George Thompson (abolitionist)

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George Thompson
George Thompson BPL 1851-2-crop.jpg
Born 18 June 1804
Died 7 October 1878(1878-10-07) (aged 74)
Nationality British
Occupation Abolitionist, Activist, Politician

George Donisthorpe Thompson (18 June 1804 – 7 October 1878) was a British antislavery orator and activist who worked towards the abolition of slavery through lecture tours and legislation while serving as a Member of Parliament. He was arguably one of the most important abolitionists and human rights lecturers in the United Kingdom and the United States.

Early life

Thompson had little formal education, and was largely self-taught. In early adulthood, he began a life of professional activism, starting with his role in founding a mutual improvement society at the age of eighteen, as well as his membership in debate societies. This suggests an early interest in self-betterment and the issues of the day. His father worked aboard a slave trading vessel, and his stories of the horrors of the slave trade planted the issue in the younger Thompson’s mind from an early age. He recalls the stories that his father told in some of his later writings, recounting his father’s observations of the inhumane treatment of slaves.[1]

Activism in England

As a professional activist, his interest in slavery was awakened by a newspaper advertisement in 1831, calling for men to join the London-based Anti-Slavery Society. Thompson had little knowledge of slavery, though he had gained a reputation as an able orator. He was hired by the society to try to get slavery immediately abolished on moral and religious grounds, a concept called "immediatism." He quickly took up the dissemination of the Society's creed: "To uphold slavery is a crime before God, and the condition must therefore be immediately abolished." In 1832 he traveled to Scotland, where he gained an interest in the abolition of slavery in the United States and other parts of the world. While in Scotland he also met William Lloyd Garrison who would remain a lifelong friend and colleague, as well as Nathaniel Paul, an African American abolitionist.

Thompson was invited by Garrison to visit New-England and this proposal was not only accepted by his supporters in Glasgow but the Edinburgh Emancipation Society was formed in order that it too could back Thompson's journey.[2] From 1836-1847 he was active in every major anti-slavery debate in Britain, including the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London on 12 July 1840.[3] In 1847 was elected to the British House of Commons, as a Member of Parliament (MP) for Tower Hamlets.[1]

Thompson was also an advocate of East Indian reform, free trade, Chartism, nonresistance, and the peace movement. However, he was most prominent in his work to eliminate slavery at home and abroad, often protesting legislation that offered limited or gradual restriction on slavery. Favoring a quick and decisive emancipation of all slaves, he was ultimately unsatisfied with the British Emancipation Act of 1833, because it forced slaves to work as apprentices for six years after their "liberation." He therefore used his position in Parliament to push for additional legislation.[1]

Portrait of William Lloyd Garrison, George Thompson and Wendell Phillips, ca.1850-1851 (photo by Southworth & Hawes)
George Thompson

Activism in the United States

George Thompson was an active lecturer, and he willingly pointed out the role that America played in the perpetuation of slavery. He first travelled to the United States in 1834, where he attracted the attention of pro-slavery men, and barely escaped being captured by them after one of his lecturing sessions. The resistance to his platform did not abate, and he was forced to return to Britain, via Tasmania. The Hobart Town Courier newspaper, 8 Jul 1836, carried a letter, penned by Thompson in November of the previous year, intended for Patrick Letham of Glasgow. In his letter, Thompson states that he had arrived "within the hour" at New Brunswick by British brig, having "..left the United States to escape the assassins knife.." The editor's note adds that attempts to "burn and murder" him had been made in several US towns.[4]

Thompson’s return to the United States in 1850 was brought about by the Fugitive Slave Law, and he was this time quite popular among proponents of abolitionism, now that the movement had increased in size and influence as the 1850s wore on.

In 1859, his son in law, Frederick William Chesson and Thompson founded the London Emancipation Society which strongly supported the Union side in the American Civil War.[5]

During this final visit in 1864 he allied with William Wells Brown in advocating the destruction of slavery. He also met Abraham Lincoln, and both supported and witnessed the final destruction of the Confederacy at Fort Sumter in 1865.[1]

Return to England

Thompson became ill and travelled back to his home country, where he died in 1878. While his advocacy of abolitionism went relatively unnoticed after his death, his efforts to effect a worldwide abolitionist movement cannot be ignored. His profession as activist allowed him to make a living by supporting the cause that he cared about, as well as enabling him to make unprecedented steps in freeing enslaved peoples around the world.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 Gifford, Ronald M. (2007). "Thompson, George". American National Biography Online October 2007 Update. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 2008-01-27.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. "Slavery in The United States". The Liberator. 27 April 1834.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. The Anti-Slavery Society Convention, 1840, Benjamin Robert Haydon, accessed 19 July 2008
  4. Hobart Town Courier-8 July 1836 pg$
  5. London Emancipation Society from Organizing Black America: An Encyclopedia of African American Associations. Taylor and Francis. 2005. ISBN 0-203-80119-9.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links

Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by
Charles Richard Fox
Sir William Clay, Bt
Member of Parliament for Tower Hamlets
With: Sir William Clay, Bt
Succeeded by
Charles Salisbury Butler
Sir William Clay, Bt