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Anthony Benezet (1713-1784): The Teacher

Anthony Benezet

Anthony Benezet was a Quaker teacher, writer and abolitionist. He had a big influence on Thomas Clarkson. He was born to a Huguenot (Protestant) family in France. When he was two years old they moved to London to avoid persecution and then to America when he was around seventeen.

He joined the Religious Society of Friends in Philadelphia and worked to convince other Quakers that slave-owning was against Christian teaching. In 1739, he started as a schoolteacher at Germantown then moved to a position at the Friends' English School of Philadelphia. In 1750, in addition to his daytime work, he set up an evening class for poor black children, which he ran from his own home; his scholars' attainments clearly contradicted the myth of racial inequality.

In 1754, he left the Friends' English School to set up the first public girls' school in America. He was motivated by a genuine concern to do the best for all his pupils. In an age intolerant of disabilities, Benezet was compassionate enough to devise a special programme for one deaf and dumb girl enrolled in his school, so she could share in the fellowship of the school. He continued to teach black children from home until 1770 when, with the support of the Society of Friends, he set up a school for them at Philadelphia.

From the 1750s, Benezet became an avid opponent of slavery. He felt it contradicted Christianity and lessened a person's humanity. He insisted on the equality of all people and pointed out the high level of culture, intelligence, and industry of the native Africans.  He wrote:

"To live in ease and plenty by the toil of those whom violence and cruelty have put in our power, is neither consistent with Christianity nor common justice..."

"I can with truth and sincerity declare, that I have found amongst the negroes as great a variety of talents as amongst a like number of whites; and I am bold to assert, that the notion entertained by some, that the blacks are inferior in their capacities, is a vulgar prejudice, founded on the pride of ignorance of their lordly masters, who have kept their slaves at such a distance, as to be unable to form a right judgment of them."

Hear the extracts

Although living in America, his influence on the British abolition movement was great. He campaigned for the Quaker Headquarters in London to denounce slavery and wrote and published, at his own expense, a number of anti-slavery tracts and pamphlets. His pamphlet, 'Some Historical Account of Guinea', written in 1772, was read by John Wesley and his appeals to the British legal system, to show that slavery was contary to the founding laws of the empire, also influenced Granville Sharp. Both men corresponded with Benezet and distributed his works in England. He even wrote to Queen Charlotte in 1783, to encourage her to consider the plight of the enslaved and the "divine displeasure" that may occur to the nation that promotes such injustice.

Several years later, Benezet's works were instrumental in persuading Thomas Clarkson to embark on his abolitionist career. It was Benezet's writings that Clarkson read whilst researching his Essay on slavery. Describing the work, Clarkson said: "In this precious book I found almost all I wanted."

Anthony Benezet died at Philadelphia on May 3, 1784. He left money to continue his teaching work with black children and to support a Society that was being formed to help those, illegally detained in slavery, to fight for justice.

He was buried, as he wished, in an unmarked grave. His funeral, however, did not pass unnoticed, for he was mourned by hundreds of people of all religious persuasions and races, including many hundreds of black people, who turned out to pay their respects to one of the first abolitionists to wholeheartedly fight for the cause of human rights and equality.

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