BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND – Long before Eisenhower’s famous farewell speech, the British Empire’s own military industrial complex had grown to become a central feature of the English economy. To meet the voracious demand for firearms required by constant warfare and resource extraction ventures across her far-flung colonial territories, a vigorous domestic arms sector flourished in the country’s central region, where scores of independent stockmakers, borers, grinders, barrel welders and other craftsmen relied on the regular pipeline of contracts awarded by the government, through a bidding system not unlike that used by the Pentagon today.
As a result, an incipient gun-maker elite arose in the industry’s epicenter, located in the city of Birmingham, well-known for its iron foundries and metalwork trades as well as its large Quaker community, a radical Christian sect founded on the principles of a self-styled preacher named George Fox, who rejected organized religion, condemned war and shunned all creeds. However, by the latter half of the 1700s, many of their adherents had become established bankers and industrialists, whose activities enabled the bellicose colonial project and thus clashed with Fox’s fundamental appeal to distinguish between the “the spirit of war and the spirit of Christ”.
An inevitable moment of reckoning arrived in 1795 when their spiritual dilemma became incarnate in the figure of England’s most prominent gun maker, Samuel Galton Jr., who would emerge as a kind of anti-George Fox at the height of Britain’s bloodlust, bringing the Quakers’ moral contradictions into stark relief. Galton Jr. found himself at the center of a scandal, which forced him to defend a trade justified for generations on Lockean grounds by fellow members of the Religious Society of Friends – the Quaker’s idea of church.
That same year, Galton Jr.’s brother-in-law David Barclay of Youngsbury, a philanthropist with impeccable Quaker rootsand co-founder of Barclays bank, put his surname on 28 slaves from a plantation, which the bank had acquired ten years earlier in Jamaica as payment in lieu of debts owed and relocated them to Philadelphia as “free” individuals. The emancipatory experiment would be among the first cases of “gratuitous” manumission or the ostensibly unconditional granting of liberty to a slave in the colonial era, differing from merit-based systems, which dated back to Roman times.
The two men were bound by more than family and religion. As the French Revolution raged on in the wake of the Enlightenment and Napoleon was on the verge of laying waste to Europe’s monarchies, a different kind of intellectual movement had sprung up in and around Birmingham, that focused more on science, technology and economics than on the artistic and philosophical musings of Goethe, Diderot and other leading thinkers on the other side of the English Channel. Known as the “Midlands Enlightenment“, the late Georgian-era’s burst of cerebral effervescence was led by a select group of men who met on every full moon as part of an informal dinner club called the Lunar Society of Birmingham.
Moving in the Moonlight
While there is no record of Barclay’s attendance, his close friendship and association with the man behind its formation, Benjamin Franklin, suggests a likely visit or two. Galton Jr., meanwhile, was a full member along with England’s wealthiest industrialists, both of Charles Darwin’s grandfathers and a who’s who of the Western world’s most erudite scientific and technical minds. Officially founded by Thomas Jefferson’s professor of natural philosophy and steam engine magnate Matthew Boulton sometime before the American war for independence, the club was a hotbed of revolutionary sentiment and Industrial-minded challengers to the colonial status quo.
The question of slavery was inexorably linked to the advances in industrial manufacturing resulting from the arms trade. The Napoleonic wars would create such a spike in demand for weapons around the world, that it spurred the first factory-style assembly plants and the creation of Britain’s Ordnance department to deal directly with procurement and deployment of materiel. The profits of war and concomitant industries were quickly outpacing the plantation model and no one was better-positioned to recognize that trend than Britain’s banking community, which was largely dominated by the Quakers.
Galton Jr. would eventually cave to the moral pleadings of the Society of Friends and divest himself from the arms trade, but not before amassing a large fortune and joining his relatives in the even more profitable finance sector with the founding of Galton bank in 1804, progenitor of HSBC. His wife Lucy Barclay’s mother, hailed from the Lloyd’s banking dynasty. Today, Barclays, HSBC and Lloyds Bank make up three out of the “big four” banks in the UK and are among the top lenders for the global arms industry.
A similar sleight of hand occurred on the abolitionist front, where the end of the slave trade did not necessarily imply the end of slavery, itself. Outlawing slavery’s fundamental principle, i.e. the ownership of human beings, was carefully avoided in the language of the various pieces of legislation that ultimately made the slave trade illegal in England and the U.S., and despite the emotional rhetoric employed by the Quaker-sponsored abolition campaigns, the legal tethers that bound individuals to a master were simply re-categorized in the transition from the colonial/plantation model to the statehood model.
David Barclay’s Unity Valley Pen project maintained the same legal principles established in existing colonial manumission procedures, which constituted a form of property transfer from the slave owner to the colonial government entity, safeguarding the rights over the former slave’s body through formal deeds. Barclay, like many of his abolitionist contemporaries, opposed outright freedom for enslaved populations and endorsed a paternalistic, gradual approach through apprenticeship programs and assignment of guardianship-type arrangements along the same lines of the U.S. government’s approach to Native Americans almost a century later.
A Furious Transition
From 1833 when slavery was mostly abolished in England, it would take another thirty years to begin bearing its desired fruit. A stubborn planter class in America was delaying the transition, but two years before the outbreak of the Civil War, the point of no return was reached when the first oil well in America was discovered.
The pace of industrialization quickened and gave rise to a new class of industrial tycoons. Their fabulous riches were locked behind financial innovations like the holding company or trusts, far from the reach of the government. By the time President Lincoln formalized federal authority, the most powerful people in the country were nowhere near the Capitol and the state’s dependence on their largesse, in partnership with the private financial sector, would henceforth determine its fate.
The ascension of America’s Philanthro-capitalists began to establish the new rules of the “free labor” game through a relentless period of mergers, consolidation and monopolies that allowed corporations to limit workers’ leverage and impose exploitative management practices, modeled on the same principles of competition and segregated assembly processes used by the British Crown to impose onerous contract terms and keep the costs of arms production to a minimum in during its colonial wars.
Galton Jr.’s grandson, Sir Francis Galton, would eclipse his father’s notoriety and emerge as the “father of eugenics” in the middle of the century, when racist disciplines like behavioral genetics, behavioral psychology and physical anthropology would fill the vacuum left after the retirement of the whipping post. Similarly, our modern-day work environments have far more in common with the dynamics of a 17th century slave market than with the professed pluralism of Western “democratic” societies, as anyone who has been hired or fired at will can attest to.