Animal activists who view the practice of personal veganism as a prerequisite to advocating public veganism should know the history of similar perspectives and tactics in other movements at other times. Because animal activists so often associate their struggle with that of abolitionists of human slavery, it's perhaps most worthwhile to focus on the free produce movement.
According to Lawrence B. Glickman in Buying Power: A History of Consumer Activism in America, the free produce movement "encouraged consumers to avoid slave-made goods and to purchase products made by 'free labor.' Consciously adopting the strategies of British anti-slavery sugar boycotters of the 1790s, free produce supporters became active in the United States in the 1820s."
To avoid slave-produced goods, free produce stores often imported sugar from Java, Malaysia and Mexico. This, writes T. Stephen Whitman in World of a Slave,
...led to higher priced and often lower-quality goods. Efforts to obtain free labor grown cotton and coffee encountered similar problems. In short, purchasers of free produce had to acknowledge that they paid higher prices than for slave-made commodities.The institution of slavery was not threatened by this individualistic, consumer-based strategy. "There is little evidence that slaveholders or their political representatives paid much attention to (the free produce movement) and no evidence that it had a discernible economic impact on them," Glickman writes.
By the 1840s, many abolitionists who had previously supported free produce were changing their minds. "The World Anti-Slavery Convention of 1840, held in London, rejected a call for its supporters to endorse free produce, and other anti-slavery bodies followed suit," according to Whitman.
The famed abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison eventually opposed the free produce movement, arguing,
These (slavery) productions are so mixed in with the commerce, manufactures, and agriculture of the world...so indissolubly connected with the credit and currency of the country--that, to attempt to seek the subversion of slavery by refusing to use them, or to attach moral guilt to the consumer of them, is, in our opinion, alike preposterous and unjust.
|Pre-abolition sugar bowl that reads: "East India Sugar not made by SLAVES."|
...even if it were possible to divest oneself from all slave-made goods, the quest for what one free produce advocate called 'clean hands' diverted energy from the anti-slavery struggle by shifting the focus to what amounted to a selfish obsession with personal morality.Abolitionist Elizur Wright argued that the strictures of the free produce movement reduced activists to paralysis: "No anti-slavery agent or other abolitionist must now travel in stage or steam-boat, for the sheets and table cloths of the latter are of cotton," Wright said. "No abolitionist can any longer buy a book, or take a newspaper printed on cotton paper.
Opposing the free produce movement's tactics, abolitionist Wendell Phillips proclaimed he would be perfectly at ease attending the "Great Judgement" in slave-produced clothing. Garrison struck a similar note, saying, abolitionists "claimed for themselves, almost in the name of slaves, the right above all others to wear the product of their blood and travail."
Ultimately, slavery was abolished, with, according to Glickman, little to no help from the free produce movement. According to the sources I've found, most abolitionists did not avoid slave-produced goods. Animal activists should study this historical boycott, as well as other examples of consumer activism, more closely. Some of the lessons might not apply to our movement, but no doubt many will.
Jon Hochschartner is a freelance writer from upstate New York. Visit his website by clicking here.
Want to learn more? Please see my article "Abolition Then and Now: Tactical Comparisons Between the Human Rights Movement and the Modern Nonhuman Animal Rights Movement in the United States" published with the Journal of Agricultural & Environmental Ethics (also available on my Academia.edu page). In this article, I explore the failure of "voting with your dollar" in the human abolition movement, as well as a critical analysis of legal reform, violence, and moral suasion as liberation tactics. As Jon explains, some lessons learned 200 years ago might provide invaluable wisdom to our current struggle to liberate other animals.
In a reaction all too familiar to vegan advocates today, much of the tea-addicted public of Britain and America was turned off at the thought of giving up their precious sugar (which was slave produced). For that matter, alternative products made "freely" in India still involved important human rights abuses. As is relevant to the vegan movement today, abolitionists were right to criticize the feasibility of access to slave-free products. Some critics specifically worried about the impact on the lower classes that relied on cheap and readily available slave-produced products to survive. However, vegan advocacy is unique in that we literally consume the bodies of those who are exploited. Veganism is especially imperative because this consumption is also linked to a litany of deadly diet-related diseases and environmental collapse.
|This cartoon from 1826 mocks the free produce movement, suggesting that slaves are living a rather idyllic and happy existence...sound familiar? Notice also the poor persons at the bottom of the image with the sign that reads, "Please do think of poor Pat." The assumption was that antislavery activism ignored problems at home and unfairly burdened the poor with expectations that they purchase expensive free produce.|
Source: British Library
- Corey Lee Wrenn