Get the stories of six early pioneers of the antislavery cause.
Even though he stood just 4 foot, 7 inches tall and had a hunched back, Benjamin Lay loomed large among 18th century abolitionists. The Quaker dwarf first developed a hatred for slavery in the 1720s while working as a merchant alongside sugar plantations in Barbados. Upon moving to Philadelphia a few years later, he launched a crusade to convince his fellow Quakers that the “peculiar institution” was incompatible with their faith. He interrupted Quaker gatherings to lecture on abolitionism, refused to eat food or wear clothes made by slave labor and published a 278-page screed titled “All Slave-Keepers that Keep the Innocent in Bondage, Apostates.”
Lay was best known for staging bizarre pieces of antislavery theater. For one stunt, he stood outside with one bare foot in the snow to show the suffering of slaves “who go all winter half-clad”; for another, he briefly kidnapped a slaveholding Quaker’s child to illustrate the injustice of separating Africans from their families. In 1738, Lay took the floor at annual Quaker meeting, drew a sword and stabbed a hollowed-out Bible filled with red-colored juice, spraying some of it on the crowd. “Thus shall God shed the blood of those who have enslaved their fellow creatures,” he proclaimed. Lay’s radicalism made him an outcast for much of his life, but he eventually achieved a small success in 1758, when the Quakers voted to exclude slaveholders from their business meetings. Upon hearing the news, the elderly dwarf supposedly rose from his chair and said, “I can now die in peace.”
Born in 1745 in present-day Nigeria, Olaudah Equiano was kidnapped from his village as an adolescent and sold into slavery. He endured the horrors of the Middle Passage aboard a slave ship, and later passed between several masters including a British Royal Navy officer, who used him as a servant during voyages between Europe and North America. After purchasing his freedom in 1766, Equiano moved to England and became active in the abolitionist movement. He penned editorials in newspapers, helped organize a group of black Londoners known as the Sons of Africa and petitioned the British crown to take action against slavery. He also became one of history’s earliest proponents for interracial marriage, which he argued would eliminate color barriers and inspire racial harmony.
Equiano’s biggest contribution to abolitionism came in 1789, when he published “The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano,” an autobiography now considered one of the first slave narratives. The book was a bestseller, and he spent the next several years touring the British Isles and using his life story to illustrate the evils of slavery. Equiano died in 1797—a decade before Britain finally abolished the slave trade—but his “Interesting Narrative” later became an influential text among American abolitionists.
During the mid-18th century, Philadelphia schoolteacher Anthony Benezet laid the foundations of the trans-Atlantic abolitionist movement. The kindhearted Quaker first took up the cause in 1754, when he joined with fellow activist John Woolman in writing a text titled “An Epistle of Caution and Advice, Concerning the Buying and Keeping of Slaves.” Over the next 25 years, Benezet published countless other antislavery tracts that drew on enlightenment philosophy, religious doctrine and economics to make a case for emancipation. Having taught many African children in his school, he also espoused the then-provocative idea that blacks possessed the same intellectual capacity as whites.
Benezet’s writings were widely distributed across both the United States and Europe, and he corresponded with the likes of Benjamin Franklin and Methodism founder John Wesley. In 1775, he helped found The Society for the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage, America’s first abolitionist group. He also lobbied the Quakers to denounce slavery and open a school for blacks, and was instrumental in winning passage of a law that gradually abolished slavery in Pennsylvania. When Benezet died in 1784, some 400 black Philadelphians turned out to march in his funeral procession.
Elizabeth Freeman (Bett)
In 1781, as the American Revolution raged, a Massachusetts slave named Bett approached abolitionist lawyer Theodore Sedgwick and asked him to help her sue for her freedom. Bett had endured mistreatment at the hands of her master’s wife—including a blow from a hot kitchen shovel that left her with a burn on her arm—and she was determined to never return to their house again. To back up her case for emancipation, she cited a surprising source: Massachusetts’ newly inked constitution, which included a passage stating that all the state’s residents were “born free and equal.”
Sedgwick took the case, and later argued in county court that Massachusetts’ constitution nullified any previous laws supporting slavery. In a landmark decision, the jury agreed and awarded Bett her freedom as well as 30 shillings in damages. It was one of the first times that a slave successfully won emancipation in court, and along with another case involving a man named Quok Walker, it helped set a precedent that saw Massachusetts abolish slavery in 1783. Having struck a major blow for the abolitionist cause, Bett went on to work as a paid domestic servant in Sedgwick’s home. She also adopted a name that reflected her new status as a free citizen: Elizabeth Freeman.
The most prominent American physician of the late-18th century, Dr. Benjamin Rush was also a patriot leader who signed the Declaration of Independence and served as surgeon general of the Continental Army. His interest in abolitionism began in the early 1770s, when fellow Philadelphian Anthony Benezet inspired him to pen a critique of slavery titled, “An Address to the Inhabitants of the British Settlements in America, upon Slave-Keeping.” Approaching the subject with a scientist’s eye, Rush stressed that blacks had the same natural intelligence as their white counterparts and that education and emancipation were needed to undue the damage done by slavery.
When the American Revolution ended, Rush was among the many patriots who believed the principles of the new republic left no room for slavery. “It would be useless for us to denounce the servitude to which the Parliament of Great Britain wishes to reduce us,” he once wrote, “while we continue to keep our fellow creatures in slavery just because their color is different.” He joined the Pennsylvania Abolition Society in the 1780s, serving first as its secretary and then its president, and later made arrangements to free his lone slave. Rush also took steps to lift up Philadelphia’s free black community, including raising money for African churches and enlisting the help of black nurses during a 1793 yellow fever epidemic.
Many former slave owners took up the abolitionist cause during the 1700s, but few made as radical a conversion as Moses Brown. The Rhode Island native and Brown University co-founder came from a prominent family whose commercial interests included slave trading. Brown owned several slaves himself, but he began to question the practice in the late-1760s after a disastrous voyage saw the family’s slave ship lose more than half its 200-person human cargo to disease, suicide and a failed insurrection. The tragedy weighed heavily on Brown’s conscience, and by 1774, he had converted to Quakerism and renounced slavery. “I saw my slaves with my spiritual eyes as plainly as I see you now,” he later recalled, “and it was given to me as clearly to understand that the sacrifice that was called for of my hand was to give them liberty.”
After manumitting his slaves, Brown cut ties with the family slaving business and became an ardent abolitionist. He assisted in court cases involving blacks unfairly held in bondage, distributed pamphlets against slavery, donated land for black schools and campaigned tirelessly for the abolition of the African slave trade on both the state and federal level. Even after Rhode Island banned the slave trade in 1787, he founded the Providence Society for the Abolition of Slavery to help prosecute those who violated the new law. Before his death in 1836, Brown had a personal meeting with famed abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, who deemed the reformed slave trader “an extraordinary man” with “interest in all the great philanthropic movements of the age.”