The American Boycott’s Abolitionist Roots

Lucretia Mott did not wear cotton. Wool was her choice of fabric for the long Philadelphia winters; she wore linen or silk when the weather was hot. Her husband, James Mott, had for a time worked as a cotton merchant, but ultimately quit to trade in wool. He left for the same moral reasons that drove Lucretia’s abstinence: As adherents of the Free Produce Movement, an abolitionist effort led by Quakers in the decades leading up to the Civil War, the Motts did not buy or consume any goods made with slave labor—period. This meant that in addition to abstaining from buying or wearing cotton, the Motts went out of their way to buy staples like rice, coffee, and tea, and nonfood items like tobacco and indigo dye from sources besides the American South or the Caribbean. Lucretia was even particular about her sweets: maple sugar over cane.

The boycott endures as a familiar facet of American political life more than 150 years later, with the MAGA-hat crowd refusing to buy Nike products and LGBTQ allies avoiding Chick Fil-A. Not to mention the Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, one of the most pointed efforts to bring an end to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land in the West Bank. In action, if not in spirit, all these efforts have roots in the actions of abolitionists like Lucretia Mott. “A lot of our modern-day consumer activism, they’re drawing on the tactics of the Free Produce Movement—even if they’re not aware that they are,” said Julie Holcomb, author of Moral Commerce: Quakers and The Transatlantic Boycott of the Slave Labor Economy and a professor of museum studies at Baylor University.

The idea that buying products like sugar supported the institution of slavery was already well established when the Free Produce Movement began in the United States in the 1840s. In 1790, Thomas Jefferson—a slave owner and the original booster of local American foods—wrote about the interest there was at that time in increasing maple sugar production, remarking, “What a blessing to substitute a sugar which requires only the labor of children for that which is said to render the slavery of blacks necessary.” In England, there was a boycott of sugar from the West Indies both in the late 1700s and again in the 1820s, both of which were concerned with far more than the inconvenience of slave labor as Jefferson saw it. But even after the abolition of slavery in the United Kingdom in 1833, there continued to be imports of slave-produced goods, and it was British Quakers who founded Free Produce in an effort to cut the UK’s economic ties to slavery.

In the United States, the movement also started within the Quaker Society of Friends, and many of those who were most deeply involved were themselves Quakers. But Free Produce eventually gained a following outside the church, and for a time had the support of leading abolitionists. William Lloyd Garrison, the white publisher and journalist behind the abolitionist paper The Liberator, was an early supporter. Black abolitionists such as the lecturer Frances Ellen Watkins Harper were on board too: Harper said she preferred buying dresses made without slave-produced cotton, a decision that allowed her to be thankful “that to procure a little finer muslin for my limbs no crushed and broken heart went out in sighs,” she wrote in a letter, “and that from the field where it was raised went up no wild and startling cry unto the throne of God to witness there in language deep and strong, that in demanding that cotton I was nerving oppression’s hand for deeds of guilt and crime.”

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