James Madison Papers

To James Madison from Charles Collins, 25 December 1811

From Charles Collins

New York the 25th day
of the 12th Month 1811.

Respected Friend

Well assured that matters of high consideration press upon thy attention I feel diffident in diverting thee a moment therefrom, but would just say in a brief manner that for sometime past I have felt it my duty to abstain from the consumption of the produce of Slaves and there being some in our society similarly situated I have been induced to commence the trading in such articles as do not interfere with our religious scruples. The Blacks of Hayti being free and many articles of general consumption being raised by them and the Indians of Brazil and perhaps other parts of South America, I am desirous of commencing a correspondence to those places in order to ascertain with some correctness the condition of articles from thence, and look to thee for help in this matter; and I am the more emboldened thereto from the circumstance of thy wife having been a member of our society, and who I am almost ready to say would be glad of an oppy to lend a hand in promoting our peaceable testimony. The annexed remarks on Prize Goods shew our ideas pretty fully on this subject.1

I am informed that as many as a thousand bales of Cotton may annually be procured in Charleston raised by people who have no Slaves and who reside in the upper country about 200 miles from that City. I have sent this information to Thomas Clarkson2 with a view of his communicating it to the manufacturers of Manchester, some of whom I expect are friends. May I not however be too sanguine, well knowing it required many years to rid our society of the iniquitous traffic. We are at length clear and perhaps the time has arrived for an advance to be made. Had our society been faithful we might not now be obliged to confess that in the consumption of the produce of Slaves we interfere with our testimony, and altho’ weakness has crept in there are many I hope who are ready to seal their testimony with their blood if need be. Desiring thy aid in some Shape or other I am thy assured friend

Charles Collins3

RC and enclosure (DLC). RC docketed by JM. For enclosure, see n. 1.

1Collins enclosed a one-page handbill entitled “Prize Goods Examined.” Starting from the observation that some “conscientious people” refused to purchase goods captured on the seas “because the real owners do not receive the pay; and because it would be encouraging robbery and murder,” the handbill established the premise that “all goods taken from the real owners, either by fraud or force, are prize goods.” Those persons “employed as captors of the human species,” the argument continued, “are guilty of the highest grade of felony; and the captives so taken, are the highest grade of prize goods.” If the slave was prize goods, it followed that “his labour is prize goods also,” and therefore “the product of his labour is amongst the highest grade of prize goods.” The purchaser of these goods thus became “a party in the slave trade,” and “the greater the demand is for the produce, the greater is the demand for the slaves.”

Applying the metaphor of a “machine” to the trade in slaves as well as to the commerce and the consumption of their produce, the handbill described the resulting system as a “great engine of destruction” formed from all parties to this commerce. “They are the machine, and contain in themselves the cause of its motion; they constitute a complete whole. Take from it the consumers, and the whole machine must stop.” A boycott of slave produce would therefore put an end to both the trade in that produce and the trade in slaves itself. The “fountain of human blood which hath been flowing in Africa so long, would be dried up; and the carnage and misery attending the traffic in human flesh would cease.” The handbill stated that “the whole weight of human beings that have been destroyed in the slave trade, in the cultivation of the cane, and making sugar, would equal one half of the weight of all the sugar that ever came from the West-Indies: and may be fairly charged to its account.”

Arguing that such “vast destruction” could not be reconciled with the infinite justice of God, the handbill concluded by invoking the prohibitions of Mosaic law against the eating of “clean and unclean beasts” on behalf of the case against consuming stolen produce.

2Thomas Clarkson (1760–1846) was a prominent leader of the antislavery movement in Great Britain. Together with William Wilberforce and other members of the “Clapham Sect,” he was instrumental in obtaining the 1807 legislation outlawing British participation in the slave trade, and he continued to work thereafter for the international suppression of the slave trade (see Ellen Gibson Wilson, Thomas Clarkson: A Biography [London, 1989]).

3In the movement to boycott slave produce, Charles Collins became one of the earliest known owners of a free produce store in New York City (Ruth Ketring Nuermberger, The Free Produce Movement: A Quaker Protest against Slavery [Durham, N.C., 1942], pp. 60, 81, 119).

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