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The Selling of Joseph: A Memorial

The Selling of Joseph: A Memorial


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    This is the only surviving copy of Samuel Sewall's The Selling of Joseph, the first anti-slavery tract published in New England. In the pamphlet Sewall condemns the enslavement of African people and the slave trade in North America, and refutes many of the era's typical justifications for slavery. Sewall cites chapter and verse from the Bible to decry "Man Stealing" as an atrocious crime, but also uses practical (and racist) arguments about the competition of enslaved Black people with free whites to buttress his case.

    Sewall noted in his diary that the slave trade had long troubled him, but The Selling of Joseph appears, at least in part, to have been inspired by a petition circulated in Boston in 1700 "for the freeing of a Negro [Adam] and his wife, who were unjustly held in Bondage." Adam was enslaved by John Saffin, a prominent Boston merchant and magistrate. Saffin hired out Adam for a term of seven years and promised him freedom upon his good behavior. Saffin denied Adam his freedom, leading to several years of legal proceedings and a public war of words between Saffin and Sewall. In 1701, Saffin published A Brief and Candid Answer to a late Printed Sheet Entitled the Selling of Joseph, in which he refuted Sewall's objections to slavery and defended his actions in Adam's case. In 1703, after a long legal struggle, Adam finally gained his freedom, but Sewall did not reply directly to Saffin's A Brief and Candid Answer until 1705 when he reprinted an English condemnation of the slave trade that had originally appeared in The Athenian Oracle.

    For a brief biographical sketch of Sewall, please see the online presentation of a portrait of Samuel Sewall.

    Suggestions for Further Reading

    Goodell, Abner C. "John Saffin and his Slave Adam," Publications of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, vol. 1 (1895), 85-112. Goodell reprints John Saffin's A Brief and Candid Answer to a late Printed Sheet Entitled the Selling of Joseph (1705) and several legal documents concerning Adam's struggle to win his freedom.

    Peterson, Mark A. "The Selling of Joseph: Bostonians, Antislavery, and the Protestant International, 1689-1733," Massachusetts Historical Review, vol. 4 (2002), 1-22.

    Sewall, Samuel. The Diary of Samuel Sewall, 1674-1729. M. Halsey Thomas, ed. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1973.