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Quaker Antislavery: From Dissidence to Sense of the Meeting

From: Quaker History
Volume 101, Number 1, Spring 2012
pp. 12-33 | 10.1353/qkh.2012.0004

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Early in the nineteenth century Philadelphia Friends began pondering their role in early antislavery and using their antislavery credentials to assert their significance in Pennsylvania and American history. Roberts Vaux's account of the lives of Ralph Sandiford, Benjamin Lay, and Anthony Benezet and the canonization of John Woolman as the patron saint of abolitionists boosted Friends' self-esteem in their own eyes and in the regard of others. Thomas Clarkson's history of the abolition of the slave trade paid tribute to Anthony Benezet and made British Friends' roles as agitators equally prominent. In the nineteenth century American Friends dominated the manumission societies in North and South and they sent petitions to the state and federal governments. Thomas Garrett and Eli Coffin gained fame as conductors on the Underground Railroad, while Lucretia Mott and John G. Whittier joined the traditional Quaker style of quiet reform with the rhetorical fury of William Garrison and the American Abolition Society. Any questions about the moral fervor and rectitude of Quakers abolitionists should have been removed by the idyllic picture of the Halliday family in Uncle Tom's Cabin.

There was a counter image of Quakers as fanatics, even held by some Friends. In 1790 during the First Congress, after a Quaker petition against slavery was introduced, Congressman Smith of South Carolina recalled the compromises of the Constitutional Convention: "We took each other with our mutual bad habits and respective evils, for better, for worse. The Northern states adopted us with our slaves, and we adopted them with their Quakers." It was not just Southerners who in the decades before the Civil War saw the Friends as fanatics. Thomas Wentworth Higginson in 1858 described meeting a man who glowed with "that religious elevation which is itself a kind of refinement,—the quality one may see expressed in many a venerable Quaker face at yearly meeting." This description was of John Brown who had just met with his backers including Higginson to brief them on his plans for a raid on Harper's Ferry. Brown had two Quaker young men with him at Harper's Ferry. Most Friends would have cringed at seeing Brown as Quaker-like, but a majority of Hicksite and Orthodox Friends by the 1840s would have argued that the rhetoric and political activities of the abolitionists were the products of an enthusiasm that was unQuakerly and was more likely to lead to war than the end of slavery. Abby Foster Kelley was one of many Quakers who found the hesitancy or open opposition of the yearly meetings destructive of the antislavery movement and who publicly resigned their membership in the Society of Friends.

The history of Quakers and slavery is much more complex and nuanced than the popular images, and scholars have often dealt with many themes: the moral fervor of a few, the opposition or apathy of many in the eighteenth century, the condemnation in 1755 and 1758, the eventual triumph of abolitionism during the Revolution, the endeavor to find a satisfactory way of opposing slavery in a way congruent with other Quaker principles in the nineteenth century. Racism, colonization, free-produce, politics, class and the debate over how to treat free blacks within and outside the meeting influenced antislavery agitation. In addition, there were major regional differences in antislavery work in New England, the Middle Colonies, the South, and in the Middle West. Another geographic factor was the very different history of British Friends' influence on American Quaker attitudes in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and their roles in Parliament's ending the slave trade in 1807 and abolition in 1831. In order to accurately assess the Quaker impact as individuals and as a collective unit on slavery and abolition, historians must continue to address all these subjects. However, my focus will be much more modest—a reassessment of the few men who pioneered the antislavery movement by publishing tracts between 1675 and 1754.

The Quakers' initial encounter with slavery came in the 1650s when a few traveling ministers attempted to convert the West Indies planters and is notable for one phenomenon: neglect of any mention of the institution with no great concern for the enslaved. This absence...

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