Letter from Patrick Henry to Robert Pleasants (1773)

Image: October. Ehninger, John Whetten. (1867) Smithsonian American Art Museum.

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I take this oppo. to acknowledge the receipt of A Benezets Book against the Slave Trade. I thank you for it. It is not a little surprising that Christianity, whose chief excellence consists in softning the human heart, in cherishing & improving its finer Feelings, should encourage a Practice so totally repugnant to the first Impression of right & wrong. What adds to the wonder is that this Abominable Practice has been introduced in ye. most enlightened Ages, Times that seem to have pretentions to boast of high Improvements in the Arts, Sciences, & refined Morality, h[ave] brought into general use, & guarded by many Laws, a Species of Violence & Tyranny, which our more rude & barbarous, but more honest Ancestors detested. Is it not amazing, that at a time, when ye. Rights of Humanity are defined & understood with precision, in a Country above all others fond of Liberty, that in such an Age, & such a Country we find Men, professing a Religion ye. most humane, mild, meek, gentle & generous; adopting a Principle as repugnant to humanity as it is inconsistant with the Bible and destructive to Liberty.

Every thinking honest Man rejects it in Speculation, how few in Practice from conscienscious Motives? The World in general has denied ye. People a share of its honours, but the Wise will ascribe to ye. a just Tribute of virtuous Praise, for ye. Practice of a train of Virtues among which yr. disagreement to Slavery will be principally ranked. –I cannot but wish well to a people whose System imitates ye. Example of him whose Life was perfect.–And believe m[e], I shall honour the Quakers for their noble Effort to abolish Slavery. It is equally calculated to promote moral & political Good.

Would any one believe that I am Master of Slaves of my own purchase! I am drawn along by ye. general inconvenience of living without them, I will not, I cannot justify it. However culpable my Conduct, I will so far pay my devoir to Virtue, as to own the excellence & rectitude of her Precepts, & to lament my want of conforming to them.–

I believe a time will come when an oppo. will be offered to abolish this lamentable Evil. –Every thing we can do is to improve it, if it happens in our day, if not, let us transmit to our descendants together with our Slaves, a pity for their unhappy Lot, & an abhorrence for Slavery. If we cannot reduce this wished for Reformation to practice, let us treat the unhappy victims with lenity, it is ye. furthest advance we can make toward Justice [We owe to the] purity of our Religion to shew that it is at variance with that Law which warrants Slavery.–

Here is an instance that silent Meetings (ye. scoff of reverd. Doctrs.) have done yt. wch. learned & elaborate Preaching could not effect, so much preferable are the genuine dictates of Conscience & a steady attention to its feelings above ye. teachings of those Men who pretend to have found a better Guide. I exhort you to persevere in so worthy a resolution, Some of your People disagree, or at least are lukewarm in the abolition of Slavery. Many treat ye. Resolution of your Meeting with redicule, & among those who throw Contempt on it, are Clergymen, whose surest Guard against both Redicule & Contempt is a certain Act of Assembly.–

I know not where to stop, I could say many things on this Subject; a serious review of which gives a gloomy perspective to future times.

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