A New Englander Speaks

Samuel Sewall – The Selling of Joseph (1700)

While not a pamphlet that would consistently continue to catch the attention of others after its publication, The Selling of Joseph represents the first published attack on slavery in New England. 

Introduction

The Selling of Joseph, published on June 24, 1700, by Samuel Sewall, was the first anti-slavery pamphlet published in North America. Sewall, who resided in Boston and earned his living as a merchant and a judge, wrote the pamphlet as a direct response to a petition that urged “the freeing of a Negro and his wife, who were unjustly held in Bondage.”[1] Sewall also may have been prompted to write by the rise in the number of enslaved persons living in Massachusetts. According to the historian Mark A. Peterson: “the number of slaves in Massachusetts more than doubled between 1676 and 1708, from roughly 200 to about 550, and 75 percent of those 550 slaves lived in the city of Boston.”[2]  Indeed, slavery was legal in all thirteen colonies in 1700, and it was only during the American Revolution that Northern states began to make strides to abolish the institution. Sewall entitled the pamphlet The Selling of Joseph to remind readers of the biblical figure of Joseph, son of Jacob, who was unjustly sold into slavery by his brothers. Within the pamphlet, Sewall relied heavily on biblical passages to refute common contemporary arguments in favor of slavery. Upon publication, Sewall’s pamphlet was attacked by a judge named John Saffin and eventually fell into obscurity, having been reprinted once in the 18th century and then again only once more in 1863.

Question: If Sewall’s pamphlet eventually fell into obscurity, why is it still important that historians consider its impact and the conditions which prompted its authorship?

Rachael Edmonston

Further Reading
Sources
  • Samuel Sewall, The Selling of Joseph: A Memorial (Boston, 1700), reprinted in The Diary of Samuel Sewall, ed. M. Halsey Thomas, 2 vols. (New York, 1973), 1:432-433. Sewall was also one of the judges who presided over the Salem witch trials, though he later apologized for his part in the trial.
  • Mark A Peterson, “The Selling of Joseph: Bostonians, Antislavery, and the Protestant International, 1689-1733,” Massachusetts Historical Review 4 (2002): Iv-22. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25081169.
Cite this page
Slavery Law & Power in Early America and the British Empire (October 4, 2022) Samuel Sewall – The Selling of Joseph (1705). Retrieved from https://slaverylawpower.org/samuel-sewall-selling-joseph-1705/.
"Samuel Sewall – The Selling of Joseph (1705)." Slavery Law & Power in Early America and the British Empire - October 4, 2022, https://slaverylawpower.org/samuel-sewall-selling-joseph-1705/
Slavery Law & Power in Early America and the British Empire May 1, 2020 Samuel Sewall – The Selling of Joseph (1705)., viewed October 4, 2022,<https://slaverylawpower.org/samuel-sewall-selling-joseph-1705/>
Slavery Law & Power in Early America and the British Empire - Samuel Sewall – The Selling of Joseph (1705). [Internet]. [Accessed October 4, 2022]. Available from: https://slaverylawpower.org/samuel-sewall-selling-joseph-1705/
"Samuel Sewall – The Selling of Joseph (1705)." Slavery Law & Power in Early America and the British Empire - Accessed October 4, 2022. https://slaverylawpower.org/samuel-sewall-selling-joseph-1705/
"Samuel Sewall – The Selling of Joseph (1705)." Slavery Law & Power in Early America and the British Empire [Online]. Available: https://slaverylawpower.org/samuel-sewall-selling-joseph-1705/. [Accessed: October 4, 2022]
Archaic plural of brother; Fellow Christians or members of a male religious orderFOR AS MUCH as Liberty is in real value next unto Life: None ought to part with it themselves, or deprive others of it, but upon most mature Consideration.

The Numerousness of Slaves at this day in the Province, and the Uneasiness of them under their Slavery, hath put many upon thinking whether the Foundation of it be firmly and well laid; so as to sustain the Vast Weight that is built upon it. It is most certain that all Men, as they are the Sons of Adam, are Coheirs; and have equal Right unto Liberty, and all other outward Comforts of Life. GOD hath given the Earth [with all its Commodities] unto the Sons of Adam, Psal 115. 16. And hath made of One Blood, all Nations of Men, for to dwell on all the face of the Earth; and hath determined the Times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation: That they should seek the Lord. Forasmuch then as we are the Offspring of GOD &c. Act 17.26, 27, 29. Now although the Title given by the last ADAM, doth infinitely better Mens Estates, respecting GOD and themselves; and grants them a most beneficial and inviolable Lease under the Broad Seal of Heaven, who were before only Tenants at Will: Yet through the Indulgence of GOD to our First Parents after the Fall, the outward Estate of all and every of the Children, remains the same, as to one another. So that Originally, and Naturally, there is no such thing as Slavery. Joseph1Joseph was a biblical figure from the book of Genesis in the Old Testament. The son of Jacob and Rachel, he was his father’s favorite son and as a result was sold into slavery by his jealous brothers was rightfully no more a Slave to his Brethren,2Archaic plural of brother; Fellow Christians or members of a male religious orderthen they were to him : and they had no more Authority to Sell him, than they had to Slay him. And if they had nothing to do to Sell him; the Ishmaelites3(in the Bible) a descendant of Ishmael, the eldest son of Abrahambargaining with them, and paying down Twenty pieces of Silver, could not make a Title. Neither could Potiphar4(in the Bible) an Egyptian officer whose wife tried to seduce Joseph and then falsely accused him of attempting to rape herhave any better Interest in him than the Ishmaelites had. Gen. 37. 20, 27, 28. For he that shall in this case plead Alteration of Property, seems to have forfeited a great part of his own claim to Humanity. There is no proportion between Twenty Pieces of Silver, and LIBERTY. The Commodity it self is the Claimer.5A person who claims something.If Arabian Gold be imported in any quantities, most are afraid to meddle with it, though they might have it at easy rates; lest if it should have been wrongfully taken from the Owners, it should kindle a fire to the Consumption of their whole Estate.’Tis pity there should be more Caution used in buying a Horse, or a little lifeless dust; than there is in purchasing Men and Women: Whenas6Whenthey are the Offspring of GOD, and their Liberty is,

— Auro pretiosior Omni.7 Latin for: “More precious than gold”

And seeing GOD hath said, He that Stealeth a Man and Selleth him, or if he be
found in his hand, he shall surely be put to Death.
 Exod. 12.16. This Law being of E-
verlasting Equity, wherein Man Stealing is ranked amongst the most atrocious of
Capital Crimes: What louder Cry can there be made of the Celebrated Warning,

Caveat Emptor!8Latin for: “Let the buyer beware!”

And all thing considered, it would conduce more to the Welfare of the Province, to have White Servants for a Term of Years, than to have Slaves for Life. Few can endure to hear of a Negro’s being made free; and indeed they can seldom use their freedom well; yet their continual aspiring after their forbidden Liberty, renders them Unwilling Servants. And there is such a disparity in their Conditions, Color & Hair, that they can never embody with us, and grow up into orderly Families, to the Peopling of the Land: but still remain in our Body Politick as a kind of extravasat Blood.9Blood from a ruptured artery or vein filling the body cavity [archaic medical term] As many Negro men as there are among us, so many empty places there are in our Train Bands, and the places taken up of Men that might make Husbands for our Daughters. And the Sons and Daughters of New England would become more like Jacob, and Rachel,10The parents of Joseph if this Slavery were thrust quite out of doors. Moreover it is too well known what Temptations Masters are under, to connive at the Fornification11Fornication; Sexual intercourse between people not married to each other of their Slaves; lest they should be obliged to find them Wives, or pay their Fines. It seems to be practically pleaded that they might be Lawless; ’tis thought much of, that the Law should have Satisfaction for their Thefts, and other Immoralities; by which means, Holiness to the Lord, is more rarely engraven12Engravedupon this sort of Servitude. It is likewise most lamentable to think, how in taking Negros out of Africa, and Selling of them here, That which GOD ha’s joyned13Joined together men do boldly rend asunder; Men from their Country, Husbands from their Wives, Parents from their Children. How horrible is the Uncleanness, Mortality, if not Murder, that the Ships are guilty of that bring great Crouds14Crowds of these miserable Men, and Women. Methinks, when we are bemoaning the barbarous Usage of our Friends and Kinsfolk in Africa: it might not be unseasonable15Untimely; inopportune to enquire whether we are not culpable in forcing the Africans to become Slaves amongst our selves. And it may be a question whether all
the Benefit received by Negro Slaves, will balance the Accompt16Archaic variant of “account” of Cash laid out upon them; and for the Redemption of our own enslaved Friends out of Africa. Besides all the Persons and Estates that have perished there.

Obj. 1. These Blackamores17Blackamoor; A black African or a very dark-skinned personare of the Posterity of Cham,18 Descendants of Ham; in reference to The Curse of Ham from the book of Genesis in the Old Testament, in which Noah cursed all of the descendants of Ham’s son Canaan to slavery. The story was frequently used to justify the enslavement of people of African descent. and therefore are under the Curse of Slavery. Gen. 9.25, 26, 27.

Answ. Of all Offices, one would not begg19Beg this; viz. Uncall’d20Uncalled for, to be an Executioner of the Vindictive Wrath of God; the extent and duration of which is to us uncertain. If this ever was a Commission; How do we know but that it is long since out of date? Many have found it to their Cost, that a Prophetical Denunciation of Judgment against a Person or People, would not warrant them to inflict that evil. If it would, Hazael21Hazael was the biblical king of Syria who, according to the Book of Kings in the Old Testament killed his master and predecessor the Syrian King Hadadezer (or Ben-hadad II) and waged war against the Israelites, successfully defeating them twice and laying waste to the land east of the Jordan. might justify himself in all he did against his Master, and the Israelites, from 2 Kings 8. 10, 12.

But it is possible that by cursory reading, this Text may have been mistaken. For Canaan22Canaan is the son of Ham and the apparent recipient of the curse of Ham. Canaan’s descendants are known as Canaanites. is the Person Cursed three times over, without the mentioning of Cham.23Ham, mentioned above. Good Expositors suppose the Curse entailed on him, and that this Prophesie24Prophesy was accomplished in the Extirpation25Destruction of the Canaanites,26Descendants of Canaan and in the Servitude of the Gibeonites,27 People of the Canaanite city of Gibeon Vide Pareum28Perhaps a reference from David Pareus’s Bible.. Whereas the Blackmores are not descended of Canaan, but of Cush.29Another son of Ham, who, unlike Canaan, was not cursed.Psal. 68. 31. Princes shall come out of Egypt [Mizraim] Ethopia [Cush] shall soon stretch out her hands unto God. Under which Names, all Africa may be comprehended; and the Promised Conversion ought to be prayed for. Jer. 13, 23. Can the Ethiopian change his skin? This shews that Black Men are the Posterity of Cush:30Sewall claims that black people were not descendants of Canaan but of Cush, meaning they were not destined for enslavement. Who time out of mind have been distinguished by their Colour. And for want of the true, Ovid31A Roman poet who wrote during the reign of Augustus, the first Roman Emperor. assigns a fabulous cause of it.

Sanguine tum credunt in corpora summa vocato
Aethiopum populos nigrum traxisse
colorem.32Latin. From Ovid’s Metamorphoses Book II: “the Ethiopians acquired their dark colour, since the blood was drawn to the surface of their bodies”
Metamorph. lib.2.

Obj. 2. The Nigers33Black Africans; relating to the region of western Africa known as Niger. are brought out of a Pagan Country, into places where the Gospel is Preached.

Answ. Evil must not be done, that good may come of it. The extraordinary and comprehensive Benefit accruing to the Church of God, and to Joseph personally, did not rectify his brethrens Sale of him.

Obj. 3. The Africans have Wars with one another: our Ships bring lawful Captives taken in those Wars.

Answ. For ought is known, their Wars are much such as were between Jacob’s Sons and their Brother Joseph. If they be between Town and Town; Provincial, or National: Every War is upon one side Unjust. An Unlawful War can’t make lawful Captives. And by Receiving, we are in danger to promote, and partake in their Barbarous Cruelties. I am sure, if some Gentlemen should go down to the Brewsters to take the Air, and Fish: And a stronger party from Hull should Surprise them, and Sell them for Slaves to a Ship outward bound: they would think themselves unjustly dealt with; both by Sellers and Buyers. And yet ’tis to be feared, we have no other kind of Title to our Nigers. Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the Law and the Prophets. Matt. 7. 12.

Obj. 4. Abraham had servants bought with his Money, and born in his House.

Answ. Until the Circumstances of Abraham’s purchase be recorded, no Argument can be drawn from it. In the mean time, Charity obliges us to conclude, that He knew it was lawful and good.

It is Observable that the Israelites were strictly forbidden the buying, or selling one another for Slaves. Levit. 25. 39, 46. Jer. 34. 8–22. And GOD gaged His Blessing in lieu of any loss they might conceipt they suffered thereby. Deut. 15. 18. And since the partition Wall is broken down, inordinate Self love should likewise be demolished. GOD expects that Christians should be of a more Ingenuous34Ingenious and benign frame of spirit. Christians should carry it to all the World, as the Israelites were to carry it one towards another. And for men obstinately to persist in holding their Neighbours and Brethren under the Rigor of perpetual Bondage, seems to be no proper way of gaining Assurance that God ha’s given them Spiritual Freedom. Our Blessed Saviour ha’s altered the Measures of the Ancient Love-Song, and set it to a most Excellent New Tune, which all ought to be ambitious of Learning. Matt. 5. 43, 44. John 13. 34. These Ethiopians, as black as they are; seeing they are the Sons and Daughters of the First Adam, the Brethren and Sister of the Last ADAM, and the Offspring of GOD; They ought to be treated with a Respect agreeable.

Servitus perfecta voluntaria, inter Christianum & Christiainum, ex parte servi patientis saepe est licita, quia est necessaria: sed ex parte domini agentis, & procurando & exercendo, vix potest esse licita: quia non convenit regulae illi generali: Quaecunque volueritis ut faciant vobis homines, ita & vos facite eis.35Latin: “But the servitude of the perfect things of the will, between the Christian & Christendom, from the side of the servant of the patient is often to be allowable, because it is necessary: ​​but from the behalf of the lord of the agent, & to be procured and the exercise of, is almost impossible to be allowable; because he does not belong to the rule of that general: whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them” Matt. 7.12.

Perfecta servitus poenae, non potest jure locum habere, nisi ex delicto gravi quod ultimum supplicum aliquo modo meretur: quia Libertas ex naturali aestimatione proxime accedit ad vitam ipsam, & eidem a multis proeferri solet.

Ames. Cas. Consc. Lib. 5. Cap. 23. Thes. 2, 3.

BOSTON of the Massachusets;

Printed by Bartholomew Green, and John Allen, June, 24th. 1700.

 

[1] Joseph was a biblical figure from the book of Genesis in the Old Testament. The son of Jacob and Rachel, he was his father’s favorite son and as a result was sold into slavery by his jealous brothers

[2] Archaic plural of brother; Fellow Christians or members of a male religious order

[3] (in the Bible) a descendant of Ishmael, the eldest son of Abraham

[4] (in the Bible) an Egyptian officer whose wife tried to seduce Joseph and then falsely accused him of attempting to rape her

[5] A person who claims something.

[6] When

[7] Latin for: “More precious than gold”

[8] Latin for: “Let the buyer beware!”

[9] Blood from a ruptured artery or vein filling the body cavity [archaic medical term]

[10] The parents of Joseph

[11] Fornication; Sexual intercourse between people not married to each other

[12] Engraved

[13] Joined

[14] Crowds

[15] Untimely; inopportune

[16] Archaic variant of “account”

[17] Blackamoor; A black African or a very dark-skinned person

[18] Descendants of Ham; in reference to The Curse of Ham from the book of Genesis in the Old Testament, in which Noah cursed all of the descendants of Ham’s son Canaan to slavery. The story was frequently used to justify the enslavement of people of African descent.

[19] Beg

[20] Uncalled

[21] Hazael was the biblical king of Syria who, according to the Book of Kings in the Old Testament killed his master and predecessor the Syrian King Hadadezer (or Ben-hadad II) and waged war against the Israelites, successfully defeating them twice and laying waste to the land east of the Jordan.

[22] Canaan is the son of Ham and the apparent recipient of the curse of Ham. Canaan’s descendants are known as Canaanites.

[23] Ham, mentioned above.

[24] Prophesy

[25] Destruction

[26] Descendants of Canaan.

[27] People of the Canaanite city of Gibeon

[28] Perhaps a reference from David Pareus’s Bible.

[29] Another son of Ham, who, unlike Canaan, was not cursed.

[30] Sewall claims that black people were not descendants of Canaan but of Cush, meaning they were not destined for enslavement.

[31] A Roman poet who wrote during the reign of Augustus, the first Roman Emperor.

[32] Latin. From Ovid’s Metamorphoses Book II: “the Ethiopians acquired their dark colour, since the blood was drawn to the surface of their bodies”

[33] Black Africans; relating to the region of western Africa known as Niger.

[34] Ingenious

[35] Latin: “But the servitude of the perfect things of the will, between the Christian & Christendom, from the side of the servant of the patient is often to be allowable, because it is necessary: ​​but from the behalf of the lord of the agent, & to be procured and the exercise of, is almost impossible to be allowable; because he does not belong to the rule of that general: whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them”

EARLY ACCESS:  Transcription is under editorial review and may contain errors.
Please do not cite or otherwise reproduce without permission.

  • 1
    Joseph was a biblical figure from the book of Genesis in the Old Testament. The son of Jacob and Rachel, he was his father’s favorite son and as a result was sold into slavery by his jealous brothers
  • 2
    Archaic plural of brother; Fellow Christians or members of a male religious order
  • 3
    (in the Bible) a descendant of Ishmael, the eldest son of Abraham
  • 4
    (in the Bible) an Egyptian officer whose wife tried to seduce Joseph and then falsely accused him of attempting to rape her
  • 5
    A person who claims something.
  • 6
    When
  • 7
     Latin for: “More precious than gold”
  • 8
    Latin for: “Let the buyer beware!”
  • 9
    Blood from a ruptured artery or vein filling the body cavity [archaic medical term]
  • 10
    The parents of Joseph
  • 11
    Fornication; Sexual intercourse between people not married to each other
  • 12
    Engraved
  • 13
    Joined
  • 14
    Crowds
  • 15
    Untimely; inopportune
  • 16
    Archaic variant of “account”
  • 17
    Blackamoor; A black African or a very dark-skinned person
  • 18
     Descendants of Ham; in reference to The Curse of Ham from the book of Genesis in the Old Testament, in which Noah cursed all of the descendants of Ham’s son Canaan to slavery. The story was frequently used to justify the enslavement of people of African descent.
  • 19
    Beg
  • 20
    Uncalled
  • 21
    Hazael was the biblical king of Syria who, according to the Book of Kings in the Old Testament killed his master and predecessor the Syrian King Hadadezer (or Ben-hadad II) and waged war against the Israelites, successfully defeating them twice and laying waste to the land east of the Jordan.
  • 22
    Canaan is the son of Ham and the apparent recipient of the curse of Ham. Canaan’s descendants are known as Canaanites.
  • 23
    Ham, mentioned above.
  • 24
    Prophesy
  • 25
    Destruction
  • 26
    Descendants of Canaan
  • 27
     People of the Canaanite city of Gibeon
  • 28
    Perhaps a reference from David Pareus’s Bible.
  • 29
    Another son of Ham, who, unlike Canaan, was not cursed.
  • 30
    Sewall claims that black people were not descendants of Canaan but of Cush, meaning they were not destined for enslavement.
  • 31
    A Roman poet who wrote during the reign of Augustus, the first Roman Emperor.
  • 32
    Latin. From Ovid’s Metamorphoses Book II: “the Ethiopians acquired their dark colour, since the blood was drawn to the surface of their bodies”
  • 33
    Black Africans; relating to the region of western Africa known as Niger.
  • 34
    Ingenious
  • 35
    Latin: “But the servitude of the perfect things of the will, between the Christian & Christendom, from the side of the servant of the patient is often to be allowable, because it is necessary: ​​but from the behalf of the lord of the agent, & to be procured and the exercise of, is almost impossible to be allowable; because he does not belong to the rule of that general: whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them”