Of the men called Founding Fathers of the United States, Benjamin Rush was the leading voice against slavery.
Rush, however, once owned an enslaved man — William Grubber, whom he later freed. Rush’s evolving abolitionist views were helped along in part by conversations with two other men.
One was Anthony Benezet, a French Quaker who moved to the colonies in the early 18th century and began holding classes for Black children in his home. Benezet helped form the country’s first anti-slavery group, the Pennsylvania Abolition Society.
The other was Granville Sharp, a British abolitionist. He never stepped foot in the colonies, but his work was published here.
Read more about Sharp’s anti-slavery connections, below.
For the first time, “Headlines of Yore” is visiting the 18TH CENTURY to talk about an English writer and his deep ties to Pennsylvania’s abolitionist community.
Our headline is from today’s Pennsylvania Gazette in 1773 and reads:
Our headline advertises a new, anti-slavery essay written by a man named Granville Sharp.
Granville Sharp never stepped foot in America. He was English.
But some of Sharp’s most important relationships were with Philadelphians…
Sharp’s abolitionist journey began eight years before this article — in 1765. He befriended a slave named Jonathan Strong who had been horribly beaten by his master.
That friendship spurred a series of cases that ultimately led to a landmark, anti-slavery court ruling in 1772.
Sharp quickly became one of the leading voices for abolition in England. He penned a key, early treatise in 1769 and later helped establish the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade.
Sharp also championed the resettlement of slaves in Freetown, Sierra Leone.
And while doing all this anti-slavery work, Sharp established a long, epistolary relationship with a Quaker named Anthony Benezet.
That’s where Philly gets involved…
Born in France, Benezet moved to Philadelphia as a young man in 1731.
Like Sharp, Benezet was an ardent abolitionist. While teaching at @PennCharter, he held classes for Black children in his home and eventually convinced some of his fellow Quakers to establish a free school.
Benezet and Sharp corresponded for years — each man a key leader in his country’s abolition movement. And they influenced each other’s work.
Benezet helped convince Quakers to take a formal position against slavery…and later to disavow any Quakers who owned slaves.
Benezet’s correspondence with Sharp is notable for another reason.
Their relationship inspired another Pennsylvanian to contact Sharp.
His name: Benjamin Rush.
You may know Rush as one of the nation’s founding fathers.
He was a pioneering physician, delegate to the Continental congress, and Declaration signer.
Rush’s anti-slavery advocacy was still evolving when he and Sharp began corresponding in 1773.
They wrote letters to each other for the next 36 years. Among the founders, Rush was arguably the leading anti-slavery voice.
Rush also argued that Black people were intellectual equals…publicizing the story of a slave named Thomas Fuller, who was a math savant.
However…Rush himself owned a slave named William Grubber.
Rush’s relationship with Grubber is the subject of some historical confusion. He claimed to have bought and then later freed him.
If you want more information on this subject, this is a good resource.
While Rush was a vocal slavery opponent…his views on the issue clearly evolved. And his relationships with Sharp and Benezet were part of that evolution.
In fact, according to PBS, a visit from Benezet’s *ghost* actually convinced Rush to become more active as an abolitionist.
All of which is to say…
The triangular relationship among Granville Sharp, Anthony Benezet, and Benjamin Rush is a telling one…helping us map Philadelphia’s emergence as a center of abolitionist activism.
Here are some of the sources I used to compose the thread above: