James Stephen, Where Are You?!

The lack of energy independence is touted as a major problem by “those who want to leave America unaffected by global energy supply disruptions, and to restrict a reliance upon politically unstable states for its energy purposes.” The ostensible motive behind efforts to attain energy independence is that this would “prevent major supply disruptions like the 1973 oil crisis and the 1979 energy crisis from recurring.” In response to that concern, a law was passed in 2007 “to move the United States toward greater energy independence and security, to increase the production of clean renewable fuels, to protect consumers, to increase the efficiency of products, buildings, and vehicles, to promote research on and deploy greenhouse gas capture and storage options, and to improve the energy performance of the Federal Government, and for other purposes.”

The actual performance of our government, however, led by Pres. O’Bomber, suggests that the reduction of carbon emissions is a low-priority item. What’s ironic here about this is that our black president (actually, his heritage is mixed) is continuing a trend of energy dependence that goes back (in terms of modern history) to the 1700s—when the “energy dependence” then existing was on black slave labor!

The energy dependence associated with slave labor is, of course, of a different order than that associated with our current use of fossil fuels, but both are objectionable on moral grounds. Slavery is a direct evil, and therefore “obviously” morally repugnant—although it has taken time for its evil nature to become obvious to most. Fossil fuel usage, in contrast, is an indirect evil: Its direct result is global warming, which is already causing the extinction of many species, and threatens our own—making it an evil. Although slavery affected (as slaves) millions of people, involving ill-treatment, often to the point of death; global warming is, and will be, affecting everyone (as the recent IPCC report notes), perhaps to the point of wiping out our species. For that reason alone the production/use of fossil fuels is an evil virtually beyond compare.

The history of slavery’s demise (in the modern world) is one of a long, difficult struggle, initiated in Great Britain, and the reason for my title is that an element in that history may have relevance for our current struggle against fossil fuel usage.

Although the movement in Great Britain against slavery had begun with certain Quakers (of course!), William Wilberforce [1759 – 1837] emerged as one of the leading figures there in the fight against slavery. While a youth he was sent to live with an uncle and aunt (because of his mother’s inability to care for him), was exposed to their Methodism, and became interested in evangelical Christianity. This alarmed his mother and grandfather, so he was brought back home, and gradually began to lose that religious interest. However, while on a later journey with a friend, the two of them read “The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul by Philip Doddridge, a leading early 18th-century English nonconformist,” and he later “underwent an evangelical conversion, regretting his past life and resolving to commit his future life and work to the service of God.”

In 1783 “Wilberforce, while dining with his old Cambridge friend Gerard Edwards, met Rev. James Ramsay, a ship’s surgeon who had become a clergyman on the island of St Christopher (later St Kitts) in the Leeward Islands, and a medical supervisor of the plantations there. What Ramsay had witnessed of the conditions endured by the slaves, both at sea and on the plantations, horrified him”—and Edwards conveyed that fact to Wilberforce during their conversation.

Ramsay later “spent three years writing An essay on the treatment and conversion of African slaves in the British sugar colonies, which was highly critical of slavery in the West Indies. The book, published in 1784, was to have an important impact in raising public awareness and interest, and it [of course] excited the ire of West Indian planters who in the coming years attacked both Ramsay and his ideas in a series of pro-slavery tracts.” Independently of that book, apparently, Wilberforce later became interested in the slavery problem, and made contact with several other anti-slavery people in England.

Wilberforce had become a member of Parliament in 1780, but it was not until 1789 that “he made his first major speech on the subject of abolition in the House of Commons, in which he reasoned that the trade was morally reprehensible and an issue of natural justice.” Note that in this speech he did not argue against slavery per se but, rather, against the slave trade. Year after year he argued, in vain, against the slave trade—and here is where James Stephen enters the picture:

A radical change of tactics, which involved the introduction of a bill to ban British subjects from aiding or participating in the slave trade to the French colonies, was suggested by maritime lawyer James Stephen. It was a shrewd move since the majority of British ships were now flying American flags and supplying slaves to foreign colonies with whom Britain was at war. A bill was introduced and approved by the cabinet, and Wilberforce and other abolitionists maintained a self-imposed silence, so as not to draw any attention to the effect of the bill. The approach proved successful, and the new Foreign Slave Trade Bill was quickly passed, and received the Royal Assent on 23 May 1806.

Here is another commentary on this:

It was [James] Stephen’s fertile mind which came up with two ideas that helped break the deadlock over ending the slave trade. The first of these was during the struggle with Napoleon. He suggested extending anti-slavery language to a bill which was certain of support because it was viewed as a war measure, designed to stop neutral ships from delivering cargoes to France. (This bill so infuriated the United States that it led to the War of 1812.) His second proposal was a bill to require registration of all slaves in British possessions. This never passed, but it brought to light so many abuses that it swung public opinion against slavery.

(I should add here that Stephen married Wilberforce’s sister, Sarah, in 1800 (his second marriage. This helps account for the connection that developed between these two men.)

It took subterfuge to end the slave trade (in 1807—the Slavery Abolition Act being passed in 1833), and what I am suggesting here is that it might take subterfuge to end our dependence on fossil fuels! Peaceful subterfuge, of course, but subterfuge nonetheless.

I’m suggesting, that is, that we need a new James Stephen to arise in our midst!! May that happen! If it doesn’t, it’s likely that our species will go the way of the dinosaurs—but for very different reasons.

If, however, it does happen, it’s conceivable that a New Order will emerge in which “man’s inhumanity to man” (e.g., the current Israeli mistreatment of Palestinians) will be a thing of the past.

Al Thompson is retired from an engineering (avionics) firm in Milwaukee. His e-mail address is: torjesen74@gmail.com. Read other articles by Alton.