By Jon Hochschartner
Animal activists who view the practice of personal veganism as a prerequisite to advocating public veganism should know the history of similar perspectives and tactics in other movements at other times. Because animal activists so often associate their struggle with that of abolitionists of human slavery, it’s perhaps most worthwhile to focus on the free produce movement.
According to Lawrence B. Glickman, the free produce movement “encouraged consumers to avoid slave-made goods and to purchase products made by ‘free labor.’ Consciously adopting the strategies of British anti-slavery sugar boycotters of the 1790s, free produce supporters became active in the United States in the 1820s.”
The first free produce store opened in Baltimore in 1826, but eventually over 50 stores were situated in eight other states. “Most stores sold clothing and dry goods but some also offered free labor shoes, soaps, ice cream and candy,” according to Glickman.
To avoid slave-produced goods, free produce stores often imported sugar from Java, Malaysia and Mexico. This, writes T. Stephen Whitman, “led to higher priced and often lower-quality goods. Efforts to obtain free labor grown cotton and coffee encountered similar problems. In short, purchasers of free produce had to acknowledge that they paid higher prices than for slave-made commodities.”
The institution of slavery was not threatened by this individualistic, consumer-based strategy. “There is little evidence that slaveholders or their political representatives paid much attention to (the free produce movement) and no evidence that it had a discernible economic impact on them,” Glickman writes.
By the 1840s, many abolitionists who had previously supported free produce were changing their minds. “The World Anti-Slavery Convention of 1840, held in London, rejected a call for its supporters to endorse free produce, and other anti-slavery bodies followed suit,” according to Whitman.
The famed abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison eventually opposed the free produce movement, arguing, “These (slavery) productions are so mixed in with the commerce, manufactures, and agriculture of the world…so indissolubly connected with the credit and currency of the country–that, to attempt to seek the subversion of slavery by refusing to use them, or to attach moral guilt to the consumer of them, is, in our opinion, alike preposterous and unjust.”
Garrison argued, as Glickman summarizes here, that “even if it were possible to divest oneself from all slave-made goods, the quest for what one free produce advocate called ‘clean hands’ diverted energy from the anti-slavery struggle by shifting the focus to what amounted to a selfish obsession with personal morality.”
Abolitionist Elizur Wright argued that the strictures of the free produce movement reduced activists to paralysis. “No anti-slavery agent or other abolitionist must now travel in stage or steam-boat, for the sheets and table cloths of the latter are of cotton,” Wright said. “No abolitionist can any longer buy a book, or take a newspaper printed on cotton paper.”
Opposing the free produce movement’s tactics, abolitionist Wendell Phillips proclaimed he would be perfectly at ease attending the “Great Judgement” in slave-produced clothing. Garrison struck a similar note, saying, abolitionists “claimed for themselves, almost in the name of slaves, the right above all others to wear the product of their blood and travail.”
Ultimately, slavery was abolished, with, according to Glickman, little to no help from the free produce movement. According to the sources I’ve found, most abolitionists did not avoid slave-produced goods. Animal activists should study this historical boycott, as well as other examples of consumer activism, more closely. Some of the lessons might not apply to our movement, but no doubt many will.