Q&A: The First Revolutionary Abolitionist

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Benjamin Lay painted by William Williams in 1790

Marcus Rediker is the author of the new book, The Fearless Benjamin Lay: The Quaker Dwarf Who Became the First Revolutionary Abolitionist. Investigative journalist and filmmaker Lindsay Beyerstein spoke with him about it.

Lindsay Beyerstein: Who was Benjamin Lay?

Marcus Rediker: Benjamin Lay was a very important, although almost completely unknown, abolitionist, a man who took an extremely militant stand against slavery two generations before an anti-slavery movement developed. But he was actually much more than an abolitionist. He was also a person who decided to live outside the burgeoning capitalist economy. He made his own clothes, he grew his own food, he was a vegetarian, he was a pioneer regarding animal rights, just an altogether extraordinary person. He was doing all these things 250 years ago.

How did Lay come to his anti-slavery activism?

It was essentially a three-part process. First, there is Lay's commitment to Quakerism and its spiritual egalitarianism, that all people are equal in the eyes of God.

Secondly, he went to sea. He worked as a sailor for about a dozen years. He was very cosmopolitan. He had seen slavery in various parts of the world, and he felt that because he was so worldly, this gave him a certain position from which to oppose slavery. While at sea, he developed a strong attachment to the sailor’s ethic of solidarity. Sailors put their lives in each other's hands, and that occupation was known for a very strong collective consciousness, so Lay developed that. That was the second part of his developing abolitionism.

Then, in 1718 he went to Barbados, which was probably the leading slave society in the world, and Benjamin was absolutely horrified by what he saw.

He later wrote that in that year, 1718, he became an abolitionist. He saw people starving to death, he saw people mangled in the production of sugar, he saw ruthless punishments and executions, and he was just so deeply disturbed by this. So he made a breakthrough in terms of being an early abolitionist, and a militant and uncompromising one at that—because of the combination of Quakerism, seafaring, and his exposure to this sort of extreme slave society in Barbados.

Lay was a working man. How do you think his class position influenced his views on slavery?

A great many of the earliest critics of slavery in the 17th and 18th century came from plebeian employments. In other words, they had known very hard work, and I think this created a certain kind of empathy. That was absolutely the case with Benjamin Lay. I do believe that his class position and the kind of empathy that he had for others stuck in really difficult, deadly lines of work, was crucial to him opposing slavery.

You wrote that one could think of Lay as the last radical of the English Revolution. Can you explain what you mean by that?

Yes. During the English Revolution, there was a tremendous outpouring of religious radicalism. When the fight between Parliament and the King or between the Cromwellians and the Loyalists reached an extraordinary fever pitch in the 1640s, censorship broke down, and because of that a lot of radicals [emerged]: Levelers, Diggers, Ranters, and Seekers.

Quakers are really born in this same era, rushed into print with all sorts of radical solutions to the problems of the day. Many of these people were called antinomians. An antinomian was someone who believed that they had a direct connection to God, and that therefore they were beyond the law. No one, frankly, could tell them what to do. They knew what was right and they would do it, and this of course is a very radical idea because it means a rejection of princely authority, of church authority, and it produces a kind of power in the individuals to make fundamental decisions. This was a very important part of the upsurge of radicalism within the English Revolution.

Benjamin Lay, even though he was born in 1682, 22 years after the Restoration, became something of a throwback to this earlier era of religious radicalism. Lay was very much like those early Quakers who were quite extreme in the things that they did and the things that they believed. Benjamin was actually reaching back to them when he made his more radical critiques in the 1730s.

Antinomianism sounds inspiring, but it's also terrifying, isn't it? The idea that somebody thinks they've been inspired by God to do whatever they think is right?

It is true. This is a very dangerous idea. It implies a kind of rejection of collective judgment and law, and I think that this is something that was a real tension within Benjamin Lay and within lots of other radicals, because it can lead to extreme self-righteousness, it can lead to a refusal to have yourself judged by any collective. Now, in Lay's case, he was really a very devoted Quaker, and even though he could not himself remain within the Quaker community, he kept getting disowned (kicked out of his congregation). He was the most disowned Quaker of the 18th century, in fact. He loved the Quaker community, and I think he aspired to be an accepted member of that religious community, but he was so sure that he was right on so many different questions, that he was very, very difficult to control within a community setting.

Can you talk a bit about the tradition of street theater that Lay was part of?

In the book, I call it guerrilla theater. This is, of course, what it was called during the 1960s and 1970s when a lot of people would simply act out in the streets political tensions and political ideas. It actually goes back even further than the English Revolution.

In Lay's case, this actually goes all the way back to antiquity, when certain philosophers like Diogenes the Cynic used to perform theater in the streets as a way of doing philosophy. The Cynics would do things that would express their philosophical ideas, and their ideas, like antinomianism, were quite powerfully radical. [Diogenes lived in an abandoned wine cask and rejected property, hierarchy, and social convention. He carried a lamp by day to dramatize his search for an honest man.] The biggest thing that they were known for, and Lay continued this tradition also, was for speaking truth to power.

It's often said that we shouldn't judge historical figures by our present-day ethics. What does the presence of radical dissenters like Lay have to say about how much we can judge people who kept slaves in his era?

It has almost always been the case that when people are critical of the likes of, say, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson for having been slave owners, the defenders of those two great men will say it's not fair to use a supra-historical standard by which to judge them. They lived in different times.

Benjamin Lay creates another very important way of making a comparison. These kinds of very sharp anti-slavery ideas are not simply those which existed after the likes of Washington and Jefferson. They were espoused by their contemporaries. These anti-slavery ideas were present and were frequently part of the conversation. This presents us with a new opportunity for evaluating the choices that lots of other people made in a time when the institution of slavery was so strong.

Did Lay think that ending slavery meant ending capitalism?

No, he didn't really talk about capitalism. Capitalism as a concept didn't really exist in Lay's era, but he came to see that a market economy made possible many different types of oppression. As far as we know he was the first person to refuse to consume any item that was made with slave labor. Now, that's a pretty remarkable thing because what he's really saying is that this innocent looking commodity that you buy, like sugar or tobacco, we have to stand outside that and remember how that thing was produced, with what kind of violence, with what kind of human consequences. In a way, Lay's pacifism as a Quaker emerges here, but there's really a very deep understanding of how a modern economy actually works, the way commodities disguise their own origins. Lay's commitment to living in a way that would not exploit animals, not exploit other human beings, is what led him to live in a cave, to produce his own food, and to make his own clothes. It was essentially a withdrawal from the capitalistic economy as it existed in that moment in time.

These days we're talking again about the role of violent versus nonviolent resistance, and it's taken for granted in a lot of these discussions that the more violent position is the more radical position. What does Lay's example have to teach us about that assumption?

Lay is an extremely radical and militant abolitionist. He was totally uncompromising, and to those people who said to him, this must be a gradual thing, this abolition, his answer was always, “It can't be gradual. It must be immediate because it's evil. It's just evil. You cannot cooperate with evil in any way. You must end it and end it now.” He was what the 19th century would call an immediatist. Now, I think of him as being similar in some ways to John Brown, who many years later will take a similar kind of militancy and apply this to a kind of theory of insurrection that is meant to bring slavery to an end. Well, Lay is a very militant abolitionist based on completely nonviolent principles, and there is, I think, a continuity of attitude and even of idea from the one to the other. What Lay shows is that it is possible to be very radical using nonviolent tactics.

Why is Lay such an interesting figure for our historical moment?

We have now a very big historical debate going on. It's going on in the streets, it's going on in publications, it's going on around dinner tables: Who deserves to be called a hero of American history? We’ve had a lot of direct action with Confederate generals, we've had armed battles over this matter in Charlottesville. I think Benjamin Lay shows that there are people, frequently unknown, who embody higher ideals and reflect some of the better possibilities for example, within American life, so that someone like Benjamin Lay, someone like Frederick Douglass, someone like Harriet Tubman. This is a real value of history from below. 

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