The main tactics of the British abolitionist movement were mass propaganda, mass meetings, and mass petitions.
Out of necessity, the mass propaganda had to come first. In order to arouse the emotions and change the attitudes of the populace, the abolitionists had to produce and distribute literature. Pamphlets were some of the most common forms of written propaganda. As early as 1788, around twenty thousand copies of various pamphlets had already been printed over a fifteen month period. This number would only increase over time Other forms of written propaganda included more in-depth books, lines of poetry, essays, and newspaper articles. Broadsides and imagery were also widely used, and phenomenally effective. The most famous example is the ‘Description of A Slave Ship’ that combined disturbing images of the conditions on board slave ships with equally disconcerting descriptions to go with the drawings. Together, propaganda literature and imagery helped bring the abolitionist message to the masses, both intellectually and emotionally. As such, the mass propaganda tactic was integral to the abolitionists’ desire to reshape popular opinion, attitudes, and ideals. It also helped them in their quest to construct a more moral society, as ideological changes and cultural changes often go hand in hand.
The other tactic widely used by the abolitionist movement was mass meetings. Throughout Great Britain, but particularly in England, abolitionist groups gathered in vast numbers for public meetings. In 1788 alone, there were at least twenty-seven public meetings held against the slave trade. The size of the meeting could also be substantial. One in Liverpool in 1822, for instance, is believed to have had around two thousand people present. The local nature of the meetings helped spread the abolitionist cause in a number of ways. First, the very process of arranging meetings helped create local abolitionist leaders and local abolitionist groups. Furthermore, the meetings themselves helped not only helped spread abolitionist ideas, but also brought together like-minded people. The meetings were therefore a great place to bring others for the sake of moral enlightenment. They were also an excellent venue for discussions and and organization. Finally, great congregations of people send a strong political statement. The fact that many of the mass meetings were in localities spread throughout the country meant that local politicians and M.P.s had to become aware of the abolitionists’ rising popular support. As such, mass meetings could be a way to remind the M.P.s of the necessity to take into consideration the abolitionists’ petitions. And furthermore, the local presence of abolitionist groups, mass meetings, and propaganda, could quite possibly also convert the M.P.s to an abolitionist way of thinking. In these ways, the abolitionists’ mass propaganda and mass meetings could not only spread their message far and wide, but begin to produce a remarkable degree of ideological and cultural change, as well as exert varying degrees of political influence.
Mass petitioning was the abolitionist movement’s strongest and most direct political weapon. It was also the utilization of a well established and acceptable form of political action. This helped the movement remain politically legitimate and far less threatening. More radical measures could conceivably have produced a strong governmental reaction. The threat of a governmental crackdown on political radicalism was very real and very great, especially in the context of the political radicalism associated with the French Revolution and its Jacobin elements. The British government’s suppression of working class radicalism and its whole-sale rejection of ideas spouted by political radicals like Tom Paine provided ample examples of the need to stick to the acceptable avenues of political action and societal change. Petitioning proved an excellent option.
To send a petition to Parliament was a way for the British people to ask Parliament to act on their behalf. The incredible rise in abolitionist petitions during the time testify to the widespread adoption of the tactics. The fact that the petitions managed to sway Parliament testifies to the success that these tactics brought. Starting at a relatively small scale in 1788, the original mass petition assault saw just over a hundred petitions with a total of around sixty thousand signatures. The petition from Manchester held just over ten thousand of these signatures, a fact that highlights the abolitionists’ proclivity to prioritize the large industrial centers. The mass petitioning tactics grew dramatically over time. During the 1814-15 campaign, an estimated three-quarter of a million signature were listed on eight hundred petitions. In 1833, as the struggle for the immediate abolition of slavery was reaching its apex, the British Parliament receive over five thousand petitions with nearly one and a half million signatures. The most extraordinary of these petitions was a half-mile long version that had been sewn and glued into being by a group of women, and signed by another 350,000 women. All of this shows not only the political impact of the petitions, but the ability of petitions to unite and mobilize the populace. This in itself is a powerful political tool. The truly astounding organization and dedication it must have taken to create the half-mile long petition mentioned above is a case in point. It also shows how women were involved in the cause just as men were.
Mass propaganda, mass meetings, and mass petitioning were therefore integral parts of the British abolitionist movement’s success in both changing society’s ideals and norms, and implementing political change.
Specific numbers about published pamphlets are referenced in Roger Anstey’s The Atlantic Slave Trade and British Abolition: 1760-1810, Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1975, pages 256-260. Other, more general information and references are found in multiple of the books listed below under ‘Suggested readings’.
Specific numbers about public meetings are based on research done by Seymour Drescher, and referenced in David Turley’s The Culture of English Antislavery, 1780-1860, New York: Routledge, 1991, pages 61-2. Other, more general information and references are found in multiple of the books listed below under ‘Suggested readings’.
Specific numbers about petitions have been drawn from David Turley’s The Culture of English Antislavery, 1780-1860, New York: Routledge, 1991, page 64, and David Brion Davis’ Inhuman Bondage, the Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World, New York: Oxford University Press, 2006, pages 237-8. Other, more general information and references are found in multiple of the books listed below under ‘Suggested readings’.