Education and Communications

The Germantown Petition Against Slavery: Crash Course Black American History #5

Hi, I’m Clint Smith, and this is Crash Course
Black American History. If you’re like me, you love breakfast. Pancakes, waffles, french toast, bacon, sausage. You name it, I am here for it. And one other breakfast food that I love,
and that my kids really love, is oatmeal, especially with some raisins, maybe some diced
strawberries, and some cinnamon!? Man, shout out to Quaker Oats. Speaking of which, did you ever wonder why
they’re even called Quaker Oats? Well, part of the reason we have a random
17th century Quaker man on the front of the box is because people have long associated
Quakers with qualities of goodness, and peace, and honesty.[1] Which are qualities you like
to see in people…and in your oatmeal? (But, for the record, Quaker Oats has no association
with the actual Quakers.) Anyway, today we’re going to take a closer
look at the Quakers in early America, including their varying opinions and relationships to
slavery, which led to many disagreements within the group, as well as one of the first abolitionist
documents in the North American colonies. INTRO
By the late 1600s, British North America had become well accustomed to the practice of
slavery. Though it was not nearly as integral to the
economy in the north as it was to the south, the practice did expand rapidly, including
in the Delaware Valley region of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Slavery in this region began in 1684 with
the arrival of some 150 captives aboard the British vessel, the Isabella. The slave ship brought a highly sought after
commodity to Philadelphia, free labor, tapping into the colonists’ desire to obtain enslaved
workers. Soon, enslaved Africans would make up around
a seventh of the city’s entire population. The colony of Pennsylvania had been founded
by a man named Willam Penn, who himself was a Quaker, but not the man on the Quaker Oats
box. The Quakers, whose denomination of Christianity
developed in England in the mid-seventeenth century, were also a significant portion of
Philadelphia’s population during this time. Quakers’s beliefs were pretty different–and
in some ways radically different–than other Christian groups. For example, they were one of the first to
argue that individuals could realize spiritual freedom through their own inner light–that
people could communicate /directly/ with God, so priests weren’t really needed to do so. Quakers were also well known for being forerunners
of the abolitionist movement. But as always with history, it’s complicated. We should make clear that even though Quakers
as a whole were at the forefront of abolitionist work, within the denomination there were people
with a range of views on the subject. Some Quakers, far from being abolitionist
or even indifferent to chattel slavery, even participated in the transatlantic slave trade
themselves. In the seventeenth century, many Quakers in
the Caribbean, for example, purchased captives in Barbados in what some of them rationalized
as a form of evangelism, an effort, they said, to civilize these Africans and convert them
to Christianity. In her book, Christian Slavery, historian
Katharine Gerbner discusses the experiences of English Quaker George Fox to highlight
some of the complexities in Quaker history when it comes to the issue of slavery. She emphasizes the stark contrast between
Quakers who held anti-slavery beliefs and those whose primary concern was maintaining
quote “well-ordered Quaker Households with Christian Slaves.” Fox, regarded as the founder of Quakerism,
was a already a proponent of “universal evangelization,” and during a trip to Barbados in 1671, when
he had the opportunity to witness slavery first hand, his conceptions of Christianity
were made to confront slavery directly. You might think that witnessing the violence
and barbarity of enslavement would have deeply unsettled anyone who purports to hold Christian
views, and would have made clear to them that slavery was inconsistent with their faith. Right? Well, no. Instead, during his trip Fox spoke of what
he saw as deplorable promiscuity and polygamous relationships among the enslaved (even though,
we should note, there were often forced breeding practices imposed on them). And Fox said he was shocked and angered to
find that plantation owners in Barbados had no intention of trying to convert their labor
force to Christianity. Something he saw as essential. So no, it wasn’t the horrific, violent nature
of Caribbean slavery that sent him over the edge. Instead it was the belief that quote: “the
Gospel [should be] preached to every creature under Heaven.” Apparently he saw no contradiction between
the idea of a loving God, and the barbarous institution in front of him that was perpetuated
in God’s name. We should note that Fox wasn’t alone in
what today we clearly see as a moral paradox. This evangelical approach, which provided
justification for those participating in the slave trade, was actually not considered controversial
at the time. In Pennsylvania, it was not uncommon for Quaker
leaders to own enslaved laborers. Even William Penn, founder of Pennsylvania,
purchased laborers from Quakers who owned plantations in Barbados. Penn and other Quaker leaders simply believed
that slavery was necessary to secure the economic welfare of this developing colony. There were, however, still many Quakers who
opposed slavery on moral grounds. And Quakers would later become one of the
most influential white religious groups to lead anti-slavery protests. They even provided direct aid to the abolitionist
movement and the underground railroad. Let’s go to the thought bubble. In 1688, four German-Dutch Quaker men presented
what would become known as the Germantown Protest, at a monthly local meeting in Dublin,
Pennsylvania. But we’re not talking about a big public
protest like with signs and chanting or anything like that. This was a written protest, a petition, with
a list of demands advocating that the Quakers form a united front and publicly endeavor
to end slavery. The four men who drafted this petition — Gerret
(GEHR-eht) Hendricks, Derk up de Graeff (DUR-keh UHP deh GRAYF), Francis Daniell Pastorius
(PAA-STOHr-ee-uhs), and Abraham op den Graef (OHP DEH-neh GRAYF) — made their complaints
based on the fundamental Quaker beliefs that each human being is of unique worth. The Germantown petition, named for the location
where it was drafted, became one of the first formal documents to denounce the institution
of slavery on moral and practical grounds. These Quakers openly challenged the logic
behind slavery and the violence enslaved laborers were subjected to. Unfortunately, although many prominent Quakers
shared these sentiments, they weren’t willing to turn those sentiments into action. And primary source documents from the time
reveal that it received…a less-than-enthusiastic response. After listening to the petitioners and “inspecting
the matter,” the official response of the Meeting was that, given the nature of the
complaint, it was best that they not “meddle” in the issue. They claimed it was too “weighty” of a problem
for them to try to resolve at that time. They decided to pass the issue off to a Quarterly
Meeting, then it was passed to officials at the yearly meeting where, ultimately, the
full gathering would also reject the petition. Thanks, Thought Bubble. Even though the petition was ultimately unsuccessful,
the way it laid out the hypocrisy of many of their fellow Quakers was really significant. In their draft, these Quaker men called out
the hypocrisy of enslavement, pointing out that it was a direct violation of several
fundamental Christian values. The petition pointed out that enslaving people
is a pretty direct violation of the Golden Rule. You know the one we learn in kindergarten:
treat others the way you want to be treated. The petition read in part, “we shall doe to
all men like as we will be done ourselves; making no difference of what generation, descent,
or colour they are.” The petitioners also appealed to the strong
sense of family that is essential to Quaker beliefs. They stated that Africans families had no
chance at survival under the oppressive institution of slavery:
“Pray, what thing in the world can be done worse towards us, than if men should rob or
steal us away, and sell us for slaves to strange countries, separating husbands [sic] from
their wives and children” They also made a special note that you shouldn’t
buy stolen goods, framing it as a larger moral issue tied to enslavement. “We who profess that it is not lawful to steal,
must likewise, avoid to purchase things as are stolen, but rather help stop this robbing
and stealing if possible.” This is important because in the petition,
they stressed that Africans were captives brought to the Americas against their will,
and for that reason, they too, are stolen. Our impassioned petitioners even suggested
that the hypocricacy was so blatant, that slavery’s very existence in the colony prevented
Quakers in other areas of the world from migrating to Pennsylvania because of this clear contradiction
of their values and practices. Given the social and political context of
the moment, it is perhaps not surprising that this petition was rejected by land-owning
white men who were still working to establish their place in the American colonies. But, the letter itself is still important
for us to learn about because it serves as documentation of abolitionist-thought among
white immigrants in the United States. Moreover, it served as a strong ideological
foundation for many Quakers, who were later even more actively engaged in the abolitionist
movement spanning the 18th and 19th centuries. So as you can see, there were some groups–or
groups within groups–of white immigrants who recognized the maltreatment of enslaved
Africans, and whose fight against it is documented in writing from well over 300 years ago. And their argument was rooted in something
most colonial regions could relate to: Christianity. The four Quaker men who presented the Germantown
petition in 1688 drew inspiration from the Bible to make plain the contradictions, and
the inhumanity of slavery. At the same time, as we saw in the case of
George Fox, it would be too simple to suggest that these were the beliefs of all Quakers
— they weren’t, and it’s important for us to complicate and problematize any rhetoric
that suggest all Quakers were against slavery. Many were, but certainly not all. And this should be a lesson we carry with
us throughout our journey through all of American history: we should be wary of overgeneralizing
any group of people. There are often a range of opinions, perspectives,
and ideas that exist within any group, Quakers or otherwise. The Germantown protest also showcases the
significance of white people recognizing that they themselves had a moral and human stake
in the fight for Black liberation. This is a concept we will continue to explore
throughout this series. Thanks for watching. I’ll see you next time. Crash Course Black American History is made
with the help of all these nice people and our animation team is Thought Cafe. Crash Course is a Complexly production. If you wanna keep imagining the world complexly
with us, you can check out some of our other channels like Healthcare Triage, Animal Wonders,
and Scishow Psych. And, if you’d like to keep Crash Course free
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