Mother Jones co-founder Adam Hochschild has found a new way to raise a nation's consciousness. Instead of writing about current events, he tells the stories of epochal historical moments that first provoked Westerners to act on the notion of human rights. King Leopold's Ghost, his eye-opening book about the international campaign to end Belgian atrocities in the Congo, revealed how difficult it was for concerned Europeans to invent the concept and practice of activism from scratch. In Bury The Chains, Hochschild moves back to the turn of the 19th century and narrows his focus to England, that happy isle where "Britons never, never, never shall be slaves"—but where the business of selling slaves to Caribbean sugar-cane plantations made the fortunes of an entire moneyed class.

Bury The Chains serves as both a thrilling history of the movement to abolish Britain's slave trade, and a case study of moral evolution. At the book's outset, Hochschild sketches the career of John Newton, slave-ship captain turned clergyman and eventual writer of "Amazing Grace." Twenty years after his voyages, Newton wrote memoirs detailing what a horrible sinner he was—not for buying human beings and locking them in a stinking ship's hold like cattle, but because he swore a lot. "Nothing says more of how morally invisible was slavery in his world," Hochschild writes, than Newton's own reminiscences of his depravity: "My whole life… was a course of most horrid impiety and profaneness… I know not that I have ever met since so daring a blasphemer." Although deliverance from a storm turned Newton into an evangelical and a famous preacher, "John Newton seems never to have heard God say a word to him against slavery."

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It took the abolitionist campaigners Granville Sharp, Thomas Clarkson, Olaudah Equiano, and William Pitt to move Newton's conscience. In a remarkably short time, these men were able to harness the citizenry's pride in their British tradition of freedom. The practicalities of abolition, however, proved more troublesome than its ideals. Sharp's plans for a freedman's colony in Sierra Leone focused, bizarrely, more on the revival of an obscure medieval political system than on food and shelter; many starving colonists were reduced to taking employment in the slave yards at Bance Island. A huge slave uprising in Haiti, combined with the French and Indian War, cooled legislative enthusiasm for change. But the movement also gave women a voice in Parliament for the first time, through committees and petitions. And it produced the first activist logo, Josiah Wedgwood's medallion captioned "Am I Not A Man And A Brother?"

The recipe for humanitarian agitation remains the same as that pioneered by Hochschild's heroes: Yoke widely shared values to intractable social problems, and provide immediate opportunities for action. Bury The Chains trains a microscope on the fossil record of human-rights activism, and identifies a missing link between Enlightenment politics and 21st-century non-governmental organizations.