But the compensation of slave owners offered a model that might have served the United States better than bloody civil war. During the American revolutionary war, the British had recruited slaves to fight on their side by promising them freedom. After the war, slave owners, including George Washington, demanded their slaves back. A British commander, General Sir Guy Carleton, refused. Thousands of freed slaves were transported from New York to Nova Scotia to avoid their re-enslavement. But Carleton did promise to compensate the slaves' owners, and Washington settled for that.
The original British abolitionists, including Thomas Clarkson, greatly influenced Americans like William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglas. But few picked up on the idea of compensated emancipation, which had not originated with the abolitionists.
Elihu Burritt was an exception. From 1856 to 1860 he promoted a plan to prevent a U.S. civil war through compensated emancipation, or the purchase and liberation of slaves by the government, following the example that the English had set in the West Indies. Burritt traveled constantly, all over the country, speaking. He organized a mass convention that was held in Cleveland. He lined up prominent supporters. He edited newsletters. He behaved, in other words, like Clarkson and many an activist since.
And Burritt was right. Britain had freed its slaves without a civil war or a slave rebellion on the scale that was possible. Russia had freed its serfs without a war. Slave owners in the U.S. South would almost certainly have preferred a pile of money to five years of hell, the deaths of loved ones, the burning and destruction of their property, and the uncompensated emancipation that followed, not to mention the century and a half of bitter resentment that followed that. And not only the slave owners would have preferred the way of peace; it's not as if they did the killing and dying.
When a former slave found his voice in London, told his story in a best-selling book, filled debating halls, and became a leader in the movement to free all others, he was a man who had been a slave in my home state of Virginia. His name was Olaudah Equiano. He was one of, if not the first, black to speak publicly in Britain. He did as much to end the slave trade as anyone, and it might have gone on considerably longer without him.
I've never seen a monument or memorial in Virginia to Equiano. In contrast, just down the street from my house in Charlottesville is a tree called Tarleton's Oak. Next to it is a gas station by the same name. The tree is not old, having been planted to replace an enormous aging oak that I recall seeing. Under that one, supposedly, during the revolution, British troops camped. They were led by a young officer named Banastre Tarleton. He later got himself into Parliament, and there was no more obnoxious defender of the slave trade than he. Africans themselves, he maintained, did not object in the least to being enslaved. Tarleton lied at tremendous length without a hint of shame. His memory we mark, not Equiano's.