Abolitionism Focus of New Book
December 17, 2008 – While many historians have focused on 19th -century abolitionists as the beginning of the organized fight against slavery, few have examined Anthony Benezet’s role in the dawn of the antislavery movement during the 18th-century. In his latest book, “Let This Voice Be Heard: Anthony Benezet, Father of Atlantic Abolitionism” Maurice Jackson (University of Pennsylvania Press 2009), provides an intellectual and social history of the trans-Atlantic fight against slavery triggered by Benezet, a Philadelphia-based, French-born Huguenot-turned-Quaker. Through a detailed examination of Benezet’s life and writings, Jackson identifies the ideological, religious and social underpinnings of the beginnings of the Atlantic world’s first human rights movement.
“Unlike most whites of his time, Benezet sought to change the condition of the chained and oppressed,” writes Jackson, an assistant professor of history at Georgetown University. “The sight of enslaved blacks being bought and sold along the wharves and markets brought his distaste for inequity to the fore, and he soon set out to do something about the subjugation he witnessed.”
In transforming Quaker antislavery sentiment into a broad-based trans-Atlantic movement, Jackson illustrates how Benezet translated ideas from diverse sources – Enlightenment philosophy, African travel narratives, Quakerism, practical life and the Bible – into concrete action. Benezet founded the African Free School in Philadelphia, where future abolitionist leaders Absalom Jones and James Forten studied and went on to spread his ideas to broad social groups. At the same time, Benezet's friends and correspondents, including Benjamin Franklin, Benjamin Rush, Abbé Raynal, Granville Sharp and John Wesley, gave his ideas an audience in the highest intellectual and political circles.
“Benezet’s dream was to create a transatlantic antislavery movement to free the enslaved Africans from their misery and to establish a network to support and educate blacks once freed,” writes Jackson. “His dream was to educate whites both about their complicity with slavery and about their obligations to blacks and their duty to humankind.”
In a fitting tribute to the influence of Benezet’s work, Jackson recounts that when the great antislavery spokesmen Jacques-Pierre Brissot in France and William Wilberforce in England rose to demand abolition of the slave trade, they read extensive unattributed quotations from Benezet’s writings into the records of the French National Assembly and the British Parliament.
Jackson teaches in the university’s history department. His current research interests include race and revolution in the Atlantic world, African-American history and culture with an emphasis on jazz and spirituals, African-American intellectual history, social and labor movements and the history of the nation’s capital.