An Early Abolitionist

THE OVERLOOK

By Tom Clavin

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            “To live in ease and plenty by the toil of those whom violence and cruelty have put in our power, is neither consistent with Christianity nor common justice.”

Anthony Benezet

          This week contains April 14, and to many history buffs, that is the anniversary of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. However, I already tackled assassinations – albeit unsuccessful ones – in a recent column so I was hoping to find a different connection. I did, and it not only still has relevance to Lincoln, whose Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves in the U.S., but also the story involves a Frenchman other than the Marquis de Lafayette who had a profound impact on the emerging United States in the 1770s.

          It was on April 14, 1775, that Anthony Benezet founded America’s first antislavery society. The Philadelphia organization had the rather unwieldy title of the Society for the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage. It would help attract national then international support for the abolitionist cause.

          Our overlooked hero was born Antoine Benezet in Saint-QuentinFrance, in January 1713 to Jean-Étienne de Bénézet and his wife, Judith de la Méjanelle, who were Huguenots. These Protestant people had been persecuted and suffered violent attacks in France since the 1685 revocation of the Edict of Nantes, which had provided religious tolerance. For a while the Benezets received protection owing to their powerful connections but two years after Antoine’s birth his father's goods were seized. Like many others, the family left France rather than give up their religion. They moved first to Rotterdam, then briefly to Greenwich, England, before settling in London, where there was a sizeable Huguenot refugee community. In 1727, the Benezets joined the Religious Society of Friends, also known as Quakers.

Four years later the family was on the move again, this time migrating to the friendly environs of Pennsylvania, which had been founded by Quakers. In Philadelphia when he was 18 years old, Anthony Benezet joined John Woolman as one of the earliest American abolitionists, who also advocated war tax resistance. Benezet worked to persuade his Quaker brethren that slave-owning was not consistent with Christian doctrine. He believed that the ban on slavery in the British Isles should be extended to the North American and Caribbean colonies.

After several years as a failed merchant, in 1739, Benezet began teaching at a Germantown school, then a separate jurisdiction northwest of Philadelphia. Three years later, he moved to the Friends' English School of Philadelphia (now the William Penn Charter School). In 1750, he added night classes for black slaves to his schedule. Five years later, Benezet left the Friends' English School to set up his own school, the first public girls' school on the American continent. His students included daughters from prominent families, such as Deborah Norris and Sally Wister.

Benezet was a remarkable teacher. According to the Abolitionist Society, “In an age intolerant of disabilities [he] was compassionate enough to devise a special program for one deaf and dumb girl enrolled in the school.”

In 1770, the groundbreaking Benezet founded the Negro School at Philadelphia for black children. There was a growing free black community in Philadelphia, which would increase after the state abolished slavery (in 1780). Abolitionist sympathizers, such as Abigail Hopper Gibbons, continued to teach at Benezet's Negro School for many years.

According to Benezet himself, “I can with truth and sincerity declare that I have found amongst the negroes as great a variety of talents as amongst a number of whites; and I am bold to assert that the notion entertained by some that the blacks are inferior in their capacities is a vulgar prejudice, founded on the pride of ignorance of their lordly masters who have kept their slaves at such a distance as to be unable to form a right judgment of them.”

His views traveled well. He campaigned for the Quakers in London to denounce slavery and wrote and published, at his own expense, anti-slavery pamphlets. Increasingly, prominent men in England were influenced, including members of the royal family. Certainly the abolitionist movement in England, which resulted in the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833, felt the impact of Benezet’s writings and activities.

So it was, in April 1775, as an adjunct to his educational efforts in Philadelphia, Benezet founded the Society for the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage. It is reasonable to draw a direct line from it to the Emancipation Proclamation issued 88 years later.

Benezet died in Philadelphia on May 3, 1784. He left money to continue the school and his organization. The latter still might not have lasted very long but by his death Benezet had made valuable friends: Benjamin Franklin and Dr. Benjamin Rush reconstituted the parent organization as the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery.

According to his wishes, Benezet was buried in an unmarked grave. Over 400 black mourners attended the funeral as well as people of other religions and races.

Tom Clavin is the bestselling author/co-author of 18 books, including, most recently, “Tombstone: The Earp Brothers, Doc Holliday, and the Vendetta Ride From Hell.” The next collaboration with Bob Drury, “Blood and Treasure: Daniel Boone and the Fight for America’s First Frontier,” is being published this month by St. Martin’s Press. Please go to your local bookstore or to Amazon/bn.com to order a copy.