Antislavery Sentiment Emerges in Pre-Revolutionary America
The Colonists are by the law of nature free born, as indeed all men are, white or black. ~James Otis 1764
Some Americans began expressing reservations about slavery long before the ferment of opposition to British policies in the 1760s led others to link colonial rights to those of slaves. At first, opposition to slavery arose from moral and religious grounds, but increasingly influenced by economic, cultural or political motives, more Americans began to speak out against slavery and the slave trade.
In 1700 Samuel Sewell, a wealthy merchant from Massachusetts, published the first direct attack on slavery and the slave trade in New England. In The Selling of Joseph, Sewell undermined the moral and biblical justifications of slavery by asserting that all men, as sons of Adam, had “equal rights to liberty.” Sewell’s pamphlet gained few converts, but around the same time the Quakers of Pennsylvania slowly and painfully began to confront the contradictions posed by their religious beliefs and their involvement in both the ownership of and trade in slaves.
In 1688 a Quaker congregation in Germantown drew up a strong protest against slavery, based on the golden rule. In 1693 George Keith, a radical Quaker apostate, wrote An Exortation & Caution to Friends Concerning buying or keeping of Negroes, one of the earliest antislavery protests to be printed and widely circulated in the colonies. Keith’s tract was ignored by the established Quaker community, and he and his followers were expelled from the church, but he was only the first of a growing number of Quaker radicals who confronted the issue head-on.
Benjamin Lay, for example, infuriated many Quakers by his dramatic methods of protesting their involvement with slavery – “the greatest sin in the world.” He once kidnapped the child of a slave owner to demonstrate the inhumanity of separating slave families. John Woolman, a tailor, took a different approach. Tirelessly traveling throughout the colonies, talking with Quakers everywhere, Woolman used gentle persuasion to convince people of the evil of owning human beings.
Anthony Benezet’s efforts also contributed greatly to the growing trend among Quakers to censure members who bought or sold slaves. A French Huguenot, Benezet became a universal reformer, opposing war, upholding the rights of Indians and advocating temperance. Most of his energy however was devoted to opposing slavery and exposing the evils of the slave trade. Benezet established a night school for African Americans in Philadelphia in 1759 and also published a series of tracts advocating that slaves be given liberty through gradual manumission.
Beginning in 1758, the work of these Quaker critics began to produce results. First, the Pennsylvania yearly meeting decided to disown any Friends who engaged in the slave trade, and by the 1770s New England Quakers followed suit. By the end of the Revolution many Quakers in the Northern states had freed their slaves.
While the initial opposition to human bondage had stemmed from moral and religious grounds, during the closing years of the colonial era antislavery sentiment began to be inspired by the rational and philosophical ideas of the Enlightenment and the concept of the natural rights of man. As the colonists began to formulate justifications for their resistance to perceived British tyranny, reformers started pointing out the obvious connection between the rights of colonists and the rights of slaves. Two New England clergymen, Samuel Hopkins and Ezra Stiles, worked tirelessly to urge masters to liberate their slaves and to raise money to free and educate blacks who would be sent to Africa as Christian missionaries.
Dr. Benjamin Rush of Philadelphia, who had absorbed the ideas of the Enlightenment in France, began working for an immediate end to the slave trade and the gradual emancipation of slaves. Under the influence of Anthony Benezet, Rush published two antislavery pamphlets in 1773. Rush called on everyone, even the common man, to suppress slavery and prophetically warned that “national crimes require national punishments.” Rush had a decisive influence on public antislavery opinion, and in 1773 Pennsylvania’s Assembly ended the slave trade in the colony, an action that resulted in similar laws being passed elsewhere.
In July 1774 the Reverend Jeremy Belknap of New Hampshire asked, “would it not be astonishing to hear that a people who are contending so earnestly for liberty are not willing to allow liberty to others?” Abigail Adams wrote to her husband John that same year, “I wish most sincerely there was not a slave in the province; it always appeared a most iniquitous scheme to me to fight ourselves for what we are daily robbing and plundering from those who have as good a right to freedom as we have.”
Enslaved blacks, especially in New England, were quick to respond to the public discussions about natural rights and liberty from British oppression that resulted from the opposition to the Stamp Act and the Townshend duties. Spokesmen pointed out the contradiction between advocating human rights while supporting a system of human bondage. In Massachusetts these protests took the form of organized and insistent group petitions to the government. In 1773 and 1774 slaves submitted five petitions to the governor and general court asking to be allowed to work for themselves one day a week so they could buy their own freedom, since “we have in common with all other men a natural right to our freedom.” Despite the urgency of these pleas, the legislature postponed taking any action.
As the revolutionary struggle intensified, the subject was debated in speeches, pamphlets and sermons. Even some southerners were bothered by the inconsistency of not extending the principle of natural rights to slaves. Despite the increased debate and concern, not one colony had yet freed its slaves – the love of gain continued to be stronger than belief in “natural rights.” In March of 1775, just as the Revolution was about to begin, Thomas Paine published an essay under the
signature “Justice and Humanity” asking how the colonists could “complain so loudly of attempts to enslave them, while they hold so many hundred thousand in slavery.” Within weeks Paine joined a group of men in establishing the first
abolitionist society in America. Although slavery would gradually be ended in the northern states after the Revolution, it would take almost another century for slavery to be eradicated throughout the new republic.
By Edward Ayres, Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation Historian