Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER XII. - The History of the Abolition of the African Slave-Trade, vol. 1
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CHAPTER XII. - Thomas Clarkson, The History of the Abolition of the African Slave-Trade, vol. 1 
The History of the Rise, Progress, and Accomplishment of the Abolition of the African Slave-Trade by the British Parliament, 2 vols. (London: L. Taylor, 1808). Vol. 1.
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Author devotes this chapter to considerations relative to himself—fears that by the frequent introduction of himself to the notice of the reader he may incur the charge of ostentation—Observations on such a charge.
Having brought my History of the Abolition of the Slave-trade up to the month of May 1787, I purpose taking the liberty, before I proceed with it, to devote this chapter to considerations relative to myself. This, indeed, seems to be now necessary: for I have been fearful for some pages past, and, indeed, from the time when I began to introduce myself to the notice of the reader, as one of the forerunners and coadjutors in this great cause, that I might appear to have put myself into a situation too prominent, so as even to have incurred the charge of ostentation. But if there should be some, who, in consequence of what they have already read of this history, should think thus unfavourably of me, what must their opinion ultimately he, when, unfortunately, I must become still more prominent in it! Nor do I know in what manner I shall escape their censure. For if, to avoid egotism, I should write, as many have done, in the third person, what would this profit me? The delicate situation, therefore, in which I feel myself to be placed, makes me desirous of saying a few words to the reader on this subject.
And first, I may observe, that several of my friends urged me from time to time, and this long before the abolition of the Slave-trade had been effected, to give a history of the rise and progress of the attempt, as far as it had been then made. But I uniformly resisted their application.
When the question was decided last year, they renewed their request. They represented to me, that no person knew the beginning and progress of this great work so well as myself; that it was a pity that such knowledge should die with me; that such a history would be useful; that it would promote good feelings among men; that it would urge them to benevolent exertions; that it would supply them with hope in the midst of these; that it would teach them many valuable lessons:—these and other things were said to me. But, encouraging as they were, I never lost sight of the objection, which is the subject of this chapter; nor did I ever fail to declare, that though, considering the part I had taken in this great cause, I might be qualified better than some others, yet it was a task too delicate for me to perform. I always foresaw that I could not avoid making myself too prominent an object in such a history, and that I should be liable, on that account, to the suspicion of writing it for the purpose of sounding my own praise.
With this objection my friends were not satisfied. They answered, that I might treat the History of the Abolition of the Slave-trade as a species of biography, or as the history of a part of my own life: that people, who had much less weighty matters to communicate, wrote their own histories; and that no one charged them with vanity for so doing.
I own I was not convinced by this answer. I determined, however, in compliance with their wishes, to examine the objection more minutely, and to see if I could overcome it more satisfactorily to my own mind. With this view, I endeavoured to anticipate the course which such a history would take. I saw clearly, in the first place, that there were times, for months together, when the committee for the abolition of the Slave-trade was labouring without me, and when I myself for an equal space of time was labouring in distant parts of the kingdom without them. Hence I perceived that, if my own exertions were left out, there would be repeated chasms in this history, and, indeed, that it could not be completed without the frequent mention of myself. And I was willing to hope that this would be so obvious to the good sense of the reader, that if he should think me vain-glorious in the early part of it, he would afterwards, when he advanced in the perusal of it, acquit me of such a charge. This consideration was the first, which removed my objection on this head. That there can be no ground for any charge of ostentation, as far as the origin of this history is concerned, so I hope to convince him there can be none, by showing him in what light I have always viewed myself in connection with the committee, to which I have had the honour to belong.
I have uniformly considered our committee for the abolition of the Slave-trade, as we usually consider the human body, that is, as made up of a head and of various members, which had different offices to perform. Thus, if one man was an eye, another was an ear, another an arm, and another a foot. And here I may say, with great truth, that I believe no committee was ever made up of persons, whose varied talents were better adapted to the work before them. Viewing then the committee in this light, and myself as in connection with it, I may deduce those truths, with which the analogy will furnish me. And first, it will follow, that if every member has performed his office faithfully, though one may have done something more than another, yet no one of them in particular has any reason to boast. With what propriety could the foot, though in the execution of its duty it had become weary, say to the finger, “Thou hast done less than I;” when the finger could reply with truth, “I have done all that has been given me to do?” It will follow also, that as every limb is essentially necessary for the completion of a perfect work; so in the case before us, every one was as necessary in his own office, or department, as another. For what, for example, could I myself have done if I had not derived so much assistance from the committee? What could Mr. Wilberforce have done in parliament, if I, on the other hand, had not collected that great body of evidence, to which there was such a constant appeal? And what could the committee have done without the parliamentary aid of Mr. Wilberforce? And in mentioning this necessity of distinct offices and talents for the accomplishment of the great work, in which we have been all of us engaged, I feel myself bound by the feelings of justice to deliver it as my opinion in this place, (for, perhaps, I may have no other opportunity,) that knowing, as I have done, so many members of both houses of our legislature, for many of whom I have had a sincere respect, there was never yet one, who appeared to me to be so properly qualified, in all respects, for the management of the great cause of the abolition of the Slave-trade, as he, whose name I have just mentioned. His connections, but more particularly his acquaintance with the first minister of state, were of more service in the promotion of it, than they, who are but little acquainted with political movements, can well appreciate. His habits also of diligent and persevering inquiry made him master of all the knowledge that was requisite for conducting it. His talents both in and out of parliament made him a powerful advocate in its favour. His character, free from the usual spots of human imperfection, gave an appropriate lustre to the cause, making it look yet more lovely, and enticing others to its support. But most of all the motive, on which he undertook it, insured its progress. For this did not originate in views of selfishness, or of party, or of popular applause, but in an awful sense of his duty as a Christian. It was this, which gave him alacrity and courage in his pursuit. It was this, which made him continue in his elevated situation of a legislator, though it was unfavourable, if not to his health, at least to his ease and comfort. It was this, which made him incorporate this great object among the pursuits of his life, so that it was daily in his thoughts. It was this, which, when year after year of unsuccessful exertion returned, occasioned him to be yet fresh and vigorous in spirit, and to persevere till the day of triumph.
But to return:—There is yet another consideration, which I shall offer to the reader on this subject, and with which I shall conclude it. It is this; that no one ought to be accused of vanity until he has been found to assume to himself some extraordinary merit. This being admitted, I shall now freely disclose the view, which I have always been desirous of taking of my own conduct on this occasion, in the following words:—
As Robert Barclay, the apologist for the Quakers, when he dedicated his work to Charles the Second, intimated to this prince, that any merit, which the work might have, would not be derived from his patronage of it, but from the Author of all spiritual good; so I say to the reader, with respect to myself, that I disclaim all praise on account of any part I may have taken in the promotion of this great cause, for that I am desirous above all things to attribute my best endeavours in it to the influence of a superior Power; of Him, I mean, who gave me a heart to feel—who gave me courage to begin—and perseverance to proceed—and that I am thankful to Him, and this with the deepest feeling of gratitude and humility, for having permitted me to become useful, in any degree, to my fellow-creatures.