By Kristen Adkins
Graduate Student, Grand Valley State University
The Notion entertained by some, that the Blacks are inferior to the Whites in their capacities, is a vulgar prejudice.
Anthony Benezet (1713 - 1784), educator, writer, and philanthropist, dedicated his life to exposing the injustices facing the American people in early American society, most specifically those endured by African Americans, women, and Native Americans. As an educator and a writer, Benezet is considered a pioneer in the world of philanthropy and charity, even though he did not have much more money than the people he helped. He believed in righting the wrongs of society through exposing injustices and taking action against the mistreatment of individuals.
Anthony Benezet was born in 1713 in Saint-Quentin, France, to well-to-do merchant parents. In order to avoid religious persecution, the family moved to Rotterdam, Holland, when he was two years of age. Soon after, the family relocated again, this time to London where they remained rooted for sixteen years. In London, Benezet reaped the benefits of a liberal education and served an apprenticeship in a mercantile house. During this time, he was introduced to the Quaker doctrine and joined that denomination when he was only fourteen. At eighteen, his family moved once again, this time to Philadelphia. Benezet spent a brief time in business with his three brothers, who later became very successful in the importing business.
In May 1736, Benezet married Joyce Marriott of Burlington, New Jersey. The two enjoyed a happy marriage for the next forty-eight years. At the beginning of his marriage to Joyce, Benezet found himself in the manufacturing business in Wilmington, Delaware. After a few years in this business, he came to the realization that he was better suited for the teaching profession, which he remained dedicated to for his remaining years.
In 1742, Benezet began his teaching career at the Friends' English Public School in Philadelphia, now called the William Penn Charter School. He remained at the school for twelve years. During this time, he also tutored slave and free African American students, as well as rich and poor white students, in his home at night.
The opinions Benezet would develop about education came from a diverse set of experiences, observations and interactions with students of both sexes and races. His interaction with both white and black students led him to the realization that black students were as competent as white students in their ability to learn; therefore, justifying his claim that the popular notion of white superiority was ludicrous. As a result of his profession, Benezet also saw firsthand the inadequate education available to females. In response to this inadequacy, Benezet established a girls' school in 1755 in Philadelphia. In 1756, he became a champion for the Acadians seeking refuge in Philadelphia by obtaining grants from the government and goods from his neighbors and fellow Quakers. In the last few years of his life, he returned to teaching, this time opening and teaching in a school for African American students (still in existence today and called the Benezet House Association).
In addition to teaching, Benezet also dedicated a majority of his efforts to writing and producing literature intent on informing the community of Philadelphia, the United States and the world on numerous topics that he felt were important to society. He began his writing career by publishing articles in various almanacs and newspapers on the issue of slavery. By 1766, Benezet found himself overwhelmed by the demands of the numerous activities and causes he was involved with and decided to retire to the former home of his wife, Joyce, in order to partake in a less complicated lifestyle.
True to form, Benezet returned to Philadelphia in 1768, drawn back to the city by an overwhelming need to alleviate the suffering of his fellow citizens. Fortunately, while in Burlington, he composed his most famous work, A Caution and Warning to Great Britain and Her Colonies of the Calamitous State of the Enslaved Negroes (1767). This particular work was approved by the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of Friends and, as a result, was widely distributed in England. In 1771, Benezet also composed his work, Some Historical Account of Guinea (1771), which inspired various English protests against slavery.In addition, Benezet found other topics relevant for social commentary. He was concerned about the issue surrounding alcohol consumption, and therefore, wrote an essay titled "The Mighty Destroyer Displaced" (1774). In 1756, Benezet became a champion for the Acadians seeking refuge in Philadelphia by obtaining grants from the government and goods from fellow Quakers. In 1780, he wrote Short Account of the People Called Quakers (1780), creating one of the earliest histories of the denomination. Finally, he wrote Some Observations on the Indian Natives of This Continent (published anonymously, 1784) in criticism of the treatment that he felt Native Americans were experiencing under the new government.
Although Benezet did not boast an incredible fortune like many other famous philanthropists throughout history, he did manage to greatly influence charity throughout his life and beyond. Perhaps his greatest contribution to philanthropy and society during the eighteenth century was his determination to get to the root of social issues surrounding his community and the world. He believed that through exposing injustices and inequalities through his writings, he would have a larger impact on the causes he felt were important, specifically issues surrounding African Americans, women and Native Americans. True to his Quaker roots, he believed in a love that extended to all human beings, regardless of race, gender or religious preference. Benezet initiated the trend that future philanthropists would carry on—philanthropy achieved through time and dedication to long-term issues versus giving money and assistance for immediate relief.
Ties to the Philanthropic Sector
After Benezet's death and the death of his wife, Joyce, his estate continued to endow the school for African Americans that he had established in the last years of his life. The Overseers of the Friends' Public Schools became the trustees of the estate, and Quakers have continued to manage the association ever since. In 1917, the school, renamed in 1795 as the School for Black People and their Descendants (also known as the Raspberry Street School), merged with the Joseph Sturge Mission School (founded 1865) and the Western District Colored School (founded 1848). After the merger, the school was renamed The Benezet House Association and became instrumental in assisting and educating Philadelphia's poor African Americans and immigrants.Benezet also founded an association, Society for the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage. Benjamin Franklin and Dr. Benjamin Rush reconstituted this association after Benezet's death as the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery.
Key Related Ideas
- Abolitionist movement: Movement dedicated to ending slavery; led by such notable people as Frederick Douglass and Elijah Lovejoy.
- Quakers: Religious group that believes divine revelation comes from the Christian within. Known for their rejection of slavery and dedication to social issues surrounding those less fortunate.
- Temperance movement: Dedicated to promoting moderation or complete abstinence of the consumption of liquor. Led by many organizations, for instance, the American Anti-Saloon League and the Woman's Christian Temperance Union.
- Underground Railroad: Network of abolitionists dedicated to helping slaves flee to the North or Canada. The railroad's famous "conductors" are Harriet Tubman and Laura Haviland.
Important People Related to the Topic
- Thomas Clarkson: An English author and proponent of abolition.
- Benjamin Franklin: Diplomat, inventor, philanthropist, author, abolitionist, signer of the Declaration of Independence, and the first Postmaster General. Franklin founded a number of the country's most important institutions, including the country's first lending library, the first volunteer fire department, and the University of Pennsylvania.
- Dr. Benjamin Rush: A medical doctor and advocate of free public schools, Rush believed in abolition, prison reform, and mental illness care.
- John Woolman: A Quaker minister, Woolman believed that slavery had a detrimental effect on the morality of slaveholders.
Related Nonprofit Organizations
Throughout his lifetime, Benezet was tremendously involved in different organizations focused on ending slavery and promoting African Americans in society. Many of these organizations thrived after his death and contributed greatly to the abolitionist movement. Due to the nature of these abolitionist associations, they have since dissolved. However as mentioned in the "Ties to the Philanthropic Sector" section of this paper, the Benezet House of Philadelphia, in existence today, evolved directly from Benezet's school for African-American students.
Related Web Sites
History Channel Web site , at http://www.historychannel.com/ , features documentaries, documents and speeches on important people throughout history. A search of "Anthony Benezet" produces several entries containing references to his important work.
PBS Web site , at http://www.pbs.org , offers extensive research on the issues surrounding the life of Anthony Benezet in its series "Brotherly Love." Included are biographies on Benezet and information concerning the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery.QuakerInfo.com Web site , at http://www.quakerinfo.com , offers comprehensive information on Quakers throughout American history.
American Council of Learned Societies, 1928-1936. "Anthony Benezet, 1713-1784," Dictionary of American Biography Base Set. [cited January 18, 2003]. Available from http://www.galenet.com (by doing a search for Benezet) or specifically from http://www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC?c=1&ste=12&
Benezet, Anthony. Short Observations on Slavery. Philadelphia: Enoch Story, 1785.
Bremner, Robert H. American Philanthropy . 2nd ed. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1988. ISBN: 0226073254.
Brycchan Carey. Anthony Benezet: Biography and Bibliography . [updated 5 June 2002; cited 14 January 2003]. Available from http://www.brycchancarey.com/abolition/benezet.htm .
Gale Research, 1998. "Anthony Benezet," Encyclopedia of World Biography , 2nd ed. 17 vols. [cited 18 January 2003]. Available from http://www.galenet.com (by doing a search for Benezet) or specifically from http://www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC?c=2&ste=12&
PBS. Africans in America: Brotherly Love: Anthony Benezet, 1713-1784 . [cited 14 January 2003]. Available from http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part3/3p248.html .
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