Thomas Paine calls for an end to slavery (1775)




thomas paine slavery
Thomas Paine’s death mask, on display in a Manchester museum
Thomas Paine (1737-1809) was a British-born journalist and political radical who emigrated to Pennsylvania in 1774. Though best-known for promoting American independence in his 1776 pamphlet Common Sense, Paine was a prolific writer who penned essays on many topics. In a March 1775 edition of the Pennsylvania Journal and Weekly Advertiser, Paine published this essay calling for the abolition of slavery and the resettlement of freed slaves. His arguments include a barbed comparison with colonial grievances about Britain. On April 14th 1775, a month after this essay was published and just five days before the Battle of Lexington, Paine and other Philadelphia liberals formed the Society for the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage, America’s first abolitionist group:



To Americans:

“That some desperate wretches should be willing to steal and enslave men by violence and murder for gain, is [more] lamentable than strange. But that many civilised, Christianised people should approve and be concerned in the savage practice is surprising… It has been so often proved contrary to the light of nature, to every principle of justice and humanity, even good policy, by a succession of eminent men…

Our traders in men (an unnatural commodity) must know the wickedness of that slave trade if they attend to reasoning or the dictates of their own hearts. [But they] shun and stifle all these [and] wilfully sacrifice conscience and the character of integrity to that golden idol…

The managers of [the slave trade] testify that many of these African nations inhabit fertile countries, are industrious farmers, enjoy plenty and lived quietly, averse to war, before the Europeans debauched them with liquors… By such wicked and inhuman ways, the English are said to enslave towards 100,000 yearly, of which 30,000 are supposed to die by barbarous treatment in the first year…

So monstrous is the making and keeping them slaves at all… and the many evils attending the practice, [such] as selling husbands away from wives, children from parents and from each other, in violation of sacred and natural ties; and opening the way for adulteries, incests and many shocking consequences, for all of which the guilty masters must answer to the final judge…

The chief design of this paper is not to disprove [slavery], which many have sufficiently done, but to entreat Americans to consider:

1. With that consistency… they complain so loudly of attempts to enslave them, while they hold so many hundred thousands in slavery and annually enslave many thousands more, without any pretence of authority or claim upon them.

2. How just, how suitable to our crime is the punishment with which providence threatens us? We have enslaved multitudes and shed much innocent blood in doing it, and are now threatened with the same [by the English]…

3. [Should] all not immediately discontinue and renounce it, with grief and abhorrence? Should not every society bear testimony against it and [consider] obstinate persisters in it bad men, enemies to their country, and exclude them from fellowship, as they often do for much lesser faults?

4. The great question may be: What should be done with those who are enslaved already? To turn the old and infirm free would be injustice and cruelty; those who enjoyed the labours of their better days should keep and treat them humanely. As to the rest, let prudent men, with the assistance of legislatures, determine what is practicable for [their] masters and best for them…”

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