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Undoing Slavery

 | 
Michaël Roy
, 
Marie-Jeanne Rossignol
, 
Claire Parfait

The Abolition of the Atlantic Slave Trade and Its Afterlives in North American Abolitionist Print Culture

Marie-Jeanne Rossignol

Texte intégral

  • 1 On the periodization of American abolitionism, see the introduction to this volume.
  • 2 William Wells Brown, who had fled from slavery in 1834, became a paid agent of the Western New York (...)
  • 3 In 1852, Frederick Law Olmsted, a young New Englander with literary aspirations, was sent to the So (...)

1Until the 1990s, the historiography of American abolitionism tended to concentrate on what various historians have called its “second wave,” referring to the antebellum campaign for the immediate abolition of slavery led by William Lloyd Garrison and the most famous authors of slave narratives—Frederick Douglass, William Wells Brown, Sojourner Truth—among other male and female activists.1 This campaign focused on slavery as an institution specific to the United States which could no longer be tolerated from a moral, spiritual, and political point of view. Looking for ways to shock a reticent Northern public into condemning Southern slavery, Theodore Weld, Sarah Grimké and her sister Angelina Grimké compiled American Slavery as It Is, a compendium of eyewitness descriptions of slavery and clippings from Southern newspapers that came out in 1839. With the publication of a growing number of very effective fugitive slave narratives in the next two decades, US abolitionists were able to highlight slaves’ victimization at the hands of Southern slaveholders. Fugitive slaves also acted as antislavery “agents”—i.e. itinerant lecturers—traveling through the North to tell their stories and move audiences to tears with accounts of family separation, hairbreadth escapes and the forced sales of siblings and parents.2 The American South became an exotic place where aspiring Northern journalists could conduct investigations in search of stories depicting the horrors of slavery.3 By the 1830s, then, the abolitionist movement centered on the national context of the United States, even though it drew some of its inspiration and support from the abolition of slavery in British and French colonies (in 1833-1838 and 1848 respectively). Its rhetoric and images were grounded in the realities of Southern slavery rather than in a more global protest against international slavery and its attendant evils—such as the Atlantic slave trade and slavery in Africa and the world at large.

  • 4 C. L. Brown, Moral Capital: Foundations of British Abolitionism (2006).

2Such a focus on slavery as a typically national bane had not always prevailed in antislavery writings. In the second half of the eighteenth century, North American antislavery activists tended to target the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade as their particular goal—a goal they shared with their British counterparts from the 1760s to the 1810s. Indeed anti-slave trade rhetoric developed first in North America from the 1760s to the 1780s; then from the 1780s to 1807 it was successfully taken up by British activists.4 The Atlantic slave trade was finally abolished by Britain in 1807, and by the United States in 1808.

3In this essay I examine the role the anti-slave trade argument played in North American abolitionist print culture between the 1760s and the 1820s. First I frame the question of the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade within a global context, showing how the abolition process started in North America, then was embraced by Britain as a major national cause, and later also as a key diplomatic commitment, while the United States was moving rapidly to abolish the trade in the nineteenth century, though in a different context. Then I turn to an examination of the anti-slave trade argument as it developed into a major theme of antislavery thought in the late colonial period in North America (1760-1776), principally under the pen of Anthony Benezet. The transformative power of this argument, and a continuing debate on the international slave trade in the United States, made it possible for it to linger on in white antislavery print culture in the early national period (1776-1810). Finally, I focus on the specific role the anti-slave trade trope played in the writings of black abolitionists in the early decades of the nineteenth century, particularly in the wake of abolition, and I show why it dramatically declined as slavery started spreading west after 1815.

The global context: banning the slave trade in the Americas and Europe, 1774-1860

  • 5 For the proportion of Africans forcibly removed to North America, see P. E. Lovejoy, “The Abolition (...)
  • 6 D. Eltis and D. Richardson, Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, map 16, p. 29; map 18, p. 32; m (...)
  • 7 K. Morgan, “Proscription by Degrees: The Ending of the African Slave Trade to the United States,” i (...)

4The Atlantic slave trade was responsible for the transfer of 12.5 million captives from Africa to the Americas between 1492 to 1867. North America received but a trickle of the overall number (around 3.6 percent).5 Slave voyages were outfitted in British North America and the United States until 1807—50 percent of them in the ports of Rhode Island—but in terms of the number of slaves imported to the Americas, those voyages could not compete with voyages outfitted in Liverpool, London and Bristol, or from Brazil.6 While sometimes involved in the trade, elite colonists in British North America started resenting slave imports by the middle of the eighteenth century, with Quakers gradually moving to ban imports by members of their own community.7

5The colonists may have had a number of pragmatic arguments beyond moral and spiritual qualms to oppose further slave arrivals during the revolutionary period, such as fear of social unrest and insurrection, unfair competition for the white labor force or a growing local slave population. But they clearly rationalized their hostility to more imports as independence from tyrannical measures imposed by the British. Some colonies had previously tried to tax slave imports or even to prohibit them, but to no avail. In A Summary View of the Rights of British America, Thomas Jefferson explained that Britain had prevented colonists from abolishing the slave trade:

  • 8 T. Jefferson, ASummary View of the Rights of British America (1774), p. 17. A similar condemnation (...)

previous to the enfranchisement of the slaves we have, it is necessary to exclude all further importations from Africa; yet our repeated attempts to effect this by prohibitions, and by imposing duties which might amount to a prohibition, have been hitherto defeated by his majesty’s negative: Thus preferring the immediate advantages of a few African corsairs to the lasting interests of the American states, and to the rights of human nature, deeply wounded by this infamous practice.8

  • 9 K. Morgan, “Proscription by Degrees,” p. 7.

6Unsurprisingly, one of the first decisions of the First Continental Congress in 1774 was “a pledge […] not to import or purchase another slave from December 1 […]. This was followed by a ban on imported slaves suggested by the Second Continental Congress in 1776.”9

  • 10 Article I, Section 9 of the Constitution prohibited Congress from interfering with the importation (...)
  • 11 C. Rappleye, Sons of Providence, p. 248, p. 252-253, p. 294.
  • 12 G. B. Nash, Warner Mifflin: Unflinching Quaker Abolitionist (2017), p. 137.
  • 13 R. S. Newman, “Prelude to the Gag Rule: Southern Reactions to Antislavery Petitions in the First Fe (...)
  • 14 K. Morgan, “Proscription by Degrees,” p. 18-19.

7As the War of Independence ended in 1783, the newly independent states moved to pass embargoes on the importation of slaves, but the federal Constitution drafted in 1787 delayed the general abolition of the slave trade until 1808.10 In 1787, Rhode Island, which had been so heavily involved in slave voyages, prohibited its citizens from engaging in such expeditions. Similar laws were passed in Massachusetts and Connecticut in 1788. These local bans, however, did not deter individuals from outfitting ships for Africa under false pretenses.11 Antislavery activists tried to put pressure on the new federal Congress to have the Atlantic slave trade banned immediately: in November 1788, Warner Mifflin and several of his fellow Quaker abolitionists traveled to New York City to “inveigh against slavery and the resumption of the slave trade.”12 But they faced strong opposition from South Carolina and Georgia, which both resumed importations.13 Abolitionists only obtained an act—passed in 1794 and later reinforced—prohibiting American citizens from taking part in the foreign Atlantic slave trade.14

  • 15 See P. Finkelman, “The Abolition of the Slave Trade: US Constitution and Acts,” accessed March 15, (...)
  • 16 K. Morgan, “Proscription by Degrees,” p. 2. On the resurgence of slavery in the United States, see (...)
  • 17 K. Morgan, “Proscription by Degrees,” p. 24; W. E. B. Du Bois, The Suppression of the African Slave (...)
  • 18 R. T. Takaki, A Pro-Slavery Crusade: The Agitation to Reopen the African Slave Trade (1971).

8Although the Constitution did not commit the United States to a total ban in 1808, merely prohibiting Congress from interfering with slave importations until then, president Thomas Jefferson—a slaveholder himself—kept rooting for abolition. Congress eventually prohibited the slave trade in March 1807 by a very wide margin. US reliance on the Atlantic slave trade effectively ended on January 1, 1808.15 That the decision was on the whole non-controversial and uneventful reflected the growing rift in the United States between the issue of the international slave trade (on the wane) and that of domestic slavery (on the rise). Indeed the internal slave trade and domestic slavery in general boomed in the South after 1800.16 Still, in the decades following the ban, slaves kept being imported illegally from Africa. Writing in The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade that “the Act of 1807 came very near being a dead letter,” W. E. BDu Bois qualifies that judgment later in his book, explaining that illegal slave trading declined dramatically after 1825 due to the massive internal slave trade then going on within US borders. Illegal importations of African slaves resumed only in the 1850s, but in a decidedly hostile international context since even Brazil had finally stopped its participation in the trade in 1850.17 This did not prevent some Southern planter politicians to ask for the reopening of the Atlantic slave trade.18

  • 19 A. Hochschild, Bury the Chains: The British Struggle to Abolish Slavery (2005).
  • 20 M. Dorigny and B. Gainot, Atlas des esclavages. De l’Antiquité à nos jours (2017), p. 25.

9By contrast with the low-key, gradual approach to the abolition of the slave trade in the United States—which Kenneth Morgan has referred to as “proscription by degrees”—, a major, and very visible, anti-slave trade campaign was launched in Britain in the immediate aftermath of the War of Independence.19 As I have suggested earlier, the circumstances were quite different. Though American sailors and ship-owners were involved in the Atlantic slave trade to some extent, Britain was then the second largest international carrier of slaves, next to Portugal and its colony Brazil.20 That the British Parliament could vote to ban the trade in 1807 was thus a crucial decision of international proportions, durably overshadowing the 1808 American ban.

  • 21 C. L. Brown, “Abolition of the Atlantic Slave Trade,” in The Routledge History of Slavery, ed. G. H (...)
  • 22 M. Cottias and M.-J. Rossignol, introduction to Distant Ripples of the British Abolitionist Wave: A (...)

10What could not be imagined in 1807, however, was the dominant position the British would enjoy diplomatically at the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815. Thanks to their new position as world leaders, they managed to urge upon their allies a general commitment toward the abolition of the slave trade at the end of the 1814-1815 Congress of Vienna. British diplomats negotiated with the Netherlands (1814), France (1818), Spain (1820), Portugal and Brazil (1830), to have them ban the trade. Apart from the United States, only Denmark (1803) and the newly independent South American republics put an end to their participation in the Atlantic slave trade of their own accord.21 To ensure that the treaties negotiated with other nations were respected, the British established a naval cruise patrolling the coast of Africa in search of illegal slave ships. Tribunals (courts of mixed commissions) were established all around the Atlantic rim to condemn seized slavers, and a British colony—Sierra Leone—was established to settle recaptured slaves. The British commitment to the international abolition of slavery lasted for the whole of the nineteenth century and beyond.22

  • 23 W. E. B. Du Bois, Suppression of the African Slave-Trade, p. 134-150.
  • 24 M.-J. Rossignol, “L’Atlantique de l’esclavage, 1775-1860: race et droit international aux États-Uni (...)
  • 25 D. E. Fehrenbacher, The Slaveholding Republic: An Account of the United States Government’s Relatio (...)

11By contrast, commitment to the abolition of the international slave trade on the part of the United States after 1807 was timid and even reticent. Starting in 1819, the United States also established a naval cruise to repress illegal slavers but it never matched British efforts and British-American clashes on the “right of search” claimed by the British on American slavers kept riling diplomatic relationships between the two countries.23 US attempts to repress the international slave trade carried on by its own citizens were limited to say the least, given the anti-British, and often proslavery, attitude of the federal government between 1815 and 1860, as illustrated during the Amistad affair between 1839 and 1841.24 Don Fehrenbacher has aptly summarized Du Bois’s views on the American government’s attitude when writing that “the history of the federal government’s relation to the African slave trade begins with impressive legislation but is primarily a study of faulty enforcement” in the nineteenth century.25 Likewise, the United States stalled in its efforts to abolish domestic slavery after the passage of a gradual emancipation law in New Jersey in 1804, while Britain went on to abolish slavery in its colonies in the 1830s.

  • 26 D. Waldstreicher, In the Midst of Perpetual Fetes: The Making of American Nationalism, 1776-1820 (1 (...)
  • 27 For an attempt to connect Benezet and the “antislavery vanguard,” see R. S. Newman, “From Benezet t (...)

12Contrasting with official US indifference to the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade, the Northern black community celebrated the abolition of the slave trade by the United States on January 1 from 1808 to the 1820s through parades and sermons based on Fourth of July orations.26 A major trope in white antislavery culture in colonial North America, the theme of the Atlantic slave trade was appropriated by African American abolitionists, who gave it a very specific twist, and kept it alive long after 1808. It reverberated in sermons, pamphlets, poems and fiction published in the early nineteenth century. Connections between the colonial anti-slave trade argument developed by Anthony Benezet and early black abolitionism are rarely underlined.27 In the remainder of this essay, I explore what made them possible.

Benezet and the anti-slave trade argument in North America: the late colonial period

  • 28 I. Berlin, Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America (1998), p. 264.

13The fact that the United States was the first nation to ban the slave trade in the western world in 1774 has been underplayed in the historiography of abolition, with probable good reason. Indeed, it may be argued that British North American colonists had less need for slaves when they started banning the trade at the time of the American Revolution than before. In Virginia and Maryland, planters realized that tobacco depleted soils. Many of them turned to less labor-hungry crops such as wheat and corn, and considered they had enough slaves as it was.28 So their anti-slave trade commitment may have been less genuine than the enthusiasm which seized the British in the 1780s and led to the 1807 ban, in a context of highly profitable trade in slaves with Africa by British merchants.

  • 29 C. L. Brown, Moral Capital; M. Jackson, Let This Voice Be Heard: Anthony Benezet, Father of Atlanti (...)
  • 30 For a presentation of Benezet’s arguments and the literature on Benezet, see M.-J. Rossignol and B. (...)

14Yet historians have noted that the intellectual inspiration for the British campaign against the Atlantic slave trade between 1787 and 1807 came from North America. Much recent attention has been devoted to the work of Anthony Benezet, a Philadelphia Quaker whose pamphlets were sent in large quantities to Britain in the period before the War of Independence and contributed to the shaping of anti-slave trade opinion in the British Isles (see the frontispiece to this volume).29 Benezet occupied a paradoxical position: while busy advocating and implementing the local emancipation of slaves held in bondage by his fellow Pennsylvania Quakers, he was writing anti-slave trade pamphlets targeting Britain’s role in the trade rather than his fellow colonists. Unlike Thomas Clarkson, a British abolitionist who interviewed sailors involved in the trade and focused on its workings in English ports, Benezet denounced the slave trade in a highly intellectual fashion: he used his knowledge of the vast collections of travel literature available in the eighteenth century to present a positive view of Africa in his writings. Africa was a wealthy and civilized continent, he argued on the basis of indisputable sources such as the writings of agents of European slave trading companies or slave ship surgeons; there was no spiritual, moral or economic justification for dragging “innocent” Africans away from their homes and families and making them toil and suffer in the Americas. Downplaying the domestic African slave trade, Benezet indicted Europeans as the prime agents of the trade. His rhetorical strategy relied on reversing the usually negative image North Americans entertained about Africa. It was extremely influential beyond the borders of colonial North America. In Britain, John Wesley, Ottobah Cugoano, and Thomas Clarkson himself, were all inspired by his generous argument.30

  • 31 M. Jones, “Meaning, Memory, and the Banning of the Slave Trade,” in M. Cottias and M.-J. Rossignol, (...)

15The originality and sophistication of Benezet’s argument may explain why the slave trade remained a major trope of early abolitionist literature in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, a period when the United States was pulling out of the international slave trade, and could in fact rely on its domestic slave population to provide the labor force necessary for reaping cotton in the new states of the South West and deep South. According to Martha Jones, activists shared a form of “naïve optimism” in the way they focused on the Atlantic slave trade in their literature: denouncing the international slave trade amounted to silencing the question of the perpetuation of slavery in the South, and even in the North since gradual emancipation only freed slaves born after the passing of emancipation legislation.31 But it can also be argued that for antislavery activists, making sure that the international slave trade was banned by the United States remained an important struggle until 1808. The anti-slave trade trope first initiated by Benezet thus remained a staple of early antislavery print culture, even though it gradually lost its political power, especially in white abolitionist writings.

A persistent theme in early white and black antislavery literature: the “founding” period, 1776-1808

  • 32 Patrick Henry to John Alsop, January 13, 1773, in J. G. Basker, American Antislavery Writings, p. 5 (...)
  • 33 Thomas Paine to the Pennsylvania Journal, March 8, 1775, in ibid., p. 61.
  • 34 Ibid., p. 111. Theodore Dwight was a lawyer and writer with close connections to Federalist aboliti (...)
  • 35 Ibid., p. 116.

16One finds explicit references to the circulation of Benezet’s pamphlets in correspondence between American revolutionary leaders. On January 13, 1773, Patrick Henry, one of the main orators of the American Revolution, acknowledged “receipt of Anthony Benezet’s book against the slave trade,” probably Some Historical Account of Guinea, published two years earlier (fig. 1).32 Echoes of Benezet’s rhetorical strategy—praising Africa on the basis of travel literature—are to be found in an anonymous 1775 essay attributed to the English-born American revolutionary Thomas Paine: “The Managers of that Trade themselves, and others, testify, that many of these African nations inhabit fertile countries, are industrious farmers, enjoy plenty, & lived quietly, averse to war, before the Europeans [came].”33 Also reminiscent of Benezet are respectful presentations of Africans’ feelings and capacities. Connecticut “wit” Theodore Dwight tried to evoke “The distress which the inhabitants of Guinea experience at the loss of their children” in a poem published anonymously in 1788.34 In a similar vein, Susanna Rowson, an author of sentimental novels, wrote in her collection of tales The Inquisitor (1788) that “The negro on the burning sands of Africa was born as free as him who draws his first breath in Britain.”35

17Olaudah Equiano’s recollections of his early years in Africa, published in London in 1789, also bear the imprint of Benezet’s romantic view of Africans as “innocents” and Africa as akin to paradise. In addition, Equiano borrows Benezet’s geographic approach of Africa and the slave trade in his presentation of the slave trade:

  • 36 O. Equiano, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the Africa (...)

That part of Africa, known by the name of Guinea, to which the trade for slaves is carried on, extends along the coast above 3400 miles, from the Senegal to Angola, and includes a variety of kingdoms. Of these the most considerable is the kingdom of Benin, both as to extent and wealth, the richness and cultivation of the soil, the power of its king, and the number and warlike disposition of the inhabitants. It is situated nearly under the line, and extends along the coast about 170 miles, but runs back into the interior part of Africa […]. This kingdom is divided into many provinces or districts: in one of the most remote and fertile of which, called Eboe, I was born, in the year 1745, in a charming fruitful vale, named Essaka.36

Figure 1. Anthony Benezet, Some Historical Account of Guinea (1771), title page. Library Company of Philadelphia.

Figure 1. Anthony Benezet, Some Historical Account of Guinea (1771), title page. Library Company of Philadelphia.
  • 37 J. G. Basker, American Antislavery Writings, p. 134-135. The son of famous Congregationalist minist (...)

18The arguments and descriptions of Benezet—as well as those of Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Clarkson—also permeate Jonathan Edwards’s 1791 sermon on “The Injustice and Impolicy of the Slave Trade, and of the Slavery of the Africans.” Africa is described as “spontaneously yielding the necessaries and conveniences of savage life.” Like Benezet, Edwards, a militant abolitionist, insists on the European responsibility for the slave trade carried on the coasts of Africa and for the resulting wars: “Nor ought we on this occasion to overlook the wars among the nations of Africa excited by the trade, or the destruction attendant on those wars.”37

19By the mid-1790s, references to the slave trade in antislavery literature were still to be found as white antislavery activists were trying to bring forward the date of the federal ban on the international slave trade. The romantic and idealized geography of Africa as portrayed by Benezet in Some Historical Account of Guinea (and in previous pamphlets) influenced younger antislavery authors such as the anonymous author of “The Wretched Taillah: An African Story” in 1792:

  • 38 Ibid., p. 145.

Taillah was the only daughter of Tantee, prince of the fertile plains stretched along the south side of the river Gambia […]. To defend his subjects was Fidlao’s only desire. He never could think of vending any of Tantee’s subjects to the Americans, whom he ever considered as the prime cause of their desolating wars, and as the scourges of the God of his ancestors on his species.38

  • 39 Ibid., p. 184. See also Isabella Oliver Sharp’s “On Slavery,” published the same year, in ibid., p. (...)

20Antislavery fiction and prose harped on the figure of the betrayed “Sons of Afric,” with the slave trade represented as a major crime committed by Europeans on unsuspecting Africans. In “The Penitential Tyrant; or, Slave Trader Reformed,” an influential poem published in 1805, Thomas Branagan writes: “Methought I saw once more their natal shore, / All stain’d with carnage, red with human gore; / Shrouded in blood they now appear’d to stand, / And pointed to their agonizing land.”39

  • 40 S. White, Somewhat More Independent, p. 62.
  • 41 D. Coker, A Dialogue between a Virginian and an African Minister (1810), p. 9-10.

21As time went by, it seems that Benezet’s militant positive vision of Africa gave way in white antislavery literature to a stereotypical sentimental mode of expression which portrayed Africans as distant victims and left little room for black agency.40 The anti-slave trade trope pioneered by Benezet could not be retrieved in its original vibrancy by its early nineteenth century white users. Yet this trope was to undergo a surprising and paradoxical revival in black antislavery circles after 1808. When black minister Daniel Coker published ADialogue between a Virginian and an African Minister in 1810, the anti-slave trade trope was becoming a mainstay of black print culture, and was being infused with new meaning. The words of Coker still echoed those of Benezet: “The main body are innocent, unsuspecting creatures, free, living in peace, doing nothing to forfeit the common privileges of men […]. It is true they are commonly taken prisoners by Africans; but it is the encouragement given by Europeans that tempts them to carry on the unprovoked wars.”41 They also heralded a new black militancy in which references to Africa played an important, though complex, role.

The 1808 slave trade ban, black abolitionist literature, and an “African” identity

  • 42 African Americans in Boston adopted July 14, not January 1, as the date for a parade to celebrate t (...)
  • 43 J. G. Basker, American Antislavery Writings, p. 199-200.
  • 44 Ibid., p. 203-204.

22As discussed above, the federal ban on the international slave trade taking effect on January 1, 1808 led to regular commemorations in the African American community in the following decade. Usually kept away from civic celebrations, African Americans seized on January 1 as a date for collective rejoicing; festivals and parades usually took place on that date.42 Religious hymns were also composed for the occasion. Peter Williams Jr., a black Episcopalian minister in New York, wrote the following stanza in a hymn dedicated to the abolition of the slave trade: “Thou dids’t the trade o’verthrow, / The source of boundless woe, / The world’s disgrace, / Which ravag’d Afric’s coast, / Enslaved its greatest boast, / A happy num’rous host, / A harmless race.”43 In 1810, William Hamilton, another New York black activist, echoed Peter Williams in his own hymn: “No more shall foul oppression’s arm, / From your once peaceful shore, / Drag your defenceless, harmless sons / To slavery no more. / God is our king, let all rejoice, / The Slave Trade is no more; / God is our king, let Afric’s sons / His matchless name adore.”44

23More importantly, the abolition of the slave trade led to the publication of many orations by black ministers, usually leaders of their communities. In his famous “Thanksgiving Sermon,” which opens with a quotation from the Book of Exodus, black Episcopalian minister Absalom Jones compared the ending of the slave trade with the liberation of the Jews from Egypt by Moses. Like Benezet, he portrayed the slave trade as a sinful European enterprise inhumanly destroying innocent families and nations:

  • 45 A. Jones, A Thanksgiving Sermon, Preached January 1, 1808 […] on Account of the Abolition of the Sl (...)

He [God] has seen the wicked arts, by which wars have been fomented among the different tribes of the Africans, in order to procure captives, for the purpose of selling them for slaves. He has seen ships fitted out from different ports in Europe and America, and freighted with trinkets to be exchanged for the bodies and souls of men. He has seen the anguish which has taken place, when parents have been torn from children […].45

  • 46 J. Sidbury, Becoming African in America: Race and Nation in the Early Black Atlantic (2007).
  • 47 R. Newman, P. Rael, and P. Lapsansky, eds., Pamphlets of Protest: An Anthology of Early African-Ame (...)

24But the reference to Africa in those orations went beyond the romantic or sentimental idealization of an “innocent” continent: it hinted at a new “African” identity in America for the ex-slaves which the anti-slave trade trope made possible.46 As Richard Newman, Patrick Rael and Phillip Lapsansky point out, “The several January 1st Day sermons, ranging from 1808 through the 1820s, are an important genre of early African-American writing in which orators—largely clergymen—hail the end of the overseas slave trade, consider their own role in American society, and ponder the meaning of Africa in their American lives.”47 The positive rhetoric pioneered by Benezet in the 1760s and 1770s, and kept alive in later decades by abolitionists attacking the slave trade clause in the Constitution, allowed the first generation of free African Americans in the United States to speak proudly of themselves as “Africans.”

  • 48 D. Waldstreicher, In the Midst of Perpetual Fetes, p. 338, p. 343. In Appeal to the Colored Citizen (...)
  • 49 G. R. Hodges, Root and Branch: African Americans in New York and East Jersey, 1613-1863 (1999), p.  (...)
  • 50 J. Sidbury, Becoming African in America, p. 158.

25In his In the Midst of Perpetual Fetes, David Waldstreicher analyzes this rallying of African Americans around the prohibition of the slave trade as a sign of early “black nationalism” in an age of vibrant American nationalism after the American Revolution and the War of 1812. He argues that the white nationalist culture focused on July 4 which black Americans imitated through their own celebrations and publications on the abolition of the slave trade “was the inspiration of an African American nationalist cultural politics decades before David Walker or Martin Delany.”48 African Americans proudly appropriated this generic “African” identity as they were forming societies, churches and schools—the “African School” and the “African Church” in New York City for instance—and knew white antislavery activists would respect them as the victims and the descendants of victims of the trade. As “racial lines hardened” in the early decades of the nineteenth century, African Americans could also take “solace in reconstructing their history” through the remembrance of the slave trade.49 With the growing Americanization of the free black Northern community in the decades following the American Revolution, the reference to “Africa” was undoubtedly ambivalent, as James Sidbury has analyzed in Becoming African in America. Though Africa was mainly painted as an “earthly Eden,” it could also be portrayed by African Americans as “a dark and pagan continent in need of salvation.”50 Yet what made the black community eventually turn away from assertions of African nationality was unrelated with the African creed proudly developed since the American Revolution.

  • 51 Ibid., p. 168. A black ship-owner from Massachusetts, Paul Cuffe became fascinated with the attempt (...)
  • 52 J. Sidbury, Becoming African in America, p. 200.

26Indeed by the 1820s African Americans stopped referring to themselves as “Africans,” as Sidbury explains, and the slave trade no longer appeared as a major event in their collective history. Though Paul Cuffe’s emigrationist plan to start a colony in Sierra Leone had been well-received in African American circles in the early 1810s, the creation of the American Colonization Society (ACS) in 1816—a society run by white men and designed to return free African Americans to their supposed homeland—stirred the anger of most free blacks.51 Though they had proudly referred to themselves as Africans until then, Northern free blacks considered themselves primarily US citizens, and thus they moved to other appellations such as “colored” in the 1820s, as the title of David Walker’s own nationalist Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World testifies. While they themselves were free, Northern blacks felt bound to their brothers and sisters who were enslaved in the South. They rightly interpreted the creation of the ACS as an attempt to reinforce slavery by eliminating free blacks from the United States.52

  • 53 Ibid., p. 204.
  • 54 S. Deyle, “An Ambiguous Legacy: The Closing of the African Slave Trade and America’s Own Middle Pas (...)

27Of course, “engagement with Africa” did not stop after the 1820s.53 A number of prominent black abolitionist leaders, primarily Martin Delany, further conceptualized the relationship African Americans had with Africa in later years. Still, the anti-slave trade rhetoric became obsolete by the 1820s, because it could no longer be used effectively: as the Atlantic slave trade was being gradually eradicated, black abolitionists became painfully aware that a busy internal slave trade was developing from the upper South to the West, and that slavery in the United States, far from moribund, was expanding rapidly thanks to Indian land dispossessions in the Old Southwest.54 The anti-slave trade rhetoric of the first wave of activists thus enjoyed a lasting success in American abolitionist discourse, well beyond the official date of abolition in 1808, and long after the death of its initiator, Anthony Benezet. By the 1820s, however, both black and white abolitionists came to the realization that the domestic situation was becoming critical and deserved a new type of commitment.

Notes

1 On the periodization of American abolitionism, see the introduction to this volume.

2 William Wells Brown, who had fled from slavery in 1834, became a paid agent of the Western New York Anti-Slavery Society in 1843. For the next twenty years he worked as a lecturer for this society and others. E. Greenspan, William Wells Brown: An African American Life (2014), p. 124-125.

3 In 1852, Frederick Law Olmsted, a young New Englander with literary aspirations, was sent to the South to report on the slave states for the New York Daily Times. “Although he strove mightily to present both sides of the slavery question in his Times reports,” Witold Rybczynski notes, “by the end of his trip [two years later], his moderate views had hardened considerably.” His reports were later published in book form under the title A Journey in the Seaboard Slave States (1856). W. Rybczynski, A Clearing in the Distance: Frederick Law Olmsted and America in the Nineteenth Century (1999), p. 121.

4 C. L. Brown, Moral Capital: Foundations of British Abolitionism (2006).

5 For the proportion of Africans forcibly removed to North America, see P. E. Lovejoy, “The Abolition of the Slave Trade: USSlave Trade,” accessed March 15, 2018, http://abolition.nypl.org/essays/us_slave_trade/. For a comparison with the much larger inflow of slaves transported to the Caribbean, see D. Eltis and D. Richardson, Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade (2010), maps 135 and 136, p. 196.

6 D. Eltis and D. Richardson, Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, map 16, p. 29; map 18, p. 32; map 20, p. 34; map 42, p. 71. The role of Rhode Island in the Atlantic slave trade came to prominence with the publication of C. Rappleye, Sons of Providence: The Brown Brothers, the Slave Trade, and the American Revolution (2006) which documented the role of the Brown family, founders of Brown University, in the Atlantic slave trade. This coincided with the release of a report by Brown University on what it should do to come to terms with its slave trade legacy. The report can be found online.

7 K. Morgan, “Proscription by Degrees: The Ending of the African Slave Trade to the United States,” in Ambiguous Anniversary: The Bicentennial of the International Slave Trade Bans, ed. D. T. Gleeson and S. Lewis (2012).

8 T. Jefferson, ASummary View of the Rights of British America (1774), p. 17. A similar condemnation of the Atlantic slave trade can be found in the initial draft of the Declaration of Independence.

9 K. Morgan, “Proscription by Degrees,” p. 7.

10 Article I, Section 9 of the Constitution prohibited Congress from interfering with the importation of slaves until 1808. On the debates leading to the inclusion of this section, see M.-J. Rossignol, “Mai-septembre 1787: derrière les murs d’Independence Hall à Philadelphie, un débat national sur l’esclavage et la traite” (2009). The pseudonymous Othello in his 1788 “Essay on Negro Slavery, No. 1” provides an example of opposition to Article 1, Section 9: “The importation of slaves into America,” he writes, “ought to be a subject of the deepest regret, to every benevolent and thinking mind—And one of the greatest defects in the federal system, is the liberty it allows on this head.” J. G. Basker, ed., American Antislavery Writings: Colonial Beginnings to Emancipation (2012), p. 106. On the Constitution as a proslavery document, see D. Waldstreicher, Slavery’s Constitution: From Revolution to Ratification (2009).

11 C. Rappleye, Sons of Providence, p. 248, p. 252-253, p. 294.

12 G. B. Nash, Warner Mifflin: Unflinching Quaker Abolitionist (2017), p. 137.

13 R. S. Newman, “Prelude to the Gag Rule: Southern Reactions to Antislavery Petitions in the First Federal Congress” (1996); M. E. Mason, “Slavery Overshadowed: Congress Debates Prohibiting the Atlantic Slave Trade to the United States, 1806-1807” (2000), p. 62.

14 K. Morgan, “Proscription by Degrees,” p. 18-19.

15 See P. Finkelman, “The Abolition of the Slave Trade: US Constitution and Acts,” accessed March 15, 2018, http://abolition.nypl.org/essays/us_constitution/.

16 K. Morgan, “Proscription by Degrees,” p. 2. On the resurgence of slavery in the United States, see R. Blackburn, The American Crucible: Slavery, Emancipation and Human Rights (2011), chap. 11. On the internal slave trade, see I. Berlin, The Making of African America: The Four Great Migrations (2010), chap. 3.

17 K. Morgan, “Proscription by Degrees,” p. 24; W. E. B. Du Bois, The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade to the United States of America, 1638-1870 (1896), p. 109, p. 123-130.

18 R. T. Takaki, A Pro-Slavery Crusade: The Agitation to Reopen the African Slave Trade (1971).

19 A. Hochschild, Bury the Chains: The British Struggle to Abolish Slavery (2005).

20 M. Dorigny and B. Gainot, Atlas des esclavages. De l’Antiquité à nos jours (2017), p. 25.

21 C. L. Brown, “Abolition of the Atlantic Slave Trade,” in The Routledge History of Slavery, ed. G. Heuman and T. Burnard (2011), p. 287-288.

22 M. Cottias and M.-J. Rossignol, introduction to Distant Ripples of the British Abolitionist Wave: Africa, Asia and the Americas, ed. M. Cottias and M.-J. Rossignol (2017).

23 W. E. B. Du Bois, Suppression of the African Slave-Trade, p. 134-150.

24 M.-J. Rossignol, “L’Atlantique de l’esclavage, 1775-1860: race et droit international aux États-Unis, en Grande-Bretagne et en France” (2002); H. Jones, Mutiny on the Amistad (1987). Rahma Jerad has studied conflicts between British and US consuls in Cuba in the context of the international slave trade in “Deux agents britanniques en croisade à Cuba mettent les États-Unis en émoi, 1836-1844” (2002).

25 D. E. Fehrenbacher, The Slaveholding Republic: An Account of the United States Government’s Relations to Slavery (2001), p. 137. Ernest Obadele-Starks believes 192,500 foreign slaves were introduced into the United States between 1808 and 1863, primarily by smugglers who operated on the frontier in Louisiana and Texas. E. Obadele-Starks, Freebooters and Smugglers: The Foreign Slave Trade in the United States after 1808 (2007), p. 9.

26 D. Waldstreicher, In the Midst of Perpetual Fetes: The Making of American Nationalism, 1776-1820 (1997), p. 329-330.

27 For an attempt to connect Benezet and the “antislavery vanguard,” see R. S. Newman, “From Benezet to Black Founders: Toward a New History of Eighteenth-Century Atlantic Emancipation,” in The Atlantic World of Anthony Benezet (1713-1784): From French Reformation to North American Quaker Antislavery Activism, ed. M.-J. Rossignol and B. Van Ruymbeke (2016).

28 I. Berlin, Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America (1998), p. 264.

29 C. L. Brown, Moral Capital; M. Jackson, Let This Voice Be Heard: Anthony Benezet, Father of Atlantic Abolitionism (2009); M.-J. Rossignol and B. Van Ruymbeke, Atlantic World of Anthony Benezet. On the circulation and publication history of Benezet’s pamphlets, see D. Crosby, ed., The Complete Antislavery Writings of Anthony Benezet, 1754-1783 (2013).

30 For a presentation of Benezet’s arguments and the literature on Benezet, see M.-J. Rossignol and B. Van Ruymbeke, preface to A. Benezet, Une histoire de la Guinée, trans. and ed. M.-J. Rossignol and B. Van Ruymbeke (2017).

31 M. Jones, “Meaning, Memory, and the Banning of the Slave Trade,” in M. Cottias and M.-J. Rossignol, Distant Ripples of the British Abolitionist Wave, p. 360. Studying white antislavery literature in the United States in the 1780s and 1790s, Shane White writes: “Perhaps the most striking characteristic of the antislavery material in the magazines was the emphasis on the slave trade and Africa, and to a lesser extent, slavery in the West Indies, rather than on slavery in America. In part that emphasis mirrored the structure of the magazines. A large proportion of the items in them were of British and French origin and naturally focused on the concerns of those nations. But the concentration on the slave trade reflected the interests of the American movement too, with its strong international links and a domestic situation that made an attack on the institution of slavery itself immensely difficult. Although a few pieces in the magazines directly assailed the South, the general treatment of slavery echoed the reticence of Congress.” S. White, Somewhat More Independent: The End of Slavery in New York City, 1770-1810 (1991), p. 59-60.

32 Patrick Henry to John Alsop, January 13, 1773, in J. G. Basker, American Antislavery Writings, p. 52.

33 Thomas Paine to the Pennsylvania Journal, March 8, 1775, in ibid., p. 61.

34 Ibid., p. 111. Theodore Dwight was a lawyer and writer with close connections to Federalist abolitionist circles in New England.

35 Ibid., p. 116.

36 O. Equiano, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African (1789), p. 4-5. Literary scholar Vincent Carretta sparked a controversy when he suggested Equiano was born in America, not Africa. Certainly the Benezet-style description of his place of birth would tend to confirm such a view. Yet it has been countered by Paul E. Lovejoy, a leading historian of Africa. My own position is that Equiano would easily have been exposed as a fraud in London where so many people—abolitionists and antiabolitionists alike—had dealings with Africa in the 1780s or were Africans themselves like Equiano’s fellow black abolitionist Ottobah Cugoano. V. Carretta, Equiano, the African: Biography of a Self-Made Man (2005); P. E. Lovejoy, “Autobiography and Memory: Gustavus Vassa, alias Olaudah Equiano, the African” (2006).

37 J. G. Basker, American Antislavery Writings, p. 134-135. The son of famous Congregationalist minister Jonathan Edwards of Massachusetts, Jonathan Edwards was a theologian and a minister himself, and also belonged to the Connecticut Society for the Promotion of Freedom.

38 Ibid., p. 145.

39 Ibid., p. 184. See also Isabella Oliver Sharp’s “On Slavery,” published the same year, in ibid., p. 189.

40 S. White, Somewhat More Independent, p. 62.

41 D. Coker, A Dialogue between a Virginian and an African Minister (1810), p. 9-10.

42 African Americans in Boston adopted July 14, not January 1, as the date for a parade to celebrate the slave trade ban. Marches in New York City were quickly stopped. S. White, “‘It Was a Proud Day’: African Americans, Festivals, and Parades in the North, 1741-1834” (1994), p. 33, p. 35, p. 38.

43 J. G. Basker, American Antislavery Writings, p. 199-200.

44 Ibid., p. 203-204.

45 A. Jones, A Thanksgiving Sermon, Preached January 1, 1808 […] on Account of the Abolition of the Slave Trade (1808), p. 11. On orations on the abolition of the slave trade, see also Michaël Roy’s essay in this volume.

46 J. Sidbury, Becoming African in America: Race and Nation in the Early Black Atlantic (2007).

47 R. Newman, P. Rael, and P. Lapsansky, eds., Pamphlets of Protest: An Anthology of Early African-American Protest Literature, 1790-1860 (2001), p. 74.

48 D. Waldstreicher, In the Midst of Perpetual Fetes, p. 338, p. 343. In Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World (1829), David Walker portrayed blacks as oppressed by whites in America and urged them to rebel. In The Condition, Elevation, Emigration, and Destiny of the Colored People of the United States (1852), Martin Delany recommended emigration as the only solution for black Americans.

49 G. R. Hodges, Root and Branch: African Americans in New York and East Jersey, 1613-1863 (1999), p. 189.

50 J. Sidbury, Becoming African in America, p. 158.

51 Ibid., p. 168. A black ship-owner from Massachusetts, Paul Cuffe became fascinated with the attempt by British abolitionists to settle ex-slaves in Sierra Leone in the 1800s. He started exploring the possibility of sending African American settlers there, organizing a first voyage with thirty-eight colonists in 1815. He died in 1817, having become critical of the recently created ACS. On the creation and development of the ACS, see E. Burin, Slavery and the Peculiar Solution: A History of the American Colonization Society (2005), and Claire Bourhis-Mariotti’s essay in this volume.

52 J. Sidbury, Becoming African in America, p. 200.

53 Ibid., p. 204.

54 S. Deyle, “An Ambiguous Legacy: The Closing of the African Slave Trade and America’s Own Middle Passage,” in D. T. Gleeson and S. Lewis, Ambiguous Anniversary.

Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1. Anthony Benezet, Some Historical Account of Guinea (1771), title page. Library Company of Philadelphia.
URL http://books.openedition.org/editionsulm/docannexe/image/4115/img-1.jpg
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Auteur

Professor of American Studies at Université Paris Diderot. A specialist of the history of the early American republic, she is currently working on a history of antislavery in the United States. This project has led her to supervise and edit the first translation of Anthony Benezet’s Some Historical Account of Guinea with Bertrand van Ruymbeke (SFEDS, 2017). She has also co-edited a collection of essays on Benezet with Bertrand van Ruymbeke, The Atlantic World of Anthony Benezet (1713-1784): From French Reformation to North American Quaker Antislavery Activism (Brill, 2016). Together with Claire Parfait, she edits the “Récits d’esclaves” series at the Presses universitaires de Rouen et du Havre. She is currently finalizing the last two publications of the Sorbonne Paris Cité project entitled “Writing History from the Margins: The Case of African Americans” (2013-2016).

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