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The Sin of Slaveholding
Digital History ID 80

Author:   Samuel Sewall


On January 14, 1697, Samuel Sewall (1652-1730), a leading merchant and one of the Salem judges, publicly repented his role in the witch trials. Three years later he published one of the first antislavery tracts in American history.

In colonial America, there was no sharp division between a slave South and a free-labor North. New England was involved in the Atlantic slave trade from the mid-1600s to the 1780s. In the years preceding the American Revolution, slavery could be found in all the American colonies. By the mid-eighteenth century, slaves made up almost 8 percent of the population in Pennsylvania, 40 percent in Virginia, and 70 percent in South Carolina. During the second quarter of the eighteenth century, a fifth of Boston's families owned slaves; and in New York City in 1746, slaves performed about a third of the city's manual labor.

In the North, slaves were used in both agricultural and non-agricultural employment, especially in highly productive farming and stock-raising for the West Indian market in southern Rhode Island, Long Island, and New Jersey. Slaves not only served as household servants for an urban elite--cooking, doing laundry, and cleaning stables--they also worked in rural industry, in salt works, iron works, and tanneries. In general, slaves were not segregated into distinct racial ghettoes; instead, they lived in back rooms, lofts, attics, and alley shacks. Many slaves fraternized with lower-class whites. But in the mid-eighteenth century, racial separation increased, as a growing proportion of the white working-class began to express bitter resentment over competition from slave labor. The African American response in the North to increased racial antagonism and discrimination was apparent in a growing consciousness and awareness of Africa and the establishment of separate African churches and benevolent societies.

In this extract, Sewall critically examines the rationalizations that were used to justify slavery. His tract's title refers to the Old Testament story in which Joseph's brothers sold him into slavery.


Forasmuch as liberty is in real value next to life, none ought to part with it themselves, or deprivate others of it, but upon most mature consideration.

The numerousness of slaves at this day in the province, and the uneasiness of them under their slavery, has put many upon thinking whether the foundation of it be firmly and well laid, so as to sustain the vast weight that is built upon it. It is most certain that all men, as they are the sons of Adam, are coheirs, and have equal right unto liberty, and all other outward comforts of life....

Originally and naturally, there is no such thing as slavery. Joseph was rightfully no more a slave to his brethren than they were to him; and they had no more authority to sell him than they had to slay him....

And all things considered, it would conduce more to the welfare of the province to have white servants for a term of years than to have slaves for life. Few can endure to hear of a Negro's being made free, and indeed they can seldom use their freedom well; yet their continual aspiring after their forbidden liberty renders them unwilling servants. And there is such a disparity in their conditions, color, and hair that they can never embody with us and grow up into orderly families, to the peopling of the land, but still remain in our body politic as a kind of extravasat[ed] blood.... Moreover, it is too well known what temptations masters are under to connive at the fornication of their slaves, lest they should be obliged to find them wives, or pay their fines....

It is likewise most lamentable to think, how in taking Negroes out of Africa and selling of them here, that which God has joined together men do boldly rent asunder--men from their wives, parents from their children. How horrible is the uncleanness, mortality, if not murder, that the ships are guilty of that bring great crowds of these miserable men and women. Methinks, when we are bemoaning the barbarous usage of our friends and kinfolk in Africa, it might not be unseasonable to inquire whether we are not culpable in forcing the Africans to become slaves among ourselves. And it may be a question whether all the benefit received by Negro slaves will balance the account of cash laid out upon them, and for the redemption of our own enslaved friends out of Africa, besides all the persons and estates that have perished there.

Objection 1. These blackamoors are of the posterity of Ham, and therefore under the curse of slavery (Gen. 9:25-27).

Answer....If this ever was a commission, how do we know but that it is long since out of date?...But it is possible that by cursory reading this text may have been mistaken....

Objection 2. The Negroes are brought out of a pagan country into places where the Gospel is preached.

Answer. Evil must not be done that good may come of it....

Objection 3. The Africans have wars one with another. Our ships bring lawful captives taken in those wars.

Answer....If they be between town and town, provincial or national, every war is upon one side unjust. An unlawful war can't make lawful captives. And by receiving, we are in danger to promote and partake in their barbarous cruelties.

The Selling of Joseph: A Memorial, Boston, 17

Source: Samuel Sewall, The Selling of Joseph: A Memorial (Boston: printed by Bartholomew Green and John Allen, 1700).

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