Some Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes
Reprinted in Early American Writing
Published in 1994
Edited by Giles Gunn
"If I purchase a Man who hath never forfeited his Liberty, the natural Right of Freedom is in him; and shall I keep him and his Posterity in Servitude and Ignorance?"
Slavery existed in Africa long before Europeans started an international slave trade off the western coast of the continent in the 1400s. For hundreds of years Africans had taken members of other tribes into slavery during wars or used slavery as punishment for crimes within their own groups. There were also enslaved craftsmen, warriors, and advisors to tribal chiefs and kings. While a small slave trade was conducted between Africa and Europe prior to the discovery of the Americas, it increased significantly when the Spaniards discovered that marketable products such as sugar could be grown in the Caribbean islands.
Initially the Europeans used Native Americans as workers on sugar plantations (large farms), but the native peoples quickly died from European diseases. As a result, plantation owners turned to Africa for slaves. Even at its height, the slave trade was not well organized, nor was it controlled by Europeans. Instead, African traders sold other Africans. They took their captives from an area that stretched three thousand miles south along the Senegambia River to the Congo River—a distance greater than that between present-day New York and California.
The first slaves in North America arrived in 1619 at Jamestown, Virginia, when a Dutch trader exchanged twenty slaves for provisions (a stock of food). Soon Africans were essential to the American plantation economy. The slave trade became a booming business, not only in the South but also at busy ports in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. The trade route formed a triangle: ships loaded with European-made goods departed from British ports and landed on the west coast of Africa, where the goods would be exchanged for slaves. Then the slaves were transported to the American colonies or the Caribbean islands and traded for agricultural products. Finally, completing the triangle, the ships took this cargo back to England. Merchants made money only if the slaves were alive upon delivery in American ports, so they hired ship captains who kept Africans healthy during the long trip across the Atlantic Ocean.
Sailors referred to the shipboard experience of enslaved Africans as "the middle passage." During the voyage men were usually chained, while women and children were allowed some freedom of movement on the ship deck. Captains chose one of two methods for transporting slaves: tight packing or loose packing. Tight packing squeezed in as many slaves as possible, thus preventing them from moving about or even sitting up. Males lay in space six feet long, sixteen inches wide, and two and one-half feet high. Females occupied an area five feet long, fourteen inches wide, and two and one-half feet high. Captains who chose this method did not want to waste valuable space, since the more slaves they transported the more money they would get even if a higher percentage of slaves died. They also increased their profits by giving the slaves little food and hiring a minimum number of crewmen. Other captains chose loose packing. They believed that giving slaves more room, better food, and freedom to move about reduced the death rate. Many captains insured their slave cargo against drowning. Because insurance did not cover the loss of slaves who died during the voyage, some captains dumped dying slaves overboard and claimed they drowned in order to collect insurance benefits.
Once slave ships had docked, the goal of merchants was to make a profit from a quick sale. In some cases an entire group of slaves might be reserved for one planter (plantation owner), thus closing the sale to anyone else. A more common practice was to sell slaves at an auction where buyers would place bids (call out a price). Prior to the auction, slaves were exhibited before interested buyers (planters), who poked and prodded them. After the slaves had been examined, an auctioneer would sell them to buyers who had placed the highest bids. Another method involved merchants setting a price beforehand and then selling the slaves in groups as buyers scrambled into a holding pen to pick out the choicest slaves. Olaudah Equiano (c.1750–1797), a freed African slave, described the chaotic scene of such a sale in his autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano (1789). "On a signal given," Equiano wrote, "the buyers rush at once into the yard where the slaves are confined, and make choice of that parcel (portion of land) they like best. The noise and clamor with which this is attended, and the eagerness visible on the countenances of the buyers, serve not a little to increase the apprehensions of terrified Africans."
After the mid-1600s slavery was legalized through a series of laws called slave codes. The Virginia legislature passed several such laws. A 1662 statute, for instance, made the child of a slave woman a slave (see "Servants and Slaves in Virginia")—even if the father was free and even if the father was a white master. A 1669 law declared that if a slave died while resisting his or her master, the master could not be charged with a felony. Slaves were worth large sums of money, so even harsher laws gave owners the right to demand the return of runaways, who were considered legal "property."
Although most slaves were put to work on tobacco and rice plantations in the South, all of the colonies used slave laborers. Whether slavery caused racism (prejudice because of race) or racism caused slavery might never be fully determined, but African slaves were generally considered unequal to white people. At first owners made an effort to keep slave families together. But gradually this practice changed and, as slaves were routinely bought and sold, families were broken apart. Husbands and wives tended not to live together, and children were often sold at a young age since they took time away from their mothers' work. By the 1740s the majority of African slaves remained in bondage throughout their lives. The number of slaves in a colony depended on economic factors. In areas where slavery was most profitable, there were more Africans—for instance, they comprised the majority of the population of South Carolina as early as 1708. Slaves had their own cabins in the South, whereas in the northern colonies they lived in cellars, attics, and sheds. Africans were frequently mistreated by white masters and overseers, who beat them for such infractions (violations) as not working hard enough or trying to run away.
By the late 1600s European colonists were interacting with Africans on a daily basis, and many masters even regarded their slaves as part of their own families. Historians have noted some improvements in the quality of life for slaves during this period. The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, a religious organization in New England, advocated the education of blacks. Colonial leaders such as Massachusetts preacher Cotton Mather (1663–1728) taught Africans to read. There were also a few isolated protests against slavery. The first was voiced in 1688 by Francis Pastorius (1651–?1720), a German-born Quaker (member of a Christian Protestant group that advocated direct communication with God through an "inner light") who founded Germantown, Pennsylvania. In 1700 Samuel Sewall(1652–1730), a Massachusetts merchant and judge, published a pamphlet titled The Selling of Joseph in which he attacked slavery as being un-Christian. Yet racism and mistreatment of blacks was still prevalent throughout the colonies, and whites rarely questioned the morality of slavery—it was too essential to the economy.
The movement against slavery did not gain momentum until nearly a half century later when Quaker pastor John Woolman (1720–1772) set out on the first of thirty annual excursions to attend Quaker meetings (religious services). From his home in Mount Holly, New Jersey, he journeyed around New England and down to the Carolinas. Wherever he went—in both the South and the North—he encountered slavery, and he was deeply troubled by the sight of people being owned as property. Woolman therefore resolved to mount a vigorous abolitionist (antislavery) campaign as he made his annual trips. When he traveled in the South, he preached his message to slave holders. In Rhode Island he tried to persuade ship owners not to transport slaves from Africa to North America. He refused to buy any products connected with the slave trade, and he would not accept hospitality from slave owners.
Especially disturbing to Woolman was the fact that Africans were being held slaves by Christians, and even by Quakers. In fact, in the 1720s, the Society of Friends (the official name of the Quaker group) expelled at least one member who opposed the keeping of slaves. Finally Woolman decided to limit his abolitionist efforts to the Quaker community, writing essays on social injustices for Quaker publications. One of those essays was Some Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes, which was published in 1754.
Things to Remember While Reading Some Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes:
- Modern readers should be aware of Some Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes because it played a major role in starting the abolition movement, which gained full momentum in the nineteenth century. Largely as a result of the efforts of abolitionists, President Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865) issued the Emancipation Proclamation (1863), which freed all slaves during the Civil War (1861–65; also called the War Between the States, the Civil War was a conflict between the Northern states, or the Union, and the Confederacy, a group of Southern states that formed their own nation.)
- Nevertheless, Woolman's essay presents some difficulties for the modern reader. For example, he was addressing an eighteenth-century Quaker audience, so his writing style is typical of the period. He also made numerous references to the Bible (the Christian holy book). For those reasons, explanatory notes are included in the excerpts from Some Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes.
Some Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes
Woolman opened the essay by asserting that he had a duty to protest the mistreatment of African slaves in "an enlight'ned Christian Country." In the following two paragraphs he reminded his readers that all human beings, including Africans, share the same characteristics and that all people are members of "a general Brotherhood." As mere "Sojourners," (temporary travelers) in the world, they experience the same "Afflictions and Infirmities of Body, the like Disorders and Frailties in Mind, the like Temptations, the same Death." He went on to point out that over time Christians came to be "filled with fond Notions of Superiority," forgetting their duty to be caretakers of weaker fellow human beings.
Gen. iii. 20
Gen. iii. 20: A book (Genesis), chapter, and verse in the New Testament of the Bible
Sojourners: A temporary resident
Afflictions: Inflict sufferings upon
Frailties: A fault due to weakness especially of moral character
When we remember that all Nations are of one Blood,Gen. iii.20. that in this World we are butSojourners, that we are subject to the like [same]Afflictions and Infirmities of Body, the like DisordersFrailties in Mind, the like Temptations, the same Death, and the sameJudgement, and, that the Alwise Being is Judge and Lord over us all, it seems to raise an Idea of a general Brotherhood, and a Disposition easy to be touched with a Feeling of each others Afflictions: But when we forget those Things, and look chiefly at our outward Circumstances, in this and some Ages past, constantly retaining in our Minds the Distinctionbetwixt us and them, with respect to out Knowledge and Improvement in Things divine, natural and artificial, our Breasts being apt to be filled with fond Notions of Superiority, there is Danger oferring in our Conduct toward them [mistreating them].
We allow them to be of the same Species with ourselves, the Odds is, we are in a higherStation, and enjoy greater Favours then they: And when it is thus, that our heavenly Fatherendoweth some of his Children with distinguished Gifts, they are intended for good Ends; but if those thus gifted are thereby lifted up above their Brethren, not considering themselves as Debtors to the Weak, nor behaving themselves as faithfulStewards none who judge impartially can suppose them free from Ingratitude [that is, they are not being properly grateful to God for the gifts they have been given]. . . .
Woolman argued that Christians must imitate the impartial, "universal" love of God, which "begets a Likeness of itself, and the Heart is enlarged towards all Men." He warned that prejudice—considering "a People froward, perverse, and worse by Nature than others—is unworthy of Christians ("unbecoming the Excellence of true Religion"). Then he appealed to his readers to put themselves in the place of African slaves, "to make their Case ours." Suppose, he wrote, that white people had been held as slaves and received no education, no cultural advantages, no religious teachings, or no rewards for their own labor. Suppose further that they had been "treated as a contemptible, ignorant Part of Mankind." If that was the case, he asked, would white people be any different from Africans? Examining the case further, Woolman asserted that it is impossible for oppressed people to love their oppressors. The only result can be a miserable situation, which produces "Sloth and many other Habits appearing odious to us."
Erring: To make a mistake
Station: Social status
Endoweth: To furnish with an income
Stewards: People who manage another's property
Brethren: Referring to the members of a profession, society, or sect
Begets: To produce especially as an effect or outgrowth
Froward: Frequently disobedient
"They ran off with us"
In The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano (1789), freedman Olaudah Equiano described how, when he was eleven years old, he and his sister were kidnapped by African slave traders.
One day, when all our people were gone out to their works as usual, and only I and my dear sister were left to mind the house, two men and a woman got over our walls, and in a moment seized us both; and, without giving us time to cry out, or to make resistance, they stopped our mouths, tied our hands, and ran off with us into the nearest wood, and continued to carry us as far as they could, till night came on, when we reached a small house, where the robbers halted for refreshment, and spent the night.
We were then unbound, but were unable to take any food; and, being quite overpowered by fatigue and grief, our only relief was some sleep, which allayed [reduced] our misfortune for a short time. The next morning we left the house, and continued travelling all the day. For a long time we had kept to the woods, but at last we came into a road which I believed I knew. I now had some hopes of being delivered, for we had advanced but a little way before I discovered some people at a distance, on which I began to cry out for their assistance; but my cries had no other effect than to make them tie me faster, and stop my mouth, and then they put me into a large sack. They also stopped my sister's mouth, and tied her hands. And in this manner we proceeded till we were out of the sight of these people.
When we went to rest the following night they offered us some victuals [food], but we refused them; and the only comfort we had was in being in one another's arms all that night, and bathing each other in our tears. But, alas! we were soon deprived ofeven the smallest comfort of weeping together. The next day proved a day of greater sorrow than I had yet experienced; for my sister and I were then separated, while we lay clasped in each other's arms. It was in vain that we besought [begged] them not to part us: she was torn from me, and immediately carried away, while I was left in a state of distraction [mental confusion] not to be described. I cried and grieved continually; and for several days I did not eat anything but what they forced into my mouth.
Later Equiano's sister was brought to a house where he was working as a slave, and he was overjoyed to see her. But, he said, ". . . she was again torn from me forever! I was now more miserable, if possible, than before. . . ."
Reprinted in: Stiles, T. J., ed. In Their Own Words: The Colonizers. New York: Berkeley Publishing Group, 1998, pp. 352–53, 354.
To consider Mankind otherwise thanBrethren, to think Favours are peculiar to one Nation, and exclude others, plainly supposes a Darkness in the Understanding: For as God's Love is universal, so where the Mind is inefficiently influenced by it, itbegets a Likeness of itself, and the Heart is enlarged towards all Men. Again, to conclude a Peoplefroward, perverse, and worse by Nature than others (who ungratefullyreceive Favours, and apply them to bad Ends) this will excite a Behaviour toward them unbecoming the Excellence of true Religion.
Servile: Of or befitting a slave or a menial position
Destitute: Extremely poor
Pious: Marked by or showing reverence for deity and devotion to divine worship
Contemptible: Vile; despicable
Abject: Sunk to or existing in a low state or condition
To prevent such Error, let us calmly consider their Circumstance;and, the better to do it, make their Case ours. Suppose, then, that ourAncestors and we had been exposed to constant Servitude in the moreservile and inferior Employments of Life; that we had beendestitute of the Help of Reading and good Company; that amongst ourselveswe had had few wise andpious Instructors; that the Religiousamongst our Superiors seldom took Notice of us; that while others, inEase, have plentifully heap'd up the Fruit of our Labour, we hadreceiv'd barely enough to relieve Nature, and being wholly at theCommand of others, had generally been treated as acontemptible, ignorant Part of Mankind: Should we, in that Case, be lessabject than they now are? . . .
When our Property is taken contrary to our Mind, by Meansappearing to us unjust, it is only through divine Influence, and theEnlargement of heart from thence proceeding, that we can love ourreputed Oppressors: If the Negroes fall short in this, an uneasy, if notadisconsolate Disposition, will be awak'ned, and remain like Seedsin their Minds, producingSloth and many other Habits appearingodious to us, with which being free Men, they, perhaps, had notbeen chargeable. These, and other Circumstances, rightly considered, will lessen that too great Disparity, which some make betweenus and them. . . .
Disconsolate: Dejected, downcast
Odious: Exciting or deserving hatred or repugnance
In the final excerpt from the essay, Woolman stated that it was time for white people to take responsibility for the situation they had created by owning slaves. He rejected the argument that slaves were a financial investment and owners were entitled to make a profit from them. Slavery is morally and logically wrong, he contended, and it is "better that there were none in our Country." In conclusion, he noted that continuing slavery would "not be doing as we would be done by [would not be treating others as we want to be treated]."
It may be objected there is Cost of Purchase, and Risque of their Lives to them who possess' em, and therefore needful that they make the best Use of their Time: In a Practice just and reasonable, such Objections may have Weight; but if the Work be wrong from the Beginning, there's little or no Force in them. If I purchase a Man who hath neverforfeited his Liberty, the natural Right of Freedom is in him; and shall I keep him and hisPosterity in Servitude and Ignorance? How should I approve of this Conduct, were I in his Circumstances, and he in mine? It may be thought, that to treat them as we would willingly be treated, our Gain by them would be inconsiderable: And it were, indivers Respects, better that there were none in our Country.
We may further consider, that they are now amongst us, and those of our Nation the Cause of their being here; that whatsoever Difficultyaccrues thereon, we are justly chargeable with, and to bear all Inconveniences attending it, with a serious and weighty Concern of Mind to do our Duty by them, is the best we can do. To seek a Remedy by continuing theOppression, because we have Power to do it, and see others do it, will, I apprehend, not be doing as we would be done by.
Forfeited: Forced to surrender
Posterity: Future generations
Accrues: To come about as a natural growth, increase, or advantage
What happened next . . .
Woolman's abolitionist activities eventually produced results. He persuaded Quaker communities to make public protests against slavery, and he convinced owners to free their slaves. He was joined by others who shared his views, and in 1760 Quakers in New England, New York, and Pennsylvania ceased the buying and selling of slaves. The Society of Friends then moved to the forefront of the antislavery movement, which gained momentum in the nineteenth century.
Did you know . . .
- Between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, 10,000,000 to 11,000,000 African slaves crossed the Atlantic Ocean. Relatively few of them arrived in the American colonies. Most (eighty-five percent) went to Brazil and to British, French, Spanish, Danish, or Dutch colonies in the Caribbean. Nine percent of the slaves were sent to the Spanish mainland. Only six percent, or 600,000 to 650,000 Africans, went to the American colonies.
- Many former slaves owned farms. For instance, freedman freed slave Anthony Johnson (d. 1665) began acquiring his own plantation in Virginia during the 1640s. By 1651 he owned 250 acres of land, and he became known as the "black patriarch" of Pungoteague Creek (the area of Virginia where his estate was located).
- Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose was founded as a town for freed blacks in 1738. Located in Spanish Florida two miles north of Saint Augustine, Mose was the only town of its kind in what would become the United States. The earliest settlers were escaped slaves from South Carolina. English attacks forced evacuation of the town from 1740 to 1752, and inhabitants moved to Saint Augustine.
For more information
Breen, T. H. and Stephen Innes. "Myne Owne Ground": Race and Freedom onVirginia's Eastern Shore, 1640–1676. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980.
Cady, Edwin Harrison. John Woolman. New York: Washington Square Press, 1965.
Dalglish, Doris N. People Called Quakers. Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries Press, 1969.
Elliott, Emory, and others, eds. American Literature: A Prentice-Hall Anthology. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1991, pp. 399–401.
Gunn, Giles, ed. Early American Writing. New York: Penguin Books, 1994, pp. 391–95.
Johnson, Charles, Patricia Smith, and WGBH Research Team. Africans inAmerica: America's Journey through Slavery. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Company, 1998, pp. 37–39, 42–46.
Middleton, Richard. Colonial America: A History, 1585–1776. Second edition. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishers, 1996, pp. 311–34.
October 19, 1720
Ancocas, New Jersey
October 7, 1772
Quaker minister and abolitionist
"But the general Disadvantage which these poor Africans lie under in an enlight'ned Christian Country, [has] often fill'd me with real Sadness. . . . "
John Woolman was a Quaker minister who led a campaign against slavery. (See box for description of Quakers.) His efforts required considerable courage because there was no organized abolition movement (the group that wanted to outlaw slavery) during the early eighteenth century and there was much resistance to his beliefs at the time. By the late 1700s, after Woolman's death, however, Quakers had prohibited slave-holding within the Religious Society of Friends (the official name of their group). They then emerged as leaders in the abolition movement. Woolman was also an essayist who kept a detailed journal. Although he was relatively unknown outside the Quaker community during his lifetime, his Journal has since become an American literary classic.
Becomes Quaker minister
John Woolman was born on October 19, 1720, in Ancocas, New Jersey, the son of Samuel Woolman, a Quaker farmer. The name of his mother is not known. There is little information about Woolman's early life, although records show that he worked on his parents' farm until he was twenty-one. He then settled in the nearby town of Mount Holly, where he operated a shop (possibly a bakery) for about two years. In 1743, after his business became successful, he began working as a tailor and earned extra money by keeping an orchard. He lived in the simple manner of the Quakers, wearing undyed garments and buying only the basic necessities. In 1743 Woolman also set out on his first excursion as a Quaker minister, traveling—often on foot—from New England to the Carolinas to attend yearly Quaker meetings. During his lifetime he made nearly thirty of these trips, and he conducted his ministry without receiving any pay. By 1749 he was married to Sarah Ellis, with whom he had several children.
Quakers are members of the Religious Society of Friends (also called the Friends Church), a Christian group that was originally affiliated with the English Puritans (see box in John Winthrop entry). The Quaker movement arose in England during the mid-seventeenth century. At first "Quaker" was a term of ridicule, but eventually they adopted the name themselves. The founder of Quakerism was English religious leader George Fox, who stressed reliance on the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth (Christ) as a guide to living one's life. Fox advocated abandoning all ritual and clergy, contending that church buildings, formal worship services, and ordained ministers were not necessary. Therefore the early Quakers gathered informally in small, plain meeting houses, with men and women seated on opposite sides of the room. They sat in silence, waiting for an "inner light," or word from God, to come to them. Any man or woman who felt inspired by God could stand and speak to the group. Over time, members who showed a special talent for speaking were recorded as ministers. As Quakerism spread rapidly throughout England, Scotland, and Ireland, the Friends were subjected to violent persecution because they were viewed as a threat to other established religions. Consequently they sought refuge on the continent of Europe, in the American colonies, and the West Indies.
Slaves held in all colonies
Soon after Woolman started his travels he became concerned about serious social issues of the day, particularly the mistreatment of slaves. By the mid-eighteenth century, African slaves had been held in the colonies for over 125 years, having been introduced into British settlements in Virginia in 1619. During the previous century Spanish and Portuguese plantation owners in the West Indies had found that Africans were better workers than Native Americans, who resisted enslavement. Soon African slaves were essential to the American plantation economy and the slave trade became a booming business. The slave-trade route formed a triangle: ships loaded with European-made goods departed from British ports and landed on the west coast of Africa, where the goods would be exchanged for slaves. Then the slaves were transported to the American colonies or the West Indies and traded for agricultural products (see Olaudah Equiano entry). Finally, completing the triangle, the ships took this cargo back to England.
At first Africans in North America were able to buy their freedom and own land, and owners made an effort to keep slave families together (see Anthony Johnson entry). But gradually Africans lost these rights and, as slaves were routinely bought and sold, families were broken apart. By the 1740s, when Woolman was making his journey through the colonies, the majority of African slaves remained in bondage throughout their lives. They worked mainly on plantations in southern colonies, but they also were being held as household servants and laborers in all of the colonies, in both the South and the North. Slaves were worth large sums of money, so harsh laws gave owners the right to demand the return of runaways, who were considered legal "property."
Especially disturbing to Woolman was the fact that Africans were being held as slaves by Christians, and even by Quakers. In fact, in the 1720s, the Society of Friends had expelled at least one member who opposed the keeping of slaves. Woolman therefore resolved to mount a vigorous abolitionist campaign. When he traveled southward along the eastern seaboard, he carried his message to slave holders. In Rhode Island he tried to persuade shipowners not to transport slaves from Africa to North America. He refused to buy any products connected with the slave trade, and he would not accept hospitality from slave owners. Frequently he made payment for lodging directly to slaves themselves. Deciding to limit his abolitionist efforts within the Quaker community, he encountered continuing resistance. Yet Woolman was persistent, never wavering from his convictions.
from Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes
In 1743 John Woolman began making trips to yearly Quaker meetings in colonies from New England to the Carolinas. During his visits he became alarmed at the mistreatment of African slaves. Woolman then vowed to wage an abolitionist campaign, which involved writing essays as well as making personal contacts with slave owners and traders. One of his most famous essays is Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes (1754). In the excerpt below Woolman sets out the moral argument against the holding of slaves.
There are various Circumstances amongst them that keep Negroes, and different Ways by which they fall under their Care; and, I doubt not, there are many well disposed Persons amongst them who desire rather to manage wisely and justly in this difficult Matter, than to make Gain of it.
But the general Disadvantage which these poor Africans lie under in an enlight'ned Christian Country, having often fill'd me with real Sadness, and been like undigested Matter on my Mind, I now think it my Duty, through Divine Aid, to offer some Thoughts thereon to the Consideration of others.
When we remember that all Nations are of one Blood. . . . [a passage from the Old Testament of the Bible] that in this World we are but Sojourners [temporary residents], that we are subject to the like Afflictions [sufferings] and Infirmities [diseases] of Body, the like Disorders and Frailties [weaknesses] in Mind, the like Temptations, the same Death, and the same Judgement, and, that the Alwise Being is Judge and Lord over us all, it seems to raise an Idea of a general Brotherhood, and a Disposition easy to be touched with a Feeling of each others Afflictions: But when we forget those Things, and look chiefly at our outward Circumstances, in this and some Ages past, constantly retaining in our Minds the Distinction betwixt [between] us and them, with respect to our Knowledge and Improvement in Things divine, natural and artificial, our Breasts being apt to be filled with fond Notions of Superiority, there is Danger of erring [making mistakes] in our Conduct toward them.
Reprinted in: Gunn, Giles, ed. Early American Writing. New York: Penguin Books, 1994, p. 391.
Woolman protests Native American policies
As John Woolman traveled through the American colonies, he became alarmed at policies toward Native Americans. For instance, while visiting the Pennsylvania frontier he learned that settlers were getting Native Americans drunk on rum, then tricking them into signing treaties that gave up huge tracts of land. Woolman therefore pressed for prohibitions against selling rum to Native Americans and he supported better policies for acquiring land.
Writes on injustice
While trying to convince other Quakers to oppose slavery, Woolman wrote essays on social injustices. The essays were printed in publications for Quaker readers. In addition to addressing the evils of slave holding, Woolman extended his compassion to Native Americans, poor settlers, and even mistreated farm animals. He contended that political and social problems could be solved only through spiritual efforts. In accordance with his Quaker beliefs, he wrote that people must live simply and show concern for their fellow human beings. At the age of thirty-six Woolman began keeping a journal in which he examined the state of his own soul. He made regular entries in the journal until his death sixteen years later.
Succeeds in abolition efforts
Woolman's abolitionist activities eventually produced results. He persuaded Quaker communities to make public protests against slavery, and he convinced owners to free their slaves. He was joined by others who shared his views, and in 1760, Quakers in New England, New York, and Pennsylvania ceased the buying and selling of slaves. The Society of Friends was then at the forefront of the antislavery movement. In 1772 Woolman went to London, England, to attend the annual meeting of Quaker ministers and elders. At first the English Quakers thought he looked peculiar in his colorless clothes, but he soon formed friendships with his fellow Friends. After the conference he left London to visit communities in the outlying English counties. In late September, after reaching York, Woolman was stricken with smallpox (at that time a fatal epidemic disease). A little more than a week later he died at the home of Thomas Priestman.
Journal becomes classic
Woolman was relatively unknown outside Quaker circles during his lifetime. Upon the publication of The Journal ofJohn Woolman in 1775, however, he became an important social critic and literary figure. Over the next century the journal was reprinted at least ten times and some of his essays were translated into German and French. Prominent nineteenth-century American and British thinkers praised Woolman's work for its simple style as well its moving expression of the Quaker soul. Several American writers were directly influenced by his views. Modern scholars rank Woolman's Journal along with the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (see entry) as one of the great classics of American personal narrative. Woolman is now known as the "Quaker saint," and his Journal remains in print today. Several selections from the work have been included in texts for high-school and college students.
For further research
Cady, Edwin Harrison. John Woolman. New York: Washington Square Press, 1965.
Dalglish, Doris N. People Called Quakers. Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries Press, 1969.
Gunn, Giles, ed. Early American Writing. New York: Penguin Books, 1994, p. 391.
Woolman, John (1720-1772)
John Woolman (1720-1772)
Quaker Youth. John Woolman was a devout Quaker who by his personal example and eloquent testimony became one of the revolutionary era’s strongest advocates of the abolition of slavery. Woolman was born in Burlington County, New Jersey, and grew up in the tightly knit religious community the Society of Friends, also known as the Quakers. Woolman was the fourth of thirteen children. His father was a farmer, and the family was of middling status. The Quakers believed in simple living, fellowship, and personal devotion to God. The Bible and other religious books were read aloud on Sundays in Quaker house-holds, and the Woolman house was no exception. John received about ten years of schooling and for the rest of his life voraciously read and pursued his own education. At age twenty-one he moved to Mount Holly, New Jersey, where he set up his own successful store. He also worked as a teacher and did legal work, drawing up wills and contracts. Despite his success in business, Woolman taught himself to be a tailor, believing that his religion valued simplicity over worldly success. At age thirty-six he withdrew from business altogether, devoting his energies to religious work.
A Personal Crusade . The Society of Friends had no regular clergy. Church members with a special gift for speaking could do so at weekly meetings. They could also go on missionary travels with the recommendation (but without the pay) of their home congregation. From age twenty-three to his death Woolman went on approximately thirty such missionary journeys, from New England to the Carolinas. Wherever he went he urged Quakers to live simply and to harm no one. He called upon the Society of Friends to abstain from paying war taxes to support the British government’s wars against the French and the Indians. But increasingly slavery preoccupied Woolman in his thoughts and preaching.
Slavery and Sin. Woolman grew steadily in his conviction that owning slaves was a sin in the eyes of God. His first concern was to absolutely purify himself of any personal connection with slavery or its fruits. Woolman made himself conspicuous by wearing undyed clothes: dyes were made by slave labor. He also abstained from using slave-produced items such as sugar and silver tableware. Many Quakers, North and South, owned slaves, and he sought to cleanse his church of this wrong-doing. Visiting the homes of slave owners, he calmly argued the wrongs of the slave system. Wishing not to be personally implicated by slavery, he paid either his host or the host’s slaves for food received in the slave owners’ houses.
Early Quaker Antislavery. There had been antislavery stirrings in the church in earlier years: in the 1730s a sincere but eccentric Quaker, Benjamin Lay, harangued the Society of Friends meetings on the evils of slavery. He kidnapped a Quaker child to demonstrate the grief slaves felt when family members were sold. In 1738, at the annual meeting in Burlington, New Jersey, Lay threw a substance that appeared to be blood on the assembled the Society of Friends, who ignored his message and ejected him from the church.
Message. Woolman, however, found a more receptive audience among Quakers in the 1750s, delivering his message of antislavery more soberly and plausibly than Lay. He communicated his own turmoil and guilt over slavery in such a convincing manner that he touched the consciences of thousands of people to whom he spoke or addressed his writings. In 1754 the Yearly Meeting of the Society of Friends at Philadelphia endorsed Woolman’s antislavery pamphlet, Some Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes, publishing it and sending it out to other Quaker congregations. His personal mission was now disseminated in print, and others began to take up the cause, including Anthony Benezet, who quoted Woolman in an antislavery publication that gained much attention in 1759. In 1762 Woolman published his Considerations on Keeping Negroes: Part Second, which had an even stronger effect on Quakers. The antislavery movement grew within and outside the church, and manumissions of slaves became common in Pennsylvania.
Legacy. In 1776 the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting officially prohibited the Society of Friends from owning slaves. Woolman had died two years earlier, but others carried on his work. Benezet tirelessly distributed anti-slavery writings in England and America. Benjamin Lundy, a follower of Woolman, continued antislavery missionary work in the early 1800s and in turn inspired William Lloyd Garrison and other leading American abolitionists. Woolman’s Journals published in 1776 and became an inspiration to advocates of peace and the abolition of slavery. Eighty years after Woolman’s death the governor of the slave state Missouri blamed Woolman’s Journal for the “evils” of the abolitionist movement.
William A. Beardslee, ed., The Works of John Woolman (New York: Garrett Press, 1970);
Jean R. Soderlund, Quakers and Slavery: A Divided Spirit (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1985).
John Woolman (1720-1772), American Quaker merchant and minister, was known for his opposition to slavery, poverty, and war. His journal is one of the finest statements of Quaker inner life.
John Woolman was born in Ancocas, N.J., and raised in Quaker schools and meetings. He read widely and prepared himself for a variety of occupations. Primarily a tailor and shopkeeper, he also kept an apple orchard, taught school, wrote, maintained a lending library, and was a surveyor and conveyancer. As conveyancer, he wrote bills of sale for slaves; this was his introduction to slavery. His meeting recorded him as a minister in 1743.
Woolman's was an itinerant ministry; his territory included the Atlantic seaboard, England, and Ireland. He traveled twice to the South, where he witnessed plantation life. His advocacy of the abolition of slavery, Some Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes, was published in two parts in 1754 and 1762. In 1763 Woolman visited the Indians on the Pennsylvania frontier, converting many to the Quaker ideals of peace and Christian brotherhood. In 1772, in Yorkshire, England, he made a walking tour in protest against the treatment of postboys. He died of smallpox at York on Oct. 7, 1772.
The mystical experience underlies Woolman's positions on social and economic questions. Convinced of the universal brotherhood of man with Christ, he regarded no distinction of nationality, race, or education as more basic to human nature. Woolman identified with the evildoer and with the slaveholder as well as the slave. He was a keen student of his own motives. He located first in himself the tendencies he sought to eradicate from the world. He devised a theory of action, which he called "passive obedience," similar to contemporary nonviolence. Woolman found the causes of war in the economic self-aggrandizement of nations.
Woolman strove to strengthen his community at Mount Holly, N.J., and resisted oppression by every lawful means. He gave up dyed clothes when he discovered the dyes were harmful to the workers. He ate no sugar because of his convictions about slavery. When his own merchandising business succeeded, he withdrew to concentrate on the "inward business" of living.
Woolman's publications included An Epistle (1772), defining his religious beliefs; his Journal (1774); and Plea for the Poor (1793). Modern peace and civil rights advocates feel akin to this quiet radical.
Biographies of Woolman are Janet (Payne) Whitney, John Woolman, American Quaker (1942), and C. O. Peare, John Woolman (1954). Reginald Reynolds, The Wisdom of John Woolman (1948), is the most perceptive appreciation of Woolman. For general background on Quakerism see Frederick B. Tolles, Quakers and the Atlantic Culture (1960).
Kohler, Charles., A quartet of Quakers: Isaac and Mary Penington, John Bellers, John Woolman, London: Friends Home Service Committee, 1978. □
[See also Conscientious Objection; Nonviolence; Pacifism; Quakers.]
Sterling P. Olmsted
American Quaker preacher; b. Rancocas, N.J., Oct. 19, 1720; d. York, England, Oct. 7, 1772. He was a tailor by trade and lived in Mount Holly, N.J., during most of his life. In 1743 he experienced a call to the Quaker ministry and traveled throughout the colonies as a preaching Friend. A visit to Virginia in 1746 intensified his opposition to African-American slavery, and he devoted the rest of his life to attacking this institution. In addition to his sermons on slavery, Woolman published Some Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes (1754). His famed Journal (1773) is a record of his spiritual experience on his preaching tours. He died on an antislavery mission to England.
[r. k. macmaster]