Monday, March 12, 2012

Pennsylvania Abolition Society

Benezet Instructing Colored Children, 1850
Few likenesses exist of Anthony Benezet, the 19th century teacher and abolitionist. A humble man who considered himself homely, he once declined a request to sit for a portrait by saying, "O no, no, my ugly face shall not go down to posterity." In his 1817 biography of Benezet, abolitionist Robert Vaux described him as a small man with a face "that beamed with benignant animation."

This engraving of Benezet, taken from a book published in 1850, shows him teaching two black children, a calling which he joyfully pursued for half a century.

As early as 1688, four German Quakers in Germantown near Philadelphia protested slavery in a resolution that condemned the "traffic of Men-body." By the 1770s, abolitionism was a full-scale movement in Pennsylvania. Led by such Quaker activists as Anthony Benezet and John Woolman, many Philadelphia slaveholders of all denominations had begun bowing to pressure to emancipate their slaves on religious, moral, and economic grounds.

In April 1775, Benezet called the first meeting of the Society for the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully held in Bondagevii at the Rising Sun Tavern. Thomas Paineviii was among the ten white Philadelphians who attended; seven of the group were Quakers. Often referred to as the Abolition Society, the group focused on intervention in the cases of blacks and Indians who claimed to have been illegally enslaved. Of the twenty-four men who attended the four meetings held before the Society disbanded, seventeen were Quakers.

When Romain, a slave being transported south, cut his throat in a Philadelphia street in 1803, the Pennsylvania Abolition Society made his death the subject of an antislavery pamphlet. Illustration from Humanitas, Reflections on Slavery, with Recent Evidence of its Inhumanity, Occasioned by the Melancholy Death of Romain, a French Negro (Philadelphia, 1803). Courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society.

Six of these original members were among the largely Quaker group of eighteen Philadelphians that reorganized in February 1784 as the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery and for the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondageix (commonly referred to as the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, or PAS). Although still occupied with litigation on behalf of blacks who were illegally enslaved under existing laws, the new name reflected the Society's growing emphasis on abolition as a goal. Within two years, the group had grown to 82 members and inspired the establishment of anti-slavery organizations in other cities.

PAS reorganized once again in 1787. While previously, artisans and shopkeepers had been the core of the organization, PAS broadened its membership to include such prominent figures as Benjamin Franklin and Benjamin Rush, who helped write the Society's new constitution. PAS became much more aggressive in its strategy of litigation on behalf of free blacks, and attempted to work more closely with the Free African Society in a wide range of social, political and educational activity

fig. 2
Having been separated from her husband, this slave woman unsuccessfully attempted suicide to avoid transportation to Georgia. A caption reads, "[B]ut I did not want to go, and I jump’d out of the window." Detail from Jesse Torrey, A Portraiture of Domestic Slavery, in the United States . . . (Philadelphia, 1817). Courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society.
In 1787, PAS organized local efforts to support the crusade to ban the international slave trade and petitioned the Constitutional Convention to institute a ban. The following year, in collaboration with the Society of Friends, PAS successfully petitioned the Pennsylvania legislature to amend the gradual abolition act of 1780. As a result of the 2000-signature petition and other lobbying efforts, the legislature prohibited the transportation of slave children or pregnant women out of Pennsylvania, as well as the building, outfitting or sending of slave ships from Philadelphia. The amended act imposed heavier fines for slave kidnapping, and made it illegal to separate slave families by more than ten miles.

Despite its unwavering support of the black community, PAS revealed its uncertain feelings toward freed slaves in a 1789 broadside entitled Address to the Public, in which they wrote of the devastating effects of slavery, effects which they said often left blacks unable to function as full citizens. Although intended to be sympathetic, the PAS statement gave support to existing prejudices, and no doubt would have been refuted by PAS founder Anthony Benezet, who, before his death in 1784, wrote numerous pamphlets in which he challenged the notion of black inferiority.

In 1789, under its new president, Benjamin Franklin, PAS announced a plan to help free black people better their situation. In conjunction with the Free African Society, PAS attempted to create black schools, help free blacks obtain employment, and conduct house visits to foster morality and a strong work ethic in Philadelphia's black residents. PAS's Committee of Guardians, established in 1790, facilitated the placement of black children in indentures (a common practice of the time among Philadelphia's free blacks), monitored the conditions under which the children lived, and intervened with legal and material support when necessary.

In 1815, PAS supported Richard Allen of the Bethel Church in their successful legal battle against takeover by the white Methodist leadership. PAS was listed along with Allen in the certificate that formally transferred ownership of the property on which Bethel stood.

In the decade after the War of 1812, such factors as the post-war economic slump, the death of Rush and other leaders, and a decline in support for abolition by Philadelphia's elite led to increasing anti-black sentiment and the legal, physical, and emotional harassment and exclusion of black citizens. By December 1833, when the American Anti-Slavery Society was founded in Philadelphia, PAS had become a small, embattled group with little public support.

"Barbarity Committed on a free African," engraved illustration from Jesse Torrey A Portraiture of the Domestic Slavery in the United States (Philadelphia: Jesse Torrey, 1817).Torrey was a physician whose book describes various aspects of slavery including the possibility of creating a colony for "free persons of color." The engraving shown here depicts a free black being fatally assaulted a few miles north of Washington, DC by two intoxicated ruffians. After the initial assault, they tied him behind one of their horses and left him by the side of the road, where he was discovered the next day. This is just one of many tragic stories recounted by Torrey.


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