The first great work done by the Reformed Parliament was the total abolition of Slavery in the West Indian and other colonies of England. The new Parliament, indeed, showed itself very eager for the work of reform in any and every direction, and we shall presently see with what energy and success it applied itself to its very various tasks. If anything were needed to prove that a great modern nation makes progress in proportion to the genuineness of its representative system, such proof would be amply furnished by the history of the first Reformed Parliament. The reform in the representative system had not, indeed, gone nearly as far as was needed or as it was destined before very long to go; but it had gone far enough to make it certain that a Parliament which is brought directly in touch of public opinion is able to do great work, even under reluctant or lukewarm sovereigns. The new Parliament applied itself at this very period of its history to the abolition of the odious slavery system which still prevailed in many of the English Colonies. The slave trade system had been put down long before; that is, so far as English influence and the strength of English navies could put it down. Even at the present day the slave trade lingers here and there, and shows itself by fits and starts, although all the civilised nations of the world are now in arms against it. England had at one time, it must be owned, been herself a sad offender in the toleration and the actual practice of the slave trade. But better times had come, and England had repented of her former error, and had done her very best to suppress the unnatural traffic. Still it was quite a different task to attempt the abolition of the system of domestic slavery in Colonies where that system had existed from time immemorial. England took over her Colonies burdened with the slavery system; and had not, it must be said, concerned herself very much with any persistent efforts to get rid of the odious institution.
There had, indeed, been for a long time growing up in England a party of philanthropic reformers, whose main purpose was to relieve the English Colonies from the shame and the sin of slavery. Brougham was one of the most eloquent and energetic of the men whose voice had always denounced the slave system. It was he who, in energetic and memorable words, cried out against "the wild and guilty fantasy that man can hold property in man." Zachary Macaulay, the father of the famous historian, had taken a most active and enlightened part in the movement for the suppression of the slave system. He had himself given practical evidence of his sincerity, at the same time that he had accumulated an immense amount of knowledge which he put at the service of those who were endeavouring to arouse public opinion on this subject. Zachary Macaulay had had in his hands the management of a vast West Indian estate which was worked by slave labour. He resigned that lucrative position because his conscience would not allow him to have anything to do with the system, which with his own eyes he had seen to be productive of so much crime and misery. William Wilberforce had identified his name and the name of his family with the abolition movement. Another family of great note, the Fowell Buxtons, had for a long time before and a long time after been the enemies of slavery in whatever form. Samuel Whitbread was devoted to the same cause - not a great many years have passed since his descendant, another Samuel Whitbread, aroused the House of Commons by his generous denunciation of certain practices which an English Government had thoughtlessly tolerated - practices which seemed to sanction the restoration of the fugitive slave to those who claimed to be his owners. Lord Grey and Lord John Russell were naturally to be found among the earliest opponents of slavery; and it had no opponent more earnest than Daniel O'Connell, the leader of the Irish people.
The first great difficulty was to get up a strong, healthy public opinion on the subject. Any one can imagine, without too much racking of his brain, the kind of argument which would be applied by those who supported the system It used to be said, for example, that England had no right to rob certain of her Colonies of an institution which was absolutely essential to the prosperity of the Colonies themselves. Without slave labour, it used to be declared, it would be impossible for the Colonies to be prosperous, because without it they could not hold their own against other places which permitted and encouraged the use of slave labour. Many even argued for the system in the interest of the slaves themselves. "Who," it was asked incessantly, "is to feed and clothe these poor creatures, if we remove them from the protection of their masters, who could only benefit by their labour under the existence of a slave system?" "How would it be possible," it was asked triumphantly, "for Europeans to toil in the sweltering, tropical rice-fields and cotton-fields?" Then again, it need hardly be said, that the accounts of cruelties practised on the negroes were indignantly denied. The masters were kindness itself to them, such was the voluble assertion; even if they had not been influenced by Christian feeling and sentimental humanity, a merely selfish care for their own interests would keep them from overtasking and punishing their poor slaves. All the talk about floggings and brandings; about the separation of parents from children; about women and girls treated like beasts of the field and scourged to their death; about runaway slaves being identified when captured because of the owner's brands upon their breasts; all these were idle tales, utter exaggerations such as only the fanatical fancy of an abolitionist could suggest.
In truth the English public had got into an easy jog-trot way of dealing in its mind and in its conscience with this question of domestic slavery. Numbers of the best and most respectable families of the country were known to have large possessions in the West Indies, and was it to be supposed that such men would tolerate for a moment a system which was fraught with such terrible consequences?