Arthur Lee Philanthropos “Address to Virginia General Assembly”

Posted on February 1, 2019

This post was written by Aleyah Gowell as part of the Fall 2018 HIST211 Books course, taught by Phillip Emanuel.

At the close of the eighteenth century, a series of revolutions broke out throughout the
Atlantic World. This Age of Revolution was linked by concepts of natural and unalienable rights.
Ideas of liberty and fundamental human rights proliferated in colonial North America following
the American Revolution, and offered African-Americans and white abolitionists new
understandings of the illegitimacy of slavery and provided them with language to advocate for its
abolition.

Although these revolutionary ideas mobilized North American abolitionist movements
throughout the early nineteenth century, abolitionists in colonial North America sought to end
slavery and the Atlantic Slave Trade during the years leading up to the American Revolution.
Throughout the eighteenth century, white people in the Chesapeake colonies worked to
end the enslavement of Africans and their descendants.1 Among them was Arthur Lee. Lee was a
Fellow of the Royal Society, a physician, and an active opponent of slavery.2 In 1767, Lee wrote
an “Address to the Virginia General Assembly” fervently advocating for the abolition of slavery.
In the “Address,” Lee asserts that slavery “is a Violation both of justice and Religion; that it is
dangerous to the safety of the Community in which it prevails; that it is destructive to the growth
of arts and Sciences; and lastly, that it produces a numerous & very fatal train of Vices, both in
the Slave, and in his Master.” Lee contends that slavery is not justifiable simply because it is the
“custom of the country.” He also warns that slavery creates hostility between the enslaved and
enslaver, and as a result insurrections are certain to occur.

The ideas presented in Lee’s “Address” are situated within an early abolitionist
movement that believed slavery was unjust and incompatible with Christianity. During the Great
Awakening of the 1740s, white colonists began to “question the role of slavery in society.”3
Some religious groups even began to exclude slaveholders from their organizations.4 In addition,
although they were motivated by other reasons as well, Virginia legislatures imposed taxes on
imported enslaved Africans in an attempt to limit the scope of the trade.5

Although those within the abolitionist movement shared Lee’s views, many others did
not. The “Address,” originally published in Rind’s Virginia Gazette , was “considered so
discordant” to colonial readers that it was “suppressed,” and no “printers would publish its
sequel.”6 Subsequently, the “Address” circulated in manuscript.7 The manuscript copy in Swem
Special Collections is also signed “Philanthropos.” Lee’s use of the pseudonym may suggest an
attempt to shield his identity and avoid criticism. In the context of the late eighteenth century,
Lee’s “Address” was unpopular among many and far ahead of its time.

Abolition was not a radical nineteenth century idea that miraculously emerged from the
political ideologies of the Age of Revolution. Lee’s “Address” and other pre-revolution
abolitionist efforts serve as reminders that the abolitionist movement did not have a linear
trajectory, and that individuals protested slavery throughout its existence.

1 Richard MacMaster, The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography , (Virginia Historical
Society, 1972), 143.
2 Ibid., 141.
3 Leslie Harris, In the Shadow of Slavery: African Americans in New York City, 1626-1863 ,
(Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2003), 48.
4 Ibid.
5 MacMaster, The Virginia Magazine , 143-144.
6 Ibid., 141.
7 Ibid., 142.