African Slavery in America
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AFRICAN SLAVERY IN AMERICA
Philip Foner's introduction:
A few weeks after coming to America, Paine wrote this essay, one of the earliest documents in the American anti-slavery movement. It was not the first denunciation of slavery in America, for anti-slavery literature had been written in this country from the earliest colonial days. Nor was Paine alone in advocating the abolition of slavery. Thomas Jefferson, to cite but one example, had urged the Assembly in Virginia to emancipate the slaves in the colony as early as 1769. Nevertheless, while Paine does not deserve the "honor" bestowed upon him by Moncure Daniel Conway "of being the first American abolitionist," he was certainly among the early pioneers in this great cause.
In this essay Paine denounces slavery as no less immoral than "murder, robbery, lewdness, and barbarity," and calls upon Americans immediately to "discontinue and renounce it, with grief and abhorrence." Nor is he content to condemn slavery, but proceeds to present a specific plan for its abolition in America. He proposes that "prudent men, with the assistance of legislatures, determine what is practicable for masters, and best for them [the slaves]. . . ."
Although the essay was written at the close of 1774, it was not published until March 8, 1775 when it appeared in the Pennsylvania Journal and the Weekly Advertiser. A few weeks later, April 14, 1775, the first anti-slavery society in America was organized in Philadelphia. Paine was one of the members.
AFRICAN SLAVERY IN AMERICA
TO Americans: 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; and still persist, though it has been so often proved contrary to the light of nature, to every principle of justice and humanity, and even good policy, by a succession of eminent men1, and several late publications.
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; and such as shun and stifle all these willfully sacrifice conscience, and the character of integrity to that golden idol.
The managers of that trade themselves, and others, testify, that many of these African nations inhabit fertile countries, are industrious farmers, enjoy plenty, and lived quietly, averse to war, before the Europeans debauched them with liquors, and bribing them against one another; and that these inoffensive people are brought into slavery, by stealing them, tempting kings to sell subjects, which they can have no right to do, and hiring one tribe to war against another, in order to catch prisoners. By such wicked and inhuman ways the English are said to enslave towards one hundred thousand yearly; of which thirty thousand are supposed to die by barbarous treatment in the first year; besides all that are slain in the unnatural wars excited to take them. So much innocent blood have the managers and supporters of this inhuman trade to answer for to the common Lord of all!
Many of these were not prisoners of war, and redeemed from savage conquerors, as some plead; and they who were such prisoners, the English, who promote the war for that very end, are the guilty authors of their being so; and if they were redeemed, as is alleged, they would owe nothing to the redeemer but what he paid for them.
They show as little reason as conscience who put the matter by with saying-"Men, in some cases, are lawfully made slaves, and why may not these?" So men, in some cases, are lawfully put to death, deprived of their goods, without their consent; may any man, therefore, be treated so, without any conviction of desert? Nor is this plea mended by adding-"They are set forth to us as slaves, and we buy them without farther inquiry, let the sellers see to it." Such men may as well join with a known band of robbers, buy their ill-got goods, and help on the trade; ignorance is no more pleadable in one case than the other; the sellers plainly own how they obtain them. But none can lawfully buy without evidence that they are not concurring with men-stealers; and as the true owner has a right to reclaim his goods that were stolen, and sold; so the slave, who is proper owner of his freedom, has a right to reclaim it, however often sold.
Most shocking of all is alleging the sacred scriptures to favor this wicked practice. One would have thought none but infidel cavilers would endeavor to make them appear contrary to the plain dictates of natural light, and conscience, in a matter of common justice and humanity; which they cannot be. Such worthy men, as referred to before, judged otherways; Mr. Baxter declared, the slave-traders should be called devils, rather than Christians; and that it is a heinous crime to buy them. But some say, "the practice was permitted to the Jews." To which may be replied.
The example of the Jews, in many things, may not be imitated by us; they had not only orders to cut off several nations altogether, but if they were obliged to war with others, and conquered them, to cut off every male; they were suffered to use polygamy and divorces, and other things utterly unlawful to us under clearer light.
The plea is, in a great measure, false; they had no permission to catch and enslave people who never injured them.
Such arguments ill become us, since the time of reformation came, under gospel light. All distinctions of nations, and privileges of one above others, are ceased; Christians are taught to account all men their neighbors; and love their neighbors as themselves; and do. to all men as they would be done by; to do good to all men; and man-stealing is ranked with enormous crimes. Is the barbarous enslaving our inoffensive neighbors, and treating them like wild beasts subdued by force, reconcilable with all these divine precepts? Is this doing to them as we would desire they should do to us? If they could carry off and enslave some thousands of us, would we think it just?-One would almost wish they could for once; it might convince more than reason, or the Bible.
As much in vain, perhaps, will they search ancient history for examples of the modern slave-trade. Too many nations enslaved the prisoners they took in war. But to go to nations with whom there is no war, who have no way provoked, without farther design of conquest, purely to catch inoffensive people, like wild beasts, for slaves, is an height of outrage against humanity and justice, that seems left by heathen nations to be practised by pretended Christians. How shameful are all attempts to color and excuse it!
As these people are not convicted of forfeiting freedom, they have still a natural, perfect right to it; and the governments whenever they come should, in justice set them free, and punish those who hold them in slavery.
So monstrous is the making and keeping them slaves at all, abstracted from the barbarous usage they suffer, and the many evils attending the practice; as selling husbands away from wives, children from parents, and from each other, in violation of sacred and natural ties; and opening the way for adulteries, incests, and many shocking consequences, for all of which the guilty masters must answer to the final Judge.
If the slavery of the parents be unjust, much more is their children's; if the parents were justly slaves, yet the children are born free; this is the natural, perfect right of all mankind; they are nothing but a just recompense to those who bring them up: And as much less is commonly spent on them than others, they have a right, in justice, to be proportionably sooner free.
Certainly one may, with as much reason and decency, plead for murder, robbery, lewdness, and barbarity, as for this practice. They are not more contrary to the natural dictates of conscience, and feelings of humanity; nay, they are all comprehended in it.
But the chief design of this paper is not to disprove it, which many have sufficiently done; but to entreat Americans to consider.
With that consistency, or decency they complain so loudly of attempts to enslave them, while they hold so many hundred thousands in slavery; and annually enslave many thousands more, without any pretence of authority, or claim upon them?
How just, how suitable to our crime is the punishment with which providence threatens us? We have enslaved multitudes, and shed much innocent blood in doing it; and now are threatened with the same. And while others evils are confessed, and bewailed, why not this especially, and publicly; than which no other vice, if all others, has brought so much guilt on the land?
Whether, then, all ought not immediately to discontinue and renounce it, with grief and abhorrence? Should not every society bear testimony against it, and account obstinate persisters in it bad men, enemies to their country, and exclude them from fellowship; as they often do for much lesser faults?
The great question may be-What should be done with those who are enslaved already? To turn the old and infirm free, would be injustice and cruelty; they who enjoyed the labors of their better days should keep, and treat them humanely. As to the rest, let prudent men, with the assistance of legislatures, determine what is practicable for masters, and best for them. Perhaps some could give them lands upon reasonable rent, some, employing them in their labor still, might give them some reasonable allowances for it; so as all may have some property, and fruits of their labors at their own disposal, and be encouraged to industry; the family may live together, and enjoy the natural satisfaction of exercising relative affections and duties, with civil protection, and other advantages, like fellow men. Perhaps they might sometime form useful barrier settlements on the frontiers. Thus they may become interested in the public welfare, and assist in promoting it; instead of being dangerous, as now they are, should any enemy promise them a better condition.
The past treatment of Africans must naturally fill them with abhorrence of Christians; lead them to think our religion would make them more inhuman savages, if they embraced it; thus the gain of that trade has been pursued in opposition to the Redeemer's cause, and the happiness of men. Are we not, therefore, bound in duty to him and to them to repair these injuries, as far as possible, by taking some proper measures to instruct, not only the slaves here, but the Africans in their own countries? Primitive Christians labored always to spread their divine religion; and this is equally our duty while there is an heathen nation. But what singular obligations are we under to these injured people!
These are the sentiments of
JUSTICE AND HUMANITY.
Footnote 1: Dr. Ames, Baxter, Durham, Locke, Carmichael, Hutcheson, Montesqieu, and Blackstone, Wallace, etc., etc. Bishop of Gloucester.