Moral Commerce

Quakers and the Transatlantic Boycott of the Slave Labor Economy

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Julie L. Holcomb
  • Ithaca, NY: 
    Cornell University Press
    , August
     272 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Julie Holcomb’s Moral Commerce: Quakers and the Transatlantic Boycott of the Slave Labor Economy is an important examination of the free-produce movement that spanned the Atlantic from the early 18th to the late 19th century. Speaking to a historiography that has until recently written off the movement as “simply a Quaker movement,” Holcomb deftly weaves together the narratives of Quakers, women, and black abolitionists to complicate these traditional understandings (3). Coming from a global perspective, Holcomb’s study is a widening of the lens in which to view the movement. Guided by the themes of religion, gender, and race, Holcomb seeks to address how vital Quakers really were in the boycott of slave labor through a movement that “has important implications for us as we continue to use the power of commodity consumption to solve political problems” (4).

Holcomb has structured her chapters chronologically, beginning in chapter 1 with the development of Quaker understandings of antislavery that came to form the intellectual and religious foundation of the free-produce movement. Discussing the early abolitionist rhetoric of American Quaker John Woolman, Holcomb details how Quakers moved from attitudes of ambivalence towards slavery to an attempt to “align their Christian principles with the newly expansive commercial society” (15). In her second chapter, the discussion moves to the first popular propaganda campaign against slave-labor goods in the 1790s. In Britain, large-scale activism resulted in over half a million people participating in the boycott of West Indian slave-grown sugar. Holcomb argues that while focusing the consumer boycott on sugar alone limited the impact it had on slaveholders, the merging of “contemporary anxieties about the slave trade and female commerce” enabled the free-produce movement to garner support outside the Society of Friends (61). In chapter 3, Holcomb notes the waning interest in abstention after the abolition of the international slave trade in the early 19th century. As Quakers in America suffered through the Orthodox-Hicksite schism that fractured their society, lines were drawn between those who saw the boycott of slave-labor goods as essential to the Quaker faith and those who believed “abstention had little relevance in spiritual matters” (87).

Chapters 4 and 5 focuses on two women who helped regenerate interest in the free-produce movement in the early 1830s. Elizabeth Heyrick, an Englishwoman, was instrumental in connecting women’s activism to the boycott: “[she] made slavery and slave-labor goods a matter for woman’s heart and for her pocketbook” (106). In part, her work inspired the Philadelphia-born Quaker poet Elizabeth Margaret Chandler. As one of the most prolific antislavery writers of the Antebellum period, Holcomb argues that Chandler emphasized the morality of domestic consumption and strengthened the association between women’s and children’s roles in the fight against slavery. In chapters 6 and 7, Holcomb turns to efforts in Britain, America, and India by Quakers and non-Quakers alike to organize antislavery and free-produce societies in the 1830s and 1840s. She traces the rise and fall of the American Free Produce Association [AFPA] in its attempt to “convince other abolitionists to adopt free produce” as well as make free labor goods more readily available (154), as well as the British India Society’s role as a pressure group against slave-labor goods. Holcomb’s eighth and final chapter spans thirty years between the collapse of the AFPA in the 1840s and the direction of the movement into the 1860s. By the end of the 1850s, Holcomb states that support for free produce, among Quakers and non-Quaker abolitionists, declined rapidly. Many efforts to produce free-labor goods, though successful in some cases, were insufficient to rid the Atlantic of slave-labor goods. Nonetheless, the movement lived on as it gained attention from new supporters, such as the black abolitionist Henry Highland Garnet, revealing “the resilience of the idea of moral commerce” (187). 

Holcomb has produced an ambitious and in-depth analysis of the origins and directions of the free-produce movement that swept the British Atlantic and the historical struggle against a capitalistic system that was built upon slave-labor goods. Both intimate and expansive in its scholarship, her work successfully highlights vital individuals across the Atlantic in the movement and situates them within the larger narrative of antislavery, revealing the wide range of meanings that activists attached to the movement. Though her study focuses primarily on Quakers, Holcomb interlaces their involvement alongside women and black abolitionists. She writes: “The boycott of slave-labor goods transformed women from the unreliable abolitionists of the eighteenth century to the movement’s moral core of the nineteenth century” (191). Though Quakers initiated the religious foundation on which the movement was built, Holcomb demonstrates that women were fundamental to the moral significance the movement took on. Throughout her examination, the most important story Holcomb is telling is that despite the ultimate failure of the movement to rid the Atlantic of slave-labor goods, the activists involved in the movement “pioneered a new conception of consumer activism,” one that proved resilient. Holcomb’s claim that the movement’s meaning was protean is reflected in her conclusions. While black abolitionists saw the failure of moral suasion to end the trade and thus turned to economic arguments, for other activists, like Lucretia Mott, free produce “affirmed their unequivocal commitment to racial equality” (191). Nonetheless, Holcomb demonstrates how the movement forced otherwise neutral parties to take a side in the debate, ensuring the discussion around free-labor goods remained relevant to the antislavery plight. Her study is a significant addition to the historiography of the free-labor movement, and her excellent work is a must-read for anyone interested in the study of the antislavery movement and Quakerism.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Sydney Harker is a doctoral student in Gender and Religious History at Queen's University at Kingston.

Date of Review: 
November 13, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Julie L. Holcomb is Assistant Professor of Museum Studies at Baylor University. She is the editor of Southern Sons, Northern Soldiers: The Civil War Letters of the Remley Brothers, 22nd Iowa Infantry.


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