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Let This Voice Be Heard

Anthony Benezet, Father of Atlantic Abolitionism

By Maurice Jackson

Publication Year: 2010

Anthony Benezet (1713-84), universally recognized by the leaders of the eighteenth-century antislavery movement as its founder, was born to a Huguenot family in Saint-Quentin, France. As a boy, Benezet moved to Holland, England, and, in 1731, Philadelphia, where he rose to prominence in the Quaker antislavery community.

In transforming Quaker antislavery sentiment into a broad-based transatlantic movement, Benezet translated ideas from diverse sources—Enlightenment philosophy, African travel narratives, Quakerism, practical life, and the Bible—into concrete action. He founded the African Free School in Philadelphia, and such future abolitionist leaders as Absalom Jones and James Forten studied at Benezet's school and spread his ideas to broad social groups. At the same time, Benezet's correspondents, including Benjamin Franklin, Benjamin Rush, Abbé Raynal, Granville Sharp, and John Wesley, gave his ideas an audience in the highest intellectual and political circles.

In this wide-ranging intellectual biography, Maurice Jackson demonstrates how Benezet mediated Enlightenment political and social thought, narratives of African life written by slave traders themselves, and the ideas and experiences of ordinary people to create a new antislavery critique. Benezet's use of travel narratives challenged proslavery arguments about an undifferentiated, "primitive" African society. Benezet's empirical evidence, laid on the intellectual scaffolding provided by the writings of Hutcheson, Wallace, and Montesquieu, had a profound influence, from the high-culture writings of the Marquis de Condorcet to the opinions of ordinary citizens. When the great antislavery spokesmen Jacques-Pierre Brissot in France and William Wilberforce in England rose to demand abolition of the slave trade, they read into the record of the French National Assembly and the British Parliament extensive unattributed quotations from Benezet's writings, a fitting tribute to the influence of his work.

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press


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pp. iii


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pp. iv


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pp. vii

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pp. ix-xv

Three men, three black men, who wrote in three different centuries, led me to the study of the French-born, Philadelphia-based Quaker antislavery leader Anthony Benezet. Olaudah Equiano first alerted me to Benezet in his The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano (1789), with hisreferences to ‘‘see Anthony Benezet throughout’’ to bolster his own...

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1. A Life of Conscience

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pp. 1-30

Anthony Benezet transformed early Quaker antislavery sentiment into a broad-based transatlantic movement. He translated ideas from diverse sources—Enlightenment philosophy, talks with enslaved and free Africans,Quakerism, practical life, African travel narratives, and the Bible—into concrete action, and in doing so became universally recognized by the...

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2. The Early Quaker Antislavery Movement

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pp. 31-56

The men listed in A Poetic Epistle—Ralph Sandiford, Benjamin Lay, John Woolman, and Anthony Benezet—led the long Quaker battle against slavery. 1 Although Benezet transformed the Philadelphia antislavery movement into an Atlantic force in the mid- to late eighteenth century, he would have been the first to recognize the contributions of the Quaker abolitionists who had preceded him...

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3. An Antislavery Intellect Develops

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pp. 57-70

In 1727 Anthony Benezet’s mother sent her fourteen-year-old out to pickup a five-volume set of philosophical writings and correspondence.1 This errand perhaps led to Benezet’s lifelong pattern of reading the work of leading thinkers and authors of religious, scientific, and philosophical tracts. As an adult Benezet immersed himself in the works of the Scottish...

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4. Visions of Africa

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pp. 72-107

Anthony Benezet transformed eighteenth-century discourse about slaveryby using empirical knowledge of Africa to combat the existing negative image of Africans as lawless, heathen savages and even as not fully human. As the first Quaker epistles against slavery (1753–58) make clear, Benezet had by then read some of the slave traders’ journals and narratives.1 By...

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5. Building an Antislavery Consensus in North America

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pp. 108-137

Anthony Benezet’s arguments against slavery evolved rapidly in the 1750s and early 1760s. To the existing religious arguments set forth by such men as Ralph Sandiford and Benjamin Lay, Benezet added two new dimensions: Scottish Enlightenment philosophy and empirical knowledge of Africa, drawn from accounts written by slave traders themselves...

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6. Transatlantic Beginnings and the British Antislavery Movement

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pp. 138-167

Anthony Benezet knew that the fight to end slavery and the slave trade hadto be a transatlantic battle. Although he realized that slavery did not exist in the pure chattel form in Britain, he knew that British vessels, with British owners, transported blacks across the Atlantic. As he corresponded with men in England, he also learned about the conditions of the roughly fourteen...

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7. Benezet and the Antislavery Movement in France

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pp. 168-186

Anthony Benezet had a powerful influence on the leaders of the French antislavery movement. Following the lead of Abbe´ Henri-Baptiste Gre´goire,French writers considered Benezet to be one of their own. Gre´goire dedicated his Enquiry Concerning the Intellectual and Moral Facilities, and Literatureof Negroes ‘‘to all those men who have had the courage to lead the cause of...

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8. African Voices

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pp. 187-210

The writings and deeds of Anthony Benezet had a profound influence on men and women of African descent. Although only a few Africans who were transported to Europe or the Americas had learned to read and write, by the mid- to late eighteenth century Ignatius Sancho, Quobna Ottobah Cugoano, Olaudah Equiano, and James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw wrote about their experiences and about the injustice of slavery...

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Epilogue: Benezet’s Dream

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pp. 211-230

In Thomas Paine’s 1775 essay ‘‘African Slavery in America’’ he proclaimed,‘‘The great Question may be—What should be done with those who are enslaved already?’’ He then wrote that ‘‘to turn the old an[d] infirm free, would be an injustice and cruelty.’’ He proposed to keep them in slavery‘ ‘and treat them humanly.’’ The plight of the able bodied would be left up...

Chronology of Atlantic Abolitionism

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pp. 231-253


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pp. 255-350

Primary Sources

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pp. 351-352


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pp. 353-370

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pp. 371-374

I have been fortunate at Georgetown University. There I have been a student, a worker, an alumnus, a professor, and most recently the proud father of a Georgetown graduate. Along the way I found support and kindness from many souls. Late-night talks with the security guards, especially Patricia Watkins, and early-morning talks with the janitorial crews have kept my...

Illustrations follow page

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E-ISBN-13: 9780812202342
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812221268

Page Count: 400
Publication Year: 2010