Antislavery: The Crusade for Freedom in America

By Dwight Lowell Dumond | Go to book overview

Chapter 2
FOUNDATIONS OF FREEDOM

There were no antislavery societies and no antislavery newspapers or magazines before the Revolution. There was little of any sort of printed antislavery material, except occasional expositions, sermons, or remonstrances, published and privately distributed to small and select numbers of people, until the very eve of the Revolution. Neither were there established systems of recording and reporting court decisions or debates in colonial assemblies, so that taken in its entirety the period offers little to the historian in the way of documentary information. It offered less to the average citizen of that time in the way of enlightenment, intellectual stimulation, or persuasion. The man who opposed slavery did so, not because he had read a book, or newspaper, or otherwise digested an argument, but because he instinctively rejected a system of human relationships so utterly foreign to common decency. Roger Williams obviously was one of these people and so was Chief Justice Samuel Sewall, whose The Selling of Joseph ( 1700) was long thought to have been the first published argument against slavery in America. Nobody seems to have taken either one of them very seriously, but Sewall did state the first major indictment of slavery, one that was to be repeated a thousand times in every conceivable type of literature-the separation of men and women from their homeland, of husbands from wives, and of parents from children-and he touched lightly upon the evil effects of slavery upon the character of slaveholders.1

Sewall was a Puritan, and the Puritans were not the pioneers in the antislavery movement. That honor belongs to the Quakers, for the Quakers were gentle people, living by the precept of the golden rule, believing in the inherent dignity of man, the freedom of human will, and the equality of all men. They owned slaves in the seventeenth century and a part of the eighteenth, but George Fox sounded a warning against it in 1657. Thomas Drake says: "In this, his first discussion of slavery, he made only a beginning: he did not condemn slaveholding as such. But he did expound the idea of the equality of men in the eyes of God; and this idea -- touchstone to the Truth -- finally, more than a century later, freed the Quakers' slaves."2

The Quakers experienced great difficulties from the beginning, for the defense of slavery by the suppression of freedom of inquiry and discussion and other civil rights, and by the use of charges of incendiarism and of foul invective to discredit the friend of the slave, did not originate in the American South, though it reached optimum heights there; nor did it develop in response to the violent language of abolitionists as has been claimed. It came out of the practice of slaveholding, the relationship between master and slave, the intoxication of unrestrained power, and the habit of destroying all opposition to the master's will. Furthermore, these early Quakers were not an obnoxious group of meddlers, talking of things they knew not of, any more than were the later antislavery leaders of the nineteenth century, as

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