To Robert Morris
Mt Vernon 12th April 1786
I give you the trouble of this letter at the instance of Mr Dalby of Alexandria; who is called to Philadelphia to attend what he conceives to be a vexatious law-suit respecting a slave of his, which a Society of Quakers in the City (formed for such purposes) have attempted to liberate. The merits of this case will no doubt appear upon trial; but from Mr Dalby’s state of the matter, it should seem that this Society is not only acting repugnant to justice so far as its conduct concerns strangers, but, in my opinion extremely impolitickly with respect to the State—the City in particular; & without being able (but by Acts of tyranny & oppression) to accomplish their own ends. He says the conduct of this society is not sanctioned by Law: had the case been otherwise, whatever my opinion of the Law might have been, my respect for the policy of the State would on this occasion have appeared in my silence; because against the penalties of promulgated Laws one may guard; but there is no avoiding the snares of individuals, or of private societies—and if the practice of this Society of which Mr Dalby speaks, is not discountenanced, none of those whose misfortune it is to have slaves as attendants will visit the City if they can possibly avoid it; because by so doing they hazard their property—or they must be at the expence (& this will not always succeed) of providing servants of another description for the trip.1
I hope it will not be conceived from these observations, that it is my wish to hold the unhappy people who are the subject of this letter, in slavery. I can only say that there is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a plan adopted for the abolition of it—but there is only one proper and effectual mode by which it can be accomplished, & that is by Legislative authority: and this, as far as my suffrage will go, shall never be wanting.
But when slaves who are happy & content to remain with their present masters, are tampered with & seduced to leave them; when masters are taken at unawar[e]s by these practices; when a conduct of this sort begets discontent on one side and resentment on the other, & when it happens to fall on a man whose purse will not measure with that of the Society, & he looses his property for want of means to defend it—it is oppression in the latter case, & not humanity in any; because it introduces more evils than it can cure.
I will make no apology for writing to you on this subject; for if Mr Dalby has not misconceived the matter, an evil exists which requires a remedy; if he has, my intentions have been good though I may have been too precipitate in this address. Mrs Washington joins me in every good & kind wish for Mrs Morris & your family, and I am &c.
1. Philip Dalby, who opened a store in Alexandria in May 1785, placed a notice in the Virginia Journal and Alexandria Advertiser on 30 Mar. 1786, which GW probably had read. Dalby’s “A CAUTION to all TRAVELLERS to PHILADELPHIA from the Southern STATES” runs to more than three full columns in the newspaper and includes this account of how it all began: “. . . there is a society established in Pennsylvania, for the purpose of aiding and assisting all those unhappy persons who are cruelly and unjustly detained in bondage, in obtaining their freedom. The society have a committee of their members who reside in Philadelphia, and whose business it is, to inquire after, and assist all who come within the line laid down by the society at their institution. This committee has council retained, and agents employed, to give them information of all such; and of the arrival of every gentleman, who has with him a slave for a waiting-man, who is immediately tampered with. If he proves to be well disposed, and satisfied with his station, arguments are used, and every measure taken, to disgust him with it, and to spur him on to prosecute his master for his freedom. Having given you the outlines of this committee, and their business, I am to inform you, that in the month of February, 1785, business called me to Philadelphia, I took with me as a waiter, a Mulatto boy, a slave for life, purchased for my use the January before, by Mr. John Nicholson, of Doctor Belt of Leesburg. The boy was soon after my arrival, accosted by some of the agents employed by the committee, and informed that a fair opportunity now presented him of procuring his liberty, if he would avail himself of it, which he for some time declined: but having been guilty of a small theft, he was apprehended, and previous to his examination brought before me. I ordered him a corporal punishment in presence of the person he had plundered, who thereupon discharged him from further prosecution. The chastisement seemed to inflame him, and he then applied to the committee for their assistance to procure his freedom. Upon hearing his relation, they very candidly informed him, that they could not render him that service, which from his complexion, they were induced to think they could. Thus matters rested, until I had finished my business and was preparing to set off, on my return home, when the day preceding my departure the boy was again brought before the committee, who carried him to their council, who undertaking his case that evening, served me with an habeas corpus, commanding my attendance at Judge Bryan’s chambers the next morning.” Dalby goes on to describe the court proceedings, and while declaring himself “as much disposed to lament the hard fate of any set of men, who are doomed to groan under the galling yoke of slavery, as any of the worthy” members of the Society of Friends, he explains at great length how he perceives the actions of the Society as subversive of property rights and the rule of law as well as raising disturbing questions about interstate relations within the American union. Morris wrote GW on 26 April that the Pennsylvania court had decided for Dalby and that he had recovered his slave.
Nearly a year later Dalby ran an advertisement dated 12 Feb. 1787 in the Alexandria and Baltimore newspapers, offering a $20 reward for the recovery of a slave who “RAN AWAY, from the subscriber, on the 10th inst. a light Mulatto SLAVE, named FRANK, 18 years of age, about 5 feet 4 inches high, one tooth out before, bushy brown hair, which he sometimes ties, is very artful, and will endeavour to pass for a freeman. He formerly belonged to Dr. Belt, of Leesburg. He had on when he went away, a brown cloth jacket, (with a green collar) and trousers, new shoes, with yellow buckles, but I expect he will change his clothes. He is well known on the road to Philadelphia, as he is the boy on whose account a suit was brought against me there” (Maryland Journal, and Baltimore Advertiser, 16 Feb. 1787).