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“There is Death in the Pot!”: Consumer Activism and Slave-Labor Goods

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One hundred years ago, the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment granted women the right to vote. Ratification marked the culmination of decades of activism by men and women. Many of those activists were also abolitionists, including Lucretia Mott, Sojourner Truth, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Harriet Tubman, and Frederick Douglass.

Mott’s activism began in the 1820s when she helped organize the Philadelphia-based Female Association for Promoting the Use and Manufacture of Free Cotton. It was one of the first female antislavery associations in the United States. The association urged consumers to reject slave-produced goods either by abstaining from such goods or by substituting free-labor goods. By ending consumer demand for slave-labor goods, activists believed slaveholders would be forced to adopt free labor.

British abolitionists promoted the first major boycott of slave-grown sugar after Parliament failed to pass a bill abolishing the slave trade. From 1791 to 1792, nearly one-half million Britons refused to consumer slave-grown sugar.

The boycott coincided with the publication of Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792. In the 1820s, when Britons organized another boycott of slave-grown sugar, women-led the organizational effort. They formed associations, canvassed neighborhoods, and boycotted grocers who failed to stock free-labor goods. British Quaker Elizabeth Heyrick, in a pamphlet titled Immediate Not Gradual Abolition, published in 1824, urged women to take immediate action against slavery by boycotting the products of slave labor. The activism of British women forced Parliament to act against slavery in the 1830s.

British Quaker Elizabeth Heyrick, in a pamphlet titled Immediate Not Gradual Abolition, published in 1824, urged women to take immediate action against slavery by boycotting the products of slave labor.

American women followed the progress of British women’s campaign against slavery, including the boycott of slave-grown sugar. The free produce societies formed by American women in the 1820s were inspired by British women’s activism and led to the organization of antislavery societies in the 1830s. The American Anti-Slavery Society and the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society, both organized in 1833, included support for the boycott of slave-labor goods in their constitutions.

In Britain and the United States, supporters adopted a variety of tactics to promote the boycott. Men and women opened stores that sold free-labor goods to conscientious consumers while activists organized major meetings to discuss the boycott, including a National Requited Labor Convention in Philadelphia in 1838, where they established the American Free Produce Association. In 1840, Lucretia Mott attended the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London, where she sought to promote the boycott of slave-labor goods. Eight years later, Mott helped organize the first women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York.

In 1840, Lucretia Mott attended the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London, where she sought to promote the boycott of slave-labor goods. Eight years later, Mott helped organize the first women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York.

Supporters of the boycott wrote pamphlets, poetry, and even children’s books. In the 1840s, Quaker author Hannah Townsend wrote The Anti-Slavery Alphabet. Sold at the annual fair hosted by the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society, the children’s book introduced children to the use of slave labor to produce consumer goods such as rice and sugar. British Quaker Anna Richardson’s pamphlet, luridly titled There is Death in the Pot! (1850) suggested the contaminating effect of slave-labor goods and the role of consumers in removing such goods from the marketplace.

My book Moral Commerce: Quakers and the Transatlantic Boycott of the Slave Labor Economy explores the boycott of slave-labor goods from its seventeenth-century origins among North American Quakers through its demise after the American Civil War. Women’s activism is one of three thematic threads I trace through the history of the movement. In addition to gender, I examine the role of religion and race. The boycott of slave labor appealed to the politically marginalized: women, Quakers, and black abolitionists. Their motivations for supporting the boycott varied widely. For some men and women, the boycott was a principled response to slavery. Others adopted the boycott as “an act of racial rebellion,” encouraging adherents to view slave-labor goods “as the fruits of the labor of our own children, brothers, and sisters.” Activists made clear the connection between the consumer and the enslaved laborer and, as a result, politicized consumers’ choices in the marketplace.

*Featured photo by British Library on Unsplash.


Julie L. Holcomb is Associate Professor of Museum Studies at Baylor University.

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