Friday, October 19, 2012
Like every episode of consumer activism in every era of U.S history, the boycotters of this period drew, both explicitly and implicitly, on the theories and actions of previous groups. All of these antebellum movements linked their efforts to the nonimportation campaigns of the Revolutionary generation. The free produce abolitionists in particular built on a nearly continuous tradition of consumer protest that long preceded their movement.
Many of them were inspired by the example of John Woolman (1720-1772), the Quaker who, as a young man, made the decision to eschew all commercial connections with slavery; for example, he wore undyed clothing because slaves made dyes. Woolman's journals, first published in 1774, provided a personal model of the eschewal of slave-made goods.
As the poet and free labor advocate John Greenleaf Whittier wrote in an introduction to an edition of Woolman's journals that also nicely describes the broader phenomenology of the spread of consumer activism, "We are often surprised to find the initial link in the chain of causes to be some comparatively obscure individual, the divine commission and significance of whose life were scarcely understood by his contemporaries, and perhaps not even by himself. The little one has become a thousand; the handful of corn shakes like Lebanon."
Free produce advocates were also inspired by the Quaker Elias Hicks's Observations on the Slavery of the Africans (1811) Hicks went beyond Woolman's personal politics by imploring other Quakers to avoid slave-produced goods. In addition, American abolitionists were well aware of the organized and popular boycotts of slave-produced sugar that began in Britain in the 1790s and continued sporadically through the 1820s.
Finally, many free producers were doubtless aware of the maple sugar craze of the early 1790s, in which Benjamin Franklin and others encouraged entrepreneurial Americans to market the sweet sap of the maple tree as an alternative to slave-grown cane sugar. The successful marketing of maple sugar, claimed one advocate, would "diminish so many strokes of the whip which our luxury draws upon the blacks."
The early movements introduced tensions that continue to exist within consumer activism, occasionally divide consumer activists, and persist in frustrating their opponents within and outside the cause. For example, there were no fiercer critics of the free produce efforts than fellow abolitionists...
I certainly don't want to overstate the power of the boycott or Quakers or abolitionists in general. Clearly our Civil War settled the issue of the South's peculiar institution through violence, so we'll never know if this nonviolent intervention along with other economic factors would have, as some have suggested, made emancipation inevitable.
What I found most instructive about this example is that when actionists engage, they almost inevitably catch flak from their ostensible allies within a movement.
Which brings to mind a song oft misattributed as a Quaker hymn:
Nothing gets done unless you find your voice, and it might just start with a personal boycott or even...singing.
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The world will thank me for not singing. I inherited my mother's excellent pitch sense but my father's godawful singing voice. We made a deal in our tiny family: Dad paints; Mom sings; I play instruments.
Posted by: Steve Bates | Oct 19, 2012 11:51:23 PM