A Moral Steam Engine
By Joel F. Wade - September 12, 2011

There are times in a life, or in a world, where a single idea, conceived, committed to, and followed through, can bring about the most breathtaking change.

I want to recommend a very moving film, Amazing Grace. It is the story of how a small group of people brought an end to the slave trade in England.

In 1807, at a time when slavery was a universally accepted part of life, at a time when the economy of Great Britain was dependent to a large extent upon the slave-driven plantations in the Caribbean, for the slave trade to be abolished was a singularly heroic and inspiring feat.

While Amazing Grace focuses on the life of William Wilberforce (1759-1833), the member of parliament who tenaciously held to his purpose for 23 years, there is a fantastic book, Bury the Chains by Adam Hochschild, that centers around the life of the man who inspired Wilberforce, Thomas Clarkson (1760-1846).

Clarkson's role was to travel the country, gathering information and evidence of the slave trade's abuses, and generating support among the population for the abolition of the slave trade. Without Clarkson's single minded and tireless pursuit of his goal, Wilberforce would not have had the evidence or the popular support he needed to bring his substantial efforts to pass.

There is one moment, and one decision, that made this possible:

Clarkson had been on his way to London to begin a promising career in the Church of England, having won the country's Latin contest (a huge accomplishment and honor at that time). The subject for his essay was, "Is it lawful to make slaves of others against their will?"

(This question was set by Dr. Peter Peckard, Vice Chancellor of Cambridge University, who had been deeply affected by the accounts by another important abolitionist, Granville Sharpe, of the murder of 133 slaves thrown overboard from the ship the Zong).

Unfortunately for Clarkson's budding career, but very fortunately for the world, he took his research into this essay very seriously.

What he found so disturbed and horrified him that, on his ride to London, haunted by what he now knew, he stopped and made a decision:

"Coming in sight of Wade's Mill in Hertfordshire, I sat down disconsolate on the turf by the roadside and held my horse. Here a thought came into my mind, that if the contents of the essay were true, it was time some person should see these calamities to their end."

And that is exactly what Clarkson did.

That decision made Clarkson the Moral Steam Engine (this is what Samuel Coleridge called him) of the abolition movement. In Hochschild's words: "If there had been no Clarkson, there would still have been a movement in Britain, but perhaps not for some time to come."

My point here is twofold:

1) I encourage you to read this book, and see this movie, because to my mind it describes one of the most heroic and moving moments in history.

2) I want you to consider the power of an idea for your own life.

I have been honored to see moments of epiphany in clients over the years, in which all of a sudden, they make a decision, or come to an understanding, or have a vision of possibilities that utterly and irreversibly changes their lives. In those moments, a person takes possession of his or herself, and sets a course and purpose for their life.

I don't know how to advise you to go out and get such an epiphany. I don't know that the moments that I've witnessed in my clients had anything whatsoever to do with anything that I did or said.

It seems more to come from a kind of preparation, an attention and a focus upon something that makes fertile the soil of one's heart.

I suppose that the lesson is to pay attention to what moves you; to pay attention to what you care most about, and to take seriously your hopes and dreams.

But there is a further lesson here.

When I consider the story of these abolitionists, I think of the grand course of the progress of liberty. In a sense, history can be seen as the story of its hero, freedom, and the challenges, tragedies and triumphs of the men and women who shepherd human liberty along.

When I think of this, the feeling that I get is of profound gratitude, awe and reverence.

If not for people like Clarkson and Wilberforce, there could easily have been a continuation of the slave trade for many years beyond 1807. (The United States, you should know, abolished the trade in 1808, as soon as was legislatively possible following the move by Great Britain).

If not for Thomas Jefferson, we would not have the beautiful Vision Statement of America, the Declaration of Independence. If not for George Washington, we could very likely have continued as English colonies, or have deteriorated quickly into monarchy.

If not for Winston Churchill in WWII, England may not have have held off the Nazis for long.

If not for Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, we could easily still be engaged in a Cold War with a bold and dangerous Soviet Union. (Just remember our President Carter, and imagine what negotiations with Gorbachev in Reykjavik would have looked like.)

These are just a few of the big names, but our liberty, our prosperity, and our civilization have been built by countless men and women who have taken their ideas and their values and committed them to action – and they have seen their commitments through to their end.

This is our legacy to uphold and build upon: To secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.

Each of us has the capacity to be a moral steam engine in our own lives, to protect and nurture this precious beating heart of liberty.

Not in the name of perfection, or in an irritated comparison to some imagined ideal, but in profound gratitude for the giants – the ordinary people doing extraordinary things – who have brought us this far, to move the blessings of liberty forward and to enjoy the satisfaction and meaning of a life well lived.

Note: Slavery still exists today. Slavery was legal in Saudi Arabia until 1962, and active sanctioned slavery continues in countries like Sudan and Mauritania. If you believe that it is time to see these calamities to their end, you might want to look into organizations such as the American Anti-Slavery Group.

Editor's Note: We are aware that Joel Wade makes some assumptions about Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan that free-market thinkers might find controversial. We would also like to point out that an important issue regarding the abolition of slavery in Britain is that it happened without a war. Thus one could argue that the American Civil War was not necessary to free the slaves, in spite of the likes of Harriet Beecher Stowe. Slavery as an institution would likely have withered anyway.

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