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A Quick Look at Revolutionary Quakers

The early English Quaker movement emerged in the wake of King Charles I’s regicide, between the English Civil Wars and the Restoration. Multiple sects emerged between 1640 and 1660, and the word “Quaker” had yet to have a definitive meaning; in the media, the word was applied to people with quite divergent beliefs. Even among people who called themselves Quakers, views greatly varied. For instance, George Fox believed in the “Dwelling Spirit.” Meanwhile, a militant wing of the group advocated the use of violence to achieve its goals for the Second Coming and even attempted to assassinate Oliver Cromwell.

Following Venner’s Uprising in 1660, King Charles II and his government kept a close eye on the Quakers; the group had demonstrated its volatility, and some members were even suspected of murdering King Charles I. The king urged moderate Quakers to subdue its more radical members. The result: the group turned more of its attention to addressing England’s social problems, returning to its English Seeker roots. Meanwhile, the group increasingly turned to the pen, rather than the sword. Thus the history of the Quakers is one that we can trace through a rich body of literature, written by some of the sect’s most prominent (and sometimes controversial) figures.

George Whitehead

Born in Westmoreland, George Whitehead discovered the Quaker philosophy at age fourteen. He began preaching in a limited capacity only two years later. Shortly thereafter, Whitehead joined the Valiant Sixty, a group of itinerant preachers that started in northern England and gradually traveled south. He was one of the group’s youngest members: only he, James Parnell (age 16) and Edward Burrough (age 18) joined the group before they were “of age.” The seventeenth century was a time of religious intolerance in England, and the Quakers often had brushes with the law. Whitehead was thrown in jail on multiple occasions and was once publicly whipped. He spoke out against the Act of Uniformity in 1660 and was influential in the Bill of Rights of 1689 and the Royal Declaration of Indulgence.

Whitehead_Antidote-Venom_SnakeWhitehead published his journal, The Christian Progress of George Whitehead. He also wrote An Antidote Against the Venome of the Snake in the Grass, a rebuttal directed at Irish clergyman Charles Leslie the author of The Snake in the GrassSatan Disrob’d, and A Discourse Proving the Divine Institution of Water Baptism. Most notably, Whitehead defended women’s ability to preach if they were so inspired, saying “we do not institute Women’s Preaching as [Leslie] saith, but leave them free to the Gift and Call of God.” The volume also includes an early mention of Quakers in America, including William Penn’s Pennsylvania colony. Whitehead’s views ultimately proved too liberal; by the 1800’s, his philosophy and works had passed out of favor in the Quaker community.

Elias Hicks

Born in Hempstead, New York in 1748, Elias Hicks was a carpenter who became a Quaker in his early twenties. In 1778, Hicks helped to construct the Friends Meeting House in Jericho, New York, where he’d settled with his wife. By this time, Hicks was already preaching extensively. That same years, Walt Whitman heard Hicks preach at Morrison’s Hotel in Brooklyn. The famed poet, then still quite young, would later recall the preacher’s “resonant, grave, melodious voice.”

In 1799, Hicks and his neighbor Phebe Dodge manumitted their slaves. They were the first Quakers to do so in their community, and soon after all the families of Westbury meeting had followed suit. Hicks also campaigned for a boycott of all goods produced by slaves, which mostly included cotton and products that contained sugar. In 1811, he wrote Observations on the Slavery of Africans and Their Descendants, which outlines the economic reasons for continuing slavery and points to war as a primary cause of slavery. The book gave the free produce movement a firm foundation. Although the movement wasn’t meant to be religious in nature, the majority of its proponents were indeed Quakers. The first person to open a free produce store was Benjamin Lundy, a Quaker who opened up a free produce mercantile in 1826. Lundy advocated helping freed slaves emigrate to Haiti and raising mone to buy slaves and settle them as free citizens in the territories out West. Hicks was a key figure in abolishing slavery in New York.

Hicks_Testimony_ReviewWhile Hicks’ abolitionism certainly fit with Quaker tenets, the same was not so with his theological stance. Hicks believed that following the “Inner Light” was the most important aspect of worship. He also denied Jesus’ complete divinity and the virgin birth. Furthermore, Hicks argued that the Devil was not at the root of human failings and sin, but that urges were simply part of human nature–and created by God. Thanks to the Great Awakening and other factors, the Quaker community was ripe for a schism, and Hicks’ controversial philosophy provided the reason. Hicks engaged with fellow Quaker Anne Braithewaite in a debate that produced a flurry of publications. Eventually, in 1828, after Hicks actually stood a sort of trial, the Quakers decided a separation was necessary. Those who followed Hicks were mostly rural poor and came to be called Hicksites. His critics called themselves the Orthodox Friends. Each group considered itself to be the rightful bearers of the legacy begun by Friends founder George Fox. The two groups would not be the only factions to develop among the American Quaker community.

Joseph John Gurney

Born in 1788, Joseph John Gurney was a banker in Norwich, England. Raised in the Quaker faith, he joined the sect and became an evangelical minister in the Religious Society of Friends. Because he was a member of a non-conformist religious group, Gurney was ineligible to study at English universities, so he was educated by a private tutor at Oxford. Gurney’s sister Elizabeth Fry was a social reformer, and in 1817 the siblings partnered to protest the death penalty and to improve conditions in prisons. They had little success, but Gurney would remain committed to the cause.

Joseph_John_GurneyFinally Home Secretary Robert Peel introduced the Gaols Act of 1823, which required that wardens be paid salaries–rather than being supported by the prisoners themselves. The Act also placed female wardens in charge of female prisoners and outlawed the use of manacles and irons. Meanwhile, Gurney and Fry visited prisons all over Great Britain. They published their findings in Prisons in Scotland and the North of England.

In 1837, Gurney began a journey to America and the West Indies, where he promoted abolitionism. He also preached at local Meeting houses in America and grew concerned about the prevalence of the “Inner Light” philosophy. Gurney felt that the American Quakers did not give sufficient weight to the Bible and the New Testament in their theology. This created a yet another splinter, between those who followed Gurney and those who followed his opponent, John Wilbur. Their respective disciples, predictably enough, were called Gurneyites and Wilburites, respectively.

The literature of the Quakers offers considerable insight into colonial history, and it is full of fascinating personalities who shaped approaches to social issues in the Western World.

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Charles Dickens and Capital Punishment
The California Gold Rush, Slavery, and the Civil War

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The California Gold Rush, Slavery, and the Civil War


On January 24, 1848, Swiss immigrant John Sutter’s employee James Wilson Marshall found gold at the Sutter Mill. The result was the largest migration in American history, along with bitter debate over the issue of slavery. California would eventually enter the Union as a free state, but not because its delegates thought slavery an abomination. Figures like Hinton R Helper, himself a failed prospector, only exacerbated strained relations between the North and South.

Territory of Untold Value

When the US and Mexico went to war over California in 1846, the region’s population included about 6,500 Californios of Mexican or Spanish descent; 700 mostly American foreigners; and about 150,000 native Americans (whose population had been cut in half since the arrival of Spanish conquistadors). The war


Published pseudonymously, “The Miner’s Ten Commandments” reminds miners to respect the Sabbath–a rule that had fallen out of practice in many a mining town.

was ended in favor of America on February 2, 1848, with the ratification of the Treaty of Guadelupe Hildago. Neither side was aware of Sutter’s discovery, so the incredible value of the territory was not yet completely clear.

Indeed, people as close as San Francisco were quite skeptical until entrepreneur Sam Brannen marched through the city waving around a vial of gold. By the middle of June, San Francisco was a ghost town; most men had gone south to the mines. Military governor Colonel Richard B Mason took a tour of the gold fields shortly thereafter. IN his report, he noted that two miners had found $17,000 in gold in three days at Weber Creek. A team of six miners and fifty Native Americans had mined 273 pounds of gold. Sales at Sam Brannen’s mercantile exceeded $36,000 in May, June, and early July combined. Mason sent the report to Washington, DC with a tin of gold as additional proof. It wouldn’t arrive for months.

Word arrived sooner in places that were accessible by ship from San Francisco. Immigrants immediately began arriving in droves from the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii), Peru, Chile, China, and Mexico. Europeans followed. When the first accounts of newfound wealth appeared in East Coast newspapers in the summer of 1848, they invited much incredulity. It wasn’t until December 5, 1848, when President James K Polk announced Mason’s report in his State of the Union address, that Easterners began to take the Gold Rush seriously. The exodus began almost immediately. Men headed West in record numbers, hoping to escape the wage labor economy and strike it rich. Women were mostly left at home to raise families, tend farms, and run businesses on their own. Countless families took out loans or spent their life savings in pursuit of their dream.

The Gold Rush Undoes Many a Prospector

By 1849, the non-native population of California had reached almost 100,000. Prospectors soon learned that mining was grueling, dangerous work. It wasn’t uncommon for them to die of disease, accident, or even malnutrition. Hiram Pierce held a funeral for one young man who died of gangrene after accidentally shooting himself in the leg. Despite these conditions, miners continued pouring into California. And how could they resist? In 1849, mined gold was valued at $10 million. The following year, that figure was $41 million. In 1852, $81 million worth of gold was mined in California. (Not everyone was convinced that this westward migration was worth the risk; in 1849 Edgar Allan Poe even undertook a bizarre hoax to dissuade people from going.)


‘Das Goldland Californien’ (1850) includes the sad tale of one German emigrant who lost his fortune in his quest to strike it rich.

Competition grew increasingly fierce, and soon Anglo-American miners were growing territorial. They often resorted to violence, forcing others of different nationalities from their land. As the surface gold disappeared, miners found themselves with no option but to work for larger mining corporations with the technology to mine gold deeper underground. A wage labor economy had again emerged, and after 1852, revenue from gold fell steadily until 1857, when it held at about $45 million per year.

Helper_Land_GoldThe vast majority of men who went in search of gold failed to strike it rich. One such failed prospector was Hinton Rowan Helper. Born on December 27, 1829 outside Mockville, North Carolina, Helper was apprenticed to a printer. He went to the gold fields in 1850 and returned after only a matter of months. Helper said that after working the same claim for three months, he’d made less than 94 cents Though Helper didn’t find gold, the experience did give him material for Land of Gold: Reality vs Fiction (1855).

Helper’s account was hardly reality; he garbled and fabricated statistics to support his argument. Gary F Kurutz, Director of the Special Collections Branch at the California State Library and author of a descriptive bibliography on the Gold Rush, calls Land of Gold “one of the most famous, oft-quoted, and entertaining books of the Gold Rush.”

California Slavery Divides Congress

Helper also took up another hot-button national issue: slavery. He advocated the expansion of slavery to California, scolding the “meddling abolitionists” who interfered with whites’ ability to exploit blacks to work the mines. Racism ran deep in California, and one would think that Helper was not alone in his pro-slavery sentiment. Such was not the case; the issue was much more complicated. White southerners had first brought slaves to California mines in 1849, but that practice wasn’t popular. However, no laws banned slavery in the early days of the Gold Rush.

After the US won California, a bitter dispute ensued over whether the state should be a free or slave state. There were fifteen states in each category, and California would tip the scales. By September 1849,


Details of the 1849 Monterey convention are among of the most important documents in California history. This is a Spanish translation.

California delegates were tired of waiting. They gathered in Monterey and voted to enter the Union as a free state. This wasn’t because they supported the abolition of slavery. On the contrary, many delegates were miners who hailed from the South. The majority felt that slaves actually had an unfair advantage in mining work because they were more accustomed to heavy labor. Thus, they voted against slavery for their own financial gain.

However, in Washington, DC, the North and South were deadlocked. Debate raged on for six months, and in one instance one senator even pulled a pistol on another. Finally Congress reached the Compromise of 1850: California would enter the Union under the state delegates’ terms, as a free state; New Mexico and Utah would become territories, and the legality of slavery there was undecided; the slave trade was banned in Washington, DC; and the Fugitive Slave Law was strengthened. California would ratify its own version of the Fugitive Slave Law in 1852.

A Racist Abolitionist

By this time, Hinton Helper had moved to New York. The issue of slavery remained at the forefront of US politics, and Helper didn’t help matters when he published The Impending Crisis of the South: How to Meet It in 1857. Helper’s thesis was that slavery impeded the economic development of the South because it Helper_Hinton_Rowanhelped to concentrate wealth in the landed class. He wrote in defense of non-slave owning Whites, whom he saw as economically disadvantaged, and who comprised about 75% of the white population of the South. But Helper’s publication had unintended consequences; it was adopted as an abolitionist work and helped to get Abraham Lincoln elected in 1860. Some experts even place The Impending Crisis of the South alongside Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin in terms of its influence as abolitionist literature.

The Impending Crisis of the South includes about 150 pages of statistics from the 1850 census, which Helper had hoped would illustrate the economic disadvantage of the slave states. These had little influence. But what did stick with readers was Helper’s branding Southern slaveholders as “robbers, thieves, ruffians, and murderers” and his exhortations that slaves should escape from their owners by violence if necessary. The summer after the book was published, New York Herald editor James Gordon Bennett gave President Buchanan a copy and warned him that “There is gunpowder enough in that book to blow the Union to the devil.”

A Help for the Republican and Abolitionist Cause

Conflict over slavery again reached a fever pitch, as it had when California entered the Union. Then Republican party leaders moved to print a compendium of The Impending Conflict of the South to distribute in the 1860 presidential campaign. The “Speakership Fight” in the House of Representatives resulted, lasting from December 5, 1859 to February 1, 1860. The battle gave Helper’s book far more national attention than it really deserved, as did the resulting endorsement from the Republican party.

Lincoln won the election, even though he wasn’t necessarily the most popular candidate. For example, California citizens increasingly sympathized with the South as farming overtook gold mining. Yet Lincoln won in California because Democratic votes were divided between Northern candidate Steven Douglas and Southern candidate John Breckenridge, while Republicans were unified in their vote for Lincoln.

In January 1861, the Herald declared that Lincoln’s victory had been due to “this very work of Mr. Helper, and kindred speeches and documents.” Much later, historian James Ford Rhodes would note that the book “proved a potent Republican document, especially in the doubtful states of New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Illinois, where it was easier to arouse sympathy for the degraded white than for the oppressed Negro.” Helper’s screed had had unintended consequences. The author found himself suspect in the South and scorned in the North. He couldn’t find employment, faced public ridicule, and feared physical violence. Helper turned to Abraham Lincoln for a consular appointment, which Lincoln granted. In November 1861, Helper went to Buenos Aires as the consul to Argentina. While there, he married Maria Louisa Rodriguez.

When Helper returned from Argentina, he settled in Asheville, North Carolina. He would later live in New York and St. Louis. He wrote five other books, three of which were extremely racist. By 1890, Helper’s grip on reality had all but evaporated. His wife had gone blind and returned to South America with the couple’s only son. Alone, Helper grew more and more unstable. He committed suicide and was buried in a donated, unmarked grave. The Authors Society of New York paid his funeral expenses.

Hinton Rowan Helper made a mark on history that he never could have predicted. His own history shows how inextricably the events of regional and national history are so often intertwined. Helper’s work proved a malignantly divisive one, exacerbating the conflicts that pushed the nation to the brink of Civil War.

Related Reading: 
The Six Hoaxes of Edgar Allan Poe
Louisa May Alcott: Abolitionist, Suffragette, and Mercenary 
Charles Dickens the Copyright Confederate
A Collection of Confederate Literature
Clara Barton: Heroine of Civil War Nursing and Record Keeping

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Of Slavery, Psalms, and Sculpture


We love rare books not only for the stories told on their pages, but for the stories of the volumes themselves. The previous ownership of a book, known as provenance, can often be even more interesting than the book itself. Such is the case with one copy of The Psalms of David; though this book was common enough, one particular volume was owned by Zingo Stevens, formerly Pompe Stevens. Sold into slavery, Stevens apprenticed as a stonemason, earned his freedom, and helped to start the nation’s first self-help group for African Americans.

Apprenticeship with John Stevens

From the moment the first slave ship, the Sea Flower, landed in Newport, Rhode Island in 1696, the town embraced the slave trade. At that time, the city produced some of the best rum in the New World. Citizens traded the rum for slaves–then traded the slaves for molasses to make more rum. As the town grew, it became less dependent on rum and soon grew into a bustling urban center.

Thus, unlike their counterparts in the South, slaves in Newport usually entered apprenticeships and learned a trade. When Pompe Stevens arrived in the city, presumably from West Africa, he was bought by John Stevens, whose Christian name Pompe took per the custom of the time. Stevens’ family owned a prominent stonemasonry. The shop had opened in 1705 and continues to operate today; indeed it’s one of the longest running businesses in the United States.


Zingo Stevens’ work shows up throughout the Newport Burial Ground, unusual because African Americans were usually not permitted to do such work for white clients. But this tombstone bears designs strikingly similar to the one that Zingo carved for his brother.

Eventually Pompe worked alongside John Bull and John Stevens at the stonemasonry, primarily making headstones for African and African American members of the community. Pompe’s responsibilities included writing inscriptions on headstones, which certainly contributed to his literacy–extremely rare among slaves.

Pompe’s work shows up in the Newport Common Burial Ground. Interestingly enough, though the cemetery is segregated and blacks were thought never to do work on for white customers, Pompe clearly completed work for clients of both races. He signed many of the tombstones, including that of his own brother and of his first wife, Phyllis. Pompe, therefore, was one of the first known African-American sculptors.

Newport’s Unusual Culture


Zingo depicted his first wife, Phyllis, wearing traditional African dress and cradling their infant son, who also died.

Unlike most cities in the colonial United States, Newport offered uncharacteristic tolerance and even sometimes celebration of African and African-American culture. This is evident in the cemetery, where tombstones bear traditional African names and likenesses. For example, when Pompe’s first wife, Phyllis died in childbirth, Pompe engraved an image of her cradling their infant and wearing typical African dress.

This tolerance may have been a manifestation of several factors. First, Newport was home to Quakers and several other religious minorities who openly opposed slavery. Theologian Samuel Hopkins even established a church where slave owners could not be members, and blacks could be full members. Second, because Newport slaves tended to be craftsmen rather than field hands, they earned slightly more status and were better equipped to buy their own freedom through trade work. And finally, slave owners tended to share their homes with their slaves, fostering a different kind of relationship.

This is not to say that slaves in Newport didn’t face oppression and prejudice; but the culture created a different dynamic than was often found in the South. The ornate headstone that Pompe carved for Phyllis was actually paid for by her owner, a situation that would scarcely have happened on a rural plantation.

By 1784, Rhode Island had actually begun to abolish slavery. Already, freed slaves had earned prominence in the community. Pompe Brenton, a cook for the Brenton family, earned his freedom and established himself as caterer and public leader. And Duchess Quamino bought her own freedom, goin going on to earn the nickname “Pastry Queen of Rhode Island.” Pompe gained his freedom when his owner John Stevens died in 1786. Stevens stipulated in his will that Pompe and his third wife, Violet, be set free. Pompe officially changed his name to Zingo after his liberation, though he’d been using the traditional African name for quite some time.

The African Union Society

Even before earning his freedom, Zingo had worked to further the African-American community of Newport. In 1780, he and Newport Gardner founded the Africa Union Society (AUS). The organization was the first self-help organization for African-Americans in the United States. The AUS offered the typical benefits of a mutual-aid society, such as support and loans after an illness or death and loans for buying property.

Some members of the organization also felt an incredibly strong connection to Africa and wanted to emigrate back there. Members of the AUS wrote letters to the federal government, asking for funding and inquiring about their ability to own land in Africa. In 1825, Gardner finally managed to return with a small group of AUS members, but died shortly thereafter.


Newport Gardner arrived from East Africa seeking an education. He received that, as evidenced by this letter to his niece. Gardner would later return to Africa with several members of AUS.

Meanwhile, the organization began to incorporate more religious elements. By 1824, the organization had changed its name to the Colored Union Church and Society, making it the first separate black church in Newport. The AUS played a vital role in recording the births, deaths, baptisms, and weddings of the African-American community, and it also offered opportunities for group worship.

Zingo’s literacy probably proved useful, as he could read hymns and scriptures and share them with the congregation. Thus his copy of Psalms of David, Imitated in the Language of the New Testament would have been an incredibly important book for Newport’s African-American community. Books of such provenance–owned by a literate revolution-era slave who was also an important public figure–are incredibly scarce.

Though we know few details of his life, Zingo’s book offers us an opportunity to glimpse into his life and get a deeper understanding of a pivotal period in American history. His voice verily comes alive as you turn its pages. Which rare books in your library have a similarly significant provenance?