Clarkson, Thomas, 1760-1846

Alternative names
Birth 1760-03-28
Death 1846-09-26

Biographical notes:

Philanthropist. Entered St John's 1780. B.A. 1783. Clarkson won the members prize for Latin essay in 1785, the subject being a question 'anne liceat invitos in servitutem dare?' ('is it lawful to make slaves of others against their will?') This contest determined the course of the rest of his life. The essay was read in the Senate House to much applause in June 1785, and published by James Phillips in June 1786. He met William Wilberforce in 1786 and co-founded a committee for the suppression of the slave trade in 1787. Clarkson travelled to France in 1789 in an attempt to persuade the French Government to abolish the slave trade and continued to travel widely in Britain in support of the cause until forced by ill health to retire from his work in 1794. Returning to the struggle in 1805 with much success, he was finally rewarded by the passing of the bill abolishing the slave trade in 1807. With the bill Clarkson was celebrated as a national figure and a model of philanthropy. With Wilberforce he was made a vice-president of the Anti-slavery Society, formed in 1823, and in 1839 was admitted to the freedom of the City of London in recognition of his work. His final appearance on a public platform was at an Anti-slavery Convention held at the Freemason's Hall in 1840. Clarkson published a number of books and pamphlets regarding the abolition movement, including the comprehensive 'History of the Rise, Progress and Accomplishment of the Abolition of the African Slave Trade' in 1808, an important record of the movement, and 'Thoughts on the Necessity for improving the Condition of the Slaves in the British Colonies, with a view to their ultimate emancipation' in 1823. Wordsworth addressed to him a sonnet 'on the final passing of the Bill for the Abolition of the Slave Trade' in March 1807 which began 'Clarkson, it was an obstinate hill to climb.'

From the guide to the Papers of Thomas Clarkson, 1787-1996 (The majority of the papers were written during Clarkson's life. A few are much more recent, relating to twentieth century research into Clarkson's work.), (St John's College Library)

Clarkson was a leader of the English anti-slavery movement. He wrote a history of the abolition of the slave trade as well as numerous other pamphlets, books, and articles on the subject. Besides being an ideologist and a propagandist, he was the organizer for anti-slavery forces in England, riding on horseback to the various towns, cities, and counties to recruit members for the committees being formed throughout England and Scotland.

From the description of Letter. Ca. 1840. (Ascension Parish School). WorldCat record id: 18976339

English anti-slavery leader.

From the description of Autograph letter signed : Playford, Suffolk, to [James Cropper], 1832 Oct. 19. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 270870532

Thomas Clarkson (1760-1846), English abolitionist.

From the description of Thomas Clarkson papers, 1785-1871. (Robert W. Woodruff Library of the Atlanta University Center, Inc.). WorldCat record id: 38477494

Epithet: philanthropist and abolitionist

British Library Archives and Manuscripts Catalogue : Person : Description : ark:/81055/vdc_100000000411.0x00037c

Thomas Clarkson, British slavery abolitionist.

From the description of Thomas Clarkson manuscript material : 1 item, 1845 (New York Public Library). WorldCat record id: 99736133

From the guide to the Thomas Clarkson manuscript material : 1 item, 1845, (The New York Public Library. Carl H. Pforzheimer Collection of Shelley and His Circle.)

Epithet: BA

British Library Archives and Manuscripts Catalogue : Person : Description : ark:/81055/vdc_100000001476.0x00026d

English philanthropist and abolitionist.

From the description of Papers, 1814-1846. (Moorland-Spingarn Resource Center). WorldCat record id: 70941078


From the description of Thomas Clarkson correspondence, 1825. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 79453563

British abolitionist.

From the description of Papers, 1807-1846. (Duke University Library). WorldCat record id: 20649196

Thomas Clarkson was an abolitionist and leading campaigner against the slave trade in the British Empire. The slave trade was abolished in the British Empire in 1807 and the institution of slavery in 1833. Clarkson continued to campaign for abolition elsewhere in Europe and the United States.

From the description of Thomas Clarkson letter, 1842 July 16. (Louisiana State University). WorldCat record id: 83277484

Thomas Clarkson, English abolitionist and philanthropist.

From the description of Papers of Thomas Clarkson, 1787-1847. (Huntington Library, Art Collections & Botanical Gardens). WorldCat record id: 122499819

Thomas Clarkson was born in England in 1760. He first became interested in abolitionism in 1785, an Anglican minority in the anti-slavery movement which at the time was overwhelmingly Quaker. Clarkson devoted the rest of his life to ending slavery in the United Kingdom, and when that was accomplished with the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, he continued to work towards emancipation in America. He died in 1846.

From the description of Letter from Thomas Clarkson: I have to inform you that while I was in London, 1830 March 30. (Swarthmore College). WorldCat record id: 554926824


Thomas Clarkson (1760-1846), the English philanthropist, devoted the major portion of his life to the cause of the abolition of slavery. His energy in organizing anti-slavery societies throughout England helped to arouse the attention of the English people to the inhumanity of the institution of slavery. The present small group of papers may be looked upon as a supplement to the collection of Clarkson Papers in the British Museum (Add. Mss. 41262-41267). Both groups of papers were consulted by Earl Leslie Griggs in the preparation of his biography of Clarkson published in 1936.

From the guide to the Thomas Clarkson Papers, 1787-1847, (The Huntington Library)

Thomas Clarkson began his lifelong crusade against slavery and the slave-trade shortly after receiving his B.A. from St. John's College, Cambridge, in 1783. In 1784 and 1785, he won the members' prizes for Latin essays at Cambridge, and his winning essay of 1785 was published the following year as An essay on the slavery and commerce of the human species, particularly the African (J. Phillips: London, 1786). In the course of locating a publisher for this essay, Clarkson formed working relationships with several of the most important emerging figures of the anti-slavery movements in Britain, including James Phillips, Granville Sharp, and William Dillwyn, and Clarkson is credited with bringing M.P. William Wilberforce into the movement at the formation of the Quaker-influenced Committee for Abolition (1787). The continued efforts of the Committee to lobby Parliament and raise the consciousness of the British people to the cruelties of the slave trade resulted, in 1788, in the introduction of legislation before Parliament to curb the harshest forms of treatment, though it was not until 1807 that a bill to end the slave trade managed to pass both houses.

Responding to the egalitarian rhetoric of the French Revolution, Clarkson traveled in Paris in August, 1789, to agitate for anti-slavery legislation before the Assemblé Nationale. While he was moderately successful at attracting political allies, including Lafayette and Brissot de Warville, no legislative action resulted. As part of his efforts, in December, 1789, and January, 1790, Clarkson wrote a series of 13 long, informational letters to the poet Mirabeau, then at the peak of his political influence, to "bring the entire facts of the case [for abolition] before him" (DNB). These letters were never published in French, however, when Clarkson returned to England in February, 1790, they were translated, much compressed and published as Letters on the slave-trade, and the state of the natives in those parts of Africa, which are contiguous to Fort St. Louis and Goree (James Phillips: London, 1791).

From the guide to the Thomas Clarkson manuscript, Lettres nouvelles sur le commerce de la Côte de Guinée, Clarkson, Thomas, 1789-1790, (William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan)

  • 1760 March 28: Born in Wisbeach, England, son of Rev. John Clarkson.
  • 1783: B.A. from St. John's College in Cambridge, England.
  • 1787: Formed a committee with Granville Sharpe and other outstanding English abolitionists for the suppression of the slave trade.
  • 1789: Traveled to Paris to persuade the French Government to abolish the slave trade.
  • 1790 - 1791 : Traveled throughout England to obtain witnesses to give evidence on behalf of suppression of the slave trade before Parliament.
  • 1794 - 1805 : from active anti-slavery activities due to ill-health.
  • 180?: Resumed work and toured English countryside in a campaign to end slavery.
  • 1823: Served as vice-president of the Anti-Slavery Society for abolition of slavery in the west Indies.
  • 1840: Delivered last public address at the Anti-Slavery Convention held at the Freemasons' Hall.
  • 1846 September 26: Died at Playford Hall near Ipswich, England.

Source: Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford) Vol. IV, pp. 454-456.

From the guide to the Thomas Clarkson Papers, 1814-1846, (Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University)


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  • Etching, English--19th century
  • Manuscript maps
  • Slavery--Law and legislation
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  • Slave trade--Africa
  • Women--History, modern period, 1600-
  • Slave trade
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  • Portraits, British 19th century
  • Clarkson Maps
  • Abolitionists--Great Britain--19th century--Correspondence
  • Slavery--Great Britain


  • Abolitionists--England
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