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The free produce movement was a boycott against goods produced by slave labor. It came about as a method to fight slavery by having consumers buy only produce derived from non-slave labor; labor from free men and women who were paid for their toil. The movement was active from the beginning of the abolitionist movement in the 1790s to the end of slavery in the United States in the 1860s.[1]

In this context, free signifies "not enslaved" (i.e. "having the legal and political rights of a citizen"[2]). It does not mean "without cost". Similarly, "produce" is used to mean a wide variety of products made by slaves, including clothing, dry goods, shoes, soaps, ice cream, and candy.[3]



The concept originated among members of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), in the late 18th century. Quakers believed in pacifism and in the spiritual equality of all humankind. Quakers opposed slavery, and by about 1790 had eliminated slaveholding from among their membership. Radical Quakers such as Anthony Benezet and John Woolman went further, voicing their opinion that purchasers of slave-derived goods were guilty of keeping the institution of slavery economically feasible. They argued for a moral and economic boycott of slave-derived goods. The concept proved attractive because it offered a non-violent method of combating slavery.[1]

Elias Hicks's Observations on the Slavery of Africans and Their Descendents published in 1811 advocated a consumer boycott of slave-produced goods to remove the economic support for slavery:

Q. 11. What effect would it have on the slave holders and their slaves, should the people of the United States of America and the inhabitants of Great Britain, refuse to purchase or make use of any goods that are the produce of Slavery? A. It would doubtless have a particular effect on the slave holders, by circumscribing their avarice, and preventing their heaping up riches, and living in a state of luxury and excess on the gain of oppression …[4]

Observations on the Slavery of Africans and Their Descendents gave the free produce movement its central argument for an embargo of all goods produced by slave labor including cotton cloth and cane sugar, in favor of produce from the paid labor of free people. Though the free produce movement was not intended to be a religious response to slavery, most of the free produce stores were Quaker in origin, as with the first such store, that of Benjamin Lundy in Baltimore in 1826.[5]


In 1826, the boycott began in earnest when abolitionist Quakers in Wilmington, Delaware drew up a charter for a formal free produce organization; the same year in Baltimore, Maryland, Lundy opened his store selling only goods obtained by labor from free people.[1]

In 1827, the movement grew broader with the formation in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania of the "Free Produce Society" founded by Thomas M'Clintock and other radical Quakers.[1] With the Society, they added a new tactic, one that sought to determine the unseen costs of goods such as cotton, tobacco and sugar which came from the toil of slaves.[6] Quaker women joined the Society, including Lucretia Coffin Mott who spoke out at Society meetings, giving some of her male associates their first experience of hearing a woman lecture.[7]

African AmericansEdit

In 1830, African-American men formed the "Colored Free Produce Society of Pennsylvania", subsequently, African-American women formed the "Colored Female Free Produce Society of Pennsylvania" in 1831.[8] Some black businesses began to feature free produce; William Whipper opened a free grocery next to Bethel Church in Philadelphia, and in the same city, a Negro confectioner used nothing but sugar from free will labor sources, and received the order for Angelina Grimké's wedding cake.[8] In New York, a supportive article in Freedom's Journal calculated for its readers that, given typical free Negro consumption of sugar, if 25 black people purchased sugar from slaveholders, then one slave was required to sustain the flow. New York City's small population of African Americans was said to require for their sugar the labor of 50 slaves.[8]

Resolutions in favor of free produce were passed at each of the first five conventions held by African Americans in the 1830s.[8] Henry Highland Garnet preached in New York about the possibility that free produce could strike a blow against slavery.[1] Black abolitionist Frances Ellen Watkins always mentioned the free produce movement in her speeches, saying she would pay a little more for a "Free Labor" dress, even if it were coarser.[8] Watkins called the movement "the harbinger of hope, the ensign of progress, and a means for proving the consistency of our principles and the earnestness of our zeal."[8]

American Free Produce SocietyEdit

In 1838, supporters from a number of states came together in the "American Free Produce Association", which promoted their cause by seeking non-slave alternates to products from slaveholders, and by forming non-slave distribution channels. The Association produced a number of pamphlets and tracts, and published a journal entitled Non-Slaveholder from 1846 to 1854.[1]

Free Produce AssociationEdit

A UK counterpart to the American society formed in the 1840s-1850s, under the leadership of Anna Richardson, a Quaker slavery abolitionist and peace campaigner based on Newcastle. The Newcastle Ladies' Free Produce Association was established in 1846 and by 1850 there were at least 26 regional associations.[9]

Non-slave enterpriseEdit

Quaker George W. Taylor established a textile mill which used only non-slave cotton. He worked to increase the quality and availability of free produce cotton goods.[1] Abolitionist Henry Browne Blackwell invested his and his wife Lucy Stone's money in several ventures seeking to make cheaper sugar by using mechanical means and non-slave labor, but the product was never viable, even when he switched his focus from sugar cane to sugar beets.[10]

Disadvantages and criticismEdit

Most abolitionists did not see the free produce movement as being vital to the cause. A few dedicated proponents were able to stay completely away from slave goods but a number of other abolitionists endorsed the concept only when convenient. Many more ignored the issue altogether.[8] The movement never grew large enough to gain the benefit of the economies of scale, and the cost of "free produce" was always higher than competing goods. Though William Lloyd Garrison in Boston, founder of the American Anti-Slavery Society, initially proclaimed at a convention in 1840 that his wool suit was made without slave labor,[11] he later examined the results of the movement and criticized it as an ineffective method to fight slavery, and as a distraction from more important work.[1] The national association disbanded in 1847, but Quakers in Philadelphia continued until 1856.[1]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i Hinks, Peter and McKivigan, John, editors. Williams, R. Owen, assistant editor. Encyclopedia of antislavery and abolition, Greenwood Press, 2007, pp. 266–268. ISBN 0-313-33142-1
  2. ^ Merriam Webster Online. Free. Retrieved on April 24, 2009.
  3. ^ Glickman, Lawrence B. (December 2004). "'Buy for the Sake of the Slave': Abolitionism and the Origins of American Consumer Activism" (PDF). American Quarterly. 56 (4): 889–912. doi:10.1353/aq.2004.0056. ISSN 1080-6490. 
  4. ^ Elias Hicks (1834). Letters of Elias Hicks, Observations on the Slavery of Africans and Their Descendents, (1811). Isaac T. Hopper. pp. 11, 12. Retrieved 2013-02-18. 
  5. ^ Louis L. D'Antuono (1971). The Role of Elias Hicks in the Free-produce Movement Among the Society of Friends in the United States. Hunter College, Department of History. Retrieved 2013-02-18. 
  6. ^ Newman, Richard S. Freedom's Prophet: Bishop Richard Allen, the AME Church, and the Black Founding Fathers, NYU Press, 2008, p. 266. ISBN 0-8147-5826-6
  7. ^ Yellin, Jean Fagan; Van Horne, John C. The Abolitionist Sisterhood: Women's Political Culture in Antebellum America, Cornell University Press, 1994, p. 161. ISBN 0-8014-2728-2
  8. ^ a b c d e f g Quarles, Benjamin. Black Abolitionists, Oxford University Press, 1969, pp. 74–76. ISBN 0-306-80425-5
  9. ^ Midgley, Clare. "Richardson [née Atkins], Anna (1806–1892), slavery abolitionist and peace campaigner". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/50724.  (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  10. ^ Kerr, Andrea Moore. Lucy Stone: Speaking Out for Equality. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1992, p. 114. ISBN 0-8135-1860-1
  11. ^ National Park Service. Women's Rights. Quaker Influence. Retrieved on April 24, 2009.

Further readingEdit

  • Midgley, Clare (December 1996). "Slave sugar boycotts, female activism and the domestic base of British anti‐slavery culture". Slavery & Abolition. 17 (3): 137–162. doi:10.1080/01440399608575190. ISSN 0144-039X. 

External linksEdit