Not long ago, New Orleans removed a well-known statue of Robert E. Lee that stood high on a pedestal in the middle of Lee Circle. That’s one of many recent examples of communities removing monuments to prewar Southern figures or institutions. Flags and seals and street names have been changed too, to deny such honors to Confederate officers.

I have a friend who’s angry about this sort of thing. I think that he feels some emotional connection with ancestors who fought for the South, and his pride in them is being tainted. He tends to suggest that this changing social attitude to the pre-war South is somehow kooky and out-of-proportion. I thought it would be relevant to show him widespread European public opinion during the slavery period. I had assumed that polite educated society in non-slave-holding Europe would be frank in the view that American slavery was horrifying and barbaric.

But it seems I’m wrong about that. I have not found the moral attitude I expected from any well-known figures of the day (except for Charles Darwin and Charles Dickens). I find occasion disapproval of slavery per se, but not what I expected at all towards the South of US.

Was my expectation just anachronistic? Were those sorts of outpourings of opinion just a phenomenon of the days of Watergate or the Viet Nam war – and since then? Prominent public figures taking sides against each other thereby give us indirect evidence about feelings of ordinary people. What slavery-related issues were most controversial in terms of popular support in Europe in 1800-1860s? I'm asking about mainstream, not fringe.

(I realize the arguable irrelevance of all the personal content in this question, but I recently asked directly for the evidence I’m wondering about, and as happens so often in Stack Exchange, I found that lots of people couldn’t understand what I was trying to ask, and clarifications were repeatedly suggested, etc.)

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    Did you look at this article: en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slavery_Abolition_Act_1833. There are plenty of names. Or do you need names of people who condemned slavery in the American South rather than slavery in general? Commented Aug 3, 2017 at 20:49
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    William WIlberforce, Karl Marx, the ever inexplicably popular Che... and a few folks lead by The Chief Revolutionary.... of course those were principled people. Closer to Jane are, HawHaw, or Hari. Search for "failed revolution" and you'll find numerable shallow amateur fellow traverlers.
    – MCW
    Commented Aug 3, 2017 at 21:40
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    I had assumed that polite educated society in non-slave-holding Europe would be frank in the view that American slavery was horrifying and barbaric You mean the public of the European countries that were colonizing (sorry, "bringing the civilization") to Africa and Asia? The British starting wars in order to force China to accept their opium trade? Or do you mean the ones collecting fines in, literally, severed hands in the Belgian Congo? Or the German genocide camps in SW Africa? It was not a good public for "all the people are created equal and should have the same rights", neither.
    – SJuan76
    Commented Aug 3, 2017 at 23:27
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    @TomAu I do not know what your comment is answering at -in fact I can barely can make any sense out of it-. My point is that a) Europe was not as different from Southern USA as the OP seems to imply, b) social reformers in Europe had their hands full with European issues, c) without modern communications technologies the European public would have been way less informed/worried about whatever happened in the USA and d) without those technologies social and with a less educated public reformers would get way less coverage/notoriety than in modern day.
    – SJuan76
    Commented Aug 3, 2017 at 23:48
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    Please review your close votes. I've improved this question (hopefully) and narrowed down the issue; I know that the question is incredibly chatty and the title is utterly horrible. But tj1000's answer shows an important story buried beneath.
    – kubanczyk
    Commented Aug 7, 2017 at 10:35

2 Answers 2


It is important, when judging past events, to put those events in the context of the time in which they occurred. Trying to judge by today's standards will lead to very incorrect conclusions.

There was a thriving trade in African slaves from the 1600's to the early 1800's. Over 12 million Africans were taken into slavery during this time. Obviously, there was general approval for this activity by a lot of people. Slavery back then was not viewed with the disgust with which it is thought of today.

Consider this chart of African slavery, divided up by destination. From this, you learn some very interesting facts not highlighted in contemporary narratives.

Statistically speaking, the US had relatively few African slaves. Around 300,000, were brought to the US as slaves. The most prolific slavers were the Portuguese, who used over five million Africans in the copper, gold and silver mines of central and south America. The British took over three million, and many fortunes were made on the sugar plantations in the British controlled Caribbean islands.

But, when it comes to denigrating a culture for slavery, the Spanish, Portuguese, British and French aren't mentioned. Only the people from the southeast US, who were second only to Denmark in having the fewest number of slaves. The UK is remembered for trying to stop a trade in which it was the second largest player.

Consider also that most of the founders of the US government were also slaveowners. No one is taking down statues of Washington or Jefferson.

So your friend has a valid reason to feel indignant. Not because slavery was not wrong, but because the real perpetrators have been largely ignored.

I don't know that Jane Fonda is the best example of genuine activism, her protest activities tended to boost her acting career.

One person who spoke out against the war, and sacrificed quite a bit in the process was Muhammed Ali, who gave up his championship by refusing the draft.

Nor are antiwar activities always well received. Charles Lindbergh was a dedicated isolationist who opposed military action in the years leading up to WW2. This public stance, along with expressing admiration for Germany of the mid 1930's, more or less destroyed his previously revered image.

  • You've provided some fascinating new numbers, apparently a major progress in research between the 1990s and today.
    – kubanczyk
    Commented Aug 7, 2017 at 10:41
  • I’m not sure I follow all that you say. You link to a table on which the columns may be set to Flag; the column for U.S.A. shows 305,326. This shows the number carried across the water in a ship flying the American flag? Is that the number you refer to? If we set columns to Broad disembarkation regions, it seems that around 98% of slaves were bound for the Americas, and very few to Denmark. It’s interesting that the Caribbean islands accepted so many more slaves than the US when they are geographically so small. Were some of those slaves then moved again to the US?
    – Chaim
    Commented Aug 7, 2017 at 16:29
  • And it seems to me statues of Washington and Jefferson are another matter. From my own point of view, it is a good thing that Washington and Jefferson won their fights, and that the Confederates lost theirs. So it’s not at all clear to me that there’s equal reason to take down all statues, Founding Fathers and Confederates alike.
    – Chaim
    Commented Aug 7, 2017 at 16:31

Put another way, your question is "where is the tolerance for the protesters of the 1960s?" Because Robert E. Lee was still a "patriot" compared to Jane Fonda (at least Lee wasn't aligned with a "foreign" country). So why is Lee being banned while Fonda is still honored?

That question was answered in the book "Generations" by William Strauss and Neil Howe. The issue is that we're in something like the modern 1930s, in a so-called "crisis" era, in the shadow of the 2008 stock market crash (the modern 1929), and 9/11 (the "modern Pearl Harbor") and ISIS. These are times when the ethos is "circle the wagons." and "let's get rid of what doesn't belong." The intolerance of Robert E. Lee (a past bugaboo) is part of the pattern.

According to the book, an era like the 1960s occurs about every 80 years or so, historically in the 1880s, prospectively in the 2040s. This is a very different kind of time, an era of peace and prosperity, like that enjoyed after World War II, when people care more about the less fortunate and fight harder against "injustice" real or perceived.

The "civil rights" generation was the so-called Silent generation of Jane Fonda (born 1937 during the Depression, came of age in prosperity). The modern Silent Generation is the Homeland Security generation, born in the 2000s and 2010s, after "9/11" who will produce and support the new "Jane Fonda's," around 2040.

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