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Manumission of Slaves

From Diary of the American Revolution, Vol II.  Compiled by Frank Moore and published in 1859.

January 1.—As the manumission of slaves has become a topic of general conversation, we beg permission to offer a few sentiments on the subject:—The merits of almost every case of litigation generally turns upon one or two points. In the present instance the question is, we conceive, whether law, justice, and policy, warrant the retaining our slaves in their present situation?

That we became legally possessed of them, or that they were introduced into this country agreeable to its laws, no one will presume to deny, and that we cannot constitutionally be divested of them by legislative authority, is, we humbly imagine, as evident as that white is not black, or that slavery is not freedom. Our most excellent constitution admits not the subject to be deprived of his life, liberty, or property, but by a trial by a jury of his equals; and lest this inestimable privilege, the glory of freemen, should be infringed on, the constitution expressly requires that no member of the Legislature shall possess a seat in the House, until he has solemnly sworn that he will maintain this immunity inviolate. It becomes, therefore, one of the unalterable particulars of our rights, and cannot be relinquished by the guardians of our liberties but at the expense of perfidy, and even of perjury itself. The liberation of our slaves, therefore, without the concurrence of their possessors, we apprehend, is an object infinitely further distant from the legal attention of our assembly, than are the heavens above the earth.

Whether, as individuals, justice permits the detention of our negroes, is next to be considered. The Divine Saviour of men hath been pleased to give a summary of our duty towards each other in a single sentence, viz.: “To do to others as we would they should do to us;” or, “To love our neighbor as ourselves.” As we profess to believe in a future judgment, that we shall one day give an account to the Supreme Governor of the world of our actions, it highly concerns us to be attentive that they be conformable to the heavenly law. That barbarity to our slaves is repugnant to this law, cannot be controverted; but whether the divine precept enjoins us to free them or not is the dispute. Were we in their situation, it is more than probable we should pant after freedom; and so does the poor debtor desire a release from his creditor; but the injunction “to do unto others as we would be done to,” does not oblige the latter to free the former of the debt, if it hath not been contracted by injustice. Nor can this command oblige us to liberate our slaves unless they were sinfully obtained, or are thus held in bondage. If the usages of the nations in Africa justify the foreign and domestic slavery of their captives, they can be purchased and retained without iniquity. But let us suppose our negroes were stolen from their country, divested of that natural liberty given to them by heaven, and reduced to vassalage, it may be asked whether the whole of the guilt devolves not on the perpetrators of the deed? Whether any of the sin rests on those who have purchased of the posterity of the slaves, or inherit them by the gift or will of parents? The people of Africa were formerly and lawfully exposed here for sale as articles of commerce, and it may be queried if in conscience we were bound to inquire whether the Guinea merchant became more rightfully possessed of his slaves than of his gold dust, or any other commodity of Africa? Is it possible an African will part with his liberty for temporary considerations, as many Europeans have exchanged their freedom, for a few years, for a passage only to America; and the purchasers of such servants never, perhaps, thought it incumbent on them to inquire whether they were stolen or decoyed away by their masters, (which we believe was often the case,) or received an equivalent for their loss of liberty. We do not conceive that slavery in itself is iniquitous. The Jews were suffered to have slaves; and our very sons are such; that is, perfectly subject to the will of their fathers and at their disposal until they attain the age of twenty-one years; till then they are not free; and what is slavery but an entire submission to the commands, disposal, or will of another? But this vassalage we endure without repining, as we esteem ourselves helpless and incapable of self-government during our state of legal infancy, or nonage. It may be said, if our slaves were unjustly obtained, it must be unjust to hold them in bondage. We readily grant it would be so for an unjust importer of them, or the heirs of the importer who received them without paying what is deemed an equivalent for the property; and we freely declare we would not retain a slave under the circumstances, or be instrumental in reducing a freeman to slavery for any consideration. But as the slaves are among us; as the sale of them among ourselves does not cause a farther importation of their countrymen, and if it is not disadvantageous to the slave, we are as free to declare we cannot comprehend why, without any injustice to him, he may not now be purchased and possessed.

Humanity, indeed, wishes they could enjoy liberty and happiness, consistent with justice to those who have honestly bought them, and we, in truth, consider our liberty as a preclude to their release from slavery. The love of freedom, in due season, we trust, will be so predominant, that either the individuals whose property they are, will, for their emancipation, disregard their cost; or the public, by subscription or donation and not by law, (for we know of no just authority the Legislature have to command the property of their constituents for this purpose, without express permission,) will cheerfully defray it, and put them on an equal footing with ourselves. But a measure so important cannot be adopted without the approbation of our Assembly; for though, we conclude, they have not the right to free our slaves without the consent of their owners, they are judges of the propriety of receiving them as freemen of the State. Taking it for granted this disposition of benevolence now prevails either in their proprietors among the people, or, if the reader pleases, that justice demands the freedom of our Africans, for we wish not to contend for the negative in this particular, the other inquiry is, whether the present is a proper period to effect so laudable a design?

That there is “a time for all things,” is an indisputable truth. A small error in the execution of schemes, in point of time only, has been productive of the most unhappy effects. A potion of medicine administered unseasonably, may occasion the death of a patient, or the word of command given by a general a moment too soon, may not only lose a victory, but be productive of ruin to his army. If we desire the freedom of our negroes may not be injurious to ourselves, or render them more miserable than at present, we should duly attend to this circumstance of time as well as to the mode of their release. A premature attempt of this sort may be productive of the most serious consequences. That the present day would be improper for the execution of this business, must, we think, appear evident to every one, on the least reflection. Should our slaves be freed, they must either continue with us or inhabit some territory by themselves. If the freemen of the country find it difficult to support themselves and families at the present time, is it reasonable to suppose that our slaves, naturally indolent, unaccustomed to self-government, destitute of mechanical knowledge, unacquainted with letters, with a peculiar propensity to spirituous liquors, destitute of property, and without credit, would pay their taxes and provide for themselves, in the path of integrity, the necessaries and comforts of life? Is it not more rational to infer, from these considerations, that many of them would soon revert to their former state, more wretched than before; that great numbers would become pests to society; by plunder and rapine add to the horrors of war, and that dire necessity would compel us to deprive some of them not only of liberty, but also of life? Their sloth alone might be sensibly felt by the community at this juncture, and on their arms, we are of opinion, for several obvious reasons, there could not be any just dependence. Our state of war forbids their removal to any exterior part of the country, not only in regard of safety, but also in other respects. Whenever they shall be emancipated, on mature deliberation, perhaps it will be thought that small settlements of them, in different parts of the continent, under proper regulations, will be most compatible with our safety and their felicity. They may thus become useful members of the body politic, enjoy the sunshine of freedom, together with the cheering rays of the light of the gospel. Some compensation will this be for their servitude! A striking exhibition, too, of the goodness of the Divine Being towards them, and of the wisdom of his holy providence in bringing good out of evil; in causing the inhumanity of their brethren, like that of the sons of Jacob to their brother Joseph, to terminate in honor, glory, and happiness! Until that day shall arrive, it is to be hoped the possessors of slaves will revere the sacred precept, “to do as they would be done by;” mollify the hardness of slavery by acts of kindness; but above all, be particularly anxious to have them freed by instruction, admonition, and example, from spiritual thraldom, andbrought into the glorious liberty of the children of God.” The effecting of this will not only be paying a tribute to justice, but also an advancement of our temporal emolument; for experience will decide, that it will not be less politic and wise than humane and Christian.1


1 “Impartial,” in the New Jersey Gazette, January 10.