There is great odds on what principle we act. If compassion on the Africans, in regard to their domestic trouble, were the real motives of our purchasing them, that spirit of tenderness being attended to, would incite us to use them kindly. But to say they live unhappy in Africa is far from being an argument in our favour; our real views in purchasing them are to advance ourselves, and, while our buying captives taken in war animates those parties to push on the war and increase desolation amongst them, we too are putting upon our shoulders a burthensome stone, a burden that will grow heavier and heavier till times change in a way disagreeable to us.
The author is troubled with a weight of distress because, instead of the spirit of meekness, gentleness, and heavenly wisdom, a spirit of fierceness and a love of dominion too generally prevails. Yet it is not criticism, but compassion, that furnishes Woolman with his strongest lever against that great building “raised by degrees, from small beginnings in error.” In a series of indirect questions, the logician of the heart brings the matter home. Drawing upon contemporary accounts of the slave trade, he argues in this fashion:
Upon this argument, presented with a kindly shrewdness, many of Woolman's slave-owning hearers looked serious. It was a prophecy of the irrepressible conflict between slaveholders and free-holders, and that over a century before that conflict came. So the prospect of a road lying open to degeneracy in some parts of this newly settled land of America, now drove Woolman to publish, and at his own expense, Some considerations on the keeping of negroes recommended to the Professors of Christianity of every denomination (1754-62).Journal, p. 60.
Should we consider ourselves present as spectators, when cruel negroes privately catch innocent children, who are employed in the fields; hear their lamentable cries, under the most terrifying apprehensions; or should we look upon it as happening in our own families, having our children carried off by savages, we must needs own, that such proceedings are contrary to the nature of Christianity. Keeping of negroes, p. 317.In the light of such disclosures, Woolman might have attacked the accursed institution with directness and bitterness, but his method is ever indirect, ever imbued with a sweet reasonableness.