America’s First Protest Against Slavery

In 1688 four men formally protested slavery in the then American colony of Pennsylvania.

The document is short and direct.

At a Germantown monthly meeting four German Quakers, Garret henderich, derick up de graeff, Francis daniell Pastorius, and Abraham up Den grief, wrote into the minutes of the meeting the following:

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 liberty of ye body, except of evil-doers,wch is an other case. 1

In 1688, seven years after William Penn had received his charter to create a territory of religious freedom and tolerance, William Penn and other Quakers bought and sold slaves.

Handwritten Protest Against Slavery, 1688
We don’t think of Quakers as slave owners, but they were, and for quite a long while. The protest outlined by these four men was forwarded to the Quarterly meeting of Friends, then onto the yearly meeting, where it was tabled.

Quakers continued to buy and sell human beings in Pennsylvania until 1780, when the Pennsylvania Assembly passed a law calling for the gradual emancipation of slaves. All adults would continue their lives in bondage, children in slavery would do so until they were 28.

Only those unborn children would be free.

Why did Quakers take so long to end slavery?

In the early 1600s, the Delaware Valley was an outlying region of the New Netherland colony on the Hudson, governed by the Dutch West India Company and populated by Dutch and Swedes more interested in fur trapping than farming. It faced the same labor shortage that plagued New Netherland, and it found the same solution. African slaves were working there as early as 1639. In 1664, the Delaware settlers contracted the West India Company “to transport hither a lot of Negroes for agricultural purposes.”

The demand for slaves continued when the English assumed rule in 1664. The town magistrates of New Castle (in modern Delaware), then the major settlement of the region, petitioned “that liberty of trade may be granted us with the neighboring colony of Maryland for the supplying us with Negroes … without which we cannot subsist.” 2

Penn and others faced entrenched labor shortages. Slaves seemed like a solution. But they could have chosen free men and paid them.

But I think they may have not wanted to do that. Profit drives humans to do strange and repugnant acts. Why pay anyone when you can make more through human bondage?

William Penn was granted his colony in Pennsylvania in 1681, and added Delaware to it in 1682. Though he flooded the “Holy Experiment” with Quakers whose descendants would later find their faith incompatible with slaveholding, the original Quakers had no qualms about it. Penn himself owned slaves, and used them to work his estate, Pennsbury. He wrote that he preferred them to white indentured servants, “for then a man has them while they live.” 3

Also, Christianity is not inherently radical nor is it inherently conservative.

In fact, it is both. Penn wanted religious tolerance between white men and looked to Christianity to support this position. Remember Protestants and Catholics and Muslims slaughtered one another for centuries. Catholics required Jews to convert or face expulsion or worse.

Penn’s desire to create a place of religious tolerance was, in the context of the centuries-fought religious wars in Europe and the Middle East, quite provocative and radical.

But Penn, like countless other white colonists, could not extend his radical form of Christianity to blacks. At that point his radical Christianity became conservative.

So for the four men to argue that slavery was un-Christian was quite radical and unusual, particularly in 1688, when America’s foremost Quaker wanted slave labor, not free labor.

Penn’s contradictory actions reflect a very ordinary aspect of white people’s behavior in America. I’m not saying it is correct. But we will see this contradictory impulse throughout our history, and even in our own actions today.

We might be believe in a radical history of women in the U.S. and see an ongoing animus directed and enveloping women while simultaneously not possessing any understanding of how white women, particularly middle- and upper-middle-class white women, might possess an animus toward black Americans.

Both of these beliefs can, and are, true.

For white Americans to heal from the folly and lunacy of slavery’s impact on our psyche, we must teach ourselves to hold these two contradictory thoughts and remain calm.

We must also understand this contradiction makes us who we are as white americans.


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