The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XV. Colonial and Revolutionary Literature; Early National Literature, Part I.

V. Philosophers and Divines, 1720–1789

§ 6. John Woolman

A similar fate befell the last of our colonial thinkers, John Woolman (1720–1772), the Quaker, a sort of provincial Piers Plowman, whose visions of reform were far ahead of his day. In his Journal, the humble tailor of New Jersey takes up, in order, the evils of war and of lotteries, of negro slavery and excessive labour, of the selling of rum to the Indians, of cruelty to animals. Moreover, like the visions of the Plowman, Woolman’s work might be called a contribution to the history of English mysticism. Whittier described the Journal as “a classic of the inner life”; Channing, as “beyond comparison the sweetest and purest autobiography in the language”; while Charles Lamb urged his readers to get the writings of Woolman “by heart.”

These writings are in marked contrast to the controversial spirit of their time. They avoid entangling alliances with either the old or new divinity, and have little to do with the endless quarrels between Calvinists and Arminians. In place of doctrine and formal creed come “silent frames” and the exercises of the interior or hidden life. The contrast is like that portrayed by Woolman himself when he said that “while many parts of the world groaned under the heavy calamities of war, our habitation remains quiet, and our land fruitful.”

In Woolman, then, we have the fruits of quietism as contrasted with the fruits of controversy. Duties rather than doctrine are emphasized, and all with that air of innocent simplicity held so desirable by the Society of Friends. Because of his candour and his fervour, Woolman might be called a socialist unconscious of his socialism, except for the fact that his efforts were exerted in a private capacity, and that he offended not even those with whom he laboured—soldiers, slave owners, dealers in goods which were to be looked upon as contraband to Christianity. He accomplished his results upon the Quaker principle of natural sensibility. In marked contrast to the Calvinist principle of the depravity of the human heart, he argues upon the possibilities of the human mind towards good:—“that as the mind was moved, by an inward principle, to love God as an invisible, incomprehensible being; by the same principle it was moved to love Him in all His manifestations in the visible world.”

Armed with this gentle logic, he began to set down, not his programme of reforms, but a recital of certain “heavenly openings” in respect to the care and providence of the Almighty over his creatures. The first of those creatures for whom Woolman was concerned was a slave. Here there arose a conflict between the logic of compassion and the logic of commerce, for when his employer obliged him to write a bill of sale for a poor negro woman, he was much afflicted in mind. As was his wont, Woolman now began to gather reasons for his feeling of uneasiness. That which was against conscience he now finds to be against logical conviction, especially when in a journey to the Southern provinces he meets with slave owners. To their arguments in favour of fetching negroes from Africa for slaves because of the wretchedness occasioned by their intestine wars, he replies that liberty is the natural right of all men equally. But this general principle—a commonplace of the age of reason—is not so effective as one more particular:

  • There is great odds on what principle we act. If compassion on the Africans, in regard to their domestic trouble, were the real motives of our purchasing them, that spirit of tenderness being attended to, would incite us to use them kindly. But to say they live unhappy in Africa is far from being an argument in our favour; our real views in purchasing them are to advance ourselves, and, while our buying captives taken in war animates those parties to push on the war and increase desolation amongst them, we too are putting upon our shoulders a burthensome stone, a burden that will grow heavier and heavier till times change in a way disagreeable to us.
  • Upon this argument, presented with a kindly shrewdness, many of Woolman’s slave-owning hearers looked serious. It was a prophency of the irrepressible conflict between slaveholders and free-holders, and that over a century before that conflict came. So the prospect of a road lying open to degeneracy in some parts of this newly settled land of America, now drove Woolman to publish, and at his own expense, Some Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes Recommended to the Professors of Christianity of every Denomination (1754–62). The author is troubled with a weight of distress because, instead of the spirit of meekness, gentleness, and heavenly wisdom, a spirit of fierceness and a love of dominion too generally prevails. Yet it is not criticism, but compassion, that furnishes Woolman with his strongest lever against that great building “raised by degrees, from small beginnings in error.” In a series of indirect questions, the logician of the heart brings the matter home. Drawing upon contemporary accounts of the slave trade, he argues in this fashion:

  • Should we consider ourselves present as spectators, when cruel negroes privately catch innocent children, who are employed in the fields; hear their lamentable cries, under the most terrifying apprehensions; or should we look upon it as happening in our own families, having our children carried off by savages, we must needs own, that such proceedings are contrary to the nature of Christianity.
  • In the light of such disclosures, Woolman might have attacked the accursed institution with directness and bitterness, but his method is ever indirect, ever indirect, ever imbued with a sweet reasonableness.

  • “The English government,” he continues, “hath been commended by candid foreigners for the disuse of racks and tortures, so much practiced in some states; but this multiplying slaves now leads to it; for where people exact hard labour of others, without a suitable reward, and are resolved to continue in that way, severity to such who oppose them becomes the consequence.… These things are contrary to the true order of kind providence. Admit that the first negro man and his wife did as much business as their master and mistress, and that the children of the slaves have done some more than their young masters.… It follows, that in equity these negroes have a right to a part of this increase.… Again, if we seriously consider that liberty is the right of innocent men; that the Almighty God is a refuge for the oppressed; that in reality we are indebted to them … to retain them in perpetual servitude, without present cause for it, will produce effects, in the event, more grievous than setting them free would do.”
  • And so in a final passage breathing the very spirit of the Society of Friends, the Quaker liberator presents the fundamental objection to the keeping of the poor blacks in servitude:

  • There is a principle, which is pure, placed in the human mind, which in different places and ages hath had different names; it is, however, pure and proceeds from God.—It is deep, and inward, confined to no forms of religion, nor excluded from any, where the heart stands in perfect sincerity. In whomsoever this takes root, and grows, of what nation soever, they become brethren.