Anthony Benezet and Moses Brown: A Legacy and a Lost Correspondence


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Anthony Benezet and Moses Brown

A Legacy and a Lost Correspondence

A talk by Robert A. Geake to the John Carter Brown Library Fellows Luncheon April 2009

One evening last October, I attended the opening of a new exhibit prepared by Dennis Landis for the John Carter Brown Library entitled “ Islamic Encounters”. Among the rare maps, travel diaries, and letters displayed in the Macmillan Reading room I found a tract by Anthony Benezet entitled

“A Short Account of that part of Africa inhabited by the Negroes, with respect to the Manner by which the Slave Trade is carried on, in order to shew the inequity of that trade”.

This was of interest to me because Benezet’s name had only recently resurfaced after many years. I had learned of his early reforms in education, and that he had taught the children of slaves in part to show their equal capabilities, and that he had founded the first black college in Pennsylvania. At the time of this exhibit, this was the extent of my knowledge of Anthony Benezet. That same evening, I was to meet an independent scholar who engaged me in an enthusiastic conversation about the Quakers and their efforts for fundamental freedoms.

All of this was of interest to me because I had only recently begun to write what I hoped would be in part, a portrait of courageous individuals who forwarded the ideals of liberty and freedom that we are fortunate to live under today.

I began to read more about Benezet and other Quakers who in effect had broken from the long held position of the Friends. This position of the Quakers had been taken from founder George Fox’s decree to Quaker masters that they

“ cause their overseers to deal mildly and gently with their negroes, and not use cruelty toward them, as the manner of some hath been and is, and that after certain years of servitude they should set them free”.

The break with this passive stance was sometimes a dramatic one, as when a radical Quaker by the name of Benjamin Lay, frustrated by the bureaucracy of petitions and letters, published a tract entitled All Slave-Keepers: Apostates and took to the road, traveling through Pennsylvania and New Jersey, breaking the silence in Friends Meeting Houses, even kidnapping children at one point so that members “ felt the pain of the Africans”. After this and even more dramatic episodes, Lay was publicly disowned in 1738 at the Yearly Friends meeting in Philadelphia.

It was not until the 1750’s that Quakers began to uniformly take an activist stance against slavery. A clerk and tailor from New Jersey named John Woolman became an activist after sojourns into the southern colonies where his aversion to slavery was bolstered by seeing first hand the “ vices and corruptions” the trade brought into the territories. Woolman traveled to Pennsylvania and met with Anthony Benezet, where the two collaborated on a critique of slavery, which they hoped would appeal to a broader audience.

Thus, Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes was published at the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting and distributed to every Meeting house in the colonies and England as well. This tract is widely credited with the official denunciation of the slave trade issued by Friends in London and then Philadelphia later that year, the Friends in Philadelphia taking it a step further and proposing that Friends who currently own slaves, set them free. They Philadelphia Friends also issued edicts against members who bought or sold

slaves from holding church positions, and deputized John Woolman and four other members to visit slave owners and persuade them to acts of manumission.

This he did for five years, traveling to Newport RI in 1760, surrounded by the hogsheads of rum and the human trafficking to rail against the trade and petition the state Assembly. Touring New England and speaking with communities of slave holding families, trekking the marshes and tidal flats of Maryland and Delaware to visit with slave owners in those coastal communities. Eventually he began to see his efforts reach fruition as a wave of acts of manumission spread through the Quaker communities in the late 1760’s.

By the 1770’s Quakers were taking a more pronounced stance in the communities where they lived and began to directly address the legal and economic implications of slavery. William Dillwyn of New Jersey, a Quaker also influenced by the writings of Benezet, produced a pamphlet entitled “Brief Considerations on Slavery, and the Expediency of its Abolition. With some hints on the means whereby it may be Gradually Effected. Recommended to the serious attention of all and especially those entrusted with the Powers of Legislation.”[1]

In his tract Dillwyn pointedly states

” The object therefore, which I now take the liberty of recommending to their attention, has an indisputable claim to it; not only in it’s importance relating to the community, but from a consideration which must give it great additional weight with every generous mind – the incapacity of those on whose behalf it is solicited, to plead their own case.”

But the trade still flourished in Philadelphia and other port cities, especially in New England.

Domestic slavery was a longstanding tradition in the old cities of the colonies, and populations of domestic slaves in cities such as Newport and Providence, Boston and Philadelphia, as well as New York City would continue to grow through the years leading up to the revolutionary war. The grip of this type of slavery, a benign slavery in the minds of many who compared the lives of their slaves to plantations in the Southern colonies, was to outlast almost every other effort to banish slavery altogether.

Certainly this was noticed by Thomas Paine, another Quaker who was literally carried ashore upon arrival in Philadelphia in 1774. Fortunately for Mr. Paine, he had in his possession a stash of letters from his old mentor Ben Franklin, and this certainly secured him a bed during his six weeks of recovery, and his eventual introduction to Philadelphian Society.

Once on his feet, Paine was a frequent visitor to meetings of the Philosophical Society and a frequent listener to the debates that fomented with the brew at the London Coffee House near the boarding house where he roomed. He met Robert Aitken, the publisher of a local paper and was soon writing for, and then editing the Pennsylvania Magazine; and finding not undeservingly that his articles and the magazine itself were beginning to grow in popularity.

When it came to writing about slavery, there is no doubt that Paine did pen some of the most eloquent arguments against the practice, appealing to the nobility of spirit in a people who spoke so openly of liberty.

“ Our traders in men (an unnatural commodity) must know the wickedness of that slave-trade, if they attend to reasoning, or the dictates of their own hearts…”

Reading these words, I was immediately taken with the question of whether Paine had sought the guidance of the elder Anthony Benezet ?  Had they corresponded perhaps, or engaged in conversation?

But in reading a recent biography of Thomas Paine by Craig Nelson, a book that has no mention of Benezet, I found the following lines:

“ African Slavery in America” was so vigorous, intemperate, and influential that five weeks after it’s publication, on April 14,1775, Philadelphians formed the Pennsylvania Society for the Relief of Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage, the first abolitionist organization in the Western Hemisphere.”

Reading these lines, in the midst of this engaging biography, an innocent student of history might easily assume that Thomas Paine was single handedly responsible for the turning of Philadelphian Society to these first steps toward abolition. What of the work of Woolman and Benezet and others ?  We find in reading Gary Nash’s “ Forging Freedom” that in fact this society was at it’s beginning “ simply a small group of men, mostly Quaker artisans and smaller retailers, who had imbibed the humanitarian message, of Woolman, Benezet and others…”2

Did secular Philadelphia Society like other northern cities consider the tracts and practices of the Quakers as a little “ kooky”, and did it take a more secular vehicle such as a widely subscribed magazine to sway those bastions of a long held tradition?

In  “Death or Liberty”, Douglas R. Egerton’s portrait of African Americans during this period, he writes

“ Benezet went further than most Quakers with his sharply worded denunciations of slaveholding patriots who demanded their own freedom from Britain while denying the fundamental “rights of man” to their black domestics.”

and then we read

“ Benezet was in frequent contact with Dr. Benjamin Rush and pamphleteer Thomas Paine….” Pp 98-99

Benezet was to have influence on another less prominent person who would ultimately in his biographers words “ become the conscience of New England on the issue of slavery.”

Moses Brown was a latecomer to the Quaker faith and indeed to the abolitionist cause.

Nonetheless, as New England was still within the firm grip of the practice of domestic slavery, Moses Brown became an important activist in loosening this hold and the eventual banishment of slavery in his home state of Rhode Island. Brown had read Benezets’ pamphlets, and in response to one on temperance, cut the rations of rum he’d long allotted to his slaves working on his estate overlooking the Seekonk River.

There has long been speculation as to why Brown turned from his prominent family’s long tradition of Baptist faith to Quaker ideals and a stance against slavery. His most thorough biographer Mack Thompson acknowledges that Benezet

‘ had a significant influence on Moses’ religious and humanitarian thinking…”

and suggests that this so called sea change had it’s origins much earlier

“ the sense of guilt he felt as a result of his participation in the slave trade, particularly the voyage of the Sally in 1765-66 was deeply imbedded in his memory.”

Indeed, Brown was to later in life send a letter to John and Joseph Nightingale, brothers whose merchant business had set about to rig a slaver; that he wrote

“ with a view to discourage your pursuing the voyage…that you may avoid the unpleasant reflections that I have had…I should have been preserved from an Evil, which has given me the most uneasiness, and has left the greatest impression and stain upon my own mind of any, if not all my other conduct in life…”

He cautioned the brothers seeking a profit that

“  The evils of the slave trade have been gradually more and more openly for some years, and that trade is now generally acknowledged to be unwarrantable under any just principle…”

And then there was the loss of his wife Anna, whose influence was certainly greater than early biographers might have mentioned. Anna Brown began attending Quaker services with her sister Mary and began to bring along Sarah, the wife of her brother-in law John, to gatherings at a meetinghouse in Providence rather late in her young life.

As Anna became ill and then bedridden for months, Moses also began attending the meetings of Friends and at times held meetings in his home, or attended with others to Anna at her bedside. Certainly the presence of his sister in law Mary was a comfort at home, even as he tried to continue with his duties to both civic affairs and his brother’s businesses.

We know also at this time that the long standing traditions of the local Baptist church were changing as well. The arrival of James Manning to a small church in Warren and then a larger parish in Providence introduced a more formal service, the singing of hymns, and tithing of the congregation. Perhaps Moses simply began to feel more comfortable in the silence and reflection of the Friends meetinghouse.

But whatever the case, with the loss of Anna, Moses Brown plunged into a dark world of despair and self- reflection. He took long horse rides away from Providence, and secluded himself from old friends, beginning a “ slow and torturous” religious journey.

As Mack Thompson writes:

“ Anna’s illness and death produced in him a desire to make a complete break with the past, to carry out a total revolution in his life…earlier he had attributed business misfortunes, illnesses, and death to a “luke-warm” religious attitude…Moses became convinced that his capacity to do good had been severely limited by his political, business and social commitments. He interpreted the death of his wife as a divine injunction to free himself from these commitments; his withdrawal from public affairs and his acceptance of Quakerism were attempts to comply with that injunction.”

There is no doubt that Brown sought the counsel of Benezet and other activist friends whom he would always address as “Dear Friend” or  “Affectionate Friend” in the letters that survive. Some of these letters are archived within the vast collection of Brown family letters in the RI Historical Society’s Library, but among the few to Benezet, there is one nearly indecipherable letter with the mention of slavery, and two other letters that seek advice on education as Moses Brown sought to form a Friends school here in Providence. A pair of letters concerning slavery that were penned by Benezet to Moses Brown remain archived in a special collection at the library of Haverford College in Pennsylvania.

In one of these letters dated from December 28, 1773, Benezet mentions the “recent violence” in Boston, referring to the now famous “Tea Party” and his concern that Friends “will be careful not to join with, or strengthen in word or heart anything of that nature, our blessed Savior enjoins his disciples not to resist evil, but to overcome evil by good”

In this same letter, perhaps in a reflective mood at the years end, he rejoices in recent gains with legislators to consider emancipation, writing to Brown:

“ It’s amazing how this important consideration has of late years prevailed even in places where in my youth it would scarse bear to be named…which envinces the truth of that assertion that we need never be discouraged in the prosecution of any good work…Trust in the Lord saith the prophet, and it will come to pass…”[2]

In the second letter, dated in May of the following year, he writes a long response to Brown in which there is a reference to a tract that Brown himself wrote, though today, we can find no evidence that this tract was actually printed or published. It is interesting to note Benezet’s dialogue with Brown concerning the matter, for it quite clearly forsees the the dilemma and the difficulties with which freed slaves would find themselves. Benezet writes to his friend:

“ Your tract concerning slavery is very just, and tis’ a matter which I have often thought of even before I became acquainted with the truth, your arguments are forcible against purchasing slaves or being any way concerned in that trade, but how is a man to act who comes to them by inheritance? If a man should attempt to free a large number of slaves the legislature (unless restrained by the Almighty) would certainly interpose to hinder him; but if it were otherwise, how are the poor creatures to subsist, and how are they to maintain themselves? “[3]

As for the remainder of letters from Benezet, the documentation of his long life of efforts to extend rights and freedom to both slaves and native Americans, is lost but for a small and scattered collection. Robert Vaux, the author of the first biography of Benezet lamented that scarcely thirty two years after his subject’s death, most of the correspondence with reformers and religious thinkers, rulers, revolutionaries and influential individuals throughout Europe and America seemed to have vanished.

And so as to the lost correspondence between Moses Brown and Anthony Benezet we may garner only a glimpse of what that correspondence might have been, based on letters that do survive among other letters they wrote to like-minded individuals who worked for reforms.

The influence of Benezet on Moses Brown is most clearly seen in the activism and the prolific writing that Brown pursued after his conversion, joining in the exchange with enthusiasm, and often thinking beyond the obvious moral need for an end to slavery, to matters of practicality and civic mindedness.

He wrote to Samuel Hopkins, a minister in Newport and one of the more prominent leaders of the anti slavery movement in the state, to essentially float the idea of offering an endowment for prizes in essays on the slave trade at prominent Universities such as Harvard, Princeton and Yale. Brown was sure that because of slave traders being present on the board of RI College, his proposal would be rejected here in Providence. He also wrote several times of the effort to turn slave traders to other forms of earning a living, be it manufacturing or some other honest trade. He writes to his friend Jebediah Morse in 1791

“ …If there was more publick spirit or spirit of enterprise in the money men of Newport and especially the Guinea traders who (are) disgracefully on the Beaten Track of that in Human Traffick, and instead of it turned (their flock ?) to the docks or other manufacturing, their poor would be employ’d and the profits to the merchants be more (sure), Honorable, and Lasting… “

At home in Providence, Moses Brown persistently pushed through petitions and submitted bills to keep the debate about slavery alive in the State Assembly, succeeding with the passage of a series of bills that would lead to emancipation in the state. A bill passed in 1774 took the first step by banning the further importation of slaves from Africa, then in May of 1778, Rhode Island joined other colonies in passing a bill at General Washington’s behest, granting blacks freedom if they enlisted and served with a local battalion and then a manumission bill in 1784 that was a first step toward gradual emancipation, but still the lesser of two issues in the bill, as the Assembly voted down a ban on the selling or trade in local slaves.

It was three years later, with the Assembly meeting in Newport, that Brown and the Quaker contingent of supporters he had bound together were rewarded with the passage of a bill that for the first time made trading in slavery unlawful.

Brown also helped to found the Providence Abolition Society which pressed several successful court cases against slaves traders in the state, including famously, his own brother John Brown for ignoring, or blatantly violating the act of the Assembly. Yet even as these religious and secular efforts to end slavery began to see fruition, as Douglas Egerton writes:

“ Within the span of just over two decades, reform-minded white politicians succeeded in setting unfree labor on the road to extinction in every state north of New Jersey. But far fewer whites advocated political rights or full citizenship for former slaves. Having freed young black men and women, elite reformers typically believed their task to be done… Even many reformers who supported black demands for liberty wanted little to do with African Americans after these initial goals were achieved…The hope that African Americans would somehow vanish along with slavery was a constant refrain.”[4]

The coming years were difficult for those who advocated for black rights and black citizenship. In the coming decades, a sea change came over the burgeoning but strained collective nation. National politics swayed from Federalists loyal to the founders promise, to a Congress housed with populists and Democrats, and the same became true of the State and local assembly’s and councils which governed them.

As Gordon Wood has explained, when free blacks were given the right to vote in Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts, and other northern states, they voted the Federalist’ ticket. And when the political tide turned to the Democrats just a decade after the black vote was given, legislators began the process of eliminating that vote.

Newspapers like the Providence Gazette seemed to endorse confrontation at times, and railed against the dereliction of the neighborhoods and the vice that had invaded the city. Papers elsewhere, especially New York were soapboxes for populist politicians, printing article after article claiming the inferiority of free blacks in labor, sensationalizing the occasional outbursts of slave violence down South, and reporting the public health justifications for segregating blacks from white school children in public schools.

Broadsides and racist pamphlets also attained a popularity, and spread a malignant and deformed picture of blacks as a people. As Joanne Pope Melish notes

“A crucial step in effecting the removal of people of color from New England was the imaginative construction of a crude set of caricatures that could capture the public imagination as representing the “true” nature of free blacks…this “imaginary negroe” was popularized in a genre of humorous and ( often savagely) satiric anecdotes, cartoons, and broadsides which began to appear…as gradual emancipation unfolded.”[5]

The abolitionists did not die. In this political climate, they just seemed to fade from view. The local organizations, which had promoted the cause of freedom for blacks became targeted by the popular broadsides and papers, they became fragmented or disbanded altogether. National organizations had been formed, but they concentrated on the antebellum South.

A new society calling itself the American Colonization Society formed in 1816 and eventually began pushing for the exportation of slaves to a settlement located somewhere on the “ dark continent”.This idea gained in popularity in the Northern states as tensions and economic strains continued.

Few noticed in those years that that blacks themselves had begun to come from the schools and the pulpits and work diligently for the freedom of those enslaved.

Despite the fact that African Americans were counted as 7.2 percent of the Rhode Island census by 1830, the right to vote had been rescinded in 1822, and the state’s first attempt to regulate schools in 1828 pointedly segregated blacks from white students.

White ministers throughout New England, from pulpits and churches where great sermons on liberty had once echoed now preached disparagingly of blacks and the menace they presented to society. In Joanne Pope Melish’s book “Disowning Slavery”, we read that at a church gathering in New Haven in 1825, minister Leonard Bacon sermonizes that Africans

“ combine all that is degrading in human imbecility, and all that is horrible in human depravity, unrefined by civilization and unrestrained by the influence of Christian truth…”

Another sermon from this period given by Professor John Hough to an audience in Montpelier in 1826 declares that

“The state of the free colored population of the United States is one of extreme and remideless degradation, of gross irreligion, of revolting profligacy, and, of course, deplorable wretchedness. Who can doubt the blacks among us are peculiarly addicted to habits of low vice and shameless profligacy?”

Violence escalated in Northern Urban areas. Joanne Pope Melish reports in her book “Disowning Slavery” that “there were dozens, possibly close to a hundred, violent incidents involving free people of color in New England between 1820 and 1840.”

Among these were mobs that broke up anti-slavery rallies and conventions. On one occasion the abolitionist publisher William Lloyd Garrison was literally dragged through the streets of Boston. It was a time when few had the courage to stand for the Abolitionist cause against what seemed a rising tide of racism.

In Providence, Rhode Island one evening in 1835, the newly formed Providence Anti-Slavery Society was about to conduct a meeting in the First Baptist Church when a mob ascended the hill from Market Square and bulled their way into the gathering. They were there to heckle and silence the unpopular British abolitionist George Thompson, the Society’s invited speaker.

Also in attendance that evening was ninety three year old Moses Brown. His family had played a large role in building the colonial church where they were all assembled, and as the disruption grew and threatened to disband the planned meeting, the frail and elderly,but still vigorous Brown ascended the cast iron circular stairway tothe pulpit to stand beside Thompson and stare the disrupters downuntil the protesters had either left, or stayed to listen.

Bibliography of books discussed in this article to be found at the John Carter Brown Library:

A Short Account of that part of Africa inhabited by the Negroes…Anthony Benezet

Brief considerations on slavery and the expedience of its abolition… William Dillwyn

Moses Brown Reluctant Reformer Mack Thompson

Other Books:

“ Death or Liberty”… Douglas R. Egerton

“ Disowning Slavery” …Joanne Pope Melish

“ Sons of Providence”…Charles Rappleye

“ The Cambridge Companion to the African American Slave Narrative”

Picture Credits

Portrait of Moses Brown Courtesy of the Brown Archives

Portrait of Anthony Benezet courtesy of the Pennsylvania Historical Society

letter of MB from the collection of the RI Historical Library

Photo of Seekonk River circa 1833 courtesy of the Providence Journal Archives


[1] Such was Benezet’s influence, that this and other writings of Dillwyn are often mistaken for those of Benezet. The copy in the JCB which I used has “ by Anthony Benezet “penciled on the flyleaf. When I inquired, the JCB librarian referred me to a reference on Quaker publications where it was indeed attributed to Dillwyn.

[2] Haverford Collection 852. reprinted in it’s entirety in “To Be Silent Would Be Criminal” by Irv A. Bredlinger 2007

[3] ibid

[4] Egerton, Douglas . “ Death or Liberty” pp 121

[5] Melish, Joanne Pope “ Disowning Slavery” pp

About rag57

Local historian writing about Native American and Colonial history in Rhode Island and New England
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