The Virginia Society was patterned on the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery and for the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage, established in 1784. The origins of the Pennsylvania Society can be traced to a previous abolition society that ceased meeting during the Revolutionary War. The historian Richard Newman has described the resurgent Pennsylvania Society as a collection of “deferential petitioners” who engaged in a “conservative style of activism.” Mostly upper-class gentlemen, the society advocated for abolition in a traditional and conservative manner employing petitions, publications, and personal lobbying.
Tench Coxe, Thomas Paine, John Jay, Noah Webster, Benjamin Rush, and the marquis de Lafayette all joined honorary president Benjamin Franklin as members of the society. Leveraging their social position, influence, and personal access to elite politicians, members of the Pennsylvania Society advocated for the abolition of slavery and an immediate cessation of the slave trade. They also provided legal counsel to the wrongfully enslaved. Similar societies were established in Delaware (1788), Rhode Island (1789), Maryland (1790), and Connecticut (1790). Petitions from these groups spurred the first contentious debates in Congress over slavery, resulting in a “gag-rule” prohibiting debate on theuntil 1808. More importantly, these societies created a national, and at times international, network of reformers who exchanged ideas, coordinated strategy, and worked cooperatively in favor of antislavery laws and reform. And they were hoping to expand its reach southward to slave states of the South.
Robert Pleasants, an abolitionist Quaker from Henrico County, was in regular contact with members of the Pennsylvania Society. Many of the members were fellow Quakers and he also had personal and familial connections to James Pemberton, a leading voice in the Society of Friends and the Pennsylvania Society. Pemberton and other members of the Pennsylvania Society encouraged him to start a similar organization in Virginia. Buoyed by his conviction that the Revolution had unleashed an unquenchable “spirit of Liberty,” Pleasants identified and recruited men who were, in his estimation, zealous and diligent in the antislavery cause. Local Quakers James Ladd, Micajah Crew, Thomas Pleasants, James Harris, and John Hunnicutt agreed to serve as officers in the society. A socially distinct group in Virginia, the Quakers were few in number and lacked the demographic, economic, and political influence of their brethren in Philadelphia. Achievement of the society’s goals, therefore, necessitated a broader, more diverse membership, and outreach efforts were directed at local Methodists and Baptists. They enjoyed some success with the former, but only a few interested persons from the latter expressed interest in joining the effort.
Pleasants sought to replicate the successful elite-based membership model of the Pennsylvania Society in Virginia. As a member of the upper class, he was familiar with a number of well-known Virginians, and bringing in such individuals, it was thought, might stoke broader support among white Virginians., , , , and all received letters from Pleasants—but they each declined his entreaties. Slavery was central to Virginia’s economy and the majority of whites benefited, either directly or indirectly, from the institution. Unsurprisingly, convincing political leaders to buck the business interests of their constituents was not ultimately successful. Disappointed, but undeterred, Pleasants nonetheless endeavored to recruit more members. In two advertisements in the Virginia Independent Chronicle and General Advertiser, on January 27 and 30, 1790, he announced the intended formation of an antislavery society open to all interested persons regardless of religious denomination or affiliation. He drafted a constitution and a preamble for the society as well. Pleasants’s efforts attracted the attention of local Methodists interested in reform. In an effort to signal the society’s nonsectarian character, the first preliminary meeting of the society was held in April 1790 in a Methodist meetinghouse in Petersburg.
At this first meeting the members ratified the constitution, the contents of which were mainly procedural. The preamble, however, reveals some of the arguments—religious, political, and economic—motivating the society as well as providing a glimpse into its aspirations. According to the preamble, God created all mankind free and equal; slavery, therefore, was an odious degradation of divine liberty and a violation of the natural order. The drafters stopped short of declaring slaveholders sinners or morally compromised individuals. Wherever it prevailed, they averred, slavery demanded governmental protection of the slaveholder’s arbitrary, undemocratic, and nearly unlimited legal power over his slaves. In this way, slavery injected a spirit of tyranny into the heart of the republic’s legal and political systems. Use of slave labor, they added, discouraged the development of trades and manufacturers, suppressed the formation of domestic markets, and inhibited the development of villages, towns, and cities.
But the meeting soon turned contentious over an important threshold question: could slaveholders join the proposed society? Quakers had nearly cleansed their society of slaveholding by the early 1790s. For them, abolition was a moral and religious imperative—the freeing of one’s own slaves was a necessary step toward salvation (as well as continued participation in the Society of Friends). For most white Virginians, slavery was mainly a policy question involving economic and social considerations. Some slaveholders, such as Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry, objected to slavery on principle and yet maintained slaves for their own particular reasons. Pleasants and his Quaker allies argued that admitting such men would hinder the purposes of the society because abolition conflicted with their personal and financial interests in slavery. They would be lukewarm members at best and, at the worst, obstruct the business of the society.
Opposing Pleasants were some Methodist members who endorsed the idea of admitting slaveholders who harbored doubts about slavery’s morality, advisability, or religious standing. In their estimation, ambivalent slaveholders, through participation in the abolition society and exposure to its ideas and arguments, might become true abolitionists just as sinners were admitted to worship services in the hopes that they might “see the light.” The debate raged on until the meeting was adjourned without resolving the issue. It was taken up again at a subsequent meeting. No records of that debate survive, but it seems that Pleasants and the Quakers carried the day and slaveholders were barred from membership.
Pleasants suspected that the Methodists might have become more agreeable to banning slaveholders because of a recent visit to the area by Bishop Francis Asbury, an influential English Methodist minister sympathetic to the antislavery cause. Asbury met with local ministers and members of the Methodist Society and encouraged participation in the abolition society.
Early Years (1790–1795)
Beginning in 1791, the newly formed Virginia Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery, in conjunction with the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, organized petition drives against the international slave trade. Pleasants, then serving in the U.S. House of Representatives, to present the petition to his fellow congressmen. Madison declined because he believed there were too many general criticisms of slavery in the text of the petition. Such criticisms, , might offend his constituents. As their elected representative, he was duty bound to serve their interests, which included protecting slavery’s financial stability. Undeterred, the Virginia Society sent its anti–slave trade petition to Congress without Madison’s assistance.
The society then composed another petition intended for the General Assembly proposing the gradual abolition of slavery alongside the education of former slaves in preparation for freedom. Representatives of the society collected signatures personally, but many people were unwilling to sign. One representative thought the society might obtain more signatures if the petition were presented to the common folk more broadly, but the Virginia Society was wedded to the Pennsylvania model of elite membership and its deferential conservative tactics. The Pennsylvania Society, however, enjoyed the support of leading, wealthy Quaker families in Philadelphia as well as many prominent non-Quakers in the city. The situation was different in Virginia. Quakers were a distinct minority without direct access to political power, and unlike their city cousins they were much more conservative and less likely to publicly call for emancipation than Friends in Philadelphia.
Quakers in Great Britain
But the society’s outreach efforts, directed mainly at Methodists and Baptists, produced only a handful of additional members. When they sent out representatives to gather signatures for antislavery petitions among landholders and prominent individuals, they often encountered detractors who argued that slavery was a necessary institution in Virginia due to economic considerations and as a necessary security against potential black rebellion. Writing in the Virginia Independent Chronicle and General Advertiser, on June 2, 1790, one critic complained that asking white Virginians to give up slavery, which the Virginia Society was doing, was like asking a farmer to give up his horse and take up the plow himself. Agriculture would grind to a halt, he argued, while those intended to labor would sit idle. Large-scale emancipation, according to critics of abolition, would result in social disorder, crime, black poverty, and inevitable violence.
In that same issue of the Virginia Independent Chronicle, Pleasants defended the society and its mission. Under the pseudonym “Humanity,” he wrote that all men, black or white, were entitled to liberty and slavery was therefore contrary to natural law. Freed slaves could become valuable citizens if invested with civil rights like the ownership of property, assurance of due process, and granted unmolested, peaceful habitations of their own. The freedmen’s interests would align with everyone else’s and they would become valuable, productive members of society. Abolition was not the release of a vicious, vindictive force, but an opportunity to ensure Virginia’s peaceful development. Slavery, he concluded, was an institution of historical convenience and not based in immutable principles. And the Virginia Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery was dedicated to the peaceful realization of these goals.
But the society was not alone in this fight. It was just one part of a larger antislavery network of reformers that stretched along the Atlantic seaboard. In 1794, nine antislavery societies from across the United States sent twenty-five delegates to Philadelphia demanding that Congress end the international slave trade. This first convocation of antislavery societies was called the American Convention of Abolition Societies. Unable to send a representative, Pleasants asked his brother, Samuel Pleasants of Philadelphia, to attend on behalf of the Virginia Society. In 1795, the Virginia Society sent its own representatives to Philadelphia to participate in the convention. The future of the antislavery cause seemed to hold promise.
Decline and End (1795–1804)
By the mid-1790s the Virginia Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery was going strong. It had collected several hundred signatures for its petition calling for a general emancipation of slaves in Virginia. A total of 133 registered members was reported to the American Convention, but a fair number of these were “corresponding members” who rarely attended meetings and did not pay dues. Nevertheless, the society claimed to have freed approximately 50 wrongfully enslaved persons through legal actions against slaveholders.
But progress on the legal front was abruptly halted by changes in the law. White Virginians were becoming increasingly intolerant of the perceived, potentially disruptive consequences of manumission. The number of legally freed slaves in Virginia, only a handful in 1782 when the law allowing manumission was passed, had grown to approximately 13,000 in the years since. After an initial rush of manumissions, fewer and fewer masters chose to emancipate their bondsmen. Nonetheless, highly visible communities of free blacks had taken root in Richmond, Petersburg, Alexandria, and in Pleasants’s own neighborhood. Free black communities often attracted white suspicions, resulting in growing support for restrictive legal measures directed against enslaved people, free persons of color, and their allies.
Passed in 1795, a new law made it harder for people claiming to be wrongfully enslaved to prevail in judicial proceedings. Claiming that abolitionists, like Pleasants and the Virginia Society, were depriving honest masters of their human property through the use of onerous and tedious litigation, the General Assembly increased the procedural hurdles enslaved litigants faced when seeking freedom. Abolitionists observed that the only way for a slave to prevail was to possess a right to freedom as clear as the noonday sun; otherwise the court would dismiss the claim. Coupled with the requirement that abolition societies had to pay fines and court costs if the slave-litigant failed to win his freedom, the Virginia Society, in response, was much more selective when choosing which plaintiffs to assist. Losing a case could cost the society hundreds of dollars that it did not have.
Joseph Anthony, the Virginia Society’s delegate to the American Convention of Abolition Societies in 1796, reported that legal changes, in conjunction with increasing hostility to blacks overall, had stymied the society’s progress. Morale, he also observed, was quite low in the Richmond-based group. Other Virginia abolition societies were in similar straits: Membership in the Alexandria Society for the the Relief and Protection of Persons Illegally Held in Bondage had declined precipitously. The already small Winchester Society for the Abolition of Slavery and the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage had given up litigating freedom suits entirely. Anthony floated the idea of consolidating the three separate societies into one statewide organization. James Woods, who represented the Virginia Society at a subsequent convention, agreed with Anthony, but the idea did not catch on, as each society was simply too far apart to effectively meet and coordinate. Frustration was growing among the members and some had lashed out, blaming free blacks for “licentious behavior” that inflamed public opinion making the situation worse. Additional petitions were proposed but Anthony was pessimistic that the society could sustain itself much less coordinate a statewide petition drive.
In August 1800, Gabriel, an enslaved blacksmith owned by Thomas Prosser of Henrico County, was arrested for his part in a. The conspirators intended to occupy the city of Richmond, seize the city’s arsenal, take hostages, and demand the liberation of enslaved Virginians. The conspiracy was compromised and the uprising failed. Gabriel and twenty-five others were executed by public hanging on gallows erected along the James River. Although no free persons of color were ever implicated in the plot, hostility toward blacks in general and their abolitionist allies increased dramatically following the aborted uprising.
Faced by increasing racial prejudice, a declining faith that revolutionary principles could shape political reality, and increasing support in favor of anti-abolitionist legislation, attendance and financial contributions to the Virginia Society declined. In April 1801, Robert Pleasants died, further weakening the Virginia Society. He had been the leading voice of the organization, its most active member, and most likely its main source of financial support. His death was also signaled the end of the society. Some members attempted to soldier on, but little could be achieved in Pleasants’s absence. James Woods, elected by the remaining members to replace Pleasants, sent a dispirited report, and no representatives, to the American Convention of Abolition Societies in 1802. According to the report, the Virginia Society did not have enough funds or resources to address the large-scale illegal re-enslavement of free blacks across the state. The society, Woods lamented, could do little to nothing in most of these cases. The American Convention responded by sending financial aid, but $100 did not change much.
With little to do and with no additional support on the horizon, the Virginia Society ceased meeting regularly. No delegates were sent to the 1803 American Convention and no word was heard from the society at all in 1804. The national convention attempted to restart southern societies by reaching out to potential members, but nothing came of the initiative. By 1804, the Virginia Society had ceased its existence and was no longer meeting.