Teaching "African Slavery in America"
“African Slavery in America”
A Student-Led Lesson on an
18th-Century Anti-Slavery Article
by Jeff Schneider
Now we turn to the content for which the students will be directly responsible. The first two classes of the semester were confidence-builders now we enter heart of my method of teaching with an article that is both inspiring and chock-full of emotion and ideas.** I actually taught this lesson on the third day. This class on the article, "African Slavery in America" which I called ASIA is another example of how to give students trust in their abilities to comprehend and retain facts and ideas that they bring collectively to class. When the administration told me to prioritize group work it always occurred to me that my class itself was a group. We spent our time exchanging ideas about what the students had read at home night before. I was very lucky that the school I taught in had a culture of academic success: It was a magnet school, but half of the nearly 4,000 students came from the surrounding neighborhood. They were generally not in the gifted classes which made up 50 - 60% of the student body. The whole school was 70% minority Black, Asian and Hispanic. Truth be told many of the Black students might have been selected to go to the elite schools Stuyvesant or Brooklyn Tech, but they chose Midwood instead where there were large numbers of people who looked like them.
It is a fact of teaching life that almost all students have to work hard to learn: contrary to the philosophy of those who want to skip the hard stuff, like algebra in the 8th grade or reading at home to prepare for class. My students ranged from those with learning disabilities to AP, sometimes all in the same class as in our Gilder Lehrman program or in my classes at LaGuardia Community College in Queens. I taught them all in this way. The students would learn how to deal with difficult material over time
**See two other lessons called the "First Day" and the "Second Day" elsewhere in this site. You can also look at the article "On Teaching All Men are Created Equal" to see how I have been explaining my method of approaching a lesson. This lesson is not a word for word analysis of the document which I did with the Declaration of Independence, so it differs from all three of those lessons however they do have much in common.
and they would improve their skills by working at home and coming to class and listening and participating. I am proud to say that whoever did the work found a way to pass the tests and the class. It was those who did not do the work who failed the tests. In Rate MyProfessors.com an entry said "Professor Schneider's class seems hard, but if you do what he says, you pass.”In the last few years at Midwood HS when the-everybody-must-pass philosophy arrived all my students who did the work passed the state required Regents. My chairman gave me classes with at-risk students after those edicts. When the principal saw that sometimes half the kids in those classes failed the first marking period she told him, "just look at his (Regents) numbers." He left me alone. By the end of the year they passed the class and the Regents, because the students learned how to succeed in grasping the material.
It must be clear to the students that the class is designed to enable them to learn, provided they do the work. I ask them to download the essay called "African Slavery in America," which you can get at this link near the end of the web page:
In my classes students had to download the documents to do their assignments. Having them on their phone might be necessary, but it is not the best way to spend time with the document. It is better to have the document in their hands. Of course if they do not have access to a printer or a computer at home they can use the library. I realize that some schools are not equipped for those tasks. Then the phones will have to do.
The essay, ASIA, is 4 pages long. It was published on March 8,1775, by the Pennsylvania Journal and Weekly Advertiser in Philadelphia. I explain to the class that they should read the document, underlining as they go and then decide which sentences are the most interesting or important, or which they like or dislike. I ask them to write down 2 sentences spread out on each page so that they have 8 sentences altogether. They are to write them down for homework on a separate piece of paper, skipping a few lines so that underneath each sentence they explain why they chose the it. The point is to find sentences that they want to comment on and explain their choice -- one at at time. Why was that sentence horrible or funny or a surprise to them? I explain to them that when I was in 8th grade I read some books that were very hard to understand. So I took down sentences in each chapter that I could understand and read them over at the end of the chapter. Then I read the chapter over again and understood more than I had before. As I read the book the ideas became clearer and clearer. That was similar to what we do in this lesson. In my high school classes, I called it the Tarzan Theory of Reading: We grab onto one sentence, then swing to the next one, and swing all the way through the document. I act it out at the front of the class swinging my arms as if grabbing vine after vine until I get from one side of the room to the other.
This method is part of a fail-safe procedure: Students do not have to understand everything in the document. I tell them,whatever you do understand, you can choose and explain what you think about it. All I want is a reaction to 8 sentences you feel strongly about. I say that when you come to class, we talk about what you have read; there are no grades in this. The class is a place for experimenting and learning. Your class participation earns you credit, but you will not be graded on it. The class is not a test. The test is the test. The homework is required, and so is class participation. What I want is for you to try to understand. If one person does not know something someone else might, but the first student might know something the second student did not. The class is a place to share your insights.
I do not discuss my grading policy so early in the year instead, I let the students learn how to handle the class discussion. They get one night to read the document which I did with all my classes except for AP. There I assigned 3 long 20 - 25 page documents three times in two months. Those were articles from the Journal of American History or William and Mary Quarterly or chapters from historical monographs. I gave them a week to read them. My AP classes had to send all homework including the sentences and IDs to Turnitin.com. They were so busy that I wanted to make sure they did not copy their work.
Before I start describing the class I want to mention some important new information about the document. All through my teaching career, I thought that Thomas Paine had written "African Slavery in America." It is in all the collections of Paine's works. However, the Thomas Paine National Historical Association did a word cloud study this year which is contained in the web page listed above along with the piece we are studying here. They print it "for your convenience." They conclude that Paine most likely did not write the piece, but that a Congregational Minister named Samuel Hopkins did. They suspected Paine was not the author because of the plethora of arguments based on religion. I am sure many others were also surprised that Paine would make so many Christian references. The scholars at the Thomas Paine National Historical Association compared Paine's words and phrases in other writings to writings of a number of other writers and came up with Hopkins who was from Rhode Island and must have sent a note to Anthony Benezet to have the printer of the Pennsylvania Journal and Weekly Advertiser. Their charts look convincing. I was disappointed that Tom Paine did not write it but it it is very Christian and Paine was not a believer. Nevertheless, it is a stirring piece of writing. The article is at the bottom of the web page as I pointed out above. I am sure it is one of the few versions whose introduction does not attribute the piece to Paine.
Before the students arrive for class, I put up 7 vertical lines on the side blackboard and drew a line a across them to make 16 spaces. At the beginning of the class I collected the sentences after I reminded them to label the sentences they chose on the document itself. I asked them to label each paragraph in the document with a letter and then I chose students to put up their sentences. Be sure you have two pieces of chalk for each column on the board. Now I ask for volunteers to write the first three words of the sentences they chose on the board. I ask, Who wants to put up a sentence from the first page, then a student for the fourth page, and so on until all the boxes contain the first three words of two sentences and the name of the student. When they get to the board, the students have to make sure that they are not writing a sentence someone else has chosen. After the writers sit down, we develop the aim for the class. For this article it is very useful because, as you will see, there are important issues with Hopkins's point of view on abolition. For the aim I would ask what the article was about. They usually said it is anti-slavery and calls for abolition. So when was abolition achieved in the US? 1865. Then I tell them that the article was published on March 8, 1775. So what question can we ask about Hopkins and his views in terms of the dates? They usually quickly come up with
Aim: Was Samuel Hopkins ahead of his time?
This is an extraordinarily rich document. In order to teach ASIA, you must know the arguments and the facts in the piece inside and out, because there is no way you can predict which sentences the students will choose. I picked this as the first in-depth discussion because the article is a vivid description of enslavement, slavery and abolition with moral and religious references that the students are certainly familiar with. It is engaging to say the least.
I ask does anyone have a comment or a question about the document or the author. The students ask was he a preacher, did he get in trouble for writing such strongly worded argument? An anti-slavery society started in Philadelphia shortly after this piece was published. The strong language did not lead to the closing of the printing house. Someone might ask about the line"children are born free." That is one of my favorite lines in all the documents I teach. I ask the student to tell us where that is. Why does Samuel Hopkins say that, I ask. It tells us something about how slavery works and how cruel it is. It is a beautiful thought. One of the students might bring up the phrase the golden Idol Hopkins uses. It is something one of the students might know. It refers, of course, to the golden calf fashioned by the Israelites while Moses was on the top of Mt. Sinai obtaining the 10 commandments. But let us read the sentence. How would you interpret that? It is a pagan icon: slavery is pagan. If it does not come out right away, why golden? The profits from the slave trade were so great that the traders sacrificed "Conscience" and "Integrity" for them. This discussion might continue for a few minutes without referring to the sentences on the board directly. Or, if you have a gifted or AP class, you might not have to refer to them for quite a while. But certainly use the sentences that the students have put up. In future classes you might not not have to use the blackboard for the sentences in gifted or AP classes. Make sure when a student refers to something in the document she finds it in the document. It is better to have the sentences on the board with non-gifted classes because the process of reading and thinking is harder for them.
When something specific comes up you can add it to the blackboard in front of the room. Put the notes in categories without titles so you can list all the quotes referring to religion in one group, or referring to family or natural rights in other groups. When you are beginning to sum up, or as the groups flesh out you can ask how to label each one. When the students read their sentences, ask them to tell the class in which paragraph their sentence appears. They should read slowly and clearly so that the rest of the class can follow along in their documents. I say, You have chosen the sentence so you know it; the rest of the class needs to listen and think about it. When they are done reading, I ask why they chose that sentence. When they explain or if they tell the class the meaning of sentence, I ask them to tell us what it make them think or why is it so striking or interesting. The students are sometimes reluctant to explain their choice and they stick to the meaning, or they do not know because they did not do the work carefully. It is an obstacle that is not worth fighting over; just draw them out about the sentence. Occasionally you can ask if someone else picked that sentence, what did they think about it? Does anyone have another interpretation? Do not go too far with these extra questions because you have a lot to cover. Finishing in one class period is important. Teach it and get on to something else. There is so much that you could spend days covering those four pages. The way the class is structured gives the kids enough to learn. Slavery is a major theme in American history, there will be other days.
Here is a set of categories you can use to group the sentences: Man Stealing, Facts About Slavery, Natural Rights, Family, Jews, Life in Africa, Religion, and Freedom. When you get enough of a particular group you can ask what title might go on each.
One of the most striking terms in all of American history is Man Stealing. Samuel Hopkins introduces the concept in the first paragraph and uses it throughout his polemic. I ask the students what that means and they start with kidnapping, which it certainly is. But what else could could be stolen when you enslave someone? The freedom she has, her family, her children, her wages, or fruits of her labor, the comfort in their bodies and their peace of mind, because of the violence and threats of violence. Slavery is violence. The students also add loss of pride and dignity, which may be true for some slaves, but not all, as I pointed out in the analysis of the photograph of the Gordon the runaway slave whose scarred back was the “map” of his “servitude.” ( See the Second Day of My Class elsewhere in this site.) I tell students at this point that I want them to write all this when I ask a question on a test or quiz because a one-word answer does not begin to describe the horrors of slavery. They have to learn how to create detailed answers. This is the beginning.
Facts about Slavery accumulate throughout the document. "Some 100,000" are enslaved yearly by the English alone. Of these 30,000 die in the first year. It is not clear from this, document but it is a standard statistic that 20% of the African captives died during the middle passage which was the horrific trip from Africa to North America. What can you say about those numbers, I ask. In the end you can discuss the outsize profits of the slave trade and slavery. Can you imagine going into Key Food or Macy's or your local convenience store and seeing between 20% and 50% of the shelves empty? What would you say about their possibility of survival as businesses? Children of a slave mother are slaves. Slaves work without wages, as it is implied in the section about abolition. African kings sold Blacks to the white slave traders and when they wanted more they bribed the kings with liquor to make war on their neighbors in order to capture more people. How do you understand that relationship between the kings and the tribe? Eventually you will get to class relationship not a racial one. It is unlikely but possible that the kings actually sold their "own subjects." How does slavery open the way for adultery and incest? Certainly a master is committing adultery if he is married and he sleeps with a slave as so many did. The abolitionists liked to point out that the Kings of Europe and the big slaveholders of the South like James Henry Hammond who married and had relations with their relatives: he slept with two nieces. Forcing enslaved brothers and sisters to have sexual relations and having sex with the children of his own Black children were probably not beyond the pale for men like Hammond. Hopkins compared modern slavery to to ancient in a number of places. The key characteristic is that in ancient and biblical times, slaves had been prisoners of war. In modern slavery Blacks were kidnapped or taken in wars provoked to acquire slaves.
Hopkins speaks of Family with deep affection and emotion. He describes the monstrous practice of "selling husbands away from wives and children from their parents and each other, in violation of sacred and natural ties." He writes with great emotional import, "if the parents are justly slaves the children are born free." Of course the facts were the opposite. In the abolition section at the end of the essay he advocates freedom "so the family may live together and enjoy the natural satisfaction of exercising relative affections and duties."
Natural Rights are an important theme in this embarrassment of riches. "Our Traders in MEN (an unnatural commodity!)" How does that sentence strike you? Treating men as things to sell is goes to the central meaning of slavery. The idea that slave traders would sell men knowing that "some men are lawfully made slaves then why not these?" is appalling. Selling slaves is like selling stolen goods and cooperating with "robbers." At this point I walk over to one of the students and pick up her notebook asking, Will you lend this to me? Then I take it to another student and ask if she will pay me $10 for it. When I "get" the money I ask the class, Whose notebook is this? They say it is the first student's. But then I object I just got $10 from the second student. Why is it not hers? "As the true owner has the right to reclaim his goods that were stolen and sold, so the slave who is the proper owner of his freedom has a right to reclaim it, however often sold." The students might remember that in Huckleberry Finn Jim, who ran away from slavery said, "I stole myself!"
The References to Christianity to justify abolition are all over the document: Slavery breaks the Golden Rule to love thy neighbor and the Final Judge will punish the traders in the afterlife. Hopkins defends Christianity and the "Gospel Light" against supposed Christians who, like "infidel cavillers" the heathen, and the savages rationalize the wrongs of slavery contrary to "Conscience" by comparing their profits to the selling of golden "Idol(s)." Cavillers are quibblers but who were the infidels? Remember Hopkins was a Congregational preacher so the infidels were Catholics, Muslims and polytheists in Africa. Similarly, the followers of Jesus have showed themselves to be treacherous and brutal in their unchristian treatment of the Africans. "What singular obligations are we under to these injured people!" Hopkins declares at the very end.
After denouncing the Christian devils who supported slavery by claiming that it was favored in the Bible, Hopkins took up the question of Slavery and the Jews. A literal reading of the Bible confirms this, of course. In the teachers' lounge at the high school where I taught there was a long discussion among the Christians and Jews and a Mormon who was the assistant chairman of our department. He quoted Biblical justifications of slavery interpreting the words literally. For example because the Midianites had tried to exterminate the Jews Moses ordered the Jews to kill all the males of the Midianites and capture the women. The Mormon teacher insisted that the Bible supported all these acts and the religious Jews and mainline Christians in the room objected. They had learned to read the Bible differently. I once had a student who was a Polish Catholic. He wrote a paper arguing that Frederick Douglass was wrong that the Bible opposed slavery, and his paper was actually very good, so I gave him a 95 and told him to talk to his priest about how he interpreted slavery in the Bible. He looked at me stunned. I am not sure why he was so surprised. Perhaps he was not religious.
In his second paragraph on the Jews Hopkins backs them up by saying they had "no permission to catch and enslave people who never injured them." This, he explained as a difference between ancient and modern slavery. Many if not all the ancient civilizations had slavery including the Jews. In the 18th century England supported slavery as it did in the 17th century. The Jews were no different in the Bible. If you look up the ancient history of almost any group of people you will find that they are more similar in relation to social “transgressions” like divorces, polygamy and adultery than different. Of course you cannot discuss this in high school in such a casual way. It is better to emphasize that although Hopkins was reciting what sounded like anti-Semitic canards, he defended the Jews in the end. Frankly, it was rare that this section on the Jews was broached by the students. I only had to discuss it in a few classes in years of teaching it every year for twenty years 3 or 4 times on one day in the fall.
Miscellaneous Shorter Points. Now we will group the less emphasized points which are nevertheless salient. First is the very perceptive statement about Blacks in Africa before they were enslaved: "The Managers of the Trade" report that the Africans were "averse to war" and "inhabit fertile" lands and are "industrious farmers." How do you interpret those statements when the students pick that sentence? The students usually figure out that "industrious farmers" is not an oxymoron, but it is based on the idea that Africans worked hard when they owned their own land, whereas in America slaves were considered lazy, shiftless.... Furthermore they were forced into war by the slave traders themselves. Hopkins is unafraid to call out the Political Hypocrisy of the Americans who in the revolutionary rhetoric called to end the "slavery" of the colonists by Great Britain, In fact he asks how would we feel if the Africans enslaved us? This calls to mind a wonderful proof that slavery is wrong in the Fourth of July Oration by Frederick Douglass: "Every man under the canopy of heaven knows that slavery is wrong for him." Then Samuel Hopkins signs the article, JUSTICE AND HUMANITY, proclaiming the moral foundation of the abolitionist cause.
Now we come to the final topic, " the chief design of this paper," which is Freedom for the Slaves. These paragraphs calling for freedom for the slaves are quite uneven from a 21st century point of view, and perforce reveal some complexities in the questions of freedom and racism even for such a staunch anti-slavery advocate. Hopkins calls for abolition offering a number of solutions. Regarding "the old and infirm" he suggests they should be "treated humanely" as they have given the better part of their lives to their masters. This was not always the case because the slaveholders sometimes freed them and left them to their own devices if they could no longer work. There were free communities in many cities where slaves had relatives or friends who could take care of them. You could certainly discuss these questions as the students suggested ideas. Would it not be better to ask the enslaved people what they wanted? Freedom is the right of all peoples. Hopkins says legislatures should consult masters (but not the slaves!) as to what would be "practicable." Hmm. Or perhaps giving them land "at reasonable rent," or employing them and giving them "allowances for it," so that they could have some property "and enjoy the fruits of their labors at the(ir) own disposal." Students should discuss these solutions: What did they think of them? It gives the emancipated wages and/or land: They can certainly determine that they are no longer slaves. They would be "living with their families and have the natural satisfaction of exercising relative affections and duties" "like fellow men," another fine phrase.
The final sentence in paragraph #4 on the last page of the document is:
“Perhaps they might sometime form useful barrier settlements on the frontiers. Thus they may become interested in the public welfare, and assist in promoting it; instead of being dangerous as they now are should any enemy promise them a better condition.”
This "solution" in the last sentence of #4 is revealing. How do you interpret those ideas, I would ask. Is there anything there you do not understand? The students have to understand that Native Americans were on the frontier which they can easily recall and what function would a barrier serve? The key question the students have to get to is would a black man make this suggestion? In the end a fundamental problem here is that Samuel Hopkins has written an article calling for freeing the enslaved without input from Black people. Is settlement on the frontier freedom for Blacks or whites? What is Hopkins's opinion of the Native Americans? That is unmentioned here. This article was published on March 8, 1775 and the first battle of the Revolution was April 19, 1775. Lord Dunmore's Proclamation (calling for the slaves of the Patriots to join the British Army to obtain their freedom) was issued November 7, 1775, so this statement is not referring to anything definite except relations with the First Peoples. That is certainly problematic enough. Dangerous? Hopkins has the “wolf by the ear” as we say in the history profession. Now we are in the thick of the controversies about the Revolution, slavery and the justifications for abolition. This discussion is a key for understanding American history and current debates over systemic racism. The can of worms is right here and we have only had a few classes in American history.
Bringing us back to the reality in the classroom, the Aim gives us a chance to sum up the lesson without a thirty page essay on all the social problems from 1775 to 2021. Let us restate the Aim:
Aim: Was Samuel Hopkins ahead of his time?
The students can come up with a complex answer such as "yes and no." He was an abolitionist 90 years before the slaves were freed in the US, but he expressed ideas that were a white man's views on abolition when he suggested the Blacks be given land protecting the whites from the Native Americans. So he was both ahead of his time and a man of his time.
There is no way to cover all the ideas in this lesson as presented in my description above. I explained all this so that you would be ready for most of the possible discussion. Getting through some of these ideas is sufficient, but the article and the Aim are a vehicle for raising questions that have to be discussed in an American history class. You will be able to refer to this article when you discuss Bacon's Rebellion, the Paxton Boys or the related Pontiac's Rebellion. Abolitionism and the slave trade are introduced here. I love “African Slavery in America,” even if it is by Samuel Hopkins and not Tom Paine.