“Individual Change or System Change” Is Not a New Debate (Some 19th C. Quotes from The Liberator)

Anti-Slavery Cause

Just in case you think the climate activists argument about whether individual action reducing or eliminating fossil fuel consumption is a new sort of controversy, here are some quotes from reader letters in The Liberator, William Lloyd Garrison’s abolitionist newspaper.

Here’s one reader taking the “don’t shame me for eating molasses” side of the argument:

Will not the abstinence by a few, irritate the many, without attaining the proposed end? These questions deserve a serious consideration. I know that molasses, for example, is manufactured in the Island of Cuba by slaves— that from the earliest shootings of the tender cane to the carrying of the full hogshead of molasses to the Portland or Boston vessel ready for sea— its manufacture is accompanied by the heavy blow of the slavedrivers whip— by the constant repetition of the many wrongs now suffered every where by the slave. Will my disuse of molasses unbind the captive or lessen the weight of the whip? Nay, will the combination of every citizen of Boston and of Portland effect the proposed end? The effect of such a course might irritate the slaveholder and his government— markets for slave produce would still elsewhere be found and perhaps new rivets added to the chain of the oppressed.

[C.F., December 14, 1833]

Here’s another taking the consumer-choice-creates-the-demand-that-continues-the-evil side of the argument:

It is urged that there is a lack of charity manifested ‘towards those who do not see that duty requires them to abstain from the use of slave products, on the part of those who do.’ To this allegation we would only remark, the same is said of the great body of abolitionists by the slaveholder and his apologist, and they alike prefer the charge of ‘acting with a seal not according to knowledge, however well intended.’

* * *

And this is not all; the sugar, i[n] producing which many of our fellow perish missably, is chipped in great questions to this country. We are the consumers, who stimulate by our demand this cruelty. And knowing this, shall we become [accesso]ries to the murder of our brethren, by continuing to see the fruit of the hard-earned tail which destroys them? The sugar of Oube comes to us drenched with human blood;—so we out to see it, and turn from it with loathing. The guilt which produces it ought to be put down by the horror of the civilized world.’

[Benjamin Kent and Lydia C. Hambleton, August 4, 1848]

No less a personage than William Lloyd Garrison himself actually changed his mind on the subject, echoing many climate voices who now argue that individual consumption reduction is pointless self deprivation, and that system change, not individual change, is what  matters:

Having have requested by several friends in Pennsylvania, to express our views in regard to the use of articles raised by slave labor, we shall endeavor to do so in a very few words, as indicative, on our part, of the comparatively small importance we attach to the discussion of a subject, which is entangled with inextricable difficulties, and which cannot, therefore, he made a test of moral character.

At an early period of the anti-slavery enterprise, we w[ere] led, for a time, to regard the use of slave productions as personally involving a direct support of the slave system; but we were soon satisfied that we erred in judgment on this subject, that it was wasting time upon what no man could strictly reduce to practice, and that nothing would he gained by pressing it upon public attention There were a thousand strong and vital issues that could be made with the Slave Power, and we deemed it far more important to grapple with these, than to raise questions of conscience, which no casuistry could settle like a moral axiom. It is for this reason that we have s[ai]d so little in the Liberation on this subject.

We greatly respect the truly conscientious scruples of those who endeavor to abstain from the use of slave-grown articles; and far be it from us, at any time, either to condemn them for entertaining such scruples, or to prevent them from making as many proselytes as possible. If we have given them as special encouragement, they cannot charge us with waging any opposition against them. We have felt it to be one of those cases, which do not admit of clear demonstration, and hence must be left to the individual conscience. ‘To him that esteemeth any thing to be unclean, to him it is unclean. He that doubteth is condemned if he eat, because be eateth not of faith. One man believeth that he may eat all things: another, who is weak, eateth herbs. Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind.’

We have not found the same spirit of charity manifested toward those who do not se[e] that duty requires them to abstain from the use of slave produce, on the part of those who do. In the various reports and essays, which have been given to the public by the latter, from time to time, we have seen severe criminations of the former, as though they had little or no regard for principle, were unwilling to deprive themselves of any luxury or confect to redeem the slave, were doing more to perpetuate than to abolish slavery, and thought more of the gratification of their appetites than of principle! To all such unkind, or at least unfounded charges, we have made no reply, but have allowed them to be freely circulated, believing that they have proceeded from a seal not according to knowledge, however well intended, and that they [n]eeded no formal refutation. The non-abstaining abolitionists,— such, for example, as the Jacksons, the Phillipecs, the Quincys the Fosters, the Pillsburys, the Wrights, and the Chapmans,—need no certificate from any persons, that they are as willing as others to bear heavy burdens in the anti slavery cause, and heroically to discharge all the duties they perceive devolving upon them.

The Liberator, March 5, 1947

In other words, Garrison sayeth, “don’t thou darest sugar-shame the Jacksons or Phillipecs.”

I disagree with William Lloyd Garrison, and throw my lot with Kent and Hambleton and the Reformatory Union Free Produce Society. Consumer choice matters. Choosing to participate as a consumer in an economy that causes and will cause human suffering when other choices are available matters. Even more so for fossil fuels, where the harm arises largely from burning them, not from pumping them out of the ground.

The pages of The Liberator were full of advertisements for “Free Sugar” and “Free Cotton” (i.e., non-slave produce). These items were more expensive than slave produce. And, of course, pro individual action abolitionists substituted wool for slave-cotton and maple syrup and honey for slave-sugar – imperfect and expensive substitutes.

So, if you lived in America in the mid-19th Century, would you be saying “I refuse to be ashamed of sugar,” or would you be looking for alternatives to the slave economy?

I put together some more extensive excerpts on the subject from The Liberator a few years back when I was researching this article.  I am linking a collection of excerpts here.


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