Slavery was a fact of life in the eighteenth-century Chesapeake. Newly arrived enslaved Africans as well as second-, third-, and even fourth-generation slaves were a common sight in Williamsburg, Yorktown, Norfolk, Richmond, Annapolis, and Baltimore. Most residents of Maryland and Virginia thought there was nothing wrong with holding another human being as property. The area's economy relied upon the labor of these people. In keeping with the social philosophy of the period, slavery seemed a natural part of an ordered society.
But even in the early years of a century that saw the colonies successfully
declare their independence from Britain, there were those who believed that
owning other human beings was philosophically and morally wrong. They advocated
the abolition of the slave trade. Then, when that was accomplished in Virginia
in 1778 and in Maryland in 1783, they worked tirelessly to eliminate the institution
of slavery itself. These men and women were the first voices of a movement that
would dominate the attention of many Americans by the mid-nineteenth century
as surely as the civil rights movement did a century later.
Any political movement needs a symbol and a motto. The American abolitionists found theirs in the kneeling slave in chains, surrounded by the words "Am I Not a Man and a Brother." First adopted by the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade in England, it became the enduring emblem of abolitionists and antislavery activists on both sides of the Atlantic. Josiah Wedgwood manufactured unglazed stoneware cameos like this medallion [at right] by the thousands and gave them away to supporters of the movement. Benjamin Franklin, always one to recognize good publicity when he saw it, thought the cameos would be an effective weapon against the slave trade.
Wedgwood's image of a kneeling slave appeared over and over again and was used
in countless ways: on English and American tokens to raise money for the cause;
a woman's pinholder; on tea wares and jugs; and needlework pictures. Even after
the slave trade and slavery were abolished in England, this image was used to
show a grateful ex-slave thanking God for liberty.
Women were crucial to the success of the abolitionist and antislavery movements in America and England. They used every available tool to campaign against slavery even though they were limited by law and convention from activities that today's female activists take for granted. They wrote poetry, essays, and letters; sent petitions to their government representatives; organized boycotts; raised money; lectured publicly; and even helped slaves escape from bondage. It is not an exaggeration to say that the active role of women in the movement played a significant part in its accomplishments.
Personal involvement in campaigns to abolish the slave trade and slavery often began at an early age. Young women and girls of all classes learned how to sew and work samplers as part of their education. For girls and women who could not declare their views more publicly, a sampler or needlework picture indicated their support of the movement. Much of this needlework simply transcribed a well-known verse of abolitionist poetry, such as Thomas Cowper's "The Negro's Complaint," or incorporated the figure of a kneeling slave [above].
women quickly learned these techniques from their English sisters. The token
[at right] depicting a kneeling female slave surrounded by the words "Am
I Not a Woman and a Sister," was sold at annual fund-raising fairs in the
United States. The fairs probably provided the largest source of funds for the
antislavery movement. In the second quarter of the nineteenth century, women
organized letter-writing campaigns and petition drives, and became involved
in Underground Railroad activities. [Note: To view another anti-slavery token,
Slavery was as much an economic system as it was a system of oppression. Many who advocated abolishing the slave trade understood that putting economic pressure on slave-dependent industries might hasten the end of the trade and perhaps of slavery itself. Sugar production in the West Indies and cotton production in the American Deep South were particularly vulnerable.
English abolitionists therefore urged consumers not to purchase sugar from the West Indies but rather from the East Indies where it was produced by free labor. This tactic was used in the 1790s during the campaign to abolish the English slave trade. It was revived in the 1820s as the English movement turned its objective toward the abolition of slavery in the British colonies, including the West Indies. These campaigns were primarily supported by the female antislavery associations found all over England. Adherents distributed thousands of pamphlets and broadsides door-to-door in an effort to persuade British consumers not to buy West Indian sugar.
English ceramic manufacturers, always alert to new marketing opportunities, took advantage of the campaign by making sugar bowls inscribed with pro-abstention slogans. Displayed on a tea table, a sugar bowl proclaimed its owner's abolitionist sentiments and their support of a boycott of sugar from the West Indies.
This sugar bowl is an important survival [at left]. The kneeling figure-adapted from Josiah Wedgwood's famous cameo-is a female slave, emphasizing that women as well as men were enslaved. On the other side is a slogan used by the abstention campaign:
East India Sugar not made
By Six families using
East India, instead of
West India Sugar, one
Slave less is required.
Abolition and antislavery were never very popular in the Chesapeake, especially in the nineteenth century. Slave-owning was too wide-spread and slaves too intertwined in the economy of the region for slave owners to agree to do without this source of labor. Furthermore, the thought of thousands of former slaves living among those who had been their masters frightened many Chesapeake slave owners. They fiercely defended their way of life and rationalized its continuation. Yet even in the face of outright hostility and violence, abolitionists continued to work toward their goal: the elimination of slavery in the United States, a goal that would not be realized until the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1865.
The text of this article was written by Martha Katz-Hyman, Associate Curator, Mechanical Arts and Historic Interiors, Department of Collections, The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.