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National Review: A Founding Father’s Stirring Condemnation of Slavery


This article was originally posted at National Review.

‘So much hath been said upon the subject of Slave-keeping, that an apology may be required for this paper,” wrote a Philadelphia physician two years before the start of the American Revolution. “The only one I shall offer is, that the evil still continues.”

What followed was one of the most devastating intellectual assaults on slavery ever published in the American colonies. The pamphlet titled “Address to the Inhabitants of the British Colonies upon Slavekeeping” struck a nerve: All 1,200 copies quickly sold out. Its author, Benjamin Rush, would soon join the revolutionary cause and sign the Declaration of Independence.

Like no other American Founder, Rush embodied the intellectual and moral alliance between liberal democracy and Protestant Christianity: He read John Locke alongside his Bible.

Appealing to conscience and common sense, Rush demolished the rationalizations for slavery then in vogue, beginning with the assumption that Africans were a naturally inferior race to white Europeans. He cited evidence of their “ingenuity” and “humanity” as proof that “they are equal to the Europeans.” He praised their virtue as impressive “as ever adorned a Roman or a Christian character.”

Next came the dubious claim that slavery was an approved practice in the Scriptures. “Christ commands us to look upon all mankind, even our enemies, as our neighbors and brethren,” Rush argued, “and ‘in all things, to do unto them whatever we would wish they should do unto us.’” Like the religious reformers of the previous century, Rush insisted that the Golden Rule — what he called “the law of equity” — should be applied to political life, regardless of race or creed.

Arguments for the economic necessity of slavery were taken to the woodshed. Economic prosperity did not depend upon the enslavement of other human beings. Quite the opposite: “Liberty and property form the basis of abundance, and good agriculture,” he wrote. “I never observed it to flourish where those rights of mankind were not firmly established.” Such was the divine will of “the great Author of our Nature, who has created man free.”

Although Rush’s name did not appear on the pamphlet, published in 1773, his writing revealed his scientific training. He soon began to acknowledge his authorship privately among his friends.

For a young physician still trying to establish himself in the Philadelphia social scene, it was a brazen act of defiance. A quarter of all the households in Philadelphia had slaves, and some of these slave-owners — including Benjamin Franklin and John Dickenson — were significant people in Rush’s professional life. “He became something of a celebrity in the abolitionist world,” writes biographer Stephen Fried, “and something of a pariah in the doctoring world.”

It didn’t matter. Rush called for an end to the slave trade and the gradual abolition of slavery in the colonies. Young slaves should be “educated in the principles of virtue and religion — let them be taught to read and write — and afterwards instructed in some business, whereby they may be able to maintain themselves,” he wrote. “Let laws be made to limit the time of their servitude, and to entitle them to all the privileges of free-born British subjects.”

The point must not be missed: Nearly a century before Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, a leader of the American Revolution — an abolitionist — gave voice to the most radical vision of human equality on the world stage.

Rush became a protégé of Franklin, a confidant of John Adams, an editor of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, and George Washington’s surgeon general in the Continental Army. The slavery question would be put aside in the struggle for independence. But Rush’s prominence in the anti-slavery movement — he supported the Pennsylvania Abolition Society and helped raise funds for the independent black churches in Philadelphia — was not without effect.

Importantly, the Bible was Rush’s battering ram in the abolitionist cause. He was especially concerned with the social and psychological impact of the slave trade: The entire thrust of the moral code of Jesus of Nazareth, he argued, was at odds with the degrading effects of slavery.

“Every prohibition of covetousness — intemperance — pride — uncleanness — theft — and murder, which he delivered — every lesson of meekness, humility, forbearance, charity, self-denial, and brotherly-love which he taught, are levelled against this evil,” Rush wrote. “For slavery, while it includes all the former vices, necessarily excludes the practice of all the latter virtues, both from the master and the slave.”

Addressing the clergy directly, Rush delivered a jeremiad against ministers who provided religious rationales for their slave-owning congregants. Do not invoke the religion of Jesus, he warned, to “sanctify their crimes” against humanity. “In vain will you command your flocks to offer up the incense of faith and charity, while they continue to mingle the sweat and blood of Negro slaves with their sacrifices.”

In all of this, Rush’s legacy offers a rebuke to the progressive Left as well as the new Right. Modern liberalism, which treats religion as the enemy of human freedom, has effectively excised Christianity from America’s founding. The Left views the American story as a racist project from beginning to end. The new Right, however, regards the Founders’ emphasis on individual rights and freedom as the serpent in the garden, the wellspring of radical individualism and moral relativism.

It is a safe bet that Rush knew the Bible better than today’s cultural elites. He became the founder of the Sunday school movement in America and a leader of the American Bible Society. Rush’s letter “The Bible as a School Book,” addressed to a reverend in Boston, clearly reveals that Rush wanted the nation’s children to be immersed in the Scriptures as they learned to read. Even if the Bible said nothing about achieving eternal life with God, he wrote, it should be read in the schools because it contains “the greatest portion of that kind of knowledge which is calculated to produce private and public temporal happiness.”

As nearly all the Founders agreed, the Bible was America’s freedom book. Yet if liberty and equality were the birthright of every human soul, then slavery must be the enemy of the American Revolution. This, the doctor reasoned, was the moral logic of the 1776 project.

“The plant of liberty is of so tender a nature, that it cannot thrive long in the neighborhood of slavery,” he warned. “Remember the eyes of all Europe are fixed upon you, to preserve an asylum for freedom in this country, after the last pillars of it are fallen in every other quarter of the globe.”

Joseph Loconte, PhD, is a Presidential Scholar in Residence at New College of Florida and the C.S. Lewis Scholar for Public Life at Grove City College. He is the author of God, Locke, and Liberty: The Struggle for Religious Freedom in the West. His most recent book is the New York Times bestseller A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War.

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