The founders of the first black churches, Absalom Jones and Richard Allen, led a walkout at St. George’s Methodist Church in Philadelphia in 1792. They had dared to pray in the front pews reserved for whites rather than in the segregated gallery constructed for black worshippers. Zealous church authorities had interrupted their prayers and forced them to rise to their feet. As the story goes, this unseemly incident was the impetus for the founding of the African Episcopal Church by Jones and the Methodist Mother Bethel Church by Allen. Jones and Allen had long contemplated establishing a separate black church, and the unchristian behavior of white Methodists bolstered their case for religious independence. In 1805 Rev. Thomas Paul, an ordained Baptist minister from New Hampshire, staged a similar walkout in Boston, leading to the formation of the African Baptist Church.1

The institution-building efforts of newly free northern communities laid the social foundation of black abolitionism. African Americans were quick to ally with antislavery organizations but also developed an independent, community-based abolitionism. They gave birth to an autonomous tradition of activism and an alternative discourse of abolition. The early black public sphere, or “counterpublic,” fostered a skeptical view of the slaveholding Republic.2

Black abolitionists laid the foundations of a two-pronged antislavery strategy that emphasized racial solidarity and used a highly critical public voice against the persistence of enslavement and discrimination. The free as well as the enslaved voiced their denunciation of slavery in letters, pamphlets, poems, hymns, slave narratives, eulogies, sermons, and orations. They emerged as the most uncompromising voice for abolition and black rights. As quintessential outsiders, they questioned the very foundations of the early American Republic. Black abolitionists were not so much black founders as the founding critics of the country.3


The organizational impulse for black abolitionism emerged among free communities, which gave birth to independent religious and social institutions. The founding generation of black abolitionists, most of whom had experienced slavery and were just a generation or two removed from Africa, forged a distinct identity, acquiring new names and naming many of their societies, churches, and schools African. While their enslaved predecessors had refashioned African rituals in the Negro Election Day in New England and the Pinkster festivals in New York, parading and carnivals in most black communities gradually gave way to institutional organization. This was not just black leaders’ aspiring to middle-class respectability but the growing political sophistication of newly free communities. Black civil society was an autonomous social space that grew for the most part outside of and without state sanction. Prominent exceptions were the African Methodist Episcopal Church and the New York African Society for Mutual Relief, which received charters of incorporation.4 For the most part, black institutions bred community autonomy and independent abolitionism.

The first such institution, the Free African Union Society, was founded in the home of Abraham Casey in Newport in 1780. Composed mostly of free black men, it was led by Anthony Taylor, Ceasar Lyndon, Newport Gardner, and Salmar Nubia. The society suffered from a serious shortage of funds when even officeholders like Nubia were unable to pay their membership dues. It frequently bought lottery tickets in hopes of raising money. Hardly expressions of bourgeois respectability, these societies struggled hard just to survive. The society’s surviving records from 1787 disclose that its members advocated a Back to Africa program and functioned as a prayer meeting. They regularly invited Hopkins to preach and expressed an “earnest desire of returning to Affrica and settling there.” The society proposed to send “a number of Men from among Ourselves,” who would return with information for others to migrate with their families. Gaining a “proper and good title” to African lands rather than missionary work was its goal and only “want of Money” prevented implementation. Gardner, who led the society, was born in Africa and was self-educated and an accomplished musician. His African name was Occramar Marycoo. He bought his freedom and was involved in a number of community uplift efforts. In 1826, at the age of eighty, Gardner along with Nubia migrated to Liberia, where both died of yellow fever.5

A Pan-African vision undergirded the society. It was organized to “consider what good can be done for our good and the good of all Affricans.” To remedy the “wretched state of many hundreds of thousands of our brethren who are in abject slavery” and “the Nations of Affrica, from whom we spring . . . many of them so foolish and wicked as to sell one another into slavery,” it ambitiously proposed redeeming both Africans in America and Africa. In 1791, true to its abolitionist calling, the society excluded from membership those Africans who had in any way been involved in enslaving other Africans. It was also staunchly independent. William Thornton, the Quaker planter from the Virgin Islands who proposed to emancipate and settle his slaves in Sierra Leone and got seventy members of the society to sign on, reported, “The Blacks in this Country cannot be expected to form a colony for any European power.” Black Bostonians led by Prince Hall also tried to solicit the legislature to finance Back to Africa voyages. Thornton met with African Americans in Boston, Newport, and Philadelphia, but most were wary of letting him control any emigration project. Later, Thornton suggested purchasing Puerto Rico and settling freed slaves there, and, unlike most free blacks, he supported the formation of the American Colonization Society.6

The African societies created a network of activism among northern black communities. In 1789 Bristol Yamma, one of Hopkins’s protégés, helped found the Providence African Society to implement the Newport society’s “Grand Proposals” and gave a well-received address before it. The two societies corresponded with Hall and William Allen in New York and sent the Newport society’s constitution to the Free African Society of Philadelphia via the latter’s emissary, Henry Stewart. In 1794 the Providence society proposed sending a representative (“a man of our own complexion, one whome we may depend upon”) along with one from Boston and another from Philadelphia to explore migration to Sierra Leone. The Newport society backed the plan but also planned to send its own representative, Gardner. This plan fell through because of a lack of funds, even though the society petitioned the Rhode Island legislature and appealed to the abolition societies for help. The Providence society managed to send James McKenzie to Sierra Leone in 1795, but its plan for mass migration never got off the ground. The Newport society praised abolitionists like Hopkins, who supported Back to Africa efforts, calling them “sincere friends.” The Philadelphia society concurred and looked forward to the day when “captivity shall cease, and buying and selling mankind have an end.”7

In the late 1790s the Newport society renamed itself the African Humane Society and began taking on community functions, ensuring proper funerals for its members (an important rite of passage in West African cultures), registering births, deaths, and marriages, building independent places of worship, and founding black schools. In 1807 it became the African Benevolent Society (ABS), whose main purpose was to establish and run a black school. In his oration before the society on the closing of the slave trade, Rev. William Patten called for donations and hoped that the society’s efforts would be “crowned with great success.” Appended to his speech was a constitution of the society that restricted its membership to people of color who paid fifty cents to subscribe to its constitution. The society met annually. Initially, membership in the ABS was open to men and women, but by 1809 a separate African Female Benevolent Society assisted its efforts. At least three African free schools—one run by Mary Davis and the female benevolent society, one by Gardner in his home, and the other by Arthur Flagg, the president of the ABS—were founded at this time. Black education and racial uplift rather than emigration occupied the energies of these two descendants of the original Newport society. The directors of the ABS complimented their members for raising “the next generation out of that state of ignorance and depression.” Similarly, the African Union Meeting and School House, the successor of the Providence society, made education its priority, rejecting “the stale imputation of inferiority in mental capacities.” Housed on land donated by Moses Brown, the society rendered him “the sincere thanks of all coloured people, for this, and every other instance of his generosity toward them.” Black teachers and preachers such as Rev. John Ormsbee and Asa Cruger Goldsbury ran the school.8

Black Bostonians shared the emigrationism and uplift strategies of the Rhode Island societies. The first independent black organization in Boston was a brotherhood of fifteen black Masons initiated by an Irish Military Lodge in 1775. Two years later it received permission to meet and parade with St. John’s Provincial Grand Lodge. Led by Hall, African Lodge No. 459 received its charter from London in 1787. Uncertainty surrounds Hall’s place and date of birth. A former enslaved leatherworker, Prince and his son, Primus Hall, served during the Revolutionary War and offered the services of the African Lodge to put down Shays’s Rebellion in 1786. Though Hall owned property, he died in poverty in 1807. By that time black Masonry, or Prince Hall lodges, had spread to Newport, Philadelphia, Providence, and New York. As early as the 1730s African Americans in New York had attempted to found a black Masonic lodge, and black Freemasonry in the Caribbean predated the Prince Hall lodge. The fraternal rituals of Masonry resembled those of West African secret societies. In the hands of people of African descent they became “rituals of race.” In 1782, when a Boston newspaper poked fun at them, calling them “St. Blacks Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons,” Hall responded that their name was African. They did not “aspire after high titles” and advocated only “love to God and universal love to all mankind.”9

Under Hall’s leadership, black Masonry became a venue for antislavery uplift and emigrationist sentiment. Slaves in Massachusetts had requested repatriation to Africa in their very first petition to the General Court in 1773. Hall, who had signed the freedom petition of 1777, wrote another emigration petition in 1787 that was signed by seventy-three black men. It posited Africa as a land of freedom and the United States as the country of slavery, where even free blacks had to deal with “very disagreeable disadvantageous circumstances.” It proposed forming a “civil society, united by a political constitution” to implement its plan. In another petition sent the same year, Hall asked the state to provide “for the education of colored people.” Though they were taxed for the support of schools, Hall pointed out, African Americans received no benefit from “the free schools of Boston.” In 1788 he submitted yet another petition to the assembly signed by twenty others. It drew attention to the kidnapping of three seamen from Boston and a number of others from Salem into slavery. It also protested the conduct of the African slave trade from Boston and asked the legislature to rectify “our weighty grievances.” An earlier Quaker petition against slave trading and another against kidnapping by the Boston clergy, combined with Hall’s petition, moved the General Court to pass a law banning the African slave trade before the national prohibition and to punish the kidnapping of free blacks.10

Hall elicited John Marrant, a Back to Africa proponent like himself, to become the chaplain of his African Lodge in 1789. That year Marrant delivered a sermon to black Masons, reminding them of the biblical history of “Africans who were truly good, wise, and learned men, as eloquent as any nation whatever, though at present many of them [are] in slavery, which is not a just cause of our being despised.” Marrant and Hall shared a Christian “Ethiopianism” that recalled the ancient Christianity of Ethiopia and refuted the view of Africa as the land of heathen darkness. Marrant held up Masonic lodges of “different nations and different colors” as an example of universal Christian brotherhood that challenged racism. Black Masons were under a double obligation to “relieve the needy, support the weak, mourn with your fellow man in distress.” Their primary duty, according to him, was to the slaves.11

Despite Hall’s activism, this pioneering black abolitionist has been historically neglected. Jeremy Belknap referred to him as the “Primus Interpares of the blacks in this town.” His two charges to the African Lodge best illustrate the nature of early black abolitionism. The charge of 1792 was a Christian indictment of racism and a rallying cry for human brotherhood. Hall argued that God demanded that all assist their “fellow men in distress let them be of what color or nation.” The “great Architect” had said that “Aethiopia shall stretch forth her hands unto me” and “he that despises a black man for the sake of his colour, reproacheth his Maker.” Hall’s charge of 1797 was an indictment of the slaveholding Republic. Hall recalled how Africans had been “dragg’d from their native country by the iron hand of tyranny and oppression . . . to a strange land . . . and there to bear the iron yoke of slavery & cruelty till death as a friend shall relieve them.” He alluded to the “bloody wars” that had destroyed Native Americans and asked his listeners to “sympathize with them in their troubles, and mingle a tear of sorrow with them.” Africans and Indians must weep together. Free blacks had to bear “daily insults” and were “shamefully abus’d” in America. The “great gun” or “glittering . . . swords” had led “African kings and princes . . . into bloody wars” that plunged “millions of their fellow countrymen into slavery and cruel bondage.” Hall called instead for African unity and invoked the example of the Haitian Revolution.12

Besides Masonic lodges, black Bostonians organized African societies, schools, and churches. In 1796 they founded a mutual benefit African society to visit the sick and care for members’ widows and children. The society published an essay on freedom entitled “The Sons of Africans,” evoking the title of black abolitionist organizations in Massachusetts and Britain. Written by an anonymous member, the essay countered the racialist idea that Africans were descendants of Ham by reasoning that Cain’s envy and pride were actually the malicious spirit of slavery, which “hath ever a tendency to spread ignorance, darkness, poverty and distress in the world.” In 1805 Reverend Paul and Scipio Dalton, a Mason, founded the African Baptist Church in Boston. It allowed white Baptists to become members. From 1806 until his resignation in 1829 Paul was the pastor of the African church and a mentor to abolitionists. In the antebellum period the African Baptist Church was wracked with dissension, but its successors, such as the Twelfth Baptist Church, remained important sites of antislavery activism.

The African school was housed in the Baptist church. Primus Hall ran a school at his home until 1803, when it moved to a carpenter’s shop on Belknap Street. The Revolutionary War veteran “Colonel” George Middleton of the Bucks of America and a member of the African society were employed as teachers. Sixty-seven members of the African society had signed Hall’s petition of 1800 for a school. In 1808 the school moved to the basement of the Baptist church, also known as the African Meeting House, on the same street. Primus Hall, Abel Barbadoes, probably the father of the black abolitionist James Barbadoes, and Cyrus Vassell plastered its classroom. Black abolitionists like Prince Saunders and John Russwurm taught in the school.13

African American societies and churches in Philadelphia and New York also gave birth to abolitionist activism. Philadelphia, with its large free black population and as the center of Quaker abolitionism, produced a vigorous tradition of black abolitionism. In 1787 Jones and Allen, ministers and former slaves from Delaware, founded the city’s Free African Society. It met at the home of Allen and then at Sarah Dougherdy’s, indicating that it had female members. The leadership, though, remained firmly in male hands. Its leading members were Allen, Jones, the former Virginia slave Moses Johnson, the black Quaker Cyrus Bustill, and the Revolutionary War hero and black abolitionist James Forten, and from 1791 it met at the Friends’ Free African School. Its constitution stipulated that only a Quaker should hold the post of treasurer, and it adopted Quaker rituals and a system of visitations. Blacks in Philadelphia combined a desire for autonomy with eliciting the support of sympathetic, antislavery whites. Like the Newport society, it secured a proper burial ground as one of its first actions. As early as 1782 Philadelphia’s blacks had petitioned the city to fence off the field known as Strangers Burial Ground. The society excluded drunkards and disorderly persons and expelled a member for abandoning his wife and child and taking up with a “common woman.” In one of its letters to the Newport society, it advised all free blacks to give up “gaming and feasting.” Such frivolous activities “while . . . many of our complexion are starving under cruel bondage” took scarce resources and energies away from political activism.14 Black leaders, many of them a step removed from slavery and poverty themselves, viewed racial uplift as essential to self-determination.

The Philadelphia society evolved into independent black churches, centers of community activism, black leadership, and abolitionism. In 1789 Allen seceded from the organization because of religious differences, but he and Jones continued to cooperate in the building of an African church. In 1791 the African society held several “religious meetings” that would become the basis of the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas, led by Jones. The next year Jones and Allen led their famous walkout from St. George’s Methodist Church. Allen had preached at the church since he arrived in Philadelphia in 1786, and black contributions had helped build it. In 1794, with the help of Rush of the PAS and contributions from the Newport society, George Washington, and Granville Sharp, among others, the African church opened its doors, eventually boasting over four hundred members. Rev. Samuel Magaw’s discourse at the inauguration carried a religious antislavery message. After walking in the darkness of slavery, he preached, Africans partook of the light of religion, education, and an abolitionist spirit extending back to Lay, Woolman, and Benezet. The church allowed only “descendants of the African race” the power to elect or be elected officials of the church. White ministers and assistant ministers would not have the right to “vote at our elections.” Jones, who came to head the church at the age of forty-nine, was a self-taught slave. Brought by his master to Philadelphia in 1762 after his entire family had been sold, he married and managed to buy a lot for a house while still a slave. After repeated applications, his master manumitted him in 1784. Jones was known for his visitations to the needy and sick and commended for his “active cooperation with every effort put forth for the advancement of his race.” He died in 1818.15

Along with Jones, Allen laid the foundations of black abolitionism in Philadelphia. As a slave, Allen was convinced that “I should one day enjoy my freedom; for slavery is a bitter pill.” He bought his freedom after the antislavery Methodist preacher Freeborn Garrettson converted his master. Allen became an itinerant preacher, earning his keep through hard physical labor. In his memoir he proudly asserted that he had never been a charge to the “Methodist connexion.” Allen turned down an offer to tour with Bishop Francis Asbury in “slave countries” because he was forbidden to “intermix with the slaves.” His devotion to Methodism, however, was strong enough that he rejected a ministry in Jones’s African church. But it was a black Methodism that he prized, recalling that in Delaware slaves had been at the heart of the Methodist revival. His mission was “seeking and instructing my African brethren, who had been a long forgotten people and few of them attended religious worship.”16

Allen’s Bethel church became the kernel of the largest independent black denomination. Allen founded, as it was later called, Mother Bethel in 1794 in a blacksmith’s shop, and it was incorporated in 1796. According to its Articles of Association, only “Africans and descendants of the African race” were permitted to be trustees and vote in the church, but it ceded considerable governing authority to the Methodist Episcopal Conference. In 1807 Allen composed an “African Supplement” to proclaim his church’s rejection of white control. Not just the incident in St. George’s, but white Methodists’ repeated attempts to take over the property of Bethel and impose their own preaching led Allen to proclaim the church’s independence. In 1815 he was forced to repurchase his church after white Methodists tried to sell it out from under him. Allen won an important court victory when the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that his church as an incorporated entity had the right to self-determination. The next year the court reaffirmed that decision. Allen then issued a call to black Methodists in Baltimore, Philadelphia, and surrounding areas. They all shared similar experiences of ill treatment of black members and white preachers who “became such tyrants, and more especially to the coloured people.” Delegates from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland met and founded the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and Allen, who cowrote the denomination’s Doctrines and Discipline in 1817, became its first bishop.17

The independent African churches of Philadelphia propelled community organization. The men in the African Methodist Episcopal Church formed the African Friendly Society in 1795, and the following year the women formed the Female Benevolent Society. In 1797 Prince Hall received a request from eleven men in Philadelphia to organize a Masonic lodge. Jones was inducted as master of the African Lodge, and Forten was elected treasurer. Members of the Philadelphia lodge were sailors, church members, and nonnatives. White Masons visited the African Lodge and at times marched with black Masons, practices that distinguished it from the Boston lodge. In 1804 the African church founded a black school, and in 1809 a “Society for Suppressing Vice and Immorality.” By the early 1800s black societies proliferated in Philadelphia: the Angolian Society and the Angola Beneficial Society were founded in 1808, the Sons of Africa in 1810, the African Female Benevolent Society and the Male African Benevolent Society in 1819. Between 1802 and 1812, in the space of ten years, black Philadelphians founded ten societies. In 1809 Henry Simmons, a former slave from Virginia, formed the African Baptist Church, and in 1811 John Gloucester, a former slave from Tennessee educated by his master, founded the First African Presbyterian Church after preaching to an all-black congregation for nearly four years. Rush, a fellow Presbyterian, was instrumental in helping Gloucester purchase the freedom of his family. By 1813 over two thousand African Americans attended seven black churches in the city. Black women formed the backbone of the congregations, though they were absent in the church leadership. The most well known was Black Alice, an African slave who was brought to Pennsylvania and died at the venerable age of 116 in 1802. Allen’s first and second wives, Flora Allen and Sarah Bass Allen, were also active in the church and community. As Rush toasted at the raising of the first African church in Philadelphia, African churches had replaced “African bondage.”18

Allen and Jones laid the institutional foundation of black abolitionism in Philadelphia. Members of black churches and societies led in antislavery petitioning. The first black petition to Congress signed by members of Philadelphia’s African Society has been dated to around 1792. The petition called for gradual emancipation by the federal government and proposed emigration to Sierra Leone. It was never presented and was written in a less polished fashion than most of Jones’s and Allen’s works. Its author was perhaps James (Oronoko) Dexter, a member of the African church who worked for James Pemberton of the PAS. The language of the petition, which evokes “an Unalinauble Right to life Liberty & the pursiut of happiness,” is reminiscent of the early New England slave petitions.19

A petition to Congress in 1797 protested the fugitive slave law of 1793. It highlighted the plight of four former slaves from North Carolina and others threatened by kidnapping and reenslavement. Jones wrote the petition on their behalf. The law, they held, was “a flagrant proof how far human beings, merely on account of color and complexion, are, through prevailing prejudice, outlawed and excluded from common justice and common humanity.” The petition stressed the “unconstitutional bondage in which multitudes of our fellows in complexion are held” and the reenslavement of those who were free by kidnappers and man stealers. It chided, “Is not some remedy for an evil of such magnitude highly worthy of the deep inquiry and unfeigned zeal of the supreme Legislative body of a free and enlightened people?” Its lofty tone was a hallmark of black abolitionism in the early Republic.20

While Federalist and Republican congressmen from Massachusetts supported the petition, extreme and moderate southerners alike, including William L. Smith of South Carolina and James Madison of Virginia, argued against its reception. A sectional divide was evident as Nathaniel Macon of North Carolina supported Madison’s argument that state courts should decide such cases, while Aaron Kitchell of New Jersey questioned the rationale of sending free black men back to a slave state. In the end the House of Representatives voted 50 to 33 against considering it. The same year a Quaker memorial called Congress’s attention to “the oppressed state of our brethren the African race” and to the plight of North Carolina’s free blacks, who were subject to reenslavement. In the long debate that followed, Macon accused the Quakers of being “war mongers” for waging a war against slavery. George Thatcher of Massachusetts, who had voted against the fugitive slave law of 1793, defended them. This time the house issued a report stating that the state judiciary alone had the authority to mediate in such cases. In 1798 Thatcher, supported by Joseph Varnum of Massachusetts and Albert Gallatin of Pennsylvania, led an unsuccessful minority effort to bar slavery from the Mississippi territory and the entrance of slave states into the Union.21

Jones can be credited with pioneering the argument that slavery was unconstitutional long before the rise of political abolitionism. Signed by him and seventy-three others, his petition of 1799 claimed to speak on behalf of the slaves, who were “objects of your representation in your public councils,” a pointed reference to the three-fifths clause. But the petition made clear that it was not slaveholders but free blacks who best represented the slaves. It stressed that free blacks “humbly conceive ourselves authorized to address and petition you on their behalf.” It claimed that the slave trade and kidnapping violated the preamble of the Constitution. The petition concluded, “In the Constitution and Fugitive Bill, no mention is made of black people, or slaves; therefore, if the Bill of Rights, or the Declaration of Congress are of any validity, we beseech, that as we are men, we may be admitted to partake of the liberties and unalienable rights therein held forth.” Many of his signatories were illiterate and signed with an X next to their names, belying the oft-repeated claim that black abolitionism was a narrow, elitist concern. Early black abolitionism was a community-wide affair that cut across class. Only Thatcher, one of seven congressmen who had voted against the Fugitive Slave Act, defended the illiterate petitioners ridiculed by southern congressmen. John Rutledge of South Carolina likened receiving the petition to the French convention receiving “emissaries from St. Domingo [sic]” demanding freedom for their “species.” Most members of the House expressed their “pointed disapprobation” at receiving petitions from free blacks. Thatcher’s was the only vote cast in favor of hearing the petition.22

To recognize Thatcher’s lone effort in Congress to gain black Americans a hearing, Forten wrote a public letter to him in 1800. Forten was the third party of the triumvirate that included Jones and Allen that led black antislavery efforts in Philadelphia. Schooled at the Friends’ Free African School, Forten rose from apprenticeship to acquire his master’s sailmaking business. A wealthy sailmaker who had white and black apprentices working for him, he became a preeminent advocate for black rights and bankrolled Garrison’s the Liberator. Forten’s letter is notable not only because he recognized Thatcher’s vote but also because he laid out the black abolitionist program of emancipation and black rights: “Seven hundred thousand [approximately the number of African Americans in the United States according to the Census of 1790] of the human race were concerned in our Petition; their thanks, their gratitude to you they now express . . . we derive some comfort from the thought that . . . there is one who shall use all his endeavours to free the slave from captivity . . . and preserve the free black in the full enjoyment of his rights.” Challenging racist aspersions, he reasoned, “Though our faces are black, yet we are men; and though many of us cannot write, yet we all have the feelings and passions of men, and are as anxious to enjoy the birth-right of the human race.”23

Blacks in New York matched the organizational and antislavery activism of those in Philadelphia. As early as the seventeenth century black New Yorkers sought to ensure the proper burial of their deceased, who were excluded from white church cemeteries. They formed a religious society that became the African Society in 1784. By 1795 the original Negro Burial Ground was destroyed. That year the African Society petitioned the New York Council for land to build a church and cemetery, and a year later black Methodists, including such prominent leaders as Peter Williams Sr., James Varick, and William Hamilton, began holding independent prayer meetings. In 1799 they seceded from the John Street Methodist Church and the next year built the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Zion Church. Williams and the itinerant Methodist preacher George White, among others, signed its charter and articles of agreement. Despite an attempt led by White and Abraham Thompson to join Allen’s denomination, Varick decided to form a new denomination, the AME Zion. It seceded from the Methodist Conference, was incorporated in 1820, established its own doctrine and discipline, and elected Thompson and Varick as elders. In 1828 Christopher Rush was elected superintendent and wrote a history of the church. The AME Zion’s address explained, “When the Methodist society in the United States was small, the Africans enjoyed comfortable privileges among their white brethren in the same meeting-house, but as the whites increased very fast, the Africans were pressed back; therefore, it was thought essentially necessary for them to have meeting-houses of their own.” While AME Zion cooperated with New York’s black Asbury Church, which was still under the control of the Methodist Episcopal Conference, it established a history of rivalry with Allen’s AME.24

The independent black church movement grew in New York after the establishment of the AME Zion. In 1808 New York’s black Baptists formed the Abyssinian Baptist Church with help from Paul. Since 1792 black Episcopalians had repeatedly petitioned the Trinity Episcopal Church for land on which to build a church and school. By 1819 they had their own congregation, St. Phillip’s Episcopal Church, pastored by Peter Williams Jr. Williams was ordained a priest in 1826 and became a leading black abolitionist until his death in 1840. His father was Peter Williams Sr., the founding member of the AME Zion. In 1821 the black abolitionist minister Samuel Cornish founded the city’s First Colored Presbyterian Church. By 1826 African Americans in New York had founded ten black churches. As in Philadelphia, black women formed the backbone of these churches despite a male-dominated leadership. Women composed two-thirds of the Zion congregation and 75 percent of the Abyssinian Baptist Church’s. As early as 1802 they formed a separate Female African Benevolent Association.25

Black New Yorkers also produced the longest-lived African American mutual aid society in the country, the New York African Society for Mutual Relief (NYASMR) (1808–1945). Founded by the city’s black abolitionists William Hamilton, its first president, Henry Sipkins, Adam Carman, James Latham, and John Teasman, it was incorporated by the legislature in 1810. Its charter was extended in 1825 and 1840, and it adopted a new charter in 1869. The black abolitionists Charles B. Ray and Philip Bell were presidents of the society in the antebellum period. In a speech in 1809 Hamilton saw its aim as addressing indigency and “deep poverty and distress” in the black community through its motto, “MUTUAL INTEREST, MUTUAL BENEFIT, AND MUTUAL RELIEF.” He argued that “mere socialities” were not its object but the “noble employment” of helping the sick, poor, widowed, and orphaned. He noted that the society had more members than “any civil institution yet attempted among us.” The NYASMR’s constitution stipulated specific amounts to be given to members’ families to allay the expenses of death, sickness, old age, infirmity, and permanent disability. The African Marine Fund, founded in 1810, granted similar benefits to New York’s large population of black seamen. Most of these societies established schools and, together with the NYMS, led the effort to secure education for blacks.26 Community self-help and autonomy as well as antislavery were the legacy of the early black societies.

The proliferation of independent black organizing in New York created a large cadre of secular black leaders and abolitionists. Hamilton, a carpenter who had helped found the Zion church and the NYASMR, developed the uncompromising language of black abolitionism. Even more than Hall, Allen, and Jones, he wrote some of the most stinging rebukes of American republicanism. Like that of Peter Williams Jr., his antislavery career spanned the first and second waves of abolitionism, and he became one of the leading organizers of the antebellum national black convention movement. When he died in 1836, nearly all of the city’s numerous black societies and churches held funeral services in his memory. The so-called elite of the black community were united by their common schooling in the African Free Schools and commitment to education, black rights, independent organizations, and antislavery. Only a few seemed to have acquired some measure of economic security, such as the Downing family, which owned a popular oyster bar. Most, like Sipkins, who was a porter, led economically precarious existences, but their political activism, cosmopolitanism, and leadership of black institutions bolstered their position as spokesmen of the black community.27 They were the first generation of “race men.”

New York’s African American fraternal organizations, benevolent societies, and churches, like those elsewhere in the North, were preeminent sites not only of black leadership but also of mass participation. Parades and celebrations organized by these groups became venues for abolitionist oratory and addresses. Discouraged by city authorities and even by their antislavery allies, black leaders like Teasman and Hamilton insisted on celebrating their community, societies, and the abolition of slavery and the slave trade, staking their claim to manhood and citizenship in military displays and antislavery banners. These parades formed a link between colonial-era slave festivals and the institutional life of the newly free black community. As popular celebrations they revealed the depth of antislavery consciousness in black communities that transcended status. In the antebellum period, violent reactions by whites and some black leaders’ curtailing of popular demonstrations dealt a deathblow to this tradition. But in the early nineteenth century, black New Yorkers paraded to celebrate their freedom and the end of slavery. While analogous to parades by white artisans and other groups claiming republican citizenship, they represented a vibrant, distinct black popular culture of music, dance, and performance represented by the short-lived African Theatre and in the city’s oyster houses and dance cellars.28

Black organizations and churches arose in other cities, especially in the upper south states, where nearly half of the free black population resided. In Baltimore the Colored Methodist Society tried to form an independent church as early as 1795. In 1801 they established a meetinghouse under the stewardship of the Methodist Episcopal Church. In 1815 Daniel Coker, a deacon, led a secession from the church and formed the independent African Methodist Bethel Society. The next year Coker’s church joined Allen’s AME denomination. Coker was the son of an English servant and an enslaved father. He converted to Methodism after escaping to New York and returned to Baltimore in 1807. He worked as a teacher at the Sharp Street Church school, the African Academy. Elected with Allen to be a bishop in the AME, he withdrew when Allen objected. After that, Coker’s fortunes waned, and, wracked by personal, professional, and financial troubles, he migrated to Liberia in 1820.

In the early nineteenth century the independent black church movement spread to smaller northern and southern cities. Black Methodist, Baptist and a few Episcopalian and Presbyterian churches were founded in Albany, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Wilmington, Washington, and Richmond. The AME acquired a large membership even in Charleston, South Carolina, until the church was destroyed in the wake of the Denmark Vesey conspiracy in 1822. In Savannah, Georgia, Andrew Bryan led the oldest black Baptist church in the country. After suffering much persecution, he died in 1812. The original church eventually split into three. Independent black religious activity was frowned on in the slave South, especially after Nat Turner’s rebellion. For the most part, southern blacks, above all, the enslaved, were forced to worship in white churches or under white supervision until Reconstruction.29

The organizational impulse also manifested itself among southern free blacks. Membership in benevolent societies like the Brown Fellowship Society, founded in Charleston in 1790, was exclusive to its so-called free mulatto class. Although it sponsored black education, the society survived because it did not dabble overtly in antislavery politics. In 1791, however, a few men, on behalf of “Free-Men of Colour,” petitioned the assembly for the right to give testimony and trial by jury, forbidden by the state slave code of 1740. They reasoned that they contributed to the “support of the Government by chearfully paying their Taxes,” while prudently disclaiming a desire to be put on an “equal footing” with whites. Their petition was summarily rejected. Two years later free blacks in Camden and Charleston protested in vain against the poll taxes levied on them. Most of the southern free black societies, such as the Resolute Beneficial Society of Washington, founded in 1818, and the Burying Ground and Beneficial Society of Richmond, founded in 1815, stuck to mutual self-help and relief. Under Spanish and French rule, free black militias flourished in New Orleans, and free blacks regularly attended the Catholic church. The introduction of a more rigid racial order with the American takeover encouraged “gentlemen of color” to develop separate organizations and social lives. With the exception of Baltimore, organized black abolitionism in southern cities, where free blacks were forced to live a more restricted life subject to slave codes, was stillborn.30 Antislavery in the South went underground and became the province of slave rebels and fugitives with allies among free blacks and a few whites.


Militant rhetoric belied the staid institutional face of black abolition. Early black abolitionists were apt to recall a history of oppression and suffering under slavery and demand freedom not simply as an act of mercy or benevolence but as acts of justice and retribution. They were far more likely to expose the hollowness of American republican pretensions than to simply evoke its principles. They created a distinct discursive style, a radical antislavery rhetoric that would flower in the antebellum interracial abolition movement. If republicanism and the early American public sphere were mutually constitutive, an oppositional black counterpublic rendered a profound critique of it. Black abolitionists were not so much the best exponents as the best critics of American republicanism.

One of the most noted black men in the early Republic, the astronomer and mathematician Benjamin Banneker, publicly challenged Jefferson on slavery and race. Descended from an English indentured servant and an African chieftain named Bannka, Banneker was the son of their oldest daughter, Mary, and her free black husband, Robert. Born free in Maryland in 1731, Banneker was educated by his grandmother and a Quaker schoolmaster. He is known for the six almanacs he published in twenty-eight editions between 1792 and 1797 containing his annual weather calculations. Banneker’s public letter to Jefferson in 1791, republished in his almanac, catapulted him onto the national stage. He took Jefferson to task: “But Sir how pitiable it is to reflect, that . . . in detaining by fraud and violence so numerous a part of my brethren under groaning captivity and cruel oppression, that you should at the Same time be found guilty of that most criminal act, which you professedly detested in others, with respect to yourselves.” No doubt aware of Jefferson’s disparaging racial remarks in his Notes, Banneker assured him that he was “of the African race, and in that colour which is natural to them of the deepest dye.”31

Banneker’s exchange with the most representative figure of American republicanism symbolized the role of public critics that African Americans assumed. Banneker’s unpublished poem also gave voice to his abolitionist criticism of the country:

Those Afric sons which Nature formed free . . .

Behold them herefrom torn by cruel force,

And doomed to slavery without remorse

This act, America, thy sons have known;

This cruel act, relentless they have done.

Jefferson responded courteously, but his private remarks, like his published ones on Wheatley and Sancho, cast doubt on Banneker’s achievements. Jefferson wrote, “We know he had spherical trigonometry enough to make almanacs, but not without the suspicion of aid from Ellicott, who was his neighbor and friend, and never missed an opportunity of puffing him. I have a long letter from Banneker, which shows him to have had a mind of very common stature indeed.” “Ellicott,” Banneker’s neighbor, was George Ellicott, a cousin of Maj. Andrew Ellicott, who helped him publish his first almanac. Banneker’s letter and Jefferson’s public reply were widely printed in newspapers, published in pamphlet form in 1792, and in Banneker’s almanac of 1793. Even in responding, Jefferson earned the ire of proslavery South Carolinian Federalists like Henry W. DeSaussure and William Loughton Smith, who smirkingly asked, “What shall we think of a secretary of state thus fraternizing with negroes?”32

Banneker’s work became an argument for racial equality. In his letter to Andrew Ellicott, who was asked to confirm the calculations, Banneker wrote that he had worked to gratify “the curiosity of the public, than for any view of profit, as I suppose it to be the first attempt of the kind that ever was made in America by a person of my complexion.” Ellicott was so impressed that he asked Banneker to assist him in surveying land for the new capital in the District of Columbia. Banneker’s almanac was published first in Baltimore and later in Philadelphia under abolitionist auspices. All his publishers were known to print abolitionist pamphlets or were abolitionists themselves. His Quaker neighbors, the Ellicotts, made sure that it reached Pemberton, and abolitionists touted it as evidence of African genius. As in the cases of the enslaved mathematician Thomas Fuller of Virginia and the black doctor James Derham of New Orleans, abolitionists saw Banneker as living proof of black intellectual achievement. His almanac of 1792 contained an endorsement from the physician James McHenry, a Revolutionary War veteran and senator from Maryland who saw the work as a “striking contradiction to Mr. Hume’s doctrine, that ‘Negroes are naturally inferior to the whites and unsusceptible of attainments in arts and sciences.’” McHenry had freed his slaves. The preface to the 1797 almanac proclaimed, “The labours of the justly celebrated Banneker will likewise furnish you with a very important lesson, courteous reader, which you will not find in any other Almanac, namely that the maker of the Universe is no respecter of colours; that the colour of the skin is in no ways connected with the strength of mind or intellectual powers.”33

Nearly all of Banneker’s almanacs contained abolitionist ephemera, probably reflecting both the author’s and his sponsors’ wishes. They included an excerpt from David Rittenhouse, the president of the American Philosophical Society and an eminent astronomer who had also verified Banneker’s calculations, against slavery and the slave trade. The 1793 almanac, published by the Quaker printer Joseph Crukshank, himself the author of a well-known antislavery poem, republished numerous antislavery commentaries. That almanac contained a plan for world peace attributed to Rush and uncovered the influence of Quaker ideas. Included in this version were speeches by British parliamentarians against the slave trade, antislavery poetry by William Cowper and Thomas Wilkinson, and even Jefferson’s asides against slavery from the Notes. The 1795 almanac contained an account of the yellow fever in Philadelphia, controversy over which would inspire Allen and Jones to publish their first abolitionist pamphlet. Banneker’s later almanacs had poems by Wheatley and those written in honor of him. His popular almanacs, in short, became a medium to disseminate abolitionist arguments. Banneker died in 1806, continuing to make his calculations every year until his death. The PAS, the MAS, and admirers publicized his works, and later generations of black abolitionists memorialized him.34

The first black autobiography published in the early Republic, written by Venture Smith (Briton Hammon’s narrative was published before independence, Gronniosaw and Marrant were published in England, and Equiano’s was a republication), was also a criticism of slavery and racism. Smith notes his African American identity in the title of his narrative, describing himself as “A Native of Africa: But Resident Above Sixty Years in the United States of America.” A former Connecticut slave, Smith, calling himself Broteer of Dukandarra in Africa, was enslaved at the age of eight. Published in 1798, his narrative is rarely read as an abolitionist tract. The preface, written by his scribe Elisha Niles, a Connecticut schoolteacher, laid out its antislavery purpose. Smith, Niles observed, was a black founder comparable to Franklin and Washington, but his story of the American founding was a counternarrative of slavery and racial oppression.

Smith’s spare narrative of the commodification of Africans as property is an indictment of the worldwide system of commerce that included the Atlantic slave trade and the market society he came to inhabit. Unlike Equiano, who dwelt on the horrors of the Middle Passage, Smith recounted in detail the broad swath of destruction and indiscriminate enslavement of entire villages by a band of fierce African warriors and kidnappers. Cognizant of the broader forces that motivated them, he writes, “They were instigated by some white nation who equipped and sent them to subdue and possess the country.” Like his contemporary abolitionists, Smith eschewed a simplistic racial analysis and instead pointed out how his African enslavers’ lust for wealth led them to participate in the enslavement process and in the torture and murder of his father. The very name he is given by his first master, Venture (he was bought for four gallons of rum and some calico), illustrates his transformation into human capital. Smith related how many times he was “pawned,” hired, and sold and told of his superhuman efforts to escape slavery and poverty. His is a story not of a “Venture Capitalist,” as some scholars claim, or of assimilation of bourgeois values but of a laboring man, one who carefully kept track of the amount and type of work he did in order to buy his and his family’s freedom. It is the value of his labor that Smith cherished, revealing how employers constantly cheated their workers. Thus Smith’s grief at his son’s death is compounded by the fact that he lost the money paid for his freedom. The labor theory of value informs his entire narrative. Smith mentions the amount he paid the doctor for his dying daughter, thereby underscoring that only the rich have the luxury and good taste to indulge in sentiment over hard emotional and material losses.

Smith unveils the underside of market society, where dishonesty and finagling ruled. His master charges him an enormous sum for his freedom, an Irish servant steals from him and two other runaways, foiling their plot to escape. Smith buys fellow slaves out of slavery either to liberate them or have them work with him, but they cheat him. Courts, contracts, and market rules did not dispense justice but sided with the powerful and wealthy. When he was made to pay a client for damages, Smith remarks, “but Captain Hart was a white gentleman, and I a poor African; therefore it was all right, and good enough for the black dog.” Forced to play by rules stacked against him, Smith, despite his achievements, determines that workingmen and black men like him in particular will always be the losers. His is no uplifting tale of liberation but a revelation of the hypocrisy and unfairness of a world governed by the cash nexus or, in his words, where Africans and their freedom could be converted “into cash.” Smith died in 1805, and his tombstone captures his sense of the injustice of his enslavement and his pride in the labor that bought his freedom: “Sacred to the Memory of Venture Smith an African tho the son of a King he was kidnapped & sold as a slave but by his industry he acquired Money to purchase his Freedom.”35 His tale of loss and betrayal in isolated, rural New England stands in sharp contrast to the institutions of communal solidarity built by free black urban populations.

The first black abolitionist pamphlet came from that milieu. Jones and Allen published a vindication of the race in their pamphlet of 1794 defending the actions of the black community during the yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia against the aspersions of Mathew Carey, who claimed that blacks had stolen and profited from the victims of the fever. In reply, they asserted that while Carey had fled the city and now profited from his pamphlet on the yellow fever, African Americans had ministered to the sick, and they were no more and in most cases less guilty than whites, who had charged patients enormous amounts or pilfered from them. They told the stories of black men and women who had assisted the sick and helped bury the dead “at the peril of our lives.” Allen himself was laid up during the epidemic. Jones and Allen estimated that they had bled over eight hundred patients at Rush’s direction, who said they were indefatigable. Rush also came to their defense, remarking, “The merit of the blacks in their attendance to the sick is enhanced by their not being exempted from the disorder,” as was initially assumed. Allen and Jones became the first black authors to obtain a copyright when they registered their yellow fever pamphlet.36

They appended a radical abolitionist appeal, “An Address to Those Who Keep Slaves and Uphold the Practice,” to their pamphlet, which bluntly declared, “You have been and are our great oppressors.” The two black ministers reminded whites that slavery is “hateful . . . in the sight of God” and that “God himself was the first pleader of the cause of the slaves.” They countered pro-slavery justifications in writing, “Will you, because you have reduced us to the unhappy condition our colour is in, plead our incapacity for freedom, and our contented condition under oppression, as a sufficient cause for keeping us under the grievous yoke?” Slaves were not content because, they argued, referring in all likelihood to the rebellion in Saint-Domingue, the “dreadful insurrections they have made, when opportunity has offered, is enough to convince a reasonable man, that great uneasiness and not contentment, is the inhabitant of their hearts.”37

Allen’s eulogy on Washington’s death, which was published in the Philadelphia Gazette on December 31, 1799, also sought to deliver an abolitionist message to the country on behalf of the overwhelming majority of African Americans who remained in slavery. He contended that Washington was not just the father of the nation but also a “sympathizing friend” to black people. Allen knew that he had contributed to the building of the African Church and that he had drawn attention to a Quaker petition against slavery in his last address to the Senate. Washington’s courteous reply to Wheatley and the Federalist Party’s more liberal stance on black rights compared to the Jeffersonian Republicans were well known. But it was Washington’s dying legacy of freeing his slaves in his will, to be implemented after his wife’s death, that endeared him to African Americans. As Allen wrote, “He whose wisdom the nations revered thought we had a right to liberty. Unbiased by the popular opinion of the state (Virginia) in which is the memorable Mount Vernon—he dared do his duty, and wipe off the only stain with which man could ever reproach him. . . . Deeds like these are not common.” To Allen, Washington’s emancipation of his slaves, to whom he also granted land, was an exemplary act for the nation and a surprising gift of justice to African Americans. Rather than dwell on the paternalistic slaveholder of popular imagination, Allen sought to appropriate Washington’s legacy for abolition.38

Allen was a proponent of a black liberation theology. Not many of his sermons are extant, but he compiled a book of “Hymns and Spiritual Songs from Various Authors.” If Allen’s selection of these hymns for the AME church is any indication of his religious beliefs, then, in his view, racial liberation and an end to slavery were an essential part of the black Christian project. The African American criticism of the land of slavery was embodied in the hymn “Lord, What a wretched land is this.” The message Allen intended for his enslaved and newly freed congregants reflected black Israelite Christianity. The hymns spoke of the “great and awful” yet glorious days of judgment when God would punish slaveholders and redeem enslaved people, who were his chosen children. In his short writings on acts of faith, acts of hope, and acts of love, Allen revealed the highly religious inspiration for his abolitionism. It was not interracial harmony that he advocated so much as African American unity and autonomy based on a shared history of oppression: “Blessed are the sufferings which are endured.” In an address “To the People of Color,” he wrote of how “the love of God” had sustained him in slavery when “the prospect of liberty vanished away, and I was in darkness and perplexity.” If faith did not result in earthly liberty, then it led to everlasting life when the “power of the most cruel master ends.” Allen did not advocate religious quietism. He was convinced that God was on the side of the slaves.39

Black abolitionists did not ignore racialist discourses of social disorder and black criminality inaugurated by the legal codification of racial slavery, nor did they remain indifferent to the hardships of poverty, crime, and injustice. Execution narratives, or the dying testimonies of accused criminals, were a popular literary genre. The narratives of enslaved men like Pomp and Thomas Powers not only contained their confessions but also criticized their enslavement. In 1808 Allen compiled the execution narratives of John Joyce and Peter Mathias, two black men accused of murdering one Sarah Cross. Allen wrote that both men had repented, but he questioned the criminalization of blackness. John was aiming to recover wages due to him, and Peter had merely accompanied him. Writing in two pamphlets about the unjust imprisonment of the Boorn brothers, both white, for the murder of Russel Colvin, the black abolitionist minister Lemuel Haynes averred that their case was “particularly interesting to those among us who have lately been remarkably emancipated from bondage, slavery and death.”40 Allen’s and Haynes’s works were prescient in drawing parallels between imprisonment, punishment, and slavery.

Orations on the abolition of the African slave trade in 1808 reveal African American abolitionists’ concerted endeavor to construct a counternarrative of slavery and freedom to the dominant national story of freedom inaugurated by the American Revolution. Most of them were delivered in black churches and societies in northern cities. Black institutional independence encouraged antislavery radicalism. The celebrations on January 1 were a pointed rejoinder to those on the Fourth of July in the new Republic. The slave trade, rather than the revolution, is the starting point of these counternarratives, and their main motif is slavery rather than liberty. The United States was a land of captivity, of slavery, and the discovery of the New World represented not the founding of the shining city on a hill but the start of the crime against Africans.41

In his thanksgiving sermon on the abolition of the slave trade, Jones insisted that America was the new Egypt. With the abolition of the slave trade at least the “dear land of our ancestors” would not be stained by the blood “shed by British and American hands.” Recapitulating the history of the Americas in his speech, Rev. Peter Williams Jr. charged that the first European colonists, motivated by “the desire for gain,” had enslaved “the harmless aborigines, compelled them to drudge in the mines” and carried Africans “into cruel captivity.” Similarly, Russell Parrott of Philadelphia in his oration in 1814 noted, “It is from this period, that we may date the commencement of the sufferings of the Africans, and the discovery of the new world; which, to one portion of the human family, has afforded such advantages, to the unfortunate African, has been the source of the greatest misery.” In a speech in 1815 Hamilton “[wished] to God that Columbus with his exploring schemes had perished in Europe ere he touched the American Isles.” Africa then would have “been spared the terrible calamity she has suffered.”42

By dwelling on the horrors of the slave trade, early black abolitionists exposed the unseemly side of Western civilization. Williams urged the “descendants of African forefathers” not to forget the “horrid inhumanities” perpetrated on Africa and the scenes of “unfathomable distress” of the slave ship. Hamilton felt he should forbear describing the cruelties of the slave trade, as it would make his listeners “mad for revenge on the murderers of your brethren”; but he went on to describe in graphic detail the story of a ten-year-old boy whipped to death on board a slaver. The history of the slave trade and slavery in the United States, according to Sipkins, was one of “relentless tyranny” and torture. Henry Johnson argued that he drew attention to the cruelties of the slave trade not to inflame the minds of his people but to “cast just obloquy” against oppressors. In an oration in 1823 Jeremiah Gloucester continued this tradition, commenting that the “cruelties that were practiced, ties that were broken, by those traffickers in blood, and panders of avarice, no tongue can paint.”43

Rather than sing paeans to American republicanism and “legitimate” commerce, black abolitionists fashioned a radical critique of slavery and early capitalism. In his remarkable oration of 1811 on behalf of “our injured race,” Adam Carman attacked the economic basis of slavery and the system of European commerce that reduced a black person to a “vendible article.” Under the institution of slavery in the New World, Africans came to be “viewed and considered as commercial commodities; thus we became interwoven into the system of commerce, and the revenue of nations; hence the merchant, the planter, the mortgagee, the manufacturer, the politician, the legislators, and the cabinet minister, all strenuously advocated the continuance of the Slave Trade.”44Carman posited that Western commerce and civilization, far from containing the keys to Africa’s redemption, sounded its death knell.

Black abolitionists denounced as well the growth of racism in the slaveholding Republic. If all men were created equal, then the persistence of slavery and racial inequality implied that black people were less than human or inferior. To Williams, the slave trade and slavery were “flagrant violations of human rights.” In his oration in 1813 on the abolition of the slave trade, George Lawrence stressed the problem of American racism and disputed it on intellectual and moral grounds. As he put it, “Vacuous must the reason of that man have been, who dared to assert that genius is confined to complexion, or that nature knows difference in the immortal soul of man.” Hamilton argued, “The European with his bloated pride, conceives himself an order of being above any other order of men” and boasts “of their superior understanding, their superior genius, their superior souls.” Recounting the “cruel, barbarous treatment” of slaves, including whippings and instruments of torture, he ended by saying, “If these are some of the marks of superiority may heaven in mercy always keep us inferior.” In a similar vein, Carman asserted, “These very savage-like manstealers, brand us with inferiority of sensibility. My brethren, Africans and descendants of Africans, it would be condescending from the dignity of Africans, to notice what these invidious pedantic nizies [do-gooders] have asserted.” In his eyes, American racists displayed a “depravity of mind or proflicacy [sic] of morals inferior to that imputed to us.” To those who would argue that Africans “are not of the same flesh and blood” as whites, Gloucester responded with the biblical injunction that “God had made of one blood all the nations of men to dwell on the face of the earth.” Teasman’s address to the NYASMR on the first anniversary of its incorporation in 1811 also rendered a religious indictment of racism. Despite all that blacks and their abolitionist allies had achieved, “it is asserted that your genius is inferior.” He held up God’s “revelation” against the pseudoscience of race and God’s works in black achievement and “acquired abilities” as constituting a double refutation of racism.45

The slave trade orations mark a distinct black tradition of protest, praising abolitionist allies but being oppositional in content. By contrast, white sermons on the closing of the slave trade, delivered mostly in Boston, were far more optimistic and conciliatory. In a sermon of 1808 Rev. Jedidiah Morse, for example, commended the antislavery activism of free blacks but adopted a congratulatory tone. The sermons praised both the United States and Britain for their philanthropy and spent considerable time comparing slavery to sin, urging free black people to exemplary behavior and advocating gradual emancipation. By 1822 Rev. Thaddeus Mason Harris was recommending colonization. In one important respect, however, these orations resembled the speeches made by black orators. God hath made of one blood all the nations of the world, they insisted, and any attempt to ascribe to African Americans the status of a separate species or race was blasphemous. These antislavery Federalist clergymen criticized southern slavery and Jeffersonian Republicans, for whom race was a prominent exception to their creed of equality.46

Though as president Jefferson signed the law prohibiting the international slave trade, black orations on abolition were highly critical of him. Clearly referring to Jefferson, Hamilton claimed that the “proposition . . . advanced by men who claim a preeminence in the learned world, that Africans are inferior to white men in the structure both of body and mind” was spurious. Most black abolitionists were Federalists like Joseph Sidney, who developed an extensive criticism of Jeffersonian republicanism, “the Slavery-hole of democracy,” in his speech. Even more radical in tone was an anonymous letter written by a slave to Jefferson in 1808 that lay unpublished in his papers until recently. Jefferson acknowledged that it was written by “a negro slave” but dismissed it as a “rhapsody of inconsistencies.” Rather than congratulate the Republic on the closing of the African slave trade, “A Slave” wrote that “America can vie any nation in the world” when it came to “oppress & enslave mankind.” He lay before Jefferson “our exquisite torment” and the “inhuman conduct” of slaveholders. Quoting the Declaration of Independence back to him, A Slave asked, “What think you now sir; are we men, or are we beasts?” The abolitionist tone of the letter is clear, and, like Banneker’s almanacs, it quotes liberally from a work by the British Quaker abolitionist Thomas Wilkinson titled An Appeal to England, on Behalf of the Abused Africans, a Poem (1789). In a personal rebuke composed in vivid language, A Slave wrote, “O! Thomas, you have had a long nap, and spent a great number of years in ease & plenty, upon our hard earned property, while we have been in the mean time, smarting under the cow hide and sweating in the fields to raise provision to nurse tyrants[,] to cut your throat[,] and perpetuate our own bonds.” It ends with the hope that Jefferson would free his own slaves, offer “reparation for the insult offered them,” and start a “general immancipation.”47

Black abolitionists like Sidney were especially censorious of slaveholding Republicans: “No people in the world make louder pretensions to ‘liberty, equality, and the rights of man.’ . . . And yet, strange as it may appear, there is no spot in the United States where oppression reigns with such unlimited sway!” According to Lawrence, the slave South was “so biased by interest” that it had “become callous to the voice of reason and justice.” African Americans, like their Afro-British counterparts, portrayed slaveholders as the hated enemies of black people. Taking on the proslavery argument that the southern slave “is better fed and clad, than the poor of civilized Europe,” Lawrence asked those “sophists whom avarice had armed in her cause” to pay attention to the real condition of slaves, who were deprived of any semblance of justice, protection, or citizenship. Nearly all the orations on the slave trade ended with a call for an end to southern slavery. While Sidney specifically asked for gradual emancipation in the South, most simply called for “African emancipation.”48 The abolitionist project, they all indicated, had not been achieved by ending the slave trade.

In his pamphlet of 1810, A Dialogue between a Virginian and an African Minister, Coker made emancipation in the slaveholding Republic a priority by juxtaposing black abolitionism with the slaveholding Virginia dynasty that dominated the nation. The fictitious Virginian, who is impressed by the black minister’s civility, tries to convince him that his advocacy of abolition is wrong, as it would dispossess slaveholders of their property. The minister replies that abolition was a matter of humanity, not property, and that the slave’s right to liberty outweighed the slaveholders’ right to property. “Shall we hesitate a moment,” the minister asks, “to determine who is the greatest sufferer, who is treated with the greatest injustice?” He goes on to recommend the Spanish system championed by Sharp, namely, allowing slaves to work one day a week for themselves in order to purchase their freedom, and asks the Virginian to Christianize and educate his slaves. Coker, who dedicated his pamphlet to the “people of colour,” closed by saying he would not stop speaking about “the suffering of my people.” In an appendix, he added a long list of black ministers and churches and excerpts from the slave trade orations, living “proofs” or exemplars of black abolitionism.49

The second act in establishing American independence and nationhood, the War of 1812 against the British, reinforced the alternative nature of black abolitionism. Proscribed from serving in the federal militia by the federal militia law of 1792, only a few African Americans served in integrated units of state militias. By the end of the war, the New York state legislature and congressional laws opened up recruitment to black men, who were defined as natives of the country rather than citizens. African Americans from the northern states, including the black abolitionist John B. Vashon of Pittsburgh, fought for the United States. The free colored militias in New Orleans played a crucial role in the American victory at the Battle of New Orleans, earning them a commendation from Andrew Jackson, who had solicited their assistance. Black abolitionists would repeatedly reprint it right up until the Civil War as an argument for black citizenship. Black sailors made up 15 to 20 percent of the integrated U.S. Navy and saw action throughout the war, from the battles in the Great Lakes bordering Canada to the Gulf coast. The British captured so many of them, over a thousand, that they occupied racially separate living quarters in Dartmoor prison. Slaves supplied much of the labor used to fortify and defend New Orleans, and around twenty-five hundred free black volunteers organized by Forten and Parrott helped dig trenches around Philadelphia after the bombardment of Washington. In New York and Baltimore the black community did the same. Despite free blacks’ contributions, the nationalism that was given a fillip by the war was exclusively white, and the “era of good feelings” that followed it was marked by the growing virulence of popular racism and legal discrimination against black people.

African Americans, particularly the enslaved, were perceived as an internal enemy. Runaways flocked to British lines and played a role in shaping military strategy. Thousands of fugitive slaves supplied information, labor, and military service to the British, and multiple slave conspiracies were unearthed in Maryland, North Carolina, and Virginia. In the Chesapeake, Adm. Alexander Cochrane deliberately planned to encourage slaves to flee and thereby demoralize their owners. His proclamation of 1814 reprised Lord Dunmore’s offer of freedom to slaves and included their families. Over three thousand slaves defected to the British, and some fought as uniformed Colonial Marines. All-black West India regiments also fought alongside English soldiers in New Orleans. For many enslaved blacks, impressment by the Royal Navy, one of the causes of the conflict, was preferable to American slavery. In Florida hundreds of slaves escaped to the so-called Negro Fort at Prospect Bluff, joining the British and their Indian allies. Some British officers such as Edward Nicolls of the Royal Marines harbored strong antislavery beliefs and became a conduit for Anglo-American abolitionism to this Maroon community of runaway slaves. When Jackson had the fort destroyed in 1816, the survivors joined up with the Seminoles on the frontier. Other fugitives from American slavery ended up in the British West Indies, particularly Trinidad, where they were called Mericans. Nearly two thousand runaway slaves were settled in Nova Scotia, following the path of black Loyalists after the revolution. These “black refugees” made their permanent home there. For a majority of the enslaved, fighting on the side of the British was a better path to freedom than laboring for their republican masters. They and their Indian allies continued to wage war on the United States in Spanish Florida, with encouragement from antislavery British officers like George Woodbine and Richard Ambrister, who had served with Nicolls. The First Seminole War was a direct result of Jackson’s territorial ambitions and his determination to root out this node of black and Indian resistance, a beacon to runaway slaves from the Carolinas, Georgia, and Alabama.50

When Mr. Madison’s War was over, the United States was more than ever a white man’s country. In 1813 Forten’s Letters from a Man of Colour put black rights on the abolitionist agenda. He challenged a proposed Pennsylvania law that would restrict black entry to the state, directed against fugitive slaves from neighboring slave states. It required state authorities to advertise unregistered blacks as fugitives so that their owners could reclaim them, and if not, they could be sold, put to hard labor, or fined heavily for not registering. The bill jeopardized the freedom of all black people in the state. Forten acknowledged the late Rush, who protested the bill just before his death that year and questioned the notion that American citizenship was racially exclusive. The Declaration and the Constitution, he wrote, embraced “the Indian and the European, the Savage and the Saint, the Peruvian and the Laplander, the white man and the African.” Referring to the attacks on free blacks during the Fourth of July festivities, Forten opined that such laws encouraged racism. As he put it, “Are not men of colour sufficiently degraded? Why then increase their degradation.” Forten issued a telling indictment of American racism: “Search the legends of tyranny and find no precedent.” God had left no “record declaring us a different species” and “the same power which protects the white man, should protect the black.” There was no point, he concluded, in black people forming organizations for their improvement or aspiring to become “honest and useful members of society” because “all our efforts by this bill, are despised and we are doomed to feel the lash of oppression:—As well may we be outlawed.” Forten alerted the people of Pennsylvania to “the unhappy fate of thousands of our countrymen in the Southern States and the West Indies.”51

Unlike Forten’s letters, Jacob Oson’s pamphlet against American racism has been forgotten. First delivered as a speech to African Americans in New Haven and then in New York, A Search for Truth Or, An Inquiry for the Origin of the African Nation (1817), written by this Connecticut minister and teacher, is not so much a history of African Americans as a biblically inspired impeachment of racism. In resorting to the Bible story of creation—Adam and Noah had a “common father,” he wrote—Oson sought to answer racists who believed in the multiple origins of man. He pointed to the heathen nature of European Christians, who had committed “rapine and carnage” and violated “laws human and divine” by enslaving thousands of Africans and holding them “in bondage and subjection.” The Western world, he avowed, owed most of its science and learning to Egypt. He noted the progress of early modern commerce, arguing that trade should not be the gauge of a nation’s success. It had brought ruin to some, he said, referring to the slave trade: “Commerce produces luxury, and that brings down the wrath of God.” Oson pointed to the light of emancipation that had spread from New England to New York and New Jersey and hoped it would glow all over the Americas as far as the Strait of Magellan, wherever Africans were “trodden under foot” and held in “cruel slavery.”52

The publication of black spiritual narratives during this time was part of the emerging tradition of black abolitionism. George White and John Jea detailed not just their conversion experiences but also their strong condemnation of racial slavery. White, who was born a slave in Virginia and became a Methodist preacher in New York and New Jersey, wrote an account of his life in “this land of human oppression and barbarity.” After gaining his freedom, he determined to devote his life to preaching the Gospel to his “African brethren.” One of his sermons was titled “Loose him and let him go.” Like Allen’s, White’s Christianity was a theology of black liberation. White, who recounted his long struggle to gain a preaching license from the Methodist Episcopal Conference, helped found a branch of Allen’s AME church in New York in 1806.53

The life story of the “African preacher” Jea also offered a telling indictment of slavery. Born in Africa, Jea recalled the hard labor of his years as a slave belonging to a Dutch New York family. “We dared not murmur,” he wrote, for fear of being “flogged . . . in a manner too dreadful to behold.” Slaveholders “used us in a most cruel manner,” murdering their slaves “in order to appease their wrath and thought no more of it than if they had been brutes.” Much of Jea’s narrative is an account of cruel masters who called their slaves black devils and deprived them of the word of God. Like many black converts, Jea portrayed his masters as the real heathens: “Though they professed Christianity, they knew nothing of what it meant.” He was sold to three separate masters, all of whom suspected him of corrupting their slaves by his “talking and preaching.” Describing his religious and personal trials (his first wife murdered their child), Jea’s miraculous acquisition of literacy and abolitionist friends who helped purchase land to build a meetinghouse “for us poor black Africans to worship in” marked the start of a new chapter in his life as a free man. He became a sailor and traveled all over the world, preaching in England and Ireland. Only in the West Indies and the slave states of Virginia and Maryland did he encounter severe treatment, being imprisoned by persons attempting “to make me a slave.”

Jea published his narrative and a hymnbook in Britain in 1815 and 1816, respectively, and was disparaging of the American Republic. As a slave, he witnessed colonists celebrating their victory over Native Americans and marveled that “these people made a great mourning when Godkilled one man, but they rejoice when they kill so many.” Later in his narrative, when he refuses to fight against the British, he insists that “I was not an American, but I was a poor black African, a preacher of the gospel.” Africans as a persecuted people could identify with the suffering Christ: “For the world hated him and the world knew him not . . . neither do they know us, because he has chosen us out of the world.” In his book of hymns Jea wrote of his family, “We all were stole away” from Africa. God, he wrote, would deliver Africans from bondage the way he did the Israelites from Egypt: “When we were carried across the ’main, / To great America, / There we were sold, and we were told, / That we had not a soul! / . . . But God who did poor Joseph save, / Who was in Egypt sold, / So did he unto us poor slaves, / And he’ll redeem the whole.”54

Like those of Jea, White, and Allen, Haynes’s sermons conveyed an abolitionist message. Haynes was resolute in believing in the importance of religion to civil government and that the duty of all governments was to act virtuously and philanthropically. In making this argument, he was not only criticizing what New England Federalists viewed as the atheism of the Jeffersonian Republicans but also laying the philosophical ground for abolitionist appeals to the higher law of God. He opposed the War of 1812 from a Federalist standpoint as an unjust war and going against the biblical injunction “Thou Shall Not Kill.” In “The Influence of Civil Government on Religion,” Haynes reproved those who invade “our liberties” and challenge “the rights of man . . . under the soothing titles of Republicanism, Democracy.” In a sermon in 1814, “Dissimulation Illustrated,” Haynes critiqued all kinds of dissembling and hypocrisy that mar love for one’s neighbor and a republican devotion to the common good: “It is a species of dissimulation, when we justify that in ourselves, which we condemn in others.” Repeating the Federalist accusation that Virginian presidents like Madison and Jefferson raised the issue of impressment of American sailors while enslaving over three hundred human beings for life, he argued that “partial affection, or distress for some of our fellow-creatures, while others even under our notice, are wholly disregarded, betrays dissimulation.” Haynes represented Washington as a true republican: “He was an enemy to slaveholding, and gave his dying testimony against it, by emancipating, and providing for those under his care.” In “The Nature and Importance of True Republicanism” (1801) Haynes had written that slavery was a species of monarchism, not of republicanism. The state of the “poor Africans among us” show the effects of despotism.55

By the time Abbé Henri Grégoire published his De la littérature des Nègres in 1808 in Paris, black abolitionism had emerged in the United States as a coherent movement. Designed to refute Jefferson’s racist views in the Notes, Grégoire, a member of the Société des Amis des Noirs, dedicated his book to abolitionists and antislavery writers from different countries and called for an end to slavery. Compiling a long list of slave rebels and African thinkers and writers, Grégoire sought to disprove notions of racial inferiority. Notwithstanding his measured response to the abbé, Jefferson dismissed it as diatribe and “rubbish massed together.” Grégoire was unaware of a rising cadre of black abolitionists across the Atlantic. His slim volume, published in the United States in 1810, could have been expanded exponentially. His hope—“May Africans, raising their humiliated fronts, give spring to all their faculties, and rival whites in talents and virtues only; avenging themselves by benefits and effusions of fraternal kindness”—was a prescient description of the discourse and organizations of black abolitionism in the slaveholding Republic.56

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