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Nov.5, 2008

Vol. 109, No. 4

Books and arts

Decoding an early abolitionist

Thomas P. Slaughter *83 pens biography of tailor and preacher John Woolman

By Iris Blasi ’03
Published in the November5, 2008, issue

Thomas P. Slaughter *83 explores the source of abolitionist John Woolman’s convictions.
Courtesy Farrar, Straus, and Girouxe
Thomas P. Slaughter *83 explores the source of abolitionist John Woolman’s convictions.

Early in his career, history professor Thomas P. Slaughter *83 vowed to revise four lectures a year for each course he taught. So when lecturing on abolition for the third time in 1985, Slaughter began a hunt for fresh primary sources. In his research, Slaughter repeatedly encountered references to John Woolman, a New Jersey tailor and early abolitionist, but there was a dearth of in-depth material on the pacifist, as he wrote little and corresponded with few.

The chief surviving document was Woolman’s Journal, published in 1774. The autobiography explains the Quaker’s philosophical beliefs (largely via the revelation of dreams), but contains negligible information on his daily life, trifling details on the death of his 2-month-old son, and no mention of the names of any of his 13 siblings — very little to work with, as autobiographies go. “He’d say, ‘This dream was very instructive to me,’” Slaughter says, “but he wouldn’t say why.”

Still, Slaughter was intrigued by this simple tailor, so opposed to exploitative practices that he refused to wear dyed clothing because slaves did the dyeing, and, whenever possible, chose walking over horseback riding (he believed it an unfair burden to the animal). Slaughter, a history professor at the University of Rochester, marveled at Woolman’s uncompromising moral standards, but found the habitually terse man difficult to understand.

After publishing Exploring Lewis and Clark (2003), in which he examined the psychological underpinnings of the explorers, Slaughter, a Quaker himself, delved back into Journal to make sense of this quiet revolutionary. The result is The Beautiful Soul of John Woolman, Apostle of Abolition, published by Hill and Wang in September.

From the scant threads in Journal, Slaughter has provided a deeper understanding of Woolman by tracking thinkers who probably influenced him, from John Locke to Ben Franklin. Slaughter examines the source of Woolman’s convictions by employing a type of psychological excavation he learned at Princeton, where mentors such as Lawrence Stone and Natalie Davis were “interested in the workings of people’s heads,” says Slaughter.

Though intensely spiritual from a young age, Woolman lacked “a focused insight into what exactly God meant him to teach the world” when he first entered the ministry at age 23, Slaughter writes. Slaughter tracks Woolman’s realization of his life’s mission to the day his employer asked him to draft a bill of sale for a slave. Though Woolman stated that he thought slavery “inconsistent” with Christianity, he nevertheless wrote the bill and felt immense guilt afterward. Remorse over speaking out but not acting is what Slaughter believes led Woolman, in 1746, to pen “Some Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes,” an antislavery essay, and to travel widely for the rest of his life to preach his abolitionist message.

Despite his moral fortitude, Slaughter notes, Woolman had flaws: Lengthy travels meant abandoning his wife for long stretches, and he objected to smallpox vaccinations, believing the disease to be sent from God. Still, says Slaughter of his subject, “It’s rare to find such an uncompromising, radical, spiritually focused person trying to free himself from the conditions that make us all guilty. It takes a very particular personality.”

Iris Blasi ’03 is a writer and editor in New York City.

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