Four for Freedom: America's First Abolitionists
Mayflower Murderer & Other Forgotten Firsts in American History by
Peter F. Stevens
In a modest Germantown, Pennsylvania,
house on the wintry day of February 18, 1688, one sound, a quill's rasp across
paper, was heard. But what a sound as four solemn Mennonite men picked up the
quill in turn and gravely signed a letter. The grating quill was America's
opening salvo against the "peculiar institution" slavery.
Nearly one hundred years before
Abraham Lincoln affixed his signature to the Emancipation Proclamation, Francis
Daniel Pastorius, Gerhard Hendericks,
and Dirck and Abraham Op den Graeff
blanched at the heart-searing sight of blacks in bondage and set their outrage
to words. "Have these poor negers as much right
to fight for their freedom as you have to keep them slaves?" asked America's
first abolitionist tract. As the four signers soon learned, few American
colonists cared to probe the disturbing answers to the grim question.
The four Mennonites had
probably thought little about slavery before arriving in Pennsylvania
in the 1680s, for the terrible institution was not practiced in Germany and the Netherlands. But one historian
later speculated that a nightmarish episode possibly endured by Pastorius, the Op den Graeffs, or
Hendericks during the Atlantic crossing shoved the
shade of slavery into their minds. Shortly after a ship laden with
Pennsylvania-bound settlers began its voyage, another vessel appeared on the
horizon. Horror gripped the colonists and crew alike. The strange vessel was a
As the Turkish ship surged
toward the settlers' vessel, dread turned to panic for the Mennonites, their
minds reeling with images of rape, torture, and Eastern slave bazaars.
Desperate prayers surely rang above the decks of the colonists' ship. Their
pleas were answered, their captain somehow outrunning the Turks. However, the
memories of those horrible minutes on the sea haunted the lucky passengers.
The introduction of the four
Mennonites' 1688 petition read: "How fearful and fainthearted are many on
sea when they see a strange vessel, being afraid it should be a Turk, and they
should be taken and sold for Slaves into Turkey." The four had learned a
harsh lesson, one they recalled each time they saw men, women, and children in
Who were the four men destined
to write America's
first antislavery petition, to become the country's first abolitionists?
History sheds more light on Francis Daniel Pastorius
than on the Op den Graeffs and Hendericks.
Born into a wealthy, cultured, and politically connected family in Sommerhausen,
1651, Pastorius grew to be a son cast much in the
image of his father, Melchior Pastorius,
a man of voracious intellect, political savvy, and deeply held Lutheran
Following in his father's
footsteps, Pastorius, a pale, quiet youth with a
large nose, pored over philosophy, religion, and law at some of Germany's and Switzerland's finest universities,
mastered at least six languages, and earned his law degree in 1676. But
setting up shop in some office clogged with legal tomes and briefs did not fire
the fancy of the young attorney. Serenaded by wanderlust's notes, he craved to
experience the seething world beyond the orderly life of a German barrister.
unable to suppress his desire to see the world, closed his office in Frankfurt
in 1680 and hit Europe's highways as a tutor to spoiled, indolent young
noblemen whose parents probably hoped that PastorIus's
love of learning would rub off on youths more interested in cards, fencing,
wine, and women than in books. On blue bloods' payrolls, Pastorius
traveled with his charges through England,
France, and Holland, feeding his appetite for different
places, different views, and different ways of life.
Traveling across northern Europe did not satisfy the yearnings of Pastorius's soul for some higher meaning to his life. As he
strolled amid great cities' awe-inspiring architecture and streets teeming with
all manner of people, he reflected less upon the manmade glories of Europe than upon the poverty and the religious strife
everywhere around him. His thoughts turned inward, to God.
His disturbing introspection
led him to criticism of his frivolous, troublesome pupils. In his letters he
harangued his charges' gaudy garb, their silly patter, their dancing, and all
the costly excesses of rich, lazy lords. Despairing that such youths would ever
find salvation, he inevitably decided he could no longer abide their antics.
For the sake of his mind and his immortal soul, he believed, he must find
another path through life.
With so much despair among Europe's poor, with nobles of no mind to pay attention to
the masses' misery, and with religious discord raging throughout the Continent,
the erstwhile lawyer longed for a haven from discord. He remembered having
spent some exhilarating hours in Frankfurt
speaking with friends of an Englishman named William Penn. They had discussed
Penn's colony, Pennsylvania,
where Quakers and Mennonites were founding a society based on tenets of
tolerance and respect for God's word. Pastorius's
eyes turned westward-to the untamed New World.
There, in Penn's settlement, the disenchanted Pastorius
hoped, he could find a life to ease his troubled soul.
In April 1683 spokesmen for a
band of Frankfurt Quakers offered the restless lawyer a proposition that must
have seemed a divine message to him: They asked him to travel to Pennsylvania as their agent to purchase land for a German
settlement in America.
He wasted little time in leaping at the offer.
Leaving Europe's woes behind
posed little problem for Pastorius, but as he
prepared to board ship, the realization that he was likely never to lay eyes on
his family, especially his father, suddenly struck
him. The lawyer's words fairly choking with emotion, his eyes probably
misting, the son said to old Melchior Pastorius: "If therefore we see one another no more
on this side of the grave, we shall meet in Heaven."
set sail to his great adventure in the spring of 1683. The Atlantic crossing
was a nightmare of inadequate portions of rancid food and of days and nights
among scurvy-riddled passengers packed into the ship's fetid hold. When the
vessel finally docked off Philadelphia
on August 20, 1683, the lawyer gave thanks to his God for sparing him on the
grueling voyage. Then he viewed his new home for the first time.
What he found upon setting foot
in Penn's town, nestled between the Schuylkill and Delaware rivers, were
eighty or so houses arrayed along a neatly devised grid of streets seemingly
shouting the settlers' determination to lead orderly lives in their corner of the
wilderness. He met Penn, and the pair struck up a lifelong friendship based on
kindred intellects; Pastorius was slated to serve the
founder's inner circle. As agent of the Frankfurt Company, Pastorius
purchased fifteen thousand acres from Penn, the tract extending northwest of Philadelphia.
At first Pastorius and his six servants lived in a riverfront cave,
a dank habitat worlds away from the lodgings he had once known with his
blue-blooded pupils. He and his staff eventually erected a rude shelter,
generously called a "house" in his journal, on a lot on modern-day Front Street. The
dwelling, thirty feet long and fifteen wide, half underground, with oiled paper
serving as windows, was little more than a ramshackle dugout; however, Pastorius, proving that he was not cowed by his squalid
new surroundings, placed a small sign on one of the greasy windows. “It is a
little house," the placard read, "but it welcomes the good. For sinners, no admission." Penn reportedly chuckled at
the words - one of the few times Philadelphians ever saw their taciturn leader
crack a smile.
Pastorius lived in Philadelphia
for about two years, but he directed his energies to establishing a thriving
settlement northwest the town, an outpost slated to become Germantown. Although Pastorius's
efforts on behalf of the Frankfurt Company led many historians to pronounce him
the founder of Germantown,
the assertion is apparently inaccurate: A handful of Dutch settlers had started
the settlement on five thousand acres they had purchased before Pastorius arrived among them. Some scholars were to claim that
because the town's original settlers were Dutch, even the name Germantown proved a misnomer. However, other
chroniclers pointed out that the first inhabitants hailed from Krefeld, a weavers’ town slightly north of Dusseldorf,
a town that was part of Dutchman William of Orange's realm but arguably a
German her than a Dutch town.
While Pastorius was not the actual founder of Germantown, he certainly played a major role
in the town's layout, helping design the neat street patterns and division of lots.
"So far as concerns our newly founded city, Germanopolis,"
he wrote in November 1684, "it is situated upon a rich black soil,
surrounded by numerous pleasant springs. The main street is sixty feet wide,
and the cross-street is forty, and each family has a farmyard of three acres in
size." To Pastorius, the site was a veritable Eden, full of grassy pastures
for cattle and dotted with soaring stands of oaks, walnuts, and chestnut trees.
About a two-hour walk from Philadelphia, Germantown was close to the hub of
Penn's settlement but far enough away to escape the drunken sailors, traders,
and even loose women who were already shaping their colonial version of Sodom
and Gomorrah in the midst of outraged Quakers who were striving to live in a
godly fashion but were hard pressed to prevent worldlier sorts from indulging
in all the vices.
Not long before Pastorius had embarked for his Eden,
he had met two brothers, Abraham and Dirck Op den Graeff, longing to start life anew in Pennsylvania. The brothers packed their
families and a few belongings onto a ship six weeks after Pastorius's
departure and followed him to the settlement between the Delaware
and the Schuylkill. Little had the brothers
and Pastorius imagined at their first meeting that
they were to strike their new land's opening blow against slavery.
The Op den Graeffs
were not cut from the same intellectual cloth as Pastorius,
but the brothers were intelligent, hardworking men, who were masters of a
valuable trade, linen weaving. With them came a third brother, Hermann, also a
weaver. The arrival of the three craftsmen delighted Pastorius
because in his vision of a vibrant and commercially successful Germantown, he felt that the town's future
lay in the production of linen cloth. In large part because of the Op den Graeffs' looms, Germantown
was to become one of the young colony's textile centers, Abraham Op den Graeff's skill in his trade such that his cloth was in
demand by the Pennsylvania Provincial Council.
Earning a living, growing
enough food to sustain their families, and leading lives of tolerance and
religious reflection were concerns enough for any Friends scraping for survival
in a new land teeming with not only opportunities but also dangers: Indians,
disease, and, of course, the ever-present threat of starvation. The Op den Graeffs shouldered their New World
burdens and still found time to plunge into the civic affairs of the little
community. Their influence among their fellow Mennonites was second only to
that of Pastorius, the ex-lawyer and the weavers all
proving key figures in the incorporation of Germantown in 1689.
the other Mennonite whose name emblazoned the antislavery petition, boarded
the Francis and Mary with his wife, his daughter, and a male servant in
1685 and reached Germantown
on October 12 of that year. On a two-hundred-acre lot he began his new life.
The lives of Hendericks, the Op den Graeffs,
and Pastorius were largely existences of sobriety in
conduct and dress, the settlers honoring God, family, and honest labor above
all other concerns. The men of Germantown
eschewed oaths of any sort, did not believe in the baptism of infants, refused
any mode of military duty, and offered passive resistance toward foes. Such
beliefs had spawned persecution of Quaker sects in Europe,
where militarism and conformity to established
religion-Anglican, Lutheran, Calvinist, or Catholic-were usually the norms.
Puritans and other colonists, proving that some old ways still flourished in
the new land, loathed the "radical" beliefs of the Quakers, so called
because they supposedly "quaked" with religious rapture during their
services; in Massachusetts,
Puritans had executed six Quakers.
Despite the hostility of their
colonial neighbors, people such as Pastorius, Hendericks, and the Op den Graeffs
were unshakable in their determination to plant lasting religious and communal
roots in the New World. The men, women, and
children in their plain dress were in Pennsylvania
Thankful to have found a corner
of the world where they could live their lives as they deemed fit, Pastorius, Hendericks, and the Op
den Graeffs came to the belief that the colonies
should be a haven of freedom and tolerance for all men. And all men, in the
view of the four from Germantown, included the New World's most wretched souls of all: slaves.
How, the four reasoned, could the
Quakers and the Mennonites strive to deal fairly with the Indians, whom Pastorius admired for their honesty, pleasant nature, and
kindness, yet turn from the plight of blacks in chains?
By February 1688 the four men
could no longer ignore the sickening sight of slavery. One can imagine them,
wearing wellcut but drably hued waistcoats and
brimmed hats, gathered at a table in a Germantown
home and rubbing their hands near a hearth's crackling fire. The men's faces
assuredly grim, they must have discussed the evil of slavery far into the
night. Pastorius, the lawyer once accustomed to
devising well-rendered briefs, was probably the one whose quill shaped the
thoughts of each man into inky reality upon paper. And with each stroke and
flourish of his quill was born America's
first petition against slavery.
Their eyes shining
perhaps with pride and passion, the four men must have carefully perused the
These are the reasons why we are against the traffic of menbody, as followeth: Is there
any that would be done or handled at this manner? viz., to be
sold or made a slave for all the time of his life? . . . the most part of such negers are
brought hither against their will and consent. . . . There is a saying, that we should do to all men like as we will be done
ourselves; making no difference of what generation, descent, or colour they are. . . . But to bring men hither, or to rob
and sell them against their will, we stand against. . ..
Ah! Do consider well this thing, you who do it, if you would be done at this
manner-and if it is done according to Christianity! . . . Pray, what thing in
the world can be done worse towards us than if men should rob or steal us away
and sell us for slaves to strange countries; separating husbands from their
wives and children. . .. therefore, we contradict, and
are against this traffic of men-body. . . . And such men [slaves] ought to be
delivered out of the hands of the robbers, and set free. Or, have these poor negers not as much right to fight for their freedom, as you
have to keep them slaves?
The first to dip the quill into
the black ink and sign at the bottom of the letter was Gerhard Hendericks, the last of the four to have arrived in Germantown. Dirck Op den Graeff, Pastorius, and Abraham Op den Graeff
They were probably unaware that
with their heartfelt sentences and their signatures they had fired the first
written shots against slavery in America. The four men, however,
surely sensed their tract's moral importance.
Op den Graeff fell the honor of ferrying the landmark
letter to the monthly meeting of Quakers at the house of Richard Worrell, in Dublin, Pennsylvania,
on February 30, 1688. That the presentation of the
petition caused an immediate stir among the Friends was evident in the notes of
the gathering: "At our monthly meeting at Dublin.
. . we having inspected ye matter above mentioned & considered it we finde it so weighty that we think it not Expedient for us
to meddle with it here, but do Rather comitt it to ye
consideration of ye Quarterly meeting, ye tennor of
it being nearly related to ye truth, on behalfe of ye
monthly meeting. "
In effect, the Quakers
assembled at Worrell's house were unnerved by the letter, grasping not only
its unassailable morality but also the explosive potential of its words. They
opted to pass the petition at the Friends' quarterly meeting, in Philadelphia. There the
local movers and shakers of the sect could decide how to handle the lofty
sentiments of the four men from Germantown.
When the petition was read at
the meeting in Philadelphia
on April 4, 1688, Quakers again blanched at the call to arms against slavery,
an accepted, if abominable, practice in the colonies. The prospect of
haranguing other settlers over the buying and selling of slaves performing the
harshest labor on plantations and docks was a menacing notion for the Friends,
already reviled by many settlers in the colonies. Plain-speaking Quakers simply
had no plain answer for the antislavery tract, except to defer any action to
the yearly gathering of Friends at Burlington.
Most certainly accepted the assertions of the four from Germantown but seemingly wished that Pastorius and company had suppressed the urge to promulgate
their inflammatory views on paper.
Hendericks, and the Op den Graeffs
probably welcomed the fact that their letter would stir debate at the yearly
meeting. But the reluctance of fellow Friends to close ranks with the four men
must have dismayed Pastorius and company. The pangs
of conscience that the petition was churning in Quakers lingered in
Philadelphia Friends' description of the letter as "a thing of too great a
weight." The weight was to descend upon the Burlington meeting, where the Friends would
make or break the colonies' first stand against slavery.
On July 5, 1688, the Friends at
listened with troubled attention to every word of the controversial petition.
Then they pondered the grave document, examined their consciences, and rendered
judgment: "A paper being here presented by some German Friends Concerning
the Lawfulness and Unlawfulness of buying and Keeping of Negroes, It was
adjudged not to be so proper for this Meeting to give a Positive Judgement in the case, It having so General a Relation to
many other Parts, and, therefore, at present they forebear it." The
waffling of the Friends probably mirrored their trepidation about the
antagonism the tract could spark from slaveowners.
Despite the defeat, the four Germantown men had captured in their missive the essence of
the best America
was to represent the land of the free
- long before the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution,
and the Emancipation Proclamation. Long before John Adams, William Lloyd
Garrison, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Frederick Douglass, and John Brown raised
their eloquent, often incendiary voices against the "peculiar
institution," the four Pennsylvanians were the first Americans to glare
into the hideous face of slavery and to proclaim: "we.
. . are against the traffic of menbody. . . ."
Today their words should be required reading for all Americans.
Two of the men, Pastorius and Abraham Op den Graeff,
lived at least long enough to see their letter bear its first political fruit,
for in 1711, twenty-three years after the four men had penned their signatures
to their antislavery petition, the Quakers, no longer able to ignore the
"too great a weight," publicly condemned slavery. Between the first
lines of the Germantown
letter and the Quakers' official denunciation of slavery, the abolitionist
The immortal nineteenth-century
poet John Greenleaf Whittier composed a poem entitled "The Pennsylvania
Pilgrim," a glowing paean to Pastorius. The
poem's final lines could justifiably pay homage not only to its subject but
also to three other men: Gerhard Hendericks and
Abraham and Dirck Op den Graeff.
"The world forgets, but the wise angels know."
How fitting that
Abraham Lincoln bore the same first name as one of the signers of America's first
protest against slavery.