Anti - Slavery and the

Enlightenment in Early America


Map courtesy of



The American Enlightenment had a profound effect on the institution of slavery in the American Colonies.  Combining European ideas of humanity with beliefs with their own, American enlightenment thinkers fundamentally began to change the course of slavery in America.
These three images portray the way in which many colonial peoples viewed property and simple labor, nothing more.  The agony and strain are obvious on the faces of the Africans and the sale poster advertises slaves as nothing better than beasts of burden, describing them in terms only of their health and physical fitness.



Religion in the colonies played an important part in beginning and carrying on the anti-slavery movement.  The enlightenment idea of deism and the turn towards secularization of religious ideas during the first half of the 16th century played very important parts in instigating religious opposition to the institution of slavery.  Combined with religious sentiment about the human treatment of people, the moralistic ideas of the enlightenment, passed on from such proponents of toleration as William Penn, Voltaire, and especially Rousseau and Locke.  The importance of secularization within religion has often been overlooked and is imperative when considering the fact that many of the religious persons involved with slavery were both traders and owners of slaves, whether in Puritan New England or in the Quaker Middle Colonies.

Quakerism and Anti-slavery sentiment

The Prism

Quaker Tapestry photo courtesy of

The Quakers, or the Society of Friends, established themselves in Pennsylvania with the blessings of William Penn, the proprietor of Pennsylvania.  Slavery was not ignored by these people, but embraced.  Many Quakers owned slaves and participated in the overseas slave trade. 

In 1688, four German immigrant Quakers began to protest the institution of slavery in the American Colonies based upon their beliefs both as Quakers but also as citizens of what was known as one of the most tolerant of all the American colonies.  After this, monthly meetings were established in parts of Pennsylvania "...held expressly for slaves....", where slaves and masters would gather in order to hear complains and to report on the happenings connected with the slave trade in Pennsylvania.

In 1775, the first Quaker meeting of the "Society for the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully held in Bondage" was held by Anthony Benezet in Philadelphia.  Benezet was a French immigrant who had converted to Quakerism at fourteen and moved to Philadelphia with his parents where he eventually became a schoolteacher.  Benezet had been influenced at a young age, and was throughout his life, by leading French enlightenment thinkers such as Voltaire and Rousseau.

Benezet Instructing Colored Children                                                                                         


    Anthony Benezet, along with many other Quakers in Pennsylvania, became a champion for the rights and freedom of slaves in America.  In an excerpt from one of his writings he states that "...Kings, princes, governors, are not proprietors of those who are subjected to their authority: they have not a right to make them miserable." (Benezet, 40)

Photo of Benezet Instructing Colored Children courtesy of

Portrait of Benjamin Rush





An ally of Benezet in Philadelphia was the noted Presbyterian minister Benjamin Rush.  Rush eventually became a staunch supporter of the black population in Pennsylvania and wrote several treatises condemning the  practice of slavery.                         

George Fox, the founder of the Quaker religion, made several trips to the Americas.  Like many of the wealthy planters in the Caribbean and in the southern colonies, Fox held conflicting views on the institution of slavery.  As an enlightenment thinker and as a religious believer, Fox contended that the truest philosophy was to educate the slaves.  From an economical point of view this ideology agreed with his belief in the necessity of slavery for the good of the plantation economy.                           
Photo of Benjamin Rush courtesy of


Puritan views on the question of slavery

Because of their work ethic and emphasis on family life in general, most Puritans did not own slaves.  However, especially in port cities, many wealthy Puritans became involved with the overseas slave trade, one of the legs of the infamous triangle trade.  Many of the ships used to carry slaves from Africa were the property of Puritan owners who made a great deal of money from this traffic in human cargo. 

In 1700, Samuel Sewall published the first anti-slavery pamphlet in America called "The Selling of Joseph", based upon his arguments against many of the beliefs presented in the Bible.  At the time, Sewall was virtually alone in his publication and beliefs and could do little to deter many of the Puritans who owned or trafficked in slaves.

Photo courtesy of

Slavery in New England was not viewed as an entirely evil enterprise.  One of the most prevalent attitudes towards slavery throughout New England as well as the rest of the colonies was that slaves were taken in order to Christianize them.  This became the general feeling among many Puritan slave owners. 

However, over time and with the publication of Sewall's anti-slavery pamphlet, as well as the support of such prestigious leaders and well-known politicians as Governor John Winthrop and John and Samuel Adams, slavery in New England was outlawed soon after the Revolution.


John Winthrop 

Samuel Sewall



Enlightenment Individuals and the Institution of Slavery

    When considering the effect of major colonial enlightenment thinker's beliefs concerning slavery, one must understand that they were all influenced by one another as well as by important thoughts from Europe.  The major enlightenment thinkers whose main concern was with the rights of man and the humanity of man were such noted philosophers as Locke and Rousseau.  These two men especially had serious impacts on the ideas of colonial thinkers. 

    Locke, an English philosopher, is most noted for his work on the rights of men, which Thomas Jefferson, discussed below, made use of in the Declaration of Independence.  Locke's work outlined the belief that all men, including those who were made slaves, were created with certain natural rights, and that those rights were unimpeachable.  This idea flows throughout both the religious anti-slavery movement and the movement from the colonial intellectuals.

    Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a transplanted Swiss citizen, is best known for his treatise termed "The Social Contract", in which he outlined the idea that men band together in order to create a livable society in which conflict in dead and cooperation is the ultimate goal.  Where in that, interpret some critics of slavery, does it say that the institution of slavery is necessary for society?  That is the point; in order to create a stable society, there can be no slavery, because to beat down a people is to create strife which, in a society based upon the "social contract", is unacceptable. 

    It was ideas and publications such as these, attacking the practice of slavery, which contributed to the colonial notion of anti-slavery and the subsequent movement against that institution.


Benjamin Franklin

    "Pharisaical Britain! to pride thyself in setting free a single Slave that happens to land on thy coasts, while thy Merchants in all thy ports are encouraged by thy laws to continue a commerce whereby so many hundreds of thousands are dragged unto slavery that can scarce be said to end with their lives, since it is entailed on their posterity!" (Lemay, 678)

    Originally, Franklin owned two slaves who worked in his printing office in Philadelphia.  However, during the mid-1700's, Franklin began to express radical anti-slavery beliefs.  Some have pointed to the fact that he believed that the English were trying to enslave the Americans, which hastened his sentiments along. 

    In 1787 Franklin became the president of the "Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery, and the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage", the Quaker anti-slavery society mentioned earlier. 

    Franklin made several petitions to the colonial government as well as to the new United States government.  He also corresponded with many enlightenment thinkers within the colonies, many of whom were involved in anti-slavery movements.  In a letter to noted anti-slavery leader Anthony Benezet, Franklin states, "I am glad to hear that the Disposition against keeping Negroes grows more general in North America.  Several Pieces have been lately printed against the Practice, and I hope in time it will be taken into Consideration and suppress'd by the Legislature." (Lemay, 876)

    Franklin, as an Enlightenment thinker, believed that freed slaves could not fend for themselves in society and advocated education, a prevalent Enlightenment position.  Part of his effort at slave advocacy involved his efforts within the "Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery".  This image to the left is a sketch of the Society's medallion emblem.                 (abolitionist_big.jpg)                                                          



Thomas Jefferson

    " a man of the Enlightenment [Jefferson] knew the institution  to be antithetical to the ideals by which he lived." (Miller, 2-3)

                                                                               Bust of Jefferson by Jean Antoine Houdon                                                                                              houdon.jpg

    Thomas Jefferson was a wealthy planter in Colonial America.  However, influenced by enlightenment sentiments from Europe, such as those of Voltaire and Rousseau, and some of his American contemporaries, such as Franklin and Adams, Jefferson became a staunch proponent of abolitionist goals.

    Jefferson believed that men were born with a sense of morality, a belief taken almost directly from the early writings of Rousseau concerning the originations of man.  This sense of inherent morality created a struggle within Jefferson because of his conflicting beliefs about the injustice of slavery and his need, as a plantation owner, to make use of slave labor. 

    Throughout his life, Jefferson referred to his slaves as his "family".  As was the practice of the times, Jefferson, as master, became the patriarch of this family.  However, unlike many of his contemporaries, Jefferson became embroiled in the anti-slavery controversy.  He included slavery in the Declaration of Independence, asserting that "all men are created equal".  However, in the final draft, his specific wording was changed to include only white men. 

    One of Jefferson's major motives for encouraging abolition, it has been speculated, is the fact that he believed, in accordance with enlightenment views, that "Without the abolition of slavery, [he] realized that the attainment of a society based upon freedom and equality of opportunity would forever elude the American people." (Miller, 2-3)




 Home | Overview | Religion  | Scientific Inventions
MedicineSlavery | About the Authors | Bibliography