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People & Events
Samuel Sewall speaks out
1700

Resource Bank Contents



The year is 1697. The place, Boston's Old South Church. Samuel Sewall stands silently as his statement admitting guilt is read aloud to the audience. The statement is an apology for his role as one of the three judges in the Salem witch trials, where nineteen people were wrongly accused of witchcraft and put to death. Sewall will be the only judge to admit his error.

Samuel Sewall would undoubtedly be pleased to know that, in the end, he would be best remembered not for his participation in the trials, but for his writings, which include his "Diary," as well as a pamphlet criticizing slavery called The Selling of Joseph.

The Selling of Joseph was published in 1700, around the time that Sewall, then a justice of the Superior Court, had an altercation with John Saffin, a landowner, merchant, and sometimes judge. Saffin had in bondage a black man named Adam. In 1694 Saffin promised to set Adam free in seven years, as long as he worked hard and was obedient. According to Saffin, though, Adam was disrespectful and difficult to manage. By 1700, Adam was demanding freedom and went to Judge Sewall. Sewall sided with Adam, and a long battle between Sewall and Saffin ensued. The battle resulted, several years later, in Adam's release.

Sewall's anti-slavery pamphlet stated, "It is most certain that all men, as they are the sons of Adam, are co-heirs, and have equal right unto liberty, and all other outward comforts of life."

Despite Sewall's compassionate views toward blacks, he was not as [radical] as later abolitionists. He believed that slaves "can seldom use their freedom well," and also saw the black population as a threat to the purity of Puritan culture. He also believed that slaves already in the country should remain as slaves. Sewall's solution to the slavery problem was to stop the importation of slaves.

Ultimately, Samuel Sewall got New Englanders thinking more critically about slavery. He, along with other similar-thinkers of the time, laid the foundation for later social reform.




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The Selling of Joseph





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