A number of voters say they’ll boycott this fall’s US Presidential election. Their revulsion is understandable, but William Wilberforce might urge a little caution here.
Voluntarily abstaining from something as an act of protest is what we call a boycott. The act has a long history but the practice didn’t receive its name until 1880. That’s when English Captain Charles Cunningham Boycott directed his employees to ruthlessly evict Irish tenants. His workers had no appetite for this. They refused to cooperate.
Boycotts can stir sentiments. But William Wilberforce was hesitant to use them. Consider when some of his Clapham colleagues sought to boycott sugar. They thought it would help abolish the English Slave Trade. Wilberforce wasn’t so sure.
In 1791, abolitionist revulsion toward the English Slave Trade led some of Wilberforce’s Clapham colleagues to seek a boycott of sugar after the British Parliament rejected (again) a slavery abolition bill. Wilberforce abhorred the slave trade but was apprehensive about this boycott’s possible unintended consequences.
Wilberforce was a systems thinker. He recognized the sugar industry was an economic triangle—English commodity, Caribbean climate, African slaves. Sugar grew best in the Caribbean’s hot, humid climate. But the West Indies had few laborers. They were abducted from Africa. Over the course of the English Slave Trade, only a quarter of the over two million slaves imported from Africa survived. As tragic as this was, Wilberforce feared a boycott, eliminating one leg of the triangle—commodity—would likely cause the entire triangle, the English economy, to collapse.
Furthermore, a boycott would probably not alter the voracious English appetite for sugar. Sugar sweetened almost everything in the English diet, from naturally bitter tea, coffee, and chocolate to pastries, puddings, biscuits, candy, and liquor. It was a preservative in candied fruit, jam, and marmalade. The English craved sugar.
In the end, Wilberforce’s colleagues decided to take no official stand on boycotts. They did however encourage a group of women who published a series of pamphlets urging citizens to stop using sugar. One of the booklets sold an estimated seventy thousand copies in four months. Men were startled, as a ship captain complained to a newspaper upon returning home. “I was surprised to find that [women] had entirely left off the use of Sugar, and banished it from the table.”
A Methodist minister named Samuel Bradburn stated that at least 400,000 homes eventually boycotted sugar. But the English appetite for sugar didn’t slack off. In a global economy, Wilberforce recognized sugar could be bought elsewhere. And it was. Over a two-year period, the sale of sugar from India increased more than ten-fold.
The lesson here is the most effective boycotters think systems. Christian Smith, a sociologist at Notre Dame, says few evangelicals think this way. Christians planning on boycotting this fall’s Presidential election are the most recent example. They don’t see a system, another triangle, this one depicting the US experiment in self-government.
Our experiment in self-government looks like a triangle with three interlocking points—liberty, religion, and virtue. It’s a system. Liberty requires virtuous citizens. Virtue requires religion. Genuine religion requires liberty. As troubling as this year’s candidates might appear to many of us, a boycott, eliminating one leg of the triangle—religion—might one day contribute to the entire triangle, America’s Great Experiment, collapsing.
Most boycotts reflect a lack of systems thinking. There are other options if you find the two candidates irksome. If the dictates of conscience determine that you cannot vote for either one, do a write-in. The point is, it’s hard to see how boycotting will change our poisoned politicized system.
 Adam Hochschild, Bury The Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves, (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2005), pp. 194-5.
 Christian Smith et al, American Evangelicalism: Embattled and Thriving (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), p. 201.