Quaker Roots

Monday, March 20, 2006

Well, it's been quite a while since my last post, and I've written a few more chapters on my thesis. Instead of including the entire thesis here, I'm going to post my new introduction, which is not so long but gives an overview of all of my points. Please email me if you'd like to see more on any particular issue.


A Modern Myth: The 1688 Petition Against Slavery

On April 18th, 1688, four Quakers in the new settlement of Germantown signed a petition “against the traffick of mens-body.” This protest against slavery was the first of its kind on the American continent and preceded the official Quaker abolition of slavery by 92 years. Over the past three centuries, the petition has reached iconic status in abolitionist and Quaker narratives. William Hull, an historian at Swarthmore College during the early 20th century, calls it “the memorable flower which blossomed in Pennsylvania from the seed of Quakerism.” Samuel Pennypacker, a 19th century Philadelphia judge and historian, writes, “a mighty nation will ever recognize it in time to come as one of the brightest pages in the early history of Pennsylvania and the country.” Indeed, the petition has served to strengthen the modern Quaker abolitionist identity and provide deep roots for the anti-slavery movement in American history.

In 2000, the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting included a portion of the Protest in an exhibit on “Quakers and the Political Process,” compiled in celebration of the Republican National Convention’s meeting in Philadelphia. The section entitled “Ending Slavery—Striving for Civil Rights” includes the protest as part of a larger Quaker abolitionist narrative: “Beginning with the Germantown, Pennsylvania Meeting in 1688 and culminating in 1776 with all Quakers in the Philadelphia region, Friends gradually refused to own slaves.” Accompanying this history is a citation from the original Germantown Protest—with notable cuts. The curators of the exhibit chose not to cite the original references to Turks and Europe: one offends modern sensibilities, the other seems irrelevant. The revised text is attractive and accessible to a modern audience, although remnants of older linguistic conventions (and misspellings) remain:

These are the reasons why we are against the traffick of men-body, as followeth…There is a saying, that we shall doe to all men like as we will be done ourselves; making no difference of what generation, descent or colour they are. And those who steal or robb men, and those who buy or purchase them, are they not all alike? Here is liberty of conscience, wch is right and reasonable; here ought to be likewise liberty of ye body, except of evil-doers, wch is an other case. But to bring men hither, or to rob and sell them against their will, we stand against…Ah! Doe consider well this thing, you who doe it, if you would be done at this manner? And if it is done according to Christianity?…Pray, what thing in the world can be done worse towards us, than if men should rob or steal us away, and sell us for slaves to strange countries; separating housbands from their wives and children. Being now this is not done in the manner we would be done at therefore we contradict and are against this traffic of men-body. And we who profess that it is not lawful to steal, must, likewise, avoid to purchase such things as are stolen, but rather help to stop this robbing and stealing if possible.

This modern anecdote is interesting for a variety of reasons. First, it demonstrates how the 1688 Protest can be used to create a modern myth about the Quaker abolitionist movement. The Protest is identified as the “seed” of abolitionist sentiment that came to fruition in 1776. Second, the decision to include a portion of the original text suggests that the language of the Protest appeals to a modern audience. This accessibility is rare when compared to the modern treatment of other texts within the same period. George Keith’s “Exhortation & Caution to Friends Concerning Buying or Keeping of Negroes,” the first anti-slavery protest printed in the colonies, has received markedly less attention in the past century than the Germantown Protest and while it is occasionally cited, it is rarely excerpted. Other early anti-slavery texts, including William Edmunson’s 1676 journal or Cadwalader Morgan’s 1698 letter to Friends, have been similarly ignored outside scholarly circles.

The relative popularity of the 1688 protest raises an important question: Why has the Germantown Protest—both as a symbol and as a text—assumed such a central role in the contemporary narrative of the Quaker anti-slavery movement? What makes it appealing to a modern audience? One answer is that its place as the “first” anti-slavery protest in the American colonies comes with an inherently exalted position. But while it may have been the first “protest” against slavery, the Germantown text was not the first anti-slavery Quaker document. George Fox, while not decisively anti-slavery, defended the rights of blacks and insisted that all were equal “children of God.” William Edmunson published his journal and letters in 1676, in which he advocated an end to slavery. His reasoning, however, does not meld with modern sensibilities. Edmunson urges Friends to introduce blacks to Jesus Christ and the Gospel and to help them turn away from their otherwise “unclean” lives. Fox, meanwhile, insists that blacks are no farther from God than whites, but is uncomfortable with the idea of black “strangers” becoming a part of Quaker families.

It may be the very abnormality of the Germantown Protest that makes it so accessible to a modern audience. The language of the 1688 text is unlike other inter-Quaker texts of the same period in content, structure and style. The Germantown Protest does not follow the typical format of a Quaker document sent between Meetings. It addresses itself to “Christians,” rather than “Friends” and with minor exceptions, it forgoes Biblical references and never mentions Jesus Christ—all unusual practices for a Quaker text in the late 17th century. The Germantown Protest founds its anti-slavery argument on ethical and pragmatic concerns that are not dependent on belief in Christian doctrine or Quaker custom. In its direct approach to the question of slavery, the Germantowners also omit the salutary introduction to Friends that was customary of epistles sent between Meetings. In its structural style, the protest most resembles Quaker pamphlets, which were normally written to groups or individuals outside the Quaker community.

These observations raise another important question: why was the 1688 Protest different? And why were the Germantowners the first Quakers to write down and publicly denounce slave-holding and trading within a formal Quaker structure? Much of the disparity, I argue, stems from the Dutch and German backgrounds of the Germantowners. The Germantowners were foreigners in a foreign land, outsiders within their own Quaker community. Linguistically, culturally and ideologically they differed from the English Quakers who controlled the political and religious structures in Pennsylvania. As a result, their transition to the New World was accompanied by unique challenges and situations. This thesis will investigate those challenges faced by the German and Dutch Quakers who wrote and submitted what was to become, in William Hull’s words, “the memorable flower which blossomed in Pennsylvania from the seed of Quakerism.”

It is also an exploration of the origins of “revolutionary thought.” The Germantown Protest, according to our modern myth, was the critical “seed” of anti-slavery sentiment planted in the 17th century. So why was it written? What social factors and individual motivations contributed to its creation? As J. William Frost asks in the introduction to his text, The Quaker Origins of Antislavery, “What causes people to think of something new? Is invention primarily a personal achievement determined by individual genius or should one seek to isolate a significant cultural nexus, economic factor, or social condition?”

In the case of the Germantown Protest, the authors were responding to a variety of social, moral, economic, and political concerns. Their concerns were created by, and voiced within, the complex and unique social matrix of 17th century Pennsylvania, where multiple languages, conventions and values were in constant, and often contentious, conversation. For the Germantowners, the institution of slavery, and specifically the importation of black slaves, would have been a new and strange phenomenon that was an accepted convention for English Quakers. This disparity was compounded by class differences: the English Quakers who led the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting in Philadelphia were wealthier than the Dutch and German Quakers of Germantown. So while the more powerful English could own slaves, it would have been an impossibility for most of the Germantowners, nearly all of whom were skilled craftsmen who did not need slaves for their work. Of the Germantowners, only Pastorius had a relatively wealthy and educated upbringing and ironically, Ruth (1983) points out that he actually agreed to be the proprietor of slaves for the Frankfurt Company in 1683. As a result of this economic situation, it would have been politically smart for the Germantowners to reject the slave trade. None of the protest’s authors benefited from it, while their political superiors would have felt its absence acutely.

The partial “outsider” status of the Germantowners and their lack of need for—and unfamiliarity with—black slaves were all important factors that led to the creation of the anti-slavery protest. But circumstance alone cannot determine behavior, and the language of the protest demonstrates a strong moral conviction about the evils of slavery. The Germantowners challenge their readers to imagine themselves in a slave-like position and to take their ethics of equality seriously. They also connect the core Quaker belief in “liberty of conscience” with liberty of body, a step that provides their anti-slavery argument with a strong philosophical foundation: “Here is liberty of conscience, wch is right and reasonable; here ought to be likewise liberty of ye body, except of evil-does, wch is another case.”

This morality, however, cannot be taken completely at face value. The Germantowners were not only concerned about the treatment of blacks, but also for their own welfare. In 17th century Europe and America, blacks were often assumed to be dangerous, dirty and foul. The Germantowners reference this assumption at multiple times in their protest, although they do not define their own position on the subject. Still, the Germantowners were undoubtedly concerned about the presence of black slaves in Pennsylvania. They are well aware of the possibility of slave revolt, a common fear that they use to supplement their argument against slavery.

The Germantowners were also concerned about Pennsylvania’s reputation in Europe. At three separate times they note that their friends and acquaintances in Germany and Holland are “fearful” and “terrified” to hear that Quakers in Pennsylvania hold slaves. This reaction in continental Europe is a reminder that the Germans and Eastern Dutch would not have been accustomed to black slaves in their society.

In the end, no one factor or incentive can be identified as “decisive” in the creation of the Germantown Protest. Its authors were neither solely virtuous nor shrewdly political nor covertly racist. They were influenced by strong moral convictions, social fears and political affiliations and resentments. But what they created has, over the past four centuries, become a defining, formative and inspiring symbol of Quaker abolitionism, a position that warrants merit and respect. But it is also useful and refreshing to imagine the revered authors as people, who were subject to ordinary human fears, desires and vices. And this is what this thesis attempts to do. Beginning with a historical, political and socio-economic overview of the years leading up to and following the petition (Chapter One), it continues with specific histories of each petition signer (Chapter Two). Chapter Three places the 1688 protest within the broader context of the 17th century Quaker slave trade/early Quaker anti-slavery movement while Chapter Four examines the text of the protest as part of a genre of Quaker documents that were sent between Meetings (“inter-Quaker documents”). It ends with a brief explanation of the protest’s immediate effects within the Quaker community (Chapter Five) and a reexamination of the protest’s meaning within a modern context (Conclusion). The petition, I conclude, continues to mold and define the modern Quaker identity. Its role has shifted from community disrupter to community cohesive over the past three centuries as the cultural landscapes shifted, but its social currency remains alive and important.


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