Celebrating 17 years

Rescuing Anthony Benezet From Historical Obscurity

Irv A. Brendlinger, To Be Silent.. Would Be Criminal: The Antislavery Influence and Writings of Anthony Benezet. Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 2006. 246 pp., paperback, $35.00.

Irv Brendlinger has embarked on a noble mission: He wants to rescue Anthony Benezet, and rightfully so, from historical obscurity.  Benezet, a Quaker and one of the leading antislavery activists of the eighteenth century, has gone largely unstudied by historians of the period. Benezet's influence and literary record are important factors in the transatlantic antislavery movement, and yet, despite his prolific writing and publishing, he still remains in the shadows of the Atlantic world.  Brendlinger reminds the reader of this injustice often: Benezet is "buried in an unmarked grave," his name is unknown "aside from  a relatively small number of Quakers and the specialized group of scholars interested in antislavery" (1) . Even the site of his home in Philadelphia is unmarked, despite being Benjamin Franklin's close neighbor and friend (32).  By producing this volume of Benezet's work, Brendlinger will hopefully spur further study of this interesting historical figure and his writings and influence on his contemporaries.

Brendlinger begins the book with a brief biographical section where he outlines Benezet's life, his writing, and his influence. In the next section, "Letters," Brendlinger presents the reader with a "sampling of correspondence" between Benezet and others and even includes letters others have written about Benezet and his antislavery publications. Finally, in the "Tracts" section of the book, Brendlinger includes some of Benezet's most famous publications where he dispersed antislavery ideas with the hope of rallying the public and public figures to the cause.

Benezet was born to Huguenot parents in 1713 in St. Quentin, France. His family moved first to Rotterdam when he was two years old and then they moved again to England where they remained for sixteen years. While in London, Benezet's father joined the Quakers. When he was eighteen, his family moved again, this time to Philadelphia. Like his father, he too joined the Quakers, but only after the family moved to the colonies. He remained a Quaker for the rest of his life. He worked briefly in manufacturing and shortly thereafter he began his career as a teacher.

Two major experiences seem to have shaped Benezet's work and influence: Proofreading tracts and teaching black students.  To supplement his teaching income, Benezet worked as a proofreader in a printing office, a position that exposed him to tract writing, publishing, and dissemination. He also began teaching "evening sessions" exclusively to black pupils. Both of these experiences helped create the public Anthony Benezet and his ideals. The exposure to the world of tracts gave Benezet the foundation for published writing. Through his proofing of these works, he learned about persuasive writing and the power and value of the press. Through his teaching of blacks in his home in the evenings, Benezet had direct contact with people who most of white society considered intellectually and socially inferior. By teaching white students in the day and black students at night, Benezet saw firsthand the falsehood of this perceived inequality. 

Benezet would embark on a mission of philanthropy, where he taught black students with the hope of better-preparing them for a life of freedom, and he also worked on a larger level, by publicly attacking slavery as an institution in his published writings.  Striving to reach a wide audience, Benezet attacked slavery from a Christian perspective, arguing that the institution contradicted biblical teachings. He argued from the Quaker perspective, showing slavery to be supported only by violence and war. And Benezet also appealed to humanitarian principles, describing in detail the devastating effects of the European slave trade on African social and cultural systems. 

Benezet's widely-read tract, Some Historical Account of Guinea, a synthesis of literature on the culture and socio-political systems of Guinea, became his largest and most influential published contribution to the antislavery literature of the eighteenth century. Granville Sharp read the tract, distributed copies to  other activists and even used it for research in his Somerset legal case in England. The tract is in this book in its entirety along with a detailed introduction in which Brendlinger outlines the major sources Benezet borrowed from when digesting evidence.  Many writers of the period relied heavily on the published works of others but Benezet's tract differed significantly in that he included only examples and "evidence favorable" to the antislavery cause, regardless of his source's favorable or unfavorable stance towards Guinea.[1] When editing those sources for use in his own tract, he took only what was helpful, allowing him to make his strong case for life in Guinea as he wanted his readers to understand it. 

Benezet is also credited with recruiting Benjamin Rush and Benjamin Franklin, two of Philadelphia's most well-known activists to the antislavery cause. During Franklin's stay in London in 1772, Benezet wrote him a letter imploring him to "lay the iniquity & dreadful consequence of the Slave Trade before the Parliament, desiring a stop may be put to it." (63) Franklin responded that he created an extract from Benezet's letter of the number of slaves imported and dying during trade "with some close remarks on the hypocrisy of this country [England] which encourages such a detestable commerce by laws for promoting the Guinea trade."  Franklin seemed encouraged by Benezet's assertion "that the disposition against keeping negroes grows more general in North America." (65)  In a subsequent letter, Franklin informed Benezet that he "commenced an Acquaintance with Mr. Granville Sharp, and we shall act in Concert in the Affair of Slavery." (66)

Both the "Letters" and "Tracts" sections of the book offer page after page of evidence in a  fascinating look at Benezet and his influence on others. Through this compilation of  his writing, a picture of Benezet emerges as a true philanthropist, an organizer who was content to work behind the scenes, influencing well-known figures to do antislavery's bidding when necessary, and a literary citizen of the Atlantic whose writings influenced the movement on two continents.

If this review makes it seem as if  To Be Silent.. Would Be Criminal almost reads like a biography, that is because it does. Through this treasure of letters and tracts, Irv Brendlinger has pieced together the outline of a possible biography on this interesting and driven man of antislavery. Now  all we need is someone to come along and spend the next decade or so researching (and writing) based on this vast wealth of sources. No small task indeed, but at least for now we can enjoy reading Anthony Benezet's words in this important book.


[1]   Vincent Carretta, Equiano, the African: Biography of a Self-Made Man (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2005), 313.