Week 9: Slavery

Samuel Hopkins, A Dialogue Concerning the Slavery of the Africans

A dialogue concerning the slavery of the Africans; shewing it to be the duty and interest of the American states to emancipate all their African slaves. : With an address to the owners of such slaves. : Dedicated to the Honourable the Continental Congress. : To which is prefixed, the institution of the society, in New-York, for promoting the manumission of slaves, and protecting such of them as have been, or may be, liberated.

Samuel Hopkins



A. SIR, What do you think of the motion made by some among us, to free all our African. slaves? They say, that our holding these blacks in slavery, as we do, is an open violation of the law of God, and is so great an instance of unrighteousness and cruelty, that we cannot expect deliverance from present calamities, and success in our struggle for liberty in the American. colonies, until we repent, and make all the restitution, in our power. For my part, I think they carry things much too far on this head; and if any thing might be done for the freedom of our slaves, this is not a proper time to attend to it, while we are in such a state of war and distress, and affairs of much greater importance de|mand all our attention, and the utmost exertion of the public.

B. Sir, I am glad you have introduced this subject, especially, as you own a number of these slaves; I shall attend to it with pleasure, and offer my sentiments up|on it freely, expecting you will as freely propose the ob|jections you shall have against any thing I shall advance. And I take leave here to observe, that if the slavery in which we hold the blacks, is wrong; it is a very great and public sin; and therefore a sin which God is now testifying against in the calamities he has brought upon us, consequently must be reformed, before we can rea|sonably expect deliverance, or even sincerely ask for it. It would be worse than madness then, to put off atten|tion to this matter, under the notion of attending to more important affairs. This is acting like the mari|ner, who, when his ship is filling with water, neglects to stop the leak or ply the pump, that he may mend his  sails. There are at the lowest computation, 800,000. slaves in British America, including the West-India islands; and a great part of these, are in the colonies on the con|tinent. And if this is in every instance wrong, un|righteousness and oppression; it must be a very great and crying sin, there being nothing of the kind equal to it on the face of the earth. There are but few of these slaves, indeed in New-England, compared with the vast numbers in the islands and the southern colonies; and they are treated much better on the continent, and espe|cially among us, than they are in the West-Indies. But if it be all wrong, and real oppression of the poor helpless blacks, we, by refusing to break this yoke, and let these injured captives go free, do practically justify and support this slavery in general, and make ourselves, in a measure at least, answerable for the whole: and we have no way to exculpate ourselves from the guilt of the whole, and bear proper testimony against this great evil, but by freeing all our slaves. Surely then, this matter admits of no delay; but demands our first, and most serious attention, and speedy reformation.

A. I acknowledge the slave trade, as it has been car|ried on with the Africans, cannot be justified. But I am not yet convinced that it is wrong to keep those in perpetual bondage, who by this trade have been trans|ported from Africa to us, and are become our slaves. If I viewed this in the light you do, I should agree with you that it is of the highest importance that they should all be made, free without delay; as we could not ex|pect the favour of Heaven, or with any consistency ask it, so long as they are held in bondage.

B. I am glad you have attended to the affair so much as to be convinced of the unrighteousness of the slave trade. Indeed, this conviction has been so spread of late, that it is has reached almost all men on the conti|nent, except some of those who are too deeply interested in it, to admit the light which condemns it. And it has now but few advocates, I believe, being generally condemned and exploded. And the members of the Continental Congress have done themselves much ho|nour, in advising the American colonies to drop this trade entirely; and resolving not to buy another slave, that shall be imported from Africa.

But I think it of importance that this trade should not only be condemned as wrong, but attentively considered in its real nature, and all its shocking attendants and circumstances; which will lead us to think of it with a detestation and horror, which this scene of inhumanity▪ oppression and cruelty, exceeding every thing of the kind that has ever been perpetrated by the sons of men, is suited to excite; and awaken us to a proper indigna|tion against the authors of this violence and outrage; done to their fellow men; and to feelings of humanity and pity towards our brethren, who are the miserable sufferers. Therefore, though I am not able to paint this horrid scene of barbarity and complicated iniquity, to the life, or even to tell the one half which may be told, in the short time allotted for this conversation; yet I will suggest a few particulars; leaving you, if you please, to consult the authors who have given a more particular description.

Most of the Africans are in a state of heathenism; and sunk down into that ignorance and barbarity, into which mankind naturally fall, when destitute of divine revelation. Their lands are fertile, and produce all the necessaries of life: The inhabitants are divided into many distinct nations or clans; and of course are fre|quently entering into quarrels, and open war with each other. The Europeans, English, French, Dutch, &c. have carried on a trade with them for above 100 years; and have taken advantage of their ignorance and barbarity, to persuade them to enter into the inhuman practice of selling one another to the Europeans, for the commodi|ties which they carry to them, most of which, they stand in no real need of: but might live as well, or bet|ter without them: particularly spiritous liquors, which have been carried to them in great quantities by the Americans. They, by this means, have tempted and ex|cited the poor blacks to make war upon one another, in order to get captives, spreading distress, devastation and destruction over a vast country; by which many millions have perished: and millions of others, have been captivated, and sold to the Europeans and Americans, into a state of slavery, much worse than death. And the inhabitants of the towns near the sea, are taught to exert all the art and power they have, to entrap and de|coy one another, that they may make slaves of them, and sell them to us for rum; by which they intoxicate them|selves, and become more brutish and savage than other|wise they could be, so that there are but few instances of sobriety, honesty, or even humanity, in these towns on the sea, to which the Europeans have access: and they who live the furthest from these places, are the least vicious, and much more civil and humane.

They stand in no need of the rum that is carried there in such vast quantities, by which so many thousands have been enslaved, and which has spread such infinite mischief among them. And I leave it with you to con|sider to what a dreadful degree the Americans have, by this abominable practice, brought the curse upon them, pronounced by an inspired prophet; and how very ap|plicable it is to this case.

Woe unto him that giv|eth his neighbour drink: that puttest thy bottle to him, and makest him drunken also, that thou mayst look on their nakedness.

And is not this curse evi|dently come upon us, in a dreadful degree, in such a way, as to paint itself out, so that he who runs may read it? We have put the bottle to our neighbours mouths, by carrying immense quantities of rum to them, and inticed them to drink, that we might take advantage of their weakness, and thereby gratify our lusts. By this means multitudes of them have been enslaved, and carried to the West-India islands, there to be kept to hard labour, and treated ten thousand times worse than dogs. In consequence of which, incredible quantities of rum, and molasses which has been distilled into rum among ourselves, have been imported; the most of which is consumed in intemperance and drunkenness, in such a dreadful degree, as to exceed any thing of the kind in any part of the world; by which thousands, yea milli|ons, have ruined themselves, body and soul, for ever. Let any one consider this, and forbear to confess, if he can, that this woe has fallen heavily upon us, and that in such a way and connection as to point out the sinful cause.

But to return. This trade has been carried on for a century and more, and for many years past, above an hundred thousand have been brought off the coast in a year, so that many, many millions have been torn from their native country, their acquaintance, relations and friends, and most of them put into a state of slavery, both themselves, and their children for ever, if they shall have any posterity, much worse than death. When numbers of these wretched creatures are collected by the savages, they are brought into the public market to be sold, all naked as they were born. The more than savage slave-merchant views them, and sends his surgeon, more par|ticularly to examine them, as to the soundness of their limbs, their age, &c. All that are passed as fit for sale, are branded with a hot iron in some part of their body, with the buyers mark; and then confined, crowded to|gether in some close hold, till a convenient time to put them on board a ship. When they are brought on board, all are immediately put in irons, except some of the women perhaps, and the small children, where they are so crowded together in that hot climate, that com|monly a considerable number die on their passage to the West Indies, occasioned partly by their confinement, partly by the grief and vexation of their minds, from the treatment they receive, and the situation in which they find themselves. And a number commonly die after they arrive at the West-Indies, in seasoning to the climate; so that, commonly, not above seventy in an hundred survive their transportation; by which means about thirty thousand are murdered every year by this slave-trade, which amounts to three millions in a cen|tury. When they are brought to the West-Indies, they are again exposed to market, as if they were so many beasts, and sold to the highest bidder; where again they are separated according to the humour of the tra|ders, without any regard to their friendships or relations, of husbands and wives, parents and children, brothers and sisters, &c. being torn from each other, without the least regard to any thing of this kind, and sent to different places, without any prospect of seeing each other again. They are then put under a task master, by the purchasing planter, who appoints them their work, and rules over them with rigour and cruelty, following them with his cruel whip, or appointing one to do it, if possible, more cruel than himself. The infirm and fee|ble, the females, and even those who are pregnant, or have infants to take care of, must do their task in the field equally with the rest; or if they fall behind, may be sure to feel the lash of their unmerciful driver. Their allowance of food at the same time is very coarse and scant, and must be cooked by themselves, if cooked at all, when they want to be asleep. And often they have no food but what they procure for themselves, by working on the sabbath; for that is the only time they have to themselves. And to make any complaint, or petition for relief, will expose them to some severe pu|nishment, if not a cruel death. The least real or sup|poseable crimes in them, are punished in the most cruel manner. And they have no relief; there being no ap|peal from their masters sentence and will, who com|monly are more like savage beasts, than rational, hu|man creatures. And to petition for liberty, though in the most humble and modest terms, is as much as their lives are worth; as few escape the most cruel death, who presume to hint any thing of this kind to their masters: It being a maxim with those more than, cruel tyrants, that the only way to keep them under, and prevent their thinking of the sweets of liberty, is to pu|nish the least intimation of it in the severest manner, as the most intolerable affront and insult on their masters. Their labour is so hard, and their diet so scant and poor, and they are treated in all respects with such oppression and cruelty, that they do not encrease by propagation in the islands, but constantly decrease, so that every planter must every year purchase five at least to every hundred he has on his plantation, in order to keep his number from diminishing.

But it is in vain to attempt a full description of the oppression and cruel treatment these poor creatures re|ceive constantly at the hands of their imperious, unmer|ciful, worse than Egyptian task-masters. Words cannot utter it. Volumes might be written, and not give a detail of a thousandth part of the shockingly cruel things they have suffered, and are constantly suffering. Nor can they possibly be conceived of by any one, who has not been an eye witness. And how little a part does he see! They who are witnesses to any part of this horrid scene of barbarous oppression, cannot but feel the truth and propriety of Solomon‘s words: “So I returned, and considered all the oppressions that are done under the sun: and behold the tears of the oppres|sed, and they had no comforter; and on the side of the oppressors there was power; but they had no comforter. Wherefore I praised the dead, which are already dead, more than the living which are yet alive*:” Solomon never saw any oppression like this, unless he looked for|ward to this very instance, in the spirit of prophesy.

A. Sir, there is one important circumstance in favour of the slave-trade; or which will at least serve to coun|terballance many of the evils you mention; and that is, we bring these slaves from a heathen land, to places of gospel light; and so put them under special advantages to be saved.

B. I know this has been mentioned by many in fa|vour of the slave-trade: but when examined, will turn greatly against it. It can hardly be said with truth, that the West-India islands are places of gospel light. But if they were, are the Negroes in the least benefited by it? Have they any access to the gospel? Have they any instruction, more than if they were beasts? So far from this, that their masters guard against their having any instruction to their utmost; and if any one would attempt any such thing, it would be at the risque of his life. And all the poor creatures learn of Christianity, from what they see in those who call themselves Chris|tians, only serves to prejudice them in the highest degree against the Christian religion. For they not only see the abominably wicked lives of most of those who are called Christians, but are constantly oppressed by them, and receive as cruel treatment from them, as they could from the worst of beings. And as to those who are brought to the continent, in the southern colonies*, and even to New-England, so little pains are taken to instruct them, and there is so much to prejudice them against Christianity, that it is a very great wonder, and owing to an extraordinary divine interposition, in which we may say, God goes out of his common way, that any of them should think favourably of Christianity, and cordially embrace it. As to the most of them, no wonder they are unteachable, and get no good by the gospel; but have imbibed the deepest prejudices against it, from the treatment they receive from professed Christians; prejudices which most of them are by their circumstances restrained from expressing: while they are fixed in the strongest degree in their minds.

But if this was not the case, and all the slaves brought from Africa, were put under the best advantages to be|come Christians, and they were in circumstances that tended to give them the most favourable idea of Chris|tians, and the religion they profess; and though all concerned in this trade, and in slavery in general, should have this wholly in view, viz. their becoming Christians, by which they should be eternally happy; yet this would not justify the slave trade, or continuing them in a state of slavery: For to take this method to chris|tianize them, would be a direct and gross violation of the laws of Christ. He commands us to go and preach the gospel to all nations; to carry the gospel to them, and not to go, and with violence bring them from their native country, without saying a word to them, or to the nations from whom they are taken, about the gospel, or any thing that relates to it.

If the Europeans and Americans had been as much en|gaged to christianize the Africans, as they have been to enslave them; and had been at half the cost and pains to introduce the gospel among them, that they have to captivate and destroy them; we have all the reason in the world to conclude that extensive country, contain|ing such a vast multitude of inhabitants, would have been full of gospel light, and the many nations there, civilized and made happy; and a foundation laid for the salvation of millions of millions; and the happy in|struments of it have been rewarded ten thousand fold for all their labour and expence. But now, instead of this, what has been done on that coast, by those who pass among the Negroes for Christians, has only served to produce and spread the greatest and most deep-rooted prejudices against the Christian religion, and bar the way to that which is above all things desirable, their coming to the knowledge of the truth that they might be saved. So that while, by the murdering or enslaving millions of millions, they have brought a curse upon themselves, and on all that partake with them, they have injured in the highest degree innumer|able nations, and done what they could to prevent their salvation, and to fasten them down in ignorance and barbarity to the latest posterity!—Who can realize all this, and not feel a mixture of grief, pity, indigna|tion and horror, truly ineffable! And must he not be filled with zeal to do his utmost to put a speedy stop to this seven-headed monster of iniquity, with all the hor|rid train of evils with which it is attended.

And can any one consider all these things, and yet pretend to justify the slave-trade, or the slavery of the Africans in America? Is it not impossible, that a real Christian, who has attended to all this, should have any hand in this trade? And it requires the utmost stretch of charity to suppose that any one ever did, or can buy or sell an African slave, with a sincere view to make a true Christian of him.

A. All this seems to be little to the purpose; since it was granted in the beginning of our conversation, that the slave-trade, as it has been carried on, is not to be justified. But what is this to the question we proposed to consider; which is, Whether it be wrong to hold the blacks we have among us in a state of slavery, or ought to set them free without delay? To this you have said little or nothing as yet.

B. All I have said upon the slave-trade, to shew the unrighteousness, the cruelty, the murder, the opposition to Christianity and the spread of the gospel among the Africans, the destruction of whole nations, and myriads of souls, which are contained in this horrid practice, has been principally with a view to a more clear and satisfactory, determination of the question before us, which you have now renewedly proposed—For I think  the following proposition may be advanced as undeni|able, viz. If the slave-trade be unjustifiable and wrong; then our holding the Africans and their children in bondage, is unjustifiable and wrong; and the latter is criminal in some proportion to the inexpressible baseness and criminality of the former. For,

FIRST, If they have been brought into a state of slavery, by unrighteousness and violence, they having never forfeited their liberty, or given any one a right to enslave and sell them; then purchasing them of these piratical tyrants, and holding them in the same state of bondage into which they, contrary to all right, have brought them, is continuing the exercise of the same unrighteousness and violence towards them. They have yet as much a right to their liberty as ever they had, and to demand it of him who holds them in bon|dage; and he denies them their right, which is of more worth to them than every thing else they can have in the world, or all the riches the unjust master does or can possess; and therefore injures them in a very high de|gree every hour he refuses or neglects to set them at liberty. Besides,

SECONDLY, Holding these blacks in a state of slavery, is a practical justification of the slave-trade, and so brings the guilt of that on the head of him, who so far partakes in this iniquity, as to hold one of these a slave, who was unrighteously made so by these sons of vio|lence. The old addage, “The partaker is as bad as the thief,” carries such a plain truth in it, that every one must discern it: And it is certainly applicable to this case.

It is impossible to buy one of these blacks and de|tain him a slave, without partaking with him who first reduced him to this state, and put it in his power, thus to possess him; and practically justifying him for so doing, so as to bring upon himself the guilt of first en|slaving him. It is not therefore possible for any of our slave keepers to justify themselves in what they are doing, unless they can justify the slave-trade. If they fall here, they bring on themselves an awful degree of the guilt of the whole.

THIRDLY, By keeping these slaves, and buying and selling them, they actually encourage and promote the slave-trade: And therefore, in this view, keeping slaves, and continuing to buy and sell them, is to bring on us the guilt of the slave-trade, which is hereby supported. For so long as slaves are bought and possessed, and in demand; so long the African trade will be supported and encouraged.

A. But there is a stop put to the importation of slaves into the American Colonies, as they have resolved no more shall be bought. This being the case, the keep|ing those we have among us in slavery, is no encou|ragement to the slave-trade.

B. I grant, if this resolution should be perpetual, and extend to the West Indies, it would discourage the slave-trade; so far as the Americans are concerned in it: But it would be more effectually discountenanced and condemned, if slavery was wholly abolished; and it can|not be consistently done without this. For if it be wrong to import and buy them now, it was always wrong; and therefore they that are already slaves a|mong us, are injured, and unjustly enslaved; and we have made them our slaves without the least right; and ought to retract it, and repair the injury done to them, so far as is in our power, by setting them free, and compensating them otherwise, so far as we are able. There is therefore a palpable inconsistency in resolving to import and buy no more slaves; and yet refusing to let those go out free, which we have already enslaved, unless there be some insuperable impediment in the way.

The whole I have said concerning the unlawfulness of keeping the blacks in slavery, if the trade by which they are become our slaves be unlawful, may be illus|trated by the following example.

A number of robbers invaded a certain province, and took off most of their goods and effects, and carried them to a neighbouring province, and sold them to the inha|bitants; and the robbers finding this encouragement, continued the practice for many years. At length the people of the injured province applied to their neigh|bours, who had their goods of the robbers, and were now In possession of them, and asked them to restore what was taken from them by violence, and to which they had a good and indisputable right; it being impossible these robbers could give a right to what they had unjustly ta|ken from them. But the people in whose possession the stolen goods were found, utterly refused to deliver them up to the injured people who demanded them. They told them, they had indeed been greatly injured, and they must condemn the robbers as very injurious and cruel in what they had done: But as they now had these goods in their own possession, they intended to keep them, and looked on themselves under no obliga|tion to deliver them up, though they suffered so much, and would probably perish for want of them. And they intended still to buy all the robbers should bring to them.

To this the injured replied,

By partaking with these robbers in receiving the goods at their hands, you practically justify their conduct, and must share with them in their guilt. For by this means you en|courage them, and are determined to go on to encou|rage them in this violence and rapine: And by con|demning them, you equally condemn yourselves, and must remain under this condemnation till you restore the goods we demand; and resolve never to purchase any thus taken from us by violence.

Upon this they determined to purchase no more of them, but refused to deliver up what they had already got in possession. But the oppressed told them, they did right in resolving to injure them no more in that way; but they were now very inconsistent with them|selves; for if it were wrong to purchase any more, it was as wrong to withhold what they had already gotten in possession: And they had no other way to justify themselves in detaining their goods, and to be consist|ent, but by proceeding to take whatever those robbers should bring to them in future, and justifying them|selves in so doing, and the robbers in all their depre|dations.

A. This reasoning looks something plausible, I con|fess; but the holy scripture approves of making and keeping slaves; and this surely is sufficient to keep us in countenance.

B. I hope you will not appeal to the holy scripture, in support of a practice, which you and every one else must allow to be so inexpressible unjust, inhuman and cruel, as is the slave-trade; and consequently so glar|ingly contrary to the whole tenor of divine revelation. And if the slave-trade is such a gross violation of every divine precept, ’tis impossible to vindicate the slavery to which the Africans have been reduced by this trade, from the holy scripture. Of this we have such a cer|tainty a priori, that would be a horrid reproach of di|vine revelation, to pretend this practice can be support|ed by that; or even to look into it with any hope or expectation of finding any thing there in favour of it. And if there be any passages in the bible, which are ca|pable of a construction in favour of this practice, we may be very certain it is a wrong one. In a word, if any kind of slavery can be vindicated by the holy scriptures, we are already sure our making and holding the Negroes our slaves, as we do, cannot be vindicated by any thing we can find there; but is condemned by the whole of divine revelation. However, I am wil|ling to hear what you can produce from scripture, in favour of any kind of slavery.


Political Science 601: Political Theory of the American Revolution Copyright © 2017 by John Zumbrunnen. All Rights Reserved.

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