Benezet, Anthony (1713-1784)
Anthony Benezet (1713-1784)
Quaker reformer, educator, author
Background. Anthony Benezet was born on 31 January 1713 in Saint-Quentin, France, to Huguenot parents, Jean Etienne and Judith Benezet. In 1715 Jean Etienne took his family to London to avoid religious persecution. In London, where the Benezets remained for sixteen years, Anthony trained as an apprentice in a mercantile business but left his master to bind himself to a cooper. In 1731 the Benezet family of nine moved to Philadelphia, where Anthony worked as a commercial trader and started attending Quaker meetings. In 1736 Benezet married Joyce Marriott, a Quaker from Burlington, New Jersey, to whom he was married for forty-eight years. He and his wife moved around as Benezet tried to find a comfortable career in business, but he finally decided that business was not what he wanted. In 1739 he took his first teaching job as master of the Germantown Academy, where he succeeded Francis Daniel Pastorius.
Early Teaching Career. Benezet remained at the Germantown Academy until 1742, when he applied for a teaching position at the Friends’ English Public School in Philadelphia (later the William Penn Charter School). The overseers agreed to hire him at fifty pounds for one year if he would teach fifteen poor children. He taught eight hours a day, six days a week, and was known as an unconventional schoolmaster because he treated his pupils with kindness rather than with harsh discipline. In 1754 he left the Friends’ School to establish a Girls’ School in Philadelphia. This morning school for about thirty girls was directed by the Society of Friends, who donated the building and equipment and drew up the regulations. Benezet agreed to teach reading, writing, arithmetic, Latin, French, and English grammar, but he stayed only a year. From 1755 to 1757 Ann Thornton took Benezet’s place as teacher, but when she left, Benezet returned to the school. He taught classic and literary studies to the daughters of wealthy Philadelphians. In 1766, in poor health, he retired from the Girls’ School to rest. In these months he wrote A Caution and Warning to Great Britain, a treatise on slavery. However, after only nine months of retirement he missed education, and in 1767 he went back to teaching classes for poor girls at an annual salary of twenty pounds.
Crusader against Slavery. In addition to his other duties in the early 1750s, Benezet started an evening school for blacks in his home that he continued for about twenty years without pay. By the 1760s he was an active abolitionist. His Quaker beliefs led him to condemn slavery as a sin, and he joined others in outlawing Quaker slaveholding. In 1776, with John Woolman, another prominent Quaker, he led the Quaker Yearly Meeting that ordered other local meetings to expel slave-owning Quakers. In addition he wrote newspaper articles and pamphlets opposing the slave trade. He corresponded with abolitionists William Wilberforce and Granville Sharp in England and the Abbé Raynal and Benjamin Franklin in France. A steady proponent of education for the poor, blacks, and girls, he encouraged the Society of Friends to build a school for blacks and solicited funds for it. In 1770 such a school was built in Philadelphia, but school-masters were hard to find. When the schoolmaster John Houghton resigned in 1782, no qualified replacement could be found, so Benezet spent the last two years of his life teaching at the school. When he died, he left his small estate to endow this school, which became a Quaker school with the Overseers of the Friends’ Public Schools as trustees.
Publications. Benezet wrote against slavery, war, and inhumanity. Among the many publications Benezet wrote about slavery were A Caution and Warning to Great Britain and her Colonies on the Calamitous State of the Enslaved Negroes (1766) (perhaps his most important writing, approved by the Yearly Meeting in Philadelphia in 1766 and distributed in England), A Caution to Great Britain and Her Colonies, in a Short Representation of the Calamitous State of the Enslaved Negroes in the British Dominion (1767), and Some Historical Account of Guinea, its Situation, Produce and the General Disposition of its Inhabitants. With an Inquiry into the Rise and Progress of the Slave Trade its Nature and Lamentable Effects (1771), which inspired the antislavery agitator Thomas Clarkson to begin his campaign against slavery in the 1780s. Benezet also wrote several educational books in response to the needs of his students. For young children he wrote A First Book for Children (1778), and for the older students he published The Pennsylvania Spelling Book (1776) and An Essay on Grammar (1779). His spelling book was unique in that it combined a primer with a spelling book so that they could be used together or separately. In 1782 Benezet revised and expanded the spelling book to 168 pages. More than just a book on spelling, it contained pronunciations, parables, maxims, poetry, catechism, and rules for behavior.
Social Reformer. Benezet’s life and work were filled with Quaker principles. He worked for social justice in teaching all children regardless of race, age, physical limitations, and economic status; in helping French Acadians and Native Americans; and in crusading against slavery. He opposed the use of cruel teaching methods, preferring instead to use compassion and gentleness. He created his own primer, speller, and grammar books, including a curriculum for the deaf. He died on 3 May 1784 in Philadelphia.
George S. Brookes, Friend Anthony Benezet (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1937);
Lawrence Cremin, American Education: The Colonial Experience, 1607-1783 (New York: Harper & Row, 1970).
An American philanthropist and Quaker educator, Anthony Benezet (1713-1784) wrote and distributed antislavery tracts, promoted education for women and African Americans, urged better relations with the Native Americans, and composed a brief history of his sect.
Of a well-to-do Huguenot family, Anthony Benezet was born in Saint-Quentin, France, on Jan. 31, 1713. When he was 2, his family moved to Rotterdam to escape religious persecutions following revocation of the Edict of Nantes; shortly afterward they went to London. Anthony received a liberal education, was apprenticed to a mercantile house, and at the age of 14 joined the Quaker faith.
The family came to Philadelphia in 1731, and 18-year-old Anthony entered the merchant business with his three brothers. In May 1736 he married Joyce Marriott. Following a brief experience in manufacturing in Wilmington, Del., he decided to enter teaching. He attended Germantown Academy and then instructed in the Friends' English Public School in Philadelphia (1742-1754).
Distressed by the inferior education offered to women, Benezet established a girls' school in 1755. Through wide reading, travelers' reports, and the influence of Quaker minister John Woolman, he became concerned about slavery. Benezet corresponded with English emancipationists and began to write pieces for newspapers and almanacs, as well as free pamphlets, on the subject. His knowledge of French enabled him to communicate with the 450 Acadian exiles who came to Philadelphia in 1756; he solicited funds and obtained shelter for them and appealed to the Assembly in their behalf.
Benezet's health was poor, and in 1766 he retired to the quiet of his wife's hometown of Burlington, N.J., but he could not remain inactive. He wrote A Caution …to Great Britain and Her Colonies on the Calamitous State of the Enslaved Negroes (1766). This was his most important work; approved by the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of Friends, it was widely distributed in Britain. He returned to teaching in Philadelphia in 1768. His Some Historical Account of Guinea… (1771) helped stir up English protests against the slave trade.
Benezet founded a school for African American children in 1770; after the Revolution it met for a time in his home. He taught until nearly the end of his life, and when his wife died in 1784, he endowed his school with what property he possessed. Overseers of the Friends' Public Schools were named trustees for the institution.
Yet African Americans were not his only interest. He published an essay, "The Mighty Destroyer Displaced" (1774), against excessive consumption of alcohol, which influenced Dr. Benjamin Rush to write a powerful temperance treatise. Benezet's Short Account of the People Called Quakers… (1780) was one of the earliest American histories of that denomination. Convinced the Native Americans had been mistreated, he worked to ameliorate their lot; in his last year he published Some Observations on the … Indian Natives of This Continent. Benezet died in Philadelphia on May 3, 1784.
George S. Brookes, Friend Anthony Benezet (1937), is a detailed account of the humanitarian's life. Much earlier but still worthwhile is Roberts Vaux, Memoirs of the Life of Anthony Benezet (1817). François Jean de Chastellux, Travels in North-America in the Years 1780, 1781, and 1782 (2 vols., 1786; trans. 1787; rev. trans. 1963), has some interesting observations. □