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Quaker Anti-Slavery Petition, 1783

Use this primary source text to explore key historical events.

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As early as 1688, the Religious Society of Friends, or Quakers, recorded their opposition to slavery in the form of a petition (see Germantown Friends’ Antislavery Petition, 1688 in chapter 2). Nearly a century after the Quakers in Germantown had advocated abolition, Quakers meeting in Philadelphia crafted another antislavery petition, this time with 534 signatures. In 1783, they presented their “Address to the United States in Congress Assembled.” Antislavery sentiment was gaining strength in northern states; a 1780 Pennsylvania law made that state the first to implement a plan of gradual abolition, and in 1783, slavery was abolished outright in Massachusetts by court decision. Slavery was still legal in all other states, though its direct impact on the northern economy was dwindling. The Quakers knew their petition would face stiff opposition in Congress. The Revolutionary War ended in 1781, and the foreign slave trade, suspended during the war, resumed. That same year saw the ratification of the Articles of Confederation, which created a “firm league of friendship,” not a strong national government. The Confederation Congress had no power over state governments or their individual citizens.

Sourcing Questions

  1. Who wrote this document, and to whom was it addressed?

Vocabulary Text
To the United States in Congress Assembled
The Address of the People Called Quakers
divine providence (n): God

piety (n): reverence

virtue (n): behavior demonstrating high moral standards
Being through the favour of Divine Providence met as usual at this season in our annual Assembly to promote the cause of Piety and Virtue, We find with great satisfaction our well meant endeavours for the relief of an oppressed part of our fellow Men have been so far blessed, that those of them who have been held in bondage by Members of our Religious Society are generally restored to freedom, their natural and just right.
commiserate (v): to express sympathy for

professors of the . . . gospel: those who profess to believe in the teachings of Jesus Christ

lamentable (adj): deplorably bad
Commiserating the afflicted state into which the Inhabitants of Africa are very deeply involved by many professors of the mild and benign doctrines of the Gospel, and affected with a sincere concern for the essential Good of our Country, We conceive it our indispensable duty to revive the lamentable grievance of that oppressed people in your view as an interesting subject evidently claiming the serious attention of those who are entrusted with the powers of Government, as Guardians of the common rights of Mankind and advocates for liberty.
We have long beheld with sorrow the complicated evils produced by an unrighteous commerce which subjects many thousands of the human species to the deplorable State of Slavery.
effusion (n): pouring forth

avaricious (adj): greedy

iniquitous (adj): sinful; evil

corruption (n): rottenness

licentiousness (n): the state of being morally unrestrained

calamities (n): disasters
The Restoration of Peace and restraint to the effusion of human Blood we are persuaded excite in the minds of many of all Christian denominations gratitude and thankfulness to the all wise controller of human events; but we have grounds to fear, that some forgetfulness of the days of Distress are prompted from avaricious motives to renew the iniquitous trade for slaves to the African Coasts, contrary to every humane and righteous consideration, and in opposition to the solemn declarations often repeated in favour of universal liberty, thereby increasing the too general torrent of corruption and licentiousness, and laying a foundation for future calamities.
interposition (n): action on behalf of someone else

meet (adj): appropriate
We therefore earnestly solicit your Christian interposition to discourage and prevent so obvious an Evil, in such manner as under the influence of Divine Wisdom you shall see meet.
Signed in and on behalf of our Yearly Meeting held in Philadelphia for Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware, and the western parts of Maryland and Virginia dated the fourth day of the tenth month 1783.
Signed by 534 men

Comprehension Questions

  1. To whom do the authors refer in using the phrase “an oppressed part of our fellow Men”?
  2. According to this passage, what has happened to slaves owned by Quakers?
  3. According to the authors, what is the duty of “those who are entrusted with the powers of Government”?
  4. The phrase “Restoration of Peace” refers to the end of what conflict?
  5. Despite the end of the Revolutionary War, what do the authors fear?
  6. What practical action is requested of the Congress?
  7. Participants in this meeting come from which states?
  8. What is the significance of the fact that 534 men signed this document?

Historical Analysis Questions

  1. In the first paragraph of the document, the Society of Friends states that the goal of their assembly is to “promote the cause of Piety and Virtue.” What action did they take toward that goal?
  2. Explain to what extent you think the Quakers expected Congress to comply with their petition, and why you think so?

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