Facing up to the realities of slaveholding

Up to the American Revolution, despite opposition, some Quakers held slaves, and Dover was not exempt. Up to ten were manumitted, likely with the equivalent of a year’s wages.


Slaveholding was a particularly difficult issue. Initially, queries pointed slave-owning Friends to treat their subjects fairly, but that perspective evolved under the influence of ardent abolitionists. In 1731, as the minutes record, “Whereas some Friends signified at our last Monthly Meeting that they were uneasy with the practice of Friends buying or trading Negroes or slaves which was left to this meeting for consideration. After due consideration thereof the desire of this meeting is that all Friends that are clear of slaves may not be concerned with the practice thereof, but to keep themselves clear of practicing ye trade of buying or selling slaves.”

Nevertheless, that proved insufficient at the time.

Finally, on 9 mo 22, 1777, a committee was appointed – James Neal, Elijah Jenkins, and Jonathan Dame – “to visit those Friends belonging to this Meeting that hold Negroes as slaves, and advise them to set them free, and make report to our next Monthly Meeting.”

Doing so would not be easy. For Friends, manumission included payment of the equivalent of a year’s wages, a hefty amount. Elsewhere, it bankrupted some Quakers, who were then disowned for failing to keep their financial promises and their debts clear.

Still, three months later, “The Friends that were appointed to visit those Friends that held Negroes as slaves have made their report that that they proceeded likewise and obtained the manumissions from those that had Negroes in their possession. It is the judgment of this meeting that those manumissions should be recorded upon our minutes.”

Eight manumissions involving ten slaves were recorded.

Moses Brown of Rhode Island helped facilitate the freeing of slaves in Dover.

Assisting in the process was Moses Brown of Providence, Rhode Island, who had been appointed by New England Yearly Meeting to the manumission drive. He was an abolitionist who had separated himself from a prominent, wealthy family involved in the slave trade and instead joined Friends. Through his co-ownership of the Slater Mill at Pawtucket, he is considered a founder of the industrial revolution in America. He also helped establish Brown University, and the Quaker-affiliated Moses Brown School is named is his honor. He signed as a witness to most of the Dover manumissions.

One of them, Seasar Sanky, or Caesar, liberated in 1777 by James Neal of Kittery, had earlier married another slave, Sarah Sharp, among Dover Friends on November 23, 1774.

In the manumission, as Annie Pinkham relates, “Neal stated that he had some years since permitted Seasar to go and labor for himself, but received his wages, and applied same to his use in purchasing a piece of land with a house in Berwick on Oak Hill for which a deed was taken in Seasar’s name.”

However, when Seasar entered the Revolutionary War in 1777, he lost his membership as a Friend.

In another case, “I, Thomas Hanson of Dover, in the Government of New Hampshire, having for some years held Peter, a Negro man, as a slave, according to the tradition of the Country, but being convinced of the Error of the Practice, and the right of all men to be Free, I sometime in the past gave him his Liberty, but the more Effectually to Secure the same and to publish my Unity with our Christian Testimony in this Matter, I do by these presents Manumit, Release, and Set Free the Said Negro Man, Peter, in as full a manner as if he had been Free born, and hereby Warrant to Secure and Defend his said Freedom against the claim of all persons Claiming by, from, or under me, in Witness Whereof I hereunto set my hand the Twenty-First day of the Eleventh month 1777.”

The document was witnessed by Moses Brown and James Neal.

Others manumitted were Jack by Moses Roberts and Dinah by Keziah Roberts, the widow of Stephen Roberts.

The actions were part of a larger drive. By 1784, no Friend in America held slaves. In all fairness, I will also note that some of the wealthiest Quaker families had instead become Episcopalian or Presbyterian, in part as a way of avoiding the Quaker discipline, including its emphasis on equality, and in part to better enjoy a lifestyle of the rich.


Check out my new book, Quaking Dover, available in your choice of ebook platforms at Smashwords.com.

Welcome to Dover’s upcoming 400th anniversary.


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