Stamp Act Resistance Spurs Anti-Slavery Fight
Part 2 of The American Revolutionaries’ International War Against Slavery: 1765-1767
(For Part 1, click here )
By Colin Lowry
In early January of 1765, Prime Minister George Grenville was determined to whip the American colonies into complete dependence on Britain, and he devised the Stamp Act in an effort to also raise revenue to pay the vast expenses from the Seven Years War. This Stamp Act would require that all transactions of trade, imports, settling of debts, licenses, publishing of newspapers, and any official court business in the colonies would need to pay another tax, to use the British Government’s stamped paper.
The changes triggered by this Act were far-reaching. To improve enforcement, those accused of violating the Act, were to be tried by Admiralty Courts, with no juries, thus eliminating a long-standing tradition of trial by jury for the accused. The tax literally affected almost all economic activity in America, and in a great miscalculation by the Prime Minister, it required the creation of a whole new bureaucracy of Stamp Commissioners and distributors all over the colonies. Since it would likely incense the Americans even further if the Stamp Commissioners were sent directly from Britain, Prime Minster Grenville decided he would have each colony appoint their own.
Benjamin Franklin had returned to London in 1764, in order to lobby Parliament against the other acts of that year, and now he turned his attention to organizing against the Stamp Act. By February 1765, Franklin saw that the vast majority of those in Parliament would not listen to his or any American objections to the Act. As the debate began on February 8, 1765 in the House of Commons, Charles Townshend derided the opposition, saying, “Now, will these Americans, children planted by our care, nourished by our indulgence until grown to a degree of strength and opulence, protected by our arms, will they grudge to contribute a mite to relieve us from the heavy weight of that burden which we lie under for their defense?”[i]
Townshend’s remarks were answered by Colonel Isaac Barre, a decorated Army Officer who had served in America during the Seven Years War. Rising to his feet, Barre warned of the consequences of these falsehoods about the Americans:
They, planted by your care? No! Your oppression planted them in America. They fled your tyranny to an uncultivated and unhospitable country where they exposed themselves to almost all the hardships to which human nature is liable, and among others to the cruelty of a Savage foe. And yet, actuated by the principles of English Liberty they met all these hardships with pleasure, compared with those they suffered in their own Country, from the hands of those who should have been their friends.
“They nourished by your indulgence? They grew by your neglect of them. As soon as you began to care about them, that care was exercised by sending persons to rule them in one department and another, who were perhaps the deputies of deputies to some members of this house; sent to spy out their liberties, to misrepresent their actions and to prey upon them. Men, whose behavior on many occasions, has caused the blood of those sons of liberty to recoil within them.”
They protected by your arms? They have nobly taken up arms in your defence, have exerted a valor amidst their constant and laborious industry, for the defence of a country whose frontier was drenched in blood, while its interior parts yielded all its little savings to your emolument. And believe me, remember I this day told you so, that same spirit of freedom which actuated them at first, will accompany them still: but prudence forbids me to explain myself farther.[ii]
Barre’s speech made him a hero in America later that year, but his warning to his own government that they risked open rebellion by proceeding with the Stamp Act, was ignored, and the vote carried in the House of Commons by a tally of 245-49. The House of Lords passed it by majority voice vote in March, and it then was signed by the King. It was to go into effect November 1, 1765, giving the Americans plenty of time to prepare a response.
The Virginia Resolves and the Stamp Act Congress
As the news of the Stamp Act passage came to America in May, the resistance to it had already been organized, and this would involve much more than the issue of taxation. All of the grievances of America against the British Government, including the issue of slavery, and the rights of Americans to have their own representative system of governing themselves, would erupt in a volcanic explosion, which by the end of the year resulted in open defiance of any British authority.
One of the first official calls to resistance came from the Virginia House of Burgesses in late May, which spread quickly throughout America, known as the Virginia Resolves. Written primarily by the young Patrick Henry and supported by Thomas Jefferson, five of the seven resolves passed by vote of the Burgesses. The fifth resolve was a direct challenge to the power of Parliament, as it stated that “the general assembly of the colony, together with his majesty or his substitute have in their representative capacity the only exclusive right and power to levy taxes and impositions on the inhabitants of this colony and that every attempt to vest such a power in any person or persons whatsoever, other than the general assembly aforesaid is illegal, unconstitutional, and unjust, and has a manifest tendency to destroy British, as well as American freedom.”[iii]
The sixth and seventh resolves were deemed too radical, and were not passed, but they were printed in all the newspapers as if they had been agreed to. The seventh, stated that “any person who shall by speaking or writing maintain that any person or persons other than the general assembly of this colony have any right or power to impose or lay any taxation whatsoever on the people here, shall be deemed an enemy to this his majesty’s colony.” The Resolves had basically made the Stamp Act illegal in Virginia, before any attempt at enforcement could be made.
The Virginia action invigorated the other colonial assemblies to finally organize a meeting of all the colonies, to respond with one voice to the British Government. The Massachusetts House of Representatives, led by James Otis, passed a motion in June calling for a Stamp Act Congress of all the colonies, to be held in New York in October. What Benjamin Franklin had tried to do with his Albany Plan of Union in 1754, was now taking shape in a new form.
The British Government looked upon the Virginia Resolves and the call for a Stamp Act Congress with horror, as some Whig Ministers realized this was indeed a prelude to rebellion. The Parliament reacted as if Virginia had declared independence, and the King quickly instructed the Lieutenant Governor Fauquier to dissolve the House of Burgesses as punishment. This simply added fuel to the fire of a growing repudiation of all British policies in America.
All over the colonies, organized groups calling themselves the Sons of Liberty (the name taken from Barre’s speech) appeared, intent on preventing the Stamp Act from being instituted. They called upon those who had been nominated by any Governor to be a Stamp Commissioner to renounce their appointment publicly, or suffer the consequences. This strategy targeted the individuals who would prosper at their own countrymen’s expense, and included publishing articles and broadsides denouncing those who would enforce the Stamp Act as “enemies to liberty” and “traitors to their country.” Over the summer of 1765, these actions would expand to large street demonstrations, including burnings in effigy of hated officials, riots, tar and featherings, and even the destruction of houses of Royal Officials.
In the midst of this turmoil, the issue of slavery came up in a new way. Since the Stamp Act would apply to all imported goods, this also included slaves brought by British companies, so the proposed boycott of British goods, would also put a stop to the slave trade. In June of 1765, the Town Meeting of Worcester, Massachusetts, reflected this growing movement by the population, when it instructed its elected Representative to the Massachusetts House to “use his influence to obtain a law to put an end to that unchristian and impolitic practice of making slaves of the human species, and that he give his vote for none to serve in His Majesty’s council, who will use their influence against such a law.”[iv] This political appeal to eliminate slavery itself, and not just the trade, was a result of the upheaval in America that was growing due to the Stamp Act crisis.
The language being used to argue for the rights of the Americans, against the oppression of Parliament and the Ministers, often included references to slavery, and this caused many people to now question why they were supposed to tolerate slavery applied to the Africans, by the British companies chartered with the Crown’s blessing. An example of this appeared in a letter in the October 25, 1765 New London Gazette of Connecticut, which addressed those who would aid the enforcement of the Stamp Act, which read:
Know ye vile miscreants, we love liberty, and fear not to show it. We abhor slavery, and detest the remotest aiders and abettors of our bondage: But native Americans, who are diabolical enough to forward our ruin, we execrate as parasites! Will you tamely suffer the execution of a law that reduces you to the vile condition of slaves, and is abhorred by all the genuine Sons of Liberty? Let the wretch that sleeps now, be branded as an enemy to his Country!
Putting the question more bluntly, the Connecticut Gazette’s founding issue in 1765 declared:
The reigning Question now is, Whether Americans shall be Freemen or Slaves? Every free Man; nay, every Slave is concern’d in this Question; for, Who would not rather be a Slave to Liberty, than a Servant to Slavery? Who would not rather serve a free than a slavish Master? The People in this Colony know the Sweetness of Freedom; they have enjoyed it beyond the Age of Man, and may they ever deserve and enjoy it! May they never practically know what Slavery is!
When the Stamp Act Congress met in New York in October, with delegates from nine of the colonies attending, they debated for three days and then issued a petition to the Crown and Parliament asking for the Stamp Act to be repealed. The petition was accompanied by a statement of the rights of the Colonies that was in language more cool and refined than that of the Virginia Resolves, but basically echoed its content.
With the Stamp Act enforcement date now approaching on November 1, the final phase of the campaign to prevent the appointment of the Stamp Commissioners came into full force. All across the Colonies, more would-be Commissioners were resigning, and the Stamped Paper itself was often seized.
How serious a threat to British authority was this campaign? In September 1765, in Connecticut, there was one remaining Stamp Commissioner, Jared Ingersoll, who had insisted he would put the decision to resign or not in front of the Legislature meeting in Hartford. As he travelled to Hartford, a large armed party of 1000 men, some who were members of the militia, and many more who were in the Sons of Liberty, escorted him instead to a tavern, where they threatened him with death if he did not resign. They then escorted him to Hartford, expecting him to comply. When news came that he had not resigned, an armed party of about 500 men, led by Colonel Israel Putnam, rode to the Governor’s house, and informed him that all the stamps were to be turned over to his men. When the Governor asked what would happen if he refused, Colonel Putnam replied that “your house will be levelled to the ground,” upon which threat the Governor quickly complied. [v]
When November arrived, there was a complete boycott of all British goods, accomplished by the American’s refusal to use the hated Stamps. The situation was dire enough, that General Gage wrote to his superiors in London from his garrison in New York, on November 4, describing the crisis thus:
The general agreement not to take the stamps has put a stop to Business, the people idle and exasperated, the whole would immediately fly to Arms and a Rebellion began without any preparation against it or any means to withstand it…
The rest of the provinces are in the same situation, as to a positive refusal to take the Stamps and threatening those who shall take them to plunder and murder them.
As this affair stands in all the provinces, unless the Act will from its own nature at length enforce itself, nothing but a very considerable Military force can do it.[vi]
Gage was confirming the worst fears that many in the British Government had about the American resistance, and the alarm bells were now ringing even in the ears of some who had supported the Act’s passage. No Colonial Governor had yet dared to call out troops to enforce order and the law, but this choice now loomed if the Stamp Act was going to be enforced.
As all trade and business came to a halt, so, of course, did the slave trade. In Virginia, the prominent member of the House of Burgesses and life-long opponent of slavery, George Mason, wrote this to George Washington and William Fairfax, his fellow Burgesses, in December 1765:
The Policy of encouraging the Importation of free People & discouraging that of Slaves has never been duly considered in this Colony, or we shou’d not at this Day see one Half of our best Lands in most Parts of the Country remain unsettled , & the other cultivated with Slaves; not to mention the ill Effect such a Practice has upon the Morals & Manners of our People: one of the first Signs of the Decay, & perhaps the primary Cause of the Destruction of the most flourishing Government that ever existed was the Introduction of great Numbers of Slaves – an Evil very pathetically described by the Roman Historians – but ’tis not the present Intention to expose our Weakness by examining this Subject too freely.[vii]
Mason’s argument followed closely the ideas from Franklin’s Observations on the Increase of Mankind, with his emphasis on the value of free labor and its good effects on the population as a whole. While the business of the Burgesses was primarily taken up for now by the Stamp Act, the slavery issue would be taken up again in 1767.
Franklin’s Fame Grows with the Repeal of the Stamp Act
When the British Parliament convened in January 1766, the economic consequences of the stoppage of the trade to the colonies was driving British merchants to ruin and bankruptcy. These merchant groups, along with those sympathetic to the Americans, quickly pressured key members of Parliament to consider a repeal of the Stamp Act. Joining the calls for repeal were the influential former Prime Minister William Pitt, and current Privy Council member Lord Conway, who orchestrated several days of debates, with witnesses being called to show the effect the Stamp Act was having on the colonies.
Pitt and the leading Whigs called upon Benjamin Franklin to give four hours of testimony, and face questions from both sides in the House of Commons, on Feb. 13, 1766. While facing combative questions from the Tory side for hours, Franklin kept his cool demeanor, and delivered what turned out to be the most devastating argument for repeal of the Stamp Act, in the following exchange:
Question: Don’t you think they would submit to the Stamp Act if it was modified, the obnoxious parts taken out, and the duty reduced to some particulars, of small moment?
Franklin: No, they will never submit to it.
Question: Can anything less than a military force carry the Stamp Act into execution?
Franklin: I do not see how a military force can be applied to that purpose.
Question: Why may it not?
Franklin: Suppose a military force were sent into America, they will find nobody in arms; what are they then to do? They cannot force a man to take stamps who chooses to do without them. They will not find a rebellion; they may indeed make one.[viii]
Franklin’s testimony sounded the death knell for the Stamp Act, and on Feb. 22, the House of Commons voted to repeal the act, leaving it to the House of Lords to wrangle over the details of how to get the King’s approval. Even though it was supposed to be illegal to print exactly what was said in a Parliamentary session in Britain, Franklin’s testimony was printed and circulated throughout America and Britain, and would find its way to other European countries, after being translated into French and German within the next few years. This cemented his fame as the leading American political figure, alongside his already enormous scientific stature.
The House of Lords found the King amenable to repeal, but he would not approve it without appearing to have the upper hand with the Americans, so they proposed the Declaratory Act. This act simply stated that Parliament had the power and right to legislate over the colonies is all cases whatsoever, and this was now joined to the repeal of the Stamp Act. The King approved this joint measure and gave his assent in March.
When the news of the repeal of the Stamp Act came into America in May 1766, it was met with celebrations, fireworks and banquets, honoring those who had assisted the repeal. In England too, especially in the port cities, there were celebrations and banquets, and hope for the re-establishment of the trade to the colonies. This was tempered by a realization in America, that the Declaratory Act that accompanied repeal could be used to reignite the same type of crisis at the whim of Parliament.
The celebrations in Boston on May 10, 1766, included a parade, fireworks, and a banquet for the town. Preceding the official festivities, across the river Charles in Cambridge, Nathaniel Appleton Sr., gave a lengthy sermon at the First Church, in which he contrasted the current joyful celebrations, against what the colonists could have faced, had the news been the opposite of a repeal. Appleton said,
Let us only consider the deplorable condition the nation and all these colonies must have been in, if the government at home had established the Act, and proceeded to the enforcement of the same. If these had been the heavy tidings from home, that the Parliament insisted on the rigorous execution of this Act in all the American colonies, and that in order to it, fleets were forming, forces raising, and a grand armament preparing to enforce obedience to the Act. I say if these had been the doleful tidings, oh what grief, what fear, what consternation and confusion should we have been put into! What anger and wrath, what resolution, what opposition, what force, what violence would this irritated people have gone into! What desolation, what slaughter and bloodshed would have been expected! And what an unspeakable hurt must it have brought upon us, and upon our mother country! What an alienation of affection, what an interruption of mutual trade and commerce, destructive to them as well as to us.[ix]
Appleton’s sermon, while celebratory in part, was also a warning of what the unresolved issues between America and Britain could cause, a permanent break between the two, in a violent conflict, which would come to fruition in only ten years. For now, the Americans found a new sense of confidence in themselves, when they banded together for a common cause. With the repeal now done, the other unresolved grievances became the focus, such as the restrictions on manufacturing, a paper currency, and slavery itself.
Sam Adams and the Boston Town Meeting
Immediately after the celebrations from the repeal of the Stamp Act were over, the same mechanics, artisans, merchants and dockworkers who had boycotted British goods, came into the Boston Town Meeting in May of 1766, and took up the evil of the slave trade. Sam Adams, who was a Representative in the Massachusetts House, was also the leader of the town meeting. A deeply religious man, he opposed slavery his whole life, and now had the chance to strike a political blow against it. The sentiment James Otis had expressed in his 1764 works, attacking slavery as a violation of natural law, was now echoed by the general population of the town.
During this meeting, chaired by Sam Adams, it was resolved to instruct its representatives from Boston “That for the total abolishing of slavery among us, that you move for a law to prohibit the importation and purchasing of slaves for the future.”[x] This instruction included a provision that the three Representatives to the Massachusetts House from Boston, which included John Hancock, James Otis, and Adams, create a committee to draft this legislation in the next session. Thus, not coincidentally, the people chosen to advance legislation to abolish slavery, were the same ones who were advocating the Patriot cause, and had been the strongest voices against the Stamp Act. Within Massachusetts politics, it was the group around Governor Bernard and most of the wealthy officials (known as the Court party) who had supported the Stamp Act and constituted the primary opposition to any action to limit or abolish slavery.
In March of 1767, Adams, Otis and Hancock brought in a bill to the House of Representatives, that simply stated its intent “To prevent the unwarrantable and unusual practice or custom of enslaving Mankind in this Province, and the importation of Slaves into the same.”[xi] While many supported their position, it ran into opposition from those who were involved in the lucrative slave trade operations, and so the bill was modified, by putting in a timeframe of only a year for the bill to remain in force, if not re-enacted. This compromise got it passed through the House, but it now had to be submitted to the Governor’s Council, or upper house, which was made up of men nominated by the Representatives, but with final approval only coming from the Governor. As such, it would be an uphill battle against the mostly handpicked supporters of Royal Governor Bernard, who had harbored personal animosity against Sam Adams for many years.
As slavery was now being debated publicly by the political representatives, a powerful new pamphlet was printed in Boston, called Considerations on Slavery, In a Letter to a Friend, by Nathaniel Appleton Jr. Appleton’s pamphlet was composed as a series of letters to convince a slave trader to quit the trade, and support it being outlawed. The author was the son of the famous Puritan minister of the same name, from Cambridge, whose opinions were highly regarded within the community. Appleton’s argument against slavery adds several new formulations, including that the slave trade is “inconsistent with the interest of the Province.” Continuing on that theme, he says:
Oh ye sons of Liberty, pause a moment, give me your ear. Is your conduct consistent? Can you review our late struggles for liberty, and think of the slave trade at the same time, and not blush? Me thinks were you an African, I could see you blush. How should we have been confounded and struck dumb, had Great Britain thrown this inconsistency in our faces? How justly might they, and all mankind have laughed at our pretensions to any just sentiments of Liberty, or even humanity? We claim our descent from the ancient Britons, who have resolved from time to time, that no inhabitant of their island shall be a slave. And shall we, whose Fathers fled to America for greater Liberty than they enjoyed in Britain; shall we, I say, suffer Slavery to be so much as once named among us? The years 1765 & 1766 will be ever memorable for the glorious stand which America has made for her Liberties. How much glory will it add to us if at the time we are establishing Liberty for ourselves and children, we show the same regard to all mankind that come among us? That while we are preventing the chains being put upon us, we are knocking them off from those who already have them on? This will show all the world, that we are the true sons of Liberty…[xii]
Appleton then addresses the economic problem of slavery, saying:
By the importation of black slaves, we prevent the importation of white servants. These white people when they have served some years… turn out upon our waste-lands, marry and in a few years we see a Town well settled; and in less than fifty years, there will be a four-fold increase. By this means our country will fill up, we become respectable, and secure from an enemy…
He then returns to the broader problem of the damage slavery does to the whole economy, stating; “though it has been plead, that prohibiting the importation of slaves, would cut off a large branch of trade, yet it must be remembered that upon the whole, it is an unprofitable one for the community, because real riches ( if rum may be called so) are sent from this place for an article which we either might have from among ourselves, or we might import with little or no exportation. Though individuals may make a good advance upon their stock, yet the riches are wholly got from ourselves, a trade which you well know Sir, is always esteemed disadvantageous to a community.”
Leaving no doubt as to what the pamphlet is aimed at accomplishing, he says, “Without all doubt, it will be thought necessary immediately to prohibit any future importation of slaves, which, as Dr. Franklin says, has already blackened half America.” He finishes the letter, stating “no doubt the honorable house of Representatives, and the other branches of Government, will take it into their most serious consideration, and rejoice to have the opportunity, and be the means of fixing such lasting honor upon the people they represent and govern.”
With the debate on slavery now appearing in newspapers and broadsides, even the Governor’s Council felt the pressure to do something, and they responded by proposing a high tax on imported slaves. Royal Governor Bernard was anxious not to interfere in a trade that brought Great Britain large profits, so he carefully suggested to his supporters in the Council, to not reconcile their import tax bill with the more complete bill to eliminate slavery from the House of Representatives. If that reconciliation was not completed before the end of the legislative year, both bills would simply expire. Since no agreement could be reached between the House and Governor’s Council on the content of the bills, that is exactly what happened.
This temporary defeat did not diminish the supporters of abolition, it only changed their tactics on how to accomplish it.
The Boston Town meeting’s reaction was almost immediate. In late March 1767, Sam Adams raised again a vote on whether the Town of Boston should adhere to its original instructions for the bill to end importation of slaves and abolish slavery, which passed in the affirmative. Although this vote did not change the law, it put the Governor and Court Party on notice, that this fight would not be given up by the citizens of Boston.[xiii]
Anthony Benezet and the Philadelphia Circle
The Philadelphia based anti-slavery circle was run by the prominent Quaker teacher, Anthony Benezet, who had been a friend of Benjamin Franklin since the 1740s. Benezet would write some of the most important works against the slave trade, that would directly influence others to take up the cause of abolition in America, England and France. He and Franklin also would recruit the young Dr. Benjamin Rush into their circle, who became a champion of American independence, and a life-long campaigner against slavery in the years to come.
Anthony Benezet was a subscriber to Franklin’s Pennsylvania Hospital, and also a shareholder in the Library Company that Franklin founded. When he came to Philadelphia, he bought a house on the same street as Franklin. Benezet came from a French Huguenot family, that fled to England to escape religious persecution in France, and then came to Pennsylvania in 1731. He was a teacher at The Friends English School in Philadelphia, and shared an interest in educating free blacks and slaves, as did Franklin. In 1750, Benezet began teaching black children to read and write at his home in the evenings, and instructing them in the books of the gospel.
His success prompted Franklin and the Anglican Church group known as the Associates of Dr. Bray, to found a school for black children in Philadelphia in 1758. In the first class, there were 36 children, of whom 25 were slaves. By 1760, the school was doing so well, that the Associates of Dr. Bray wanted to build 3 more schools in America, and consulted with Franklin on what he thought would be the best locations for them. He chose New York City, Williamsburg, VA and Newport, RI, which each had functioning schools by the fall of 1762. Another school was built in Fredericksburg, VA, in 1765.
Franklin contributed funding to the Philadelphia school, and he describes his own visit to the school in 1763 in a letter to the Rev. John Waring, saying:
I was on the whole much pleas’d, and from what I then saw, have conceiv’d a higher Opinion of the natural Capacities of the black Race, than I had ever before entertained. Their Apprehension seems as quick, their Memory as strong, and their Docility in every Respect equal to that of white Children. You will wonder perhaps that I should ever doubt it, and I will not undertake to justify all my Prejudices, nor to account for them.[xiv]
While Franklin had been opposed to slavery publicly since his 1751 paper, his arguments against it were primarily economic and moral. From his personal experience with the young black students, and his knowledge of Anthony Benezet’s work in education, his opposition to slavery became more personal in nature.
A Caution and Warning to Great Britain and Her Colonies
Anthony Benezet’s published writings on the slave trade were aimed at a much broader audience than his Quaker contemporaries. He first decided to target the slave trade itself, and sought out the first-hand reports from Africa, of the effects of the trade on the African people, and on the colonies where they were exported. He collected various accounts from English, French, Spanish, Dutch and Portuguese sources, and began publishing them with his own remarks and introductions. His first work of this type was his 1759 paper, Observations on the Enslaving, Importing and Purchasing of Negroes, published in Philadelphia. His next major work was A Short Account of that Part of Africa Inhabited by the Negroes, in 1762, which contained details on the trade from Guinea, and the wars and destruction that occurred as a result of the European sponsored slave trade. This work was widely distributed in England, and the future leader of the English abolition movement, Granville Sharp, had the book reprinted in England in 1768.
But it was Benezet’s next book, published in 1766, that became almost the reference standard on the slave trade, and was reprinted five times, and spread throughout Europe and America. It was titled A Caution and Warning to Great Britain and Her Colonies, In a Short Representation of the Calamitous State of the Enslaved Negroes in the British Dominions. First published in Philadelphia, then later in England, Benezet instructed his Quaker friends in England to make 2000 copies and get them into the hands of every member of Parliament. Dr. John Fothergill, Franklin’s personal physician and a member of the Royal Society, was in contact with Benezet, and served as one of the conduits for his works being spread in England. This book was not written in a polite religious style, and its immediate political aim was not missed. On the first page, Benezet makes clear who his targets are:
How many of those who distinguish themselves as the Advocates of Liberty, remain insensible and inattentive to the treatment of thousands and tens of thousands of our fellow-men, who, from motives of avarice and the inexorable degree of tyrant custom, are at this very time kept in the most deplorable state of slavery, in many parts of the British Dominions.
Sharpening his focus to those politically responsible for slavery, he states that:
How an evil of so deep a dye, hath so long, not only passed uninterrupted by Those in Power, but hath even had their countenance, is indeed, surprising, and charity would suppose, must in a great measure, have arisen from this, that many persons in government, both of the Clergy and Laity, in whose power it hath been to put a stop to the Trade, have been unacquainted with the corrupt motives which gives life to it;.. Otherwise the powers of the earth would not, could not, have so long authorised a practice so inconsistent with every idea of liberty and justice…[xv]
Continuing on the effects of slavery he says that, “Much might justly be said of the temporal evils which attend this practice, as it is destructive of the welfare of human society, and of the peace and prosperity of every country, in proportion as it prevails.”
The most powerful aspect of Benezet’s paper is his collection of the facts of the size of the huge human casualties of the slave trade, which he documents in cold detail. From the English ports of Liverpool, Bristol and London, ships set sail for America and the West Indies carrying just over 100,000 slaves per year. On these two to three-month voyages, due to filthy conditions and disease, about 25% of the slaves die during the voyage. Once the survivors are landed in the New World, their period of adjustment and exposure to new diseases within the first year usually kills another 25%, in what was termed at that time “the seasoning.” Benezet then includes the first-hand accounts of what happens to rebellious slaves on the islands, with many executed, tortured on the wheel, or burned alive. Even minor offences by slaves would result in whippings and beatings and even starvation at the hands of their masters. The conservative calculations show that 30 to 40 thousand Africans were killed each year as a direct result of the slave trade run by the British companies alone.[xvi]
Adding to this barbaric portrait of the trade, he includes the effects on Africa itself, where wars are instigated by European slave trading companies, pitting one tribe against another, with the loser’s captives then sold off as slaves. In Guinea, what was once a relatively prosperous population based on agriculture, was now reduced to constant warfare, with families broken apart, and most of the men either captured or killed, and those remaining reduced to conditions of hunger and poverty. Calling it what it really was, Benezet says, “How dreadful then is this slave trade, whereby so many thousands of our fellow creatures, free by nature, and endowed with the same rational faculties, and called to be heirs of the same salvation with us, lose their lives, and are truly, and properly speaking, murdered every year.” He then puts the question to the reader:
Britons boast themselves to be a generous, humane people, who have a true sense of the importance of Liberty; but is this a true character, whilst that barbarous, savage Slave Trade with all its attendant horrors, receives countenance and protection from the Legislature, whereby so many thousand lives are yearly sacrificed. Do we indeed believe the truths declared in the Gospel? If indeed we do, must we not tremble to think what a load of guilt lies upon our Nation generally and individually, so far as we in any degree abet or countenance this aggravated iniquity.
Benezet had laid bare the hideous destruction caused by the slave trade, and put those responsible in the British Government on notice that their guilt would be known in this world, and in the next. His writings also spread throughout most of the American colonies via the Quaker networks, and then into the hands of many political representatives.
Virginia Enters the Fight Against the Slave Trade
The situation in Virginia was different in many respects from that in the New England colonies when it came to slavery. Virginia had a fairly large yearly importation of slaves from Africa by British companies until 1765. But, unlike the New England colonies, such as Massachusetts, which had about 5000 slaves in 1770, estimates for Virginia range from 150,000 to 180,000 at that time. As such, most of the Patriot leaders and legislators from Virginia agreed that they had to end the slave trade first, before doing anything to emancipate the large population of slaves. There were also those who criticized the institution of slavery itself, and worked for its abolition over decades; these included George Mason, George Wythe, Richard Bland, Richard Henry Lee, and Thomas Jefferson, before he changed his views in the late 1780s.
In 1767, the first step taken by the Virginia House of Burgesses, was to increase the tax paid on imported slaves, to the point where it would cripple the trade. Before this bill was introduced, an important article appeared in the newspaper, the Virginia Gazette on March 19, 1767, by the young Arthur Lee, called An Address on Slavery. Arthur Lee was a physician who had been educated in Scotland and had recently become a member of the Royal Society, and was a member of the politically prominent Lee family of Virginia, his father having been a Burgess and President of the Council. He was also a cousin of the current Burgesses, Richard Henry Lee and Henry Lee, who both would be involved in legislative efforts attacking the slave trade by introducing high import duties.
Arthur Lee’s paper begins by addressing the members of the Assembly, on “The Abolition of Slavery and the Retrieval of Specie, in this colony… they are both to be accomplish’d by the same means.” With this approach, he had linked the idea of first taxing the slave trade, and then taking the revenue to pay off the considerable debts of Virginia from the Seven Years War, so that in the future, perhaps new currency could be issued. This certainly had a broad appeal at that time within Virginia, and was even supported by other Burgesses who would not go so far as to abolish slavery immediately. But Lee’s paper was also arguing that slavery must be abolished because:
it is a violation both of Justice and Religion; that it is dangerous to the safety of the Community in which it prevails; that it is destructive to the growth of arts and sciences; and lastly, that it produces a numerous and very fatal train of vices, both in the Slave and in his Master.[xvii]
Lee then brings up a theme previously used to attack the right of the British Parliament to enforce laws over the Americans, when they are not represented there, and applies it to the African slave trade. Regarding the British slave trading companies’ power over the Africans, he says,
Purchase them indeed they may, under the authority of an act of British Parliament. An act entailing upon the African, with whom we were not at war, and over whom a British Parliament could not of right assume even a shadow of authority, the dreadful curse of perpetual slavery upon them and their children forever. There cannot be in nature, there is not in all history, an instance in which every right of men is more flagrantly violated.
This argument directly linked one of the primary rationales used against the Stamp Act and other hated acts of Parliament, to the effort to abolish slavery. As such, besides the private letters of George Mason in 1765, this marked the first time in Virginia that the Patriot cause had been fused philosophically to the fight against slavery publicly.
In Virginia, unlike the colonies to its north where various religious dissenters who fled the persecution of the Church of England were the majority, most of the population attended religious services in the Anglican Church, including the vast majority of the Burgesses. As such, it was not as common to invoke religious arguments within a political appeal. However, Lee does make a religious appeal later in his paper, when he attacks slavery as a violation of the Christian religion, saying:
Remember that the corner stone of your religion is to do unto others as you would they should do unto you; ask then your own Heart, whether it would not abhor anyone, as the most outrageous violator of this and every other principle of right, Justice and humanity, who should make a slave of you and your Posterity forever…Lay not this flattering unction to your Soul, that it is the custom of the Country, that you found it so, that not your will, but your Necessity consents; Ah think, how little such an excuse will avail you in that awful day, when your Savior shall pronounce judgment upon you for breaking a law too plain to be misunderstood, too sacred to be violated.
In the final part of his paper, Lee makes his most compelling and potentially dangerous argument: that the immediate danger of the rebellion of slaves, necessitates the abolition of slavery. He first starts with an historical review of the ancient Romans and Greeks, and their corruption from slavery, leading to slave revolts that destroyed these societies, saying:
From these facts we may conclude, that the proportion of slaves among the antients was not so great as with us; and as, notwithstanding this, the freemen though infinitely better armed and disciplined than we are, were yet brought to the very brink of ruin by the insurrections of their Slaves; what powerful reasons have not we, to fear even more fatal consequences from the greater prevalence of Slavery among us?
Addressing the question of when Virginia should abolish slavery in order to stop this threat of destruction by insurrection, he writes:
Since time, as it adds strength and experience to the slaves, will sink us into perfect security and indolence, which debillitating our minds and enervating our bodies, will render us an easy conquest to the feeblest foe. Unarmed already and undisciplined, with our Militia laws contemned, neglected or perverted, we are like the wretch at the feast; with a drawn sword depending over his head by a single hair; yet we flatter ourselves, in opposition to the force of reason and conviction of experience, that the danger is not imminent.
This concluding part was indeed controversial, and although Lee had written a second part which was supposed to be printed later that month in the Virginia Gazette, the publisher declined to print it, and it was not picked up by any other Virginia paper. However, the first part of the Address was read and collected by Anthony Benezet, who later appended an edited version to his own work, A Caution and Warning to Great Britain and Her Colonies, in subsequent editions up to 1773. This brought Lee’s Address to an audience beyond Virginia, which included England and France in the 1770s.
Soon after the publication of Lee’s Address on Slavery, his cousin Henry Lee, introduced the bill to add an additional duty on imported slaves, and use the revenue to pay the Virginia treasury notes that were still unpaid debts from the war. Richard Bland offered some amendments to the bill, and it was passed by the House of Burgesses in April 1767. Supporting this attack on the slave trade were many of the leading Patriots, including George Mason, George Washington, George Wythe, Patrick Henry, and Thomas Jefferson.
The bill required the King’s Assent to have the force of law, but the Crown decided to veto the bill, to preserve the rich profits from the slave trade, while denying the Americans the right to decide to end the slave trade. This fight over the slave trade would not end in Virginia, and it would erupt in other colonies in the immediate years ahead. The following year, the British Government’s Townshend Act enforcement would unify America once again into an even broader resistance in the Non-Importation Association, that would directly target the British slave trade. Individual American colonial attempts to stop the trade would eventually result in the First Continental Congress in 1774, which brought the British slave trade to a complete stop in all of America.
(To Be Continued)
[i] Cook, Don. The Long Fuse, How England Lost The American Colonies, 1760-1785. Atlantic Monthly Press, NY, 1995, quoted p.66.
[ii] Ibid quoted p.67.
[iv] Extract from The Boston News-Letter of June 4, 1765, as quoted in Buckingham ed., Specimens of Newspaper Literature, Vol. 1.
[v] Col. John Durkee, Norwichtown’s Forgotten Hero, Historical Series, Number Six, September 1998. The Educational Outreach of the General Israel Putnam Branch No. 4 of the Connecticut Society of the Sons of the American Revolution.
[vi] Cook, Don., quoted p.80.
[vii] Robert A. Rutland, ed., The Papers of George Mason, Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1970, p.173.
[viii] Cook, Don. Quoted p.97, 99.
[ix] Appleton, Nathaniel MA, A Thanksgiving Sermon Preached on the Total Repeal of the Stamp Act, Edes & Gill, Boston, 1766, digitized by Google Books.
[x] Locke, Mary Stoughton. p. 68-69, Anti-Slavery in America, From the Introduction of African Slaves to the Prohibition of the Slave Trade, 1619-1808, Ginn & Company, Boston, 1901, digitized by Google Books.
[xi] Ibid, p.68
[xii] Appleton, Nathaniel Jr., Considerations on Slavery, In a Letter to a Friend, Edes & Gill, Boston, 1767, digitized by Google Books.
[xiii] Locke, p.69.
[xv] Benezet, Anthony. A Caution and Warning to Great Britain and Her Colonies, In a Short Representation of the Calamitous State of the Enslaved Negroes in the British Dominions. Henry Miller, Philadelphia, 1766.
[xvii] Lee, Arthur, Address on Slavery, as found in McMaster, Richard K., Arthur Lee’s Address on Slavery: An Aspect of Virginia’s Struggle to End the Slave Trade, 1765-1774. The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 80, No. 2, April 1972.