians to have had sympathy with the Quaker petition; he had already put a question about the slave trade before the House of Commons.
Clarkson took a leading part in the affairs of the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, and was tasked with gathering evidence to support the abolition of the slave trade. He faced much opposition from supporters of the trade in some of the cities he visited. The slave traders were an influential group because the trade was a legitimate and highly lucrative business, generating prosperity for many of the ports.
In 1787, Clarkson was attacked and nearly killed when visiting Liverpool (a major base of slave trading syndicates and home port for their ships). He barely escaped with his life. That didn’t stop his campaigns and later that year, he published the pamphlet A Summary View of the Slave Trade and of the Probable Consequences of Its Abolition.
Clarkson spent the next two years travelling around England, promoting the cause and gathering vital evidence to support the abolitionist cause. He interviewed 20,000 sailors and enlisted the help of slave ship surgeons during his research. He obtained equipment used on slave-ships, such as iron handcuffs, leg-shackles, and thumbscrews; instruments for forcing open slaves’ jaws; and branding irons. He published engravings of the tools in pamphlets and displayed the instruments at public meetings.
Clarkson visited The Lively, an African trading ship. Although not a slave ship, it carried cargo of high quality goods: carved ivory, woven textiles, beeswax, and produce such as palm oil and peppers. Impressed by the high quality of craftsmanship and skill expressed in these items, Clarkson was horrified to think that the people who could create such items were being enslaved.
Clarkson noticed that pictures and artefacts could influence public opinion more than words alone. He began to display items from his collection of fine goods to reinforce his anti-slavery lectures. Demonstrating that Africans were highly skilled artisans, he argued for an alternative humane trading system based on goods rather than labourers.
Clarkson continued to write against the slave trade. He filled his works with vivid firsthand descriptions from sailors, surgeons and others who had been involved in the slave traffic – The Impolicy of the African Slave Trade (1788) and An Essay on the Slave Trade (1789). These works provided ‘ammunition’ for William Wilberforce’s first abolitionist speech in the House of Commons on 12 May 1789, and his 12 propositions.
In 1791, Wilberforce introduced the first Bill to abolish the slave trade; it was easily defeated by 163 votes to 88. Wilberforce continued to bring the issue of the slave trade before Parliament almost every year, while Clarkson and the other members of the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade and their supporters were responsible for generating and sustaining a national movement that mobilised public opinion as never before.
Based on a plan of a slave ship he acquired in Portsmouth, Clarkson had an image drawn of slaves loaded on the slave ship ‘Brookes’. He published this in London in 1791, took the image with him on lectures and provided it to Wilberforce with other anti-slave trade materials for use in parliament. Parliament still, however, refused to pass the bill. The outbreak of War with France effectively prevented further debate for many years.
By 1794, Clarkson’s health was failing, as he suffered from exhaustion. He retired from the campaign and during this time he married in 1796 to Catherine Buck and they had their only child Thomas.
When the war with France appeared to be almost over and after a ten year retreat, in 1804 Clarkson and his allies revived the anti-slave trade campaign. He commenced travel again all over Great Britain to canvass support and was especially active in persuading MPs to back the parliamentary campaign.
Clarkson, Wilberforce and their allies achieved the passage of the Slave Trade Act in 1807 which officially ended the trade. Clarkson then directed his efforts toward enforcement and extending the campaign to the rest of Europe, as Spain and France continued the trade in their American colonies. In 1808, Clarkson published a book about the progress in abolition of the slave trade. He travelled to Paris in 1814 and Aix-la-Chapelle in 1818, trying to reach international agreement on a timetable for abolition of the trade.
In 1823, the Society for the Mitigation and Gradual Abolition of Slavery (later known as the Anti-Slavery Society) was formed. Clarkson travelled the country to build support for its goal. This resulted in 777 petitions being delivered to parliament demanding the total emancipation of slaves. In 1833, the Slavery Abolition Act was passed, with emancipation to be completed by 1838 in the British colonies.
Clarkson lived an additional 13 years, continuing to campaign for abolition, focusing on the United States, where slavery had expanded in the Deep South and some states west of the Mississippi River. He was the principal speaker in 1840 at the opening of the first World’s Anti-Slavery Convention in London. The conference was designed to build support for abolishing slavery worldwide and included delegates from France, the USA, Haiti (established in 1804 as the first black republic in the Western Hemisphere) and Jamaica.
Thomas Clarkson died on 26 September 1846 in Playford, Suffolk after 60 years of total dedication to the abolition of slave trade and slavery.
What can we learn about Liberty from the story of this great citizen?
Liberty is an attitude: It is primarily about what we believe which then manifest in what we do. Clarkson believed in the value of Africans and in their liberty and then lived out this attitude everyday and in everywhere.
Liberty is not wiling given: Like in Clarkson’S battle for the abolition of slave trade and slavery, our search for ours and other citizens’ liberty will not be willing given by those who have held our destiny as a nation captive. We must accept that it will require us to fight for our liberty.
Liberty showcases our nation-building core values: Clarkson had not been to Africa but just the research he did for a school essay competition drew Compassion, Responsibility, Equality, Valour, Ambition, Unity from him. This led him to harness every Opportunity and exhibit great Enterprise. All of these were inspired by his Spirituality (faith in God).
Liberty calls for our action: The expression and the demand of this nation-building core value will compel us to take consistent action to liberate citizens. For Thomas Clarkson, the Liberty caused him to take numerous actions, not minding the opposition, attacks and threats.
The fight for liberty is sacrificial: Thomas Clarkson spent 60 years fighting for this cause and didn’t stop despite physical and verbal attacks. Dr. King laid down his life for liberty. Mandela spent 27 years in prison for liberty. Not all of us will make that level of sacrifice but a good measure of sacrifice will be demanded.
The fact that we operate a democracy does not mean we are free because the destiny of our country is still be controlled by a very few who desire that we remain oppressed that they may remain in control.
We must first become liberated in our minds (a shift from a fixed to a growth mindset) in order for us to develop liberated thoughts, express liberated words and consistently exhibit liberated actions. Only a free people can pursue the creation of a free country.
Would you become free and pursue the freedom of others?