Editor's Note: I'm very pleased today to post an imagined historical visit from John Woolman, courtesy of Thomas Slaughter, author of the new biography The Beautiful Soul of John Woolman. Thanks to Prof. Slaughter for sending us this guest post based on his new book.
Our world, a True fable.
by Thomas Slaughter
Imagine you are at home one evening and there is a knock at the door. When you answer it, you recognized the guy as someone you know by name but not well. He comes into your living room and over the course of the next two hours, he lays out to you much information that you already know, but perhaps not in the precise detail he gives you. You know about global warming, the horrendous working conditions under which many of the household items and clothing you wear are manufactured, although you didn’t know specifically how, where, and under what conditions each of them was made. He tells you the exact problem by looking around and examining labels. He explains to you the argument for buying only products, and especially food, that are locally produced. He details the impact of your consumption of energy and the creation of waste products from you way of life and makes a particularly strong case against computers, televisions, cars, and air conditioning. Again, you’re a good person, environmentally and ethically conscientious, and try to recycle to the best of your ability. You know you do a better job than most of your neighbors and most of the people you know. You are a good and responsible person.
Nonetheless, you are hit hard by the specificity of his indictments of your possessions and the contents of your refrigerator and trashcan. You are appalled to know that the actual shoes you are wearing, the belt, trousers, and shirt you have on were made under conditions that exploited the workers and then were transported across the world at great cost in fossil-fuel use. You resolve to buy locally-produced cheese, locally-grown vegetables, and to stop eating beef. And yet, over the course of the evening your are moved even further. This man actually convinces you to give up your car, computer, and television, and you do the next day; he convinces you never to fly again. What is it about him that moved you so far past the compromises that good people, conscientious people in our society make every day? It’s the presentation, not just the details, the arguments that you have heard before in one way or another and that you have chosen to keep vaguely outside the realm of your specific knowledge about how you live. If you hadn’t the guilt would have kept you awake at night.
The man’s plea is emotional, but not accusatory, which is why you didn’t become defensive. He cried, but not because of the horrors he describes or because of your social sins. No, he cried because he felt so personally complicit in the devastation that humans wreak upon the earth. He was there to confess, to indict himself, to take on the burden of all the problems that modern life creates. And, he did this despite the fact that, as you know, he does not own a car, a tv, or a computer, wears only clothes that he makes or that are made locally, buys what he cannot grow in his own organic garden only directly from local producers, never flies, and disposes of no trash at all. He doesn’t use air conditioning at all and heats only to keep pipes from bursting, choosing instead to wear sweaters home-knit from local, un-dyed wool. When he leaves, you are moved beyond the knowledge, past your feelings of guilt, and have overcome the sort of alienation that has always led you, as it does the rest of us, to throw up our hands in dismay that we cannot personally change the world.
This man is John Woolman (1720-1772) or, at least, a modern, fictive version of him. In his day, he changed people’s behavior, led them to take action against their economic self-interest and the comforts of life. He taught them that they lived in a world that had, as ours does, an integrated, global, market economy. If you bought tea or cloth from India in the eighteenth century, the cost was subsidized by other goods that travelled on a ship that may have started its journey in England, stopped next in the Mediterranean before proceeding to Madras, and then hit the coast of Africa and the Caribbean on its way to Philadelphia or Boston before completing the circle. The slaves that you never saw, who were transported on one leg of that trip, and the workers in Calcutta who were paid starvation wages to produce the cloth and harvest the tea, were linked inextricably to the rum or Irish linen or nails that you bought from the ship’s cargo.
So, Woolman tried very hard to extricate himself from the web of an international market economy and the injustices immediately around him. He eventually wore clothing made only of un-dyed wool; he wore shoes without buckles; and he decline to take even public transportation because he believed that teamsters treated their horses harshly in order to make unnecessarily fast journeys. He refused to drink from a silver cup or use silver-based coins because silver was mined in Central America by Indians enslaved by the Spanish. He walked up to the houses of otherwise good people who owned slaves and convinced them that even if they were exemplary masters, even if the slaves had been born on their farms, they were complicit in the horrors of the slave trade. And he did this, not by preaching to people that they were evil, but by lamenting his own complicity and his own failures to live a life that was free from the horrors, the abuse, and by convincing people that we are just as responsible for people we have never met on the other side of the world as we are for the nuclear family that lives in our household. He was not a liberal, and not convinced that he or anyone among us is truly improving the world one step at a time, by buying energy-saving light bulbs or a more efficient refrigerator or turning off the lights when we leave a room or checking email only once a day or putting newspapers in a re-cycling bin collected by our town and then not re-cycled at all. No, Woolman said, we are all guilty; it is not “them” who started the war, or exploited the laborers, or profit greedily from the production of fossil fuels and inflating the price of drugs that poor people need or bought a car that used more fuel than ours. And this is only partly because the stock of companies that do ravage and exploit are in our retirement portfolios, unbeknownst to us because we choose not to know. No, it is all about us, all of us; there is no “them” at all.
Thomas P. Slaughter, author of The Beautiful Soul of John Woolman, Apostle of Abolition (New York: Hill and Wang, 2008).
Professor of History
University of Rochester
tslaught AT mail DOT rochester DOT edu