As many of us realize, the political establishment of 2022 never passes up an opportunity to describe liberty-oriented ideas as “extreme,” and those who espouse them as “extremists.” Well, in 1774, there was nothing more extreme than a belief in the abolition of slavery.
Nevertheless, before there was Common Sense and The Rights of Man, there was Thomas Paine the abolitionist.
As I point out in my new book, Thomas Paine: A Lifetime of Radicalism, the Englishman secured a job as editor of the Philadelphia-based Pennsylvania Magazine shortly after gaining transatlantic passage to America with the help of Benjamin Franklin.
Paine wrote and published works related to many subjects, but few were as groundbreaking as his publication’s take on slavery. A March 8, 1775 article, “African Slavery in America,” was an open assault on the slave trade and the institution in general:
“Our Traders in MEN (an unnatural commodity!) must know the wickedness of that SLAVE-TRADE, if they attend to reasoning, or the dictates of their own hearts; and such as shun and stifle all these, wilfully sacrifice Conscience, and the character of integrity to that golden Idol.”
According to the writer, “such wicked and inhuman” inclinations encouraged the English to enslave thousands, conscripting many for use in war. Beyond that, the writer alleged that England even waged war for that express purpose. The piece criticized the supposition that slavery was sanctioned by the Bible, instead maintaining that enslavement was an “outrage against humanity and justice” practiced only by “pretended Christians.”
Its writer unambiguously condemned slavery as an affront to God. Continuing the practice in America was a cruel injustice, declared the writer, because slaves “have still a natural, perfect right” to freedom.
The author recommended providing legislative relief to slave owners, such that slaves could be employed or receive charity from sympathizers. If such an abolitionist plan was impossible, the essay suggested the formation of frontier settlements for former slaves. Warning that slavery “has been pursued in the opposition of the redeemer’s cause,” the author signed the article “JUSTICE AND HUMANITY.”
It was a wildly radical pitch, even in Pennsylvania. At the time, slavery existed in every North American colony, though it was much less prevalent in some regions. In 1775, there were about 6,000 slaves in Pennsylvania, and while many of the state’s prominent figures considered the institution an injustice, there were few who had gone so far as to endorse outright abolition.
In fact, as a publisher, Paine was the first to do so in the North American colonies.
During the War of Independence, several states would pass gradual manumission laws that aimed to set slavery on the path to extinction—while failing to free those already in slavery. It is impossible to exaggerate the revolutionary nature of Paine’s call for abolition.
While the essay was published by Paine, there remains some question about its authorship and even uncertainty regarding when it was written. Whether or not Paine composed the essay, his opposition to slavery and the slave trade was unmistakable from his earliest days as an editor.
In another article, he complained that Americans had engaged “in the most horrid of all traffics, that of human flesh.” Consequently, slavery had “ravaged the hapless shores of Africa, robbing it of its unoffending inhabitants to cultivate her stolen dominions in the West.” He yearned for God to bless the Americas through legislation “which shall put a stop to the importation of negroes for sale, soften the hard fate of those already here, and in time procure their freedom.”
At a time when the slave trade was a lucrative venture among merchants in Philadelphia and other major ports, this was a groundbreaking sentiment in the same vein as “African Slavery in America.”
My book, Thomas Paine: A Lifetime of Radicalism, explores the other incidents in Paine’s life that brought out his abolitionist sensibilities, and reveals why his tenure as editor of the Pennsylvania Magazine ended. Paperback, hardcover, and personalization options are all available!