Arthur Lee "Philanthropos" and 18th Century Abolitionism

Posted on July 11, 2019

This summer we're publishing a series of blog posts written by students for the class HIST 211 Books: Technology and Culture. Their posts are based on materials in the Special Collections Research Center. Check out their bright insights every other week. Today's entry is written by Aleyah Gowell.

Page one of Arthur Lee's handwritten "Address to the Virginia General Assembly" manuscript. Lee writes to "Mr. Rind" of the Virginia Gazette, and lays out his reasoning for thinking enslavement is unjust and immoral.
"To Serve ones country, is a noble aim whether attempted by the Sword or pen."

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 inalienable 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 and immorality of slavery. These ideologies provided a new language to advocate for slavery’s 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 transatlantic slave trade during the years leading up to the American Revolution.

Through 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” (SC 01213) 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 with 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]

A close-up of Arthur Lee's pseudonym signature: "I am, Sir, your humble Servant, Philanthropos." From his 1767 "Address to Virginia General Assembly"
Lee's pseudonym, "Philanthropos"

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 form. [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.

References and More to Explore:

[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., 141.

Finding aid for the Arthur Lee Philanthropos Address to Virginia General Assembly (SC 01213) on the Special Collections database.

Library catalog entry for an extract of a similar address by Arthur Lee, taken from the Virginia Gazette, March 19, 1767.

Learn more about Arthur Lee from the Associates of Colonel Philip Ludwell III.