African Slavery in America

by Thomas Paine (1775)

Thomas Paine was raised in England, the son of a Quaker tradesman. He had not found a stable position in his home country, and decided in middle age to emigrate. He was introduced to Benjamin Franklin, who facilitated Paine's move to the Pennsylvania colony and employment as a newspaper editor. He arrived in Philadelphia in 1774 and immediately threw himself into the turbulent politics of the period. His essays in 1775 covered a range of topics and attracted a readership. In 1776, he published him pamphlet, Common Sense, calling for American independence and the rejection of Old World monarchies and aristocracies. The pamphlet was a sensation and immediately made Paine one of the most famous man in the colonies. Among his newspaper essays of 1775 was this one denouncing slavery, and particularly criticizing those who would try to use Christian Scriptures to defend the institution.

That some desperate wretches should be willing to steal and enslave men by violence and murder for gain, is rather lamentable than strange. But that many civilized, nay, Christianized people should approve, and be concerned in the savage practice, is surprising; and still persist, though it has been so often proved contrary to the light of nature, to every principle of justice and humanity, and even good policy, by a succession of eminent men, and several late publications.

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, willfully sacrifice conscience, and the character of integrity to that golden idol. . . . .

Such men may as well join with a known band of robbers, buy their ill-got goods, and help on the trade; ignorance is no more pleadable in one case than the other; the sellers plainly own how they obtain them. But none can lawfully buy without evidence that they are not concurring with men-stealers; and as the true owner has a right to reclaim his goods that were stolen, and sold; so the slave, who is proper owner of his freedom, has a right to reclaim it, however often sold.

Most shocking of all is alleging the sacred Scriptures to favor this wicked practice. One would have thought none but infidel cavilers would endeavor to make them appear contrary to the plain dictates of natural light, and conscience, in a matter of common justice and humanity; which they cannot be. Such worthy men, as referred to before, judged otherways; Mr. Baxter declared, the Slave-Traders should be called Devils, rather than Christians; and that it is a heinous crime to buy them. But some say, "the practice was permitted to the Jews." To which may be replied,

  1. The example of the Jews, in many things, may not be imitated by us; they had not only orders to cut off several nations altogether, but if they were obliged to war with others, and conquered them, to cut off every male; they were suffered to use polygamy and divorces, and other things utterly unlawful to us under clearer light.
  2. The plea is, in a great measure, false; they had no permission to catch and enslave people who never injured them.
  3. Such arguments ill become us, since the time of reformation came, under Gospel light. All distinctions of nations and privileges of one above others, are ceased; Christians are taught to account all men their neighbours; and love their neighbours as themselves; and do to all men as they would be done by; to do good to all men; and Man-stealing is ranked with enormous crimes. Is the barbarous enslaving our inoffensive neighbours, and treating them like wild beasts subdued by force, reconcilable with the Divine precepts! Is this doing to them as we would desire they should do to us? If they could carry off and enslave some thousands of us, would we think it just?—One would almost wish they could for once; it might convince more than reason, or the Bible.
As much in vain, perhaps, will they search ancient history for examples of the modern slave-trade. Too many nations enslaved the prisoners they took in war. But to go to nations with whom there is no war, who have no way provoked, without further design of conquest, purely to catch inoffensive people, like wild beasts, for slaves, is an height of outrage against humanity and justice, that seems left by heathen nations to be practiced by pretended Christians. How shameful are all attempts to color and excuse it! As these people are not convicted of forfeiting freedom, they have still a natural, perfect right to it; and the governments, whenever they come, should, in justice set them free, and punish those who hold them in slavery.

So monstrous is the making and keeping them slaves at all, abstracted from the barbarous usage they suffer, and the many evils attending the practice; as selling husbands away from wives, children from parents, and from each other, in violation of sacred and natural ties; and opening the way for adulteries, incests, and many shocking consequences, for all of which the guilty masters must answer to the final Judge.

If the slavery of the parents be unjust, much more is their children's; if the parents were justly slaves, yet the children are born free; this is the natural, perfect right of all mankind; they are nothing but a just recompense to those who bring them up: And as much less is commonly spent on them than others, they have a right, in justice, to be proportionably sooner free.

Certainly, one may, with as much reason and decency, plead for murder, robbery, lewdness and barbarity, as for this practice. They are not more contrary to the natural dictates of conscience, and feeling of humanity; nay, they are all comprehended in it.

But the chief design of this paper is not to disprove it, which many have sufficiently done; but to entreat Americans to consider.

  1. With what consistency, or decency they complain so loudly of attempts to enslave them, while they hold so many hundred thousands in slavery; and annually enslave many thousands more, without any pretense of authority, or claim upon them?
  2. How just, how suitable to our crime is the which Providence threatens us? We have enslaved multitudes, and shed much innocent blood in doing it; and now are threatened with the same. And while other evils are confessed, and bewailed, why not this especially, and publicity; than which no other vice, if all others, has brought so much guilt on the land?
  3. Whether, then, all ought not immediately to discontinue and renounce it, with grief and abhorrence?
  4. The great question may be—What should be done with those who are enslaved already? To turn the old and infirm free, would be injustice and cruelty; they who enjoyed the labors of their better days should keep, and treat the humanely. As to the rest, let prudent men, with the assistance of the legislatures, determine what is practicable for masters, and best for them.

    Perhaps some could give them lands upon reasonable rent, some, employing them in their labor still, might give them some reasonable allowance for it; so as all may have some property, and fruits of their labors at their own disposal, and be encouraged to industry; the family may live together, and enjoy the natural satisfaction of exercising relative affections and duties, with civil protection, and other advantages, like fellow-men.

    Perhaps they might sometime form useful barrier settlements on the frontiers. Thus they may become interested in the public welfare, and assist in promoting it; instead of being dangerous, as now they are, should any enemy promise them a better condition.

  5. The past treatment of Africans must naturally fill them abhorrence of Christians; lead them to think our religion would make them more inhuman savages, if they embraced it; thus the gain of that trade has been pursued in oppositions of the redeemer's cause, and the happiness of men. Are we not, therefore, bound in duty to Him and to them to repair those injuries, as far as possible, by taking some proper measures to instruct, not only the slaves here, but the Africans in their own countries? Primitive Christians, laboured always to spread the divine religion; and this is equally our duty while there is an heathen nation: But what singular obligations are we under to these injured people!

These are the sentiments of JUSTICE AND HUMANITY.

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