Warner Mifflin: Unflinching Quaker Abolitionist by Gary B. Nash
Warner Mifflin (1745–98) was a significant Quaker abolitionist in the mid-Atlantic region during the revolutionary era. The turbulent period and central location that framed Mifflin's life, along with the nonviolent religion he professed and the antislavery agenda he pursued, are all familiar subjects to his new biographer, Gary B. Nash. Over the course of his long career, this prolific early Americanist has often returned to the exploration of Quaker activism and debates over race in the generation of the Founders, with a special eye toward Philadelphia and the Middle Colonies. His contribution has been significant. Prior generations of scholars had ignored the crucial reality that African Americans, almost all enslaved for life, made up one-fifth of the revolutionary-era population, and these historians argued, mistakenly, that the pragmatic founding generation had prudently postponed resolution of this marginal American dilemma. But as Nash demonstrated, slavery and the slave trade were not marginal issues in the period. In contrast, he has shown that, in a self-proclaimed era of enlightenment, the failure to repudiate race-based enslavement represented a central glaring contradiction, a source of widespread dispute, and a tragic missed opportunity. Undeniably, this conscious and costly misstep had debilitating long-term consequences for the emerging United States.
In Warner Mifflin, Nash brings more than a career of relevant scholarship to the task of drafting Mifflin's portrait. Like his subject, the biographer is deeply offended by what Mifflin called the "sordid and dishonest practice of trading in the life and liberty of our fellow men" (177), and both learned to become effective lobbyists against injustice and to endure the vilification that pursuit can entail. But though many portraitists feel connections to their sitters, the best ones also maintain a suitable distance, and Nash is too good a historian to compose an uncritical profile. Instead, he fleshes out the complexity of Mifflin's unusual life story, complete with its many ironies, self-doubts, and disappointments. The task is not easy because Mifflin was a persuasive speaker but not a voluminous writer. To recover the career and inner workings of a person unknown to most modern readers, Nash relies on diligent archival research and an impressive command of the secondary literature.
At a moment when the word friend has been trivialized, it is refreshing to come to know an exemplary Quaker "friend of all humankind" (8). And when swarms of modern lobbyists are self-interested and highly paid, it is [End Page 365] striking to meet a self-effacing eighteenth-century activist who was convinced that black lives matter and worked without pay for the good of those denied any voice. Mifflin overcame family tragedies and personal shyness, enduring both tedium and danger, to become a pioneer in the difficult art of changing the hearts, minds, and votes of public leaders. The thin, towering reformer in a broad-brimmed hat was forever "plodding by horse to state legislatures, one after another," trusting in his "omnipresent God" (176) for safe passage. A militant pacifist, Mifflin's most famous (and most dangerous) public exploit involved leading a peace delegation into the rival British and American camps after the Battle of Germantown in October 1777 (not 1779, as written on page 62). He beseeched generals William Howe and George Washington to cease their warfare and beat swords into plowshares. Predictably, the unlikely mission yielded no immediate results. But as Nash shows—building on the work of Marie-Jeanne Rossignol—J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur related the incident in 1784 in the expanded French edition of his Letters from an American Farmer.1 This embellished account enhanced the activist's international reputation as the ultimate "good Quaker" (67).
Mifflin's activism likely was a consequence of his childhood on Virginia's Eastern Shore, where the large slave labor camps euphemistically known as plantations had existed for several generations. "Thus situated," he later recalled, "and my Father then possessing a number of Slaves, I was in great danger of becoming blinded by the influence of Custom, the bias of Education, and the delusions of self-interest." But at fourteen, young Mifflin was grilled by a black field hand who questioned why African Americans should labor endlessly, unpaid and illiterate, to assure the prosperity and education of white children. Even in his fifties, Mifflin remembered this formative encounter vividly: "his reasoning finally so impressed me as never to be erased" (28).2 Still, he was a young married man, living on his own estate in Kent County, Delaware, before he granted freedom to the slaves he received from his Quaker father. The writings of abolitionist Quaker elders such as John Woolman and Anthony Benezet inspired him, and a life-threatening illness in 1774 prompted a religious awakening, sharpening his sense that he might die a sinner for continuing to own slaves. Months later, shortly before shots were fired at Lexington and Concord, he signed a heartfelt deed of [End Page 366] manumission and convinced his father to do the same. Mifflin stressed the importance of the Golden Rule, set forth in Matthew 7:12, and for the rest of his life he centered his antislavery mission on that precept.
In doing so, Nash argues, Mifflin kept alive a Quaker moral tradition that stretched back to Benjamin Lay, and he passed it forward to generations of nineteenth-century activists. He stood out not only for his keen opposition to the ongoing slave trade and the expanding institution of slavery but also for his unusual commitment to the idea that the sin of extracting unpaid work demands the atonement of paying compensation for time served. For this insight, Nash maintains, "he may fairly be called the father of American reparationism" (93). In addition, Mifflin became a progenitor of the nascent Underground Railroad. He explained that slaves on the Delmarva Peninsula were seeing "the cruel trade to the southward" increase: "Thinking I can do something for them, they fly to me" (196). Mifflin's distinctive beliefs and actions set him apart from mainstream elites. Nevertheless, he mingled in their company with surprising ease, so familiar figures such as John Dickinson, Joseph Galloway, and Benjamin Rush appear in these pages. Throughout, Nash conveys how, for Mifflin and others, the Quaker faith stimulated impressive levels of selfless commitment, while its emphasis on the cautious moderation of collective wisdom inhibited excesses of individual zeal.
Even after the death of his first wife, as ill health sapped Mifflin's strength and political setbacks mounted, he pressed ahead, encouraged by his second spouse, Ann. They attended the Quakers' Philadelphia Yearly Meeting in September 1798, even though an epidemic raged in the capital. Weeks later, racked with yellow fever, Mifflin penned his final letter, a heartfelt and futile appeal to John Adams. He implored the president to be more "animated" regarding the ongoing "oppression of our fellow-man, the Blacks in this land," especially because Congress had recently sanctioned slavery in Mississippi Territory, that "new country back of Georgia" (213). Three weeks later, at age fifty-three, he was dead. Four African Americans bore his casket to the Quaker burial site. There, surrounded by throngs of Quakers and free blacks from across the region, Ann Mifflin spoke of her husband's unfaltering commitment to liberate the oppressed. "Forbidden to attend," Nash explains, "were the area's enslaved men and women, whose masters feared the germ of freedom would spread" (215).
The final chapter, "Mifflin's Long Shadow," explores the paradoxical ways in which the abolitionist's influence coursed through his family. Ann Mifflin continued her husband's struggle for abolition and reparations, and she also became a staunch advocate for Native Americans. Only six of Warner Mifflin's twelve children from his two marriages survived to adulthood, and their mixed legacy divided starkly along gender lines. One son, Samuel, went insane, and another, Lemuel, renounced Quaker pacifism, [End Page 367] enlisting with the Pennsylvania Volunteers before succumbing to alcoholism. A third, his father's namesake, allowed the free son of a former Mifflin slave to be deported and enslaved, then failed to rescue the captive by providing the necessary proof of the black teenager's freeborn status. This dismal record in the male line may, or may not, speak to the burdens placed on boys growing up under a father who was regularly absent, frequently ill, and always committed to inhumanly high standards of patience, humility, and service.
In contrast, Mifflin's grown daughters modeled his lofty ideals in their abolitionist marriages and Quaker good works. His youngest daughter, Sarah, gave birth in 1819 to Elizabeth Neall, "who was to loom large in abolitionist and feminist history and carry the legacy of Warner Mifflin deep into the nineteenth century" (240). In 1842, wedded to the editor of the National Anti-Slavery Standard, Neall resolved that the couple would press ahead in the struggle until slave owning was "utterly annihilated and the recollection of the accursed system" had been "handed over to the scorn and contempt of coming generations" (241). Neall's Quaker grandfather would have been distressed by the vast bloodshed required to annihilate race slavery and by the unwillingness of later generations to treat the accursed system with the scorn and contempt he knew it deserved. [End Page 368]
1. J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur, Lettres d'un cultivateur américain…. (Paris,1784); Marie-Jean Rossignol, "The Quaker Antislavery Commitment and How It Revolutionized French Antislavery through the Crèvecoeur-Brissot Friendship, 1782–1789," in Quakers and Abolition, ed. Brycchan Carey and Geoffrey Plank (Urbana, Ill., 2014), 180–94.
2. Warner Mifflin, The Defense of Warner Mifflin Against Aspersions cast on him on Account of his endeavors To promote Righteousness, Mercy, and Peace Among Mankind (Philadelphia, 1796), 3–5 ("situated," 3–4, "reasoning," 4–5).