This 1783 Pamphlet Called The Founders ‘Petty Tyrants’ For Upholding Slavery
“Let justice, humanity, advocates for liberty, and the sacred name of Christians, cease to be the boast of American rulers.”
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David Cooper was a farmer, Quaker, and hardened abolitionist, and I only discovered him after I took a deep dive into learning more about early American dissenters, rabble-rousers, and salt-of-the-earth patriotic shit-kickers. Cooper was one of those early Americans unafraid to call out the Founding Fathers for their moral failings on slavery.
He did it in their own time, using the Founders’ own words against them because Cooper knew how dangerous it was to allow slavery to fester in our new nation unchallenged. He knew it in 1783, four years before Congress ratified the first draft of the US Constitution that would enshrine slavery as an immovable institution in our form of government, foundational to the functioning of our new country.
“Have we a better right to enslave them and their posterity, than Great-Britain had to demand Three-pence per pound for an article of luxury we could do very well without?” — David Cooper
Cooper’s 22-page pamphlet, brazenly titled “A Serious Address To The Rulers Of America, On the Inconsistency of Their Conduct Respecting Slavery: Forming a contrast between the encroachments of England on American liberty, and American injustice in tolerate slavery.,” is a damning excoriation that blatantly and clearly lays out the Founders’ hypocrisy for failing to eliminate slavery, branding their inability to even propose a plan to stricken abject human bondage from our nation at some point in the future as an act of treason.
He writes early that, “Let not the world have an opportunity to charge her [America’s] conduct with a contradiction to her solemn and often repeated declarations, or to say that her sons are not real friends to freedom, that they have been actuated in this awful contest by no higher motive than selfishness and interest,” calling for the Founding Fathers to take their new-found opportunity to declare that their slaves are “as much entitled to freedom” as themselves.
They didn’t do that.
Cooper was upfront about his intentions, too. On the next page, he says that he seeks to force a “blush on every American slaveholder, who has complained of the treatment we have received from Britain, which is no more to be equaled, with ours to negroes, than a barley corn is to the globe we inhabit.”
Even he could see the hypocrisy dribbling from their lips—men who decried taxes as oppression while owning thousands slaves.
“Must not every generous foreigner,” Cooper continues, “feel a secret indignation rise in his breast when he hears the language of Americans upon any of their own rights as freemen, being in the least infringed, and reflects that these very people are holding thousands and tens of thousands of their innocent fellow men in the most debasing and abject slavery, deprived of every right of freemen, except light and air? How similar to an atrocious pirate, setting in all the solemn pomp of a judge, passing sentence of death on a petty thief. Let us try the likeness by the standard of facts.”
Cooper is quick to note the contradictions between the Colonists’ plight, Congress’ proclamations, and the brutalized reality of their slaves. The Colonists arrived in the new world under royal charters, protected by a crown that felt justified in claiming jurisdiction, taxes, and the right to make laws over them. This encroachment pushed the Colonists to declare their independence.
Yet Africa, thousands of miles away, “its inhabitants as independent of us, as we are of them,” was ripe for pillaging by the Colonists. We sailed there, fomented wars to purchase the prisoners as plunder, and brought them to America forever as our slaves. If they were to revolt and “imitate our example, and offer by force to assert their native freedom, they are condemned as traitors, and a hasty gibbet strikes terror on their survivors, and rivets their chains more secure.”
In 1775, the American Continental Congress declared its justification for taking up arms against the crown, demanding the crown show some proof that it held such authority over the Colonists, but Cooper questions whether the Colonists were even justified in seeking their independence in the first place when they wanted to continue to deny thousands their own right to freedom.
“Have we a better right to enslave them and their posterity, than Great-Britain had to demand Three-pence per pound for an article of luxury we could do very well without?” He wondered if America could reflect on how far “the government falls short” when its laws “justify men in murdering, torturing and abusing their fellow men, in a manner shocking to humanity.”
Cooper continues to pull from Congress’ 1775 declaration in a back-and-forth dialogue between hypocrisy and reason, wondering if there was a better explanation for America’s racial predicament other than “But they are black, and ought to obey; we are white, and ought to rule.”
He couldn’t find one.
Congress cried out 247 years ago that the colonies were “attacked by unprovoked enemies, without any imputation, or even suspicion, of offense,” declaring that the crown offered nothing more than “servitude or death.” However, Cooper countered that Africans did not provoke America in the least, either. He demanded to know what offenses the infants of slaves committed to justify leaving “them with no alternative but servitude or death.”
Cooper didn’t miss the dichotomy between Congress’ actions and the empty words it used to justify a revolution to avoid paying taxes. He wonders if their slaves would receive the same opportunity to throw off literal chains of oppression.
Congress wrote it had taken up arms to defend the freedom the Colonists enjoyed “for the protection of our property acquired solely by the honest industry of our forefathers and ourselves.” Property that they could cultivate and enjoy under the crown's protection and at the hands of their slaves.
But Africans in Africa enjoyed their own birthright freedom until, Cooper wrote, “the more savage christians transported them by thousands, and sold them for slaves in the wilds of America, to cultivate it for their lordly oppressors.”
In the closing dialogues, Cooper juxtaposed John Jay’s 1774 “Address to the People of Great Britain” that dared proclaim that the Colonists were as free as those in Britain and that the crown did not have a right to “take our property from us without our consent” with the fact that these were the same men who sailed to Africa and justified stealing humans for perpetual bondage and profit with a shrug of indifference as they crafted their own desires of a free nation for themselves.
Cooper questions Jay nine years later in his pamphlet, asking, “Does this reasoning apply more forcibly in favour of a white skin than a black one? Why ought a negro to be less free than the subjects of Britain, or a white face in America? Have we not all one father? Hath not one God created us? Why do we deal treacherously every man against his brother?”
The dialogue concludes with Cooper pleading for the Founders to reflect for a moment about the chasm between their unholy pain under taxation and the plight of their perpetual slave, questioning if the Founders truly believed that taxation without representation was more evil than slavery, and he had a stern warning for those who did not:
“if neither the voice of justice nor suggestions of humanity, can restrain your hands from being contaminated with the practice; cease to boast the christian name from him who commanded his followers “to do unto others as they would others should do unto them.””
Cooper brings primary evidence of the Founders’ failings into sharp focus with the Declaration of Independence (July 4, 1776), the Pennsylvanian Declaration of Rights (July 15, 1776), and the Declaration of the Rights of Massachusetts (Sept. 1, 1779) that say, “that all men are created equal,” “THAT all men are born equally free and independent,” and “All men are born free and equal.”
“IF these solemn truths, uttered at such an awful crisis, are self-evident: unless we can shew that the African race are not men, words can hardly express the amazement which naturally arises on reflecting, that the very people who make these pompous declarations are slave-holders, and, by their legislative conduct, tell us, that these blessings were only meant to be the rights of whitemen not of all men: and would seem to verify the observation of an eminent writer; “When men talk of liberty, they mean their own liberty, and seldom suffer their thoughts on that point to stray to their neighbours.””
The last few pages of Cooper’s pamphlet are a violent takedown that builds into a brutal death blow to the Founders’ hypocrisy, and it’s difficult not to quote in full. He declares that it’s universal knowledge that “blacks are born equally free with whites” and decries the Founders as “cruel taskmasters” and “petty tyrants” for arguing otherwise.
He points out the contradiction in Americans praying to a Christian god for freedom from British taxes as “sighs and groans are piercing his holy ears from oppressions which we commit a thousand fold more grievous.”
He notes the savagery of early American law on slaves, too, which would offer four times the reward for the head of a liberty-loving slave over returning the great patriot alive. He noted how the government would capture freed slaves and sell them for profit. When British citizens fled, leaving their slaves behind, the Colonists sold them back into perpetual slavery with “the proceeds cast into stock for the defence of American liberty.”
Cooper belittles the fear that freeing the slave would cause calamity, rightfully observing “are not these difficulties of our own creating?” He knew that leaving the slavery question unanswered would turn our country rotten. He noted the difference between the Founders’ words and their actions, “few among us are now hardy enough to justify slavery, and yet will not release their slaves; like hardened sinners, acknowledge their guilt, but discover no inclination to reform.”
“Let not the world have an opportunity to charge her [America’s] conduct with a contradiction to her solemn and often repeated declarations, or to say that her sons are not real friends to freedom…” — David Cooper
Cooper wants the Founders to walk the walk that they fervently preached, and he wrote that “mankind expects, you to demonstrate your faith by your works, the sincerity of your words by your actions” to give freedom to everyone they could and only then could they “be revered as the real friends of mankind, and escape the execrations which pursue human tyrants, who shew no remorse at sacrificing the ease and happiness of any number of their fellow-men to the increase and advancement of their own, are wholly regardless of others rights if theirs are but safe and secure.”
Cooper questions whether America should “disown” its claim that “All men are born equally free” so it could justify its slaves. He called such an action “treason against the rights of humanity, against the principles upon which the American revolution stands,” and committing such an act justified Britain in its claims over its control of the colonies.
How did Cooper come to these conclusions? He read the constitutions of the various states and noted the “selfishness of man” who took “extraordinary care, and wise precautions…to guard and secure” their own rights and privileges “without the least notice of the injured Africans.”
He called upon the states to take action, to display “your wisdom and virtue by your laws freed from every foreign control,” but he knew the slaves were below their concerns, the “rights and interest” of the slave “unworthy of a sanction” in their constitutions.
“let me beseech you, if you wish your country to escape the reproach and lasting infamy of denying to others what she hath so often, and in the most conclusive language, declared were the rights of all; if you wish to retain the name of christians [sic], of friends to human nature, and of looking up acceptably in prayer to the common father of men to deal with you in the same tenderness and mercy as you deal with others; that you would even now regard the rigorous oppressions of his other children, and your brethren, which they suffer under laws which you only can abrogate.”
The American Revolution was an opportunity, giving the Founders the freedom to remove the shackles of slavery imposed on them by the crown, yet “near ten years have now elapsed since this restraint hath been removed, and no effectual advance yet made towards loosing the bands of wickedness, and letting the oppressed go free, or even of putting it in a train whereby it may at length come to an end.”
Cooper concludes by rehashing a paragraph from Jay’s “Address to the People of Great Britain” that he “varied to suit the present subject.”
“IF neither the voice of justice, the dictates of humanity, the rights of human nature, and establishment of impartial liberty now in your power, the good of your country, nor the fear of an avenging God, can restrain your hands from this impious practice of holding your fellow-men in slavery; making traffick of, and advertising in your publick prints for sale as common merchandize, your brethren possessed of immortal souls equal with yourselves; then let justice, humanity, advocates for liberty, and the sacred name of Christians, cease to be the boast of American rulers.”
Read the pamphlet yourself on this sour Fourth of July.
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