The Making of Colonial Slavery

Background: By the early 1500s, England entered a prolonged period of social turmoil
due to both the Protestant Reformation initiated by King Henry VIII and sweeping
changes to English agriculture and land access. In terms of the latter, England had
largely practiced a feudalistic system of land ownership for centuries—most of the land
was owned by an elite minority of landlords who allowed land renters and tenants to
access their open lands, known as the “commons.” But by the early 1500s, the growing
European market for English wool led landlords to push for “enclosure laws,” that
allowed these landlords to remove renter “commoners” while enclosing their lands to
cultivate sheep. Through the next century, this “English Social Crisis” destabilized and
fractured the society, trapping entire generations into destitute states of poverty and
despair. For ordinary English who equated freedom with land access—and ideally
owning one’s land outright—the enclosure movement was a social disaster.
New World settlement offered a potential solution to the English Social Crisis. But
the power of landlords to impose new forms of enclosure in the New World would limit
English commoners’ dreams of achieving freedom, especially in colonies like Virginia.
With the gradual English settlement of various colonies on the Atlantic seaboard
during the early 1600s, one of the primary problems that early settlers—especially more
affluent landlords—faced was a seemingly infinite supply of land, but limited sources
of labor to work that land. This problem was particularly prevalent in the Chesapeake
Bay colonies where cash crop agriculture required a great deal of land and cheap labor.
Early on, many planters relied on white English indentured servants. But that labor
system posed a number of problems and gradually gave way to a system of racial
slavery with tens of thousands of enslaved black Africans forcibly imported directly
from West Africa or from Caribbean colonies. The following sources offer a view of
racial slavery in the colonies up to the mid-1700s, revealing the complex legal
underpinnings of the system and the everyday social experiences of freedom, violence,
labor, and early colonial racism.
1. The Virginia Colony, “Various Statutes and Court Cases Regarding Freedom
and Slavery,” (1618-1705).
In 1619, Virginia’s colonial assembly, the House of Burgesses, began implementation of
the Headright System, which encouraged wealthy settlers to bring with them large
numbers of cheap laborers in exchange for vast tracts of land. Those wealthy tobacco
planters increasingly depended upon white English indentured servants, who
temporarily surrendered their freedom and labor under contracts, to work vast
tobacco plantations. In essence, Virginia’s tobacco landlords had replicated the very
system of enclosure that so many ordinary English residents hoped to escape. Yet
beginning in the mid-1600s, the population of unfree and free Africans in the Virginia
colony also began to surge as masters imported this new class of cheap laborers. With
this surge, the Virginia colonial legislature, which represented the interests of
primarily property-owning white Virginians and planters, sought to adjust the colony’s
laws to these new demographic realities. These changes in the laws reveal not only the
declining status of black Africans in Virginia, but also white Virginians’ social and
cultural anxieties over a colony where white and black people lived alongside one
another. These laws represented how Virginia’s masters sought to reinterpret English
common law to fit the peculiar nature of freedom and slavery in this English colony.
1618: Virginia Company Instructions to Sir George Yeardley (incoming Virginia
Our former cares and Endeavours have been chiefly bent to the procuring and sending
people to plant in Virginia so to prepare a way and to lay a foundation whereon A
flourishing State might in process of time by the blessing of Almighty God be raised.
Now our trust being that under the Government of you Captain Yeardly with the advice
and Assistance of the said Council of State such public provisions of Corn and Cattle will
again be raised as may draw on those Multitudes who in great Abundance from diverse
parts of the Realm were preparing to remove thither if by the late decay of the said
public. Store their hopes had not been made frustrate and heir minds thereby clene
discouraged We have thought good to bend our present cares and Consultations
according to the Authority granted unto us from his Majesty under his great Seal to the
settling there of a laudable form of Government by Magistracy and just Laws for the
happy guiding and governing of the people there inhabiting like as we have already
done for the well ordering of our Courts here and of our Officers and accions for the
behoof of that plantation…
We do also hereby declare that heretofore in one of our said general and Quarter Courts
we have ordained and enacted and in this present Court have ratified and Confirmed
these orders and laws following. That all Grants of Lands privileges and liberties in
Virginia hereafter to be made be passed by Indenture [legal agreement]. A Counterpart
whereof to be sealed by the Grantees and to be kept [by] the Companies Evidences. And
that the Secretary of the Company have the Engrossing of all such Indentures…That all
Grants of [land] in Virginia to such Adventurers as have heretofore brought in their
money here to the treasury for their several shares being of twelve pounds ten shillings
the share be of one hundred Acres the share upon the first division and of as many more
upon A Second Division when the land of the first division shall be Sufficiently peopled.
And for Every person which they shall transport thither within seven years after
Midsummer Day One thousand six hundred and Eighteen if he continue there three
years or dye in the mean time after he is Shipped it be of fifty Acres the person upon the
first Division and fifty more upon a second Division the land of the first being
Sufficiently peopled without paying any rent to the Company for the one of the Other…
That for all persons not comprised in the order next before which during the next seven
years after Midsummer day 1618 shall go into Virginia with intent there to Inhabite If
they continue there three years or dye after they are shipped there shall be a grant made
of fifty acres for every person upon A first division and as many more upon a second
division (the first being peopled) which grants to be made respectively to such persons
and their heirs at whose charges the said persons going to Inhabite in Virginia shall be
1630 (Sept. 17): An order to whip Hugh Davis for fornication with a Negro woman.
Hugh Davis to be soundly whipped, before an assembly of Negroes and others for
abusing himself to the dishonor of God and shame of Christians, by defiling his body in
lying with a negro; which fault he is to acknowledge next Sabbath day.
1640 (July 9): Court-Issued Punishments for Runaway Servants—
The John Punch Precedent.
Whereas Hugh Gwyn hath by order from this Board Brought back from Maryland three
servants formerly run away from the said Gwyn, the court doth therefore order that the
said three servants shall receive the punishment of whipping and to have thirty stripes
apiece one called Victor , a dutchman , the other a Scotchman called James Gregory , shall
first serve out their times with their master according to their Indentures, and one
whole year apiece after the time of their service is Expired. By their said Indentures in
recompense of his Loss sustained by their absence and after that service to their said
master is Expired to serve the colony for three whole years apiece, and that the third
being a negro named John Punch shall serve his said master or his assigns for the time
of his natural Life here or elsewhere.
1640: Act X: Negroes banned from owning firearms.
ALL persons except negroes to be provided with arms and ammunition or be fined at
pleasure of the Governor and Council.
1660-1661: ACT XXII: Banning of English running away with negroes.
BEE itt enacted That in case any English servant shall run away in company with any
negroes who are incapable of makeing satisfaction by addition of time, Bee itt enacted
that the English so running away in company with them shall serve for the time of the
said negroes absence as they are to do for their owne by a former act.
1662: ACT XII: Negro women’s children to serve according to the condition of the
WHEREAS some doubts have arrisen whether children got by any Englishman upon a
negro woman should be slave or ffree, Be it therefore enacted and declared by this
present grand assembly, that all children borne in this country shalbe held bond or free
only according to the condition of the mother, And that if any christian shall committ
ffornication with a negro man or woman, hee or shee soe offending shall pay double the
ffines imposed by the former act.
1667: ACT III: Bondage status not altered by baptism to Christianity.
WHEREAS some doubts have risen whether children that are slaves by birth, and by the
charity and piety of their owners made pertakers of the blessed sacrament of baptisme,
should by vertue of their baptisme be made free; It is enacted and declared by this grand
assembly, and the authority thereof, that the conferring of baptisme doth not alter the
condition of the person as to his bondage or freedom; that diverse masters, freed from
this doubt, may more carefully endeavor the propagation of Christianity by permitting
children, though slaves, or those of greater growth if capable to be admitted to that
1669: ACT I: Killing of Negro slave not felony murder.
WHEREAS the only law in force for the punishment of refractory servants resisting
their master, mistris or overseer cannot be inflicted upon negroes, nor the obstinacy of
many of them by other then violent meanes supprest, Be it enacted and declared by this
grand assembly, if any slave resist his master (or other by his masters order correcting
him) and by the extremity of the correction should chance to die, that his death shall not
be accompted felony, but the master (or that other person appointed by the master to
punish him) be acquit from molestation, since it cannot be presumed that prepensed
malice (which alone makes murder felony) should induce any man to destroy his owne
1670: ACT IV: Negroes and Indians prohibited from owning Christian servants.
WHEREAS it hath beene questioned whither Indians or negroes manumited, or
otherwise free, could be capable of purchasing Christian servants, It is enacted that noe
negroe or Indian though baptised and enjoyned their owne freedom shall be capable of
any such purchase of Christians, but yet not debarred from buying any of their owne
1680: ACT X: For the suppression of Negro insurrection.
WHEREAS the frequent meeting of considerable numbers of negroe slaves under
pretense of feasts and burials is judged of dangerous consequence; for prevention
whereof for the future, Bee it enacted by the kings most excellent majesty by and with
the consent of the general assembly, and it is hereby enacted by the authority aforesaid,
that from and after the publication of this law, it shall not be lawfull for any negroe or
other slave to carry or arme himself with any club, staff, gun, sword or any other weapon
of defense or offence, nor to go or depart from of his masters ground without a
certificate from his master, mistris or overseer and such permission not to be granted
but upon particular and necessary occasions; and every negroe or slave soe offending
not having a certificate as aforesaid shall be sent to the next constable, who is hereby
enjoined and required to give the said negroe twenty lashes on his bare back well layd
on, and soe sent home to his said master, mistris or overseer. And it is further enacted
by the authority aforesaid that if any negroe or other slave shall presume to lift up his
hand in opposition against any Christian, shall for every such offence, upon due proofe
made thereof by the oath of the party before a magistrate, have and receive thirty lashes
on his bare back well laid on. And it is hereby further enacted by the authority aforesaid
that if any negroe or other slave shall absent himself from his masters service and lye hid
and lurking in obscure places, comitting injuries to the inhabitants, and shall resist any
person or persons that shalby any lawfull authority by imployed to apprehend and take
the said negroe, that then in case of such resistance, it shalbe lawfull for such person or
persons to kill the said negroe or slave soe lying out and resisting, and that this law be
once every six months published at the respective county courts and parish churches
within this colony.
1691: ACTXVI: For the capture of runaway slaves, prohibition of interracial marriage
and sex, and regulation of how masters free slaves.
WHEREAS many times negroes, mulattoes, and other slaves unlawfully absent
themselves from their masters and mistresses service, and lie hid and lurk in obscure
places killing hoggs and committing other injuries to the inhabitants of this dominion,
for remedy whereof for the future, Be it enacted by their majesties lieutenant governour,
councell and burgesses of this present general assembly, and the authoritie thereof, and
it is hereby enacted, that in all such cases upon intelligence of any such negroes,
mulattoes, or other slaves lying out, two of their majesties justices of the peace of that
county, whereof one to be of the quorum, where such negroes, mulattoes or other slave
shall be, shall be impowered and commanded, and are hereby impowered and
commanded to issue out their warrants directed to the sherrife of the same county to
apprehend such negroes, mulattoes, and other slaves, which said sherriffe is hereby
likewise requred upon all such occasions to raise such and soe many forces from time to
time as he shall think convenient and necessary for the effectual apprehending such
negroes, mulattoes and other slaves, and in case any negroes, mulattoes or other slaves
or slaves lying out as aforesaid shall resist, runaway, or refuse to deliver and surrender
him or themselves to any person or persons that shall be by lawfull authority employed
to apprehend and take such negroes, mulattoes or other slaves that in such cases it shall
and may be lawfull for such person and persons to kill and destroy such negroes,
mulattoes, and other slave or slaves by gunn or any otherwaise whatsoever.
Provided that where any negroe or mulattoe slave or slaves shall be killed in pursuance
of this act, the owner or owners of such negro or mulatto slave shall be paid for such
negro or mulatto slave four thousand pounds of tobacco by the public. And for
prevention of that abominable mixture and spurious issue which hereafter may increase
in this dominion, as well by negroes, mulattoes, and Indians intermarrying with
English, or other white women, as by their unlawfull accompanying with one another,
Be it enacted by the authority aforesaid, and it is hereby enacted, that for the time to
come, whatsoever English or other white man or woman being free shall intermarry
with a negroe, mulatto, or Indian man or woman bond or free shall within three months
after such marriage be banished and removed from this dominion forever, and that the
justices of each respective county within this dominion make it their particular care that
this act be put in effectual execution. And be it further enacted by the authority
aforesaid, and it is hereby enacted, That if any English woman being free shall have a
bastard child by any negro or mulatto, she pay the sume of fifteen pounds sterling,
within one moneth after such bastard child be born, to the Church wardens of the parish
where she shall be delivered of such child, and in default of such payment she shall be
taken into the possession of the said Church wardens and disposed of for five yeares,
and the said fine of fifteen pounds, or whatever the woman shall be disposed of for, shall
be paid, one third part to their majesties for and towards the support of the government
and the contingent charges thereof, and one other third part to the use of the parish
where the offence is committed, and the other third part to the informer, and that such
bastard child be bound out as a servant by the said Church wardens untill he or she shall
attaine the age of thirty yeares, and in case such English woman that shall have such
bastard child be a servant, she shall be sold by the said church wardens, (after her time is
expired that she ought by law to serve her master) for five yeares, and the money she
shall be sold for divided as is before appointed, and the child to serve as aforesaid.
And forasmuch as great inconveniences may happen to this country by the setting of
negroes and mulattoes free, by their either entertaining negro slaves from their masters
service, or receiveing stolen goods, or being grown old bringing a charge upon the
country; for prevention thereof, Be it enacted by the authority aforesaid, and it is hereby
enacted, That no negro or mulatto be after the end of this present session of assembly
set free by any person or persons whatsoever, unless such person or persons, their
heires, executors or administrators pay for the transportation of such negro or negroes
out of the countrey within six moneths after such setting them free, upon penalty of
paying of tenn pounds sterling to the Church wardens of the parish where such person
shall dwell with, which money, or so much thereof as shall be necessary, the said Church
wardens are to cause the said negro or mulatto to be transported out of the countrey,
and the remainder of the said money to imploy to the use of the poor of the parish.
1705: CHAP. IV: Definition of mulatto.
And for clearing all manner of doubts which hereafter may happen to arise upon the
construction of this act, or any other act, who shall be accounted a mulatto. Be it enacted
and declared, and it is hereby enacted and declared, That the child of an Indian and the
child, grand child, or great grand child, of a negro shall be deemed, accounted, held and
taken to be a mulatto.
1705: CHAP. XXII: All slaves in the dominion to be defined as real estate.
FOR the better settling and preservation of estates within this dominion, Be it enacted,
by the governor, council and burgesses of this present general assembly, and it is hereby
enacted by the authority of the same, That from and after the passing of this act, all
negro, mulatto, and Indian slaves, in all courts of judicature, and other places, within
this dominion, shall be held, taken, and adjudged, to be real estate (and not chattels;)
and shall descend unto the heirs and widows of persons departing this life, according to
the manner and custom of land of inheritance, held in fee simple.
1705: ACT XLIX: Virginia’s Slave Code.
IV. And also be it enacted, by the authority aforesaid, and it is hereby enacted, That all
servants imported and brought into this country, by sea or land, who were not christians
in their native country, (except Turks and Moors in amity with her majesty, and others
that can make due proof of their being free in England, or any other christian country,
before they were shipped, in order to transportation hither) shall be accounted and be
slaves, and such be here bought and sold notwithstanding a conversion to christianity
VI. Provided always, That a slave’s being in England, shall not be sufficient to discharge
him of his slavery, without other proof of his being manumitted there.
VII. And also be it enacted, by the authority aforesaid, and it is hereby enacted, That all
masters and owners of servants, shall find and provide for their servants, wholesome
and competent diet, clothing, and lodging, by the discretion of the county court; and
shall not, at any time, give immoderate correction; neither shall, at any time, whip a
christian white servant naked, without an order from a justice of the peace: And if any,
notwithstanding this act, shall presume to whip a christian white servant naked,
without such order, the person so offending, shall forfeit and pay for the same, forty
shillings sterling, to the party injured: To be recovered, with costs, upon petition,
without the formal process of an action, as in and by this act is provided for servants
complaints to be heard; provided complaint be made within six months after such
X. And be it also enacted, That all servants, whether, by importation, indenture, or hire
here, as well feme coverts, as others, shall, in like manner, as is provided, upon
complaints of misusage, have their petitions received in court, for their wages and
freedom, without the formal process of an action; and proceedings, and judgment, shall,
in like manner, also, be had thereupon.
XI. And for a further christian care and usage of all christian servants, Be it also enacted,
by the authority aforesaid, and it is hereby enacted, That no negros, mulattos, or Indians
although christians, or Jews, Moors, Mahometans, or other infidels, shall, at any time,
purchase any christian servant, nor any other, except of their own complexion, or such
as are declared slaves by this act: And if any negro, mulatto, or Indian, Jew, Moor,
Mahometan, or other infidel, or such as are declared slaves by this act, shall,
notwithstanding, purchase any christian white servant, the said servant shall, ipso
facto, become free and acquit from any service then due, and shall be so held, deemed,
and taken: And if any person, having such christian servant, shall intermarry with any
such negro, mulatto, or Indian, Jew, Moor, Mahometan, or other infidel, every christian
white servant of every such person so intermarrying, shall, ipso facto, become free and
acquit from any service then due to such master or mistress so intermarrying, as
XV. And also be it enacted, by the authority aforesaid, and it is hereby enacted, That no
person whatsoever shall buy, sell, or receive of, to, or from, any servant, or slave, any
coin or commodity whatsoever, without the leave, licence, or consent of the master or
owner of the servant, or slave: And if any person shall, contrary hereunto, without the
leave or licence aforesaid, deal with any servant, or slave, he or she so offending, shall be
imprisoned one calender month, without bail or main-prize; and then, also continue in
prison, until he or she shall find good security, in the sum of ten pounds current money
of Virginia, for the good behaviour for one year following; wherein, a second offence
shall be a breach of the bond; and moreover shall forfeit and pay four times the value of
the things so bought, sold, or received, to the master or owner of such servant, or slave:
To be recovered, with costs, by action upon the case, in any court of record in this her
majesty’s colony and dominion, wherein no essoin, protection, or wager of law, or other
than one imparlance, shall be allowed.
XVII. And also be it enacted, by the authority aforesaid, and it is hereby enacted, and
declared, That in all cases of penal laws, whereby persons free are punishable by fine,
servants shall be punished by whipping, after the rate of twenty lashes for every five
hundred pounds of tobacco, or fifty shillings current money, unless the servant so
culpable, can and will procure some person or persons to pay the fine; in which case, the
said servant shall be adjudged to serve such benefactor, after the time by indenture,
custom, or order of court, to his or her then present master or owner, shall be expired,
after the rate of one month and a half for every hundred pounds of tobacco; any thing in
this act contained, to the contrary, in any-wise, notwithstanding.
XVIII. And if any woman servant shall be delivered of a bastard child within the time of
her service aforesaid, Be it enacted, by the authority aforesaid, and it is hereby enacted,
That in recompence of the loss and trouble occasioned her master or mistress thereby,
she shall for every such offence, serve her said master or owner one whole year after her
time by indenture, custom, and former order of court, shall be expired; or pay her said
master or owner, one thousand pounds of tobacco; and the reputed father, if free, shall
give security to the church-wardens of the parish where that child shall be, to maintain
the child, and keep the parish indemnified; or be compelled thereto by order of the
county court, upon the said church-wardens complaint: But if a servant, he shall make
satisfaction to the parish, for keeping the said child, after his time by indenture, custom,
or order of court, to his then present master or owner, shall be expired; or be compelled
thereto, by order of the county court, upon complaint of the church-wardens of the said
parish, for the time being. And if any woman servant shall be got with child by her
master, neither the said master, nor his executors administrators, nor assigns, shall
have any claim of service against her, for or by reason of such child; but she shall, when
her time due to her said master, by indenture, custom or order of court, shall be expired,
be sold by the church-wardens, for the time being, of the parish wherein such child shall
be born, for one year, or pay one thousand pounds of tobacco; and the said one thousand
pounds of tobacco, or whatever she shall be sold for, shall be emploied, by the vestry, to
the use of the said parish. And if any woman servant shall have a bastard child by a
negro, or mulattos, over and above the years service due to here master or owner, she
shall immediately, upon the expiration of her time to her then present master or owner,
pay down to the church-wardens of the parish wherein such child shall be born, for the
use of the said parish, fifteen pounds current money of Virginia, or be by them sold for
five years, to the use aforesaid: And if a free christian white woman shall have such
bastard child, by a negro, or mulatto, for every such offence, she shall, within one month
after her delivery of such bastard child, pay to the church-wardens for the time being, of
the parish wherein such child shall be born, for the use of the said parish fifteen pounds
current money of Virginia, or be by them sold for five years to the use aforesaid: And in
both the said cases, the church-wardens shall bind the said child to be a servant, until it
shall be of thirty one years of age.
XIX. And for a further prevention of that abominable mixture and spurious issue, which
hereafter may increase in this her majesty’s colony and dominion, as well by English,
and other white men and women intermarrying with negros or mulattos, as by their
unlawful coition with them, Be it enacted, by the authority aforesaid, and it is hereby
enacted, That whatsoever English, or other white man or woman, being free, shall
intermarry with a negro or mulatto man or woman, bond or free, shall, by judgment of
the county court, be committed to prison, and there remain, during the space of six
months, without bail or mainprize; and shall forfeit and pay ten pounds current money
of Virginia, to the use of the parish, as aforesaid.
XX. And be it further enacted, That no minister of the church of England, or other
minister, or person whatsoever, within this colony and dominion, shall hereafter
wittingly presume to marry a white man with a negro or mulatto woman; or to marry a
white woman with a negro or mulatto man, upon pain of forfeiting and paying, for
every such marriage the sum of ten thousand pounds of tobacco; one half to our
sovereign lady the Queen, her heirs and successors, for and towards the support of the
government, and the contingent charges thereof; and the other half to the informer: To
be recovered, with costs, by action of debt, bill, plaint, or information, in any court of
record within this her majesty’s colony and dominion, wherein no essoin, protection, or
wager of law, shall be allowed.
1730 (April): Tucker v. Sweney.
This was a typical civil dispute involving property claims between two parties. In this
particular case, an indebted slaveowner died, with his surviving slaves increasing in
number following his death. The creditor who held that owner’s debt sued to acquire
some of these additional slaves that had increased in number.
The Virginia colonial court ruled in the favor of that creditor:
Negroes notwithstanding this Act [of 1705] making them Real Estate remain in the
Hands of the Ex’ors [executor of a will or estate] by that Act as Chatels and as such do
vest in them for payments of Debts So that in this Case they are considered no otherwise
than Horses or Cattle, And there is no doubt but the Increase of any living Creature after
the death of the Testor [creator of a will], are looked upon as part of his Estate, and are
liable to be taken for his Debts.
2. John Locke, “Of the State of Nature” and “Of Property,” (1689).
A philosopher, physician, and Royal adviser, John Locke experienced the intellectual
and political upheavals that swept England throughout the 1600s. He also contributed
to much of the upheaval himself. Having experienced the English Civil War (1642-1651)
and witnessed the temporary destruction of the Stuart monarchy and consolidation of
Parliament, Locke was convinced that certain, inalienable natural laws guaranteed
every English citizen’s right to self-determination. Dismayed by the restoration of the
Stuart monarchy by 1660, Locke (while in exile) helped organize England’s Glorious
Revolution (1688-1689), which led to the removal of King James II and solidified
Parliament as the primary governing body. It also led to the creation of the English Bill
of Rights in 1689, a fundamental guarantee of English citizen’s “natural rights” and
their “social contract” with their government. Long-term, Locke’s ideas not only fueled
the liberalism of the English Enlightenment, but helped shape the American
Revolution two generations later.
But as this seventeenth-century power struggle between the Stuart Monarchy
and the Parliamentarians had unfolded, the English colonies faced their own
struggle—how to transform English common law to justify racial slavery. These
colonial developments troubled Locke, who was convinced that the same corrupted
principles of blood and inheritance that had plagued England through entitled
landlords and monarchs now plagued English colonies where masters lorded over
human beings they claimed as property. Locke’s personal relationship with slavery was
complicated and has led historians to debate his actual commitment to ending slavery.
He did own stock in the Royal Africa Company, which held a considerable monopoly
over the West African slave trade. But in his one-time position on the Board of Trade,
an advisory council to the monarchy concerning the colonies, Locke drafted the
“Virginia Plan,” an ambitious project to unmake the headright system and reform
Virginia’s land policies with the goal of creating a freer colonial society. The following
sources, drawn from Locke’s famous treatises justifying the Glorious Revolution,
reveal his thoughts on freedom, property, labor, and slavery, which no doubt
influenced his goal of remaking the Virginia colony. Locke, however, never got the
opportunity to do so. He died in 1704. One year later, Virginia’s House of Burgesses
passed their famous slave code—solidifying the colony’s commitment to denying
enslaved black Africans their natural right to own themselves.
Of the State of Nature
To understand political power aright, and derive it from its original, we must consider
what estate all men are naturally in, and that is, a state of perfect freedom to order their
actions, and dispose of their possessions and persons as they think fit, within the
bounds of the law of Nature, without asking leave or depending upon the will of any
other man.
A state also of equality, wherein all the power and jurisdiction, is reciprocal, no one
having more than another, there being nothing more evident than that creatures of the
same species and rank, promiscuously born to all the same advantages of Nature, and
the use of the same faculties, should also be equal one amongst another, without
subordination or subjection, unless the lord and master of them all should, by any
manifest declaration of his will, set one above another, and confer on him, by an evident
and clear appointment, an undoubted right to dominion and sovereignty. . . .
Of Property
God, who hath given the world to men in common, hath also given them reason to make
use of it to the best advantage of life and convenience. The earth and all that is therein is
given to men for the support and comfort of their being. And though all the fruits it
naturally produces, and beasts it feeds, belong to mankind in common, as they are
produced by the spontaneous hand of Nature, and nobody has originally a private
dominion exclusive of the rest of mankind in any of them, as they are thus in their
natural state, yet being given for the use of men, there must of necessity be a means to
appropriate them some way or other before they can be of any use, or at all beneficial, to
any particular men. The fruit or venison which nourishes the wild Indian, who knows no
enclosure, and is still a tenant in common, must be his, and so his—i.e., a part of him,
that another can no longer have any right to it before it can do him any good for the
support of his life.
Though the earth and all inferior creatures be common to all men, yet every man has a
“property” in his own “person.” This nobody has any right to but himself. The “labor” of
his body and the “work” of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever, then, he
removes out of the state that Nature hath provided and left it in, he hath mixed his labor
with it, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property. It
being by him removed from the common state Nature placed it in, it hath by this labor
something annexed to it that excludes the common right of other men. For this “labor”
being the unquestionable property of the laborer, no man but he can have a right to
what that is once joined to, at least where there is enough, and as good left in common
for others…
Of Slavery
THE natural liberty of man is to be free from any superior power on earth, and not to be
under the will or legislative authority of man, but to have only the law of nature for his
rule. The liberty of man, in society, is to be under no other legislative power, but that
established, by consent, in the commonwealth; nor under the dominion of any will, or
restraint of any law, but what that legislative shall enact, according to the trust put in it.
Freedom then is not what Sir Robert Filmer tells us … a liberty for everyone to do what
he lists, to live as he pleases, and not to be tied by any laws: but freedom of men under
government is, to have a standing rule to live by, common to every one of that society,
and made by the legislative power erected in it; a liberty to follow my own will in all
things, where the rule prescribes not; and not to be subject to the inconstant, uncertain,
unknown, arbitrary will of another man: as freedom of nature is, to be under no other
restraint but the law of nature…
This freedom from absolute, arbitrary power, is so necessary to, and closely joined with
a man’s preservation, that he cannot part with it, but by what forfeits his preservation
and life together: for a man, not having the power of his own life, cannot, by compact, or
his own consent, enslave himself to any one, nor put himself under the absolute,
arbitrary power of another, to take away his life, when he pleases. Nobody can give more
power than he has himself; and he that cannot take away his own life, cannot give
another power over it. Indeed, having by his fault forfeited his own life, by some act that
deserves death; he, to whom he has forfeited it, may (when he has him in his power)
delay to take it, and make use of him to his own service, and he does him no injury by it:
for, whenever he finds the hardship of his slavery outweigh the value of his life, it is in
his power, by resisting the will of his master, to draw on himself the death he desires…
This is the perfect condition of slavery, which is nothing else, but the state of war
continued, between a lawful conqueror and a captive: for, if once compact enter
between them, and make an agreement for a limited power on the one side, and
obedience on the other, the state of war and slavery ceases, as long as the compact
endures: for, as has been said, no man can, by agreement, pass over to another that
which he hath not in himself, a power over his own life.
I confess … that men did sell themselves [in the ancient world]; but, it is plain, this was
only to drudgery, not to slavery: for, it is evident, the person sold was not under an
absolute, arbitrary, despotical power: for the master could not have power to kill him, at
any time, whom, at a certain time, he was obliged to let go free out of his service; and the
master of such a servant was so far from having an arbitrary power over his life, that he
could not, at pleasure, so much as maim him, but the loss of an eye, or tooth, set him
3. William Moraley, “Memoirs of an Indentured Servant,” (1743).
Even while an ever-increasing number of wealthy planters imported black African
slaves, the system of indentured servitude lingered in the colonies well up to the
American Revolution. William Moraley struggled to find financial success in England,
so in 1729 he signed an indentured servant contract for five years, bringing him to the
Mid-Atlantic colonies where he hoped to ultimately become free and pursue his
ambitions. Moraley recorded in detail his experiences as a servant, but also reflected on
the nature of labor, the planter class, and slavery in English North America. His
observations also reveal how anti-black animus was not reserved to the master class—
but also penetrated the white underclasses in colonial societies.
Almost every inhabitant, in the Country, have a Plantation, some two or more; there
being no Land let as in England , where Gentlemen live on the Labour of the Farmer, to
whom he grants a short Lease, which expiring, he is either raised in his Rent, or
discharged his Farm. Here they improve their Lands themselves, with the Assistant both
of bought Servants and Negroes…
At the first Peopling [of] these Colonies, there was a Necessity of employing a great
Number of Hands, for the clearing the Land, being over-grown with Wood for some
Hundred of Miles; to which Intent, the first Settlers not being sufficient of themselves to
improve those Lands, were not only obliged to purchase a great Number of English
Servants to assist them, to whom they granted great Immunities, and at the Expiration
of their Servitude, Land was given to encourage them to continue there; but were
likewise obliged to purchase Multitudes of Negro slaves from Africa , by which Means
they are become the richest Farmers in the World, paying no Rent, nor giving Wages
either to purchased Servants or Negro slaves; so that instead of finding the Planter
Rack-rented, as the English Farmer, you will taste of their Liberality, they living in
Affluence and Plenty…
The Condition of the Negroes is very bad, by reason of the Severity of the Laws, there
being no Laws made in Favour of these unhap[p]y Wretches: For the least Trespass, they
undergo the severest Punishment; but their Masters make them some amends, by
suffering them to marry, which makes them easier, and often prevents their running
away. The Consequence of their marrying is this, all their Posterity are Slaves without
Redemption; and it is in vain to attempt an Escape, tho’ they often endeavor it; for the
Laws against them are so severe, that being caught after running away, they are
unmercifully whipped; and if they die under the Discipline, their Masters suffer no
punishment, there being no Law against murdering them. So if one Man kills another’s
Slave, he is obliged to pay his Value to the Master, besides Damages that may accrue for
the Loss of him in his Business…
[Slaves] are seldom made free, for fear of being burthensome to the Provinces, there
being a Law, that no Master shall manumise them, unless he gives Security they shall
not be thrown upon the Province, by settling Land on them for their support…
I have often heard [slaves] say, they did not think God made them Slaves, any more than
other Men, and wondered that Christians, especially Englishmen, should use them so
barbarously. But there is a Necessity of using them hardly, being of an obdurate,
stubborn Disposition; and when they have it in their Power to rebel, are extremely cruel.
4. Thomas Phillips, “Voyage of the Slave Trade Vessel ‘Hannibal,’” (1693-1694).
In 1693, Thomas Phillips was a 29-year-old agent of the Royal Africa Company, which by
the late 1600s had solidified a powerful English foothold into the slave trading markets
of West Africa. Given command of the slave trading vessel, “Hannibal,” Phillips
embarked on a one-year voyage to acquire hundreds of enslaved Africans and ship
them to English sugar colonies in the Caribbean. His reflections of the experience
reveal the complex relationships in West Africa between European slave traders,
middlemen, and local African agents that ultimately resulted in the stealing of over 12
million human beings to New World colonies—of which, conservatively, 2 million died
via the passages of the Atlantic Slave Trade. Phillips’s experiences also reveal the
violence, human suffering, and staggering loss that typified this brutal trade in human
beings. While his experiences were not atypical, Phillips’s reflections reveal his own
complex feelings about the trade, including his own condemnation of anti-black
animus, but also his sense of victimhood following the disastrous losses of so many
enslaved people on board his ship. Ultimately, Phillips exposes the callous and
calculating mindset of a slave trader—that in engaging in a capitalism that
commodified human flesh as valuable chattel, human suffering and death were
understood through the lenses of risk, profit, and financial loss.
Being entr’d into [the Royal Africa Company of England’s] service, on a trading voyage
to Guiney [West Africa], for elephants teeth, gold, and Negro slaves; and having the
needful cargoes on board, wherewith to purchase them, as well as supplies of
merchandize, stores, etc., for the company’s castles and factories [in the context of the
international slave trade, factories were European trading outposts and processing
centers for middlemen to purchase enslaved people]…
The cappasheirs [local African noblemen] each brought out his slaves according to his
degree and quality, the greatest first, etc. and our surgeon examin’d them well in all
kinds, to see that they were sound wind and limb, making them jump, stretch out their
arms swiftly, looking in their mouths to judge of their age; for the cappasheirs are so
cunning, that they shave them all close before we see them, so that let them be never so
old we can see no grey hairs in their heads or beards; and then having liquor’d them well
and sleek with palm oil, ‘tis no easy matter to know an old one from a middle-age one,
but by the teeths decay; but our greatest care of all is to buy none that are pox’d, lest they
should infect the rest aboard…
When we had selected from the rest such as we liked, we agreed in what goods to pay for
them, the prices being already stated before the [the local African] king, how much of
each sort of merchandize we were to give for a man, woman, and child, which gave us
much ease, and saved abundance of disputes and wranglings, and gave the owner a
note, signifying our agreement of the sorts of goods; upon delivery of which the next
day he receiv’d them; them we mark’d the slaves we had bought in the breast, or
shoulder, with a hot iron, having the letter of the ship’s name on it, the place being
anointed with a little palm oil, which caus’d but little pain, the mark being usually well in
four or five days, appearing very plain and white after…
1300 we bought here…
When our slaves were come to the seaside, our canoes were ready to carry them off the
longboat, if the sea permitted, and she convey’d them aboard ship, where the men were
all put in irons, two and two shackled together, to prevent their mutiny, or swimming
The negroes are so wilful and loth to leave their own country, that they have often leap’d
out of the canoes, boat and ship, into the sea, and kept under water till they were
drowned. To avoid being taken up and saved by our boats, which pursued them; they
having a more dreadful apprehension of Barbados [their intended destination] than we
can have of hell, tho’ in reality they live much better there than in their own country; but
home is home, etc: we have likewise seen divers of them eaten by the sharks, of which a
prodigious number kept about the ships in this place, and I have been told will follow
her hence to Barbados, for the dead negroes that are thrown over-board in the passage. I
am certain in our voyage there we did not want the sight of some every day, but that
they were the same I can’t affirm.
We had about 12 negroes did wilfully drown themselves, and others starv’d themselves
to death; for ‘tis their belief that when they die they return home to their own country
and friends again.
I have been inform’d that some [slave trade] commanders have cut off the legs and arms
of the most wilful, to terrify the rest, for they believe if they lose a member, they cannot
return home again: I was advis’d by some of my officers to do the same, but I could not
be perswaded to entertain the least thought of it, much less put in practice such
barbarity and cruelty to poor creatures, who, excepting their want of Christianity and
true religion (their misfortune more than fault) are as much the works of God’s hands,
and no doubt as dear to him as ourselves; nor can I imagine why they should be despis’d
for their colour, being what they cannot help, and effect of the climate it has pleas’d God
to appoint them. I can’t think there is any intrinsick value in one colour more than
another, nor that white is better than black, only we think so because we are so, and are
prone to judge favourably in our own case, as we as the blacks, who in odium of the
colour, say, the devil is white, and so paint him…
When our slaves are aboard we shackle the men two and two, while we lie in port, and in
sight of their own country, for ‘tis then they attempt to make their escape, and mutiny;
to prevent which we always keep centinels [armed guards] upon the hatchways, and
have a chest full of small arms, ready loaden and prim’d, constantly lying at hand upon
the quarter-deck guns, pointing on the deck thence, and two more out of the steerage,
the door of which is always kept shut, and well barr’d; they are fed twice a day, at 10 in
the morning, and 4 in the evening, which is the time they are aptest to mutiny, being all
upon deck; therefore all that time, what of our men are not employ’d in distributing
their victuals [food] to them, and settling them, stand to their arms; and some with
lighted matches at the great guns that yaun upon them, loaden with partridge, till they
have done and gone down to their kennels between decks…
We have some 30 or 40 gold coast negroes, which we buy, and are procur’d us there by
our factors [slave trade agents], to make guardians and overseers of the [West African
Kingdom] Whidaw negroes, and sleep among them to keep them from quarreling; and
in order, as well as to give us notice, if they can discover any caballing or plotting among
them, which trust they will discharge with great diligence: they also take care to make
the negroes scrape the decks where they lodge every morning very clean, to eschew any
distempers [disease] that may engender from filth and nastiness…
We often at sea in the evenings would let the slaves come up into the sun to air
themselves, and make them jump and dance for an hour or two to our bag-pipes, harp,
and fiddle, by which exercise to preserve them in health; but notwithstanding all our
endeavour, ‘twas my hard fortune to have great sickness and mortality among them…in
respect to the mortality of my negroes, of which two or three died every day…
[During the passage to Barbados] there happen’d much sickness and mortality among
my poor men and negroes, that of the first we buried 14, and of the last 320, which was a
great detriment to our voyage, the royal African Company losing ten pounds [1,939
pounds sterling or $2562 in 2019 U.S. dollars] by every slave that died, and the owners of
the ship ten pounds ten shillings, being the freight agreed on to be paid by them by the
charter-party for every negroe deliver’d alive ashore to the Africa company’s agents at
Barbados; whereby the loss in all amounted to near 6560 pounds sterling [equivalent to
1,272,393 pounds sterling or $1.7 million in 2019 U.S. dollars].
The distemper which my men as well as the blacks mostly die of, was the white flux
[dysentery], which was so violent and inveterate, that no medicine would in the least
check it; so that when any of our men were seiz’d with it, we esteem’d him a dead man,
as he generally proved. I cannot imagine what should cause it in them so suddenly, they
being free from it till about a week after we left the island of St. Thomas. And next to the
malignity of the climate, I can attribute it to nothing else but the unpurg’d black sugar,
and raw unwholesome rum they bought there, of which they drank in punch to great
One thing is very surprising in this distemper among the blacks, that tho’ it immediately
infects those of their own colour, yet it will never seize a white man; for I had several
white men and boys aboard that had never had that distemper, and were constantly
among the blacks that were sick of it, yet none of them in the least catch’d it, tho’ it be
the very same malady in its effects, as well as symptoms, among the blacks, as among us
in England, beginning with the pain in the head, back, shivering, vomiting, fever, etc.
But what the small-pox spar’d, the flux swept off, to our great regret, after all our pains
and care to give them their messes in due order and season, keeping their lodgings as
clean and sweet as possible, and enduring so much misery and stench so long among a
parcel of creatures nastier than swine; and after all our expectations to be defeated by
their mortality. No gold-finders can endure so much noisome slavery as they do who
carry negroes; for those have some respite and satisfaction, but we endure twice the
misery; and yet by their mortality our voyages are ruin’d, and we pine and fret our selves
to death, to think that we should undergo so much misery, and take so much pains to so
little purpose.
I deliver’d alive at Barbados to the company’s factors 372, which being sold, came out at
nineteen pounds per head one with another…
5. Olaudah Equiano, “A Recounting of the Slave Trade,” (1757).
At age 11, Olaudah Equiano was kidnapped from his village in West Africa and sold into
slavery. He survived the horrors of the Atlantic crossing when he first arrived to the
Caribbean and then was sold to a slaveholder in Virginia. Equiano was eventually freed
in 1767 following his purchase by a Quaker merchant in Philadelphia. After a great deal
of traveling, he settled in London and spent the rest of his life advocating against the
international slave trade. His autobiographic recounting of his experiences were some
of the most powerful indictments against the brutality and inhumanity of the
international slave trade.
One day, when all our people were gone out to their works as usual, and only I and my
dear sister were left to mind the house, two men and a woman got over our walls, and in
a moment seized us both, and, without giving us time to cry out, or make resistance,
they stopped our mouths, and ran off with us into the nearest wood. Here they tied our
hands, and continued to carry us as far as they could, till night came on, when we
reached a small house, where the robbers halted for refreshment, and spent the night.
We were then unbound, but were unable to take any food; and, being quite overpowered
by fatigue and grief, our only relief was some sleep, which allayed our misfortune for a
short time. The next morning we left the house, and continued travelling all the day…
The first object which saluted my eyes when I arrived on the coast was the sea, and a
slave ship, which was then riding at anchor, and waiting for its cargo. These filled me
with astonishment, which was soon converted into terror when I was carried on board. I
was immediately handled and tossed up to see if I were sound by some of the crew; and I
was now persuaded that I had gotten into a world of bad spirits, and that they were
going to kill me. Their complexions too differing so much from ours, their long hair, and
the language they spoke, (which was very different from any I had ever heard) united to
confirm me in this belief. Indeed such were the horrors of my views and fears at the
moment, that, if ten thousand worlds had been my own, I would have freely parted with
them all to have exchanged my condition with that of the meanest slave in my own
country. When I looked round the ship too and saw a large furnace or copper boiling,
and a multitude of black people of every description chained together, every one of their
countenances expressing dejection and sorrow, I no longer doubted of my fate; and,
quite overpowered with horror and anguish, I fell motionless on the deck and fainted.
When I recovered a little I found some black people about me, who I believed were some
of those who brought me on board, and had been receiving their pay; they talked to me
in order to cheer me, but all in vain. I asked them if we were not to be eaten by those
white men with horrible looks, red faces, and loose hair. They told me I was not…
Soon after this the blacks who brought me on board went off, and left me abandoned to
despair. I now saw myself deprived of all chance of returning to my native country, or
even the least glimpse of hope of gaining the shore, which I now considered as friendly;
and I even wished for my former slavery in preference to my present situation, which
was filled with horrors of every kind, still heightened by my ignorance of what I was to
undergo. I was not long suffered to indulge my grief; I was soon put down under the
decks, and there I received such a salutation in my nostrils as I had never experienced in
my life: so that, with the loathsomeness of the stench, and crying together, I became so
sick and low that I was not able to eat, nor had I the least desire to taste any thing. I now
wished for the last friend, death, to relieve me; but soon, to my grief, two of the white
men offered me eatables; and, on my refusing to eat, one of them held me fast by the
hands, and laid me across I think the windlass, and tied my feet, while the other flogged
me severely. I had never experienced any thing of this kind before; and although, not
being used to the water, I naturally feared that element the first time I saw it, yet
nevertheless, could I have got over the nettings, I would have jumped over the side, but I
could not; and, besides, the crew used to watch us very closely who were not chained
down to the decks, lest we should leap into the water: and I have seen some of these poor
African prisoners most severely cut for attempting to do so, and hourly whipped for not
eating. This indeed was often the case with myself.
In a little time after, amongst the poor chained men, I found some of my own nation,
which in a small degree gave ease to my mind. I inquired of these what was to be done
with us; they gave me to understand we were to be carried to these white people’s
country to work for them. I then was a little revived, and thought, if it were no worse
than working, my situation was not so desperate: but still I feared I should be put to
death, the white people looked and acted, as I thought, in so savage a manner; for I had
never seen among any people such instances of brutal cruelty; and this not only shewn
towards us blacks, but also to some of the whites themselves. One white man in
particular I saw, when we were permitted to be on deck, flogged so unmercifully with a
large rope near the foremast, that he died in consequence of it; and they tossed him over
the side as they would have done a brute. This made me fear these people the more; and
I expected nothing less than to be treated in the same manner. I could not help
expressing my fears and apprehensions to some of my countrymen: I asked them if
these people had no country, but lived in this hollow place (the ship): they told me they
did not, but came from a distant one. ‘Then,’ said I, ‘how comes it in all our country we
never heard of them?’ They told me because they lived so very far off…
The stench of the hold while we were on the coast was so intolerably loathsome, that it
was dangerous to remain there for any time, and some of us had been permitted to stay
on the deck for the fresh air; but now that the whole ship’s cargo were confined together,
it became absolutely pestilential. The closeness of the place, and the heat of the climate,
added to the number in the ship, which was so crowded that each had scarcely room to
turn himself, almost suffocated us. This produced copious perspirations, so that the air
soon became unfit for respiration, from a variety of loathsome smells, and brought on a
sickness among the slaves, of which many died, thus falling victims to the improvident
avarice, as I may call it, of their purchasers. This wretched situation was again
aggravated by the galling of the chains, now become insupportable; and the filth of the
necessary tubs, into which the children often fell, and were almost suffocated. The
shrieks of the women, and the groans of the dying, rendered the whole a scene of horror
almost inconceivable. Happily perhaps for myself I was soon reduced so low here that it
was thought necessary to keep me almost always on deck; and from my extreme youth I
was not put in fetters. In this situation I expected every hour to share the fate of my
companions, some of whom were almost daily brought upon deck at the point of death,
which I began to hope would soon put an end to my miseries. Often did I think many of
the inhabitants of the deep much more happy than myself. I envied them the freedom
they enjoyed, and as often wished I could change my condition for theirs. Every
circumstance I met with served only to render my state more painful, and heighten my
apprehensions, and my opinion of the cruelty of the whites. One day they had taken a
number of fishes; and when they had killed and satisfied themselves with as many as
they thought fit, to our astonishment who were on the deck, rather than give any of
them to us to eat as we expected, they tossed the remaining fish into the sea again,
although we begged and prayed for some as well as we could, but in vain; and some of
my countrymen, being pressed by hunger, took an opportunity, when they thought no
one saw them, of trying to get a little privately; but they were discovered, and the
attempt procured them some very severe floggings…
The clouds appeared to me to be land, which disappeared as they passed along. This
heightened my wonder; and I was now more persuaded than ever that I was in another
world, and that every thing about me was magic. At last we came in sight of the island of
Barbadoes, at which the whites on board gave a great shout, and made many signs of joy
to us. We did not know what to think of this; but as the vessel drew nearer we plainly
saw the harbour, and other ships of different kinds and sizes; and we soon anchored
amongst them off Bridge Town. Many merchants and planters now came on board,
though it was in the evening. They put us in separate parcels, and examined us
attentively. They also made us jump, and pointed to the land, signifying we were to go
there. We thought by this we should be eaten by these ugly men, as they appeared to us;
and, when soon after we were all put down under the deck again, there was much dread
and trembling among us, and nothing but bitter cries to be heard all the night from
these apprehensions, insomuch that at last the white people got some old slaves from
the land to pacify us. They told us we were not to be eaten, but to work, and were soon to
go on land, where we should see many of our country people.
This report eased us much; and sure enough, soon after we were landed, there came to
us Africans of all languages. We were conducted immediately to the merchant’s yard,
where we were all pent up together like so many sheep in a fold, without regard to sex or
We were not many days in the merchant’s custody before we were sold after their usual
manner, which is this:—On a signal given,(as the beat of a drum) the buyers rush at
once into the yard where the slaves are confined, and make choice of that parcel they
like best. The noise and clamour with which this is attended, and the eagerness visible in
the countenances of the buyers, serve not a little to increase the apprehensions of the
terrified Africans, who may well be supposed to consider them as the ministers of that
destruction to which they think themselves devoted. In this manner, without scruple,
are relations and friends separated, most of them never to see each other again. I
remember in the vessel in which I was brought over, in the men’s apartment, there were
several brothers, who, in the sale, were sold in different lots; and it was very moving on
this occasion to see and hear their cries at parting. O, ye nominal Christians! might not
an African ask you, learned you this from your God, who says unto you, Do unto all men
as you would men should do unto you? Is it not enough that we are torn from our
country and friends to toil for your luxury and lust of gain? Must every tender feeling be
likewise sacrificed to your avarice? Are the dearest friends and relations, now rendered
more dear by their separation from their kindred, still to be parted from each other, and
thus prevented from cheering the gloom of slavery with the small comfort of being
together and mingling their sufferings and sorrows? Why are parents to lose their
children, brothers their sisters, or husbands their wives? Surely this is a new refinement
in cruelty, which, while it has no advantage to atone for it, thus aggravates distress, and
adds fresh horrors even to the wretchedness of slavery.
6. John Woolman, “Observations of Maryland and Virginia,” (1757).
Some of the earliest white anti-slavery advocates were the Quakers, who had
established communities predominately in the Mid-Atlantic colonies. Quakers were
the descendants of Protestant dissenters who were religiously and morally committed
to pacifism and anti-violence. Quaker ministers, merchants, and ordinary residents
frequently criticized racial slavery as sinful and a moral abomination. One such Quaker
critic was John Woolman, a New Jersey-based merchant and preacher who would
ultimately bring his Quaker anti-slavery advocacy to England. In the midst of the
French and Indian War (1754-1763), Woolman travelled extensively through the
Maryland and Virginia colonies, observing in detail the painful realities of slavery. His
experiences, some of which are detailed through his journal entries below, only further
confirmed his religious beliefs that slavery was a moral blight on English North
Soon after I entered [Maryland] a deep and painful exercise came upon me, which I
often had some feeling of, since my mind was drawn toward these parts, and with which
I had acquainted my brother before we agreed to join as companions. As the people in
this and the Southern Provinces live much on the labor of slaves, many of whom are
used hardly, my concern was that I might attend with singleness of heart to the voice of
the true Shepherd and be so supported as to remain unmoved at the faces of men…
In my travelling on the road, I often felt a cry rise from the centre of my mind, thus: “O
Lord, I am a stranger on the earth, hide not thy face from me.” On the 11th, we crossed
the rivers [Potomac ] and Rappahannock, and lodged at Port Royal. On the way we had
the company of a colonel of the militia, who appeared to be a thoughtful man. I took
occasion to remark on the difference in general betwixt a people used to labor
moderately for their living, training up their children in frugality and business, and
those who live on the labor of slaves; the former, in my view, being the most happy life.
He concurred in the remark, and mentioned the trouble arising from the untoward,
slothful disposition of the negroes, adding that one of our laborers would do as much in
a day as two of their slaves. I replied, that free men, whose minds were properly on their
business, found a satisfaction in improving, cultivating, and providing for their
families; but negroes, laboring to support others who claim them as their property, and
expecting nothing but slavery during life, had not the like inducement to be industrious.
After some further conversation I said, that men having power too often misapplied it;
that though we made slaves of the negroes, and the Turks made slaves of the Christians,
I believed that liberty was the natural right of all men equally. This he did not deny, but
said the lives of the negroes were so wretched in their own country that many of them
lived better here than there. I replied, “There is great odds in regard to us on what
principle we act”; and so the conversation on that subject ended. I may here add that
another person, some time afterwards, mentioned the wretchedness of the negroes,
occasioned by their intestine wars, as an argument in favor of our fetching them away
for slaves. To which I replied, if compassion for the Africans, on account of their
domestic troubles, was the real motive of our purchasing them, that spirit of tenderness
being attended to, would incite us to use them kindly that, as strangers brought out of
affliction, their lives might be happy among us. And as they are human creatures, whose
souls are as precious as ours, and who may receive the same help and comfort from the
Holy Scriptures as we do, we could not omit suitable endeavors to instruct them therein;
but that while we manifest by our conduct that our views in purchasing them are to
advance ourselves, and while our buying captives taken in war animates those parties to
push on the war, and increase desolation amongst them, to say they live unhappily in
Africa is far from being an argument in our favor. I further said, the present
circumstances of these provinces to me appear difficult; the slaves look like a
burdensome stone to such as burden themselves with them; and that if the white people
retain a resolution to prefer their outward prospects of gain to all other considerations,
and do not act conscientiously toward them as fellow-creatures, I believe that burden
will grow heavier and heavier, until times change in a way disagreeable to us. The
person appeared very serious, and owned that in considering their condition and the
manner of their treatment in these provinces he had sometimes thought it might be just
in the Almighty so to order it.
Having travelled through Maryland, we came amongst Friends at Cedar Creek in
Virginia, on the 12th; and the next day rode, in company with several of them, a day’s
journey to Camp Creek. As I was riding along in the morning, my mind was deeply
affected in a sense I had of the need of Divine aid to support me in the various
difficulties which attended me, and in uncommon distress of mind I cried in secret to
the Most High, “O Lord be merciful, I beseech thee, to thy poor afflicted creature!” After
some time, I felt inward relief, and, soon after, a Friend in company began to talk in
support of the slave-trade, and said the negroes were understood to be the offspring of
Cain, their blackness being the mark which God set upon him after he murdered Abel
his brother; that it was the design of Providence they should be slaves, as a condition
proper to the race of so wicked a man as Cain was. Then another spoke in support of
what had been said. To all which I replied in substance as follows: that Noah and his
family were all who survived the flood, according to Scripture; and as Noah was of Seth’s
race, the family of Cain was wholly destroyed. One of them said that after the flood Ham
went to the land of Nod and took a wife; that Nod was a land far distant, inhabited by
Cain’s race, and that the flood did not reach it; and as Ham was sentenced to be a
servant of servants to his brethren, these two families, being thus joined, were
undoubtedly fit only for slaves. I replied, the flood was a judgment upon the world for
their abominations, and it was granted that Cain’s stock was the most wicked, and
therefore unreasonable to suppose that they were spared. As to Ham’s going to the land
of Nod for a wife, no time being fixed, Nod might be inhabited by some of Noah’s family
before Ham married a second time; moreover the text saith “That all flesh died that
moved upon the earth.” (Gen. vii. 21.) I further reminded them how the prophets
repeatedly declare “that the son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, but every
one be answerable for his own sins.” I was troubled to perceive the darkness of their
imaginations, and in some pressure of spirit said, “The love of ease and gain are the
motives in general of keeping slaves, and men are wont to take hold of weak arguments
to support a cause which is unreasonable. I have no interest on either side, save only the
interest which I desire to have in the truth. I believe liberty is their right, and as I see
they are not only deprived of it, but treated in other respects with inhumanity in many
places, I believe He who is a refuge for the oppressed will, in his own time, plead their
cause, and happy will it be for such as walk in uprightness before him.” And thus our
conversation ended.
7. Edmund Burke, “Slavery and Freedom in the Southern Colonies,” (1775).
Edmund Burke was a British philosopher and member of Parliament. Like John Locke,
Burke was an integral contributor to the political philosophy of liberalism which came
to dominate the English Enlightenment. During the lead-up to the crisis that would
culminate in the American Revolution, Burke frequently counseled moderation and
reconciliation with English citizens in the American colonies—advice that often fell on
deaf ears in the Parliament. In one 1775 speech, excerpts of which are located below,
Burke offered his views on the character of colonial Americans, their obsessions with
liberty, and why such obsessions were particularly strong in the Southern colonies.
In this character of the [colonial] Americans a love of freedom is the predominating
feature, which marks and distinguishes the whole; and, as an ardent is always a jealous
affection, your Colonies become suspicious, restive, and untractable, whenever they see
the least attempt to wrest from them by force, or shuffle from them by chicane, what
they think the only advantage worth living for. This fierce spirit of liberty is stronger in
the English Colonies, probably, than in any other people of the earth, and this from a
variety of powerful causes, which, to understand the true temper of their minds, and the
direction which this spirit takes, it will not be amiss to lay open somewhat more largely.
First, the people of the Colonies are descendants of Englishmen. England, sir, is a nation
which still, I hope, respects, and formerly adored her freedom. The Colonists emigrated
from you when this part of your character was most predominant; and they took this
bias and direction the moment they parted from your hands. They are, therefore, not
only devoted to liberty, but to liberty according to English ideas and on English
principles. Abstract liberty, like other mere abstractions, is not to be found. Liberty
inheres in some sensible object; and every nation has formed to itself some favorite
point which, by way of eminence, becomes the criterion of their happiness. It happened,
you know, sir, that the great contests for freedom in this country were, from the earliest
times chiefly upon the question of taxing.
There is … a circumstance attending the [Southern] colonies, which, in my opinion …
makes the spirit of liberty still more high and haughty than in those to the northward. It
is, that in Virginia and the Carolinas they have a vast multitude of slaves. Where this is
the case in any part of the world, those who are free, are by far the most proud and
jealous of their freedom. Freedom is to them not only an enjoyment, but a kind of rank
and privilege. Not seeing there, that freedom, as in countries where it is a common
blessing, and as broad and general as the air, may be united with much abject toil, with
great misery, with all the exterior of servitude, liberty looks, amongst them, like
something that is more noble and liberal. I do not mean, Sir, to commend the superior
morality of this sentiment, which has at least as much pride as virtue in it; but I cannot
alter the nature of man. The fact is so; and these people of the Southern colonies are
much more strongly, and with a higher and more stubborn spirit, attached to liberty,
than those to the northward. Such were all the ancient commonwealths; such were our
Gothic ancestors; such in our days were the Poles; and such will be all masters of slaves,
who are not slaves themselves. In such a people, the haughtiness of domination
combines with the spirit of freedom, fortifies it, and renders it invincible….
The temper and character which prevail in our Colonies are, I am afraid, unalterable by
any human art. We can not, I fear, falsify the pedigree of this fierce people, and
persuade them that they are not sprung from a nation in whose veins the blood of
freedom circulates. The language in which they would hear you tell them this tale would
detect the imposition. Your speech would betray you. An Englishman is the unfittest
person on earth to argue another Englishman into slavery…
As long as you have the wisdom to keep the sovereign authority of this country as the
sanctuary of liberty, the sacred temple consecrated to our common faith; wherever the
chosen race and sons of England worship Freedom, they will turn their faces toward
you. The more they multiply, the more friends you will have. The more ardently they love
liberty, the more perfect will be their obedience. Slavery they can have anywhere. It is a
weed that grows in every soil. They may have it from Spain; they may have it from
Prussia; but, until you become lost to all feeling of your true interest and your natural
dignity, freedom they can have from none but you. This is the commodity of price, of
which you have the monopoly. This is the true Act of Navigation, which binds to you the
commerce of the Colonies, and through them secures to you the wealth of the world.
Deny them this participation of freedom, and you break that sole bond which originally
made, and must still preserve, the unity of the Empire. Do not entertain so weak an
imagination as that your registers and your bonds, your affidavits and your sufferances,
your cockets and your clearances, are what form the great securities of your commerce.
Do not dream that your letters of office, and your instructions, and your suspending
clauses, are the things that hold together the great contexture of this mysterious whole.
These things do not make your government. Dead instruments, passive tools as they are,
it is the spirit of the English communion that gives all their life and efficacy to them. It
is the spirit of the English Constitution, which, infused through the mighty mass,
pervades, feeds, unites, invigorates, vivifies every part of the empire, even down to the
minutest member.

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