The Selling of Joseph: A Memorial Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

“These Ethiopians, as black as they are; seeing they are the Sons and Daughters of the First Adam, the Brethren and Sister of the Last ADAM, and the Offspring of GOD; They ought to be treated with Respect agreeable.”

Summary Overview

The Selling of Joseph: A Memorial was one of the earliest antislavery essays published in America. Written by Samuel Sewall in 1700, decades before the antislavery movement of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, this essay was an important early component in the development of antislavery writing and sentiments. The Selling of Joseph offers readers an opportunity to analyze Sewall’s arguments against slavery. Sewall crafted an attack on slavery based primarily on verses from the Bible, as well as pragmatic arguments drawn from contemporary affairs. These lines of argument both foreshadow and present a counterpoint to later antislavery writing. The Selling of Joseph is also a window into the racial prejudices and cultural biases of Sewall and many of his contemporaries and thus demonstrates the fraught relationship between antislavery and racism. The tract provides a reminder that slavery was not restricted to the southern colonies, but existed in all thirteen original colonies.

Defining Moment

The Selling of Joseph was a response by Samuel Sewall to an injustice. In 1700, Adam, the African slave of John Saffin, enlisted the aid of a white lawyer to petition the courts for his freedom. Saffin hired Adam out to a tenant farmer for seven years and, as a reward for Adam’s obedience, promised Adam his freedom. When seven years had passed, Saffin claimed that Adam was shiftless and lazy and denied Adam his freedom, thus causing Adam to resort to legal channels. Most historians agree that Adam was on Sewall’s mind as he wrote The Selling of Joseph and that this fact accounts for Sewall’s frequent repetition of the name “Adam,” including his reference to “the last Adam.”

Sewall’s anger does not fully explain why he wrote The Selling of Joseph. The climate of fear in Massachusetts Bay played a critical role. In 1692, these fears resulted in the Salem witch trials, where twenty people were executed for witchcraft. Historians have offered various reasons to explain the trials: jealousy among members of different factions, fears of attack by American Indians, fears about devils and spirits, and ergot poisoning. Whatever the reason (likely a combination of these factors), Sewall, like many of his contemporaries, felt himself under siege. Fears of devils may seem incomprehensible to modern readers, but American Indians were a very real presence. As the colonists and Indians fought many bloody skirmishes, it is hardly surprising that fears of outsiders would run deep, that Puritans would conceptualize attacks from outsiders as attacks by the forces of the devil, and that the increasing numbers of slaves in Massachusetts would alarm people.

Finally, the context of slavery in Massachusetts is an important component of this story. The existence of slavery in New England may come as a surprise to many students, but slavery did exist outside of the southern colonies. While the number of African slaves in Massachusetts was never as high as the number of slaves in the southern colonies, slaves were nevertheless numerous; the highest estimate of the slaves in Massachusetts was two thousand in a population of forty thousand white colonists. This is not surprising because the colonists needed a supply of cheap labor and they easily justified the enslavement of Africans to themselves on biblical grounds.

Author Biography

Samuel Sewall was born in the village of Bishop Stoke, in Hampshire, England, on March 28, 1652. In 1661, Sewall and his family crossed the Atlantic and settled in Newbury in Massachusetts Bay Colony. Beginning in 1667, Sewall attended Harvard, earning both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree. During his time at Harvard, Sewall met Hannah Hull, the daughter of an affluent Boston merchant John Hull, whom he married in 1676. After Hannah’s death in 1717, Sewall married Abigail Tilley in 1719, but she died about seven months later. In 1722, Sewall married Mary Gibbs, his third and final wife. Although Sewall did not have children with Abigail or Mary, he had fourteen children with Hannah, of whom only six lived past childhood and only three survived their father.

Sewall, a tremendously important figure, was best known for his role in the Salem witchcraft trials. In 1692, Sewall was appointed a member of the Court of Oyer and Terminer to hear the cases of alleged witches. Until its dissolution in 1693, the court sent twenty people to their deaths. In 1697, Sewall publicly repented his actions. The fact that Sewall was the only judge to do so gained him both a measure of fame, especially in later centuries, and a measure of notoriety, particularly among the other judges who never publicly apologized. In addition to his participation in the Court of Oyer and Terminer, Sewall was elected to the Massachusetts General Court and served as a member of the Superior Court of Judicature, on the Provisional Council, and as a probate judge. Sewall was, in other words, deeply involved in the legislative and judicial branches of Massachusetts Bay. Sewall also published a variety of works, including Phaenomena quondam Apolcalyptica (1697), a reading of on the biblical book of Revelation, and Talitha Cumi; or, An Invitation to Women to Look After Their Inheritance in the Heavenly Mansion (1711), which argues that the bodies of both women and men are resurrected in Heaven. A devout Puritan, Sewall was accepted as a member of the Third (South) Church of Boston in 1677. Sewall died in his house on January 1, 1730.

Document Analysis

The Selling of Joseph: A Memorial was one of the earliest antislavery documents published in America. Sewall’s central message was captured in his opening statement, “For as much as Liberty is in real value next unto Life: None ought to part with it themselves, or deprive others of it.” This document deserves careful and meticulous attention not simply because it was one of the first antislavery tracts, but because of the opportunities it offers for study and analysis. For one, in less than two thousand words, Sewall succinctly presents many different antislavery arguments. Most of Sewall’s arguments are based on biblical verse. Sewall does not limit himself to one section of the Bible, but rather draws lessons from both the Old and New Testaments to make his points. Sewall’s essay also highlights the relationship between antislavery and racism in New England and the rest of the colonies in 1700. Finally, Sewall’s arguments are critical because they anticipate both the rhetoric of later opponents and proponents of slavery. While one should not draw a straight line from Sewall to famed abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison (1805–79), both Sewall and Garrison were part of a tradition of antislavery discourse.

Antislavery and Racism in The Selling of Joseph

Sewall’s various concerns—the increasing number of African slaves in Massachusetts, the particular case of Adam, the enslavement of white Europeans by Barbary pirates in Africa and the Mediterranean, and more generally the climate of fear—prodded him to write an essay excoriating slavery and slavers. Estimates of the number of slaves in Massachusetts during this period vary between five hundred and two thousand slaves in a colony with a total population of about forty thousand people. Accepting the highest estimate, slaves constituted about 5 percent of the population. This point is vital because while Sewall spoke of the weight of the system and the fears of slave insurrections, white men and women clearly outnumbered slaves by a lopsided majority in Massachusetts. Sewall begins his essay by asserting that black and white people are of one blood and therefore equal. To reinforce his point, Sewall quotes from the books of Psalms and Acts. All people are descended from the First Parents, Adams and Eve, Sewall proclaims, and thus share common ancestors. Furthermore, Sewall believed that God gave everyone a similar inheritance, another proof of the equality of all people, which meant that there is not and can never be such a thing as slavery. Notably, unlike the Spaniards in the early years of the conquest of the New World, Sewall never doubted the humanity of the slaves, nor did he think, as did many proponents of the theory of polygenesis in the nineteenth century, that black people were a separate species.

Sewall uses biblical figures and verses to lend weight to his arguments. Appropriately, in The Selling of Joseph, Sewall draws on the biblical figure of Joseph. Although Joseph arrived in Egypt as a slave, the book of Genesis recounts that he was favored by God and therefore rose to a position of power, which enabled him to save his family and all of Egypt from starvation during a prolonged famine. Sewall uses this story to frame his essay because he saw the selling of Joseph as both an awful crime (brothers selling their brother into slavery) and as a way to level a sharp critique against slave traders. Joseph’s brothers had neither the right to slay nor to sell him, and their actions violated God’s laws, as do the actions of slavers today, Sewall argues. Sewall skillfully utilizes Bible verses to demonstrate that God judged man stealers (kidnappers) harshly; that under Mosaic law, slavers were to be put to death; that the Israelites were strictly prohibited from buying or selling one another as slaves; and that slavery was reckoned the most atrocious crime known to man. Like many other antislavery voices, Sewall ignores the proslavery verses of the Bible, most notably the sentences in the Pauline epistles enjoining slaves to obey their masters. The tendency to ignore verses was reciprocated by the apologists of slavery who either ignored or denigrated the verses Sewall cites. Thus, the Bible was cited by both proponents and opponents of slavery to buttress their arguments.

In place of African slaves, who were held in bondage for a lifetime, Sewall advocates for the use of white indentured servants. In making this argument, Sewall draws on an important precedent. The first Africans were brought to British North America in 1619, but for many decades thereafter, white indentured servants outnumbered them. Even in sugar producing colonies such as Barbados, more white servants were imported than slaves. In 1700, white indentured servants were still coming to the New World, but African slaves, particularly in the southern colonies, were imported in greater numbers. Sewall’s reasons for opposing African slavery are instructive. For one, Sewall explains that the prejudice of slave owners worsens the lot of the slave. Slave owners are opposed to freeing their slaves, Sewall asserts, and this opposition causes them to make the lives of their slaves harder and nastier than necessary. Sewall also correctly observes that slaves are not content with their lot in life. This point may seem exceedingly obvious, but the rhetoric of the proslavery apologists hinged on descriptions of happy, contended, simple, and loyal slaves. Sewall’s writing is marked by his own racial and cultural prejudices, but significantly, Sewall did not regard slaves as less than human, as a different species from white people, or as happy and contented.

If Sewall makes some impressive statements about the equality of all men, some of the material in this section speaks to Sewall’s own prejudices and biases. For one, Sewall comments on the physical differences between white and black people (phenotype and hair) and makes a vague comment about the conditions of Africans. Sewall contends that Africans and whites cannot mix either in a physical or political sense. He asserts that Africans are inferior and childlike, though he never explicitly uses that word. Africans, in Sewall’s eyes, were not capable of producing orderly families. In this framing, black slaves represent anarchy to white people’s order and barbarism to white people’s civilization. According to Sewall, slaves cannot spread out across the land and will thus remain a group within the colony, certainly not a part of the political body. Sewall deliberately uses the word extravasat (extravasate), an anatomical term meaning “not contained within a particular vessel.” Africans are therefore in but not of the colony and cannot, in Sewall’s formulation, exist inside it because they are not orderly. Sewall’s use of the word “condition,” his list of the differences between white and black people, and his negative appraisal of Africans might seem a bit surprising from a man who previously spoke about how all people are children of God and how everyone is equal. On the other hand, most people in the seventeenth century believed society to be hierarchical (a view not limited to Puritans), which may explain some of the limitations in this essay. Perhaps the surprise should not be that Sewall had strong anti-African cultural biases, but rather that he formulated an essay advancing antislavery ideas.

Sewall’s critique of Africans jumps quickly from one idea to the next. After his discussion of disorder, Sewall complains that the large presence of Africans in Massachusetts means that there were empty places in militia bands. The result, of course, is that these places have to be filled by white men who could have married white women and, following the example of Jacob and Rachel, produced children, but now they will not. Sewall’s charge here is odd because New England had a high birthrate (consider Sewall’s fourteen children)! Furthermore, Sewall misremembers the biblical story of Jacob, Rachel, and Leah. Both Rachel and Leah offered Jacob their maids to bear children and Jacob had children with both of his wives and both of their maids. Sewall’s misremembering aside, he crafts here an argument contending that the presence of slavery literally retards the growth of white families and white people in general, but also has the same effect on black families and black people in general. Slave owners, Sewall contends, ignore lewd behavior among slaves. Instead of finding wives for male slaves, Sewall writes that slave owners allow slaves to fornicate at random and thus commit both a sin and a crime. Though he does not make the connection explicit, this may be why Sewall found black slaves incapable of making orderly families.

From these complaints about slaves, Sewall turns to a series of more general complaints about slavery. For one, Sewall laments the fact that the law colludes in man stealing. Second, Sewall returns to the theme of disorderly families. How terrible it is, Sewall writes, that men break the bonds God has established between people and their native lands, husbands and wives, parents and children. Sewall mentions, although not with the detail of Olaudah Equiano, the horrors of the Middle Passage from Africa to America: “How horrible is the Uncleanness, Mortality, if not Murder, that the Ships are guilty of that bring great Crouds of these miserable Men, and Women.” Sewall ends by drawing on white fears about white slavery and argues that white people no longer have the luxury of decrying Barbary slavery—the capture and enslavement of white Europeans by Barbary pirates in Africa and the Mediterranean—because white people are so involved with the African slave trade and slavery. Sewall’s vivid language merits quoting: “It may be a question whether all the Benefit received by Negro Slaves, will balance the Accompt of Cash laid out upon them; and for the Redemption of our own enslaved Friends out of Africa.” Sewall had negotiated the release of a man held captive by Barbary pirates, so he knew whereof he spoke.

Raising and Refuting Proslavery Dogma

Thus far, The Selling of Joseph has advanced the central idea that slavery was wicked and wrong. Sewall next uses a different rhetorical strategy: he brings up four objections that a proslavery interlocutor would raise and refutes them. The first objection concerns the curse of Cham (Ham). The book of Genesis states that, after the Great Flood, Noah’s son Ham angered Noah by “looking upon his nakedness,” an offense whose meaning remains subject to scholarly debate. Noah then cursed Canaan (who is identified either Ham’s son or Noah’s son, depending on the passage) and declared that the descendants of Canaan would be the slaves of the descendants of Noah’s other sons. Many white people assumed Africans were the descendants of Ham and Canaan and thus were their slaves, by biblical mandate. Sewall answers this assumption by stating that it is not the duty of man to be the executor of God’s wrath because one cannot be certain of the extent and duration of the said wrath. Furthermore, Sewall indicates that the curse of Ham might not be accurate because, he asserts, Africans did not descend from Ham and Canaan, but from Cush and Ethiopia. Sewall cites biblical verses, as well as Ovid, an ancient authority, thus drawing on biblical and classical precedents to buttress his point.

Sewall’s second objection anticipates the “schoolhouse of civilization” rhetoric, which held that Africans were uncivilized and benefited from being introduced to America. The objection states that Africans were brought from a pagan country to a Christian land and therefore slavery was justified. Sewall questions how one can justify evil on the basis that some good might come out of it. Despite this statement, Sewall himself agrees that it was beneficial for pagan Africans to be exposed to Christianity. On the other hand, using again the example of Joseph, Sewall avers that, regardless of the benefit of the action, nothing could justify the sale of Joseph by his brothers and, by extension, nothing could rectify the enslavement of Africans by white people.

Sewall’s third objection revolves around the idea that, because Africans make war against each other, any slaves brought to the New World were lawful captives. Every war, Sewall contends, is unjust and unjust wars cannot produce lawful captives. He makes a compelling argument by asking his reader to consider a fictional example: Suppose a group of fishermen were overpowered and sold by a stronger group. Would they not object strenuously? Then why do people participate in the buying and selling of human beings? Critically, Sewall allows his own prejudices to influence his ideas when he states that “And by Receiving, we are in danger to promote, and partake in their Barbarous Cruelties.” His reference to barbarism is problematic. Sewall’s argument constructs a dichotomy between African barbarism and white civilization and suggests that participation in the slave trade imperils and threatens white civilization. Throughout this section, Sewall frequently cites the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have others do unto you. Sewall’s fourth objection concerns the presence of purchased servants in Abraham’s house. Sewall’s answer to this objection is the essay’s weakest. Sewall does not dispute the purchase, he writes, because Genesis 17:27 states that Abraham did, in fact, own slaves he had purchased. Sewall therefore assumes that Abraham’s actions were lawful and good.

If Sewall’s answer to the fourth objection does not strengthen the essay, his final lines provide a tight conclusion. Sewall draws together both the Old and New Testament lines of argument and recalls Jesus and the Golden Rule to talk about treatment of slaves. Sewall indulges in a rare flight of fancy and allows his language to stray toward the ornate, writing, “Our Blessed Saviour has altered the Measures of the Ancient Love-Song, and set it to a most Excellent New Tune, which all ought to be ambitious of Learning.” In essence, Sewall contends that white people needed to become better Christians and treat Africans with the respect that they deserve as fellow children of God. Sewall also makes a pragmatic argument intended to appeal to a wide swath of Puritan society and the common uncertainty of one’s status among the Elect (those the Puritans believed were predestined for eternal salvation). Sewall asks if enslaving one’s fellow men seems likely to give assurance of one’s salvation. Sewall offers a sharp critique of all levels of society and does not single out a particular faction (i.e., slave traders, as did many later proslavery apologists), but rather indicts everyone and renders everyone equally culpable.

Essential Themes

In 1701, John Saffin issued A Brief and Candid Answer to a late Printed Sheet Entitled the Selling of Joseph, a venomous reply to Sewall’s pamphlet. Saffin’s response attacks Sewall with many of the same arguments that later proslavery apologists employed: namely, that slavery was defended by the Bible, citing verses to support this argument. Saffin takes exception with Sewall’s assertion that all men are descended from Adam and therefore equal, and he claims that this statement, if true, would upset order and natural hierarchies. Saffin attacks Sewall’s arguments by stating that there is an important difference between enslaving one’s own people and enslaving heathen and that the Bible does not preclude the enslavement of heathen Africans. Most contemporaries judged that Saffin had gotten the better of Sewall in the argument, and Saffin’s points were more broadly accepted than Sewall’s because Saffin’s reply tapped into two pervasive ideas: the hierarchical nature of society and slavery as part of the natural order.

The differences between Sewall and later antislavery writers are instructive. Whereas the Bible’s defense of slavery offered by Saffin was parroted by proslavery ideologues, the Bible’s attack against slavery as seen by Sewall was often overlooked in favor of discussions of higher law, sentimentality, and free-soilism. The Selling of Joseph proved that one could make a case for slavery being precluded on the basis of biblical verse, just as one could make a case for slavery being allowed, again based on the Bible.

In addition, The Selling of Joseph raises questions about the complicated relationship between antislavery and racism. Just because Sewall was horrified by slavery did not mean that he was a racial egalitarian. Indeed, Sewall had definitive ideas about the inequalities between white and black people. This is a particularly important theme because there is often the temptation to assume that antislavery rhetoric, especially that of the nineteenth century, signaled a deeper commitment to equality. This, however, is simply not the case. Racism often went hand in hand with antislavery, particularly because many people felt that slavery harmed the free white population and opposed slavery on these, and not humanitarian, grounds. Although Sewall was slightly different in that sense because he believed that black and white people descended from Adam and Eve and therefore shared a common inheritance as human beings, he still did not believe people of different racial backgrounds were equals. This document thus foreshadowed tensions in the antislavery movement that flowered in the next century and a half, as well as the problems of slavery, race, liberty, and equality, fundamental issues that played no small part in the coming of the Civil War and the crisis of the American republic.

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Additional Reading
  • Brown, Christopher Leslie. Moral Capital: Foundations of British Abolitionism. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2006. Print.
  • Goodman, Paul. Of One Blood: Abolitionism and the Origins of Racial Equality. Berkeley: U of California P, 2000. Print.
  • Hoffer, Williamjames Hull. The Caning of Charles Sumner: Honor, Idealism, and the Origins of the Civil War. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2010. Print.
  • Litwack, Leon F. North of Slavery: The Negro in the Free States, 1790–1860. Chicago. U of Chicago P, 1965. Print.
  • Manegold, C. S. Ten Hills Farm: The Forgotten History of Slavery in the North. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2009. Print.
  • Morgan, Edmund S. The Puritan Family: Religion & Domestic Relations in Seventeenth-Century New England. 1944. Westport: Greenwood, 1980. Print.
  • Newman, Richard S. The Transformation of American Abolitionism: Fighting Slavery in the Early Republic. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2002. Print.
  • Schwartz, Stuart B., ed. Tropical Babylons: Sugar and the Making of the Atlantic World: 1450–1680. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2004. Print.
  • Stewart, James Brewer. Holy Warriors: The Abolitionists and American Slavery. 1976. New York: Hill, 1997. Print.
  • Tise, Larry E. Proslavery: A History of the Defense of Slavery in America, 1701–1840. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1987. Print.

Categories: History