Four for Freedom: America's First Abolitionists


From The 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 Turkish raider.


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 chains.


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, Germany, in 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 beliefs.


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.


Pastorius, 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."


Pastorius 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.


Gerhard Hendericks, 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 to stay.


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 tract:


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 followed suit.


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.


To Dirck 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.


Pastorius, 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 Burlington 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 movement stirred.


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. Wrote Whittier: "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.