An Interview with Thomas P. Slaughter, Author of The Beautiful Soul of John Woolman, Apostle of Abolition


Mr. Liebers is an HNN intern.

Thomas P. Slaughter is Professor of History at the University of Rochester.  He is an award-winning author of many books including, Bloody Dawn, The Whiskey Rebellion and Exploring Lewis and Clark.  His latest book is: The Beautiful Soul of John Woolman, Apostle of Abolition(Hill and Wang, 2008).

Who was John Woolman?

John Woolman was a Quaker, a tailor, and lived in New Jersey from 1720-1772, when he died of smallpox in York, England, when he was on a mission to preach against slavery and the slave trade. He is often credited with being the father of the American movement to abolish slavery.

Recent scholarship has cast Philadelphia as something of a hotbed of abolitionism and racial progress.  The stories of James Forten and Richard Allen and their relationships to Benjamin Rush, Anthony Benezet and John Woolman suggest an important 18th century interracial dialogue before the traditional anti-slavery movement of the 19th century.  Is this claim, to pin anti-slavery's origins on one city, fair? From where did Woolman derive his anti-slavery convictions--who are his antecedents?

No, Philadelphia was not a hotbed of abolitionism when Woolman started preaching against it and writing his famous journal in the mid-eighteenth century. Woolman got his convictions from the Bible, principally the Sermon on the Mount and the Old Testament prophets. His antecedents included Benjamin Lay, George Keith, Samuel Sewall, and Ralph Sandiford, among others.

What does Woolman's life say about modes of radical activism in the 18th century?  Can we consider him a "prophetic" leader?

Woolman is not an example of Enlightenment reform but of Old Testament prophetic reform. He was no liberal. On the contrary, he was unusually focused on the Old Testament over the New and uncompromising on the Truth. The Enlightenment and Liberalism is all about compromise, about improving the world by increments. Woolman believed that there is no compromise on the Truth.

Methodologically, what kinds of sources did you focus on? Does your account draw mostly on John Woolman's famous journal?

The sources on Woolman’s life are not voluminous and I identified only a few that researchers haven’t used before—one letter from him, a parable that he wrote, and the spiritual autobiography of one of his brothers. Rather, the method is close reading and contextualizing Woolman’s writings in the Old Testament, 17th century Quaker theology, the Christian mystical tradition reaching back beyond the Middle Ages, and the books that he read. There are also quite a number of insightful comments about him that were written during his mission to England during the last six months of his life. The Journal is important, but not as one text; we have three surviving drafts, each of them different from the others in some ways. It is the juxtaposition of the revisions in relationship to each other and over time that permits a close reading of their meanings.

Word is that you are working on a synthetic account of American independence.  What's the focus of this project?

My new project is called “Independence: The Beginnings of the United States.” It is about the American Revolutionary movement within an 18th century world historical context. It focuses on India and Canada as much as on the colonies that become the continental United States. I’m also interested in applying just war theory to the Revolution, of writing a moral history of 18th c. American politics and war.

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