The unrest around slavery didn’t start with the Civil War. It actually started in 1688 with the Quakers who were living in Germantown. The Quakers, known as The Society of Friends, have a long history of abolition. The Quakers were unaccustomed to slavery although there was a shortage of labor. They refused to buy slaves and saw it as a huge contradiction.
In 1688, Francis Daniel Pastorius, a young German attorney, and three of his fellow Quakers drafted the first, formal antislavery resolution in America. The resolution raised objections to slavery on both moral and practical grounds. The men gathered and wrote a petition based upon the Bible’s Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” urging the abolishment of slavery. It argues that every human, regardless of belief, color, or ethnicity, has rights that should not be violated. Throughout the petition, the reference to the Golden Rule is used to argue against slavery and for universal human rights.
The four men presented their petition at the local Monthly Meeting, but it is not clear what they expected to happen. They must have understood from the beginning that it would be difficult to force the whole colony to abolish slavery, as it was generally believed that the colony’s prosperity depended on slavery. he Meeting decided that although the issue was fundamental and just, it was too difficult and consequential for them to judge, and would need to be considered further. It was then sent to the Philadelphia Quarterly Meeting, where it was again considered and sent on to the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting.
The practice of slavery continued and was tolerated in Quaker society in the years immediately following the 1688 petition. Some of the authors continued to protest against slavery, but for a decade their efforts were rejected. Gradually over the next century, due to the efforts of many dedicated Quakers such as Benjamin Lay, John Woolman, and Anthony Benezet, Quakers became convinced of the essential wrongness of the institution of slavery. Many of the Quaker abolitionists published their articles anonymously in Benjamin Franklin’s newspaper. In 1776 a proclamation was written by Philadelphia Yearly Meeting banning the owning of slaves. By that time, many Quaker monthly meetings in the Delaware Valley were attempting to help freed slaves by providing funds for them to start businesses and encouraging them to attend Quaker meetings and educate their children.
The 1688 petition was the first American document of its kind that made a plea for equal human rights for everyone. It compelled a higher standard of reasoning about fairness and equality that continued to grow in Pennsylvania and the other colonies with the Declaration of Independence and the abolitionist and suffrage movements, eventually giving rise to Lincoln’s reference to human rights in the Gettysburg Address.
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