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“Crito” [Stephen Hopkins] Essay on the African Slave Trade: I - Colleen A. Sheehan, Friends of the Constitution: Writings of the “Other” Federalists, 1787-1788 
Friends of the Constitution: Writings of the “Other” Federalists, 1787-1788, edited by Colleen A. Sheehan and Gary L. McDowell (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1998).
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“Crito” [Stephen Hopkins]
Providence Gazette and Country Journal, 6 October 1787
This essay was written while the Federal Convention was still sitting, and thus is not strictly speaking either a Federalist or Anti-Federalist tract. It does, however, address many of the themes touched upon by other Federalist writers. Its date of publication and the importance of the topic recommend its inclusion in this collection.
Stephen Hopkins was a leading statesman from Rhode Island and a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Given his participation in that event, his views on slavery and the slave trade contribute a good deal to our understanding of these issues during the Founding period. See Herbert J. Storing, “Slavery and the Moral Foundations of the American Republic”; and Walter Berns, “The Constitution and the Migration of Slaves,” Yale Law Journal 78 (1968): 198.
The second part of this essay followed on 13 October in the Providence Gazette and Country Journal. Like the first part, it deals with the inconsistency of practicing the slave trade whilst continuing to affirm the founding principles expounded in the Declaration of Independence. Yet the second installment of the Crito essays goes further in admonishing the American people for this great “national sin.” In addition to warning America’s citizens—and in a larger sense, all peoples everywhere engaged in the slave trade—of a divine retribution, it directly ties “repentance and reformation” to the future success of the great experiment in self-government then under consideration. Crito writes: “If we persist in thus transgressing the laws of Heaven, and obstinately refuse to do unto us, we cannot prosper.”
Also, like the connection Crito draws between the British and slavery in the first part, he develops a connection between slavery and the Algerine problem in the second. The war with Algiers, not officially declared until the war with England ended in 1812, was the result of prolonged Algerine pirating of American ships and the enslavement of the captured seamen. Crito draws the reader’s attention to the inconsistency of American cries for retribution against Algiers for their crimes while continuing the practice of like crimes at home.
When the public, or any part of the community, are taking those measures or going into that practice, which may issue in ruin, and most certainly will, unless reformed; he who foresees the approaching evil cannot act a benevolent or faithful part, unless he gives warning of the danger, and does his utmost to reform and save his fellow-citizens, even though he should hereby incur the displeasure and resentment of a number of individuals. In this view, Crito asks the candid attention of the public to what he has to say on the following interesting and important subject.
Some, perhaps, will not chuse to read any farther; but drop this paper with a degree of uneasy disgust, when they are told the subject to which their attention is asked is, The AFRICA SLAVE TRADE, which has been practiced and in which numbers in these United States are now actually engaged.
So much has been published within a few years past on this subject, describing the fertile country of Africa, and the ease and happiness which the natives of that land enjoy, and might enjoy to a yet greater degree, were it not for their own ignorance and folly, and the unhappy influence which the Europeans and Americans have had among them, inducing them to make war upon each other, and by various methods to captivate and kidnap their brethren and neighbours, and sell them into the most abject and perpetual slavery—and at the same time giving a well-authenticated history of this commerce in the human species, pointing out the injustice, inhumanity and barbarous cruelty of this trade, from beginning to end, until the poor Africans, are fixed in a state of the most cruel bondage, in which, without hope, they linger out a wretched life; and then leave their posterity, if they are so unhappy as to have any, in the same miserable state: So much has been lately published, I say, on these subjects, that it is needless particularly to discuss them here. It is sufficient to refer the inquisitive to the following books, viz.—Several tracts collected and published by the late Anthony Benezet, of Philadelphia—A Dialogue concerning the Slavery of the Africans, lately reprinted at New York, by order of the society here, for promoting the admission of slaves, and protecting such of them as have been or may be liberated; and especially, An Essay on the Slaves and Commerce of the Human Species, particularly the Africans, by Thomas Clarkson, which was honoured with the first prize in the University of Cambridge, for the year 1785.
If the African slave trade, and the consequent slavery of the Negroes in the West-Indies, and in the United States of America, be an open and gross violation of the rights of mankind, a most unrighteous, inhuman and cruel practice, which has been the occasion of the death of millions, and of violently forcing millions of others from their dear native country, and their most tender and desirable connexions, and of bringing them to a land of slavery, where they have not a friend to pity and relieve them, but are doomed to cruel bondage, without hope of redress, till kind death shall release them, as is represented, and seems to be abundantly proved in the above mentioned publications, and many others, a conviction of which is fast spreading among all ranks of men in Europe and America; then the following terrible consequence, which may well make all shudder and tremble who realize it, forces itself upon us, viz. all who have had any hand in this iniquitous business, whether more directly or indirectly, have used their influence to promote it, or have consented to it, or ever connived at it, and have not opposed it, by all proper exertions of which they have been capable; All these are, in a greater or less degree, chargeable with the injuries and miseries which millions have suffered, and are suffering, in consequence of this trade; and are guilty of the blood of millions who have lost their lives by this traffic of the human species! Not only the merchants who have been engaged in this trade, and for the sake of gain have sacrificed the liberty and happiness, yea the lives of millions of their fellow men, and the captains and men who have been tempted by the love of money to engage in this cruel work, to buy and sell and butcher men; and the slave holders of every description, are guilty of shedding rivers of blood: But all the Legislatures who have authorized, encouraged, or even neglected to suppress it, to the utmost of their power; and all the individuals in private stations, who have any way aided in this business, consented to it, or have not opposed it to the utmost of their ability, have a share in this guilt. It is therefore become a national sin, and a sin of the first magnitude; a sin which righteous Heaven has never suffered to pass unpunished in this world. For the truth of this assertion we may appeal to history, both sacred and profane.
We will leave the inhabitants of Britain, and other European nations, who have been and still are concerned in the slave trade, to answer for themselves; and consider this subject as it more immediately concerns the United States of America.—Hundreds of thousands of slaves have been imported into these States, many thousands are now in slavery here, and many more thousands have been brought from Africa by the inhabitants of these States, and sold in the West-Indies, where slavery is attended with cruelty and horrors beyond description. And who can reckon upon the numbers who have lost their lives, and been really murdered, by this trade, or have a full conception of the suffering and distressed of body and mind, which have been the attendants and effects of it: All this blood which has been shed, constantly cries to Heaven; and all the bitter sighs, groans, and tears, of these injured, distressed, helpless poor, have entered into the ears of the Lord of hosts, and are calling and waiting for the day of vengeance.
The inhabitants of Rhode-Island, especially those of Newport, have had by far the greatest share in this traffic of all these United States. This trade in the human species has been the first wheel of commerce in Newport, on which every other movement in business has chiefly depended: That town has been built up and flourished, in times past, at the expence of the blood, the liberty and happiness, of the poor Africans; and the inhabitants have lived on this, and by it have gotten most of their wealth and riches.—If a bitter woe is pronounced on “him who buildeth his house by unrighteousness, and his chambers by wrong,” (Jer.xxii.13) “to him who buildeth a town by blood, and establisheth a city by iniquity.” (Heb.ii.12) “to the bloody city,” (Ezek.xxiv.6) what a heavy, dreadful woe hangs over the heads of all those, whose hands are defiled by the blood of the Africans, especially the inhabitants of that State, and of that town, who have had a distinguished share in this unrighteous, bloody commerce!
All this, and more, follows as a necessary consequence, which, it is presumed, none will dispute, on supposition the before mentioned publications give in any measure a just representation of the slave trade, and the consequent slavery of the Africans; and unless thousands and millions of all ranks, and of the most disinterested, and many of them men of the best abilities and character for knowledge, uprightness, and benevolence, and who are under the greatest advantages to know the truth, and judge right of this matter, both in Europe and America; unless all those are grossly deluded.
But if all these may be fairly confuted, and the African slave trade, and the consequent treatment of those who are by means of this reduced to slavery, can be justified and shown to be confident with justice, humanity and universal benevolence, then the whole of this consequence will be obviated, and all the supposed guilt of injuring our fellow men in the highest degree, and of shedding rivers of innocent blood, will be wiped away as a mere phantom, and vanish as the baseless fabric of a night vision. It is earnestly to be desired therefore, if this be possible, that some able, disinterested advocate for the slave trade, if such an one can be found, would step forth, and do it. But if there be no such man, let the interested, and those who are in this traffic, and the slavery of the Africans, arise, and shew it to be just and benevolent if they can. We will promise you a candid and patient hearing; for we desire to justify you, if it were possible. If this can be done to the satisfaction of all, it would remove from our minds a sett of painful feelings, which cannot be easily described, and dissipate a gloom which now hangs heavy upon us, in the view of the exceeding depravity, uprighteousness and cruelty of men, who, for a little gain, will deluge millions in slavery, and blood, with an unfeeling heart, and their eyes fast shut against the floating light which condemns their horrid deeds; and in the painful prospect of the dreadful vengeance of Heaven, for such daring outrage against our fellow-men, our brethren!
But until this be done, this business must be unavoidably viewed in the most disagreeable, odious, horrible light, by us. And we must be suffered to consider, and lay before the public some of the great aggravations which attend the continuation of this practice by us in these American States.
When the inhabitants of these States found themselves necessarily involved in convention with Britain, in order to continue a free people, and had the distrusting prospect of a civil war, they, being assembled in Congress, in October 1774, did agree and resolve in the following words: “We will neither import nor purchase any slave imported, after the first day of December next: After which time we will wholly discontinue the slave trade; and will neither be concerned in it ourselves, nor will we hire our vessels, nor sell our commodities or manufactures, to those who are concerned in it.” This reasonable, noble and important resolution, was approved by the people in general, and they adhered to it through the war; during which time there was much publicly said and done, which was, at least, an implicit and practical declaration of the unreasonableness and injustice of the slave trade, and of the slavery in general. It was repeatedly declared in Congress, as the language and sentiment of all these States, and by other public bodies of men, “that we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; That they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights. That among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness: “That all men are born, equally free and independent, and have certain natural, inherent, and unalienable rights, among which are the defending and enjoying life and liberty, acquiring, possessing and protecting property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety. By the immutable laws of nature, all men are entitled to life and liberty.” etc. etc.1
The Africans, and the blacks in servitude among us, were really as much included in these assertions as ourselves; and their right, unalienable right to liberty, and to procure and possess property, is as much asserted as ours, if they be men. And if we have not allowed them to enjoy these unalienable rights, but violently deprive them of liberty and property, and are still taking, as far as in our power, all liberty, and property from the nations in Africa, we are guilty of a ridiculous wicked contradiction and inconsistence: and practically authorize any nation or people, who have power to do it, to make us their slaves.
The whole of our war with Britain was a contest for Liberty: By which we, when brought to the severest test, practically adhered to the above assertions, so far as they concerned ourselves, at least, and we declared, in words and actions, that we chose rather to die than to be slaves, or have our liberty and property taken from us. We viewed the British in an odious and contemptible light, purely because they were attempting, by violence, to deprive us, in some measure, of those our unalienable rights. But if at the same time, or since we have taken or withheld these same rights from the Africans, or any of our fellow men, we have justified the inhabitant of Britain in all they have done against us, and declared that all the blood which has been shed in consequence of our opposition to them, is chargeable on us. If we do not allow this, and abide by the above declarations, we charge ourselves with the guilt of all the blood which has been shed by means of the slave trade; and of an unprovoked and most injurious conduct in depriving innumerable Africans of their just, unalienable rights, in violently taking and withholding from them all liberty and property; holding them as our own property, and buying and selling them, as we do our horses, and cattle; reducing them to the most vile, humiliating, and painful situation.
This whole contest, it must be again observed, was suited to bring and keep in our view, and impress on our minds, a deep and lasting sense of the worth of liberty, and the unrighteousness of taking it from any man; and consequently of our unrighteousness and cruelty towards the Africans—If it were known, that the wise Governor of the world had determined to take some method to convince us of the injustice of the slave trade, and of the slavery of the Africans, had manifest his displeasure with us for it, and use means suited to reform us, could we conceive of any measures which might be better suited to answer this end, than those which have actually taken place in this war considered in all the circumstances of it; It would be thought impossible that every one who then was, or had been, active in reducing the Africans to the abject and suffering state in which they are in the West Indies, and even among us, should not reflect upon it with self-condemnation, regret and horror, had not experiment proved the contrary. And while we execrated the British for taking out men, and ordering them to be transported to the East Indies, and for crowding so many of our people into prisons, and prisonships, where they died by the thousands, without any relief or pity from them, was it possible for us not to reflect upon our treatment of the Africans, in transporting so many thousands of them from their native country, to a land of slavery, while multitudes, being crowded and shackled in our ships, have died on their passage, without one to help or pity them? Could any avoid seeing the righteous hand of GOD stretched out against us and retaliating our unrighteous, cruel treatment of them, in a way suited to strike conviction into our minds of our guilt, and of the righteous displeasure of Heaven with us for these horrid deeds which had been done by us? Surely we had good reason to espouse the language of the brethren of Joseph in a similar case: “We are verily guilty concerning our brethren, the Africans, in that we saw the anguish of their souls, under our cruel bards, and they besought us, and cried for pity; but we would not hear: Therefore is this distress come upon us.”
Is it possible that the Americans should, after all this, and in the face of all this light and conviction, and after they had obtained liberty and independence for themselves, continue to hold hundreds of thousands of their fellow men in the most abject slavery? And not only so, but notwithstanding their resolutions and declarations, renew and carry on the slave trade; and from year to year convey thousands of their fellow-men from the native country, to a state of most severe and perpetual bondage: This would have been thought impossible was it not known to be true in fact. And who can describe the aggravated guilt which the Americans have brought upon themselves by this? If this was an Heaven daring crime, of the first magnitude, before the war with Britain, how much more criminal must we be now, when, instead of regarding the admonitions of Heaven, and the light and conviction set before us, and repenting and reforming, we persist in this evil practice: What name shall be given to their daring presumption and hardiness, who, from a thirst for gold, have renewed this trade in slaves, in the bodies and souls of men, and of those whom they employ in this unhuman horrid business!
who owe their riches to such aggravated, detestable crimes, now necessarily involved in carrying on this trade!
[1. ]Compare Hopkins’s view with that of Chief Justice Roger B. Taney in Dred Scott v. Sanford, 19 How. 393 (1857), and the responses of Abraham Lincoln to that decision. See Don E. Fehrenbacher, Prelude to Greatness: Lincoln in the 1850’s (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1962); and Harry V. Jaffa, Crisis of the House Divided (New York: Doubleday, 1959).