Germantown Quaker Petition Against Slavery

The 1688 Germantown Quaker Petition against slavery was the first protest against African American slavery made by a religious body in the English colonies. It was drafted by Francis Daniel Pastorius, a young German attorney and three other Quakers living in Germantown, Pennsylvania (now part of Philadelphia) on behalf of the Germantown Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends to raise the issue of slavery with the Quaker Meeting which they attended. The men gathered and wrote a petition based upon the Bible’s Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” urging the Meeting to abolish slavery. It argues that every human, regardless of belief, color, or ethnicity, has rights that should not be violated. Throughout the petition the reference to the Golden Rule is used to argue against slavery and for universal human rights.

The four men presented their petition at the local Monthly Meeting at Dublin (Abington), but it is not clear what they expected to happen. Although they were accepted in the Quaker community, they were outsiders who could not speak or write fluently in English, and they also had a fresh view of slavery that was unique to Germantown. They must have understood from the beginning that it would be difficult to force the whole colony to abolish slavery, as it was generally believed that the colony's prosperity depended on slavery. It is not clear whether the four men expected the local Meeting to affirm their view, because they knew that nearby Meetings might not in be in agreement, and consequences would be far-reaching. The Meeting decided that although the issue was fundamental and just, it was too difficult and consequential for them to judge, and would need to be considered further. In the usual manner the Meeting sent the petition on to the Philadelphia Quarterly Meeting, where it was again considered and sent on to the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (held in Burlington, NJ).

Realizing that the abolition of slavery would have a wide and overreaching impact on the entire colony, none of the Meetings wanted to pass judgment on such a "weighty matter." Philadelphia Yearly Meeting minutes that they would send the petition to London Yearly Meeting, without mentioning whether they actually did so, and on this point no direct evidence has been discovered. The minutes of London Yearly Meeting do not mention the petition directly, apparently skirting the issue.

The 1688 petition was the first American document of its kind that made a plea for equal human rights for everyone. It compelled a higher standard of reasoning about fairness and equality that continued to grow in Pennsylvania and the other colonies with the Declaration of Independence and the abolitionist and suffrage movements, eventually giving rise to Lincoln's reference to human rights in the Gettysburg Address. The 1688 petition was set aside and forgotten until 1844 when it was re-discovered and became a focus of the burgeoning abolitionist movement. After a century of public exposure, it was misplaced and once more re-discovered in March 2005 in the vault at Arch Street Meetinghouse. It was discovered in deteriorating condition, with tears at the edges, paper tape covering voids and handwriting where the petition had originally been folded, and its oak gall ink slowly fading into gray. To preserve the document for future generations, it was treated at the Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts in downtown Philadelphia.  It currently resides at Haverford College Quaker and Special Collections, the joint repository (with Friends Historical Library of Swarthmore College) for the records of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting. Today the 1688 petition is for many a powerful reminder about the basis for freedom and equality for all.

Content used with permission from Eastern National’s Guidebook to The American Civil Rights Experience.