Sunday, August 03, 2008

Quakers with slaves

At right is the cover of the Chowan County grand jury indictment, in spring 1829, of John Mann for the assault and battery of the slave Lydia. (From the North Carolina Office of Archives and History.) The charge was presented by a man named Josiah Small. Yet the slave's owner, as Ruffin's opinion in State v. Mann tells us, was named Elizabeth Jones, who for all this time has eluded historians. Who was Josiah Small and what concern was Jones' slave to him? This document was my first clue in a long journey to find the answer.

Elizabeth Jones was Small's ward. Married to her older sister Matilda, Small assumed guardianship of Elizabeth and two of her brothers after the death of their father Thomas Jones, in 1822. To that household Elizabeth brought the slave she had inherited, Lydia. By 1829, Elizabeth was still a minor (barely, at 17), and Lydia was 23.

What's most interesting to me about the Small household is that Josiah Small was from an old Quaker family. He was a descendant of John Small (c.1639-1700), a Virginia Quaker whose family was among the waves of Quakers who scurried down to North Carolina to escape the wrath of Virginia's governor William Berkeley. A faithful servant of Charles I, "a King's man to his autocratic fingertips" as one historian writes, Berkeley suppressed all dissent from the Church of England, even after Cromwell came to power. By 1660, he'd succeeded in getting the Virginia legislature to pass a law requiring the imprisonment of all Quakers until they left the colony. He stayed in office until his death in 1677.

This was happening during the same period when the boundary line between North Carolina and Virginia was up for grabs. The North Carolina charter of 1663 was at apparent odds with the one of 1665; in conflict was a swath of territory about 30 miles deep from where the line currently is to the middle of the Albemarle Sound. The dispute wasn't settled until William Byrd's survey of 1728--which means that for some 60 years, it was an open question.

The dispute had to do with differences of opinion on the location of Weyanoke Creek, which was supposed to be the boundary. The creek couldn't be found any more. Virginia claimed it was the same as Wiccon Creek, a tributary of the Chowan. North Carolina said it was the Nottoway River. But as William Boyd points out in an introduction to William Byrd's work, major questions of tobacco and trade routes were involved.

As early as 1679 Virginia had prohibited the importation of North Carolina tobacco, a condition which greatly retarded the economic development of the northeastern part of the province, where the soil was well adapted to tobacco culture. If the boundary ran through Nottoway River, North Carolina tobacco could be shipped down that and other streams to Albemarle Sound and thence to points without the colony.

As the debate lingered on, in 1714, Governor Spotswood of Virginia, "claiming that North Carolina continued to grant lands in the disputed region and that 'loose and disorderly people daily flock there,' proposed that Virginia survey a line through the Nottoway River and North Carolina one through Wiccon Creek, and that all settlers between those lines be removed." !! That didn't happen. When Charles Eden became governor of North Carolina, he managed to reach a compromise on the boundary. The line he proposed is the one that eventually, in 1728, was surveyed by a company including William Byrd II.

It's a more complicated story than that, but let me return to the Quaker Smalls. Because of this confusion, it appears that some of Josiah Small's ancestors may have "moved" to North Carolina simply by staying put. At any rate, by the late 1700s his father Benjamin was well established in Chowan County. On his death he left an estate of more than 500 acres and some 18 slaves. Josiah inherited about half of this, plus he had other holdings. By the time of the 1830 census, Josiah had 17 slaves.

Quakers were certainly better off in North Carolina. Under the Carolina Charter of 1663 (written largely by John Locke), "No person . . . shall be in any ways molested, punished, disquieted, or called into question for any differences in opinion or practice in matters of religious concernment, but every person shall have and enjoy his conscience in matters of religion throughout the province."

Quakers had many inconvenient practices and beliefs. They would not swear an oath in court. They considered everybody equal, rich or poor; all were brothers and sisters. Whether you were a lord or a servant, to them you were "thee." They would not fight. And of course, they thought slavery was wrong.

When did the Small family decide to become slaveholders, and why? We know that certain Quakers in Chowan County were considered dangerously abolitionist at least through 1795, when Josiah's father Benjamin, who did own slaves, would have been around 50. In December 1795, some Quakers in Chowan County were accused of actively promoting emancipation. Responding to a perceived "situation of great peril and danger" brought on by "the society of people called Quakers,"--by their "insatiated enthusiasm . . . as to partial and general emancipation"--a grand jury resolved that "speedy and resolute measures ought to be adopted by the good sense & spirit of the people" to combat their pernicious influence." This document links the Quaker agitation to "the miserable havoc & malfeasance which have lately taken place in the West Indies," which must have been a reference to the 1791 revolution in Haiti. Historians have finally understood how terrifying that event was to slaveowners throughout the South--an event too explosive to even talk about. But in my research into the first three decades of the 1800s in Chowan County, I haven't yet found any evidence of Quakers standing on principle against slavery. Perhaps it was there, but the Smalls and many of their relatives by then were well assimilated into the slaveowner class.

A reasonable explanation for this phenomenon of slaveholding Quakers comes from Seth B. Hinshaw's history of Quakers in North Carolina: "The religious conviction that slavery was morally wrong developed quite slowly," he writes. By the time it took hold, Quakers in eastern North Carolina had been owning slaves for many years, handing them down (as we see in the Small family) from generation to generation. It's not a great answer, but it's the best I can do.

Some of this information will turn up in the law review essay I'm writing as a follow-up to my talk on State v. Mann at the Ruffin symposium last fall. I want to acknowledge how helpful the web is for a project like this--rather, how handy the web is for connecting historical researchers with genealogists. A lot of what I know about the Small family comes from genealogical sources, especially Janice Eileen Wallace, with whom I had a fascinating email correspondence. The same is true for Elizabeth Jones and her descendants, for which Sally's Family Place and Sally herself have been very helpful.