By Gary B. Nash. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017. 352 pages. $34.95/hardcover or eBook.
Thorough books have been produced in recent years by historians exploring the writings and works of early Quaker anti-slavery activists, including Marcus Rediker’s biography The Fearless Benjamin Lay: The Quaker Dwarf Who Became the First Revolutionary Abolitionist (reviewed in FJ Sept. 2017) and David L. Crosby’s annotated collection, The Complete Antislavery Writings of Anthony Benezet, 1754–1783 (reviewed in FJ Nov. 2014).
These books and others have been efforts to recover a little known aspect of early American history: how a small band of religious white people—the most vocal of them Quakers—pressed for the universal emancipation of slaves on moral grounds. They met strong opposition from those with vested economic interests in slavery, including fellow Quakers, yet they persisted.
Now Gary Nash, a history research professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, has produced a comprehensive biography of the all-but-forgotten leader of this small movement, Warner Mifflin.
Mifflin, the scion of a wealthy plantation owner, became convinced through epiphanous awakenings to see slavery as an evil antithetical to the natural order and the God who created that order.
Mifflin (1745–1798) freed his own slaves, urged others to do the same, lobbied legislatures to press for slavery’s end, and even advocated and practiced a form of reparations—he called it restitution—paying slaves he freed with money or goods for the work they had done. Southern politicians hated him, with one declaring him “a meddling fanatic.” Many slaves and former slaves held him in the highest regard, as a man who pushed for their cause long after both Lay (1681–1759) and Benezet (1713–1784) and other abolitionists like John Woolman (1720–1772) were gone. Though he would have little or no contact with these activists, Mifflin would take up their cause.
Mifflin grew up on a plantation on the Delmarva Peninsula. As a boy most of his companions were slaves. He did not publicly question the peculiar institution, however, until his late 20s, when he suffered an illness and in his recuperation became, as he wrote, “fully persuaded in my conscience that it is a sin of a deep dye to make slaves of my fellow creatures.” He also wrote he would free slaves because he believed “it to be impossible to obtain that peace my soul desires while my hands are found full of injustice . . .” Mifflin’s efforts to abolish slavery were complicated by the American Revolution, which tore colonial society apart and sorely tested the Quaker testimony of peace, which Mifflin and others held dear. Many revolutionaries considered Quakers to be royalist sympathizers and profiteers. Quakers were abused and their property destroyed. Mifflin and others risked their lives to travel to Quaker gatherings and to meet with both British and American military leaders to urge peace.
Throughout the war, Mifflin only became more committed to his belief that slavery was a moral wrong. He freed all his slaves and paid them back wages, and his home became a safe haven for slaves and ex-slaves.
Mifflin and other Quakers press leaders of the new United States, including Congress, for an end to slavery. Mifflin was widely known during his lifetime as a leading abolitionist, being praised by like-minded people in the United States and Europe, including Thomas Clarkson, who mentioned him in his popular book on Quakers opposing the slave trade. Southern politicians and businessmen railed against him. But after he died of yellow fever in 1798, his legacy faded almost to oblivion. Now, Professor Nash has delivered a noble effort of, as he puts it, “[r]estoring Warner Mifflin to public memory.” Bravo.
The book has some weaknesses. At points it loses larger themes in too much detail about Mifflin’s family life and his comings and goings. A bigger problem is no fault of Professor Nash, but of the historical record. Here is yet another work about white abolitionists where we learn very little about the people they were trying to free. Slaves, even if named in the book, remain undeveloped as characters because little record was made of their opinions and concerns. We are left to wonder what they thought of the cruel social order in which they were expected to inhabit the lowest level in perpetuity—and we learn little of their own efforts to escape that system’s broad reach.