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Feb.13, 2008

Vol. 108, No. 8

Early abolitionist views

While Samuel Sewall was commendably early in his questioning of slavery (“Mining Family History,” Books and Arts, Dec. 12), Eve LaPlante ’80 is mistaken in crediting him with writing “... America’s first abolitionist argument.”

Francis (Franz) Daniel Pastorius and other members of Germantown (Pa.) Monthly Meeting issued a minute decrying the practice of slavery on Feb. 18, 1688, which was then sent on to Philadelphia Quarterly Meeting on April 4, 1688, thence to Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (then held in Burling-ton, N.J.) where it was deemed on July 5, 1688, “not to be so proper for this Meeting to give a Positive Judgment in the case ...”

George Keith, the surveyor-general who surveyed the line separating East Jersey from West Jersey in 1686, published the well-known tract An Exhortation & Caution to Friends concerning Buying or Keeping of Negroes. This was “given forth” by Philadelphia Monthly Meeting on Aug. 13, 1693.

These two pieces, predating Sewall by as much as a dozen years, followed English works such as Thomas Tryon’s 1684 The Planter’s Speech to His Neighbours and Country-Men of Pennsylvania, East and West Jersey that had a focus on the moral underpinnings of the colonies. Given the nascent state of printing and publication in the colonies in the 17th century, it should be acknowledged that American thinking of the era didn’t always originate in America.

That Sewall’s views on slavery were not the first such thoughts aired in the Americas in no way reduces the impressive scale and scope of his personal transformation.

Tad Lafountain '72
Princeton, N.J.

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