N O T I C E
Permission has been granted to re-publish this article on this web page by G. Erickson, Southern Friend Editorial Board, North Carolina Friends Historical Society on December 17, 2001, along with permission from the author, George H. Cox, Jr. Letters of permission are on file with the Webmaster. The Webmaster extends special thanks and appreciation to the North Carolina Friends Historical Society and George H. Cox, Jr.
This article first appeared in THE SOUTHERN FRIEND, Journal of the North Carolina Friends Historical Society, Volume XII, Spring 1990, Number 1.
The Southern Friend is published semiannually in spring and autumn by the North Carolina Friends Historical Society, P.O. Box 8502, Greensboro, NC 27419-0502. Members of the society receive the journal without charge. Single issues and back issues may be purchased by writing to the North Carolina Friends Historical Society.
This article is NOT to be reproduced in any other format or method of distribution without prior written permission of the North Carolina Friends Historical Society.
The Peace and Social Concerns of
George H. Cox, Jr.
This is the third and final essay in a three-part series concerning the Wrightsborough Monthly Meeting in Georgia. Wrightsborough was a larger Quaker township on the Georgia frontier west of Augusta. It maintained its identity as a Friends community from its chartering by the British Colonial Government at Savannah in 1767 until a general withdrawal to the Northwest Territory of the United States which culminated in 1807. In this brief period of 40 years, the Society of Friends wrote a small but important chapter in the social and political history of Georgia. In relating to distinctive religious communities including the Quakers, colonial Georgians learned lessons in diversity of opinion on social issues, lessons which would unfortunately be forgotten after these communities left the state or were assimilated. Gone was the appreciation for diversity. In its place was a more homogeneous value system which justified the extremes of plantation wealth and rural poverty which existed side by side in the South where cotton was king.
Three general issues subsume many of the specific peace and social concerns of the Wrightsborough Friends: proper relations with the native Americans who lived on the frontier, response to the outbreak and conduct of war during the American Revolution, and economic and religious responses to the widespread introduction of slavery. This essay addresses the last of these issues, the taint of slavery which fell upon the frontier following the American victory in the Revolutionary War.
The founders of the Georgia colony had qualms about the institution of slavery. From the settlement of the colon in 1733 onward, the Georgia trustees voiced their concerns in political circles in England and in the everyday settlement policies which they enacted through one of their number, James Edward Oglethorpe, who served as the administrator of the colony. Oglethorpe was himself an outspoken critic of the practice of slavery being tolerated in the American colonies. "Slavery is against the gospel, as well as the fundamental law of England. We refused, as Trustees to make a law permitting such a horrid crime."1 The trustees lobbied the Parliament to uphold their ban on the importation of slaves into Georgia, and they encouraged groups opposed to slavery to settle in the colony.2 For example, the Salzburgers who established Ebenezer west of Savannah and the Highland Scots who built up Darien south of Savannah on the Atlantic coast were both communities of anti-slavery colonists. The practical success of these free labor settlements would provide evidence for the trustees to use in justifying their appeals to keep slavery out of the Georgia colony.
The trustees were forced to give up their complete prohibition of slavery in Georgia in 1751, due largely to pressure from coastal rice plantation owners and an economic development faction of the business community in Savannah. In 1754, the relinquished control of the colony altogether. Royal governors appointed by the Crown would administer Georgia thereafter, and their position on the slavery question was far less philosophical. In the Royal governors' view, the main objection to slavery was the security threat which it represented during the period of continued Spanish destabilization of the colony. Once that concern was militarily resolved in 1763, they raised few objections to the sharp influx of slaves and new slave-owners who immigrated from South Carolina. By 1773, almost half of Georgia's population was black slaves.3
In contrast with the coastal areas, there was little slavery in the frontier areas of Georgia. Instead, small family farmers raised food crops and tobacco. In fact, in the early 1760s, there were more free black farmers outside of Augusta than there were slaves in that rural area.4 Of course, there were always new families moving onto the frontier, and these immigrants concerned Quakers and others who feared the establishment of slavery in the backcountry. In the five years 1759 through 1763, 55 households moved into the upcountry parts of St. Paul's Parish. Only nine of these households, or 16 percent, owned slaves. But in the next five years, 1764 through 1768, 63 families located in that area, and 21 of them, or 33 percent, were slaveholding. There was, moreover, reason to be vigilant. Yet even where slavery was present, the numbers of captive blacks was small. Of the total 30 slave-holding households which came into rural St. Paul's Parish during the overall 10 year period 1759 through 1768, only four owned 10 slaves or more. Most slaveholding families on the frontier had only a couple of workers to help with the family farm. In the commercial arena, some of the Augusta traders and even their Creek and Cherokee trading partners owned slaves who worked in warehouses and tanneries, but the extent of the practice was very modest in frontier Georgia in the 1760s.
Once the Quaker Reserve was established in 1767, the Friends enjoyed an officially recognized right of approval for persons settling within their enormous township's boundaries. This should have restricted slavery in the immediate area to those settlers whose land grants predated the Quakers. Yet there is some evidence to suggest that practical accommodations were made in the case of otherwise attractive settlers who wanted to come into the area. Persons with documented ties to the Society of Friends like Isaac Lowe and William Candler came into the Wrightsborough Township with slaves. Lowe's wife was an active Friend, and Candler and his wife held membership certificates from a Virginia meeting. Both families produced the required certification of Quaker association as part of the approval process, but neither seems to have lived under the discipline of the local monthly meeting. One might term these individuals Friends in a technical sense, but they need to be distinguished from persons active in the local monthly meeting. Perhaps they might be described as "peripheral Friends" as contrasted with "orthodox Friends." The more orthodox Friends certainly must have disapproved of this encroachment of slave-holding into the community, but they could exert little social control over peripheral Friends whose memberships were not firmly vested in the local meeting.
We can only speculate about why influential Friends within the Wrightsborough Meeting seemed to have tolerated small scale slave-holding. There may have been economic benefits which accrued from allowing peripheral Friends leeway in this use of slave labor. It is also the case that Friends throughout the South only gradually came to the realization that all accommodation to a slavery supported economy was evil. Even when this realization was clear, the civil governments of the new American states raised barriers to abolition. Some attention to each of these considerations is warranted in our effort to understand the struggle with slavery which ultimately contributed to the Quaker from Georgia.
One possible economic explanation for the tolerance of slavery lies in the area of public works. The settlers in St. Paul's Parish, as elsewhere in the colony, were responsible for the maintenance and repair of public roads, fords, and bridges. Once the colonial government had paid for the construction of a roadway -- possibly under arrangements with a South Carolina contractor would could use slave labor -- the local inhabitants had to maintain the road in good order.5 This duty was a considerable burden to small farmers who would have to leave their crops and families to work on the roads. If a few area neighbors could assemble a gang of slave workers at the site, the work could be expedited. Other public works offered a similar prospect of time lost to civic endeavors. We know, for example, that the royal government agreed to the construction of a fort at Wrightsborough for the protection of the populace from Indian attack.6 We know that the contractor for this project used slave labor because one of the black workers was killed by Indians during the construction. Moreover, the Wrightsborough Friends seemed to distinguish between personally owning slaves and benefiting from the labor of the African workers. This distinction may have been one of convenience rather than a fine point of ethical analysis.
The orthodox Friends who were actively involved with the Wrightsborough Monthly Meeting tried to be more strict with "their own." The story of Amos Stuart illustrates the discipline employed by the meeting in such cases.7 In 1781, Amos Stuart, a member of the meeting, was accused of trying to buy a young black slave girl. A committee of the monthly meeting was directed to investigate the charge, and they indeed found him to be in possession of the young woman. The monthly meeting ordered that Amos set the young woman free at age 18 and that he prepare a paper promising to do that and return it to the meeting. After some procrastination on Stuart's part, the representatives reported to the monthly meeting that they believed him unwilling to conform to the will of his Friends. A testimony was then prepared against him, and he was provided a written copy which he might contest by appearing before the monthly meeting. He did not respond, and the meeting disowned him from being any longer a member of Friends.
This incident was not the first time that the Wrightsborough Monthly Meeting had trouble with Amos Stuart. In 1780, he had confessed to bearing arms and had asked to be forgiven by his Friends. His behavior was part of a more general wave or worldliness that was affecting the community by 1780-81, and many friends were disciplined for offenses ranging from marriage out of unity and use of profane language to quarreling and fighting with one's neighbors. Much to the frustration of the more orthodox Friends, misbehaving members would avoid committees sent out to meet with them and would even refuse to appear to answer formal complains prepared against them. The monthly meeting was losing control over the population of Wrightsborough, especially its own young people.
The loss of control and communities' general dissipation had long been feared by Friends. John Woolman had warned of the particular erosion of values accompanied by the institution of slavery. He observed that "...if the white people retain a resolution to prefer their outward prospects of gain to all other considerations, and do not act conscientiously toward them [the slaves] as fellow creatures, I believe that [the] burden will grow heavier and heavier, until times change in a way disagreeable to us."8 By placing economic gain before principles of human advancement, slave holders drifted away from careful attention to the Truth. Slavery was destructive of a wholesome free-labor lifestyle and would ultimately lead to the dissolution of the work ethic and the attendant social order. A dim future lay ahead for America if slavery continued; many Quakers shared a vision of social destruction expressing God's wrath. These themes were kindled by John Woolman and spread by the travels of other ministering Friends throughout the continent.
Zachariah Dicks -- who visited Georgia and South Carolina in 1803 -- was particularly noted for his vivid portrayals of the imminent bloodshed of slave rebellions.
There had been slave revolts in Haiti, and many slave owners were massacred in the uprisings. News of these events in the Caribbean served to document the case of abolitionists like Dicks who foresaw a violent expression of God's wrath against the evils of slaveholding. It is important to note that fear and dread of the black slave was probably one aspect of some Friends' avoidance of slavery. Many wanted their lands to be free of blacks, while others may sincerely have wanted free slaves to live among them. Some evidence of the latter position is found in the efforts of former Wrightsborough Quakers to come back to the area after their emigration for the purpose bringing west freed blacks who were in danger in Georgia.10
Traveling ministers of the Society of Friends visited Wrightsborough on a number of occasions. In fact, records of visits to the Georgia meeting by at least 20 ministers are extant. Several of these traveling ministers came to witness about the evils of slave-owning and other concerns such as alcohol consumption and social dissipation. Joshua Evans' observations of Wrightsborough in 1797 capture the feeling of these visits.
Slavery polluted the people and the land where it was tolerated. The linkage between slavery as an economic institution and broader social deterioration is voiced in Henry Hull's journal entries from his 1800 visit to Wrightsborough.
The official organs of the denomination in the South slowly took up the cause of abolition. North Carolina Yearly Meeting -- to which Wrightsborough Monthly Meeting belonged -- admonished member meetings to provide religious education for captive blacks. In 1768, the yearly meeting advised against and trading in slaves, and they passed a 1770 resolution reaffirming the position that "...all Friends be careful to bear a faithful Testimony against the Iniquitous Practice of Importing Negroes."13 Yet Quaker organizations stopped short of advocating the total abolition of slavery. Some Friends did promote doing away with the practice by freeing privately held slaves, but neither North Carolina nor Georgia law would allowed such an initiative.14 Even individual manumission was restricted; the law prescribed extreme conditions such as the approval of the legislature and removal from the domain of the freed person or the posting of a large bond for the free person's good behavior.15 Other Quakers advocated the transfer of ownership of slaves to each monthly meeting or a trustee, but that option was viewed by others as a further institutionalization of slave-holding. Overall, a pattern emerged, especially after the Revolutionary War, that each step to facilitate emancipation was frustrated by a governmental step to counteract the freeing of slaves. Friends were effectively constrained from making general emancipation practical, and they even had problems ridding their own denomination of the taint of slavery.
At the same time, public sentiment concerning the Quakers and their anti-slavery efforts hardened. There were numerous incidents brought to the attention of the yearly meeting in which Friends were accused of subverting the slave with talk of emancipation. "The minds of the slaves are not only corrupted and alienated from the Service of their masters in consequence of said conduct, but runaways are protected, harboured and encouraged by them."16 The southern meetings were under stress from within and without.
The messages of traveling ministers after 1799 turned more and more into appeals to withdraw to new lands in the west. Some Friends thought of the migrations to the west as "foolish panic,"17 while others perceived it as the Quakers "not being disobedient to the vision opened before them."18 Borden Stanton wrote a letter to Friends in Wrightsborough in 1802 about his own decision to leave the South.
Free territories were opening up in the Midwest. In fact, Ohio would enter the Union in 1803 as the first state in which slavery was altogether illegal. The time had come to leave Georgia.
Georgia had run the whole gambit from the English discouragement of slavery to the American commitment to it as an economic mainstay, all in the short span of 40 years. Cotton was quickly replacing tobacco as farmers' cash crop, and the invention of the cotton gin made large scale plantations economical. The Quakers, so welcome as free labor settlers in 1767, were a nuisance in 1807. The anti-slavery posture of Quaker ministers and local orthodox Friends were precarious. Formerly too friendly with the Indians and recently associated with Tory politics, the thrice ostracized Quakers had three limited options: they could migrate, accommodate, or be silent.20
Georgia culture was heading in one direction, and the Quaker reforms were heading in another, opposite direction. The economy was learning to take advantage of slave labor at the very time that the Society of Friends was ridding itself of the institution. The values of the small farmer were giving way to those of the large plantation owner. An acquisitive ethos was displacing the older, moralistic culture. Friends of that day were aware that the changing political, economic and social culture of Georgia was eclipsing interest in a disciplined religious life. In fact, the new majority culture was winning out in the battle for the minds and hearts Quaker young people. Ohio offered an opportunity to start again under conditions more favorable to the sustaining and growth of Friends.
George Fox is the Clerk of the Ogeechee Friends Monthly Meeting (Southeastern Yearly Meeting) in Statesboro, Georgia. He is also Associate Professor of Political Science at Georgia Southern College. Martha Franklin Daily assisted with the research for this project, and Crystal Glisson drew the period map showing the Wrightsborough Township.
Quoted in James Bowden, The History of the Society of Friends in
American (London: W. and F.G. Cash, 1854): 203.
click this link to return to the Wrightsborough Web Page
Census Records | Vital Records | Family Trees & Communities | Immigration Records | Military Records Directories & Member Lists | Family & Local Histories | Newspapers & Periodicals | Court, Land & Probate | Finding Aids