60: The Selling of Joseph, a Memorial, by That Worthy Judge Sewall of New England

Forasmuch 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 [of Massachusetts], 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 Adamare co-heirs 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 (Psalm 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, etc. (Acts 17:26–27, 29).

Now although the title given by the last Adam [Jesus] doth infinitely better men’s 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 [Adam and Eve], the outward estate of all and every of their children remains the same as to one another. So that originally and naturally there is no such thing as slavery. 

Joseph was rightfully no more a slave to his brethren than they were to him. And they had no more authority to sell him than they had to slay him. And if they had nothing [lawful] to do to sell him, the Ishmaelites bargaining with them and paying down twenty pieces of silver could not make a title. Neither could Potiphar have any better interest in him than the Ishmaelites had. (Genesis 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 itself is the claimer. If Arabian gold be imported in any quantities, most are afraid to meddle with it—though they might have it at easy rates—lest it should have been wrongfully taken from the owners, [and] it should kindle a fire to the consumption of their whole estates. ‘Tis [a] pity there should be more caution used in buying a horse or a little lifeless dust than there is in purchasing men and women—when-as they are the offspring of God and their liberty is auro pretiosior omni [more precious than all 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” (Exodus 21:16)—this law being of everlasting equity, wherein man-stealing is ranked amongst the most atrocious of capital crimes—what louder cry can there be made of that celebrated warning, caveat emptor! [let the buyer beware!]?

And all things considered, it would conduce more to the welfare of the province to have white [indentured] 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, and hair that they can never embody [assimilate] with us and grow up in orderly families to the peopling of the land, but still remain in our body politic as a kind of extravasated blood. As many Negro men as there are among us, so many empty places there are in our train[ing] 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, if this slavery were thrust quite outdoors.

Moreover it is too well known what temptations masters are under to connive at the fornication 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 engraven upon this sort of servitude.  

It is likewise most lamentable to think how, in taking Negroes out of Africa and selling of them here, that which God has joined 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 crowds of these miserable men and women!  

Methinks, when we are bemoaning the barbarous usage of our friends and kinsfolk in Africait might not be unseasonable to enquire whether we are not culpable in forcing the Africans to become slaves amongst ourselves.  And it may be a question whether all the benefit received by Negro slaves will balance the Acompt 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.

Objection 1:  “These blackamores are of the posterity of Ham, and therefore are under the curse of slavery.”

Answer:  Of all offices, one would not beg [for] this [one]: viz., uncalled 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, Hazael might justify himself in all he did against his master and the Israelites. 

But it is possible that, by cursory reading, this text may have been mistaken. For Canaan is the person cursed three times over, without the mentioning of Ham.  Good expositors suppose the curse entailed on him, and that this prophecy was accomplished in the extirpation of the Canaanites and in the servitude of the Gibeonites.  Vide Pareum [see the writings of David Pareus (1548–1635) of Heidelberg].  Whereas the blackamores are not descended of Canaan, but of Cush.  Princes shall come out of Egypt [Mizraim, a son of Ham, gave rise to the Egyptians]. Ethiopia [Cush, another son of Ham, gave rise to the Ethiopians] shall soon stretch out her hands unto GodUnder which names, all Africa may be comprehended, and their promised conversion ought to be prayed for. Can the Ethiopian change his skin? This shows that black men are the posterity of Cush, who time out of mind have been distinguished by their color.  And for want of the true, Ovid assigns a fabulous cause of it:

     Sanguine tum credunt in corpora summa vocato 
     Aethiopum populos nigrum traxisse colorem.
     [‘Twas then, they say, the swarthy Moor begun
     To change his hue, and blacken in the sun.]
                                   —Ovid: Metamorphoses, book 2

Objection 2:  “The Nigers are brought out of a pagan country, into places where the [Christian] Gospel is preached.”

Answer: Evil must not be done [so] 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 brethren’s sale of him

Objection 3:  “The Africans have wars one with another; our ships bring lawful captives taken in those wars.”

Answer: For aught 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 [on Cape Cod] 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.

Objection 4:  “Abraham had servants bought with his money and born in his house.”

Answer: Until the circumstances of Abraham’s purchase be recorded, no argument can be drawn from it.  In the meantime, 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.  Leviticus 25:39, 46Jeremiah 34:8–22.  And God gauged his blessing in lieu of any loss they might conceive they suffered thereby.  Deuteronomy 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 ingenious 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 neighbors and brethren under the rigor of perpetual bondage, seems to be no proper way of gaining assurance that God has given them spiritual freedom.  

Our blessed Savior has altered the measures of the ancient love-song [Old Testament], and set it to a most excellent new-tune [New Testament], which all ought to be ambitious of learning. Matthew 5:43–44John 13:34.  These Ethiopians as black as they are, seeing they are the sons and daughters of the first Adam, the brethren and sisters of the last Adam [Jesus], and the offspring of God, they ought to be treated with a respect agreeable. 

Servitus perfecta voluntaria, inter Christianum et Christianum, ex parte servi patientis saepe est licita, quia est necessaria; sed ex parte domini agentis, et procurando et exercendo, vix potest esse licita; quia non convenit regule illi generali: Quaecunque volueritis ut faciant vobis homines, ita et vos facite eis. [Perfect voluntary servitude between a Christian and a Christian is often permissible on the part of a patient slave because it is necessary; but on the part of the master acting and procuring and exercising, it can scarcely be lawful because it does not fit that general rule: Whatever you want people to do to you, so do you to them.] Matthew 7:12.

Perfecta servitus poenae, non potest jure locum habere, nisi ex delicto gravi quod ultimum supplicium aliquo modo meretur: quia Libertas ex naturali aestimatione proxime accedit ad vitam ipsam, et eidem a multis praeferri solet. [The perfect servitude of punishment cannot legally take place except from a serious offense which in some way deserves the ultimate punishment.]

—William Ames: Conscience with the Powers and Cases Thereof [page 160], book 5 (“Of the Duties of Man towards His Neighbor”), chapter 23 (“Of the Mutual Obligations between Masters and Servants, What and of What Kind It Is”), themes 2 & 3.