Salon is running an excerpt from Marcus Rediker‘s new book The Fearless Benjamin Lay: The Quaker Dwarf Who Became the First Revolutionary Abolitionist. Here is a taste:
Lay is little known among historians. He appears occasionally in histories of abolition, usually as a minor, colorful figure of suspect sanity. By the nineteenth century he was regarded as “diseased” in his intellect and later as “cracked in the head.” To a large extent this image has persisted in modern histories. Indeed David Brion Davis, a leading historian of abolitionism, condescendingly called Lay a mentally deranged, obsessive “little hunchback.” Lay gets better treatment by amateur Quaker historians, who include him in their pantheon of antislavery saints, and by the many excellent professional historians of Quakerism. He is almost totally unknown to the general public.
Lay was better known among abolitionists than among their later historians. The French revolutionary Jacques Pierre Brissot de Warville gathered stories about him almost three decades after his death, during a visit to the United States in 1788. Brissot wrote that Lay was “simple in his dress and animated in his speech; he was all on fire when he spoke on slavery.” In this respect Lay anticipated by a century the abolitionist leader William Lloyd Garrison, who was also “all on fire” about human bondage. When Thomas Clarkson penned the history of the movement that abolished the slave trade in Britain, in 1808, a moment of triumph for that country, he credited Lay, who had “awakened the attention of many to the cause.” Lay possessed “strong understanding and great integrity,” but was “singular” and “eccentric.” He had, in Clarkson’s view, been “unhinged” by cruelties he observed in Barbados between 1718 and 1720. When Clarkson drew his famous graphic genealogy of the movement, a riverine map of abolition, he named a significant tributary “Benjamin Lay.” On the other side of the Atlantic, in the 1830s and 1840s, more than seventy years after Lay’s death, the American abolitionists Benjamin Lundy and Lydia Maria Child rediscovered him, republished his biography, reprinted an engraving of him, and renewed his memory within the movement.
Lay is not the usual elite subject of biography. He came from a humble background and was poor most of his life, by occupation and by choice. He lived, he explained, by “the Labour of my Hands.” He was also considered a philosopher in his own day, much like the ancient Greek Diogenes, the former slave known for speaking truth to power. (He refused Greek nationality and insisted that he was, rather, “a citizen of the world.”) Lay lived a mobile, far-flung life, in England, Barbados, Pennsylvania, and on the high seas in-between, all of which shaped his cosmopolitan thinking. Unlike most poor people, he left an unmediated record of his ideas, most significantly in his own book, “All Slave-Keepers That Keep the Innocent in Bondage, Apostates,” a rich and remarkable body of evidence by any measure.
Read the entire excerpt here.