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The First Abolition Society
in the United States : :


Professor of History, University of Michigan




Reprinted from "The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and
Biography" for January, 1^12

Printed by




Professor of History, University of Michigan.

It was not merely an accident that the first aboJitinn

ucl^^. in ib88 I'astorius and some FnVnr^Q nf r
made ,n North America, while in 1693 the Keithian
tCk :7"!t"^" ''"'^'^'P''"' *'^« «-* declara : n of
tfie^nends took up the work, so that by 1776 most of

^enezet, circulated far and wide such books as The
Mystery of Iniqmty, All Slave-Keepers AposLes and

uZ Z:tTl '''':■ - -^fierce o'p So^a
times but gradually making converts. Toward the end
of the colonial period not only the Friends but th
Episcopalians, the Presbyterians and thpTfr T
denouncing the system T^v T7«n ^^^^^P^^s^^^ were
negroes mV.LIV ^ ^^ '^°'' ^^^^ ^^^^ of the

llZ' ^'""'^^^^^^^^ ^ere free. In that year, owing

in tst^Toi^tiZ;::; ttrf -^-^'^
t™e^rr\rrak:s"itr^7^o"rTrso7a "''



94 First Abolition Society in United States.

they had no thought of ceasing their opposition. They
had given liberty to their own slaves, but many were
still held in bondage by other people, while from time to
time kidnappers carried off negroes undoubtedly free.



That keep the Innocent in Bondage,


Pretending to lay Claim to the Fure

&Holy CliriftianReligion ;of whatCoiigregarioa
foever; butefpecially in theirMinifters,by whofc
cxanfple the filthy Leprofy and Apoftacy is
fptead far and near ; it is a notorious Sin, whicK
^many of th* true Friends ofChrift, and his pure
Truth, called ^uakers^ has been fbr many Years,
and ftillare concern'd to write and bear Teftimo-'
ny againft ; as a Pra£Hce fb grofs 8c hurtful to Re-
ligioii) and deftruftivc to Governraenr, beyond
what Words can fet forth, or can be declared of
by Men or Angels, and yet lived in by Miniftcrs
and Magiflrates in jimerlca.

^he Leaders cf the People caufe them to Err.

Written for a General Service, by

him that truly and fincerely dcfires the prefent
and etern.l and Happinefs of all Man-
kind, all the World over, of all Colours, and
Nations, as his own Soul ;

Benjamin Lay.

Printed for the Author. 1737-

Th(!n;foro men like Anthony Benezet were unwearied in
their elTorts to persuade masters to manumit their negroes,
to help negroes purchase their freedom, and to help them
preserve the lib('rty thus obtained.

PEB 2 6 1925


First Abolition Society in United States. 95

At first this work was carried on individually or by
committees of the Friends, but so many people in Phila-
delphia were interested that it needed only a particular
occurrence to cause them to organize. Such an incident
soon arose. In 1773 an Indian woman from New Jersey
was brought to Philadelphia by her owner, who was taking
her south. While her master tarried in the city she
declared that she and her children were free. Then Israel
Pemberton and other citizens, eager to right an injustice
of this kind, came to her assistance and sued for her
liberty in the courts. It was two years before the matter
was decided; but at last she was declared to be a slave.
The case made a deep impression, however, on those who
conducted it, and they resolved to organize so as to do
more effective work in the future. "This," said the
recorder of the Society, writing years afterward, "is the
first case on the minutes of the society, and appears to
have given rise to its formation." Such was the origin of
the first abolition society in the United States.

On April 14, 1775, a number of men met at the Sun
Tavern in Philadelphia, and adopted a constitution for
what they called "The Society for the ReHef of Free
Negroes, unlawfully held in Bondage." John Baldwin
was chosen president. The confusion which resulted from
the Revolutionary War caused the Society almost imme-
diately to fall into abeyance. In 1784, however, it was
reorganized. In 1787 a new constitution was adopted,
the name was changed, and Benjamin Franklin was elected
president. Two years later the State legislature granted
it a charter of incorporation. Thereafter the work was
continuous until the need for such work passed away.
Most of its supporters were the Friends who had been so
active against slavery in the earlier days: "A majoritj^
of its members always belonged to that denomination,"
^ays the first historian. The official title of the organiza-
tion was "The Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the
/ Abolition of Slavery, for the Relief of Free Negroes

96 First Abolition Society in United States.

Unlawfully Held in Bondage, and for Improving the
Condition of the African Race."

Early abolitionism, that is real abolitionism, has been
much misunderstood. In after daj's when William Lloyd
Garrison and his associates were arousing popular wrath
and indignation, they were called abolitionists. They
themselves would have said that they were members of
anti-slavery societies or new abolitionists, and generally
not supporters of the abolition societies whose quiet
methods they despised. Yet in popular usage the old
name was applied to the reformers with a new meaning,
and in the bitterness and strife of the period from 1830
to 1860 "abolition" and "abolitionist" became oppro-
brious terms. And so entirely was the meaning changed
that the character and work of the real abolition societies
is now forgotten or misunderstood. The members of the
Pennsylvania Society were all of them quiet, orderly,
law-abiding men; their work was efficient and helpful.

The Society had been organized primarily to further
the abolition of slavery, but in Pennsylvania that work
had already progressed so far that the widest opportunity
lay rather in assisting free negroes and helping them to
retain their freedom.

This was the abolitionist activity which has most
completely fallen into oblivion, but which most deserves
to be remembered. It was the most successful and the
most remarkable work of the Society, but because it was
quiet and inconspicuous it is not often called to mind
now. It is probably true that the greater part of the
progress made by the negroes of Pennsylvania after they
became free, was owing directly or indirectly to the
assistance of the Society and its sympathizers.

Help was given in many different ways. Sometimes
the Society paid a master to give liberty to his slave.
Sometimes the master was assured that he would not i?
held chargeable, as the law ordained, in case the negrc?
manumitted failed to support himself. Then when the




First Aholition Society in United States.


negro was free the Society took him into care, helped hini
to find employment, furnished him with letters of recom-
mendation, and saw that his employer did not take advan-
tage of him. In 1789 the Society appointed four com-
mittees to assist negroes in solving the social and economic
problems which confronted them. It opened schools to
teach children and night schools for adults practically
the first and certainly the best schools which these negroes
ever had. As the rising prejudice against negroes, which
increased so strikingly after 1800, became more and more
apparent, the abolitionists did their utmost to appease
the white people, and teach the blacks to behave in such
a manner as to win respect. When the authorities threat-
ened to pass discriminatory legislation, they opposed it
earnestly and successfully. In 1801 the State Senate
proposed to emancipate the remaining slaves in the
Commonwealth, and pay the masters by levying a special
tax upon the negroes who were free. At once the Society
made a vigorous protest. Why tax those least able to
pay*^ In carrying on all this work the members collected
information and statistics which are the best the historian
is now able to obtain.

In many respects free negroes were pecuharly liable to
injustice and oppression at this time. Often they were
seized by speculators who declared that they were fugitive
slaves, and who, with the connivance of corrupt magis-
trates, sold them into bondage again. Probably the best
known negro in Philadelphia was Bishop Allen; yet a
Southern trader had him arrested, and swore that he had
recently purchased him as a slave. So many people
hastened to testify that they had known the colored
preacher for more than twenty years, that the perjurer
got a sentence in jail. In other cases, however, it was the
nesro who suffered. Furthermore kidnappers considered
Pennsylvania an excellent field after 1780. Not infre-
quently the victim was clubbed into submission, hurried
across the State line, and never heard of again.

98 First Abolition Society in United Slates.


=0 <^t( ^/^

^^ -I ^ 1


"1 ) 1 i1 ti f v^^ "^ ^

First Ahotitio7i Society in United States. 99

The organization of the Society in the first place had
been owing to a desire to combat such practices, and the
warfare waged against them was relentless and unceasing.
"To prevent the disgraceful & inhuman practice of kid-
napping (which it appears from several attempts lately
detected, is carried to a considerable extent), we have
committees under appointment who we believe maintain
a due attention to their duties," says the old record.
In 1820 and in 1847 severe laws were passed by the State
legislature, largely owing to the efforts of the abohtion-
ists. Meanwhile the Society saw to it that these laws
were enforced. The penalties were exceedingly heavy,
the maximum being a fine of $2,000 and imprisonment for
twenty-one years. One offender, who had stolen two
negroes, was actually fined $4,000 and sent to the peni-
tentiary for forty-two years. On another occasion a cul-
prit, who had been convicted largely through the efforts
of the Society, sent most appealing letters beseeching its
intercession. These letters are all copied in the folio
records, but seem to have brought no mercy. It may be
said that kidnapping in Pennsylvania was brought to an
end because the abolitionists made it too dangerous.

After all the principal object was the abolition of slav-
ery, but in furtherance of this object the abolitionists car-
ried on the least successful part of their work. In Pennsyl-
vania they continued the efforts which they had made
to bring slavery to an end, for the act of 1780 abolished
slavery for the future, and did not deprive masters of
the negroes whom they already owned. In other words
the act provided for gradual abolition, and the operation
in some cases was very gradual indeed, there being a slave
in the State, it is said, as late as 1860. For the most
part, however, as time went on these slaves were set free
by manumission. This also was largely the result of the
persuasion and assistance of the abohtionists and Friends,
who took up collections, helped negroes to save money,
loaned them money, and made terms with the masters.

100 First Abolition Society in United States.

Meanwhile they struck at the root of the matter and
tried to get slavery abolished outright. First they
attacked it in the courts. The State constitution of 1790
declared that all men were born equally free and inde-
pendent. In Massachusetts, where a similar expression
had been used, the supreme court, deciding a test case.
asserted that the existence of slavery was inconsistent
with such a statement. About 1794 the abolitionists
resolved to ascertain "Whether slavery, under any modi-
lication whatever, is not inconsistent with the present
Constitution of this State." Therefore in the year fol-
lowing a master, Joseph Graisberry, was sued on a writ
de homine replegiando because he was in possession of a
negress. Flora. The case, which was instituted in the
supreme court, was delayed for various reasons until at
last it was sent up to the High Court of Errors and Appeals,
the ultimate judicial authority in the State. After long
arguments, in which Jared IngersoU, William Rawle,* and
William Lewis urged for the negress pleas which we do
not know, it was decided in 1802 that slavery might legally
exist in Pennsylvania despite the lofty assertion con-
tained in the bill of rights.

Then the Society tried to get the legislature to pass a
law bringing slavery to an end. Year after year its mem-
bers sent memorials to the State capital. In 1804, when
the Senate was considering a bill, the Society made a
stirring appeal. "AVe respectfully and earnestly solicit,'"
ran the petition, "that the present opportunity may not
be permitted to escape for wiping away the opprobrium
which has so justly attached to our State on account of
the manifest difference between the noble Charter of
Liberty contained in our excellent Constitution, and a
practice so pregnant with evil, and so directly in oppo-
sition to all our boasted professions." Many other people
took up the cry at one time or another, and occasionally
it seemed that the legislature might do something. In
the end, however, it was seen that such a bill had no

First Abolition Society in United States. 101

chance of passing, and that slavery in Pennsylvania would
be left to disappear by the gradual operation of the law
already in force.

In its desire to destroy slavery the Society did not
confine its efforts to Pennsylvania, but began to urge
abolition elsewhere as well. On February 11, 1790, the
United States Congress received a petition from the
Quakers of Pennsylvania and also one from the Quakers
of New York, praying for the abolition of the slave-trade.
At once there began a heated debate which became the
more vehement when on the next day was read a memorial
from the Pennsylvania Society signed by its president,
Benjamin Franklin. "From a persuasion that equal
liberty was originally the portion, and is still the birth-
right of all men; and influenced by the strong ties of
humanity, and the principles of their institution, your
memorialists conceive themselves bound to use all justi-
fiable endeavors to loosen the bands of slavery, and pro-
mote a general enjoyment of the blessings of freedom.
Under these impressions, they earnestly entreat your
serious attention to the subject of slavery; that you will
be pleased to countenance the restoration of liberty to
those unhappy men, who alone, in this land of freedom,
are degraded into perpetual bondage, and who, amidst
the general joy of surrounding freemen, are groaning in
servile subjection; that you will devise means for remov-
ing this inconsistency from the character of the American
people; that you will promote mercy and justice towards
this distressed race, and that you will step to the very
verge of the power vested in you for discouraging every
species of traffic in the persons of our fellow-men." This
was the first petition which the Federal government
received asking it to take measures against slavery.

The slave-trade, which was mentioned in this memorial,
had likewise engaged the attention of the abolitionists.
Importation of slaves into Pennsylvania was made im-
possible by the act of 1780, but not a few Pennsylvanians

102 First Abolition Society in United States.

continued to fit out ships for the African trade, some of
which brought negroes to Philadelphia, whence they were
taken to other places. The earnest petitions of the
Society induced the legislature to pass a law in 1788,
which imposed a penalty of £1,000 upon anyone who
engaged in the business; but even as late as 1796 a Ger-
man traveller wrote, "Great ships loaded with slaves
frequently come over from Africa, j)articularly to Phila-
delphia." To put a stop to this traffic, whether carried
on from Philadelphia or from other places, the abolition-
ists did their utmost. In 1789 the Pennsylvania Society
(;irculated far and wide a broadside reproducing from
Matthew Carey's American Museum a dreadful picture
showing negroes packed together under the deck of a
slave-ship, and describing in vivid language their suffer-
ings during the passage. After 1808 the Society was
diligent in investigating violations of the law forbidding
the slave-trade. In 1812 it sent a secret agent to New
York and to Rhode Island to report upon the alleged
activity of slavers there.

The Society opposed the extension of slavery into new
territory as it was ac<iuired by the Federal government,
but accomplished nothing. It also took an active part
in urging tlie abolition of slavery and the slave-trade in
the District of Columbia. In this it had the sympathy
of great numbers of the pcoj)le of the State who were not
abolitionists. In 1827 Pennsylvania instructed her sena-
tors to do everything in tlu-ir power to end slavery in the
District, while two years later one of her representatives
made a long speech on the subject in Congress. "The
existence of slavery in the District of Columbia," said
the State .M'nate in IS.'il , " is a foul stain upon our national
character, ami a deep injury to our best interests."

Abolitionist activity in many other places was fostered
and encouraged by the Pennsylvania Society. After the
Revolutionary War numerous similar organizations were
formtMl, Koiiie of them directly as a risult of its efforts.

First Abolition Society m United States. 103

In 1792 it brought about the establishment of an aboU-
tion society in New Jefsey, and a few years later, when the
Wilmington Society was on the point of dissolving, a
committee was sent from Philadelphia to give encourage-
ment and promise assistance in order that the good work
might be continued. With all the abolition societies the
Pennsylvania organization carried on constant corre-
spondence, and was generally regarded as parent and
adviser. In 1794, when it was thought well to hold an
abolition convention, the delegates met in Philadelphia.
The position of leadership held by the Pennsylvania
Abolition Society may be understood from the fact that
in the years from 1794 to 1829 twenty out of twenty-
four conventions were held in Philadelphia.

After 1810 the Society had in view two great objects:
assisting free negroes in Pennsylvania, and urging the
abolition of slavery outside of the State. The first at-
tracted little attention and aroused no opposition; the
second also was of such a character as to awaken no great
hostility, since the methods employed were altogether
those of argument and persuasion. The circulation of
broadsides and pamphlets went on without ceasing. In
1787 Clarkson's Essay on the Commerce and Slavery of the
Africans had been sent to all the governors of the States.
In 1825 the Society resolved to collect and circulate in
the slave States information showing the impolicy of
slavery and the advantages of emancipation. There was
some protest and some indignation in the South, but the
literature was designed to convince the masters and not
to arouse the slaves. When Benjamin Lundy's paper,
The Genius of Universal Emancipation, was struggling for
existence, the Society helped him by paying for ten sub-
scriptions in advance, and lending him fifty dollars.

A somewhat more aggressive attitude was taken in the
matter of boycotting the products of slave labor. In
1797 the abolition convention at Philadelphia declared
that it did not believe that "it would be an effort alto-

f liberty wei-o ''*= '»''"*^''
,ethe.- ineffectual in favor of Uber ■ ^^^^^ ^^^^^^.^ .^

throughout the In.tecl « f-.'-^^^^^^^^.e of all such
practicable, to .l.spla> "« elure or manufacture of
'eon>mo,r.ties as arc of the u ^^ manufactured

freemen, to those -'l'-'' "/"^ ™ ^ Pennsylvania Soctcty
by slaves." Some years later ^^^^ „,.,,. ^he

offered to purchase at an ad. ncoo P^^^^^^ ^^

market price, the first lu ho ^^^^^^^ ^^ j,,,,.

raised in the ^"-'\''\^'ZuZn of the work which was
.lelphia. This was the oun aUo ^^^ p,,^, p,„auee

artcrwards carried on "' }"\

and Requited Labor ^«f '"^^^ ;„ „eral that it was
,)f all this work .t may ''<= ^^ ' /^ i^t. In Penn-
„a„.taking and 'J-^ta: f f-pocts. It had much
.vlvania it succeeded m "«» ^> f ^j^vcry, it stopped

to do with proeurms 1> f "^''"\,„„ght kidnapping to
0.C slave-trade at T'" ^'j^^' ' "; 'efassistance as bene-
an en<l, and it gave to neg, gut m

ficial as has ever boon ^ven *- ^,.[^„, .,,, ^et with
the larger task ^^^^''^ Federal government
no success. They could not get t ^^^^.^ ^^^^^^^

to abolish slavery tn the ^^l^^^^,,, „ot heeded.
U, Florida or Missouri. ^ ^' ^f ' ^j^.y .ouUl not get
„,cir broadsides were "»* 'j^^, „or Southern masters
Southern h^gislaturcs o - ^^^\^; ^.^^ i„ereasing and
to ,„anumit them. ' '' ^^t .hole comttry. By 1830
threatening to sprca.l Jcro.. _ ,^^^j ^^^^^

'"•■« »r '■"■''thetnr t .uHhods of the aboUtion-
(or a change. l'«= •^°"''' ..,,.. Therefore the younger,
i,t, sccnt-d to have Iven f. u.t c s. ^j^^^,^

,he bolder, the •"-<■■"' Tom^osd at all cost. This
,, attacked violently and ^^^^^ ^^, p,,,aUed

feeling - -^^.'^""■"iVls famous exponent being
■'" '"■"'/, IG r« The result was the anti-slavery Lloyd G"'""' ; ^,,,„ ,,,,i„cl the abohtiot

TrS; rnd'X: nrLd immcliate ahohtion fiercely

First Abolition Society in United States. 105

but who seem to have despaired of obtaining such aboli-
tion, and therefore resolved to fight with all their strength
against the slave power.

In 1833 Edwin P. Atlee, one of the leading members
of the Society, wrote a pamphlet in which he demanded
"total abolition. Not gradual, but immediate." The
constitution of the United States, he said, was an iniquity,
since it supported slavery. In the year following the
Philadelphia Anti-Slavery Society was founded. Its
members were determined that no more slave States
should be admitted. State and local organizations of the
same character now sprang up everywhere, and the
country was overwhelmed by a torrent of incendiary
utterances. "We believe that slavery is contrar}^ to the
precepts of Christianity, dangerous to the liberties of the
country, and oiight immediately to be abolished," said the
constitution of the Young Men's Anti-Slavery Society of
Philadelphia. Slavery in the United States was worse
than any cruelty of the Spanish inquisition, said the
Philadelphia Anti-Slavery Society. It was a violation
of the law of God and of the constitution, said another
association. More alarming still were the reckless utter-
ances about disunion. In a pamphlet published in 1840
the author said, "It is the duty of Pennsylvania and of
the South, to do to others as they would that others
should do to them. It is their duty to let other States
secede from the Union, much as they may regret it, if
the only means of preventing it is to assist in inflicting
a wrong upon others, which they would not undergo
themselves for the sake of any political union that ever
existed." "We ought instantly to grant to all men the
enjoyment of their inalienable rights."

The result was that the anti-slavery movement aroused
a storm of opposition such as the old abolitionist propa-
ganda had never encountered. All over the State the
newspapers overwhelmed the agitators with opprobrium
and abuse. Garrison was commended to a lunatic asylum.

106 First AhoUtion Society in United States.

Speaker, were driven away and lecturers w'ere forbidden
to appear. In 1838 Pennsylvania Hall, where meeting.
were being held, was burned by a mob, and a fierce riot
followed. When appeal was made to ^l^e legislature for
prolcction, little comfort was given. It advised the ant -
slavery advocates to let it be "their duty to abstain f om
the propagation of opinions and sentiments mimical to
the peace of the country, and to the integrity of the union,
and from holding public meetings which, from their
obnoxious diaracter have a direct tendency to produce
disorder, violations of the peace and riots, and such com-
plaints as are contained in the petitions now under
consideration, will soon cease to be made."

In all this agitation the older abolitionist orgamzation
look .mall part. Most of the Quakers, who made up the
larger part of its membership, believed in persuading
and convincing, not in threatening and coercing. If then-
progress was slow, they would wait. They would not
violate either law or constitution. They believed that


Online LibraryEdward Raymond TurnerFirst abolition society in the United States → online text (page 1 of 2)