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Past & Present: Early Protests At Germantown

Quaker & Special Collections, Haverford College. Used with permission.

While most Americans place the abolitionist movement in the 19th century, the first North American protest against enslavement took place on February 18, 1688, in Germantown, Pennsylvania. 

William Penn, the founder of the colony, had encouraged German and Dutch members of the Society of Friends, or Quakers, to immigrate to his new colony where they would experience freedom of belief. However, these new settlers were unaccustomed to enslavement and refused to participate, even with a shortage of labor.

Five years after founding Germantown, Francis Daniel Pastorius invited three other members of the community to write a formal petition against enslavement. They based their argument on the Bible’s Golden Rule, “Do unto Others what You would have them do unto You,” and urged fellow Quakers to abolish slavery.

For a religious petition, it is unusual in that it does not contain references to Jesus or God. Instead, the four men centered their arguments in a more modern context: universal human rights. They argued that regardless of color, nationality, or beliefs, no human has the right to violate another’s rights. They claimed enslaved people have social and political equality with all other citizens of the colony and that they had the right to revolt.

However strident the language of this petition, its immediate impact was limited. The four men understood that enslavement had already become an entrenched labor system and they would need to study further how to enact full abolition. Over the next 100 years, more Quakers became convinced enslavement was wrong. Other petitions circulated, but they focused on more practical, economic arguments, not universal human rights.

In 1776, Quakers called for a full, colony-wide ban on Quakers owning enslaved people, and in 1780, 92 years after the Germantown petition, the Pennsylvania General Assembly became the first democratic body to abolish enslavement.

Dr. Robin C. Henry holds a Ph.D. in U.S. history from Indiana University and is an associate professor in the history department at Wichita State University. Her research examines the intersections among sexuality, law, and regional identity in the 19th- and early 20th-century United States.