Today in 1688: Quakers conduct the first formal protest against slavery in Germantown, Pennsylvania

February 18, 2011

Today in Legal HistoryAs part of Black History Month, Westlaw Insider will be examining issues and events that have shaped African American history. 

In what has been called the first step against African American slavery in the English colonies, the authors of the Germantown Petition Against Slavery called upon the golden rule to illuminate their protest.

Drafted by Francis Daniel Pastorius and signed by himself and three others, the petition stated: “There is a saying that we shall doe (sic) to all men like as we will be done ourselves; making no difference of what generation, descent or colour they are.”

Populated by carpenters, weavers, tailors, and shoemakers, the immigrant Mennonite and Quaker families that comprised Germantown knew the pain of religious persecution and valued the religious freedoms of their new home. As such, it was difficult for them to understand how some of their fellow English settlers could support the slave trade.

Five years after the founding of Germantown, Pastorius and three others presented their views on slavery to the nearby Dublin Quaker Meeting. Unfortunately, though the members of the Meeting agreed slavery was unjust, they were unable to arrive at a consensus that involved any direct action. The petition was forwarded to the Philadelphia Quarterly Meeting, then to the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting.

1688 Petition Against SlaveryMinutes indicate that the petition was ultimately sent to the London Yearly Meeting, though it’s unclear whether it actually arrived, as the LYM made no mention of it. The practice of slavery continued in the colonies, and was both tolerated and practiced by some Quaker communities.

Though their arguments often fell on deaf ears, the members of Germantown continued to speak against slavery. In time, their leadership influenced both Quaker abolitionists and Philadelphia society, and in 1776, Quakers penned an official proclamation banning slavery.

The original 1866 petition against slavery was re-discovered in 1844, and inspired abolitionists of the time. Though more than 150 years had passed since its creation, the sentiments of the document still rang true:

“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 from their wives and children … And we who profess that it is not lawful to steal, must likewise, avoid to purchase such things as are stolen, but rather help to stop this robbing and stealing if possible.”