Political movements of all stripes face a common dilemma: The people most committed to a cause are often radicals who may be viewed with suspicion by both the powerful few and the broader public. Historian Kirsten Sword writes that this was true of some of the most committed eighteenth-century abolitionists.
The story of the abolition of slavery often positions early activism in the American colonies as an unsuccessful, marginal effort, particularly in contrast with the British Empire’s prohibition of the slave trade in 1807 and abolition of slavery in 1833. Sword argues that this misses the transatlantic nature of the movement, and the large role played by free black people and radical white Quakers.
Sword looks at two court cases: the 1772 Somerset v. Steuart case, which established that chattel slavery was illegal in England and Wales, and a less-famous case the following year, in which Dinah Nevil sought freedom in the United States. Nevil, a mother of four who traveled from New Jersey to Philadelphia to demand her family’s freedom, and James Somerset, an enslaved African who had been purchased in Boston and brought to England, were two of many black Americans who freed themselves in the years around the American Revolution.
Collaborating with both Somerset and Nevil was a group of white Quakers, particularly Anthony Benezet, a schoolmaster who became known as an “American saint.” Benezet and his fellow radicals had a savvy grasp of politics and were well aware that few people were eager to follow the lead of Quakers.
“To push antislavery onto the imperial stage and to create a genuine mass movement, they would have to persuade Britons and colonists that opposition to slavery was an inspired, just, and human cause rather than the delusional agenda of a marginal and overzealous religious sect,” Sword writes.
Benezet helped convince founding father Benjamin Rush to publish an attack on slavery. The Quakers also eventually recruited Benjamin Franklin as a figurehead for one of the first antislavery organizations in the Americas, the Pennsylvania Abolition Society.
Through quiet correspondence with English abolitionists, Benezet helped ensure that Somerset’s case went forward as a trial of “the Negro Cause” rather than simply an effort to free a single man. Sword writes that the American Quakers probably also threw their support behind Nevil’s case because they recognized it as another good test case for the broader anti-slavery effort.
Tragically, Nevil’s case was not as successful as Somerset’s. Her family ended up in a workhouse, where two of her children died. Later, a Quaker couple, Thomas and Sarah Harrison, paid for the surviving family members’ freedom and invited them to live in their house. Sword writes that this move “exemplified the aggressive, dogged, and potentially costly kind of empathetic intervention that won Harrison the trust of the black community, but that disconcerted and annoyed his social superiors.”
In other words, it was the sort of move you might expect from a radical.