The Ambiguities of Abolition: Pro- and Anti-Slavery Writings, 1757-1824

Vernita Lynne Burrell, Fordham University


“The Ambiguities of Abolition” argues that there are complexities within eighteenth- century discourse about slavery and abolition that transcend conventionally binary pro- and anti-slavery arguments. Cultural, intellectual, and religious shifts in eighteenth-century society produced various responses from philosophers, poets, and former slaves about the ethics of slavery and the promise of freedom. The advent of the abolitionist movement in the late eighteenth century also raised the possibility that, as economically lucrative as slavery was, it might be a moral outrage that needed to be prohibited. At the same time, many authors merely adopted and ventriloquized the language of abolition to champion a more nebulous need for British liberty from governmental tyranny. In particular, I analyze the works of Thomas Paine, Edmund Burke, William Godwin, Mary Wollstonecraft, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth, Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, Olaudah Equiano, Quobna Ottobah Cugoano, and the anonymous author of the novel The Woman of Colour. Though today, we are most familiar with abolitionist arguments against slavery, these texts reveal that there was also a considerable outpouring of pro-slavery thought. Moreover, even those authors who supported the cause of abolition often ignored actual enslaved Africans and focused instead on the metaphorical enslavement of various figures. There are also unexpected moments of identification, however, as evidenced by The Woman of Colour, whose anonymous author was not necessarily of African descent but who imaginatively took on the perspective of a woman of color. The rich ambivalence of the literature of this period helps makes it worth studying today as models for understanding both political injustice and justice.

Subject Area

British and Irish literature

Recommended Citation

Burrell, Vernita Lynne, "The Ambiguities of Abolition: Pro- and Anti-Slavery Writings, 1757-1824" (2016). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI10182819.