Anthony Benezet: Eighteenth Century Social Critic, Educator and Abolitionist

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1974

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The career of Anthony Benezet (1713-1784), humanitarian leader, social critic, and educator of the revolutionary period, had roots in his French Huguenot background and English education. In 1731, Benezet emigrated from London to Philadelphia, where he worked for several years in an import-export business with his father and brothers. But he dropped his commercial pursuits and began teaching school, a vocation he found more satisfying. By 1743 he had taken the position of English School Master at the Quaker sponsored "Publick School" of Philadelphia, later known as the William Penn Charter School. For the next four decades, Benezet led the school through its greatest period o:f development. He was responsible for establishing the first permanent secondary level school for girls in the colonies, as well a.s the first full time school for black students , during his tenure. In addition he wrote school books, introduced numerous innovative teaching methods, modernized curricula, and ruled out harsh disciplinary measures in his classrooms, as part of a long campaign to humanize education and make it serve more effectively the needs of growing children and a changing society. Benezet became the leading humanitarian reformer and social critic of late eighteenth century America, as well. In response to real needs created by the Seven Years' War and the Revolution, he tested his theories and bourgeois ideals in the laboratory of daily life. His utopian vision of community rested on values drawn eclectically from many sources in Western civilization. These sources included his radical Protestant heritage, his rising middle-class economic background, the Whig political tradition, and contemporary Enlightenment thought. The result was a social vision of essentially traditional patterns in which every person contributed voluntary and happily to the good of the whole community. On the basis of the Christian brotherhood ideal and his Quaker principle of peace in the family of mankind, Benezet pressed for the transformation of certain social institutions in order to preserve all that he saw as valuable from the past. His goal was never to overturn the established social structure, but to change it drastically by gradual and peaceful methods. This called for a revolution of sentiments, in which rational people would become convinced of the need to correct various evils that threatened their collective happiness. Benezet wrote prolifically on the subjects of slavery, war, ignorance, and poverty, attacking what he believed to be the causes of these social cancers. Invariably, as he analyzed the problems, he concluded that they had roots in a spreading economic greed. He condemned the selfish acquisitiveness that threatened to overwhelm sociability and. lead to inexcusable oppression of less aggressive groups-the children, black people, and poverty-ridden immigrants who comprised a growing segment of the city's population. Failure to correct these evils, he warned, meant ever worse chaos and social disorder. Benezet's most significant campaign was that directed against slavery and the slave trade. His sustained attack on the institution was founded on an unequivocal assertion of the full intellectual and moral equality of the races. It was a concept he first proved to his own satisfaction in his teaching of black students, beginning about 1750, and one that became the cornerstone of his antislavery campaign. From 1759 onward, Benezet's published research in African history, his exposes of the inhumanity of slavery, his synthesis of Christian and Enlightenment arguments, and his sustained political campaign against the institution, established his leadership in a growing libertarian movement in the colonies. In 1766, amid repercussions from the Stamp Act, Benezet published his widely reprinted Caution and Warning to Great Britain and Her Colonies. The book attacked English hypocrisy for condoning the slave trade while loudly proclaiming ''British ideas of liberty." The American antislavery crusade, which peaked in 1774, became one important catalyst for inter-colonial cooperation and. resistance to Great Britain, a powerful popular movement which patriot leaders found useful in their drive for independence. During and after the Revolution, however, antislavery sentiment became politically embarrassing--a divisive force in a nation struggling for survival. But in England and France, beginning in the mid-1780's, Benezet's books in the hands of his antislavery converts and colleagues, served as the basis for a sustained campaign to outlaw the slave trade and the institution of slavery throughout the world.

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