Julie L. Holcomb is Assistant Professor and Graduate Program Director in the Department of Museum Studies at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. This interview is based on her new book Moral Commerce: Quakers and the Transatlantic Boycott of the Slave Labor Economy (Cornell University Press, 2016).
JF: What led you to write Moral Commerce?
JH: I learned of the free produce movement while writing an undergraduate paper about the Progressive-era labor reformer Florence Kelley. Kelley’s aunt Sarah Pugh was an abolitionist who abstained from the use of sugar and cotton. Several years later, when I encountered free produce a second time, in Betty Fladeland’s Men and Brothers, I remembered Kelley’s description of her aunt Sarah. I was intrigued and I was curious about this apparently international consumer movement against slavery. I wondered why so little had been written about this movement. I wrote Moral Commerce because I wanted to know more about the men and women who boycotted slave-labor goods. It seemed like a bold idea — boycott slave-labor goods to force the abolition of slavery.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Moral Commerce?
JH: Moral Commerce traces the genealogy of the boycott of slave labor, bringing together in a single narrative the stories of the Quakers, women, and black abolitionists who challenged the economic status quo and demanded the abolition of slavery. That they failed to achieve their goal is not evidence of their lack of commitment. Nor is their failure necessarily evidence of idealism or sentimentalism, though they were admittedly guilty on both counts. Rather their failure to force slave labor goods from the market is evidence of just how important slave labor was to the global economy.
JF: Why do we need to read Moral Commerce?
JH: Abolitionist historiography is a rich and diverse field. Moral Commerce contributes to that historiography in several ways. First, Moral Commerce is the first book to examine the breadth of the boycott of slave labor. I place the boycott within its transatlantic context and trace its development over more than hundred years of activism. This allows me to explore how different groups of activists interpreted the boycott, which leads to some interesting comparisons such as the different motivations for women’s activism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Focusing on the breadth of the movement proved challenging, however. Of necessity, I had to limit some discussions. For example, in her short work on the American free produce movement, Ruth Nuermberger devotes an entire chapter to the Quaker activist George W. Taylor. In my work, Taylor receives less coverage because I felt it necessary to tell other stories. Second, the boycott idea had a long history. Before activists talked about colonization, gradualism, or immediatism, there were Quakers who were calling for abstention from slave-labor goods as a protest against slavery. My book is also a reminder of the long history of consumer activism. Many of the tactics we use in modern consumer movements were first introduced by antislavery consumers: door-to-door canvassing, labeling of approved goods, and targeted appeals. Before the colonists boycotted British goods, there were Quakers like Benjamin Lay who refused to benefit in any way from slave labor. Finally, reading Moral Commerce alongside recent works on slavery and capitalism highlights just how much the global economy relied on slave labor. Books such as Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told emphasize the economic strength of the slave-labor economy. It makes clear how difficult it would be for men such as Jacob de Cordova, Edward Atkinson, George W. Taylor, and others to turn Texas into a major source of free-labor cotton for conscientious consumers. Moral Commerce brings the consumer into these conversations about slavery and capitalism.
JF: When and why did you become an American historian?
JH: When I went back to college in my thirties, I struggled with identifying a major. I wanted to major in literature and creative writing, but as a wife and mother I felt I needed to be more practical in my choices. I knew for certain that I did not want to major in history. At the recommendation of a friend, however, I took a course with Larry Lipin, the American history professor at Pacific University where I did my undergraduate work. By the end of that semester, I had dropped my literature major and added a history major. Over the next three years, I took every history course Larry taught, including his course on American labor history (his area of specialization). Still, I wasn’t sure what I would do with a history degree. Prior to starting college, I had worked in a variety jobs, including retail sales, banking, and public and school libraries. After I added the history major to my degree plan and after talking with my husband, I thought I would pursue graduate work in library science and history with the goal of becoming an academic librarian. When I talked to Larry about this idea, he suggested instead a career in archives. That conversation changed everything! I spent two years working in the Pacific University Archives before applying to graduate programs in archives and history. When I graduated from Pacific, I had envisioned a career working in a labor history archive such as the collection at Wayne State University. Instead, after I finished my master’s degree, I worked for eight years as archivist and then director of a Civil War and western art museum while I finished my PhD in transatlantic history. I am starting my ninth year teaching in the museum studies program at Baylor. I enjoy the opportunity I have to maintain such a broad focus, researching and writing about history while teaching about archives and museum studies, and helping students understand the connections among those fields.
JF: What is your next project?
JH: I am in the early stages of a book project about Orthodox Quakers in the nineteenth century, specifically the Philadelphia Quaker George W. Taylor who appears in Moral Commerce. From the 1840s through the 1860s, Taylor was one of the primary Orthodox Quaker proponents of free produce. He ran a free produce store in Philadelphia, operated a cotton mill, and published the Non-Slaveholder. Since the 1940s that has been the standard story of Taylor. In the last few years, the Quaker Collection at Haverford College has received several donations of Taylor papers from the family. Reviewing those materials in the course of my work on Moral Commerce, I realized that there was much more to Taylor than his support of free produce. I am broadly interested in the relationship between Orthodox Quakers and the reform movements of the nineteenth century. In 1827, in an event that one historian describes as “the greatest tragedy of Quaker history,” American Friends divided into two distinct groups: Hicksite and Orthodox. That split led Quakers to scrutinize their beliefs and practices, including Friends’ participation in the various reform movements of the period, especially the antislavery movement. Orthodox Quakers have been largely absent from the story of Quakers and abolitionism. Generally, when historians talk about Quakers and reform, the focus tends to shift toward Hicksite Quakers such as Lucretia Mott and Amy Kirby Post, among others, who were active in abolitionism and women’s rights. Less well known are the stories of Orthodox Quakers like Taylor. Yet, in 1875 Taylor shared the stage with Mott and other abolitionists, including Frederick Douglass, at the centennial celebration of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society. For me that event suggests that historians have missed the significance of Taylor’s activism. Admittedly, Taylor’s views were never as radical as those of Mott and Post. (In the 1830s Angelina Grimké denounced Taylor as a “rank colonizationist.”) Still, the story of Taylor’s activism in the peace, temperance, and women’s rights movements as well as the free produce and antislavery movements is an important counterpoint to the story of Hicksites like Mott and Post.
JF: Thanks, Julie