[Editor's Note: Although Paine was not the first to advocate the aboliton of
slavery in Amerca, he was certainly one of the earliest and most influential.
The essay was written in 1774 and published March 8, 1775 when it appeared in
the Pennsylvania Journal and the Weekly Advertiser. Just a few weeks
later on April 14, 1775 the first anti-slavery society in America was formed in
Philadelphia. Paine was a founding member.]
That some desperate wretches should be willing to steal and enslave men
by violence and murder for gain, is rather lamentable than strange. But
that many civilized, nay, Christianized people should approve, and be concerned
in the savage practice, is surprising; and still persist, though it has
been so often proved contrary to the light of nature, to every
principle of Justice and Humanity, and even good policy, by a succession
of eminent men, and several late publications.
Our Traders in MEN (an unnatural commodity!) must know the wickedness
of the SLAVE-TRADE, if they attend to reasoning, or the dictates of their own
hearts: and such as shun and stiffle all these, wilfully sacrifice Conscience,
and the character of integrity to that golden idol.
The Managers the Trade themselves, and others 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, and bribing them against one another; and that these inoffensive
people are brought into slavery, by stealing them, tempting Kings to sell
subjects, which they can have no right to do, and hiring one tribe to war
against another, in order to catch prisoners. By such wicked and inhuman ways
the English are said to enslave towards one hundred thousand yearly; of which
thirty thousand are supposed to die by barbarous treatment in the first year;
besides all that are slain in the unnatural ways excited to take them. So much
innocent blood have the managers and supporters of this inhuman trade to answer
for to the common Lord of all!
Many of these were not prisoners of war, and redeemed from savage conquerors,
as some plead; and they who were such prisoners, the English, who promote
the war for that very end, are the guilty authors of their being so; and
if they were redeemed, as is alleged, they would owe nothing to the redeemer
but what he paid for them.
They show as little reason as conscience who put the matter by with saying
— "Men, in some cases, are lawfully made slaves, and why may not these?" So
men, in some cases, are lawfully put to death, deprived of their goods,
without their consent; may any man, therefore, be treated so, without any
conviction of desert? Nor is this plea mended by adding — "They are
set forth to us as slaves, and we buy them without farther inquiry, let
the sellers see to it." Such man may as well join with a known
band of robbers, buy their ill-got goods, and help on the trade; ignorance
is no more pleadable in one case than the other; the sellers plainly own
how they obtain them. But none can lawfully buy without evidence that they
are not concurring with Men-Stealers; and as the true owner has a right
to reclaim his goods that were stolen, and sold; so the slave, who is proper
owner of his freedom, has a right to reclaim it, however often sold.
Most shocking of all is alledging the sacred scriptures to favour this
wicked practice. One would have thought none but infidel cavillers would
endeavour to make them appear contrary to the plain dictates of natural
light, and the conscience, in a matter of common Justice and Humanity; which
they cannot be. Such worthy men, as referred to before, judged otherways;
Mr. Baxter declared, the Slave-Traders should be called Devils, rather
than Christians; and that it is a heinous crime to buy them. But some
say, "the practice was permitted to the Jews." To which may be
1. The example of the Jews, in many things, may not be imitated by us;
they had not only orders to cut off several nations altogether, but if they
were obliged to war with others, and conquered them, to cut off every male;
they were suffered to use polygamy and divorces, and other things utterly
unlawful to us under clearer light.
2. The plea is, in a great measure, false; they had no permission to
catch and enslave people who never injured them.
3. Such arguments ill become us, since the time of reformation came,
under Gospel light. All distinctions of nations and privileges of one above
others, are ceased; Christians are taught to account all men their neighbours;
and love their neighbours as themselves; and do to all men as they would
be done by; to do good to all men; and Man-stealing is ranked
with enormous crimes. Is the barbarous enslaving our inoffensive neighbours,
and treating them like wild beasts subdued by force, reconcilable with the
Divine precepts! Is this doing to them as we would desire they should
do to us? If they could carry off and enslave some thousands of us, would
we think it just? — One would almost wish they could for once; it might
convince more than reason, or the Bible.
As much in vain, perhaps, will they search ancient history for examples
of the modern Slave-Trade. Too many nations enslaved the prisoners they
took in war. But to go to nations with whom there is no war, who have no
way provoked, without farther design of conquest, purely to catch inoffensive
people, like wild beasts, for slaves, is an height of outrage
against humanity and justice, that seems left by heathen nations to be practised
by pretended Christian. How shameful are all attempts to colour and excuse
As these people are not convicted of forfeiting freedom, they have still
a natural, perfect right to it; and the governments whenever they come should,
in justice set them free, and punish those who hold them in slavery.
So monstrous is the making and keeping them slaves at all, abstracted
from the barbarous usage they suffer, and the many evils attending the practice;
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.
If the slavery of the parents be unjust, much more is their children's;
if the parents were justly slaves, yet the children are born free; this
is the natural, perfect right of all mankind; they are nothing but a just
recompense to those who bring them up: And as much less is commonly spent
on them than others, they have a right, in justice, to be proportionably
Certainly, one may, with as much reason and decency, plead for murder,
robbery, lewdness and barbarity, as for this practice. They are not more
contrary to the natural dictates of conscience, and feeling of humanity;
nay, they are all comprehended in it.
But the chief design of this paper is not to disprove it, which many
have sufficiently done; but to entreat Americans to consider.
1. With what consistency, or decency 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 now are threatened with the same. And while other evils
are confessed, and bewailed, why not this especially, and publicity; than
which no other vice, if all others, has brought so much guilt on the land?
3. Whether, then, all ought not immediately to discontinue and renounce
it, with grief and abhorrence? Should not every society bear testimony against
it, and account 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; they who enjoyed the labours of the 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 masters, and
and best for them. Perhaps some could give them lands upon reasonable rent,
some, employing them in their labour still, might give them some reasonable
allowances for it; so as all may have some property, and fruits of their
labours at the own disposal, and be encouraged to industry; the family may
live together, and enjoy the natural satisfaction of exercising relative
affections and duties, with civil protection, and other advantages, like
fellow men. Perhaps they might sometime form useful barrier settlements
on the frontiers. Thus they may become interested in the public welfare,
and assist in promoting it; instead of being dangerous, as now they are,
should any enemy promise them a better condition.
5. The past treatment of Africans must naturally fill them with abhorrence
of Christians; lead them to think our religion would make them more inhuman
savages, if they embraced it; thus the gain of that trade has been pursued
in oppositions of the redeemer's cause, and the happiness of men. Are we
not, therefore, bound in duty to him and to them to repair these
injuries, as far as possible, by taking some proper measure to instruct,
not only the slaves here, but the Africans in their own countries? Primitive
Christians, laboured always to spread the divine religion; and this
is equally our duty while there is an heathen nation: But what singular
obligations are we under to these injured people!