Part I.




The history of abolition begins with those who resisted slavery at its inception. In 1721 an unnamed African woman informed her enslaved compatriots aboard the English slaver Robert anchored off the coast of Sierra Leone that an unusually small number of sailors were standing guard on deck that night. She brought them weapons that she took from sailors onboard the ship and instigated the start of a rebellion. The rebels, led by a Captain Tomba, who was whipped unmercifully for refusing to submit to inspection, killed three of the five sailors on watch before being subdued by the rest of the crew. The woman was hanged by her thumbs, whipped, and slashed with knives until she was dead. Two of the rebels were forced to eat the heart and liver of a dead sailor before being executed. African resistance to enslavement was epitomized in shipboard insurrections that dot the four centuries of the slave trade and in the formation of quilombos, the Afro-Portuguese term for communities of runaway slaves, on the West African coast. African opposition to the slave trade and slavery, spurred by specific ethnic and national identities, is often forgotten in the literature on African participation in it. The first antislavery propaganda, which was born in West Africa, viewed European slave traders as cannibals and as brutal, treacherous tricksters. How else explain the ever-increasing numbers of Africans who disappeared in the transatlantic trade?1

The story of the rise of abolition is an interracial one. The devastation wrought by the Atlantic slave trade on West African nations and communities and the horrific nature of that trade inspired such early abolitionists as Anthony Benezet, the Quaker schoolteacher in Philadelphia credited with originating the movement. Writers of African descent were among the first to wrestle with the problems of race and slavery in the modern West. Slave rebellions complemented pioneering antislavery protests by Quakers and other Protestant dissenters in British North America. In Britain, runaway slaves, building on colonial precedent, led Granville Sharp to apply English notions of law and liberty to Africans. Black resistance to slavery was the essential precondition to the rise of abolitionism.


Early modern Europe lacked a systematic antislavery tradition. With a few exceptions, Western thinkers had justified rather than challenged slavery. But popular prejudice against slavery had long been prevalent, at least since the collapse of serfdom in western Europe. Notions of inherent racial inferiority served to counter this sentiment. Starting in the medieval period, some European countries defined their territories as free soil, a nationalist conceit that predated the rise of modern racial slavery. Serfs who ran away to cities, Stadtluft Macht Frei (the German saying that city air makes free), began a fugitive tradition of creating free spaces that extended to the enslaved of all nationalities in Europe and colonial America. It is not widely known that a slave who claimed his freedom on the grounds that any slave who entered the city of Toulouse was free helped inspire the French political theorist Jean Bodin to write against slavery. Even Spain and Portugal, who followed the ancient law of Roman slavery, at times enforced the “freedom principle” within their national boundaries. State formation and servile resistance interacted in the creation of freedom in Europe’s metropolises.2

Before their encounter with Europeans, Africans and Native Americans had their own traditions of slavery and captivity. The institution of colonial slavery in the New World led to incipient criticism of it. The Spanish Jesuit Bartolomé de las Casas, in his widely translated and reprinted Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies by the Spanish (1552), recommended the enslavement of Africans to protest the treatment of Native Americans, though he came to regret his solution to the problem of labor in the Americas. In its detailed exposé of Spanish atrocities, Las Casas’s book anticipated abolitionist writing even though he was complicit in the conquest and subjugation of native populations. The debates in Valladolid, Spain, between him and the proslavery natural law philosopher Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda, who dismissed antislavery as German-inspired Lutheran heresy, were the first public discussions on racial slavery in colonial America. Las Casas’s early efforts and a petition to the pope resulted in a papal bull in 1537 against the enslavement of Indians, although this was mainly a symbolic gesture.

Some Dominican priests went further. Antonio de Montesinos preached against the ill-treatment of Indians in Santo Domingo and for an end to the Spanish forced labor systems of encomienda and repartimiento. Bartolomé de Albornoz of Mexico, whose antislavery book was censored by the Inquisition, condemned the enslavement of Africans as illegal. Tomás de Mercado and the Jesuit Luis de Molina criticized the African slave trade. In 1555 Fernando Oliveira denounced not just the slave trade but also the perpetual nature of racial slavery. In his On Restoring Ethiopian Salvation (1627), the Jesuit priest Alonso de Sandoval of Cartagena de Indias, criticized the conduct of the slave trade and slavery while arguing for the Christianization of Africans. But Sandoval, who subscribed to the biblical story of the curse of Ham popularized by Islamic, Jewish, and Christian theologians to justify the enslavement of Africans, did not publicly avow abolition. Most Catholic clerics made their peace with racial slavery, advocating only the Christianization of slaves and amelioration of slavery.

The church and state in the Spanish and Portuguese American colonies squelched individual reservations about slavery. Brazilian authorities summarily expelled Jesuit priests who argued that the enslaved should be treated more humanely. Among the petitions against the slave trade submitted to the Vatican in the seventeenth century were two by an Afro-Brazilian, Lourenço da Silva de Mendouça. In 1684 Mendouça, who claimed to be of royal Kongolese descent, questioned the slave trade and the permanent enslavement of Christian descendants of Africans, describing graphically and at length the “diabolic abuse of such slavery.” Appointed procurator of a black Catholic confraternity in Madrid, similar to those in the Kongo, he journeyed to Rome to personally present his petitions on behalf of enslaved Africans. In his second petition representing Christian African slaves in Brazil and Lisbon, Mendouça appealed to the bigotry of the church, citing instances of Christian slaves enslaved by Jewish masters. Combined with the petition decrying the abuses of the slave trade that Capuchin missionaries in Kongo tendered in 1685, Mendouça’s petitions in 1686 resulted in a papal denunciation of the slave trade. Early Catholic antislavery sentiment did not engender an abolition movement or prevent the expansion of American slavery with the full collusion of the church. While Spanish slave law, the Siete Partidas, and the church offered some protections to slaves, a concerted abolition movement first arose in the British Atlantic world.3

In the British colonies white indentured servants and Irish, Scottish, and Native American prisoners of war condemned to lifetimes of servitude initially suffered and labored in conditions similar to those of African slaves and servants. The use of various kinds of unfree labor, Indian slavery, and black and white servitude gradually gave way to African slavery. In the seventeenth century, when slavery, unknown to English common law but prevalent in the Spanish and Portuguese colonies, emerged in British America, pioneering antislavery protests appeared in the colonies. As early as 1652, Rhode Island, inspired by Roger Williams’s objections to Indian slavery, had tried unsuccessfully to abolish slavery by limiting the term of servitude for Indians and Africans. Thirty years later William Penn similarly failed in his effort to prohibit lifetime servitude in Pennsylvania, and he came to view the slave trade as essential to the infant colony’s prosperity. By 1663 antislavery Mennonites led by Peter Cornelius Plockhoy had banned slavery in their settlement on the Delaware Bay. When the English took over the colony, the Mennonites moved to Germantown, Pennsylvania. Even as black and white servants plotted on how to gain their freedom in the tobacco plantations of Virginia and Maryland, a petition of 1688 signed by four German and Dutch Mennonite converts to Quakerism from Germantown argued, “We shall doe to all men like as we will be done ourselves; making no difference of what generation, descent or colour they are.” The petition censured Quaker slaveholders for treating human beings like cattle. Early Quaker abolitionists were not just individual voices having no impact; at their meetings they inaugurated an ongoing discussion of the propriety of slaveholding: the Chester Quarterly Meeting took the lead in recommending action against slavery and the slave trade. Even earlier, Quaker slaveholders in Barbados insisted on taking their slaves with them to their meetings.

Quaker abolitionism was a reaction to emergent capitalism and the commercialization of the faith rather than an expression of it. In 1693 Quakers disowned George Keith, the main author of an antislavery pamphlet castigating the Friends for their involvement in the slave trade and slavery. Keithians condemned the New World practice of buying the “Bodies of men for money.” The riches of the “Merchants of the Earth” were based on the “cruel Oppression” of blacks and “Taunies,” who he contended were as much a part of humankind as “White Men.” Three years later Cadwalader Morgan called for the abolition of slaveholding among Quakers. William Southeby, whose antislavery writings earned him several reprimands from the Philadelphia meeting, petitioned the Pennsylvania legislature to abolish slavery in 1712. Quaker meetings in New York and New England silenced William Burling, who wrote a tract against slavery, and John Farmer. If the slaves rose in rebellion, wrote another Quaker abolitionist, Robert Piles, in 1698, “and if they should bee permitted to doe us harm,” it was not clear “whether our blood will cry innocent [or] whether it will not bee said you might have left them well alone.”4

Not all Quakers were antislavery, but most abolitionists in the British colonies were Quakers. George Fox, the founder of Quakerism, had called for the Christianization of Africans and Native Americans and expressed qualms over the permanent uncompensated nature of racial slavery. In a letter of 1657 to his followers in the colonies, Fox laid down the Christian foundation for abolition, evoking the Golden Rule and arguing that God was no “Respecter of Persons” and that “he hath made all Nations of One Blood.” After visiting Barbados in 1671, he recommended the freeing of slaves after a term of faithful service and asked that they be compensated for their labor and not be freed “empty handed.” While Fox did not urge outright abolition, Quaker abolitionists used his testimony to great effect. The Irish Quaker William Edmundson, who was Fox’s traveling companion and who returned to the colonies four years later, condemned the enslavement of Africans, asking “many of you count it unlawfull to make Slaves of Indians, and if so, then why the Negroes?” Alice Curwen became the first Quaker woman to call for the Christianization of slaves and for abolition.5

Early Quaker abolitionists in colonial America emerged from that class of colonial society which could identify with the miseries of slaves. For example, John Hepburn, a tailor from New Jersey who had immigrated to America as an indentured servant in 1684, and Elihu Coleman, a carpenter from Nantucket, were men of modest means. Hepburn, in his written dialogue between a Christian and a “negro master,” condemned “this Inriching Sin, in making Slaves of Men.” A Quaker minister, Coleman developed a scriptural argument against slavery, writing that for “all the riches and glory of this world,” he would “not be guilty of so great a sin.” The hunchbacked, vegetarian, Quaker dwarf Benjamin Lay begged forgiveness at the end of his abolitionist book because “it was written by one that was a poor common Sailor, and an Illiterate Man.” Like the white servants and Indians who slept, worked, and ran away with Africans in the colonial period as well as the sailors, pirates, outlaws, and lower classes who conspired and socialized with slaves, these men, though more sober and religiously inclined, felt a sense of kinship with enslaved black people.6

Quaker abolitionists subsumed their opposition to slavery under a broader critique of warfare, wealth making, and commerce. Hepburn ridiculed slave owners and merchants as “fine powdered Perriwigs, and great bunched Coats” with wives who “paint their Faces, and Puff, and powder their Hair,” growing fat on the cruelties inflicted on slaves. The Gospel according to Ralph Sandiford “excepts not nor despises any for their complexions.” Sandiford was a shopkeeper, but he too excoriated ill-gotten wealth. Lay was convinced that Quaker elites had hurried Sandiford to an early grave because of their ostracism of him. Lay, who republished Burling’s tract, renounced all worldly materials, especially those made by slave labor, and thought no good ever came from the pursuit of “Riches.” Hepburn argued, “Riches, gotten by wronging the Labourer, is cursed.” Quaker abolitionists urged boycotts of goods made through the exploitation of slaves. Lay smashed his wife’s teacups to condemn the consumption of sugar, the first cash crop produced by large numbers of slaves. Far from justifying free trade and the advent of a capitalism based on free labor, they asserted that putting money before men contradicted their religious beliefs. Their opposition to slavery was part of a larger criticism they unleashed on the wealthy and powerful. If Quakerism perfected values well suited to the growth of a capitalist mentalité, it also engendered its most effective opponents.7

Other radical dissenting Protestant and antimonarchical sects who were part of Oliver Cromwell’s army during the English Civil War also gave birth to antislavery ideas. The Levellers, a radical political group, explicitly condemned all forms of servitude, including personal slavery. In 1673 the English Puritan Richard Baxter wrote against the practice of slavery for equating men with brutes and treating them as such. While he acknowledged that a limited servitude as a penalty for crimes committed may be permissible, he called the African slave trade the worst sort of thievery and held that purchasing such slaves constituted a sin against Christianity and humankind. Eleven years later the vegetarian poet Thomas Tryon, who had worked as a hatter in Barbados and whose writings were published by Quakers, decried the violence inherent in the enslavement of Africans in the colonies. Tryon wrote of their “complaints against the Hard Usages and Barbarous Cruelties Inflicted upon them.” He re-created a dialogue between a “Negro-slave” and his American master. After getting the master to enunciate the principles of Christianity, the supposedly heathen Ethiopian describes the behavior of Christian slaveholders and concludes that the “Hypocrite Christians” had shed more blood than all the heathens of the world. When the master objects to white Christians being compared with “black Heathenish Negroes,” the slave gives him a lesson on the natural equality of all human beings: God made both blacks and whites, “’tis the Livery of our Creator” suited to particular climates and soil and to despise blackness was to despise him. Tryon, whose dietary prescriptions Benjamin Franklin observed, also criticized excess in the food, luxury, and lifestyle of the wealthy, “the feasting of the Rich” at the expense of their “Vassals.”8

The Christianization of Africans—Portuguese priests, for instance, perfunctorily baptized slaves just before they began their terrible transatlantic passage to the Americas—had long been used as a justification for the African slave trade and slavery. Enslaving the heathen other was seen as a legitimate practice in early modern Europe, and slaveholders initially resisted the Christianization of their slaves, fearing it might lead to emancipation. Slaves themselves presumed that Christianity meant emancipation, and some brought freedom lawsuits against their masters once they had converted. In his The Negros and Indians Advocate (1680), the Anglican minister Morgan Godwyn, who was influenced by Fox’s call to Christianize Africans and Native Americans and who had ministered to slaves in Virginia and Barbados, argued that “The Negros (both Slaves and others) have naturally an equal Right with other Men to the Exercise and Privileges of Religion.” He rebuked the “hellish principles” of slaveholders that denied the humanity of black people and mercilessly abused slaves. The real heathens, he maintained, were slave owners who kept Africans in a “Soul-murthering and Brutifying-state of Bondage.” An Ethiopian, could become a disciple of Christ, “no longer a Slave but a Son, even Abraham’s seed.” Godwyn’s Christian universalism was not respectful of African religions, but it contained a plea for black spiritual equality and vehemently rejected arguments condoning racial inferiority drawn from the Bible. The title of his last work, Trade Preferr’d before Religion and Christ Made to Give Place to Mammon (1685), said it all when it came to the treatment of slaves in the British Empire. Godwyn was murdered for his antislavery views.9

As the numbers of enslaved Africans in North America grew, fueled by the British domination of the African slave trade in the early eighteenth century, most divines and denominations confined Christianity’s role to that of concern for the spiritual well-being of slaves. The Anglican missionary Thomas Bacon and groups like the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts made systematic attempts to convert Africans, although they were largely unsuccessful. George Whitefield, the preacher who set the colonies on fire during the First Great Awakening, assured slaveholders that the conversion of their slaves did not threaten their mastery over them or the institution of slavery itself. Some figures were active in securing colonial laws that explicitly denied that slaves’ conversion to Christianity would emancipate them. The efforts of the Anglican bishop George Berkeley led to the proslavery Yorke–Talbot decision of 1729, which clarified that Christianization does not lead to emancipation and that the rights of colonial slaveholders were respected in England.

Yet Christian missionaries, critical of some of the most horrific features of colonial slavery, promoted slave education. Whitefield excoriated the treatment of slaves in the southern colonies and preached sermons specifically geared toward slaves and African Americans, though he eventually purchased a plantation to support his orphanage in Georgia. The Anglican missionary Francis Le Jau documented the intense abuse of slave labor in South Carolina. The English Quaker John Bell recommended good treatment of slaves and servants, asking slaveholders to show mercy to their slaves, attend to their material needs, and avoid “extream Labour” and “severe Chastisement.” The French Huguenot priest Elias Neau opened a school for African Americans and Native Americans in New York in 1704. The Virginian Presbyterian Samuel Davies was known for both the conversion of slaves and his advocacy of slave literacy. The Associates of Dr. Bray, named for Rev. Thomas Bray, who was sent to the colonies by the Anglican Church, operated the first black schools in Philadelphia, New York, and Williamsburg, Virginia. The radical printer Samuel Keimer, his protégé Franklin, and John Stephen (Jean-Etienne) Benezet, the father of the great Quaker abolitionist, supported these schools.10

Eighteenth-century Christian paternalism inspired antislavery attitudes and was not yet yoked to proslavery dogma. New England Puritan ministers such as Samuel Willard evinced a special interest in the state of the souls of Africans and Indians. John Eliot was known for his mission to the Indians and opposed their enslavement. His short-lived “praying towns” would fall victim to Puritan–Indian warfare. The Massachusetts Bay Colony’s Body of Liberties (1641), which legalized the enslavement of Native American prisoners of war and so-called strangers sold to the colonists, also included an injunction that slaves should have some of the “liberties and Christian usages” of biblical and English law. Cotton Mather, an admirer of Eliot and Willard, proselytized among Africans and learned the West African technique of smallpox inoculation from his biblically named slave Onesimus. In his long pamphlet on the Christianization of the slaves, Mather dismissed arguments for racial inferiority based on skin color, the Bible, and the claim that Africans lacked a soul and the power to reason. Christian slaves become “amiable spectacles,” and though they remain servants they become “the Children of God.” Since Mather was known for his advocacy of the Christianizing of blacks, a “company of poor Negroes” approached him in 1693 about “a design which they had, of erecting a meeting for the welfare of their miserable nation that were servants among us.” Mather oversaw this first attempt to set up an organized society by people of African descent in British North America. The rules he devised for the Society of Negroes and had his slave Spaniard deliver to the antislavery judge Samuel Sewall epitomized Christian paternalism. The rules emphasized orderly and pious behavior in meetings overseen by “some Wise and Good Man of the English.” An expression of cultural imperialism even in its most benevolent mode, evangelical Christianity abandoned its commitment to native and black education, especially in the southern colonies. Some of these divines were slaveholders themselves and collected Indian body parts, anticipating the insidious brew of racialist science and religious parochialism that would characterize proslavery Christianity.11

Sewall, who came to regret his role in the Salem witchcraft trials and was appalled at the growth of slavery, warfare, and captivity in Massachusetts, emerged as the voice of Puritan antislavery. In his pamphlet The Selling of Joseph (1700), he wrote, “How horrible is the Uncleanness, Mortality, if not Murder, that the Ships are guilty of that bring great Crouds of these miserable Men and Women.” The pamphlet evoked the biblical injunction against man stealing and refuted the commonly held assumption that all Africans were descendants of Ham and therefore cursed to slavery. He emphatically rejected the Christianization of Africans as justification of slavery, noting, “Evil must not be done, that good may come of it.” Even though Sewall saw African slaves “in our Body Politick as a kind of extravasat [foreign] Blood,” he employed scriptural arguments against racial distinctions. Sewall confessed six years later that he was met with “Frowns and hard Words . . . for this Undertaking,” and in 1716 he published a more conventional essay advocating the Christianizing of Indians and Africans. Sewall’s pamphlet inspired Quaker abolitionists such as Hepburn, Sandiford, and Lay, who quoted extensively from it. Slaves, in turn, had inspired Sewall. He was moved to write on reading an African couple’s petition for freedom.12

Antislavery sentiment among a handful of American colonists grew in tandem with black resistance to slavery. Sewall’s pamphlet elicited a proslavery response from the Boston merchant John Saffin, who had denied his slave Adam freedom despite a prior agreement to release him from bondage after seven years. Sewall filed Adam’s successful freedom suit against Saffin and presided over the case that freed him in 1703. Adam’s actions were indicative of the various antislavery strategies employed by enslaved African Americans. With the help of sympathetic whites, they brought freedom suits against their masters on various grounds: Christianization, verbal or written agreements granting freedom, self-purchase, ill-usage and brutality, or evidence of white ancestry. The same year a “mulatto” slave in Connecticut named Abda successfully sued to gain his freedom. Outside the realm of law, slave resistance in the form of runaways, conspiracies, and rebellions was ubiquitous throughout the colonial era. Starting with the Germantown protest of 1688, antislavery writers regularly alluded to slave resistance as evidence of the injustice of slavery. According to Hepburn, “We disgrace ourselves [when] we condemn and punish our Negroes for seeking by Running away to get their freedom.” Sandiford called slaveholders “man stealers,” who “whipped naked to common view” and “racked and burned to death” recalcitrant and rebellious slaves.13

The early eighteenth century witnessed the hardening of plantation slavery and an epidemic of slave resistance in the Americas from the Caribbean to the mainland colonies. Runaway slave advertisements were a mainstay of colonial newspapers. In 1739 an antislavery petition signed by eighteen Scotsmen from Darien, Georgia, gave slave rebellion or “daily invasion” as a prime reason for restricting the establishment of slavery in that colony, which was founded as an experiment in free labor and philanthropy by James Oglethorpe. Oglethorpe, a member of the governing board of the slave-trading Royal African Company, was fearful of the growing fugitive slave population in the Spanish-controlled settlement of St. Augustine in present-day Florida. The petitioners wrote, “It is shocking to human Nature, that any Race of Mankind and their posterity should be sentenc’d to perpetual Slavery; nor in Justice can we otherwise think of it, that they are all thrown amongst us to be our Scourge one day or other for our Sins: And as Freedom must be as dear to them as to us, what a Scene of Horror it must bring about!”

Colonial slave revolts led by Africans, including slave conspiracies in New York in 1712 and 1741, fomented mainly by Akans in collusion with Indians and lower-class whites, a slave conspiracy in New Jersey in 1734, and the Stono rebellion by West Central Africans in South Carolina in 1739, bolstered their argument. Some blamed the New York conspiracy of 1741 on Whitefield’s religious revivals. The Stono rebels hoped to follow the steady stream of runaway slaves to Spanish Florida, where a large free black community at Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mosé, or Fort Mose, flourished under Francisco Menéndez, a Mandinga runaway. The South Carolinian planter Hugh Bryan, a follower of Whitefield, wrote in his journal that the “repeated Insurrections of our Slaves” were proof that “God’s just judgments are upon us.” Bryan was forced to retract his public statements against slavery by state authorities.14

Two years before the slave Jemmy led a revolt replete with Kongolese Catholic rituals and military tactics on the banks of the river Stono, Benjamin Lay published his 271-page philippic All Slave-Keepers that keep the Innocent in Bondage, Apostates. Sickened by the brutalities of the African slave trade and slavery he had witnessed in Barbados, Lay kidnapped the son of a Quaker slaveholder to acquaint him with the grief of Africans who were torn apart from their families. He disrupted a Quaker meeting by splattering the Bible with pokeberry juice, representing the blood of slaves. Calling slavery a vile and hellish practice and slaveholders, especially slave-owning ministers, a “Parcel of Hypocrites, and Deceivers . . . under the greatest appearance and Pretensions to Religion and Sanctity that ever was in the World,” he charged that those who consumed sugar, molasses, and rum literally consumed the blood and flesh of slaves. Images of slaves mangled by punishment, bent from work, starving and naked dotted his book. Once he stood barefoot in the snow to draw attention to the frostbitten toes and fingers of ill-clad slaves. He wore a sackcloth and lived in exile in a cave after the death of his wife. Lay rejected plans to free slaves only after they had reached adulthood. That, he said, “[will not] salve the Sore, it is too deep and rotten.” Quoting the scriptures as if to justify slave rebellion, he wrote, “Its better to die by the Sword than by Famine.” As a God-fearing Quaker, Lay stated that he would say no more. But the “notorious lies” that slaves are content “will never go down well.” If that were true, he asked simply, “why should they be against it?” He predicted that the “Satanical Practice of SLAVE-KEEPING” would certainly bring “sudden Destruction among us.”15

If Lay’s dramatic and uncompromising testimony against slavery alienated many Quakers, John Woolman made abolitionism respectable. Using the system of visiting Friends’ meetings, Woolman roamed throughout the colonies trying to convince his coreligionists of the sin of slaveholding. A self-supporting tailor and later a successful retailer, Woolman used moderate language and deferred to Quaker practice. According to his journal, published by the Quaker Committee on the Press after his death, Woolman came to his antislavery convictions on being asked by his master to write a bill of sale for a slave woman. Subsequently he refused to write wills for slaveholders who sought to bequeath their slaves to their heirs, convincing many of them on their deathbeds to free their slaves, and he acted on behalf of at least two slaves who were attempting to secure their freedom. In his travels to the plantation colonies, Woolman noted how slaves were sold separately from their families, whipped to work, and deprived of an education as well as how bondage had a corrupting effect on society. A visit to Newport, Rhode Island, likewise opened his eyes to the horrors of the slave trade.

Self-love, or “self-interest,” rather than devotion to the common good, Woolman reasoned, was the cause of slavery, and he gave a host of reasons for opposing slaveholding. Like earlier Quaker abolitionists, he chastised people for their pursuit of luxuries and wealth, developing an incipient critique of market society and, with Lay, pioneering the antislavery tactic of encouraging the non-consumption of goods produced by slave labor. Opposition to imperialist warfare as part of their peace testimony during the Seven Years’ War of 1756–63 between England and France, which spanned North America, Europe, and Asia, pushed Quaker reformers, who had long debated the rectitude of slavery, in the direction of organized abolition. The same war inspired a massive slave revolt in Jamaica in 1760–61. In 1758 Woolman had played an important role in the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting’s condemnation of the importing, buying, selling, and keeping of slaves. As a member of the meeting’s antislavery committee of visiting ministers and “Committee of Negroes,” he convinced other meetings of the iniquity of slavery, spurring a coherent approach to abolitionism through his quietist tactics and writings. That same year the London Yearly Meeting issued an epistle against the slave trade, enlarging on some early reservations about it, as well as, in 1761, a “Strong Minute,” or directive opposing it.16

Woolman’s antislavery built a bridge between the separatist Quaker attempt to rid their community of slavery and the revolutionary abolition movement in the Anglo-American world. In 1754 he published the first half of his antislavery pamphlet Some Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes, which he first composed in 1746 after visiting the southern colonies. Woolman recognized that “customs generally approved, opinions received by youth from their superiors, become like the natural produce of a soil, especially when they are suited to favorite inclinations.” He questioned what Nathaniel Hawthorne would call custom so old that it seems like nature. In 1762 he published the second half of his pamphlet, in which he again likened slavery to “Unrighteousness . . . justified from one Age to the other.” He elaborated on his previous reasoning but added quintessential Enlightenment ideas that would become stock arguments of organized abolition in the 1770s, including an appeal to the natural rights of man, humanitarianism, and the attributing of physical differences to environmental causes. The “Idea of Slavery being connected with the Black Colour, and Liberty with the White” were “false ideas . . . twisted into our Minds,” ideas which “with Difficulty we get fairly Disentangled.” “The Colour of Man,” he wrote, “avails nothing, in Matters of Right and Equity.” He ended with an indictment of the slave trade and, at his most passionate, warned of divine vengeance against “the most haughty People” that would give “Deliverance to the Oppressed.”

In his “A Plea for the Poor,” published long after his death in 1793, Woolman married his antislavery to concerns about the deteriorating condition of the working classes and the destruction of the environment by early industrialization. Wealth, as he put it in his opening sentence, was the destroyer of virtue. He drew attention to the plight of the working poor and the exploitative nature of British imperialism and early capitalism. Another version of this text, “A Word of Remembrance and Caution to the Rich &c,” has been dated to 1763. Like his contemporary Quaker abolitionist Joshua Evans, Woolman was a thoroughgoing reformer who combined antislavery testimony with concern for Native Americans, animal abuse, violence and war, excessive drinking, and conspicuous consumption. He died in 1772 in England before the revolutionary abolition movement came of age, but his successor in the role of the preeminent Quaker abolitionist became its founding father.17


If there was an eighteenth-century abolitionist who matched the pivotal role of William Lloyd Garrison in the nineteenth century, it was Anthony Benezet. Of Huguenot descent, the cosmopolitan Benezet was born in France, was educated in Belgium, and moved to Philadelphia in 1731. A schoolmaster who began teaching African Americans in his home and an indefatigable writer, Benezet orchestrated the antislavery campaign of the revolutionary era besides protesting the treatment of Native Americans and refugee French Acadians from Canada. He wrote countless letters to like-minded influential men and women in Europe and America and compiled several antislavery pamphlets. Benezet began his abolitionist career supporting Woolman’s attempts to restrict slave-holding and the buying of slaves among Quakers, building on his predecessor’s use of Quaker institutions and methods, printing, visiting, and correspondence to propagate antislavery. In 1754 he wrote the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting’s Epistle of Caution and Advice, which drew attention to the inhumanity of the slave trade. In his first antislavery pamphlet, published five years later, Benezet, declaring that no practice was “stained with a deeper Dye of Injustice, Cruelty and Oppression” than the slave trade, compiled evidence from European slave traders on its brutalities.18

Benezet occupies a pride of place in early abolitionist thought, as his ideas transcended the boundaries of Quakerism. In his pamphlet A Short Account of that part of Africa Inhabited by the Negroes (1762) he combined the Quaker abolitionist critique of “the Love of Gain” and “Pleasures and Profits” that blind men to the “Sufferings of their Fellow Creatures” with an exhaustive account of West African societies culled from the writings of European traders and factors. The investigative nature of his pamphlet, a hallmark of modern antislavery, effectively allowed Benezet not only to rebut racialist myths surrounding Africa and its inhabitants but also to highlight the “Calamities” the Atlantic slave trade visited on their countries. Benezet read the popular geography of North Africa written by the traveler and writer Leo Africanus and strove to write from an African perspective. Even though he did not characterize African societies in all their complexity, Benezet, in an adept reversal of imagery, made Africans appear as the civilized victims of European barbarism. The romanticization of Africa was an antidote to the poisonous caricatures that later abounded in Western literature.

Did Benezet’s interactions with people of African descent and their oral testimony influence his writings, as his most recent biographer speculates? Certainly his long descriptions of African societies reveal that his sources of antislavery inspiration lay as much in Africa as in the ideas of Quaker Christianity and the Enlightenment. Benezet’s close connections to Philadelphia’s black community and his lifelong commitment to black education undoubtedly gave birth to his strong antiracialism. Africans in the slave societies of the Americas had little opportunity to develop their natural talents, he wrote, forced as they were to be “constantly employed in servile Labor.” “The Negroes,” he concluded, “are equally intitled to the common Priviledges of Mankind with the Whites, that they have the same Rational Powers; the same natural Affections, and areas susceptible to Pain and Grief as they, that therefore the bringing and keeping them in Bondage, is an Instance of Oppression and Injustice of the most grie[v]ous Nature, such as is scarcely to be paralleled by any Example in the present or former Ages.” Benezet’s writings, circulated through the Quaker “Anti slavery International” headquartered in London and Philadelphia, laid the foundation of the first Anglo-American abolition movement.19

If Benezet was the preeminent American abolitionist of his age, then Granville Sharp surely was his British counterpart. By 1765 the English legal theorist William Blackstone had affirmed in his influential Commentaries on the Laws of England that English law did not recognize slavery but clarified in later editions of his work that a master’s “right to service” continued. That year a slave named Jonathan Strong solicited Sharp’s help to protect him from being returned to his abusive master, David Lisle of Barbados, who had left him bloodied and bruised in the streets of London. Sharp’s brother, a doctor, nursed him back to health. When Lisle reclaimed his slave and sold him, Sharp argued Strong’s case, and he was set free. Sharp published his conviction that slavery or human property was incompatible with English law in his A Representation of the Injustice and Dangerous Tendency of Tolerating Slavery; Or, Of Admitting the Least Claim of Private Property in the Persons of Men, in England (1769). Other fugitive slaves such as Thomas Lewis, John and Mary Hylas, and James Somerset, who had run away from his master Charles Steuart, formerly of Virginia, recruited Sharp in their quest for freedom. Somerset was recaptured and imprisoned aboard a brig awaiting transportation to Jamaica. He and Lewis both were rescued through a writ of habeas corpus. Steuart had resided in Boston, and the colonial precedent of freedom suits may well have influenced Somerset, who sued him for freedom. In his decision in the Somerset v. Steuart case, Lord Chief Justice William Murray, Earl of Mansfield (who had adopted his nephew’s mixed-race daughter Dido), denied colonial slaveholders the right to forcibly transport their slaves from England. The decision represented a happy marriage between black resistance and English law.

Somerset was widely interpreted as having abolished slavery in Britain. It damaged slaveholders’ prerogatives and rendered the enslavement of Africans insecure there. A runaway slave instigated a historic antislavery ruling, and it is only fitting that his name graces the landmark Anglo-American decision. Black people throughout the British Atlantic breathed life into the decision, celebrating it as the end of slavery in England and using it as a reason to abscond from their masters. While colonial slavery continued to flourish and benefit European nations, slaves and their abolitionist allies worked to achieve hard-won concessions to their liberty. During this time slaves in France also petitioned and sued their masters for freedom. The Francisque case of 1758 freed a slave from Pondicherry, India, and in 1770 the case of a Louisiana slave named Roc against his master, Poupet, the French equivalent of the Somerset decision, further vindicated the freedom principle in France. Henrion de Pansey, the French Granville Sharp, argued the case and went on to write Roc’s antislavery memoir.20

Like Benezet, Sharp wrote some of the age’s most compelling abolitionist arguments. Besides his pamphlet of 1769, Sharp edited Benezet’s pamphlet of 1762 for publication in Britain, and Benezet reprinted Sharp’s pamphlet. The two men began a correspondence in 1772 when Benezet sent Sharp his antislavery treatises. Sharp published four important antislavery tracts in 1776, one containing a reprint of his essay from 1773 against slavery in an appendix. Emulating Benezet, Sharp issued “a Serious Warning to Great Britain and her Colonies” over the “national crime” of the African slave trade that would engender “National Retribution” and divine vengeance, illustrated with copious details from the Old Testament. In his second pamphlet, Sharp, who was sympathetic to the American cause, argued that British and American slave traders and slaveholders were equally responsible for colonial slavery. He recommended that the British, like the Spanish, allow their slaves one day to work for wages and purchase their freedom. In a clear reference to Bishop Berkeley, Sharp asserted in his third pamphlet that Christian obedience of servants to masters or the “law of passive obedience” did not justify slavery. In the fourth, Sharp wrote that the “royal law of liberty” was based on the Gospel’s injunction to love thy neighbor and therefore slavery was illegal. Withholding the fruits of the slave’s labor was the worst kind of domination, and the British, he reiterated, were guilty of violations of “Brotherly Love and Charity” and “the most detestable and oppressive Slavery.”21

But no pamphlet inspired eighteenth-century abolitionists more than Benezet’s Some Historical Account of Guinea, published in 1771 and reprinted many times. In 1774 the founder of Methodism, John Wesley, in his Thoughts on Slavery, lifted entire passages from it, as did many others, and the British abolitionist Thomas Clarkson attributed his conversion to it. A compilation and extension of Benezet’s earlier writings, the work was a comprehensive indictment of the slave trade and slavery. Benezet described the cruelties of the Middle Passage and the brutal nature of slavery in the Americas, especially in the West Indies, where, he noted, the slave population “is under necessity of being entirely renewed every sixteen years.” Evoking Lay’s rhetoric, he wrote that the colonies have “enriched themselves at the expense of the blood and bondage of the Negroes.” Benezet disputed claims of slaves’ racial inferiority by using environmental reasoning and comparing black slaves favorably with white servants. He rejected the contemporary equation of climate and race, holding that European laborers could just as easily cultivate the plantations in the Americas. Benezet, who opened a school for black children in 1770, “found amongst them a variety of Talents, equally capable of improvement, as amongst a like number of Whites” and dismissed notions of black inferiority as “a vulgar prejudice, founded on the Pride or Ignorance of their lordly Masters.” He advocated emancipation and proposed that “every Negroe family” be granted a small tract of land in the southern or western part of the country. In its plea for black equality and autonomy, Benezet’s pamphlet was a truly abolitionist tract.22

Besides his published works, Benezet’s numerous letters to abolitionists on both sides of the Atlantic created an antislavery network. He corresponded with such prominent Quakers as David Barclay and Samuel and John Fothergill in London, Israel, John, and James Pemberton in Philadelphia, Robert Pleasants in Virginia, and Moses Brown in Providence, Rhode Island, to enlist their services in his cause. His correspondents included Selena Hastings, the Countess of Huntingdon, Queen Charlotte in England, Empress Catherine of Russia, and the Abbé Raynal in France. He urged the countess, a patron of black writers and of Methodism, to release the slaves who worked for her Orphan House in Georgia founded by Whitefield. In his last pamphlet he wrote an introduction to extracts from Raynal’s multivolume Histoire philosophique et politique des établissements et du commerce des Européens dans les deux Indes (1780), which indicted European colonialism for its treatment of Native Americans and enslavement of Africans. Benezet eschewed simple racialism and condemned equally the African and English villains who conducted the trade with the buyers of slaves in the colonies. He died in 1784 bequeathing to the abolition movement an abundance of antislavery tracts and most of his estate to his school for African Americans. Little wonder that one of his admirers, the American patriot Benjamin Rush, dreamed of him presiding over freed slaves in heaven. As Rush pointed out in a letter to Sharp, Benezet was the foremost advocate of abolition before the American Revolution. Hundreds of black Philadelphians marched in his funeral procession.23


The origins of black antislavery can be traced to African writers and thinkers in the early modern West. As Henry Louis Gates Jr. has observed, people of African descent had to read and write their way to humanity in the post-Enlightenment Western world. Enlightenment thought proved to be a double-edged sword for them. At the very least, black men and women of letters challenged racist myths justifying the enslavement of Africans. In its politically most sophisticated forms black literature rendered a pointed critique of slavery and racism, contributing significantly to the abolitionist project. Black writers created, in Paul Gilroy’s words, “the counter-culture of modernity.” Africans were “conscripts of modernity,” who exposed the fact that “freedom is a race myth.”24

The first African writers in Europe were isolated figures who wrote in the style and form of dominant Western literary discourses. From the start, the “double consciousness” elaborated by Du Bois characterized black identity in the West. Juan Latino, an African slave who rose to be a professor of classics at the University of Granada in sixteenth-century Spain, was referred to mockingly by Miguel de Cervantes, a champion of the Spanish vernacular, in Don Quixote for his classical learning and erudition. Latino was best known for his Latin elegies celebrating the Spanish victory at the Battle of Lepanto and King Phillip II. He married a Spanish noblewoman and, unlike most enslaved Africans brought to the Iberian Peninsula, achieved fame and wealth. Latino asserted his African identity, referring to himself as such, but also claimed to be a worthy subject of the Catholic monarch of Spain. Leo Africanus, or Hassan ibn Muhammad al-Wazzan al-Fasi, was a Moor from Granada. During the Reconquista, when the Moors were driven out of Spain, he returned to Morocco but was captured by the Spanish and presented to Pope Leo X. He was baptized and became a teacher of Arabic in Rome. Leo Africanus published his celebrated Description of Africa (1550), which was translated into English as A Geographical Historie of Africa. He ultimately returned to North Africa and reconverted to Islam. Whereas Latino assumed an Afro-Iberian identity, Leo Africanus rejected the Western Christian world.25

African scholars in Europe in the eighteenth century, when racial slavery had become the norm in the Americas, dealt directly with the issue of human bondage. Anton Wilhelm Amo, whose brother was sold into slavery in Surinam, was a favored slave of Duke Anton Ulrich of Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel, who freed him. He studied philosophy at the University of Halle in Germany. The rector of the University of Wittenberg touted him as an exemplar of “the natural genius of Africa.” In 1729 he wrote a Latin disputation titled “On the Rights of Moors in Europe” in which he argued that since African nations were recognized under Roman law, Africans could not be enslaved. Unfortunately, this treatise is lost to history, and only his works of philosophy have survived. Amo taught at Wittenberg and Jena, but in 1747, disillusioned with European racism after being accused of falling in love with a woman “above his station,” Amo returned to the Gold Coast. A statue of him survives in Wittenberg, and his grave is in modern Ghana.

Unlike Amo, Jacobus Elisa Johannes Capitein, brought to Holland by a Dutch slave trader, in his Latin dissertation of 1742 justified the enslavement of Africans on evangelical grounds. Capitein’s question, “Is slavery compatible with Christian freedom or not?,” which he answered in the affirmative, was a plea for the Christianization of Africans and a claim for their spiritual equality. On the face of it proslavery, his dissertation was a refutation of the racist idea that Africans could not make good Christians. Capitein spent his last years in Africa as a missionary, where he was increasingly at odds with the authorities of the Dutch West India Company. The French abolitionist Abbé Henri-Baptiste Grégoire used the examples of both Amo and Capitein to argue for black equality in his antiracist work An Enquiry Concerning the Intellectual and Moral Faculties, and Literature of Negroes (1808).26

Most early narratives of African captivity in the West were written not by black authors but by British ones. For the English at this time, the injustice of these individuals’ slavery outweighed the racial justification of their enslavement. In 1734 Thomas Bluett wrote the story of the captivity of Ayuba Suleiman Diallo (Job Ben Solomon), a literate Muslim who was kidnapped into slavery from the kingdom of Bondu and enslaved in Maryland. Rescued and brought to England by Oglethorpe, Diallo managed to return to his family in Gambia. Diallo himself had traded and owned slaves. In 1749 William Dodd published romantic poems describing the real-life separation of William Ansah Sessarakoo, Prince of Annamaboe, from his lover, Zara. In the 1770s two so-called princes of Calabar, Little Ephraim Robin John and Ancona Robin Robin John, managed to win their freedom in the wake of the Somerset decision and secured their passage back to Africa. They found antislavery patrons in Charles and John Wesley but continued to trade in slaves on their return to Africa.27 The inexhaustible European demand for slaves had transformed West Africa into a slave-producing region that put all people of African descent, regardless of their status, in danger of being enslaved. These works by British authors criticized not racial slavery per se but the enslavement of exceptional Africans.

Black writers in English, who first emerged in colonial America, cast doubt on the racist logic that dehumanized Africans as slave property. Educated by her mistress, Lucy Terry Prince, in her unpublished poem “Bars Fight” (1746), described an Indian raid on Deerfield, Massachusetts, from the perspective of the colonists. The poem is usually viewed as adopting a white mindset and attitudes, but one might speculate about the relish with which Prince describes in detail the killing of the colonists, including the grisly tomahawking of the unfortunate young Eunice Allen. Satire was a common mode of expressing resistance in the larger oral culture of African slaves in eighteenth-century New England. A resourceful, articulate woman, Prince did not hesitate to petition the governor for protection on behalf of her husband, Abijah Prince, and family against her considerably more wealthy neighbors, the Noyes family. Two of her sons, Ceasar and Festus, fought in the Revolution. She argued on behalf of the two boys’ land claims before the Vermont Supreme Court and fought unsuccessfully to get one of them admitted to Williams College. The black abolitionist Congregational minister Lemuel Haynes eulogized Prince on her death in 1821:

And shall proud tyrants boast with brazen face,

Of birth—of genius, over Africa’s race:

Go to the tomb where lies their matron’s dust . . .

How long must Ethaopia’s murder’d race

Be doom’d by men to bondage & disgrace?28

Like Prince’s satirical poem, the narrative of Briton Hammon published in 1760 appears to adopt the views of European colonists toward Native Americans. It refers to Indians as devils and savages and celebrates English liberty. Hammon’s narrative reads like any other adventure-filled Indian captivity narrative, a popular colonial genre with Iberian roots. Hammon describes his escape attempts from the Spanish, prefiguring aspects of fugitive slave narratives. Hammon’s astonishing reunion with his master at the end after suffering through Indian captivity in Florida, Spanish dungeons in Havana, Cuba, and poverty on the streets of London was not a simple endorsement of American slavery. If anything, it illustrated the highly precarious existence of the Atlantic Creole, people of African descent, slave and free, who navigated the confusing world of European imperialism in the Americas.29

Twelve years after Hammon, James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw chronicled his narrative of enslavement from the African country of Bournou by the Dutch, his life as a domestic slave in New York, his education and emancipation by his last master, and, finally, his life of extreme poverty in England, a fate he shared with a majority of the black British population in the eighteenth century. He was befriended by Whitefield and traveled to Holland before marrying a poor English widow. Gronniosaw’s story reads like a conversion narrative, as he discovers the “talking book,” the Bible. Its religious imprimatur was reinforced by Gronniosaw’s amanuensis, a “young lady,” and by Rev. Walter Shirley, who wrote the foreword. Dedicated to the Countess of Huntingdon, who sponsored its publication, the work sought to raise money for its author, and in fact, having been published in the immediate aftermath of the Somerset case, it became a best seller. Though assisted by Quakers, who refused to baptize his dead child, Gronniosaw describes a life of trials. A veritable black book of Job, Gronniosaw’s narrative emphasizes his Christian piety and forbearance, poignantly revealing the un-Christian character of the society he inhabits.30

The ideological underpinnings of black antislavery lay in an antiracist construction of Christianity. The rise of religious egalitarianism and evangelical Christianity, based on the spiritual equality of slaves, initially posed a challenge to the institution of slavery, one that Africans, who started to convert in large numbers with the First Great Awakening, were quick to recognize. Slaves adapted evangelical Christianity to their own largely African-inspired styles of worship. Despite their early commitment to abolitionism, Quakers’ spare liturgy attracted few African Americans. Like most Quaker abolitionists, evangelicals were suspicious of the acquisitive, self-interested nature of early capitalism, which propelled the expansion of racial slavery in the Americas. The Methodists John Wesley, Francis Asbury, and Thomas Coke were antislavery, and separatist Baptists preached a message of humility and spiritual equality that appealed to African slaves, Native Americans, and women. The Moravians allowed black women such as Rebecca from the Danish colony of St. Thomas to assume positions of authority in their church. After the death of her German husband, Rebecca married an Afro-Dane Moravian, Christian Protten, a contemporary of Amo and Capitein. Like them, the Prottens spent their last days in Africa as missionaries in an uneasy relationship with their European sponsors.31

For black writers of the eighteenth century, a Christian identity became a way to challenge slavery. The “democratization of American Christianity” in its forms and style of worship resulted in the growth of a distinct African American Christianity. Blacks began the long process of making Christianity their own, developing a liberation theology that identified with the enslaved Israelites as the chosen people of God and the story of Exodus. In 1669 the biblically named Hagar Blackmore, an enslaved woman impregnated by her master’s son, was brought up on charges of fornication in Massachusetts. She pointed out that she had been stolen from Africa from her husband and baby. Her charge of “man stealing,” sure to resonate in the Puritan court, became a staple of early black Christian antislavery. In 1754 a slave named Greenwich in Canterbury, Connecticut, issued a Christian indictment of the enslavement of Africans. Racial slavery transgressed the biblical injunctions against imprisoning a man “if he hath done the[m] no harm” and against man stealing, which was punishable by death. In 1759 South Carolinians executed a black preacher named Philip Johns for preaching earthly deliverance to the slaves. Two decades later David Margrett (also known as Margate), the first ordained black preacher with the Huntingdon Connexion, the Countess of Huntingdon’s Methodist church, said, “God would send Deliverance to the Negroes, from the power of their Masters, as He freed the Children of Israel from Egyptian Bondage.” He narrowly escaped being lynched in South Carolina before returning to England.32

The Christian origins of early African American literature gave it an antislavery cast. Starting with Phillis Wheatley, black writers and poets confronted the colonial social and intellectual order that ranked them at the bottom by representing themselves as especially worthy and pious Christians. In terms of the history of abolition, Wheatley is particularly important. In her own time, Wheatley was a subject of debate among antislavery proponents and slaveholders, and she met such prominent abolitionists and American revolutionaries as Sharp and Franklin. Wesley and Thomas Paine reprinted her poems. Rush alluded to her talents in his debate on race and slavery with the West Indian planter Richard Nisbet, who dismissed her “silly poems.” Thomas Jefferson singled out the poetry of this young slave girl from Massachusetts for heavy-handed criticism. That Wheatley could evoke the ire of Jefferson and the praise of the French philosophe Voltaire and Clarkson probably secures her place in history. John Paul Jones, the daring patriot naval commander, also a Wheatley admirer, sent his verses to her. So remarkable were her poems that a bevy of Boston worthies, including John Hancock, examined her poems and testified on their authenticity.33 Wheatley’s work is the earliest literary expression of an African American consciousness and reveals an antislavery purpose. Wheatley secured her manumission on the basis of her literary talents, which became an argument for the emancipation of the entire race.

A majority of Wheatley’s poems are elegies on the dead. Death was a motif that haunted the lives of African slaves. Incarceration in the holds of a slave ship was a “living death” and enslavement itself, as the sociologist Orlando Patterson has put it, “social death.” While death portended Christian salvation, suicide as a form of resistance and the belief that one’s soul would transmigrate to Africa were common among enslaved Africans. Named after the slaver in which she was brought in 1761, the seven-year-old Phillis became a privileged slave of John and Susannah Wheatley, who had lost their daughter, who was Phillis’s age. Educated by her owners, Wheatley mastered English as well as Latin and composed her first poem in 1765. She was a genius by any standard. Literary scholars have debated the meaning of her mastery and use of contemporary and classical styles of poetry. More interestingly, Wheatley, like her predecessors, repeatedly asserted her identity as an “Ethiop” and African, anticipating the naming practices of northern free blacks. Africa in her writings is a pagan continent but also a “blissful plain,” the land of her childhood from which she was snatched. Her poem “On Recollection,” asks “MNEME” to inspire “Your vent’rous Afric in her great design” to remember “the acts of long departed years.” There is no doubt that Wheatley was referring to her own history in writing,

By her unveil’d each horrid crime appears,

Her awful hand a cup of wormwood bears.

Days, years misspent, O what a hell of woe!

Hers the worst tortures that our souls can know.34

Although the British writer Aphra Behn wrote a fictional account of a slave rebellion in Oroonoko (1688) that preceded her work, Wheatley originated a distinct genre of antislavery literature, poems written by women. Throughout the Anglo-American world, female antislavery poets would refer to her well after her death. As early as 1771 Jane Dunlap called the “young Afric damsel” an inspiration in her book of religious poems on Whitefield published in Boston. Wheatley dedicated her anthology Poems on Various Subjects Religious and Moral (London, 1773) to her patron, the Countess of Huntingdon, and one of her most famous poems was on the death of Whitefield. Christianity, not the crimes perpetrated against Africans, is the dominant motif in Wheatley’s most well known poem, “On being brought from Africa to America.” In the poem Wheatley thanks “mercy” for saving her “benighted soul,” but she makes it clear that “once I redemption neither sought nor knew.” It ends with a Christian condemnation of racism. “Some view our sable race with a scornful eye, ‘Their colour is a diabolic dye,’” but she reminds her readers that “Christians, Negros, black as Cain, / May be refin’d and join th’ angelic strain.” Similarly, Francis Williams, a free black Jamaican whose antiracist Latin poem was ironically translated by the proslavery writer Edward Long in his History of Jamaica (1774), wrote:

This rule was ’stablish’d by th’Eternal Mind;

Nor virtue’s self, nor prudence are confin’d

To colour; none imbues the honest heart;

To science none belongs, none to art.

Christian universalism, for black writers, was an antidote to the new science of man that classified humankind in a Great Chain of Being in which Europeans were on top and Africans at the bottom.35

Christian motifs pervade the poetry of another of Wheatley’s contemporararies, the slave poet from Long Island, New York, Jupiter Hammon. The self-taught Hammon was a preacher and held a position of trust in his master’s family, the Lloyds, as an accountant in their community store. His patriot master had escaped the British occupation and relocated his slaves, including Hammon, to Hartford, Connecticut. Wheatley’s poetry evoked a response from Hammon. He had published his first poem, a prayer titled “An Evening Thought: Salvation by Christ, with Penitential Cries,” in a broadside of 1760 and was far more steeped in the Bible than Wheatley. In his “An Address to Miss Phillis Wheatley” (1778) Hammon emphasized the regenerating power Christianity held for enslaved Africans like the young poet who had been “Tost o’er the raging main” and saved “From the dangers that come down.” Hammon’s poetry was not a simple capitulation to Christian servitude. In his dialogue between a “kind master” and “dutiful servant,” the latter asserts, “The only safety that I see, Is Jesus’ holy word.” His master’s suicide, which resulted from his mistaken belief that the Americans had lost the war, only underscored his slave’s claim to spiritual superiority.36

Wheatley, who is often portrayed as a lone genius, was in fact representative of an emerging African American antislavery critique of revolutionary republicanism. She saw herself as a member of an oppressed people rather than as just the pet slave of the Wheatley family or the exotic black poetess of the Atlantic world. As her letter to the British evangelical John Thornton, with whom she stayed while in London, attests, God is “no respecter of Persons,” and he should “Therfor disdain not to be called the Father of Humble Africans and Indians; though despised on earth on account of our colour, we have this Consolation, if he enables us to deserve it.” Wheatley’s letters to a fellow slave named Obour Tanner and her moving poem to Scipio Moorhead, the African painter most likely responsible for producing the woodcut that graced her book of poems, testify to her attempts to seek out a community of African Americans. Most of her extant letters are to Tanner, to whom she wrote, “It gives me very great pleasure to hear of so many of my Nation.” A similar impulse no doubt led Hammon to address his poem to her. In searching for literary predecessors in the West, Wheatley evoked not the European poets she emulated but the African poet Terence from antiquity, though Jefferson insisted he was “of the race of whites.”37

Wheatley openly questioned the enslavement of Africans. In championing the cause of the colonists in a poem dedicated to the Earl of Dartmouth, principal secretary of state for North America, she explains that her “love of Freedom” springs from her personal experience:

I, young in life, by seeming cruel fate

Was snatch’d from Afric’s fancy’d happy seat:

What pangs excruciating must molest,

What sorrows labour in my parent’s breast?

Steel’d was that soul and by no misery mov’d

That from a father seiz’d his babe belov’d:

Such, such my case. And can I then but pray

Others may never feel tyrannic sway?

In her unpublished poem on the death of Gen. David Wooster she recited her opinion of slaveholding patriots freely:

But how, presumptuous shall we hope to find

Divine acceptance with th’ Almighty mind—

While yet (O deed ungenerous!) they disgrace

And hold in bondage Afric’s blameless race?

In a letter of 1774 to the Native American minister Samson Occom, published in several newspapers throughout New England, she caustically writes, “By the leave of our Modern Egyptians I will assert, the same Principle [love of freedom] lives in us.” She remarks on “the strange Absurdity of their Conduct whose Words and Actions are so diametrically opposite. How well the Cry for Liberty, and the reverse Disposition for the exercise of oppressive Power over others agree,—I humbly think it does not require the Penetration of a Philosopher to determine.”38

During the American Revolution, Wheatley became actively engaged in the politics of freedom and slavery. Her poem to George Washington, written in 1775 and read usually as pure flattery, gently chides him for his order excluding African Americans, including those who had fought in the initial revolutionary battles of Bunker Hill, Lexington, and Concord, from the Continental Army:

Shall I to Washington their praise recite?

Enough thou knows’t them in the fields of fight.

Thee, first in place and honours,—we demand

The grace and glory of thy martial band.

A recent biographer of Washington attributes the growth in his views on race—as he evolved from a provincial Virginia planter to the more cosmopolitan revolutionary military commander—to his encounter with Wheatley (Washington invited her to his headquarters on receiving her poem, although they may have never met). Wheatley chose to fight her battles in America. She rejected acclaim in Britain and when asked to return to Africa as a missionary wrote that there she would appear to be a barbarian (a telling usage that belies the notion that she viewed Africa as an inferior, uncivilized continent), having forgotten the language of her childhood. Through Rev. Samuel Hopkins, the abolitionist Congregational minister in Newport, Rhode Island, she became aware of the missionary work of Philip Quaque, the African minister in the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel who condemned the patriots for their hypocrisy: “I behold with Sorrowful sighing my poor abject Countryman over whom You, without the Bowels of Christian Love and Pity, hold in cruel Bondage.”

Wheatley claimed an African American identity that, while evoking Western Christianity and the colonists’ struggle for liberty, remained critical of both. As a Christian, she wrote that Africa was suffering from a “Spiritual Famine” but “Europe and America have long been fed with the heavenly provision, and I fear they loathe it.” She later married John Peters, a free black storekeeper, doctor, and lawyer of sorts who was known to plead cases for people of color. Though unable to publish a second edition of her poems dedicated to Franklin, whom she met in London and whose antislavery reputation she was undoubtedly aware of, stories of her later poverty and her husband’s alleged shiftlessness are exaggerated. Peters, who was charged with barratry for his litigious nature, was imprisoned for debt but recovered much of his fortune after Wheatley’s death. All three of the children she had with Peters died, and she herself died shortly before the youngest, in 1784. Her “An Elegy on Leaving,” published by Wesley that year, was prescient. Despite Wheatley’s cosmopolitan background and international life—she was born in Africa, experienced slavery in America, and traveled to Britain—she chose to live as a free woman identifying with the emerging African American community in the United States. She became the black female icon of the Anglo-American abolition movement, her poems reprinted by the abolitionist Quaker printer Joseph Crukshank of Philadelphia in 1786. In the 1830s Garrison published a memoir of her by a Wheatley family descendant, Margaretta Matilda Odell. Despite Odell’s attempt to reduce Wheatley to a faithful and exceptional servant favored by her owners, the introduction averred that Wheatley’s poetry was proof of “African genius.”39

Forgotten antislavery voices and actions of Quaker and African pioneers, slave rebels and runaways, radical, dissenting Christianity, English antislavery lawyers and judges, and early black writers all played a part in laying the foundation of revolutionary abolitionism. During the American War of Independence their ideas gained currency.

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