History of slavery in the United States: Samuel Sewall's The Selling of Joseph.

“Caveat Emptor!”: The First Anti-Slavery Pamphlet Published in New England

“Caveat Emptor!”: The First Anti-Slavery Pamphlet Published in New England

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May 22 2015 11:31 AM

“Caveat Emptor!”: The First Anti-Slavery Pamphlet Published in New England

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Samuel Sewall, a prominent minister and magistrate, published this tract in Boston in 1700, responding to a public controversy over the status of Adam, an enslaved servant held by another magistrate, John Saffin. Saffin had promised Adam his freedom and then reneged on his pledge. Adam contested Saffin's actions in court, and the dispute went on for three years; Adam and his wife finally became free in 1703. 

“ ’Tis pity there should be more Caution used in buying a Horse, or a little lifeless dust; than there is in purchasing Men and Women: Whenas they are the Offspring of GOD,” Sewall writes, extending some fellow-feeling to enslaved Africans in New England. Sewall refutes common contemporary arguments for slavery—“the Africans have Wars with one another: our Ships bring lawful Captives taken in those Wars”; Africans are “brought out of a Pagan Country, into places where the Gospel is Preached”—providing us with a handy list of the ways New Englanders defended enslavement at the time. 

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Giving with one hand, Sewall takes away with another, making racist secular arguments for the ill effects of slavery on the colony. Even if enslaved Africans were to become free, Sewall writes, "they can seldom use their freedom well," and, he argues, they were obviously not able to integrate—to fight for the colony, or to marry into the general population. Free black people, he writes, would "remain in our Body Politick as a kind of extra-vasat Blood"—an undesirable and unharmonious presence. 

Sewall's pamphlet followed Pennsylvania Quaker George Keith's An Exhortation and Caution to Friends Buying and Selling Negroes (1693), becoming the first American anti-slavery tract aimed at a general audience of non-Friends. Only one copy of the Sewall tract survives, in the collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society. 

A transcript follows the images. 

1Sewall

Collection of theMassachusettsHistoricalSociety.

2Sewall

Collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society.

3Sewall

Collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society.

Transcript (via the Massachusetts Historical Society): 

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The Selling 
of 
JOSEPH 
A Memorial.

FOR AS MUCH as Liberty is in real value next unto Life: None ought to part with 
it themselves, or deprive others of it, but upon most mature Consideration.

The Numerousness of Slaves at this day in the Province, and the Uneasiness 
of them under their Slavery, hath put many upon thinking whether 
the Foundation of it be firmly and well laid; so as to sustain the Vast Weight that is 
built upon it. It is most certain that all Men, as they are the Sons ofAdam, are 
Coheirs; and have equal Right unto Liberty, and all other outward Comforts of Life. 
GOD hath given the Earth [with all its Commodities] unto the Sons of Adam, Psal 115. 
16. And hath made of One Blood, all Nations of Men, for to dwell on all the face of the Earth; 
and hath determined the Times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation: That they 
should seek the Lord. Forasmuch then as we are the Offspring of GOD &c. Act
 17.26, 27, 29. 
Now although the Title given by the last ADAM, doth infinitely better Mens Estates, 
respecting GOD and themselves; and grants them a most beneficial and inviolable 
Lease under the Broad Seal of Heaven, who were before only Tenants at Will: Yet 
through the Indulgence of GOD to our First Parents after the Fall, the outward Estate 
of all and every of the Children, remains the same, as to one another. So that 
Originally, and Naturally, there is no such thing as Slavery. Joseph was rightfully no 
more a Slave to his Brethren, then they were to him : and they had no more Authority 
to Sell him, than they had to Slay him. And if they had nothing to do to Sell him; 
the Ishmaelites bargaining with them, and paying down Twenty pieces of Silver, could 
not make a Title. Neither could Potiphar have any better Interest in him than the 
Ishmaelites had. Gen. 37. 20, 27, 28. For he that shall in this case plead Alteration of 
Property
, seems to have forfeited a great part of his own claim to Humanity. There is 
no proportion between Twenty Pieces of Silver, and LIBERTY. The Commodity 
it self is the Claimer. If Arabian Gold be imported in any quantities, most are afraid 
to meddle with it, though they might have it at easy rates; lest if it should have 
been wrongfully taken from the Owners, it should kindle a fire to the Consumption 
of their whole Estate.'Tis pity there should be more Caution used in buying a 
Horse, or a little lifeless dust; than there is in purchasing Men and Women: Whenas 
they are the Offspring of GOD, and their Liberty is,

-- Auro pretiosior Omni.

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And seeing GOD hath said, He that Stealeth a Man and Selleth him, or if he be 
found in his hand, he shall surely be put to Death.
 Exod. 12.16. This Law being of E- 
verlasting Equity, wherein Man Stealing is ranked amongst the most atrocious of 
Capital Crimes: What louder Cry can there be made of the Celebrated Warning,

Caveat Emptor!

Page 2

And all thing considered, it would conduce more to the Welfare of the Province, 
to have White Servants for a Term of Years, than to have Slaves for Life. Few can 
endure to hear of a Negro's being made free; and indeed they can seldom use 
their freedom well; yet their continual aspiring after their forbidden Liberty, ren- 
ders them Unwilling Servants. And there is such a disparity in their Conditions, 
Color & Hair, that they can never embody with us, and grow up into orderly Families, 
to the Peopling of the Land: but still remain in our Body Politick as a kind of extra- 
vasat Blood. As many Negro men as there are among us, so many empty places there 
are in our Train Bands, and the places taken up of Men that might make Husbands 
for our Daughters. And the Sons and Daughters of New England would become more 
like Jacob, and Rachel, if this Slavery were thrust quite out of doors. Moreover it is 
too well known what Temptations Masters are under, to connive at the Fornification 
of their Slaves; lest they should be obliged to find them Wives, or pay their Fines. 
It seems to be practically pleaded that they might be Lawless; 'tis thought much of, 
that the Law should have Satisfaction for their Thefts, and other Immoralities; by 
which means, Holiness to the Lord, is more rarely engraven upon this sort of Servitude. 
It is likewise most lamentable to think, how in taking Negros out ofAfrica, and Selling 
of them here, That which GOD ha's joyned together men do boldly rend asunder; 
Men from their Country, Husbands from their Wives, Parents from their Children. 
How horrible is the Uncleanness, Mortality, if not Murder, that the Ships are 
guilty of that bring great Crouds of these miserable Men, and Women. Methinks, 
when we are bemoaning the barbarous Usage of our Friends and Kinsfolk in Africa
it might not be unseasonable to enquire whether we are not culpable in forcing the 
Africans to become Slaves amongst our selves. And it may be a question whether all 
the Benefit received by Negro Slaves, will balance the Accompt of Cash laid out upon 
them; and for the Redemption of our own enslaved Friends out ofAfrica. Besides 
all the Persons and Estates that have perished there.

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Obj. 1. These Blackamores are of the Posterity of Cham, and therefore are 
under the Curse of Slavery.
 Gen. 9.25, 26, 27.

Answ. Of all Offices, one would not begg this; viz. Uncall'd for, to be an Execu- 
tioner of the Vindictive Wrath of God; the extent and duration of which is to 
us uncertain. If this ever was a Commission; How do we know but that it is long 
since out of date? Many have found it to their Cost, that a Prophetical Denunci- 
ation of Judgment against a Person or People, would not warrant them to inflict that 
evil. If it would, Hazael might justify himself in all he did against his Master, and 
the Israelites, from 2 Kings 8. 10, 12.

But it is possible that by cursory reading, this Text may have been mistaken. For 
Canaan is the Person Cursed three times over, without the mentioning of Cham. Good 
Expositors suppose the Curse entailed on him, and that this Prophesie was accom- 
plished in the Extirpation of the Canaanites, and in the Servitude of the Gibeonites, 
Vide Pareum.
 Whereas the Blackmores are not descended of Canaan, but of Cush
Psal. 68. 31. Princes shall come out of Egypt [Mizraim] Ethopia[Cush] shall soon 
stretch out her hands unto God.
 Under which Names, all Africa may be compre- 
hended; and the Promised Conversion ought to be prayed for. Jer. 13, 23. Can the 
Ethiopian change his skin?
 This shews that Black Men are the Posterity of Cush: Who 
time out of mind have been distinguished by their Colour. And for want of the 
true, Ovid assigns a fabulous cause of it.

Sanguine tum credunt in corpora summa vocato 
Aethiopum populos nigrum traxisse colorem.
 
Metamorph. lib.2.

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Obj. 2. The Nigers are brought out of a Pagan Country, into places where 
the Gospel is Preached.

Page 3 

Answ. Evil must not be done, that good may come of it. The extraordinary and 
comprehensive Benefit accruing to the Church of God, and to Josephpersonally, did 
not rectify his brethrens Sale of him.

Obj. 3. The Africans have Wars with one another: our Ships bring lawful 
Captives taken in those Wars.

Answ. For ought is known, their Wars are much such as were between Jacob's 
Sons and their Brother Joseph. If they be between Town and Town; Provincial, or 
National: Every War is upon one side Unjust. An Unlawful War can't make law- 
ful Captives. And by Receiving, we are in danger to promote, and partake in their 
Barbarous Cruelties. I am sure, if some Gentlemen should go down to the Brewsters 
to take the Air, and Fish: And a stronger party from Hull should Surprise them, and 
Sell them for Slaves to a Ship outward bound: they would think themselves unjustly 
dealt with; both by Sellers and Buyers. And yet 'tis to be feared, we have no 
other kind of Title to our Nigers. Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men 
should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the Law and the Prophets.
 Matt. 7. 12.

Obj. 4. Abraham had servants bought with his Money, and born in his 
House.

Answ. Until the Circumstances of Abraham's purchase be recorded, no Argument 
can be drawn from it. In the mean time, Charity obliges us to conclude, that He 
knew it was lawful and good.

It is Observable that the Israelites were strictly forbidden the buying, or selling one 
another for Slaves. Levit. 25. 39, 46. Jer. 34. 8--22. And GOD gaged His 
Blessing in lieu of any loss they might conceipt they suffered thereby.Deut. 15. 18. 
And since the partition Wall is broken down, inordinate Self love should likewise be 
demolished. GOD expects that Christians should be of a more Ingenuous and benign 
frame of spirit. Christians should carry it to all the World, as theIsraelites were to 
carry it one towards another. And for men obstinately to persist in holding their 
Neighbours and Brethren under the Rigor of perpetual Bondage, seems to be no proper 
way of gaining Assurance that God ha's given them Spiritual Freedom. Our Blessed 
Saviour ha's altered the Measures of the Ancient Love-Song, and set it to a most 
Excellent New Tune, which all ought to be ambitious of Learning.Matt. 5. 43, 44. 
John 13. 34. These Ethiopians, as black as they are; seeing they are the Sons and 
Daughters of the First Adam, the Brethren and Sister of the Last ADAM, and the 
Offspring of GOD; They ought to be treated with a Respect agreeable.

Servitus perfecta voluntaria, inter Christianum & Christiainum, ex parte servi 
patientis saepe est licita, quia est necessaria: sed ex parte domini agentis, & pro- 
curando & exercendo, vix potest esse licita: quia non convenit regulae illi generali: 
Quaecunque volueritis ut faciant vobis homines, ita & vos facite eis.
Matt. 7.12.

Perfecta servitus poenae, non potest jure locum habere, nisi ex delicto gravi quod 
ultimum supplicum aliquo modo meretur: quia Libertas ex naturali aestimatione 
proxime accedit ad vitam ipsam, & eidem a multis proeferri solet.

Ames. Cas. Consc. Lib. 5. Cap. 23. Thes. 2, 3.

BOSTON of the Massachusets;

Printed by Bartholomew Green, and John Allen, June, 24th. 1700.