Thomas Nicholson Urges Gradual Emancipation
Abstract and Keywords
Thomas Nicholson (1715–1780), a prominent landowner, merchant, Quaker missionary, and author in Perquimans County addressed an open letter to his co-religionists a year before the Western Quarter requested that the Yearly Meeting clarify the society's position on slave trading. The contents of Nicholson's letter, with its dual focus on the wrong that slavery does to the slave and the harm it does to the slaveholder, reflects the reform sentiment then spreading through American Quakerdom. Nicholson acknowledges the difficulty that the law presented to anyone seeking to free his slaves, but his proposal of a form of gradual emancipation did not offer a truly practical way around the legal hurdle.
Thomas Nicholson (1715–1780), a prominent landowner, merchant, Quaker missionary, and author in Perquimans County addressed the following open letter to his co-religionists a year before the Western Quarter requested that the Yearly Meeting clarify the society's position on slave trading. The contents of Nicholson's letter, with its dual focus on the wrong that slavery does to the slave and the harm it does to the slaveholder, reflects the reform sentiment then spreading through American Quakerdom. Nicholson acknowledges the difficulty that the law presents to anyone seeking to free his slaves, but his proposal of a form of gradual emancipation does not offer a truly practical way around the legal hurdle.7
Thomas Nicholson's Open Letter to North Carolina Friends
Source: Society Miscellaneous Collection, Box 11, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
6 mo. 1st: 1767
To any judicious and enquiring Friend
I have for many Years been much distressed in my mind on account of Negroes remaining Slaves in our Society for several Reasons,
First, being convinced in my Judgment that the Slave Trade is a very wicked and abominable Practice, contrary to the natural Rights and Privileges of all mankind, and against the Golden Rule of doing to others as we would be done unto.—
Secondly, fully believing that they prove a Snare to Friends' Children, by being made use of as Nurseries to pride, Idleness and a (p.74)
Lording Spirit over our Fellow Creatures, and oftentimes by their contrary Behaviour prove Provocations to Masters and Mistresses to anger Passion and unsavory Expressions to the wounding of their Spirits.—
Thirdly it appears to me to be a Contradiction to our peaceable Principle and Testimony against Wars and Fighting, under a Gospel Dispensation, to keep Captives taken by the Sword against their own free will and Consent, and that if our own negroes should ever be concerned in rising to endeavour to recover their Freedom it would be ungrateful in us towards our Fellow Subjects to refuse our Assistance to subdue them.
Fourthly where true Endeavours have been used to inculcate Principles of true Religion Piety and Virtue in them for the good of their Souls, it hath appeared to me to have had but a small effect and looks to me that it will remain to be the Case with all such in whom the Seeds of Discontent and uneasiness remain under a Sense of their State of Bondage and Slavery.—
Now let any thoughtful person seriously consider whether it is not reasonable to suppose that any person convinced in their Judgment of the above Evils and Difficulties, and at the same Time in possession (mostly by Inheritance and breeding in their Families) of eighteen or twenty of them aggravated by the Laws of the province to sell them at public Sale to the highest Bidder, and the Mony to be put to the use of the Parish, if freed by their Master or Mistress, excepting for meritorious Causes to be allowed of by the County Court, and I think they must Sympathize with me in my Distress of mind,
Upon the whole I think I can honestly say that on the Terms of any Expedient being fallen upon to let them have their Freedom on reasonable and lawful Terms I am willing to give up mine, and until such a Method can be fallen upon there is nothing that appears to me to be more safe and expedient in the present Distress than for those that have them (that are willing to live with them and behave themselves well) to keep them and use them well, and after a reasonable number of Years of Servitude to defray the Cost or Charges of raising them, to make them free under proper Guardians and Restrictions to keep them from becoming a public Charge or Offense to Government, and such as behave badly, and are not content to live with their present Masters or Mistresses, to be sold to other masters or mistresses, in (p.75)
which all reasonable Regard ought to be paid to the Choice of the said Slaves with their new master or mistress.
And as it is evident that the burnt Child dreads the Fire, and none knows so well where the Shoe pinches as those that wear it I should think it expedient for Friends to discourage the practice as much as possible, by advising those who have their Hands clear of them, to keep them so, and by no means to involve themselves in a Difficulty that they will find hard work to extricate themselves from if ever they come rightly to weigh the matter in a true Ballance.
(7.) Nicholson's An Epistle to Friends in Great Britain, written from “Little River in North Carolina,” was published in Newbern, North Carolina, in 1762. In 1774, the Standing Committee permitted him to disseminate Liberty and Property, a pamphlet about the law of emancipation. See Perquimans County Historical Society Year Book (Hertford, N.C., 1970), 47; and John S. Bassett, Slavery and Servitude in the Colony of North Carolina (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1896), 54.