Fighting for Rights: An Excerpt from Abolitionists of South Central Pennsylvania

By Nicky M. | Arcadia Staff

In Abolitionists of South Central Pennsylvania, author Cooper H. Wingert explores some of the people who helped to build the abolitionist movement in the Keystone state. In this excerpt from his new book, Wingert describes the early rise of abolitionism amongst the Quakers of Pennsylvania.  

In early nineteenth-century America, who opposed slavery? Although many had lamented bondage in the abstract, who was working actively to end slavery? In reality, the seeds of what became known as abolitionism were sown long before the nineteenth century, by men and women who would not be alive to see their work come to fruition.

Pennsylvania, a colony first settled by Quaker immigrants, experienced its own period of slavery that lasted into the early 1800s. During the colonial period, Quakers themselves were frequent owners of slaves, although the Friends would ultimately emerge as the leading religious opponents of slavery. The Society of Friends had a long history of conflict with slavery. In 1676, founder George Fox had advised Quaker planters on the island of Barbados to free their slaves if they had proved good servants. Consider, he asked them, “if you were in the same [c]ondition as the [b]lacks are…who came as [s]trangers to you, and were sold to you as Slaves; now I say, if this should be the [c]ondition of you or yours, you [would] think it hard [m] easure; yea, and very great Bondage and Cruelty.”

An abolitionist rendering of the slave trade, depicting coffled slaves in the shadow of the nation’s capital. Reprinted from Abolitionists of South Central Pennsylvania by Cooper H. Wingert, courtesy of the Library of Congress (pg. 21, The History Press, 2018).Despite these appeals, during the early colonial years, many Quakers still owned slaves. Lucrative trade relations with fellow Friends in Barbados may have stifled some early antislavery sentiments. Abolitionist Quakers were a decided minority during their first fifty years in Pennsylvania. Nevertheless, early antislavery tracts published by outspoken Pennsylvania Quakers evoked stirring images of the sins of slavery. Slaveholders, opined Friend Benjamin Lay in 1737, “are the choicest Treasure the Devil can or has to bring out of his Lazaretto… By these Satan works Wonders [in] many ways.” Those who “practise Tyranny and Oppression for Slave-keeping” assume “unjustly, Dominion over his Fellow-Creature’s Liberty and Property, contrary to Law, Reason or Equity.”

William Southeby, who first publicly protested slavery in 1696, invoked the “Golden Rule,” citing Matthew: those who “purchase…these negroes” appeared to him “to Contradict our Great Law-giver’s holy precepts… where he saith, whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, even so do ye unto them.” He also felt that many slaveholders had grown lazy and greedy, noting, “We hardly know how to carry it on without Slaves.” Southeby acknowledged that by freeing slaves, “we may not live altogether so high & full as now…by the oppression of these poor people,” but he believed that Pennsylvanians would enjoy “more peace, and a clearer Conscience in the Sight of God.” “I undoubtedly believe,” he continued, “that the time is come, and comeing that one nation shall not oppress, nor one people another; nor make Slaves of Each other, neither that the Great and merciful God will have respect to any one Sort of People more than to another, either because they are Black or White or Taunie.”
A map of South Central Pennsylvania. Reprinted from Abolitionists of South Central Pennsylvania by Cooper H. Wingert, courtesy of John Heiser (pg. 32, The History Press, 2018).
Moral epiphanies grew in number as the century progressed. In 1743, Quaker John Woolman found himself reluctant to draw up a bill of sale for a slave woman when requested by his employer. “The thing was [s]udden,” he wrote, “and though the thoughts of writing an Instrument of Slavery for one of my fellow creatures felt uneasie, yet I remembered I was hired by the year.…So through weakeness I gave way, and wrote it, but at the [e]xecuting it I was so [a]fflicted in my mind, that I said…that I believed Slavekeeping to be a practice inconsistent with the Christian Religion.”

Like-minded Quakers became more involved in monthly, quarterly and yearly meetings. In what would become a model for future abolitionist organizing, antislavery Quakers climbed the ladders of influence within Friends meetinghouses, placing themselves in positions to enact antislavery measures. In 1752, abolitionist Anthony Benezet, a French Huguenot refugee turned Quaker, was appointed to the overseers of the press, a vital group of Friends who decided what tracts were consistent with Quaker belief and could therefore be published. Once entrenched, Benezet helped pass resolutions limiting and discouraging slaveholding among fellow Quakers and published antislavery tracts—a precursor to the American Anti-Slavery Society’s “incendiary publications” of the 1830s. In the past, a previous generation of Quaker overseers had denied publication to antislavery tracts of reformers such as the vitriolic Benjamin Lay. In 1754, with Benezet and other abolitionists now overseers, they approved the publication of Some Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes, authored by John Woolman.

Benezet, who himself took up the pen, aimed to persuade the next generation to steer clear of slavery. He hoped that antislavery tracts would “make as publick as possible for ye sake of ye youth, who have kept themselves hitherto clear of those People.” Concurring with Benezet’s crusade, in 1758, the Philadelphia yearly meeting ordered the formation of committees of “elder” Quakers to “visit and treat with all such Friends who have any Slaves.” Among those making the rounds was John Woolman.

Yet Quaker abolitionism did not develop in a vacuum. In the mideighteenth century, people of African descent—both enslaved and free— had a sizable presence throughout Philadelphia and much of British North America. Recent scholarship suggests that Benezet’s writings may have been informed by interviews with African Americans. Their oral testimony to the cruelties of slave trade may very well account for the gripping detail found in his antislavery publications.

Not all Quakers were as voracious as the likes of Woolman and Benezet. Many lived to regret their lack of activism. Graceanna Lewis’s father died in 1824 with a deathbed confession that “he had allowed ill health to prevent him from becoming a member of the Abolition Society.” As Graceanna and her siblings grew into maturity, she was surrounded by family, friends and neighbors who all opposed human bondage. “My Mother and her family were equally a[s] opposed to slavery,” Lewis later recalled. “As we grew older, our associations were with Anti Slavery persons.” Living in eastern Pennsylvania, noted abolitionists were not always elusive celebrities. “Those who were doing their best to Extinguish American Slavery, were our guests and our favored friends,” she reminisced. Throughout her adolescence and adulthood, Lewis recalled with pride sheltering freedom seekers, most of whom had left the border slave states of Virginia, Maryland and Delaware.

Pennsylvania Hall, a prominent symbol of abolitionism in Philadelphia, was torched by a mob within days of its opening in May 1838. Reprinted from Abolitionists of South Central Pennsylvania by Cooper H. Wingert, courtesy of the Library of Congress (pg. 40, The History Press, 2018).At the same time, African American activists—the sometimes partners of Quakers—launched moral appeals to end slavery, many of them emanating from the pulpit. Richard Allen, Absalom Jones, James Forten and Russell Parrott published pamphlets condemning both slavery and the racism that pervaded even many abolitionists. Above all, they emphasized their determination to seek futures in America. “We were stolen from our mother country and brought here,” declared Allen, bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in Philadelphia, the first black denomination in the United States. “Africans have made fortunes for thousands, who are yet unwilling to part with their services[.]” By the turn of the nineteenth century, in Pennsylvania and elsewhere, Quakers and African Americans had lit the flame of reform that would soon inspire countless others.

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