Public lecture, Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre, 2012
John Woolman’s interactions with his family’s former slaves, and with the slightly better-known offspring of a slave named Tabby, illuminate the dilemmas he and other Quakers faced in the eighteenth century when assessing the on-going responsibilities of freed slaves as well as masters, and the dictates of justice.
Geoffrey Plank is Professor of American Studies at the University of East Anglia. His 2012 book, John Woolman’s Path to the Peaceable Kingdom (University of Pennsylvania Press) demonstrates that Woolman was very much enmeshed in his local community in colonial New Jersey and was alert as well to events throughout the British Empire. Responding to the situation as he saw it, Woolman developed a comprehensive critique of his fellow Quakers and of the imperial economy, became one of the most emphatic opponents of slaveholding, and helped develop a new form of protest by striving never to spend money in ways that might encourage slavery or other forms of iniquity. Although he is famous as an abolitionist, the end of slavery was only part of Woolman’s project. Refusing to believe that the pursuit of self-interest could safely guide economic life, Woolman aimed for a miraculous global transformation: a universal disavowal of greed.