(Note: This is the eighth essay in a series on Slavery in Rhode Island. It was originally published by the Newport Daily News on February 25, 2020.)
The enslavement of people of color in the colony of Rhode Island began probably with the founding of the colony in 1636. The process of emancipation of the enslaved began on a colony-wide basis with Quaker manumissions in 1773 and ended with the General Assembly abolishing slavery in 1842.
Change of this order requires ideas and agents of change. In this case, the idea of the natural inequality of humans had to be displaced by the idea of their inherent equality and right to freedom. Western civilization recognizes these new profound ideas emerging with force in the 18th century, known as the Enlightenment or the Age of Reason. Its core ideas included the inherent dignity, worth, beauty, and potential of humans and the agency of humans to reform society for the better.
Thomas Jefferson enshrined some of these new ideas in the opening paragraphs of the Declaration of Independence. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights; that among these rights are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” He spoke to the agency and role of humans in continuing: “That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed….”
When coupled to the basic beliefs of Christianity, these ideas became exceptionally compelling to some, even those deeply benefiting from the business of slavery.
To effect such a dramatic change, these ideas needed human agents—white people and people of color—to drive them. For whites, the Quakers took the lead. As historian Christy Clark-Pujara states in her book, Dark Work: The Business of Slavery in Rhode Island: “The Quakers were the first European-descended religious group in the Americas to publicly question and eventually prohibit slaveholding among its members; they were also the driving political force behind legal restrictions placed on slaveholding.”
Quakers believed in the spiritual equality of all humans, that they all shared the ability to receive the “inner light” from God, a concept with its roots in the ancient Greek philosophy of stoicism. Their commitment to emancipation evolved. Initially they saw no conflict with slavery. They believed they could remain holy as long as they treated their slaves well. Many educated their slaves and brought them to their Quaker meetings.
However, eventually many Quakers came to believe that slaveholding was “contrary to true Christianity” and tied slaveholding to slave-trading, making both the focus of their actions. Not only did they free slaves under their control, they also became fervent abolitionists, seeking to legislate the end of slavery. They published broadsides, commentary, and homilies roundly criticizing the horrors of slavery. They sent petitions to legislators. They claimed that the slave trade and slaveholding were “the most barbarous” institutions in history, and they declared that God would punish the entire nation because of these sins.
Other Protestant ministers also served as agents of change. Congregationalist minister Samuel Hopkins was exceptional in this regard. Serving as pastor in Newport, 1770-1803, he became a very vocal, resolute abolitionist after his first few years there. As historian Joseph Conforti writes: “For the first time in his life, the backcountry minister confronted the slave trade’s grim reality. Chained Africans were sometimes unloaded in Newport and sold before his eyes.”
Hopkins came to believe that British tyranny was God’s retribution for the slaveholding and slave trading of the colonists. Moved to action, he preached against slavery and sought to convince wealthy slaveholders and other ministers to join the cause.
Once the War for Independence began, the new nation needed soldiers to fill its ranks. By 1778, with the British offering freedom to slaves and with the Continental Congress calling for more battalions, the Rhode Island General Assembly decided to allow slaves to enlist in the 1st Rhode Island Regiment, which came to be known as the “Black Regiment.” The 1778 Slave Enlistment Act declared: “That every slave so enlisting shall, upon passing muster …, be immediately discharged from the service of his master or mistress, and be absolutely FREE.” Fighting in Rhode Island, New York, and New Jersey, the regiment grew eventually to 226 officers and enlisted—perhaps 110 of the latter being former black slaves.
Christy Clark-Pujara indicates that this was “the first … step in the legal dismantling of the institution of slavery.” Though the act was revoked five months later because of stiff opposition, this act and the performance of the 1st Rhode Island in the war greatly undermined slavery in Rhode Island. Former slaves and free blacks had enlisted and were fighting next to whites against British tyranny and for “unalienable” human rights. Were not enslaved blacks also human and deserving of these same rights? (See “The Emancipation of the Enslaved in R.I., Part II.”)
Fred Zilian (zilianblog.com; Twitter: @FredZilian) is an adjunct professor of history and politics at Salve Regina University and a regular columnist.