Unforeseen Consequences

If our principles are right, why should we be cowards?

Lucretia Mott

Ah, but which principles. High minded reformers don’t always see eye to eye. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson may have both had a part in the writing the Declaration of Independence (a high-mind statement if ever there was one), but their differing views on what independence really meant made the enemies for years. A good example of diversity among idealists having unforeseen consequences is the World Anti-Slavery Convention of 1840

In June 1840 emancipation crusaders from around the world met in London for ten days. The British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society convened the convention in response to a call published in a New York newspaper the year before for a meeting to coordinate efforts to attack slavery on a global scale. The Society rode a wave of enthusiasm following the passage of the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 that effectively ended slavery in the British West Indies. The Convention can be seen as an effort to address chattel slavery, the treating of enslaved Africans as property, globally in other parts of the West Indies and the Americas. The ideals expressed, however, had broader implications. Just as we continue to try to live up to Jefferson’s stirring words, so too the ideals of that meeting went in unexpected directions.

The World Anti-Slavery Society Convention 1840 by Benjamin Robert Haydon Licensed by the National Portrait Gallery (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

Though united in a passionate belief that human bondage must end, the over 350 delegates from around the world differed nonetheless in political outlook, tactics, and focus. Delegates heard papers—some of them academic treatises—on subjects from Russian serfdom to the history of bondage to the colonization of Liberia by American freedmen. While there were some stirring speeches, notably from Thomas Clarkson, lifelong anti-slavery crusader who helped push through the Slave Trade Act of 1807, some American delegates found the tone of the leadership—wealthy, powerful, and by some reports, smug British men—ponderous, cold, and inadequate to address the very real evils they continued to fight.

Ensuing decades would see wide divergence, in political outlook. The BFASS took no position on the American Civil War, for example, and there is some belief that their high moral stance could be and occasionally was twisted in ways that furthered to goals of empire building. Slavery may have gone away technically, but domination in other forms went forward.

There were other conflicts. Women in the American delegation expected to be seated and to be full participants. The BFASS didn’t see it that way, and neither did many of the (male) foreign delegates. They had voted to exclude women before the convention even started and required women to sit in a gallery or sectioned-off area. The women didn’t take it quietly. Lucretia Mott recorded in her diary:

Prescod of Jamaica [a black delegate] thought it would lower the dignity of the Convention and bring ridicule on the whole thing if ladies were admitted–he was told that similar reasons were urged in Philadelphia for the exclusion of colored people from our meetings–but had we yielded on such flimsy arguments, we might as well have abandoned our enterprise. Colver [Nathaniel Colver, American abolitionist] thought Women constitutionally unfit for public or business meetings–he was told that the colored man too was said to be constitutionally unfit to mingle with the white man. He left the room angry.

Their frustration had consequences. Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, motivated by their treatment in London, began planning what would be the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848, the beginning of the suffrage and women’s rights movements in the United States. Lucretia Mott’s presentation “Discourse on Women,” was published afterward.

Returning to the U.S. Mott, a minister with The Society of Friends, continued her anti-slavery work and advocacy of the rights of African Americans before and after the American Civil War. She donated land in Cheltenham Township, Pennsylvania for what became Camp William Penn, the first training camp for black troops who wished to fight for the Union army. If she weren’t such an admirable soul, Mott would probably qualify as one of my “colorful Victorians.”

From 1840 on, however, Mott also became a vocal advocate for women’s rights. Seneca Falls had been followed by annual conventions over women’s issues all the way to the onset of the war. After the war, an eleventh convention was held in New York City. The American Equal Rights Association grew out of that meeting and Mott was elected its first president. The movement however broke into two factions, and Mott was never able to reconcile them.

Daniel O’Connell

Emancipation can mean many things. A large Irish delegation also attended Convention of 1840, and they certainly had issues of their own. While many had strong anti-slavery sentiments, they did not ally with American abolitionist movements in any organized fashion. Daniel O’Connell whose election to parliament in 1828 forced the issue of Catholic Emancipation to the forefront attended. He had become the first Catholic MP to serve without taking the oath of supremacy; he was the first Catholic mayor of Dublin. Called the Great Liberator, O’Connell had his limitations. Some historians say “emancipation” is a misnomer and the act of 1829 made only limited concessions. Failure of the government to act when famine struck a few years after the convention put oppressive policies in a stark spotlight. O’Connell did campaign for Jewish liberties successfully and less successfully for a repeal of the Act of Union while opposing any form of violent revolution. Later leaders, notably those of the 1916 rebellion, the violent revolt O’Connell warned about, saw him as too closely allied with the British power structure.

How many high-minded statements from the Convention fed independence movements throughout the British Empire is difficult to say, although there were attendees from may parts of the Empire. The Convention noted the close proximity of indenture, still widely practiced in various colonies to chattel slavery. Denial of voting rights, punitive laws and other forms of exploitation weren’t confined to Ireland. When the Convention met, many genies popped out of the lamp—they were not easy to apprehend.

Seething labor movements would blossom into violent rebellion and/or political activism eventually, often not until the twentieth century. The desire for equality and freedom and the belief that all people—male and female—are entitled to them didn’t go away lightly. Lucretia Mott and the ladies of Seneca Falls certainly did not. That movement ties directly to the Convention. We still haven’t gone away.

Want to read more? Try these:

Heartfield, James. The British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society, C Hurst & Co Publishers Ltd, 17 Nov. 2016.   See also the review by Mark Aldulaimdi, “The Truth of The Anti-Slavery Society,” in Spiked Review, September 2017. http://spiked-online.com/spiked-review/article/the-truth-of-the-anti-slavery-society/20106#.W2nqEn4naAx Accessed by the author on August 7, 2018

Mott, Lucretia, “Discourse on Women,” December 17, 1848, on Gifts of Speech. http://gos.sbc.edu/m/mott.html Accessed by the author on August 7, 2018

Mott, Lucretia, Diary of Her Visit to Great Britain to Attend the World’s Anti-Slavery Convention of 1840. Edited by Frederick B. Tolles, Ph.D., supplement No. 23 to the Journal of the Friends’ Historical Society (Haverford, PA and London: Friends’ Historical Association and Friends Historical Society, 1952). Quoted on the Worcester Women’s History Project. http://www.wwhp.org/Resources/Slavery/mottdiary1840.html, Accessed by the author on August 7, 2018

Proceedings of the General Anti-slavery Convention : called by the committee of the British and Foreign Anti-slavery Society, and held in London, from Friday, June 12th, to Tuesday, June 23rd, 1840. London : British and Foreign Anti-slavery Society, 1841. https://archive.org/details/oates71027137, Accessed by the author on August 7, 2018

Skidmore, W.E. II, “The World Anti-slavery Convention of 1840,” Historians Against Slavery. http://www.historiansagainstslavery.org/main/the-world-antislavery-convention-of-1840/, Accessed by the author on August 7, 2018


Caroline Warfield lists faith, family, history, and travel as her great passions and all four drive her storytelling. Her most series, Children of Empire, tells the stories of three cousins who find their fortunes in the late Georgian/ early Victorian period. She continues to research the 1840s and 1850s while planning her next move. Caroline lives in Cheltenham Township, Pennsylvania, not far from where Lucretia Mott had her home and where Camp William Penn once stood.

The final book in Children of Empire,  The Unexpected Wife takes place in the run-up to the First Opium War in 1838-1839. You can find it here.

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