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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

The Consistent Life of Benezet

By Benjamin Rush (1746–1813)

[“Biographical Anecdotes of Anthony Benezet.”—Essays, Literary, Moral and Philosophical. 1798.]

THIS excellent man was placed by his friends in early life in a counting-house, but finding commerce opened temptations to a worldly spirit, he left his master, and bound himself as an apprentice to a cooper. Finding this business too laborious for his constitution, he declined it, and devoted himself to school-keeping; in which useful employment he continued during the greatest part of his life.

He possessed uncommon activity and industry in everything he undertook. He did everything as if the words of his Saviour were perpetually sounding in his ears, “Wist ye not, that I must be about my Father’s business?”

He used to say, “the highest act of charity in the world was to bear with the unreasonableness of mankind.”

He generally wore plush clothes, and gave as a reason for it, that after he had worn them for two or three years, they made comfortable and decent garments for the poor.

He once informed a young friend, that his memory began to fail him; “but this,” said he, “gives me one great advantage over thee; for thou canst find entertainment in reading a good book only once, but I enjoy that pleasure as often as I read it; for it is always new to me.”

He published several valuable tracts in favor of the emancipation of the blacks, and of the civilizing and christianizing the Indians. He also published a pamphlet against the use of ardent spirits. All these publications were circulated with great industry, and at his own expense, throughout every part of the United States.

He wrote letters to the queen of Great Britain, and to the queen of Portugal, to use their influence with their respective courts to abolish the African trade. He accompanied his letter to the queen of Great Britain with a present of his works. The queen received them with great politeness, and said after reading them “that the author appeared to be a very good man.”

He also wrote a letter to the king of Prussia, in which he endeavored to convince him of the unlawfulness of war.

During the time the British army was in possession of the city of Philadelphia, he was indefatigable in his endeavors to render the situation of the persons who suffered from captivity as easy as possible. He knew no fear in the presence of his fellow-men, however dignified they were by titles or station, and such were the propriety and gentleness of his manners in his intercourse with the gentlemen who commanded the British and German troops, that when he could not obtain the objects of his requests, he never failed to secure their civilities, and frequently their esteem.

So great was his sympathy with everything that was capable of feeling pain, that he resolved toward the close of his life, to eat no animal food. Upon coming into his brother’s house one day, when his family was dining upon poultry, he was asked by his brother’s wife to sit down and dine with them. “What! (said he) would you have me eat my neighbors?”

This misapplication of a moral feeling, was supposed to have brought on such a debility in his stomach and bowels, as produced a disease in those parts of which he finally died.

Few men, since the days of the apostles, ever lived a more disinterested life. And yet upon his death-bed, he said he wished to live a little longer, that “he might bring down SELF.”

The last time he ever walked across his room, was to take from his desk six dollars which he gave to a poor widow whom he had long assisted to maintain.

He bequeathed, after the death of his widow, a house and lot in which consisted his whole estate, to the support of a school for the education of negro children, which he had founded and taught for several years before his death.

He died in May, 1784, in the seventy-first year of his age.

His funeral was attended by persons of all religious denominations, and by many hundred black people.

Colonel J——n, who had served in the American army, during the late war, in returning from the funeral pronounced an eulogium upon him. It consisted only of the following words: “I would rather,” said he, “be Anthony Benezet in that coffin, than George Washington with all his fame.”