Nonfiction > Thomas Paine > The Writings of Thomas Paine
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Thomas Paine (1737–1809).  The Writings of Thomas Paine.  1906.
 
Prefatory Note to Paine’s First Essay
 
THIS essay is here for the first time printed since its original appearance in the Postscript to the Pennsylvania Journal and the Weekly Advertiser, Philadelphia, March 8, 1775. Dr. Benjamin Rush, who was much impressed by the essay, says, “He [Paine] told me the essay to which I alluded was the first thing he had ever published in his life.” Dr. Rush, writing thirty-four years after the interview, and in extreme age, must have reported Paine’s remark inexactly, for several articles by Paine were published a little earlier in 1775. But there are indications that this antislavery essay was written at the close of 1774, immediately after Paine’s arrival in America (November 30). It was therefore the first essay he wrote for publication, though its appearance was delayed by the editor. Probably there was hesitation about publishing it at all. It was given a place in the Postscript. In the same issue “a stout healthy young negro man” is offered for sale, for whom those interested may “enquire of the Printers.” Slavery existed in all of the colonies,—there were nearly 6,000 slaves in Pennsylvania—nor had any one proposed immediate abolition of the system in America.  1
  Attention was called to the Slave Trade by an anonymous pamphlet, small and cheap, entitled “A Short Account of that Part of Africa inhabited by the Negroes, etc.” This was published in Philadelphia, the second edition (probably the first also) dated 1762. In 1767 the Quaker Anthony Benezet wrote “A Caution and Warning to Great Britain and Her Colonies, etc.” (Philadelphia), in which the English denunciations of the Slave Trade were quoted. In 1772 the eminent Dr. Benjamin Rush published two brief pamphlets inveighing against the Slave Trade, and the cruelties of some masters. Although Dr. Rush recognized the injustice of Slavery he made no suggestion for its abolition. In the preface to his “Essays, literary, moral, and philosophical” (Philadelphia, 1798), Dr. Rush says: “The author has omitted in this Collection two pamphlets which he published in the year 1772 upon the Slavery of the Negroes, because he conceived the object of them had been in part accomplished, and because the Citizens of the United States have since that time been furnished from Great Britain and other countries with numerous tracts upon that subject more calculated to complete the effect intended by the author, than his early publications.” When this was written Slavery was more powerful than in 1772, and the only object “in part accomplished” was the approaching end of the Slave Trade (1808). It will be seen therefore that the few antislavery protests in America preceding Paine’s essay by no means anticipated it. Their aim was to excite horror of the traffic in Africans abroad, but they did not propose to restrict the home traffic, much less to emancipate the slaves. So far as I can discover, to Thomas Paine belongs the honor of being the first American abolitionist. Unnoted as this fact has been from that period to the present, the blow seems to have had far-reaching effects. “This,” says Dr. Rush, “excited my desire to be better acquainted with him. We met soon afterwards in Mr. Aitkin’s bookstore, where I did homage to his principles and pen upon the subject of the enslaved Africans.” Those who know anything of the high position and influence of Dr. Rush can hardly doubt that the “essay with which [he] was much pleased” must have produced some agitation in the small circle of persons interested in the subject, among whom Rush was supreme. Soon after the appearance of Paine’s antislavery essay the first American Anti-slavery Society was organized. It was founded at Philadelphia, in the Sun Tavern, Second Street, April 14, 1775, under title of “The Society for the Relief of Free Negroes, unlawfully held in bondage.” There can be little doubt that Paine was among these founders, and it will be seen on a farther page that he partly drafted, and signed, the Act of Pennsylvania abolishing Slavery, March 1, 1780,—the first legislative measure of negro-emancipation in Christendom.  2
 
 
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