In 1875 abolitionists gathered to celebrate the centennial of the PAS. In his speech Frederick Douglass noted that he had “no sympathy with those who despise and neglect the origin of the anti-slavery movement.” Men like Isaac T. Hopper, Thomas Earle, and Thomas Shipley of the PAS, he recalled, assisted thousands of slaves.1 The largely forgotten first wave of abolition that Douglass spoke of faced an uphill task after the failure of general emancipation and the dramatic rise in racial proscription in the American Republic. Not only did abolition fail in the South, but with the rise of the Cotton Kingdom slavery began its antebellum career of economic expansion and political consolidation. Slavery died hard in Brazil, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the United States. If eastern Europe had a second serfdom, these areas, also fueled by the growth of early capitalism, experienced a “second slavery.”2

In the face of these obstacles, American abolition did not, as is commonly assumed, wane. State societies regrouped nationally and initiated transnational connections, especially with the British movement for the abolition of the slave trade. In making general emancipation rather than colonization their goal, abolitionists distinguished themselves from those who mouthed antislavery sentiment yet proposed plans to deport African Americans. Early abolitionist societies viewed blacks, slave and free, not only as objects of their benevolence but also as future fellow citizens. Abolitionist paternalism could be grating for a newly free people, but it could also offer invaluable assistance in securing freedom, in education, and in confronting the abuses of northern emancipation laws.3Some even subscribed to an unapologetic brand of revolutionary abolitionism, justifying slave rebellions and advocating black equality. It is perhaps best to judge the early abolition movement through the eyes of the enslaved and the newly free. In the context of a revolutionary backlash, abolitionists were a singular minority in the slaveholding Republic.


The British movement to end the slave trade inspired abolitionist organization and tactics. In an anonymous pamphlet from 1760, Two Dialogues on the Man-Trade, a Mr. Philmore rejoices at the news of a slave revolt even though it comes at the cost of English lives. Europeans compounded their crime of man stealing and murder of Africans in the trade with their “barbarous treatment” in the colonies. Philmore converts a slave trader, Mr. Allcraft, who confesses that his “love of money” had led him astray. Benezet included parts of this dialogue in his pamphlets against the slave trade. Twelve years later, inspired by Somerset, Maurice Morgann, a British administrator, proposed a plan for the abolition of slavery in the colonies. Morgann suggested founding a colony of free blacks in Florida and giving them land grants. The colony would act as a buffer between the British and Spanish empires and outcompete the slave colonies, as free blacks acquired skills, intermarried with whites, and created a gradation of color from the South to the North so that color would no longer be a “mark of distinction” or the “object of hatred and hostility.” Steeped in Enlightenment views of race and climate, Morgann’s imperial yet racially flexible vision sought to banish slavery and racial distinctions. It was not until the mid-1780s that the movement to abolish the slave trade took off. By then the British were more receptive to abolitionist appeals, eager to accrue “moral capital” in the face of defeat in North America.4

The loss of the American colonies, however, also facilitated the abolitionist critique of an imperial economy based on the enslavement of Africans. In 1783 British Quakers, who were wealthier and lagged behind their American counterparts on the slavery question, submitted a petition to Parliament on behalf of “our Fellow Creatures, the Oppressed Africans.” William Dillwyn, a coauthor, played a crucial role in the organization of British abolition. Quakers founded the Committee of the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade (SEAST) in London in 1787 and placed Granville Sharp at its head. Both Sharp and Thomas Clarkson sympathized with revolutionaries in America and France and were critics of British imperialism. The German philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder referred to the Quakers’ commitment to abolition as a noteworthy example of his notion of Humanitat in his critique of slavery and colonialism, Ideas for the Philosophy of History of Mankind (1784–85).

Nine of the original twelve SEAST members were Quakers and adept propagandists. The potter Josiah Wedgwood proposed the seal for the society, a kneeling slave with the motto “Am I Not a Man and a Brother?,” and the printer James Phillips published most of its anti–slave trade literature. Abolitionist pamphlets and images transformed the African slave trade from a cog in the imperial machine to an exemplary instance of cruelty and inhumanity. They sought to render the enslaved African visible to the widest possible audience. The plan of the “regulated” slave ship Brooks with its decks of packed humanity, first composed by William Elford and the Plymouth abolition committee and elaborated by the London Committee, became the most widely circulated broadside of British abolitionism. Mirabeau called it a living coffin. This single image evoked the Middle Passage as experienced by Africans and centered it in abolitionist discourse. In portraying the victimization of Africans by the slave trade and slavery, abolitionists did not render them passive. The iteration of it in 1794 included a shipboard rebellion. Abolitionist art blossomed in the nineteenth century from anonymous depictions to carefully delineated humanistic portraits. In the 1820s the British Quaker abolitionist Elizabeth Heyrick transformed the image of the kneeling slave to that of an upright black man with the emphatic statement, “I am a man and a brother.” The Brooks diagram lives on in the modern black artistic imagination.5

Clarkson’s anti–slave trade pamphlets, most significantly his award-winning paper at Cambridge University, Essay on the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species, Particularly the African (1785), edited and published by Phillips in 1786, built on the Quaker abolitionist tradition. (He went on to write the history of the movement to abolish the slave trade in 1808 as well as admiring books on Quakerism and William Penn.) Clarkson insisted that Africans deserved liberty and the rights of man, holding that the slave trade butchered thousands annually and contradicted the very spirit of Christianity. Citing Wheatley, he denied the myth of racial inferiority and summarized the climatic theory of race popularized by eighteenth-century environmentalists. The SEAST published a concise version of it, A Summary View of the Slave Trade and Probable Consequences of its Abolition, in 1787. In An Essay on the Impolicy of the African Slave Trade, in Two Parts (1788), Clarkson broke new ground, avowing that the slave trade was not just immoral but impolitic. He performed yeoman’s work, traveling to the British seaports of Bristol and Liverpool to investigate the conditions of the trade and interview sailors; he published much of this research in his The Substance of the Evidence of Sundry Persons on the Slave Trade. A consummate abolitionist essayist, Clarkson wrote two more pamphlets. In An Essay on the Comparative Efficiency of Regulation or Abolition, as applied to the slave trade (1789), dedicated to Sir William Dolben, he argued that only abolition would get rid of the evils that Dolben’s bill sought to regulate. The following year his Letters on the Slave Trade, written from Paris, restated the case for abolition. Not surprisingly, Samuel Taylor Coleridge called him the movement’s “moral steam engine.” Clarkson campaigned for a ban on the slave trade in revolutionary France and spent his last days advocating the abolition of slavery in the West Indies and the United States.6

British abolitionists opposed not just the slave trade but also slavery. As early as 1778 Rev. James Ramsay proposed emancipation. He published his views in An Essay on the Treatment and Conversion of African Slaves in the British Sugar Colonies (1784), an eyewitness account of the brutality of West Indian slavery. The essay posited that better treatment, state protection, conversion, and access to freedom would make slavery more humane until “liberty shall claim every exiled African for her own child.” He refuted the racism of David Hume and the polygenism of Lord Kames, prefacing his pamphlet with abolitionist clergymen’s favorite biblical injunction, “God Hath Made of One Blood all Nations of the Earth.” The same year he published his An Enquiry into the Effects of Putting a Stop to the African Slave Trade, and of Granting Liberty to the Slaves in the British Sugar Colonies. To ministers who would stop at Christianization, Ramsay argued that while a Christian slave was more valuable than a heathen slave, a Christian freeman was more valuable than a Christian slave. Ramsay spent the rest of his life in debilitating debate with the West India slave interests who sought to discredit him and died in 1789. Rev. John Newton, a former slave trader who composed the famous hymn “Amazing Grace,” wrote his belated condemnation of the slave trade from the perspective of a repentant participant. The SEAST also distributed the slave trader Alexander Falconbridge’s Account of the Slave Trade on the Coast of Africa (1788), a report on its brutalities. William Cowper, Newton’s congregant, wrote antislavery poems, including his famous “The Negro’s Complaint.”7

British women contributed to anti–slave trade poetry. The influential evangelical Hannah More’s poem “Slavery” (1788) was written to coincide with the parliamentary debate over the slave trade and reprinted on both sides of the Atlantic. Before her death in 1833, More was elected to the committee of the Bristol Female Anti-Slavery Society. Wheatley inspired female poets like Mary Scott, who wrote admiringly that she had “fair nature’s charms display’d!” The pioneer feminist Mary Wollstonecraft established the long-lasting antislavery trope that compared the slavery of sex with the enslavement of Africans in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). Literary antislavery was not a sentimental preoccupation removed from the horrors of the slave trade. James Field Stanfield, a former seaman on a slaver, wrote one of the best poetic condemnations of it. Despite their racial romanticism, antislavery British writers and poets were critics of the sordid business of empire.8

Even as antislavery spread in popular culture, the uphill political battle for abolition was waged in Parliament. British abolitionists perfected the tactics of lobbying, petitioning, publication of antislavery tracts, and boycott of slave-produced goods, particularly sugar. Abolitionist mass mobilization in Britain was unprecedented and took the form of a broad-based social movement that cut across class lines and used the public sphere and democratic modes of communication to influence policy. During the mass petition campaigns of 1788 and 1792, over one hundred and over five hundred petitions, respectively, were sent to Parliament. In 1792 some four hundred thousand people signed abolitionist petitions, many from the booming industrial city of Manchester, revealing the working-class roots of popular abolitionism. If not the printed word, abolitionist illustrations reached the masses. Issac Cruikshank’s sensational print from 1792 of a slave girl suspended by her ankle on a ship’s deck was based on the actual murder of two enslaved African women. An indefatigable abolitionist agent, Clarkson spread the abolition message into provincial English towns and to France, where he was a liaison between SEAST and the Amis des Noir.9

Abolitionist activism at the grassroots was indispensable in the face of the profitability of the slavery-based British Empire and entrenched racism. While antislavery sentiment was confined to the aristocratic patrons of black Christian writers, abolitionism found favor among the masses. Rather than provide ideological cover for capitalism and the status quo, popular abolitionism was based on a critique of market relations and social hierarchy. The African slave trade and colonial slavery were profitable businesses that sustained the imperial economy. The logic of British imperialism and political economy was embedded not in abolition but in the proslavery response to the abolitionists that touted the economic growth, political power, naval superiority, and national ascendance generated by slavery and the slave trade. It would take a long-fought and hard campaign to detach British national identity from slavery to antislavery. And even after the triumph of abolition, the logic of empire remained closely tied to the ideological and economic rationale not of abolition but of the institution that birthed it, racial slavery: the exploitation rather than the liberation of those deemed irrevocably inferior and uncivilized.10

Not surprisingly, abolition was repeatedly defeated, as the government proved to be unresponsive to popular pressure and protective of West India interests. After years of intense mobilization, British abolition suffered a setback with the defeat of slave trade abolition bills in 1791 in the House of Commons and in the House of Lords the subsequent year. The massive evidence on its brutality, largely collected by the tireless Clarkson during the hearings on the slave trade, is still an invaluable historical source. The parliamentary effort to abolish the slave trade was led by William Wilberforce, a convert to evangelical Christianity and abolition, and succeeded only in 1807. Wilberforce, who belonged to the Clapham Sect, emerged as the political leader of the movement. He joined the SEAST and initiated the petition campaign of 1792. From then on he would assiduously introduce bills calling for the abolition of the slave trade nearly every year. Wilberforce’s eloquent speeches against the slave trade, “so much misery condensed in so little room,” initially bore little fruit. For conservatives of all stripes, despite Wilberforce’s support of sedition laws and criticism of the Sierra Leone uprising, abolition was closely associated with democracy at home and revolutionary Jacobinism abroad. Most abolitionists like Clarkson endorsed the extension of franchise and sympathized with the French Revolution and black colonists in Sierra Leone. The imprisoned working-class radical Thomas Hardy of the London Corresponding Committee was an abolitionist. The English Jacobin John Thelwall connected the suffering of labor with that of colonial slaves. The MP Charles James Fox, who introduced the successful abolition bill, was known for his sympathy for the French Revolution and opposed sedition laws. In France, ironically, the Amis des Noir was viewed as a stalking horse for British interests.

In the 1790s fears of French revolutionary radicalism prevented the British government from acting against the slave trade. During this time Bryan Edwards published his influential proslavery volumes on the history of the West Indies and Saint-Domingue, blaming French and British abolitionists for inciting slave rebellion. During the abolitionist doldrums, when Clarkson went into semiretirement and the SEAST virtually stopped meeting, antislavery sentiment grew steadily in popular and print culture. Thomas Paine responded to Edmund Burke’s conservative criticism of the French Revolution, and the Anglo-Irish abolitionist poet and playwright William Preston published a scathing response to Edwards. In his National Sins Considered (1796), the radical newspaper editor Benjamin Flower condemned British inaction even after the slave trade’s “atrocities have been repeatedly exposed to view” by abolitionists. The next year Sharp weighed in, calling the slave trade and colonial slavery inconsistent with the “foundations of English Law and Constitution!” His duty, Sharp insisted, despite SEAST’s decision to strategically restrict abolition to the slave trade, was to illustrate the “monstrous impiety and cruelty” of both.11

The politically cautious Wilberforce continued to raise abolition in Parliament throughout this period. His steady efforts at building support for abolition eventually bore fruit. In 1804 the SEAST was revived at his instigation. Converts to the antislavery cause included his brother-in-law James Stephen and Henry Brougham as well as powerful political allies such as the prime ministers William Pitt and Lord Grenville, who linked abolition to national interest and reputation. Wilberforce used news of the impending abolition by the United States to urge British action. His major work against the slave trade, A Letter on the Abolition of the Slave Trade, written to his constituents, was published on the eve of abolition. Wilberforce drew on the testimony of European travelers and slave traders to protest that the slave trade engendered wars and a perverted legal system in Africa designed to secure a continuous supply of slaves. He challenged the notion that Africa lacked civilization and refuted Edward Long, who held that colonial slavery was better than African servitude. Wilberforce described the racial degradation of West Indian slavery because “the feelings of sympathy towards Blacks, as fellow-creatures, or of decency respecting them as of our own species” was “largely extinct.” He advocated a series of reforms, including an end to whipping and corporal punishment. If Clarkson helped launch the anti–slave trade movement, Wilberforce’s censure of racism and slavery presented the finished abolitionist argument. The enslaved soon deployed his name and strategies in their struggles against slavery.

Parliamentary defeat and the constitutionally mandated delay in America ensured that Britain and the United States abolished the African slave trade virtually simultaneously in 1807, passing laws that took effect on January 1, 1808. But only in Britain did abolition come about as a result of mass agitation. In the United States it was more of a constitutional postscript enacting the clause prohibiting the federal government from abolishing the African slave trade before 1808. Despite a virtually unanimous vote on abolition in Congress, a sectional divide in debates over petitions demanding the ending of the slave trade was evident. Northerners such as James Sloan, a Republican, doomed to political oblivion by his southern-leaning party, recommended the freeing of all Africans illegally enslaved, and Theodore Dwight, a Federalist, advocated the death penalty for violation of the slave trade prohibition. Southerners who opposed them got their way, though subsequent legislation in 1819 and 1820 allowed for the repatriation of recaptives to Africa and defined the foreign slave trade as piracy punishable by death.12

The long British campaign against the slave trade gave birth to transnational abolitionism, which was marked by cosmopolitan cooperation rather than competition for national glory. The PAS corresponded with the London Committee and the Abbé Raynal. Sharp was made an honorary member of the PAS and NYMS. Lafayette asked Hamilton to have his name included in the membership of the NYMS. American magazines and the Quaker-dominated antislavery press reprinted the Brooks illustration and Clarkson’s essays against the slave trade. In 1793 the Maryland abolition society published a letter from Sharp warning that southerners would be subject to divine vengeance if they did not abolish slavery. The SEAST inspired the formation of the Amis des Noir and elected Brissot as an honorary member. The French society published translations of Benezet, Wesley, and Clarkson. Quakers inspired its very name, Friends of the Blacks. The PAS published its addresses and Brissot’s oration on its founding, and Brissot urged Frenchmen to follow the example of SEAST and the Quakers in America.13

Brissot visited Britain frequently and the United States in 1788. Like Clarkson, he was an ardent admirer of the Quakers. Montesquieu and Voltaire also contributed to the “Quaker legend” of tolerance and antislavery in their writings. The PAS elected Brissot as a member, and he reported that it “appointed committees to assist me in my work and opened their archives to me” during his visit. In 1785 St. John de Crèvecoeur, who dedicated his Letters from an American Farmer, in which he too praised the Quakers, to Raynal and Lafayette, became a founding member of the NYMS. In 1791 Brissot published Crèvecoeur’s American travelogue. Influenced by the French racial caste system, Brissot argued for racial equality for northern free blacks and emigration to Africa for freed slaves. He noted the southern states’ opposition to abolition: “Here there is no talk of freeing the Negroes, no praise of the antislavery societies in London and America. Nobody reads Clarkson’s works.” Bearing a letter of introduction from Lafayette, he met Washington, whose personal library contained abolitionist tracts. Washington and Hamilton, close friends of Lafayette, as well as Jefferson and Franklin, both of whom had spent time in Paris, were aware of the transnational abolitionist network. Jefferson had started to translate Condorcet’s abolitionist pamphlet during his stay in Paris. But Brissot, like many before, failed to recruit them. Jefferson’s speculations on black inferiority served as fodder for an opponent of Brissot’s, the Marquis de Chastellux, when he wrote his proslavery, antiblack, anti-Quaker diatribe. Jefferson had more in common with men of the slaveholding planter class such as Edwards and Moreau de Saint-Méry than with the abolitionists.14

The Anglo-American abolition movement assiduously cultivated transnational ties. The PAS opened correspondence not just with the Amis des Noir but also with the revolutionary envoys of the French Republic to Saint-Domingue, Sonthonax and Raimond, in the late 1790s. French abolitionists recommended to the PAS’s care the colored and black refugees leaving the island for Philadelphia and reported on the victories of Louverture. In 1806 Wilberforce and Zachary Macaulay renewed the SEAST’s correspondence with the American abolition societies, and James Pemberton, the president of the PAS, corresponded with the Abbé Henri Grégoire. After slave trade abolition, British abolitionists launched yet another campaign on the eve of the Congress of Vienna, the meeting of European nations called by Metternich to stem the tide of French revolutionary republicanism. They collected three-quarters of a million signatures on petitions to pressure the British government to work for the international prohibition of the African slave trade. They also urged continental abolitionists such as the Prussian naturalist and geographer Alexander von Humboldt and Madame de Staël and her abolitionist family in France to secure an international ban on the slave trade. British abolitionists played an important role in making slave trade prohibition a part of foreign policy in the nineteenth century, but they cannot be held responsible for the manner in which the British government used it to further its national and imperial interests. Within the British colonies they demanded a registry of slaves and amelioration of harsh slave laws, seeding their final campaign for the abolition of slavery.15 They also bequeathed a legacy of mass mobilization to American abolitionists.


Contrary to conventional wisdom, the abolition movement persisted and broadened its reach in the early Republic. Quaker and abolition societies pressured the new federal government to act against the slave trade and slavery. In 1789 the Yearly Meeting of Quakers from the middle states sent an anti–slave trade petition to the recently organized federal Congress, precipitating a debate over slavery along sectional lines. While the South Carolina and Georgia representatives opposed the petition and ridiculed the Quakers, Elias Boudinot of New Jersey, the former president of the Continental Congress, came to their defense. The petition was tabled. In 1790 a PAS memorial to Congress signed by Benjamin Franklin as its president went further to argue for “securing the blessings of liberty to the people of the United States . . . without distinction of Colour.” Southerners questioned the constitutionality of antislavery petitions, and Madison intervened to commit the memorial. The Select Committee of the House of Representatives stated that Congress had no authority to end the slave trade before 1808 or interfere with slavery in the states. But it could exercise its power to regulate the conditions of the slave trade and tax slave imports. Lower south slaveholders attacked Quakers as traitors to the nation and demanded an informal gag on the subject of slavery as the price of union, threatening secession. Boudinot again came to the defense of abolitionists, vouching for Franklin’s sanity, which had been questioned by southern congressmen. On the eve of his death, Franklin skewered their proslavery speeches in satirical letters defending Algerian piracy and the enslavement of Christians. An abolitionist pamphlet, The American in Algiers (1797), revived that comparison in an imaginary conversation between an American captive from Boston in Algiers and an enslaved African in the United States.16

Antislavery petitions gave rise to more exchanges between southern slaveholders and abolitionists. In 1792 the abolition societies of states from Rhode Island to Virginia submitted memorials to Congress calling for the abolition of slavery and restriction of the slave trade. While some were careful to ask only for the exercise of constitutional powers, others evoked revolutionary principles to declare that “the whole system of African slavery is unjust in its nature.” Southern congressmen claimed that since the memorials were unconstitutional and incited slave rebellions, they should be expunged from the house journals. This attempted gag measure elicited a lengthy protest from Warner Mifflin. Warning that the blood of oppressed Africans would cling to the garments of every member of Congress, he protested its failure to act on the slave trade and its acceptance of southern preconditions not to act against slavery in territories ceded to the federal government. Mifflin proclaimed that a “natural black skin” was never the occasion of degradation before God and that Congress should show as much concern over enslaved Africans in America as they do over captured Americans in Algiers. The South Carolinian William Loughton Smith, known for his vociferous proslavery speeches, dismissed Mifflin’s remonstrance as the “mere rant and rhapsody of a meddling fanatic,” and the House decided to return his memorial to him. Mifflin led a virtually one-man antislavery lobby in Washington at this time, cornering southern congressmen on the subject of slavery. An object of both Brissot’s and Crèvecoeur’s admiration, he died in 1798.17

During the first two decades of the Republic, abolition societies published pamphlets by influential religious, political, and intellectual figures in the north. They made a case for the complete eradication of slavery and, sometimes, of racial distinctions. This was especially true in Connecticut, a center of New Divinity antislavery. In 1788 Simeon Baldwin, the future secretary of the state abolition society, in his Fourth of July address warranted that the revolution was not complete until the slave trade and slavery were abolished. Antislavery Calvinist clergymen such as the Yale presidents Ezra Stiles and Timothy Dwight and Federalist lawyer politicians founded the Connecticut Society for the Promotion of Freedom and Relief of Persons Unlawfully held in Bondage in 1790. Stiles, influenced by Hopkins, came to regret his purchase of a slave boy, whom he manumitted and educated. He wrote the constitution of the society, became its first president, and ministered to African Americans in Newport and New Haven. The Connecticut society published several influential pamphlets initially delivered as addresses to the society, in which it urged the immediate ending of the slave trade and the abolition of slavery. The society’s Committee of Correspondence, like the PAS and NYMS, intervened in cases in which slaveholders tried to elude the state’s emancipation law or when attempts were made to kidnap free blacks.

Painting a benign picture of New England’s history of slavery, Congregational ministers like Jedidiah Morse and Dwight contrasted southern and West Indian slavery with Connecticut’s republican and Christian culture. Rev. James Dana of New Haven, known for his religious liberalism, spoke of Christian liberty as opposed to the history of the slave trade for the better part of an address he gave in 1790. Dana admitted that all slavery was obnoxious and condemned ideas of Africans being a different and inferior “species” as going against the “Mosaic history of the creation.” He called for the spiritual and political regeneration of the Republic. In 1792 Stiles’s protégé Rev. William Patten of Newport delivered a similar anti–slave trade address.18

Connecticut abolitionists’ religious and political jeremiads dissented radically from the spread-eagle nationalism of the early Republic. The anticlerical Republican Zephaniah Swift reached the same conclusions as these ministers in his address of 1791 to the state society in Hartford. He decried America as “the theatre of most extensive slavery” and railed that “the black native of the burning climes of Africa, and the copper-coloured savages of the wilds of America, have long mourned the day Columbus sailed from Europe.” In his address Jonathan Edwards Jr. called racial slavery a worse crime than the political enslavement of Americans by Britain. Ridiculing race as a reason to enslave and the idea that God condemned any part of humankind to perpetual slavery, he predicted the intermingling of races in an appendix. Edwards argued quixotically that slaveholders should compensate “Negroes for the injury which they had done them” by either intermarrying with them and “raising their colour to partial whiteness” or leaving “to them all their real estates.” That year the Connecticut society sent a petition and address to Congress criticizing “the unhappy policy of this country, to impose slavery and want on those who are brought from Africa; while we hold forth the prospects of liberty and plenty to emigrants from all other countries.” The Yale graduate and poet Joel Barlow in his The Columbiad warned of God’s vengeance for “the nation’s crime” that held “inthrall’d the millions of my race,” speaking as Atlas, the guardian of Africa.19

Two of the early Republic’s foremost educators made clear their distaste for slavery. Noah Webster, the lexicographer known for his dictionary, published Effects of Slavery on Morals and Industry (1793), an expanded version of his oration before the Connecticut society. Webster chose to construct his antislavery argument pragmatically, not evoking natural rights, law, and humanity, which, he pointed out, others had done, but policy, interest, and necessity, meeting proslavery opponents “upon their own ground.” Slavery, he said, produced laziness and criminality that led some, like Jefferson, to speculate on the alleged inferiority of blacks. Webster contended that “oppression is the mother of all crimes” and that slavery had similar effects on slaves of all nations. The etymologist pointed out that serfs had long been referred to as villains and knaves, and Anglo-Saxons called their servants lazzi, the root of the English word lazy. While Webster opposed immediate abolition of slavery in the South, he rejected colonization. It was not only impractical but also unfair to black people, most of whom “are born in this country and are total strangers to Africa” and “a flagrant act of injustice, inferior only to the first act of enslaving them.” Instead, slaves should be converted into free tenants and eventually propertied republican citizens. Webster insisted that emancipation was beneficial because slavery, like serfdom, was detrimental to national industry and wealth, an incipient free labor critique of slavery. By the 1830s Webster called abolitionists “absolutely deranged” and, departing from his earlier analysis of slavery as a national evil, said slavery was “a great sin and calamity, but it is not our [i.e., a northern] sin.”20

Besides Webster, the Connecticut-born bookseller and publisher Caleb Bingham wrote well-reasoned denunciations of slavery and racial superiority. Bingham ran a private school for girls in Boston, and his first book of grammar for young women outsold Webster’s dictionary. A prolific author, he published The American Preceptor in 1794 and the more famous The Columbian Orator in 1797. The latter contained an exchange between a master and a runaway slave, which inspired Douglass’s oratory, who took its lessons to heart. Bingham also reprinted the speeches of Pitt, Fox, and Rev. Samuel Miller of the NYMS in his book. Like other abolitionists, Bingham inverted the categories of savagery and civilization when writing about Europeans and Africans and Native Americans.21

Though Bingham, like Barlow, was a Jeffersonian, Federalist New England proved to be a breeding ground for an antislavery culture. In the 1790s Federalists emerged as critics of the Jacobin reign of terror in France and their American Republican allies. The administration of John Adams passed the Alien and Sedition Acts to root out foreign radicalism. Federalist criticism of Jacobinism complemented their indictment of slavery and the slaveholding Virginia dynasty. In his address of 1794 before the Connecticut society, Theodore Dwight objected to the three-fifths clause. He noted, “Enjoying no rank in the community, and possessing no voice, either in elections, or legislation, the slaves are bro’t into existence, in the Constitution of the United States, merely to afford opportunity for a few more of their masters, to tyrannize over their liberties.” The southern states especially, where “domestic despotism rides triumphantly over the liberties and happiness of thousands of our fellow-creatures,” were “pretended republics.” A republic, according to him, had no right to make any law on slavery except as compensation to slaves. He cited the rebellion in Saint-Domingue, where slaves attacked their “tyrannical masters” and “established themselves on the firm pillars of freedom and independence” and warned that the slave South might suffer the same fate.

Drolly calling societies formed to promote freedom in a republic a solecism, Dwight asked for immediate abolition. His brother Timothy Dwight published his epic poem “Greenfield Hill” as part of the society’s campaign to pass a law for general emancipation in Connecticut. In it he portrayed slavery as being contrary to republicanism. Later, he wrote a poem hailing Gabriel’s abortive rebellion in Virginia. In 1795 the Massachusetts Federalist congressman Samuel Dexter proposed an amendment to the Naturalization Act of 1790 that excluded all nonwhites. Aimed at the fleeing planters from Saint-Domingue, it required all immigrants to the United States to renounce slaveholding. Federalist clergymen were incensed with Jefferson’s suggestion that blacks belonged to a different species, pointing out that it was “the strongest argument for their state of slavery.” They believed that slaveholders, not slaves, constituted the gravest threat to the Republic. Small wonder that black men who enjoyed the right to vote in the early Republic tended to vote Federalist.22

The emergence of New England as a center of antislavery belies the notion of the region as a conservative backwater until the emergence of Garrisonian abolition. In Rhode Island the Providence Society for Abolishing the Slave Trade, founded in 1789, led the abolitionist charge. One of its stalwart members, George Benson, became Garrison’s father-in-law. Hopkins, who had complained to Moses Brown about forming an abolition society that restricted its purpose to the slave trade only, made sure that he included the elimination of both the slave trade and slavery as worthy abolitionist goals in his discourse of 1793 before the society. Reiterating that slavery violated the precepts of Christianity, Hopkins regretted that the Constitution allowed for the continuance of the slave trade and that Congress had neglected to pass any law against it or to promote the emancipation and education of American slaves. The Providence society also assisted those held illegally in slavery to gain their freedom. Northern slaveholders repeatedly accused abolitionists of encouraging slaves to run away and hastening their emancipation.23

Instead of letting the issue of slavery subside, abolitionists consolidated and stepped up their activities. In 1793, in order to coordinate antislavery efforts at the national level, the NYMS called for all the abolition societies to meet in a convention in Philadelphia. Nine societies gathered at the American Convention of Abolition Societies in 1794. It planned to replicate at a national level the work of the state societies: sending memorials and petitions to federal and state governments, publishing antislavery pamphlets, assisting free black people, and expediting emancipation. In an address to the people of the United States written by a committee led by Rush, the convention announced the abolition of “domestic slavery in our country” as its goal. Slavery, the address stated, was a species of despotism that imperiled the revolutionary effort to overthrow the “tyranny of kings” and threatened the safety and liberties of the new nation. It ought to be opposed also as a matter of “sound policy.” The convention called for an immediate end to the slave trade and proposed founding more abolition societies to work for the improvement of the condition of Africans and their descendants. In its memorial to Congress the convention asked that American citizens be prohibited from participating in the slave trade and the outfitting of slavers in American ports, a request which soon became law.

In 1795 the convention concentrated on antislavery action at the state rather than federal level. Through much of its existence it regularly issued addresses to all state societies to coordinate abolitionist activity. The convention also composed memorials asking South Carolina and Georgia, which lacked abolition societies, to end the slave trade and pass manumission and gradual emancipation laws. It called upon all societies to take steps toward “the absolute repeal” of all laws on slavery in their states. The 1790s were the high point of abolitionist activism in the early Republic. By 1798 the convention was complaining of a lack of representatives from state societies. It continued to meet until 1838, although it stopped meeting annually after 1806, and abolition societies gradually became defunct in New England and most of the southern states. In the end only Pennsylvania and New York maintained a substantial presence in the convention. The PAS served as a center of organized abolitionist activism not just in Pennsylvania but also in the bordering slave states of Virginia, Maryland, and Delaware.24

The American Convention of Abolition Societies anticipated the controversies over slavery in the nineteenth century. In an address to the people of the United States in 1804, the convention pointed to the revival of the African slave trade in South Carolina in 1803, antimanumission laws in the South, the kidnapping of free blacks, and the expansion of slavery in the west as urgent reasons to continue the abolition crusade. Citing the precedent of the Northwest Ordinance, it submitted a memorial to Congress asking for a law to restrict the spread of slavery into the newly acquired Louisiana territory. While assuring its critics that it did not mean to violate state or property laws, the convention called for general emancipation. Despite discouraging news from abolitionists in the South, the convention of 1805 appended a model act for the gradual abolition of slavery to its minutes to be submitted to the states where slavery was still legal. In 1806 the convention urged the state societies to submit petitions to Congress to exercise its constitutional powers and end a resurgent domestic slave trade that would carry around a million slaves from the upper south states to the expanding Cotton Kingdom.25

After the abolition of the African slave trade in 1808, the convention concentrated on working for abolition in the South. It argued that “nearly a million human beings remain in a state of abject bondage in the United States” and that “those who have been liberated . . . require the fostering care of the advocates of freedom.” The convention reiterated its goals of preventing the “inhuman practice of kidnapping,” attending to the “religious, moral and literary improvement” of free blacks, and “the gradual and final extinction of slavery in the United States.” It also revived international antislavery connections, printing a letter from Wilberforce and recommending Clarkson’s history of the abolition of the slave trade and officially thanking him for his labors. By 1812 the convention added a new society in Kentucky to its ranks and promptly issued an encouraging address to it. Founded in 1808, the Kentucky Abolition Society had only fifty members, but its contact with the PAS and the convention helped alleviate the hostility shown toward its activities.26

Abolitionists remained a dedicated minority in the early Republic even as antislavery sentiment made considerable headway in popular culture. Philip Freneau, the so-called bard of the revolution, had written a poetic condemnation of West Indian rather than southern slavery. Wheatley inspired the anonymous “Matilda,” who wrote that Phillis proved “her Country’s claim To Freedom, and her own to deathless Fame.” The well-known poet Sarah Wentworth Apthorp Morton of Boston published, under the pseudonym Philenia, “Tears of Humanity” (1791) and the popular “The African Chief” (1792), which was reprinted several times. Her “Beacon Hill” called attention to American slavery: “If mid their bloom the cultivating captive bleed!” Antislavery sentiment entered the American stage with the performance of popular British plays such as Thomas Southerne’s Oroonoko, based on Aphra Behn’s novel, and George Coleman’s Inkle and Yarico. The Philadelphia hairdresser John Murdock wrote two antislavery plays, The Triumphs of Love, or Happy Reconciliations (1795), sponsored by Rush and Tench Coxe of the PAS, and The Politicians, or A State of Things (1798).27

Abolitionists used print culture to make their case against slavery in the early American public sphere. In his widely distributed Remarks on Slavery (1806), John Parrish, a Quaker abolitionist from Maryland, addressed American citizens, especially those who held office and were slaveholders. “Enslaving our fellow-men . . . [was] a national evil” which “will . . . most assuredly draw down national judgments,” he exclaimed, and “the axe should be laid to the root of this corrupt tree.” He pointed to the growing domestic slave trade and to slaves sold “into unconditional bondage” in the “Southern Governments.” This trade, Parrish contended, equaled the African slave trade in its cruelty: black people were driven like a “herd of cattle,” jailed, kidnapped, and stowed in garrets and ships. The fugitive slave law operated to apprehend fleeing blacks and return them to southern slavery while the “fugitives for murder or theft” went free. The “immediate liberation of all slaves,” he admitted, “may be attended with some difficulty,” and he asked southerners to consider Jefferson’s plan for gradual emancipation and colonization. Instead of repatriation to Africa, Parrish, who helped several slaves gain their freedom, recommended that each black family be given two hundred acres of land in the “western wilderness.” A Quaker missionary, Parrish did not propose land for blacks at the cost of Native American nations. He had long promoted a lasting peace between Native Americans and the U.S. government. He died in 1809.28

Thomas Branagan, a former Irish slave trader, also published a plan for emancipation at this time. He counseled that steps be taken to mitigate slavery. Slaves should be educated and Christianized, hold property, be guaranteed a minimum allowance in food and clothing, have weekends off, and have their families protected; excessive punishments should be outlawed and slaveholders prosecuted for the murder of slaves. Branagan wrote an epic poem against slavery, “Avenia.” The juvenile version, “The Penitential Tyrant,” condemns British imperialism: “Their complicated villany explore / From Afric’s golden coast to India’s shore; / Their pride, rage, lust, and tyranny extend.” In “Serious Remonstrances” Branagan abandoned abolition and proposed the colonization of free blacks. Quoting Jefferson and turning on African American leaders who had supported him, he called blacks “the inveterate enemies of America” and ended with a racist diatribe against intermixture. The North should welcome hardy and laborious immigrants from Ireland and Germany rather than free blacks. He knew that such words would anger abolitionists who planned on “liberating the Africans of the South, and manufacturing them into citizens of the North.” By the 1830s he was a staunch advocate of black removal.29 Branagan proved to be an apostate to abolition.


The first abolition movement bucked the trend that defined the American Republic as a white man’s country. One of the main aims of early abolition societies was to seek “relief of free negroes” and to “improve the condition of the free black population.” Rush, whose involvement in organized abolition began in the 1790s after he freed his slave, asserted in his presidential address to the PAS that “when we have broken his chains and restored to the African his rights, the work of justice and benevolence is not done, newborn citizens must receive instruction, educate him in the highest branches of sciences and learning, prove to enemies of truth that despite the degrading influence of slavery they are in no wise inferior to the more fortunate inhabitants of Europe and America.” Abolitionist notions of racial uplift were tied to a commitment to civic equality. As Hopkins put it, “Let us consult and determine what we may do in favor of the blacks among us, especially those who are free, in protecting them from oppression and injuries, . . . and promote morality, virtue, and religion among them, and providing for the education of their children in useful learning, that they may be raised to an acknowledged equality with the white people.”30

Abolitionists’ plans for the protection and improvement of blacks included securing citizenship for them. In an address in 1789 the PAS announced that “attention to emancipated black people, it is . . . to be hoped, will become a branch of our national policy.” Its “committee for the improvement of the condition of the free negroes” consisted of twenty-four members divided into four subcommittees on inspection, guardians, education, and employment. The Committees of Inspection and Guardians intervened regularly in instances of abuse, as in the case of John Trusty, who was “cruelly beaten” by his foreman. The PAS had a warrant issued for the foreman’s arrest. It assisted black people in looking for employment and required two PAS attorneys to be present when indentures were contracted. In 1788 the NYMS had established a Committee for Preventing Irregular Conduct in Free Negroes to regulate free blacks’ behavior. But in 1796 the preamble of its revised constitution stated that “struggling with poverty against obstinate and hostile prejudices, and habituated to submission, the unhappy Africans are least able to assert their rights.”31

Abolitionists’ assistance and advice, while paternalistic, was nonetheless invaluable to a newly freed people. In 1795 the American Convention of Abolition Societies recommended that state societies work for the amelioration of restrictive laws against blacks, the education of black children, and improving the condition of free blacks. A year later, an address to “Free Africans” dispensed a few “articles of Advice . . . dictated by the purest regard for your welfare”: to attend a place of public worship, to acquire education “as early as possible,” to tend to the “instruction of your children” and teach them “useful trades,” to solicit help from friends before signing contracts, to be diligent and frugal, avoid alcohol, “dissipation, and vice,” to save their earnings, and to display “good conduct.” In 1797, adding gaming to its list of vices, it went on to voice a compliment: “We can with peculiar satisfaction inform you, that schools and places of worship have been established, and that they are well attended by people of your color.”32

Early abolitionists visualized a better position for free blacks in society than as menial laborers not fit for political equality. In its address to black Philadelphians in 1800, the PAS not only repeated the convention’s homilies but added that besides educating their children, free blacks should teach their children useful trades or make them “farmers, rather than house servants.” The reality was far different. The PAS reported that a majority of free blacks in Philadelphia were day laborers, waiters, mechanics, and seamen. The convention warned that “in vain do you liberate the African, while you neglect to furnish him with the means of properly providing for himself, and of becoming a useful member of the community.” By 1804 it changed its name to the American Convention for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery and Improving the Condition of the African Race. It looked forward to “converting” slaves into upstanding republican citizens.

Racial paternalism was not the only rationale for abolitionists’ concern with black improvement. The Delaware society’s address invoked compensation: “Let it be deeply impressed in our minds that we owe the descendants of Africa a debt of immense magnitude. We are bound by the laws of equity, by the solemn requisitions of justice to pay that debt. Can we discharge our obligations in any way so effectually as by communicating to the children of those (from the sweat of whose brow we have derived many of our external comforts) a portion of that knowledge which has been the source of our enjoyments and power?” The NYMS noted, “Nor does it become us to stigmatise or reproach the blacks, for vices which are chiefly produced by the state to which our injustice has reduced them. We ought rather to double our exertions to repair the wrongs we have inflicted on them, and remove as far as possible the evil consequences of Slavery.” Like the PAS, the NYMS encouraged the education of black children and apprenticeship of black boys under skilled master craftsmen.33

Abolitionists claimed that making free black people model citizens of the Republic would hasten the demise of racial slavery. The convention’s address to free blacks in 1804 argued, “As you are free men, we wish you to place a proper estimate on your privileges, and to act in a manner becoming your character; that, by your worthy conduct, you may destroy the prejudices which some persons entertain against you.” The convention thought abolition societies should meet with free blacks regularly to instruct them on their religious and moral duties. It stressed independence, temperance, and education and reminded them that they affected the future of those still enslaved. The New Jersey society insisted that the behavior of free blacks contrasted well “with that of the poorer class of whites” and that many exhibited “sobriety, industry, oeconomy, and uprightness, well worthy of imitation.” In 1816 the Delaware society reported its pleasure at the “state of the free black population,” especially given the hardships that the enslaved and they endured. The PAS, while exhorting African Americans to become virtuous citizens, complained that racial prejudices had not been abolished after emancipation, as whites restricted blacks to the most “menial offices.”34

Model black behavior and institutions like the black churches and schools that abolitionists admired as evidence of the success of emancipation and black achievement provoked rather than deflected racism. Many whites took umbrage at African Americans who supposedly stepped out of their place by displaying economic independence, political assertiveness, and social skills. In the context of the disfranchisement and economic plight of most free blacks, early abolitionists held progressive ideas about race and class. The fear of a large class of vagrant poor who would become public charges or the source of social disorder haunted colonial society, and poor laws had influenced emancipation policy. In New England so-called strangers were regularly warned out of colonial towns. Part of abolition societies’ concern over free black employment and education stemmed from this history and from debates in northern states during emancipation over the upkeep of freed slaves. At the same time, abolitionists imagined a racially inclusive republic composed of worthy black citizens.

The convention also sought to protect itself from charges of sedition in a post–Haitian Revolution era rife with fear of slave rebellions. The Virginia abolition societies reported to the convention that Gabriel’s conspiracy had a chilling effect on antislavery efforts and led to repressive measures against free blacks and Sunday schools operated by them. In 1801 the convention sent five thousand copies of an address to the state societies deploring the attempted rebellion but advising gradual emancipation in the South as a solution. The convention warned free blacks to be careful “in all your communications with those of your brethren who remain in slavery.” Clearly, abolitionists were worried when slaveholders and southern state governments used the pretext of rebellion to clamp down on their efforts and on free blacks. The convention asked abolition societies to consider themselves “the paternal protectors and friends of the people of colour” and acknowledged the strength of racial prejudice, calling for more antislavery publications to convert white Americans.35

Abolitionist uplift, particularly in black education, bore fruit. In 1789 a group of young Quaker men in Philadelphia formed a society for the education of black people. A “free school for the instruction of children of color of both sexes” operated since 1793 by a black woman, Eleanor Harris, received aid from the PAS. The PAS funded schools run by the local black leaders Rev. Absalom Jones and Cyrus Bustill and ran an evening school for black men as well as a Sunday school. The black abolitionist Quomony Clarkson, who probably chose his African abolitionist name, taught in the PAS schools. In 1813 the PAS’s Committee of Education formed itself into a board of education and built a school, Clarkson Hall (also named after the British abolitionist) for black boys, and it aided a school for black girls run by Elizabeth Clendinen. It also founded Sandiford Hall, named for the Quaker abolitionist, as a library and meeting place for African Americans. The PAS board of education successfully lobbied to have black public schools established by the Philadelphia Board of Education, and its Clarkson Hall became a popular venue for Clarkson associations dedicated to black education. The PAS’s educational activism continued after the war. It established the Laing school in Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina, for freed people, the school where the civil rights activist Septima Clark obtained her education. The Maryland Abolition Society took out a subscription for a school in 1792 and erected the African Academy in 1797. Five years later African Americans purchased the academy and established a Methodist church in the building. The black abolitionists Daniel Coker and William Watkins served as longtime teachers there.36

The NYMS’s African schools were among the most successful examples of cooperation between organized abolition and the independent free black communities. Since founding the African Free School in 1787, the NYMS made the “moral and intellectual improvement” of free blacks a central goal. Funded by the abolitionist John Murray, it was modeled on the Quaker Free Schools, and although initially restricted to free blacks it opened its doors to enslaved children. The NYMS established a female institute, and its schools were incorporated in 1794. Between 1799 and 1805 the black educator and activist John Teasman was appointed teacher of the African school. He successfully introduced the Lancasterian system of education, which relied on one teacher and senior students to educate others. The NYMS reported that Teasman “executes commendably the trust reposed in him” and commented favorably on the school’s progress throughout his tenure. In 1804 it reported that the school had over a hundred students. Teasman, a Republican, left the school partly because of political differences with the Federalist-dominated NYMS. Early black abolitionists, including Peter Williams Jr., William Hamilton, Henry Sipkins, and Adam Carman, were students of his. Prominent black abolitionists in antebellum New York were graduates of these schools, among them James McCune Smith, Henry Highland Garnet, Samuel Ringgold Ward, George Downing, and Alexander Crummell.37

In 1808 the NYMS itself was incorporated in order to better assist its African schools and sewing schools for female students. In 1812 it reported that the African Free School was flourishing under the administration of the British educator Charles C. Andrews, with 130 students of both sexes. The black community also employed teachers for three other schools and formed a society to start a school for black orphans. A new public school sponsored by them also drew some black children. The convention commended the black orphans’ school run by African Americans. “The best fruits of education” had begun to appear among free blacks, who revealed a “just conception of the value of education, and a provident and active concern for those who may be destitute of obtaining it.” In 1828 students of the African Free School sent several tokens of their appreciation, including antislavery poems and letters, to the convention. The twelve-year-old George Allen wrote that he and his schoolmates wished that they may “prosper in your arduous and glorious undertakings; and that all your labours may be crowned with success.” Fifteen-year-old George Moore thanked them for the “great things” they had done, and Eliver Reason prayed that the “Supreme Being” reward them “ten fold for the good you do for us.” The young Isaiah De Grasse wrote that “advocates of abolition . . . deserve the gratitude and thanks of our whole race.” A young McCune Smith was chosen to commend the visiting Marquis de Lafayette “as a friend to African Emancipation.”

Community leaders worked with the NYMS to encourage and increase enrollment in the schools despite ongoing conflicts over their administration. The schools’ curriculum in the liberal arts and vocational training was broad ranging and included the history and geography of Africa; the girls’ education was confined to basic literacy and domestic arts. Black women such as Isaiah De Grasse’s mother, Maria, and Peter Williams’s sister Mary formed the African Dorcas Association to sew clothes for needy students. In 1832, when Andrews adopted views on colonization that were unpopular with the black community, enrollment in his school dropped. A strict disciplinarian, he was taken to task for his caning of students, and ultimately the trustees replaced him with a black teacher, John Adams. By 1834, the last year they were controlled by the NYMS before being incorporated into the public school system, the seven African schools reported between fourteen and sixteen hundred students. Lacking the NYMS’s relationship to the black community, the schools saw a drop in enrollment, and under the public school system they never regained their former glory.38

Perhaps the most important work done by early abolitionists was their representation of enslaved black people in their quest for freedom and their vigorous prosecution of cases involving wrongful enslavement and kidnapping. The records of the two largest, longest-standing abolition societies, the PAS and NYMS, are replete with hundreds of instances in which abolitionists intervened on behalf of enslaved Africans in the courts and against abusive masters. Grassroots black activism sought abolitionist intervention, and black leaders acted as conduits between the enslaved and the abolition societies. Many northern slaves gained their own and their family’s freedom through purchase and running away. The NYMS and particularly the PAS also helped slaves raise funds to purchase their freedom and that of family members. The abolitionists’ assistance, too quickly dismissed by historians as merely paternalistic and insignificant, constitutes an important part of the story of the first emancipation. Committed members of the NYMS standing committee like the Quaker Jacob Mott, in whose home the committee met in the 1790s, and its lawyers, including Melancton Smith and Daniel Tompkins, intervened in cases of abuse. The committee showed remarkable humility about the limitations of its efforts, noting in 1791 that its purview extended to the city and not to the rest of the state or even the neighboring state of New Jersey, which lacked an abolition society at this time and where the PAS intervened occasionally in cases of wrongful enslavement. The committee saw African Americans as friendless and unprotected while their oppressors were powerful and strong, and the NYMS saw itself as being misunderstood and misrepresented. It nevertheless resolved to “render property in slaves precarious” and “traffic in them disreputable,” to do away with “objections raised against their manumission,” and to combat the racial prejudices of the “misinformed” as well as the “malevolent.”

The reports of the committee teem with hundreds of instances in which it intervened on behalf of slaves in cases of wrongful enslavement in the 1790s, including cases of Indian slavery. Before emancipation the NYMS successfully prevented slaveholders from incarcerating their recalcitrant slaves in city prisons like Bridewell. Alexander Rhodes won his freedom on the claim that his master intended to free him. Rosanna Cook sought the help of the NYMS against her master. Her husband, William Cook, had paid for her freedom, but as he was at sea she was kept enslaved. The NYMS also took up several cases of brutality, indicting one Amos Broad and his wife for “inhuman and barbarous treatment of their slaves” and intervening in the case of a fourteen-year-old girl confined to the hospital for “severe laceration.” The committee kept meticulous records of cases it adjudicated, noting where they had been successful or unsuccessful in gaining the freedom of the claimants in “discharged” cases. It took several cases of “unlawful slavery” per month. In 1808 it reported that the situation of enslaved children called for intervention because unprincipled masters did not register their birth dates and retained them in servitude long after they had reached the legal age of freedom.

While the number of local cases of wrongful enslavement dwindled, the committee continued to prosecute cases of slaves from far-off places like Jamaica, Saint-Domingue, Nova Scotia, Madeira, and even Calcutta. Complicated jurisdictional issues allowed some, like the Haitian refugee and widow Volunbrun, to move from New York to Baltimore with her slaves despite the efforts of the NYMS and free blacks. In Maryland the abolitionist Daniel Raymond prosecuted the case, but the widow sold the slaves to New Orleans. Cases of the kidnapping of free blacks into southern slavery, especially after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, were also prosecuted by the NYMS. By 1815 the committee noted that while acts of kidnapping had become rare and its caseload was dropping dramatically, the “spirit of oppression” still prevailed. In its heyday the NYMS helped to attain the freedom of hundreds and to enforce state laws against slavery and the slave trade. Teasman, who had a falling out with the society, had only praise for “the ingenious and heroic exploits of the standing Committee of the Manumission Society in the diminution of slavery and oppression” and in maintaining the African schools.39

Even more impressive than the activities of the NYMS in securing black freedom were those of the PAS. The PAS, which had over two thousand members in the early nineteenth century, intervened and represented thousands of enslaved black people not just in Pennsylvania but also in bordering slave states where folks sought its assistance. The PAS Acting Committee, like the NYMS Standing Committee, dedicated itself to fighting cases of wrongful enslavement and the kidnapping of free black people. The most active were a “lawyerly” cadre consisting of such famous legal minds as William Rawle and also the activist lawyers Thomas Shipley, Thomas Earle, and David Paul Brown, who prosecuted cases of wrongful enslavement, and activists like the Quaker abolitionist Isaac T. Hopper, whose annals of fighting for black freedom became a staple of the Garrisonian National Anti-Slavery Standard. Shipley, Earle, Brown, and Hopper lived long enough to join the second wave of abolitionism. Black activism undergirded the PAS’s legal strategies. Fugitive slaves as well as free blacks and term slaves secured the services of PAS lawyers through the city’s activist black clergy. Hundreds of slaves from surrounding slave states sought Shipley’s and Hopper’s assistance to buy their freedom and have their freedom recognized in the eyes of the law.40

The abolition societies, except for the PAS in its later years, did not have black members, although their constitutions did not contain any specific prohibition. This de facto exclusion distinguishes them from antebellum interracial abolitionism, but African Americans bridged the gap between the two waves of abolition. A graduate of the African School and one of the first ordained black priests of St. Philips’s Episcopalian church, Peter Williams Jr. became a member of the Garrisonian American Anti-Slavery Society (AASS) and a mentor to McCune Smith. In 1806 Williams wrote an unsolicited letter to the convention acknowledging its “indefatigable zeal” on behalf of “the African race.” He commended the “humane men, of different denominations” who “saw, and sympathized in our sorrows, and rising above the mean prejudices imbibed against us, united their efforts in order to rescue from slavery and misery the unfortunate sons of Africa.” Abolitionists “fly to our assistance” when blacks were threatened by kidnappers and make sure that “equal justice is distributed to the black and white.” He lauded their efforts to “elevate us to a state of respectability” and erect “schools to enlighten our minds.” He thanked “ye philanthropic men for espousing the cause of an injured, an oppressed, and a despised race.”41

Contemporary black leaders bore testimony to how important early abolitionism had been in securing black freedom and education. Jones wrote to Sharp thanking him not only for his donation to his church but also for his long “labours of love to our afflicted nation. You were our advocate when we had but few friends on the other side of the water.” Olaudah Equiano thanked the Quakers after visiting their “free-school” for blacks in Philadelphia, “with our inmost love and warmest acknowledgements; and with the deepest sense of your benevolence, unwearied labour, and kind interposition, towards breaking the yoke of slavery, and to administer a little comfort and ease to thousands and tens of thousands of very grievously afflicted and too heavy burthened negroes.” Richard Allen, the founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, wrote a paean to abolitionists, “A Short Address to the Friends of Him Who Hath no Helper.” In his view, abolitionists had not only worked for black freedom and uplift but also were “not ashamed to call the most abject of our race brethren.” Allen compared abolitionists and slaveholders in his sermon on charity, a life devoted to the poor and needy over against one that was devoted “to the pomps and vanities of this wicked world, or the gratification of the sinful lusts of the flesh.” William Hamilton praised the NYMS for “planning the means of the emancipation of large numbers of the enslaved” and for establishing a “seminary of learning.” For that, free blacks owed it their “highest tribute of gratitude.”

Orations on the end of the slave trade by black abolitionists celebrated the Anglo-American abolition movement. According to Jones, “Abolition societies and individuals” as well as God “came down to deliver our suffering countrymen from the hands of their oppressors.” Williams dedicated his oration to “the different societies for the abolition of slavery” for “their assiduous, energetic, and benevolent exertions, in the cause of injured humanity.” African Americans painstakingly mentioned and honored a long list of abolitionists starting with early Quaker abolitionists such as Lay, Sandiford, Woolman, Benezet, Dillwyn, and Rush and including British and French abolitionists like Sharp, Clarkson, Wilberforce, and the Abbé Grégoire.42

In heaping praise on abolitionists, these accomplished black men were hardly belittling their own efforts. Nor did they view themselves only as objects of white benevolence. They purposefully bestowed recognition on those who had fought for black liberty as worthy allies. In New York several black societies and organizations were named in honor of abolitionists, among them the African Clarkson Society, the Wilberforce Philanthropic Society, and the Brooklyn African Woolman Benevolent Society, a testament to the antislavery consciousness of the free black community. Similarly, many of Philadelphia’s black societies were named after Benezet and Rush. African Americans recognized pioneering black antislavery voices as well, naming their literary and fraternal organizations after Benjamin Banneker, Allen, and Wheatley. Jeremiah Gloucester reflected this comingling of abolitionist and black identities when he referred to his audience as members “of the Angolian society, and not only as members of the Angolian, but as the sons of Africa, and not only the sons of Africa . . . but as the Rush Beneficial, and not only as the Rush Beneficial, but as the Granville Harmony, Benezet Philanthropic, Wilberforce, Farmers, Mechanics, Warner Mifflin, and as the Union Sons of Africa, and not only as members of the different societies, but as fathers, as men.”43

The activities of abolitionist societies in turn were shaped by their connections to the black community. The Quaker abolitionist Elisha Tyson, a founding member of the MAS and an advocate of Indian rights, not only helped erect black schools and churches but also continued to fight for black freedom in Baltimore’s streets and courts well into the nineteenth century. His death was mourned by the black community and in his native Philadelphia at Allen’s church, where he was lauded as “a very influential and efficient friend of the people of color, known for his many acts of humanity and hospitality for upwards of forty years.” The Baltimore cabinetmaker John Needles, the brother of the Philadelphia abolitionist Edward Needles, sent furniture wrapped in antislavery literature to the South and ran a black school taught by an African American woman, Prudence Gardiner. American abolitionists also publicized voices of black protest. Parrish’s pamphlet contained an appendix with African American petitions to Congress and James Forten’s letter to Congressman George Thatcher of Massachusetts commending his defense of black petitioners. He also reprinted notices of runaway slaves, revealing how slave resistance inspired abolitionists.

Black abolitionists commemorated those who had formed enduring legal and political alliances with free black communities. On Shipley’s death, a “numerous and respectable meeting of the people of colour” asked Robert Purvis, the only black member of the PAS, to deliver a eulogy of him, “whose unwearied exertions have contributed much to the melioration of the long neglected condition of our people.” Shipley, they noted, had “devoted his talents, a great amount of time, and no small share of his pecuniary means” to the freedom of black people. Thousands of blacks attended his funeral in Philadelphia, and Purvis in his tribute praised Shipley for standing as a “vigilant watchman” over the emancipation laws of the state. In 1841 Purvis paid similar tribute to Brown, who went on to head the Pennsylvania Anti Slavery Society, presenting him with an engraved silver pitcher on behalf of the black community for “advocating . . . the liberties of the oppressed in this country.” On Rush’s death, “Africans . . . solicited leave to walk to the grave before his body, hung their pulpits in mourning, and delivered their unlettered and affectionate eulogiums to his memory.” This racist and condescending observer remarked on the esteem in which Philadelphia’s free black community held him. In his tribute to Mifflin, Allen pointed out that his “labors and anxiety were great for the freedom of our race; who for many years devoted his time to that service, and who has been instrumental in the hands of God, in liberating hundreds, if not thousands of the African race.” Allen also praised “the most worthy and benevolent character of Dr. Benjamin Rush,” who had assisted the independent black churches.44 Despite its exclusive nature, first-wave abolitionism forged strong connections with free black communities.


Black abolitionism in Britain came of age in the 1780s with the rise of the movement to abolish the slave trade. Afro-British writers followed in the footsteps of early black thinkers in adopting the “trope of the talking book.” They gave birth to a radical tradition of black abolitionism that not only appealed to Western political and religious values but also subjected them to criticism. Their “mastery of form” attempted the “deformation of mastery,” to use an argument applied to a later generation of African American writers.45

The preacher John Marrant exposed white Christian practice in his narrative of conversion and Indian captivity published in London in 1785. Marrant was converted by Whitefield and, before returning to his family in Charleston, South Carolina, spent three years with the Cherokees and Creeks, who he says “recollect that the white people drove them from the American shores.” He describes his narrow escape from execution and his success at converting his captors to Christianity. On his return Marrant faces Christian slaveholders who torture their slaves for praying with him: “Men, women, and children were strip’d naked and tied, their feet to a stake, their hands to the arm of a tree, and so severely flogg’d that the blood ran from their backs and sides to the floor, to make them promise they would leave off praying, &c. though several of them fainted away with the pain and loss of blood, and lay upon the ground as dead for a considerable time after they were untied.” In an adept role reversal, Marrant shows how Christianity redeems Indians’ supposed savagery, and slavery converts nominal Christians into savages. Christian universalism was Marrant’s response to modern racism designed to justify the enslavement and conquest of non-Europeans. Patronized by the Countess Huntingdon and ordained in her chapel, Marrant became a Methodist preacher to black loyalists in Nova Scotia and traveled between Canada, England, and the United States, where he developed close ties with the black Masonic leader Prince Hall. An advocate of the black exodus from Nova Scotia to Sierra Leone, he died in England in 1791.46

Unlike the little-known Marrant, the Afro-British writer Ignatius Sancho was touted on both sides of the Atlantic as proof of blacks’ ability. Clarkson referred to his letters in his prize-winning essay. Jefferson dismissed the letters as “wild and extravagant,” escaping “every restraint of reason and taste,” and as “incoherent and eccentric.” In case others judged his letters favorably, Jefferson concluded that it could not be proven whether Sancho was their sole author or had “received amendment” from others. Born during the Middle Passage, Sancho lived a life that personified that of an Atlantic Creole. His owner took him from Spanish New Granada, where he was baptized Ignatius by a Catholic priest, to England and gave him to three spinster sisters who added Sancho, after Miguel de Cervantes’s Sancho Panza, to his name. Sancho attracted the attention of their powerful neighbor, the Duke of Montagu, known, like the Countess of Huntingdon, to be a patron of blacks. Sancho acquired an education under Montagu and after his patron’s death was employed as a butler by his widow and son-in-law. The latter set Sancho up as a grocer when he was unable to continue as his valet owing to ill health. Sancho composed music and published two plays and a book, Theory of Music, lost to history. He died in 1780, and the letters he wrote in the 1760s and 1770s were published in 1782. His widow received over five hundred pounds from the approximately one thousand subscribers of his letters, which were so successful that they were republished in subsequent editions by his son.47

The abolitionist tone of Sancho’s letters is significant. He admonishes Julius Soubise, a West Indian slave and a notorious rake, “Look around upon the miserable fate of almost all of our unfortunate colour—superadded to ignorance,—see slavery, and the contempt of those very wretches who rol in affluence from our labours superadded to this woeful catalogue—hear the ill-bred and heart-wracking abuse of the foolish vulgar.” Sancho urges Laurence Sterne, the author of Tristram Shandy, to write on slavery, as “the subject, handled in your striking manner, would ease the yoke (perhaps) of many.” In his letter to the abolitionist Jabez Fisher of Philadelphia, Sancho praises the Quakers and Benezet, “the friendly Author—as a being far superior to any great name upon your continent,” whose writings on the “unchristian and most diabolical usage of my brother Negroes” and “the illegality—the horrid wickedness of the traffic—the cruel carnage and depopulation of the human species” Fisher had sent him. Referring to Wheatley as “genius in bondage,” he judged that her poetry does “credit to nature” and does not reflect “the generosity of her master,” who “glories in the low vanity of having in his wanton power a mind animated by Heaven.”

Sancho writes that while he is grateful for the freedom and blessings he enjoys in Britain, its “conduct has been uniformly wicked in the East—West-Indies—and even on the cost of Guinea.—The grand object of English navigators—indeed of all Christian navigators—is money—money—money.” He condemns “the Christians’ abominable traffic for slaves” that “sours my blood.” Sancho calls himself Africanus and states tersely, “I am not sorry I was born in Afric.” His satirical references to himself as “a poor Blacky grocer,” “a coal-black, jolly African,” and “a poor, thick-lipped son of Afric!” expose British racism. Despite his criticism of Christian practice, Sancho expressed faith in the capacity of Christianity to overcome racism. Christ, he writes, “died for the sins of all—all—Jew, Turk, Infidel, and Heretic;—fair—sallow—brown—tawney—black—and you—and I—and every son and daughter of Adam.”48

More than Sancho, Ottobah Cugoano deserves pride of place for publishing the first black abolitionist pamphlet, its title reminiscent of Clarkson’s essay: Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil and Wicked Traffic of the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species in 1787. A French translation of Cugoano’s pamphlet was published the next year and an abridged version of it in 1791. In a short autobiographical note Cugoano explained that he was kidnapped and sold into slavery in Africa at the age of thirteen, enslaved in Grenada, and then was slave to one Alexander Campbell in the West Indies, who brought him to Britain in 1772. Cugoano was baptized John Stuart. On becoming free, he reverted to his African name and expressed a desire to emigrate to Sierra Leone and found a school. He died shortly after publishing his pamphlet. Cugoano, who may have published his pamphlet under the auspices of SEAST, quoted Sharp, Ramsay, Clarkson, and Benezet. In the second edition he mentioned Wilberforce as well as Lord Mansfield and Counsellor Hargrave (the lawyer for James Somerset).

Cugoano, though, did not simply replicate the premises of Anglo-American abolitionism but created a peculiar vantage, that of a black abolitionist. His collaboration with Equiano and other like-minded blacks in London led to the formation of a self-styled black abolitionist group of around seven to nine men, Sons of Africa, the name first used by Massachusetts slaves during the revolution. These men wrote letters to British abolitionists, and they must have met occasionally. Like their counterparts in America, free blacks in Britain named their societies and called themselves African as a mark of racial solidarity and of a new composite African identity. No longer claiming specific nationalities and ethnicities, they had become African in the Atlantic world. The Sons of Africa was a common moniker for early black abolitionists. The second edition of Cugoano’s pamphlet was addressed to the Sons of Africa from “a Native.”49

Not since Lay had any abolitionist excoriated slaveholders in the manner that Cugoano does. He called “the great and opulent banditti of slaveholders in the western part of the world” robbers and kidnappers. Cugoano acknowledged that he was using “harsh words and comparisons” to describe their “enormous wickedness and brutal avarice” and “atrocious crimes.” Slaveholders were a “bramble of ruffians, barbarians . . . grown up to a powerful luxuriance in wickedness,” and they were “at the head” of all “oppression and crimes.” After describing the details of his own capture and incarceration during the Middle Passage, he refuted the proslavery argument of James Tobin, a West India planter. The condition of the African slave, he argued, was much worse than that of a poor Englishman, who, he observed, would not exchange his position with that of the slave. Cugoano admitted that Africans were involved in the slave trade and that slavery existed in Africa for criminals, debtors, and prisoners of war. But Africans had been further corrupted and vitiated “by their intercourse with Europeans” and could ill conceive the horrors of racial slavery in the Americas. He scorned the racism of Hume and reversed the racial argument for slavery, referring to the “inhuman, barbarous European” and the “poor, unfortunate Black Africans.” Cugoano drew a parallel between Africans and the enslaved children of Israel, as the chosen people of God, and warned that Europeans would be subject to judgment.50

If Cugoano’s is the most uncompromising voice of eighteenth-century black abolitionism, Equiano’s narrative of capture, enslavement, and freedom is the first abolitionist slave narrative, a prototype for the well-known nineteenth-century slave narratives. Equiano, too, uses his African name even though he was known by his given name in slavery, Gustavus Vassa. The literary scholar Vincent Carretta has raised the possibility that Equiano was not born in Africa, as he claimed. The evidence he has uncovered, a baptism record and the records of the Royal Navy, state that Equiano was born in South Carolina, but the places of birth of enslaved Africans were often misreported or assumed from their last known destination by persons doing the recording. The identity of displaced Africans was highly malleable and subject to arbitrary categorization by European authorities. Carretta’s evidence, in short, is not definitive.51

Though it resembles travel and conversion narratives, Equiano’s autobiography is primarily an abolitionist text sprinkled with observations on the injustice and absurdity of slavery and racism. The only substantial account of the trade from the perspective of enslaved Africans, it occupies a central place in the abolitionist literary canon. Published in 1789, it was reviewed widely (and favorably by Mary Wollstonecraft), published in nine editions, and translated into Dutch, German, French, and Russian. It gave Equiano a measure of financial security and some international renown. Its subscribers included Sharp, Ramsay, Clarkson, the Countess of Huntingdon, the Duke of Montagu, Cugoano, and Sancho’s son. Wesley apparently read it on his deathbed. After the publication of his narrative, Equiano undertook a book tour of the British Isles. In 1791 antislavery Quakers and some New York City artisans active in revolutionary republican politics sponsored its publication in the United States. In 1827 the first black abolitionist newspaper, Freedom’s Journal, cited Equiano’s narrative as an early refutation of black intellectual inferiority, and ten years later Garrison and Isaac Knapp republished it in Boston. If early print culture represented “technologies of power” to non-Europeans, writers like Equiano used it as an instrument of black liberation.52

Equiano joined the abolition movement. He had approached Sharp for help in preventing John Annis from being shipped back to West Indian slavery and had alerted him to the infamous Zong case, in which the crew of a slaver threw more than 130 Africans overboard and drowned them to claim insurance. As the presiding judge, Lord Mansfield overturned the insurance claim, but the captain and crew were not tried for mass murder, as Sharp and Equiano wanted them to be. In 1785 Equiano presented an address of thanks to the Society of Friends on behalf of “those captivated, oppressed and afflicted people.” A similar address in 1787 by the Sons of Africa to Sharp, signed also by Cugoano and four other Africans, thanked him for his “long, valuable and indefatigable labours and benevolence towards using every means to rescue our suffering brethren in slavery.” Equiano published appeals to Parliament and letters in London newspapers commending abolitionists. He led a black delegation to the House of Commons and was received by Pitt and Dolben among others. Equiano defended Ramsay from his critics and entered into debate with such proslavery authors as Tobin, Gordon Trumbull, and Rev. Raymond Harris, who argued that the Bible sanctioned the slave trade. To kidnap Africans and keep them in “perpetual servitude” simply because they “differ in complexion” was, he warranted, unchristian and “a crime as unjustifiable as cruel.” In a letter to William Dickson, a former private secretary to the governor of Barbados, Equiano and eight other Sons of Africa, including Cugoano, praised his “Letters on Slavery” as convincing to everyone “except the Oran Otang philosophers,” indicting racists with their own fantastic theories.53

Equiano’s narrative was central to his abolitionist activism. After describing his idyllic childhood in the kingdom of Benin among the Ibo and his kidnapping and separation from his sister, Equiano wrote about his terror in viewing a slave ship on the coast in which “a multitude of black people of every description” were “chained together.” Describing his first reaction to Europeans, Equiano writes that he was in a world of “bad spirits” and fears being eaten by “white men with horrible looks, red faces, and long hair.” Equiano presents an alternative to European stories of cannibalism and instead calls attention to the cannibalistic nature of the slave trade that figuratively consumed thousands of Africans. His classic description of the Middle Passage, the suffocating, disease-ridden holds of a slaver packed with Africans, is a literary equivalent of the Brooksillustration. As a slave aboard a British naval ship, Equiano recounts his sense of displacement when he wishes that his skin was the same color as that of a white playmate. On being taught the Bible, whose stories reminded him of the “laws and rules of my country” and “tended to impress our manners and customs more deeply in my memory,” he adopts a new identity as a “black Christian.”

Equiano’s impressions of plantation slavery stress the barbarity of slaveholders. He describes a “black woman slave” whose mouth was fitted with an “iron muzzle” so that she “could scarcely speak.” He drew attention to the sexual abuse of slave women and dwelt on slaves who had pieces of their flesh cut off and were tortured with lighted wax, iron hooks, and thumbscrews, locked in coffin-like wooden boxes, beaten till their bones were broken, and sold apart from their families. He ends this catalogue of horrors with an appeal for better treatment of slaves. Slavery, he concludes, is unchristian because it gave “one man a dominion over his fellows which God could never intend!” Equiano expresses a strong sense of kinship with cargoes of “poor oppressed natives of Africa” taken on board the ship he was serving and in a plantation on the Mosquito coast where he was an overseer. He notes as well the pious nature of the “unenlightened Indians” in contrast to the savagery of Christian slaveholders. His assessment of places is determined by the geography of plantation slavery. He is abused and mistreated in Georgia and South Carolina and writes fondly of Philadelphia. But even here, Equiano commented, free blacks “live in constant alarm for their liberty, which is but nominal.” Despite his strong Christianity, Equiano writes approvingly of the continuance of African practices, rituals, and funeral traditions in places with large slave populations like Jamaica.

The turning point in Equiano’s narrative is his purchase of his freedom. He writes, “Heavens! Who could do justice to my feelings at this moment? . . . My feet scarcely touched the ground for they were winged with joy.” His happiness, he wrote, exceeded that of conquering heroes, the recovery of an infant by its mother, the sight of a port for a “weary hungry mariner,” and the reunion of lovers. Even though Equiano uses biblical analogies, he celebrates his transformation upon emancipation from a “slave in the morning, trembling at the will of another, now . . . my own master, and completely free.” He reproduced his instrument of manumission to illustrate the dominion one man has over another in slavery. In a reversal of the conversion narrative, Equiano wrote that he had now reverted to his “original free African state.”54

Equiano also put the demise of slavery and black rights on the abolitionist agenda. In a petition that he presented to the queen “on behalf of my African brethren” in 1788, he wrote, “I supplicate your Majesty’s compassion for millions of my African countrymen, who groan under the lash of West Indian tyranny.” He implored the queen’s “interposition with your royal consort, in favor of the wretched Africans; that, by your Majesty’s benevolent influence, a period now be put to their misery; and that they may be raised from the condition of brutes, to which they are at present degraded, to the rights and situation of men, and be admitted to partake of the blessings of your Majesty’s happy government.” He signed the petition, “The oppressed Ethiopian.” His deferential tone notwithstanding, Equiano was no monarchist. He joined the London Corresponding Committee when it was decidedly dangerous to do so and was befriended by Hardy, in whose home he revised his narrative. He died in 1797, three years after his English wife, Susanna. Equiano’s narratives made enough money for him to leave a substantial bequest to his daughter. His will stipulated that if she did not survive him his estate should be divided among missionaries and a school in Sierra Leone.55

The first wave of Anglo-American abolition was not, as is commonly thought, an all-white movement. Black testimony was foundational to its cause. Abolitionists of African descent gave the British anti–slave trade movement authenticity, that is, its ability to speak for millions of enslaved Africans in the Western world. Black abolitionism would flourish in the American Republic, where free black communities and a large enslaved population provided it with a broad social base and institutional autonomy.

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