The first article of this series discussed the increasing chorus of American Patriots in New England raising their voices against the African slave trade. This article focuses on the Middle and Southern Colonies, as well as a few select thinkers from Philadelphia.
Those who opposed the African slave trade in colonies ruled by royal governors appointed in London focused on what they could realistically accomplish—reducing or limiting imports of African captives by placing high duties on them. In 1773, the New York Assembly approved a punishing £20 per imported slave duty, but the royal governor and upper council refused to concur. In 1774, a group of New York City rum distillers unanimously voted not to refine molasses intended for the Atlantic slave trade. A strong contingent of Loyalists in the colony apparently prevented Whigs from doing more.
There were no known slave importations into Pennsylvania from Africa, the Caribbean, or any other source by sea after 1767 and through the end of the Revolutionary War. Still, in 1773, Pennsylvania doubled its already existing tariff on imported Africans in a move designed to tax importations out of existence, but in 1774 the law was disallowed by the Lords of Trade in London. In reviewing the bill, a British trade official in London advised the Board of Trade members that the proposed increase in duties was “manifestly inconsistent with the policy adopted by your Lordships . . . of encouraging the African trade” especially at a time when “so many of His Majesty’s lands in the West Indies remain understocked with negroes.”
The New Jersey Assembly in 1762 attempted to levy a duty on imports of Africans, on the ground that because its neighbors in New York and Pennsylvania imposed such duties, too many captive Africans were being brought into New Jersey and transshipped to New York and Pennsylvania, or were remaining in the colony. The Board of Trade, however, instructed the royal governor of New Jersey to veto the bill. In 1773, the New Jersey lower house proposed a punishing duty on slave imports, but the upper council, influenced by Loyalists, refused to concur. On March 25, 1775, the Delaware Assembly passed a bill to prohibit the importation of enslaved person into the colony, but its governor refused to sign it.
In the Chesapeake Bay region, in Maryland and Virginia, even planters joined in the campaign against importing African captives. In 1771, Maryland imposed a duty of £9 for each enslaved African brought into Maryland. This was an attempt to ban importations indirectly, perhaps in order to avoid a veto from the colony’s governor.
Admittedly, the effort in Maryland and Virginia was mostly driven by the desire of planters to improve their economic circumstances and not as a first step to end slavery. Due to poor farming practices, depleted tobacco plantations were becoming less productive. In addition, planters in the Northern Neck of Virginia were shifting from tobacco to wheat, which was less labor-intensive. All this resulted in a surplus of enslaved persons. Unlike those enslaved persons brought to the Caribbean and forced to work in hellish and unhealthy conditions on sugar plantations, Maryland’s and Virginia’s unfree labor force were treated badly but not so brutally. As a result, enslaved Blacks grew in population in the two colonies, with natural births exceeding natural and unnatural deaths. Thus, if African captives could be banned from being imported into the colonies in the future, slave owners coldly calculated that the value of existing enslaved persons might rise. If slave importations ended, the prices of enslaved persons might rise even more, and with a growing domestic population, enslaved men, women and children could be sold to other colonies, such as South Carolina and Georgia.
The use of tax policy to limit the slave trade may indicate that Virginians wanted to end slave imports but avoid any discussion of the more contentious issue of the morality of the slave trade or of slavery itself. This is how progress in the moral sphere sometimes works: a non-moral rationale is first applied, and the moral rationale comes later.
Virginia planters made other arguments that were not related to a humanitarian feeling for the enslaved person. Richard Henry Lee, a slave owner and member of one of the most influential families in Virginia, in 1759 supported limiting slave imports into Virginia on the ground that colonies such as Pennsylvania, with its numerous small farms tended by hard-working white farmers and their families, had outstripped Virginia in economic development. Whites who could create such farms from the wilderness tended not to immigrate to colonies where slavery dominated. The prominent Virginia Whig George Mason, another slaveholder, agreed, adding in a 1765 letter to George Washington that he worried about the adverse consequences of slavery on the “morals and manners of our people.” He warned ominously, “the primary cause of the destruction” of Rome had been “the introduction of great numbers of slaves.” Furthermore, there was always the fear of slave rebellions. The more slaves there were, the higher the security risk, they felt.
On top of this, on occasion, moral concern was expressed about the slave trade in particular. In a remarkable speech in the House of Burgesses in 1759, Richard Henry Lee said:
Nor, sir, are these the only reasons to be urged against the importation. In my opinion, not the cruelties practiced in the conquest of Spanish America, not the savage barbarity of a Saracen, can be more big with atrocity than our cruel trade in Africa . . . There we encourage these poor, ignorant, people to wage eternal war against each other . . . [so] that by war, stealth, or surprise, we Christians may be furnished with our fellow-creatures, who are no longer to be considered as created in the image of God as well as ourselves.
As early as 1763, Arthur Lee, Richard’s brother and also a future Patriot leader, stated emphatically in a pamphlet that “the bondage we have imposed on the Africans is absolutely repugnant to justice” and “is shocking to humanity” and “abhorrent utterly from the Christian religion.” Surprisingly, in the heart of slave-holding Virginia, James Horrocks, the rector of the Bruton Parish Church at Williamsburg, Church of England, offered a powerful antislavery sermon, also in 1763.
None of this meant that slavery would be ending in Virginia any time soon. Most Virginia planters supported the effort to limit slave imports for economic reasons and fear of slave rebellions. Indeed, none of the Lees, George Mason, George Washington, or any other Virginia Founder would free his enslaved persons during his lifetime. (Washington freed his enslaved persons in his will, the only Founder to do so.) While they may have individually opposed aspects of slavery, since most other contemporaries did not share their concern they carried on as usual. Economically, they were not willing to give up their plantations run by enslaved labor. But there was a budding realization of the moral and religious wrong of slavery. This was a start. It was hypocrisy for the Lees to take their stands—as it would be for Thomas Jefferson later—but it was also part of a transition period where the realization that slavery was morally and socially abhorrent began to take root.
The ready target to attack was the barbarous slave trade. With the rhetoric of liberty and freedom dominating discourse in Virginia and Maryland in the late 1760s and early 1770s, it was inevitable that the link to the slave trade would be made.
The Virginia Assembly had been trying, with mixed success, to tax imports of Africans since 1759. In late 1769, the House of Burgesses enacted a law to increase the duty on slave imports to fifteen percent, which led to more than seventy petitions from Liverpool and Lancaster merchants who argued that the aim of the tax law was to raise the value of those enslaved persons already in the colony and those born in the future. The Board of Trade in London not only disallowed the law, but positively instructed the royal governor of Virginia to “assent to no laws by which the importation of slaves should be in any respect prohibited or obstructed.”
In 1772 the House of Burgesses attempted again to increase the tariff on slave imports to a total of twenty-five percent of the purchase price, which if adopted would have reduced importations to a trickle. The Virginia Assembly, in conjunction with enacting the law, submitted a petition to the King arguing that “The importation of slaves into the colonies from the coast of Africa has long been considered as a trade of great inhumanity, and under its present encouragement, we have too much reason to fear [it] will endanger the very existence of your majesty’s American dominions.” In London the effort was accurately portrayed as an attempt “to operate as an entire prohibition to the importation of slaves into Virginia” and therefore was similarly quashed by the Board of Trade as harmful to the “trade and commerce” of the great slave-trading ports of Liverpool, Bristol, and Lancaster.
In February 1774, a Virginia Quaker abolitionist who had freed his slaves, Robert Pleasanton, wrote of the “wicked and destructive trade” to a friend. “It seems the attempts of our Assembly to prohibit the further importation of slaves by an imposition of high duties has been frustrated (as I find is the case in New York),” wrote Pleasanton, adding that “I have been told our Government (and it is not unlikely others also) has instructions to pass no such laws.”
In July 1774, as part of the overall rising tide against George III’s colonial policies, a nascent movement arose in several Virginia counties opposing further slave importations. In most counties the rationale for supporting a prohibition on slave imports was not framed on moral grounds. In Prince George’s County, Patriots resolved that “the African trade is injurious to this Colony” in part on the ground that it led to less immigration “from Europe,” meaning white settlers who did not want to compete against enslaved persons in the workplace. Underlying the appeal was the increasing fear that Blacks in the colony would soon outnumber whites, raising the specter of slave rebellion. Patriots in Culpeper County, citing similar grounds, resolved, “we will not buy any such slave . . . hereafter to be imported.”
In Fairfax County, at a meeting chaired by George Washington, a series of influential resolves, known as the Fairfax Resolves and penned by George Mason, were adopted. The seventeenth resolve stated in part, “during our present difficulties and distress, no slaves ought to be imported into any of the British colonies on this Continent.” The resolve made it clear that the request was at least in part based on moral grounds: “We take this opportunity of declaring our most earnest wishes to see the entire stop forever put to such a wicked, cruel and unnatural trade.” Washington was directed to present the resolves to a convention scheduled to gather in Williamsburg in early August, and he also carried them to Philadelphia to present to delegates at the First Continental Congress.
At the Virginia convention held in August 1774, consisting of “a very full meeting of delegates from the different counties in the Colony and Dominion of Virginia,” delegates adopted twelve resolutions that amounted to an association or agreement for ceasing to conduct business with Great Britain. The members declared that after November 1, they would not import any articles produced in Great Britain except medicine. They specifically resolved, “We will neither ourselves import, nor purchase any slave or slaves imported by any other person, after the first of November next, either from Africa, the West Indies, or any other place.” Note that this ban went beyond prohibiting British ships from carrying African captives to Virginia; it prohibited all American ships as well. A North Carolina convention followed suit on August 8, changing the wording only to clarify the broad importation ban to enslaved persons brought “from any part of the world.”
The issue that by far most increased tensions between the thirteen colonies of mainland North America and the British government was taxation without the consent of colonial legislatures. While the issue of slave importations was not one that drove colonists to break with England, it was part of the overall problem the North American mainland colonies had with the British empire: colonial legislatures could not control their own trade or destinies. The colonies would have to declare their independence from Britain in order to rule themselves. Only then could they address contentious points in colonial administration, among them the issue of importing slaves.
Ultimately, after breaking from Great Britain, by 1778, Connecticut, Vermont, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Virginia had passed laws banning importation of enslaved persons. In 1778, Governor Thomas Jefferson and the Virginia House of Burgesses joined to ban imports of enslaved persons with £1,000 fines for violators and freedom for any slave brought illegally into the state. This was one of the first such bans in the Western world from a jurisdiction that had previously permitted substantial imports of enslaved people. In addition, Pennsylvania reinstated its £10 duty on each enslaved person imported into the state, while in 1783, after the end of the Revolutionary War, Maryland prohibited importation of enslaved persons by sea. Virginia and Maryland acted primarily from selfish economic motives, but it meant fewer Africans would be forced across the Atlantic Ocean.
South Carolina had the largest percentage of enslaved persons of any of the thirteen colonies at sixty percent. The driving need to import more captive Africans to work on rice and indigo plantations around Charleston and on burgeoning farms in the western lands led South Carolina to continue to accept more slave imports. Still, during the build-up to the American Revolution, tradesmen supporting the Revolutionary movement, joining with some merchants supporting the Patriot cause, began to flex their muscles.
From 1769 to 1771, in opposition to the Townsend duties, South Carolina prohibited the importation of most products from Great Britain. Importantly, the merchants agreed that no enslaved persons be imported from the Caribbean after October 1, 1769, and none from Africa after January 1, 1770. South Carolina Whigs made a strong effort to enforce the association by backing up its promises with threats of intimidation and economic pressure. As a result, the ban was largely successful. Nonimportation lasted until about early 1771, longer than in other colonies. South Carolina’s nonimportation association likely hurt British slave merchants more than any other importers from Great Britain. The May 24, 1770 edition of the South Carolina Gazette estimated that it caused a loss of £300,000 in British trade. Georgia, the newest colony, never agreed to nonimportation during the Townshend duties crisis.
A few visionary Patriots resident in, or connected to, the largest city in the thirteen colonies, Philadelphia, wanted to go further than merely banning the importation of enslaved persons. Heavily influenced by Enlightenment thinking, Dr. Benjamin Rush published a remarkable antislavery tract in 1773. Rush countered all the usual arguments raised by defenders of the institution of slavery. Blacks were not inferior intellectually or morally, he stated; it was simply that slavery was so foreign to the human mind that enslaved persons were “rendered torpid” by it. To those who argued that slavery was necessary to the development of the economy of the South, the Philadelphia physician responded that he had “never observed” an economy “to flourish where those rights of mankind were not firmly established.” Showing a creative mind not bound by traditional convention, Rush bravely argued that if the Bible’s Old Testament was found to support slavery, then that interpretation should be ignored. Rush explained, “Every prohibition of covetousness-intemperance-pride-uncleanliness-theft-and murder, which he [Jesus] delivered—every lesson of meekness, humility, forbearance, charity, self-denial, and brotherly love which he taught, are levelled against this evil; for slavery, while it includes all the former vices, necessarily excludes the practice of all the latter virtues both from the master and the slave.” Rush recommended that as a first step against slavery, enslaved persons should no longer be allowed to be imported. If the colonists wanted to take a stand against political slavery imposed on them by Parliament, the physician concluded, they should also oppose the enslavement of Black persons.
Rush’s egalitarian arguments were surprisingly modern. Yet most in the United States and the rest of the Western World were unwilling to go so far as the Philadelphia physician. It would take well into the nineteenth century for his views to gain wide acceptance.
The great secular thinker Thomas Paine, whose widely-read Common Sense pamphlet in 1776 would galvanize support for the cause of American independence, turned his attention to abolition for his first pamphlet published in North America in 1775. His opening words revealed his straightforward style: “That some desperate wretches should be willing to steal and enslave men by violence and murder for gain is rather lamentable than strange. But that many civilized, nay, Christianized people, should approve and be concerned in the savage practice is surprising.” Maintaining that slavery was “contrary to the light of nature, to every principle of justice and humanity, and even good policy,” Paine, an English immigrant residing in Philadelphia, urged that after America achieved its independence, the legislatures should pass laws to stop the importation of slaves, “so often the hard fate of those already here, and in time procure their freedom.” Even the radical Paine did not support immediate abolition.
Benjamin Franklin, the most famous American in the world on the eve of the American Revolution, exemplified the evolution of many of the whites’ views of slavery, particularly in the middle and northern colonies. Franklin owned in Philadelphia one our two household enslaved persons for much of his adult life, and his Philadelphia newspapers advertised the sale of enslaved persons and for the return of runaways. But as a result of his famous friend, Dr. Samuel Johnson, bringing him to tour a school for Black children in London in 1758, and becoming friends and corresponding with the antislavery Quaker leader Anthony Benezet in Philadelphia, Franklin’s views on race began to evolve. In 1763 Franklin wrote that African shortcomings and ignorance were not inherently natural but came from lack of education, slavery, and negative environments. He also wrote that he saw no difference in learning between African and white children. These were remarkable views for a white person at this time.
In 1770, while in London, Franklin struggled to justify the institution of slavery in the North American colonies when Whigs were pressing for their own liberty in the contest against the Crown, arguing that New England and the middle colonies had “very few slaves, and those are chiefly in the capital towns, not employed in the hardest labor.” He further claimed that “many thousands” in the North American mainland colonies “abhor the slave trade.” His arguments would subsequently become sharper.
In 1772, Franklin again found himself on the defensive, in the wake of the Somersett case, in which a slave master was prohibited from removing from Britain an enslaved man (James Somersett) who had come to British soil. Franklin voiced frustration at the same Englishmen for celebrating Somersett’s victory while the British Parliament refused to pass laws that would abolish the slave trade. Franklin published a devastating critique in The London Chronicle, alerting readers that “the yearly importation” of British merchants in the slave trade, “is about one hundred thousand, of which number about one-third perish by the . . . distemper in passage, and in the sickness called the seasoning before they are set to labor.” He asked readers, “Can sweetening our tea, etc., with sugar be a circumstance of such absolute necessity?” Franklin ultimately took over as president of a Pennsylvania abolitionist society in 1787, and in 1790, just before his death, he presented a powerful petition to Congress urging it to grant liberty “to those unhappy men who alone in this land of freedom are degraded into perpetual bondage.”
J. Hardy to Board of Trade, January 20, 1762, in Elizabeth Donnan, ed., Documents Illustrative of the History of the Slave Trade to America, vol. 3 (Washington, DC: Carnegie Institution, 1932), 456 and n2.
Benjamin Quarles, The Negro in the American Revolution(New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Co., 1961), 41. In 1769, the New Jersey legislature successfully imposed a duty of £15 on every imported enslaved person, which effectively put an end to the slave trade in the province. Donnan, Documents of the Slave Trade 3: 457n2. But the law was apparently either repealed or overruled, requiring another effort in 1773.
G. Mason to G. Washington and G. W. Fairfax, December 23, 1765, in Robert A. Rutland, ed., The Papers of George Mason, 1725-1792, vol. 1 (Chapel Hill, NC: North Carolina University Press, 1970), 61-62.
Quoted in ibid., 20; see also Riddell, “Pre-Revolutionary Pennsylvania and the Slave Trade,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 52: 1, 18 (1928); Petition of the Merchants of Liverpool to the Board of Trade, 1770, in Donnan, Documents of the Slave Trade 4: 151; R. Jackson to the Board of Trade, July 18, 1770, in ibid., 152-53.
See Lord Dunmore to Earl of Hillsborough, May 1, 1772, in Donnan, Documents of the Slave Trade, 4: 153-54; Address of the House of Burgesses to the King, 1772, in ibid., 154-55; Order in Council, 1773, in ibid., 155-56; Egerton, Death or Liberty, 57.
Resolution, July 7, 1774, in ibid., 523. See also Princess Anne County Resolution, July 27, 1774, in ibid., 641; Nansemond County Resolution, July 11, 1774, in ibid., 530. Hanover County enacted resolutions with reference to moral grounds and concern for slave rebellion. Patriots there resolved, “The African trade for slaves we consider as the most dangerous for virtue and the welfare of this country. We therefore most earnestly wish to see it totally discouraged.” Hanover County Resolution, July 20, 1774, in ibid., 616.
David Ammerman, In the Common Cause. American Response to the Coercive Acts of 1774 (Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 1974), 86; see also ibid., n44 (“The Fairfax Resolutions were also sent to other towns. There is, for example, a copy of them in the Boston Comm. of Corr. Papers.”).
Egerton, Death or Liberty, 57; DuBois, Suppression of the African Slave Trade, 15 and 51; Dwight L. Dumond, Antislavery: The Crusade for Freedom in America(Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1961), 28; Riddell, “Pre-Revolutionary Pennsylvania and the Slave Trade,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 52: 1, 18 (1928).
Benjamin Rush, An Address to the Inhabitants of the British Settlements in America, Upon Slavekeeping (Philadelphia, 1773), 2-3, 5-7, 9, 13-14, and 16; see also Zilversmith, First Emancipation, 94-95.
Quoted in Quarles, The Negro in the American Revolution (citing Pennsylvania Journal, March 8, 1775) and Zilversmith, First Emancipation, 96 (citing Pennsylvania Journal, March 8 and October 8, 1775).
For a summary of Franklin’s changing attitude on slavery, see headnote to A. Benezet to B. Franklin, April 27, 1772, in Founders Online, www.founders.archive.gov. For some of the Franklin-Benezet correspondence, see ibid; B. Franklin to A. Benezet, August 22, 1772, ibid.; and B. Franklin to A. Benezet, February 10, 1773, in ibid.