This was the first protest against Slavery made by a religious body in North America. And, yet another lesser known aspect of US History. According to John Greenleaf Whittier, the original document was discovered in 1844 by the Philadelphia antiquarian Nathan Kite and published in The Friend (Vol. XVIII. No. 16). This document is referred to as “The Germantown Protest,” or “1688 Germantown Quaker Petition Against Slavery.” It articulated themes of justice and equality that would be echoed throughout the long, painful period of slavery in America.
Before slavery truly became institutionalized in the colonies, some Africans were sometimes treated more like indentured servants who were freed once their service ended or debt had been paid, a practice employed at times by various early Dutch and Spanish explorers and settlers. However, this changed dramatically in 1641 when Massachusetts became the first British mainland colony to legalize slavery. From that time forward, colonial slave laws became more restrictive, further codifying the institution.
Not everyone was blind to slavery’s immorality. Although slavery played a major role in the economy of colonial Rhode Island, there were some who tried to temper the practice with a 1652 law that placed restrictions on slave owning and prohibited enslavement of any person for more than 10 years. However, the effect was limited. Slave holders simply sold anyone nearing the deadline and took ownership of new slaves, thus continuing the cycle.
Some of the early English settlers of Philadelphia and its surrounding towns were wealthy and purchased slaves to work on their farms. Although many such slaveowners also had immigrated to escape religious persecution, they saw no contradiction in owning slaves, because serfdom, slavery and servitude had existed in Europe since the Middle Ages. Although serfdom was abolished in northwestern Europe by 1500, servitude was ubiquitous in Europe, sometimes under harsh conditions. Many immigrants to the new colony were indentured servants, working for several years in exchange for being carried on a boat to the new colony.
Pennsylvania’s German-Dutch settlers were unaccustomed to slaves, although from the shortage of labor they understood why their British neighbors relied on slaves for prosperity. Slaves and indentured servants were a valuable asset for a farmer because they were not paid. Yet the German-Dutch settlers refused to buy slaves themselves and quickly saw the contradiction in the slave trade and in farmers who forced people to work. Although in their native Germany and Holland the Krefelders had been persecuted because of their beliefs, only people who had been convicted of a crime could be forced to work in servitude. In what turned out to be a revolutionary leap of insight, the Germantowners saw a fundamental similarity between the right to be free from persecution on account of their beliefs and the right to be free from being forced to work against their will.
In 1688, five years after Germantown was founded, Pastorius and three other men petitioned the Dublin Quaker Meeting. The men gathered at Thones Kunders’s house and wrote a petition based upon the Bible’s Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” urging the Meeting to abolish slavery. It is an unconventional text in that it avoids the expected salutation to fellow Quakers and does not contain references to Jesus and God. It argues that every human, regardless of belief, color, or ethnicity, has rights that should not be violated.
Throughout the petition the reference to the Golden Rule is used to argue against slavery and for universal human rights. On first reading, the argument presented in the petition seems indirect. Nowhere is the Meeting specifically asked to condemn the practice of slavery. Instead, in reference to the Golden Rule, the four men ask why Christians are allowed to buy and own slaves, almost in mock sarcasm, to get the slaveowners to see their point. In doing so, it arguably was very successful, but it would be easy to miss the sophistication of their argument. They emphatically argue that in their society the capture and sale of ordinary people as slaves, where husband, wife and children are separated, would not be tolerated, again referring to the Golden Rule.
The four men also assert that according to the Golden Rule, the slaves would have the right to revolt, and that inviting more people to the new land would be difficult if prospective settlers saw the contradiction inherent in slavery. In mentioning the possibility of a slave revolt, they clearly were suggesting to the English colonists that slavery would discourage potential settlers from emigrating. In the Caribbean colonies there had been many slave revolts over several decades, so the possibility was real. However, the power of the argument for potential settlers from Europe was more than the fear of a revolt—it was that any such revolt would be justifiable according to the Golden Rule. This logic strengthened the newly defined universal rights, which applied to all humans, not just the “civilized”. The petition has several examples of such counter-intuitive but forceful arguments to push the slave-owning reader off his balance.
Sadly, “The Germantown Protest” did not spark a significant change in the Americas against slavery. Even within Quaker communities the declaration was ignored, at least initially. But a seed had been planted. A belief shared silently by many was given voice. Gradually over the next century, due to the efforts of many dedicated Quakers such as Benjamin Lay, John Woolman, and Anthony Benezet, Quakers became convinced of the essential wrongness of the institution of slavery. Many of the Quaker abolitionists published their articles anonymously in Benjamin Franklin’s newspaper. In 1776 a proclamation was written by Philadelphia Yearly Meeting banning the owning of slaves. By that time, many Quaker monthly meetings in the Delaware Valley were attempting to help freed slaves by providing funds for them to start businesses and encouraging them to attend Quaker meetings and educate their children.
While not really addressed, Slavery was beginning to see it’s existence Challenged. The initial opposition of the courts of England to the status of slavery began to change with the rising importance of the African slave trade. An extensive traffic in negro slaves from Africa began in the 17th century, primarily to supply labour for the sugar and cotton plantations in British colonies abroad. English merchants were prominent in the slave trade at this time, and in commercial disputes slavery soon presented the English courts with novel legal questions. Under the lex mercatoria slaves were treated as chattels, with few if any rights, but the English courts did not always recognise mercantile custom as law. The question arose in English courts because personal actions could be laid in England even if the cause of action arose abroad.
Gradually, the British courts began to see the institution of slavery as being abhorrent, culminating in Somersett’s case and Joseph Knight’s case with Sommersett’s case happening on the eve of the War for American Independence. Despite this trend to want to eliminate slavery, the institution held on. If anything, the War for Independence left it unresolved to cause further discord in the infant United States.