- From Peace to Freedom: Quaker Rhetoric and the Birth of American Antislavery, 1657–1761 by Brycchan Carey
The Quaker decision to turn against slavery, Brycchan Carey writes in his introduction, was “neither easy nor inevitable.” Everyone acknowledges that Friends played a disproportionate role in the movements against slavery in the British Isles and North America from the 1760s to the 1860s, but, in his mind, at least, relatively few understand how and why that happened. From Peace to Freedom is a marvelous overview of how Friends came to understand that slavery was contrary to the will of God, and so positioned themselves to try to persuade the rest of the world of that truth.
Carey opens with an overview of historiography that is invaluable in its own right. He then proceeds to Barbados between 1657 and 1676, where Friends first encountered African slavery. As previous scholarship has shown, Quakers were among the slaveholding planters in that slave society. Visiting Friends, particularly the Public Friends Alice Curwen, William Edmundson, and George Fox himself, were clearly uneasy with what they saw, and admonished Friends to take their slaves to meeting and to treat them humanely. Carey concludes that the foundations of Quaker antislavery discourse were laid in the encounter with slavery on Barbados.
The rest of Carey’s book focuses on Philadelphia and London yearly meetings in four time periods: 1688–1700, 1711–1719, 1727–1743, and 1753–1761. In hindsight, Carey finds a fitful but clear progression of Friends toward an antislavery position. The starting point in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting was the protest of a small group of Germantown Friends “against the traffic of menbody.” The memorial touched on four themes that would recur in future antislavery writing by Friends. First, the Golden Rule was invoked—since no one would wish to be enslaved, enslaving others was a violation. The second was a comparison of Christianity with heathenism, in this case the “Turcks.” Slavery was a heathen practice, unworthy of Christians. The third theme was theft—to traffic in slaves was to traffic in stolen human beings. Finally, there was an implicit [End Page 54] appeal to the oneness of humanity: “Have these negers not as much right to fight for their freedom, as you have to keep them slaves?” Combined with the antislavery writings of George Keith and the reservations of a few other Friends, by 1700 Friends, if not ready for definite action against slavery, had heard the arguments that would eventually move them in that direction.
Between 1711 and 1743 Carey sees further debate taking place. The results were disappointing to opponents of slavery. While Philadelphia Yearly Meeting had as early as 1696 advised Friends not to import more slaves, it took no action to enforce it. By the 1730s, however, worried Friends were raising the issue with regularity, and apparently with some effect—weighty Friends were less likely to be slaveholders than a generation earlier.
The great change took place between 1753, when Philadelphia Yearly Meeting’s Overseers of the Press authorized the publication of John Woolman’s Some Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes, and 1761, when London Yearly Meeting ruled that Quaker participation in the slave trade anywhere was a violation of the Discipline. Carey argues that this was not the result of the unprofitability of slavery, as Jean Soderlund has suggested, or a direct response to the Seven Years War. Instead, it was the fruit of discourse that went back a century.
Carey focuses on London and Philadelphia yearly meetings, understandable given their centrality to the Quaker world. Perhaps the biggest question left in this reviewer’s mind is how Friends in Rhode Island, many of who were actively involved in the African slave trade, fit within this framework. But that unanswered question in no way detracts from Carey’s accomplishment. [End Page 55]