British abolitionist Thomas Clarkson set out in 1806 to tell the story of Quakers, to help the larger English-speaking world understand these foreign-seeming Friends. He titled the work, A Portraiture of Quakerism. Why Quakers? As Clarkson puts it, he had been “thrown frequently into the company of the people, called Quakers” in his work against the slave trade, and he “conceived a desire of writing their moral history.” But Clarkson’s explanation doesn’t quite work. This book – presumably conceived in 1787 – didn’t come to fruition for almost 20 years. If the subject – near to Clarkson’s heart – was as important as he claimed, then why did the inexhaustible writer, speaker, publisher, and organizer keep putting off the project?
Some historians have suggested that the book – published when it was – proved politically expedient.
Clarkson had founded the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. He had interviewed 20,000 sailors as part of his research. He had ridden on horseback more than 35,000 miles in his search for artifacts and evidence. He had published essay after essay against the slave trade. He had convinced William Wilberforce to present legislation, year after year, that if passed, would have abolished the slave trade. But in 1794, war with France had largely ended the debate in Parliament, and Clarkson was tired. He retired from the movement, bought a home, married, and had a child. Then, 10 years later, as the war was coming to an end, Clarkson saw an opportunity for victory.
He wrote a book, a book that normalized Quakers in order to give public appeal to a cause that had largely been championed by this marginalized religious sect. And it worked. Within a year of the book’s publication, the Slave Trade Act was passed.
But what about the book? What exactly does Clarkson say about Quakers?
He says that no matter the issue, Quakers will consistently “reason on principle, and not upon consequences.” He says that Quakerism itself is a system that leads “towards purity and perfection.” He says that Quakers “never make a sacrifice of conscience.” He says that Quakers are “anxious for the moral improvement of mankind.” He says that “we seldom see a noisy or irascible Quaker.” He says that although Quakers are just as apt as others to enjoy wine with a meal, “neither drunkenness, nor any situation approaching to drunkenness, is known in the Quaker companies.”
Clarkson says that Quakerism, at heart, is “an attempt at practical Christianity . . . as far as it can be carried.”
Quakers “never make a sacrifice of conscience.”