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James Stephen (politician)
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(30 June 1758
10 October 1832) was the principalEnglish lawyerassociated with
theabolitionistmovement. Stephen was born inPoole,Dorset; the family home later being removed
toStoke Newington. He married twice and was the father ofSir James Stephenand grandfather of Sir
James Fitzjames Stephenand SirLeslie Stephen.
James Stephen began his career reporting onparliamentaryproceedings. Later he held an officialpost in theCaribbeanatSt. Kitts; at that time a British colony. During a visit to Barbados he
witnessed the trial of four black slaves for murder. The trial, which found the men guilty as charged, was considered by many to be a gravemiscarriage of justice. The men were sentenced to death by burning, and Stephens' revulsion at both the trial and the verdict led him to vownever to keep slaves himself, and to ally himself with theabolitionistmovement. He opposed the opening up ofTrinidadthrough the use of slave
labour when ceded to the British in 1797, recommending instead that Crown land should only be granted for estates that supported theimmigration of free Africans. He considered that, besides the evangelical arguments in support of freedom from slavery, internal security,particularly from potential French interests, could be obtained in the British West Indian Islands by improving the conditions of slaves.Stephen was a skilled lawyer whose specialty was the laws governing Great Britain's foreign trade. He was a defender of the mercantilist systemof government-licensed controlled trade. In October, 1805
the same month that the British fleet underLord Nelsondefeated the French fleet
his book appeared:
War in Disguise; or, the Frauds of the Neutral Flags
. It called for the abolition of neutral nations' carrying trade, meaningAmerica's carrying trade, betweenFrance's Caribbean islandsand Europe, including Great Britain. Stephen's arguments two years later becamethe basis of Great Britain'sOrders in Council, which placed restrictions on American vessels. The enforcement of this law by British warshipseventually led to theWar of 1812, even though the Orders were repealed in the same month that America declared war, unbeknown to theAmerican Congress.
James Stephen's second marriage was to Sarah, sister ofWilliam Wilberforce, in 1800, and through this connection he became frequentlyacquainted with many of the figures in theanti-slaverymovement. Several of his friendships amongst the abolitionists were made in Clapham(home to the
) where he had removed from Sloane Square in 1797; also in the village ofStoke Newingtona few miles north ofLondon, where James Stephen's father leased a family home from 1774 onwards called
. The property adjoined
atAbney Parkand stood where Summerhouse Road is built today. Close by were the residences of three prominentQuaker
1843), Joseph Woods the elder, and Samuel Hoare the younger (1751
1825). The latter two were foundermembers of the predecessor body to theCommittee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade.Anna Letitia Barbauld, author of
An Epistle to William Wilberforce
(1791) also came to live in Stoke Newington in 1802. Inevitably, Wilberforcealso became a frequent visitor to Stoke Newington, combining meetings with William Allen and his Quaker circle with visits to his sister Sarahand brother-in-law James.James Stephen came to be regarded as the chief architect of theSlave Trade Act 1807, providing William Wilberforce with the legal mastermindhe needed for its drafting. To close off loopholes pointed out by some critics, he became a Director of the Africa Institution for the Registration ofSlaves through which he advocated a centralized registry, administered by the British government, which would furnish precise statistics on allslave births, deaths, and sale, so that "any unregistered black would be presumed free". Though he introduced many successful ideas tostrengthen the legal success of the abolitionist cause, this mechanism which he believed to be "the only effective means to prevent Britishcolonists from illicitly importing African slaves" was never taken up. His last public engagement was a speaking engagement at a meeting of theAnti-Slavery Societyat Exeter Hall in 1832.
Member of Parliament
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1 Early life 2 Abolitionism 3 Member of Parliament4 Death 5 Works 6 References
From 1808 to 1815 James Stephen becameanMP, andin 1811 Master inChancery. In 1826 he issued
An Address to the People and Electors of England
, in which, echoing his speeches, hehad some success in urging the election of Members of Parliament who would not be "tools ofthe West India interest", paving the way for the second Abolition Bill which succeeded in 1833.
Stephen's second wife, Sarah, died in 1816. Her sister-in-law, Barbara Wilberforce, died in 1821, and in 1832 Stephen himself died. All three areburied at St Mary's churchyard,Stoke Newington,London, along with Stephen's first wife, his mother and father and two of his infant daughters.
Three sons fromStephen's first marriage (m. Anna Stent at St Leonard,Shoreditch 1783) survived him, and achieved prominence in law,
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