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Charles Webster.

in 1797, a wealthy gentleman from Virginia went to spend the winter in Philadelphia, accompanied by his wife and daughter. He had a slave named Charles Webster, whom he took with him as coachman and waiter. When they had been in the city a few weeks, Charles called upon Isaac T. Hopper, and inquired whether he had become free in consequence of his master's bringing him into Pennsylvania. It was explained to him, that if he remained there six months, with his master's knowledge and consent, he would then be a free man, according to the laws of Pennsylvania. The slave was quite disheartened by this information; for he supposed his owner was well acquainted with the law, and would therefore be careful to take him home before that term expired.

‘I am resolved never to return to Virginia,’ said he. ‘Where can I go to be safe?’

Friend Hopper told him his master might be ignorant of the law, or forgetful of it. He advised him to remain with the family until he saw them making preparations to return. If the prescribed six months expired meanwhile, he would be a free man. If not, there would be time enough to consult what had better be done. ‘It is desirable to obtain thy liberty in a legal way, if possible,’ said he; ‘for otherwise [49] thou wilt be constantly liable to be arrested, and may never again have such a good opportunity to escape from bondage.’

Charles hesitated, but finally concluded to accept this prudent advice. The time seemed very long to the poor fellow; for he was in a continual panic lest his master should take him back to Virginia; but he did his appointed tasks faithfully, and none of the family suspected what was passing in his mind.

The long-counted six months expired at last; and that very day, his master said, ‘Charles, grease the carriage-wheels, and have all things in readiness; for I intend to start for home to-morrow.’

The servant appeared to be well pleased with this prospect, and put the carriage and harness in good order. As soon as that job was completed, he went to Friend Hopper and told him the news. When assured that he was now a free man, according to law, he could hardly be made to believe it. He was all of a tremor with anxiety, and it seemed almost impossible to convince him that he was out of danger. He was instructed to return to his master till next morning, and to send word by one of the hotel servants in case he should be arrested meanwhile.

The next morning, he again called upon Friend Hopper, who accompanied him to the office of William Lewis, a highly respectable lawyer, who would never take any fee for his services on such occasions. [50] When Mr. Lewis heard the particulars of the case, he wrote a polite note to the Virginian, informing him that his former slave was now free, according to the laws of Pennsylvania; and cautioning him against any attempt to take him away, contrary to his own inclination.

The lawyer advised Friend Hopper to call upon the master and have some preparatory conversation with him, before Charles was sent to deliver the note. He was then only twenty-six years of age, and he felt somewhat embarrassed at the idea of calling upon a wealthy and distinguished stranger, who was said to be rather imperious and irritable. However, after a little reflection, he concluded it was his duty, and accordingly he did it.

When the Southerner was informed that his servant was free, and that a lawyer had been consulted on the subject, he was extremely angry, and used very contemptuous language concerning people who tampered with gentlemen's servants. The young Quaker replied. ‘If thy son were a slave in Algiers, thou wouldst thank me for tampering with him to procure his liberty. But in the present case, I am not obnoxious to the charge thou hast brought; for thy servant came of his own accord to consult me, I merely made him acquainted with his legal rights; and I intend to see that he is protected in them.’

When Charles delivered the lawyer's note, and his [51] master saw that he no longer had any legal power over him, he proposed to hire him to drive the carriage home. But Charles was very well aware that Virginia would be a very dangerous place for him, and he positively refused. The incensed Southerner then claimed his servant's clothes as his property, and ordered him to strip instantly. Charles did as he was ordered, and proceeded to walk out of the room naked. Astonished to find him willing to leave the house in that condition, he seized him violently; thrust him back into the room, and ordered him to dress himself. When he had assumed his garments, he walked off; and the master and servant never met again.

Charles was shrewd and intelligent, and conducted himself in such a manner as to gain respect. He married an industrious, economical woman, who served in the family of Chief Justice Tilghman. In process of time, he built a neat two-story house, where they brought up reputably a family of fourteen children, who obtained quite a good education at the school established by Anthony Benezet.

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Isaac T. Hopper (4)
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