Anthony Benezet (1713-1784)
BiographyAnthony Benezet was born in St. Quentin, northern France, on 31 January 1713. His family were Huguenots - French Protestants - who had been suffering increasing persecution since the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. In 1715, when Benezet was two years old, they emigrated to London, where he received an education suitable for the son of a properous family of merchants.
London proved to be a temporary home. In 1731, when Benezet was seventeen years of age, the family emigrated once more, this time to Philadelphia in the British American colony of Pennsylvania. Here Benezet joined the Society of Friends, or Quakers. His early attempts at a career in trade were unsuccessful and, in 1739, he started as schoolteacher at Germantown. Three years later, he moved to a position at the famous Friends' English School of Philadelphia (now the William Penn Charter School) where he was noted both for being a fine teacher, and for his dislike of the severe discipline then common. In 1750, in addition to his day duties, he set up an evening class for enslaved children which he ran from his own home. In 1754, he left the Friends' English School to set up one of his own exclusively for girls - the first public girls' school in America. He was dogged by ill health, however, and was not able to maintain an uninterrupted career. Nevertheless, he continued to teach enslaved children from his own home until 1770 when, with the support of the Society of Friends, he set up the Negro School at Philadelphia. He subsequently taught at both of these school almost until his death.
From at least the 1750s, Benezet became a firm opponent of slavery. Working alongside John Woolman, he participated in the debates taking place in Quaker circles at that time over whether Friends should be allowed to buy and sell slaves. Although this debate had been taking place since the late seventeenth century, it had not resulted in any firm action. Benezet and Woolman were, by 1758, able to convince Quakers in Pennsylvania and New Jersey that slave trading was not consistent with Christian doctrine and that Quakers in those colonies should be asked to stop. Within three years, the London Yearly Meeting had issued a 'strong minute' asking Quakers everywhere to stop their participation in the slave trade.
Benezet continued his antislavery efforts by taking the message to a wider community. He wrote and published at his own expense a number of antislavery tracts and pamphlets. Of these, Some Historical Account of Guinea, published in October 1771, was by far the most influential on both sides of the Atlantic. The pamphlet was read and, to a certain extent, imitated by both Granville Sharp and John Wesley, both of whom corresponded with Benezet and distributed his works in England. Several years later, Benezet's works were instrumental in persuading Thomas Clarkson to embark on his abolitionist career, and Benezet's Some Historical Account of Guinea was reprinted several times during the height of the abolition campaign. Benezet, however, did not live to see antislavery become a powerful force, either in Britain or America. He died on 3 May 1784, and is buried in the Friends' Burial Ground, Philadelphia. Benezet perhaps qualifies more as an American than a British Abolitionist, but his influence on the British abolition campaign cannot be doubted.
© Brycchan Carey 2002
Secondary Works: Biography and Special Studies