George Washington Papers

[Diary entry: 16 March 1790]

Tuesday 16th. Exercised on horseback between 10 & 12 Oclock. Previous to this, I was visited (having given permisn.) by a Mr. Warner Mifflin, one of the People called Quakers; active in pursuit of the Measures laid before Congress for emancipating the Slaves. After much general conversation, and an endeavor to remove the prejudices which he said had been entertained of the motives by which the attending deputation from their Society were actuated, he used Arguments to shew the immoralty—injustice and impolicy of keeping these people in a state of Slavery; with declarations, however, that he did not wish for more than a graduel abolition, or to see any infraction of the Constitution to effect it. To these I replied, that as it was a matter which might come before me for official decision I was not inclined to express any sentimts. on the merits of the question before this should happen.

The day being bad, not many Visiters attended the Levee. At it Mr. Smith of South Carolina presented the Copy of an Address from the Intendant and [ ] of the City of Charleston, and was told that I would receive it in form on Thursday at 11 Oclock.

Warner Mifflin (1745–1798), a prominent Quaker abolitionist, was born in Accomack County, Va. His father was a prosperous planter who held over 100 slaves; as a young man Mifflin became interested in the abolition movement and persuaded his father to free the family slaves. Although he generally eschewed political action, abstaining from voting on the ground that participation in government might be construed as support of slaveholding interests, he was instrumental in presenting a series of antislavery petitions to the Continental Congress during the Confederation (MIFFLIN description begins The Defence of Warner Mifflin Against Aspersions cast on him on Account of his endeavours to promote Righteousness, Mercy and Peace, among Mankind. Philadelphia, 1796. description ends ; JONES [3] description begins Rufus M. Jones. The Quakers in the American Colonies. London, 1911. description ends , 326). The journal of the House of Representatives for 11 Feb. 1790 notes that “memorials of the people called Quakers, in their annual meetings, held at Philadelphia and New-York, in the year one thousand seven hundred and eighty-nine, were presented to the House and read, praying the attention of Congress in adopting measures for the abolition of the slave trade, and in particular in restraining vessels from being entered and cleared out, for the purposes of that trade.” On 12 Feb. the memorial was referred to a committee, together with a memorial from the Quakers’ New York meeting. The committee reported, 23 Mar., stating that Congress had no authority to interfere with the slave trade until 1808 when, as the Constitution provided, the trade would be abolished. Furthermore, the report continued, Congress had no authority to interfere with the states in matters concerning the slaves’ welfare, although the members “have the fullest confidence in the wisdom and humanity of the Legislatures of the Several States, that they will revise their laws from time to time, when necessary, and promote the objects mentioned in the memorials, and every other measure that may tend to the happiness of slaves.” The memorials and report met the fate of most other Quaker petitions on slavery; it was ordered that they “do lie on the table” (DE PAUW description begins Linda Grant De Pauw et al., eds. Documentary History of the First Federal Congress of the United States of America, March 4, 1789-March 3, 1791. 20 vols. to date. Baltimore, 1972—. description ends , 3:294–96, 316, 321, 333–37, 340–41). GW wrote David Stuart, 28 Mar., that the “memorial of the Quakers (and a very mal-apropos one it was) has at length been put to sleep, and will scarcely awake before the year 1808” (DLC:GW).

The document transmitted by Sen. William Loughton Smith was “The address of the Intendant [Thomas Jones] and Wardens of the city of Charleston, South-Carolina,” dated in the city council 18 Feb. 1790, congratulating GW on his election as president (DLC:GW). GW’s undated reply is also in DLC:GW.

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