By: Julie Watt
James Beattie was born on 25 October 1735 in a farmhouse near Laurencekirk, Aberdeenshire, where his father was a shopkeeper and small farmer. Beattie attended the local parish school and he was always top of the class. It was fortunate for him that the school was in the north-east of Scotland for the education system there at that time enabled likely lads even from such humble backgrounds as Beattie’s to progress to university. Beattie, having been encouraged in his learning by the parish minister, gained a top bursary and a place at Marischal College, Aberdeen, at the age of just 14. While an undergraduate there, he formed a lifelong friendship with a student from King’s College, Aberdeen. This friend, James Ramsay, from an equally humble background, was to become known for his very strong views favouring the abolition of the slave trade.
Four years later, Beattie graduated Master of Arts. His first job was as parish schoolmaster in Fordoun, not far from his birthplace, but while teaching he continued his studies on a part-time basis, reading Divinity at both Marischal and King’s Colleges, and, in his leisure hours, writing poetry of a strongly Romantic cast. In 1757, Beattie was appointed master at Aberdeen Grammar School and, the following year, moved to the city where he spent the rest of his life. Almost against his inclination, a couple of years later this modest, learned young man was appointed Professor of Moral Philosophy and Logic at Marischal College. It was fortunate that his friends had persuaded Beattie to apply for the vacant post for he was an extraordinarily able teacher and, even in written form, his lecture notes ring with sincerity and fervour. When spoken aloud, his lessons must have had his youthful listeners hanging on his every eloquent, logical word.
The zeitgeist at the time in Scotland, as elsewhere, was embodied in the writings of the philosopher, David Hume. However, many of Hume’s ideas jarred with Beattie whose Essay on the Nature and Immutability of Truth (1770) attacks Hume’s philosophy as it appears in the latter’s Treatise of Human Nature (1739–40). In his Treatise, Hume asserts the superiority of white men over black, part of his ‘proof’ being that, at the time, there were black slaves throughout Europe, none of whom had ever shown “any symptoms of ingenuity”. Part III of Beattie’s Essay (published in May 1770) demolishes Hume’s racist argument line by line. Many men had previously attacked Hume’s assertions, but they had had little effect because they had still treated the renowned philosopher with deference. However, according to James Boswell, Beattie stripped Hume of all his assumed dignity and 'scourged him till he smarted keenly' (Boswelliana, p. 282). That this had the desired effect is suggested by the fact that, in Hume’s short autobiography, any mention of Beattie is conspicuously absent.
It is sobering to think how narrowly Beatties's Essay escaped being binned: no publisher saw a profit in a work which promoted the unfashionable side of the argument and it was only when Beattie’s colleagues, without telling him, had the work published privately that his radical ideas were made known to a wider public, bringing him honour and fame. He was offered the Chair of Moral Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh, but turned it down, possibly because of the hostility of David Hume’s friends in the city. However, when Beattie went to London he was lionised, partly for his much admired Romantic poetry and partly for his revolutionary abolitionist views. He met, among others, Samuel Johnson and James Boswell, Sir Joshua Reynolds, and even George III, who granted him an annual pension of £200. In addition, Beattie was awarded an honorary LLD by Oxford University.
Meanwhile, Beattie continued to collect materials on slavery and to lecture on the topic to his classes. In one of these discourses, he takes a variety of excuses put forward by proponents of the slave trade and shreds them, demonstrating, with irrefutable logic, their preposterousness - excuses such as: if we British didn’t buy the men exposed for sale, then someone else would. From the economic angle, his informed argument is that the free man is more productive than the slave. His analogies are ones that the country boys who were his students would understand: for example, the hare which changes colour in snowy conditions is still the same creature whatever its outward appearance. Even more forthrightly, he describes 'the condition of a negro slave', not by taking up the stance of a enlightened white observer, but, shockingly, by using the first person pronoun and thereby putting his naive young listeners, who had never ventured out of northern Scotland but to whom Beattie’s down-to-earth language was crystal clear, right inside the black skin of the African slave: 'forced from our native country [...] to be stowed, like lumber, amidst darkness, and death perhaps, and putrefaction, in the lower decks of a ship, sailing we know not whither; to be stripped naked, and sold like beasts in a market.' This empathetic dramatisation led naturally on to Beattie’s incontrovertible acknowledgement that all men and women are human beings and that therefore 'both reason and Scripture declare, that it is our duty to love them and to do unto them as we would they would do unto us.' Beattie’s perception of black people was similar to his perception of womankind: he admitted that, in his day, white men were certainly represented as superior, but maintained that this came about through inequality of opportunity. Everyone is different, he said, with different talents and potential, but everyone is equal.
Eighteen years after the publication of Beattie’s Essay on Truth, William Wilberforce, beginning his career as an abolitionist, was to bring a motion on the subject to the House of Commons. Beattie prepared a petition, signed by the chancellor of Marischal College, and sent it to London, though he did not hold out much hope of human trafficking being stopped at once. He was right. Beattie finally met Wilberforce in Bath in 1791 and the great campaigner, familiar with Beattie’s work, wrote to express his pleasure at having had the honour of Beattie’s acquaintance.
Beattie’s discourses were not published in book form until Volume 1 of Elements of Moral Science came out in 1790, the second following in 1793. However, his importance for the abolition of the slave trade was rooted less in his publications than in his job as a teacher. For decades he instilled in his students his deeply-felt horror at the social evil of slavery. The young men in his classes became schoolmasters and clergymen, infiltrating the parishes of north-east Scotland and preaching the abolitionist gospel from schoolroom dais and kirk pulpit. Beattie’s ideology snowballed and soon Aberdeenshire became a centre of abolitionist enlightenment.
Cynics pointed out that expressing piety about the slave trade diverted attention from social ills at home, especially the enforced expatriation of thousands of agricultural workers from the north of Scotland during the Highland Clearances. (In Bleak House (1852) Charles Dickens would later call this supposed blindness to such problems on home turf ‘Telescopic philanthropy’.) However, many of the bright and highly educated young men who had been influenced, directly or indirectly, by Beattie’s teaching were also unable to find work in the poverty-stricken Highlands, and went overseas to seek their fortunes, taking with them Beattie’s ideological legacy and arguably a special sympathy for slaves, expatriated like themselves. Many young men went out from Aberdeenshire to Africa or to the other end of the trade, the West Indies. Towards the end of his life, the normally modest James Beattie boasted proudly: 'This, at least, I can say with truth, that many of my pupils have gone to the West Indies, and I trust have carried my principles with them, and exemplified those principles in their conduct to their unfortunate brethren.'