Anti-Slavery Opinions Before the Year1800

William Frederick Poole,


Since the preceding pages were in type, I have seen, in the library of the New York Historical Society, the printed minutes of the first convention held by the Abolition Societies of the United States, which met at Philadelphia, January 1, 1794, and was several days in session, of which mention was made on page 59. These minutes show that my statement of the societies represented needs correction. The Rhode Island Society appears to have had no delegates present. The Virginia Society appointed delegates ; but, for reasons stated below, they were not admitted. Several societies, however, were represented, of which before I had seen no mention. As the convention met in the depth of winter, and as traveling was then expensive and difficult, it is evidence of a deep interest in the subject, that so many delegations attended.

The convention met in the City Hall, at Philadelphia, and organized by choosing Joseph Bloomfield, of New Jersey, President ; John McCrea, Secretary ; and Joseph Fry, Door-keeper.

The following societies were represented by the delegates named:

Connecticut Society—Uriah Tracy.
New York Society—Peter Jay Munroe, Moses Rogers, Thomas Franklin, Jr., William Dunlap.
New Jersey Society—Joseph Bloomfield, William Coxe, Jr., John Wistar, Robert Pearson, Franklin Davenport.
Pennsylvania Society—William Rogers, William Rawle, Samuel Powel Griffitts, Robert Patterson, Samuel Coates, Benjamin Rush.
Washington (Pa.) Society—Absalom Baird.
Delaware Society—Warren Mifflin, Isaiah Rowland, Joseph Hodgson, John Pemberton.
Wilmington (Del.) Society—Joseph Warner, Isaac H. Starr, Robert Coram.
Maryland Society—Samuel Sterett, James Winchester, Joseph Townsend, Adam Fonerdon, Jesse Hollingsworth.
Chester-town (Md.) Society—Joseph Wilkinson, James Maslin, Abraham Ridgely.

A letter, directed to the convention, from Robert Pleasants, chairman of the Committee of Correspondence of the Virginia Society, was presented and read. By this letter it appeared that Samuel Pleasants and Israel Pleasants, of Philadelphia, were appointed to represent that society in the convention; and in case of their declining, or being prevented from acting, the convention were at liberty to nominate two other persons as their representatives. In the letter was inclosed “an authentic account of several vessels lately fitted out in Virginia for the African slave-trade.” The convention, after considering the proposition of the Virginia Society, adopted the following resolution :

“Resolved, That as information, and an unreserved comparison of one another’s sentiments, relative to the important cause in which we are severally engaged, are our principal objects ; and as the persons appointed by the Virginia Society are not citizens of that State, nor mem bers of that Society, to admit them, or, according to their proposal, for us to elect others as their representatives, would be highly improper.”

The president was directed to acknowledge the receipt of the letter, to inform the Virginia Society of the above resolution, and to thank them for the important information contained in the letter.

Benjamin Rush, William Dunlap, Samuel Sterett, William Rawle, and Warner Mifflin, were appointed a committee to report the objects proper for the consideration of the convention, and the best plan for carrying the same into execution. Under the direction of this committee, memorials were prepared to be sent to the legislatures of the several States which had not abolished slavery ; a memorial to Congress asking for the enactment of a law making the use of vessels and men in the slave-trade a penal offense ; and an address to the citizens of the United States, already printed in a note, pp. 60–63. It was also voted “to recommend to the different Abolition societies to appoint delegates to meet in convention, at Philadelphia, on the first Wednesday of January, 1795, and on the same day in every year afterward, until the great objects of their original association be accomplished.”

I was so fortunate as to find, also, in the New York Historical Society’s library, the minutes of the conventions of 1795 and 1797. The convention of 1795 met in the City Hall, at Philadelphia, January 7, and continued in session till the 14th of that month. The societies represented, and delegates, were as follows:

Rhode Island Society—Theodore Foster. The credentials from the president of the society stated that George Benson was also appointed to represent the society ; but he did not appear.
Connecticut Society—Jonathan Edwards, Uriah Tracy, Zephaniah Swift.
New York Society—John Murray, Jr., William Johnson, Lawrence Embree, William Dunlap, William Walton Woolsey.
New Jersey Society—James Sloan, Franklin Davenport. Other delegates appointed, Joseph Bloomfield, William Coxe, Jr., and John Wistar, did not appear. It was explained to the convention that the ab sence of Mr. Bloomfield was occasioned by sickness.
Pennsylvania Society—William Rawle, Robert Patterson, Benjamin Rush, Samuel Coates, Caspar Wistar, James Todd, Benjamin Say.
Washington (Pa.) Society—Thomas Scott, Absalom Baird, Samuel Clark.
Delaware Society—Richard Bassett, John Ralston, Allen McLane, Caleb Boyer.
Wilmington (Del.) Society—Cyrus Newlin, James A. Bayard, Joseph Warner, William Poole.
Maryland Society—Samuel Sterett, Adam Fonerdon, Joseph Townsend, Joseph Thornburgh, George Buchanan, John Bankson, Philip Moore.
Chester-town (Md.) Society—Edward Scott, James Houston.

Dr. Benjamin Rush was elected President ; Walter Franklin, Secretary; and Joseph Fry, Door-keeper.

Jonathan Edwards, William Dunlap, Caspar Wistar, Cyrus Newlin, Caleb Boyer, Philip Moore, and James Houston were appointed the committee on business. Memorials were prepared, and adopted by the convention, to be sent to the legislatures of South Carolina and Georgia, as both States still persisted in the importation of slaves. An address to the Abolition Societies of the United States was also adopted, the spirit of which may be inferred from the following extract:

“When we have broken his chains, and restored the African to the enjoyment of his rights, the great work of justice and benevolence is not accomplished. The new-born citizen must receive that instruction, and those powerful impressions of moral and religious truths, which will render him capable and desirous of fulfilling the various duties he owes to himself and to his country. By educating some in the higher branches, and all in the useful parts of learning, and in the precepts of religion and morality, we shall not only do away the reproach and calumny so unjustly lavished upon us, but confound the enemies of truth, by evincing that the unhappy sons of Africa, in spite of the degrading influence of slavery, are in nowise inferior to the more fortunate inhabitants of Europe and America.”

The fourth annual convention of the Abolition Societies of the United States was held in the Senate Chamber, at Philadelphia, May 3, 1797. The societies represented, and delegates, were as follows:

New York Society—Willett Seaman, Thomas Eddy, Samuel L. Mitchell, William Dunlap, Elihu Hubbard Smith.
New Jersey Society—Joseph Bloomfield, Richard Hartshorne, Joseph Sloan, William Coxe, Jr., William Carpenter.
Pennsylvania Society—Benjamin Rush, William Rawle, Samuel P. Griffitts, Casper Wistar, Samuel Coates, Robert Patterson, James Todd.
Maryland Society—Francis Johonnett, Jesse Tyson, Gerrard T. Hopkins.
Choptank (Md.) Society—Seth Hill Evitts.
Virginia Society (at Richmond)—Joseph Anthony.
Alexandria (Va.) Society—George Drinker.

Joseph Bloomfield was elected President ; Thomas P. Cope, Secretary ; and Jacob Meyer, Door-keeper.

Communications from the New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Choptank (Md.), Virginia, and Alexandria (Va.) Abolition Societies were read. The minutes of the convention of 1797 are more elaborately compiled, and contain more statistics than the previous reports. Among other papers adopted by the convention, was an “Address to the Free Africans.” Besides the seven societies, which sent delegates, the eight societies following, which sent none, were reported, viz : the Rhode Island, Connecticut, Washington (Pa.), Delaware (at Dover), Wilmington (Del.), Chester-town (Md.),Winchester (Va.), and Kentucky Societies. Among the memorials presented to Congress, in 1791, was one from the Caroline County (Md.) Society. Besides the Maryland Society, at Baltimore, there appear to have been three local societies on the Eastern Shore of that State.

The several societies reported their membership, in 1797, as follows : New York Society, two hundred and fifty ; New Jersey Society, “compiled partially;” Pennsylvania Society, five hundred and ninety-one ; Maryland Society, two hundred and thirty-one ; Choptank (Md.) Society, twenty-five ; Wilmington (Del.) Society, sixty ; Virginia Society, one hundred and forty-seven ; Alexandria (Va.) Society, sixty-two. From the other societies no reports of membership were received. The Choptank (Md.) Society, formed in 1790, reported having liberated more than sixty slaves ; the Wilmington (Del.) Society reported having liberated eighty since 1788 ; and the Alexandria (Va.) Society reported having made twenty-six complaints under the law against the importation of slaves. By votes of previous conventions, the Abolition Societies were required to sustain schools for the education of Africans. The minutes for 1797 contain interesting reports from the several societies of their success in this department of benevolence.

Before the year 1782, it was illegal in Virginia for a master to liberate his slaves without sending them out of the State. The Assembly of Virginia then passed an act permitting the manumission of slaves. Judge Tucker, of that State, in his “Dissertation on Slavery,” estimated that, from 1782 to 1791, ten thousand slaves were liberated in Virginia by their masters.

Of the anti-slavery literature of this period, which has not already been noticed, there is in the New York Historical Society’s library, “An Oration spoken before the Connecticut Society for the Promotion of Freedom, and the Relief of Persons unlawfully held in Bondage, convened at Hartford the 8th of May, 1794. By Theodore Dwight.* Hartford, 1794.” 8vo, 24 pp. Also, a “Discourse delivered April 12, 1797 at the Request of the New York Society for Promoting the Manumission of Slaves, and protecting such of them as have been or may be liberated. By Samuel Miller, A. M. New York, 1787.” 8vo, 36 pp.

In the Boston Athenæum library are the following tracts :

“A Dissuasion to Great Britain and the Colonies from the Slave Trade to Africa. By James Swan. Revised and abridged. Boston, 1773.” 8vo, 40 pp. The original edition was printed in 1772.

“A Forensic Dispute on the Legality of Enslaving the Africans, held at a Public Commencement in Cambridge, N. E., July 21, 1773, by the Candidates for the Bachelors’ Degrees. Boston, 1773.” 8vo, 48 pp.

“A Short Account of that Part of Africa inhabited by the Negroes. [By Anthony Benezet.] Philadelphia, 1772.” 8vo, 80 pp.

“An Address to the British Settlements in America upon Slaveholding. Second edition. To which are added Observations on a Pamphlet entitled ‘Slavery not forbidden by Scripture ; or, a Defence of the West Indian Planters.’ By a Pennsylvanian [Dr. Benjamin Rush]. Philadelphia, 1773.” 8vo, pp. 28 + 54. Also, another edition issued the same year, with the title somewhat varied ; the second part being termed, “A Vindication of the Address to the Inhabitants,” etc. The pamphlet entitled “Slavery not forbidden by Scripture,” etc., was written by R. Nisbet, and is in the Library of Congress.

“Memorials presented to the Congress of the United States, by the different Societies instituted for promoting the Abolition of Slavery, in the States of Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia. Published by the Pennsylvania Society for promoting the Abolition of Slavery. Philadelphia. Printed by Francis Bailey, 1792.” 8vo, 31 pp.

This tract contains the memorials which were presented to the House of Representatives, December 8, 1791, and which were read and referred. The Rhode Island memorial is signed by David Howell, President, and dated December 28, 1790. Connecticut—by Ezra Stiles, President; Simon Baldwin, Secretary; January 7, 1791. New York—by Matthew Clarkson, Vice-President ; December 14, 1790. Pennsylvania—by James Pemberton, President ; John McCrea and Joseph P. Norris, Secretaries ; October 3, 1791. Washington (Pa.)—by Andrew Swearingen, Vice-President. Maryland, in Baltimore—“Signed by the members generally ;” but the names of no members are given. Chester-town, Maryland—by James M. Anderson, President ; Daniel McCurtin, Secretary; November 19, 1791. Caroline County, Maryland—by Edward White, Vice-President ; Charles Emery, Secretary ; September 6, 1791.

Of the sixteen Abolition Societies existing in the United States during this decade, it appears that six were in States which, at the outbreak of the late rebellion, were non-slaveholding ; and ten were in slaveholding States.


*. The “Dwight” to whom, with others, Bishop Grégoire inscribed his “Literature of Negroes,” was probably Theodore Dwight, and not President Timothy Dwight, as stated on page 31.

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Anti-Slavery Opinions Before the Year1800 --


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