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Jefferson, Wheatley, and Woolman all come from very different backgrounds but nonetheless have have serious apprehensions about the persistence of slavery in the colonies and the emerging nation. How would you say two (or all three) of these writers understand slavery in the colonies and the United States? What are one or two details in their writing that make you think as you do?

3 Responses to “Woolman, Jefferson, and Wheatley”

  1. Emily Luan says:

    While Woolman takes a clear stance against slavery, the circuitous intellectual close reading he applies to the Bible shows a reluctance to fully express his views. “I know it is a point about which in all its branches men that appear to aim well are not generally agreed, and for that reason I chose to avoid being very particular,” he says. I imagine this is in part a strategy to appeal to those readers who are not easily persuaded, but also an internal struggle to understand the universality of “love” and “truth.” While he chooses not to use scathing language to condemn his opponents, he feels that writing this article is necessary and important. Further, his reading of the Jewish/Gentile conflict is a clever device, as it parallels the significance of accepting slaves into a universal mankind to a historical rift that has been overcome.

    It is difficult to tell from Jefferson’s text the exact stance he takes on slavery. As the primary writer of the Constitution, it is important to note that he does in fact draft the paragraph condemning the slave trade. Even if he uses it as a way to call out the “CHRISTIAN king,” he must have been aware of the consequences of ratifying a document with those statements. Perhaps if he had provided a less objective representation of the revising process, his intention would have been clearer.

  2. Emily Cavanagh says:

    Both Woolman and Wheatley express their opposition to the practice of slavery in the Americas in light of religiously minded history and principals. Both individuals speak of the modern phenomenon’s likeness to being slaves in the land of Egypt, but emphasizing the ills of involvement from different perspectives of the master/enslaved dynamic, given their personal position. In his writing, Woolman primarily focuses on slavery’s effects of the psyche of the Christian slaveowner, who sacrifices to some extent his commitment to God in getting swept up in “selfish, earthly and sensual” desires. He expresses that their perpetuation of this problematic power dynamic will sacrifice their ability to find “humility and meekness”, both central Christian values. Wheatley, while also pointing to the diametrical opposition of the practices of a Christian slaveowner, speaks more directly to the effects of slavery on the lived experience of individuals who could otherwise simply peacefully be converted to Christianity from their Pagan roots. She denounces the colonists’ interest in denying both civil and religious liberty to so many, but does so whilst she simultaneously praises their enlightened religious perspective. She likens the experience of slaves to the colonists under British rule and expresses hopeful sentiments that they might too soon be free from authoritarian rule. She appears to seek to incite a positive response by singing praises for their virtue and working to highlight the similarities between their situation and her own.

  3. Adam Kelley says:

    Jefferson and Woolman each denounce slavery in a different way and for different reasons. The former points to slavery as just one of the many abuses King George has committed in the American colonies. His paragraph about slavery comes at the end of a long list of grievances that detail other oppressive actions of the British, and though it seems at least plausible that Jefferson views the monarchy’s support of slavery as the worst of these offenses, it is still very clear that Jefferson is raising the point with an overtly political motive, and is not decrying the “horrors” of slavery for the simple fact that they are morally wrong. Therefore, this document tells us relatively little about what Jefferson actually thought about slavery; we can’t know that his words are anything more than an attempt to incite anti-British sentiment (although I am sure there is). To this end, Jefferson covers all the bases: to appeal to those with a more secular, philosophical stance, slavery is part of a “cruel war against human nature,” and for the religious leaders of the Declaration, it is also un-Christian.

    Woolman, however, offers a purely intellectual refutation of slavery, with no apparent goal other then ending a practice he views as morally repugnant and spiritually damning. He blames no one for supporting the implementation of slavery, but rather points to the pernicious influence of custom on what is and is not considered socially/morally acceptable in a society, and how easy it is to ignore the troubling implications of any act as long as it is a longstanding cultural, economic, or social tradition (Slavery would fall into all three categories.). He condemns slavery not only because it is purely immoral but also because of the spiritual toll it takes on those who perpetuate it. Woolman demonstrates real sympathy for slaves and offers an argument for abolition that I imagine his audience would find compelling (although perhaps not enough to effect real material change). Jefferson demonstrates no such depth of feeling, and, on the most superficial level, condemns slavery simply because it is something King George supports.

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