Warner Mifflin

Unflinching Quaker Abolitionist

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Gary B. Nash
  • Philadelphia, PA: 
    University of Pennsylvania Press
    , August
     352 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In historian Gary Nash’s practiced, skillful, and careful hands, the nearly unknown subject of this biography, Delawarean Warner Mifflin, comes to life in the revolutionary and early national periods in the US. In uncovering Mifflin and his work and bringing them to public attention, Nash has performed a needed and valuable service, one that will push forward our knowledge of revolutionary-era abolitionism in the period up to Mifflin’s death in 1798. The book also strengthens the case for a strong religious continuity between the revolutionary era’s opposition to slavery and the more sustained and increasingly political attack on the “peculiar” institution beginning in the early 1830s. For only one example, in 1811 Quaker minister Elias Hicks penned a forceful indictment of slavery in a pamphlet that called on slavery’s opponents to cease buying slave-produced goods to undermine its profitability. Members of the Society of Friends, prodded by leaders like Ralph Sandiford, Benjamin Lay, John Woolman, Anthony Benezet, Mifflin, and Hicks, took the lead in fueling the fires of later abolitionism. Nash, good scholar that he is, knows that his main job is to see that textbook writers tell the complete story of reform movements and “the long struggle for racial equality and social justice” (4). Accolades are due him for this latest effort.

Mifflin’s life is one of faithfulness to Quaker testimonies, even though he was born into a large slave-owning family on the eastern shore of Virginia in 1745. Moving to a plantation in Delaware, Mifflin freed all twenty-two of his own slaves, convinced his father to free his, and made arrangement for the education of the young African Americans and employment of the adults. It was telling that in September 1774, just prior to Mifflin’s action, Philadelphia Yearly Meeting decreed that no owner of slaves could be a member of the Society of Friends. Mifflin’s attention then turned to his non-Quaker neighbors—Anglicans, Methodists, and Presbyterians—even occasionally into Maryland and Virginia to encourage others to take the course he had pioneered. By this time, the War of Independence was hard upon the country, a reality forcing Mifflin to reject patriotic appeals to support the new nation. He found himself, after much personal struggle, divinely called to resist paying continental taxes or accepting its currency. He even embarked on missions to outlying Friends’ meetings, once to New England, to exhort them to remain faithful to Quaker teachings and avoid taking sides in the conflict.

Despite Quaker pleas to bolster neutrality, the conflict ended with American victory, but after this, Mifflin merely refocused his attention. He pushed his nearly seven-foot frame into a campaign to free slaves and promote restitution (what today we call reparations) to them and their descendants. He moved his efforts against slavery itself to Virginia and, with other Quakers, to the new US national legislature. In early 1790, Mifflin and a delegation of Quakers presented petitions against the slave trade to committees of both the Senate and the House of Representatives. And despite facing the vocal opprobrium of southern politicians, he lobbied representatives to oppose slavery and the slave trade in the hallways of Congress and their living quarters, even inviting them to dine to debate the issues and keep avenues open. Still, southern representatives labeled him a “fanatic,” charging that he was not “content with keeping his own conscience” but wanted “to become the keeper of the consciences of other men” (184). Up to almost the moment of his death from yellow fever, Mifflin was writing President John Adams and lobbying national and state legislatures to find a way to gain freedom for enslaved people.

After his funeral, attended by many freed black people, Mifflin’s descendants did not carry on his efforts. Nash’s last thirty-page chapter details their failings, and despite its title, “Mifflin’s Long Shadow,” readers will get the impression that these details add so little to the story that they could have been ignored. Likewise, Nash chose a topical rather than a chronological approach, meaning that he segments his subject’s life into what amounts to broken pieces so the reader has to work to integrate the story.

Such shortcomings, however tiring, do not detract from what is a valuable addition to the literature of religious abolition rooted in Quaker testimonies. Mifflin’s outreach to others, expanding his influence beyond Friends, led St. John de Crèvecoeur to style him “the good Quaker” who embodied Enlightenment principles (247). He clearly strengthened the reach of revolutionary abolitionism into the future. To Nash’s credit and his readers’ benefit (not to mention historiography’s advantage), his accomplishment in this fine study will be an enduring one. Textbook authors had better get their revisions ready.

About the Reviewer(s): 

H. Larry Ingle is Professor Emeritus at the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga.

Date of Review: 
January 18, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Gary B. Nash is distinguished research professor of history at the University of California, Los Angeles. He is author of numerous books, including The Urban Crucible: Social Change, Political Consciousness, and the Origins of the American Revolution, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in History. His book First City: Philadelphia and the Forging of Historical Memory is also available from the University of Pennsylvania Press.


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