University of Wisconsin–Madison

Quaker Opposition to the Slavery Provisions in the Constitution

Quakers were certainly pleased that during the Revolutionary War, there was a near cessation of importation of slaves. Under the Articles of Association colonies agreed to stop the practice largely as a punitive measure protesting British trade policies. Throughout the 1770s and 1780s their efforts to end the slave trade and slavery consisted mainly of moral suasion and petitioning. Their work met with some modest success as several states banned the importation of slaves and several abolished the practice altogether. The rhetoric and logic of liberty though was not fully extended to slaves in that the resumption of importing slaves did occur after the war and ultimately the Constitutional Convention reached several compromises regarding slavery. The Quakers were generally supportive of the Constitution, but actively sought to correct the deficiencies in the new plan of government in regards to slavery. For an extended discussion regarding the role of the Quakers and their opposition to several provisions in the Constitution see Quaker Opposition to the Protection of Slavery in the Constitution (pdf).

Our selections highlight the convictions, frustrations, and approaches of the Quakers as they sought to ban the slave trade and ultimately slavery altogether. For three excellent treatments of slavery in the Founding Period, see A Necessary Evil? Slavery and the Debate Over the Constitution by John P. Kaminski, Slavery and the Founders by Paul Finkelman, and Race and Revolution by Gary Nash.