Moral Contagions: Evaluating Barbauld and More’s Abolitionist Rhetoric

Brook Johnson
5 min readApr 26, 2019
Wiki Commons

The human atrocities of 18th-century slavery and British parliament’s refusal to end normative slave practices attracted the poetic ire of Anna Laetitia Barbauld and Hannah More. Barbauld’s poem, “Epistle to William Wilberforce, Esq., on the Rejection of the Bill for Abolishing the Slave Trade,” expresses moral outrage at British parliament and predicts a negative moral contagion infecting British society. More’s “Slavery: A Poem” draws attention to the numerous contradictions embedded in British society and envisions the abolition of slavery resulting in a positive moral contagion. Both poems will be analyzed with regard to the poet’s effectual use of ethos, pathos, and logos in abolitionist rhetoric. This essay will demonstrate the superiority of More’s rhetoric due to her consistent application of logos.

Barbauld frames slavery’s corrosive impact on British society with ethos: William Wilberforce’s virtues are juxtaposed with Britain’s vices. The poem’s heroic couplets fit the mythological grandeur that Barbauld ascribes to Wilberforce:

The preacher, poet, senator in vain
Has rattled in her sight the Negro’s chain;……………………………………………
And Freedom’s eager sons, in vain foretold,
A New Astraean reign … (3–4, 13–14)

Barbauld’s phrase “in vain” becomes a rhetorical motif that illustrates the impotence of reasoning with or expecting change from a morally compromised parliament. By referencing the “Astraean reign,” Barbauld employs the Greek mythological goddess of justice to depict the just Christian society that Wilberforce passionately advocated. Barbauld’s appeal to Wilberforce’s virtuous conduct provides her with a Christian moral framework for indicting British society.

Barbauld uses pathos to incite indignation against the British parliament by publicly shaming their moral failings. On Barbauld’s view, the combined eloquence of the best minds in British society have no voice in parliament when “avarice” (25) and “sophistry” (27) are widespread. Barbauld observes parliament deliberately propagating false information to justify the slave trade while mocking objectors, which she evocatively describes as “the laugh of hell” (37–38). “Vengeance” from Heaven will surely come, Barbauld warns, because Britain “condemn[s] his fellow man” (41–44). With a logos inspired “slippery slope” argument, Barbauld predicts her generation’s moral failings will casually infect their children, resulting in a negative moral “contagion” (48–56). Barbauld predicts the heights of Britain’s material decadence will wither beneath the “shrieks and yells disturb[ing] the balmy air” (81). The application of pathos continues, as More personifies Britain’s external beauty melding grotesquely with “corruption” (96) and “leprosy” (98). Britain’s inevitable collapse, Barbauld surmises, will leave their African and Indian victim’s “smile, avenged” (105). Barbauld concludes by renewing her appeal to ethos: honour is ascribed to Wilberforce, and Britain is shamed (109–116).

Barbauld’s deployment of ethos, logos, and pathos in conjunction with her tightly framed poetic structure and grim imagery is effective, provided that one shares her view. The weakness of Barbauld’s rhetoric is its deficiency in logos. Embedded in Barbauld’s view are two crucial presuppositions: slavery is evil and thus its effects on subsequent generations and society are pernicious. Barbauld offers no compelling reasons for the veracity of these claims. She simply announces her claims, as though they were already self-evident. What Barbauld fails to do, and what More does to great effect, is offer reasons to think slavery actually is evil. Barbauld’s rhetorical persuasiveness does not extend beyond a select audience who already affirms her moral judgment.

More’s poem opens with a conditional statement targeting the allegedly Christian value system supported by British society:

If Heaven has into being deigned to call
Thy light, O Liberty! to shine on all;
Bright intellectual sun! why does thy ray
To earth distribute only partial day?” (1–4)

Unlike Barbauld’s opening appeal to Wilberforce’s virtues, More’s application of logos demonstrates how Britain’s celebrated value of liberty is severely contradicted by their slave practices. The poem’s heroic couplets foreshadow More’s broad scope of accumulated appeals to logos, pathos, and ethos. More’s subsequent reference to Oronoko’s dramatic plight invokes pathos through its emotional resonance with her target audience: “Is the mind,” More asks, “degraded by the form to which ’tis joined?” (45–46). It is a heavily freighted rhetorical question that forces objectors to reassess their prejudiced views. More reasons that Africans are human beings like the British: “For they have keen affections, kind desires, / Love strong as death, and active patriot fires” (69–70). Here, More plays off the shared values between the British and Africans and thus undercuts the prevailing notion that Africans are subhuman or essentially different from their oppressors. More continues building her case with a pathos instilled treatment of Africa’s plight: “See the dire victim torn from social life, / The shrieking babe, the agonizing wife!” (99–100). More underscores Britain’s horrific abuse of human beings who desire “HOME” and “FREEDOM” (120). The recurring usage of all capitals amplifies More’s terms and draws further attention to the significant contradictions between Britain’s values and their practices. More passionately reasons, “What strange offense, what aggravated sin? / They stand convicted — of a darker skin!” (133–35). More identifies the absurdity and arbitrariness of Britain’s slave policies. Similar to Barbauld’s use of pathos to indict the British parliament, More applies the Golden Rule to Britain by reversing the slave trade: “They are still men, and men should still be free. / Insulted Reason loaths th’inverted trade” (140–1). More argues that Britain would not tolerate slavery, and yet they continually enslave Africans who feel “human pain” (147). Comparable to Barbauld’s use of Wilberforce, More appeals to the ethos of “O COOK” as striking the appropriate balance between exploration and accommodation of foreign nations (235). By stirring up patriotic sentiment through the virtuous activities of Captain James Cook, More renews her appeal to Britain’s core values: “Shall Britain, where the soul of freedom reigns, / Forge chains for others she herself disdains?” (251–2). In an optimistic turn, sharply contrasting with Barbauld’s pessimistic view of Britain’s inevitable collapse, More concludes with a morally triumphant angel spreading the contagion of love throughout British society for the benefit of all, provided that Britain abolishes slavery (260).

More’s accumulated rhetorical appeals can be problematic for the reader. Given More’s sprawling poetic form, her rhetoric does not flow as cohesively and seamlessly as Barbauld’s tightly framed account. Nevertheless, the strength of More’s poem lies in her ability to reinforce her rhetorical appeals to pathos and ethos with a consistent application of logos. While Barbauld strikes the right tone of moral distaste, More offers rationally compelling reasons for slavery’s multi-faceted evils: (1) Britain’s values are in contradiction with their slave practices; (2) Slaves are human beings — not subhumans; and (3) The Golden Rule forbids slavery.

Barbauld and More address Britain’s slave practices with mixed results. Barbauld effectively uses pathos to conjure up the vivid, gruesome imagery of undesirable sickness contaminating British society. However, Barbauld fails to demonstrate the veracity of slavery’s evil. More’s broader scope diminishes the impact of her individual points, but the accumulated weight of logos dependent reasoning combined with pathos and ethos successfully demonstrates slavery’s fundamental evils. By incorporating the greater share of logos to support the veracity of her claims, More’s rhetoric proves the superior of the two.

Works Cited

Barbauld, Anna Laetitia. “Epistle to William Wilberforce, Esq., on the Rejection of the Bill for Abolishing the Slave Trade.” The Broadview Anthology of Romantic Poetry, edited by Buzzard, Laura, and Joseph Laurence Black, et al., Broadview Press, 2016, pp. 38–40.

More, Hannah. “Slavery: A Poem.” The Broadview Anthology of Romantic Poetry, edited by Buzzard, Laura, and Joseph Laurence Black, et al., Broadview Press, 2016, pp. 54–58.