175 years before President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, four Germantown Friends launched the first formal protest against human bondage in North America.
Penned in 1688 by Francis Daniel Pastorius – the founder of Germantown – the protest is peculiar among Quaker texts in its lack of direct references to God. Instead, Pastorius denounces the “traffick of men-body” with practical arguments and appeals to empathy. Unlike Lincoln’s later proclamation, it is simple, human.
These are the reasons why we are against the traffik of men-body, as followeth: Is there any that would be done or handled at this manner? viz., to be sold or made a slave for all the time of his life? How fearful & fainthearted are many on sea when they see a strange vassel. being afraid it should be a Turck, and they should be tacken, and sold for slaves into Turckey. Now what is this better done, as Turcks doe? yea, rather is it worse for them wch say they are Christians, for we hear that ye most part of such negers are brought heither against their will & consent and that many of them are stollen. Now tho they are black, we can not conceive there is more liberty to have them slaves, as it is to have other white ones. There is a saying that we shall doe to all men licke as we will be done ourselves; macking no difference of what generation, descent or Colour they are.
(A transcribed and printed copy of the protest can be found in HSP’s broadside collection, call number Ab n.d. 149.)
Many Germantown Friends, producers of the finest linen in the region without forced labor, were aghast at their fellow slave-owning Friends – including William Penn.
C. 1912 photograph of “Toleration,” the marble statue depicting William Penn along the Wissahickon Creek. From the Thomas H. Shoemaker Germantown and Philadelphia portraits and views collection [V86]
The fledgling colony didn’t need slaves, Pastorius argued, but it certainly needed more settlers to grow and prosper. Slavery’s odium would discourage Friends in Holland and Germany from making the trip, threatening the very livelihood of the so-called “Holy Experiment.”
He wrote, “This makes an ill report in all those countries of Europe, where they hear of, that ye Quakers doe here handel men as they handel there ye cattle. And for that reason some have no mind or inclination to come hither.”
The fear of being captured and sold into slavery had coursed through Quakers, themselves, as they crossed the Atlantic. Barbary corsairs often raided vessels and sold Christian captives into the Ottoman slave trade. Pastorius reminded Friends of this shared memory of dread:
“How fearful & fainthearted are many on sea when they see a strange vassel. being afraid it should be a Turck, and they should be tacken, and sold for slaves into Turckey. Now what is this better done, as Turcks doe? yea, rather is it worse for them wch say they are Christians.”
Pastorius even questioned Friends’ commitment to nonviolence should an armed insurrection occur, writing, “If once these slaves . . . should join themselves – fight for their freedom – and handel their masters and mastrisses as they did handel them before; will these masters and mastrisses take the sword at hand and warr against these poor slaves?”
C. 1937 photograph of Pastorius’ house at 25 High Street, Germantown, Pa. From the Philadelphia Department of Public Transit historic Philadelphia sites photograph collection [V51]
Pastorius’ protest was considered by Friends at the local and regional levels, but – put plainly – they dithered. Nearly a century would pass before the Society of Friends barred members from owning slaves.
The original document has twice been considered lost. A Friend “rediscovered” it in 1844, but the document soon slipped back into the archival abyss. It “reappeared” in 2005 at the Arch Street Meeting House, and is now at Haverford College Special Collections Library.