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Quaker Merchants and Slavery in Early National Alexandria, Virginia: The Ordeal of William Hartshorne

From: Journal of the Early Republic
Volume 25, Number 1, Spring 2005
pp. 47-77 | 10.1353/jer.2005.0005

Abstract

Between 1780 and 1820 members of northern Virginia's Society of Friends attempted to mediate the spiritual demands of their faithÐincluding equalitarianism and pacifismÐand the hierarchical nature of the slave society in which they resided. This balancing act was particularly difficult for those Quakers most deeply embedded in the slave economy: merchants residing in the port of Alexandria. These FriendsÑmen like merchant William HartshorneÑstrived simultaneously to oppose slavery and prosper within a slave-based economy. However, the tensions inherent in their anomalous position forced stark choices: accommodation, subversion, or emigration. After 1780, large numbers of Quakers chose the latter route, but for individuals like Hartshorne who remained in Virginia, becoming genuine subversives was impossible as long as their economic welfare depended on the region's slave economy. Though Hartshorne did not personally own or hire slaves, involvement in various internal projects that hired slaves and financial institutions that supported slavery implicated him in the institution. As the region's commitment to slavery grew in the wake of the Haitian revolution and Gabriel's Rebellion, Friends found their situation growing increasingly difficult. Most notably, in the early nineteenth century, in response to the state's legal and economic pressure, the antislavery society that Hartshorne helped establish after the revolution collapsed. Not until near the end of his life would Hartshorne again publicly adopt antislavery positions, but only after he experienced economic ruin and his family's dependence on slavery ended. In short, in a society increasingly committed to slavery, outsiders like the Quakers were compelled to compromise their spiritual and moral beliefs if they wished to thrive.



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