Sunday, April 16, 2017

The Slave Business in Philadelphia

Phillip Seitz, Slavery in Philadelphia: A History of Resistance, Denial and Wealth (Create Space: Philadelphia, 2014).

"Your cotton smells of blood." William Lloyd Garrison in The Liberator, 1852

List of Negroes at & belonging to Whitehall, c. 1803

Friday night March 31 my neighbor, wife and I attended Phillip Seitz's talk about his recent book Slavery in Philadelphia: A History of Resistance, Denial and Wealth at Chestnut Hill Friends Meeting in Philadelphia. This is the story of the privileged Chew family of Cliveden House, the National Trust Historic Site at 6401 Germantown Ave. in Mt. Airy, and their slaves. The grounds were the site for the bloody Battle of Germantown during the Revolutionary War in 1777. Seitz was the Curator of History at Cliveden House from 2000-2011, and still lives in Mt. Airy. His book is a vignette of Philadelphia's deep connection to slavery, and in a larger sense, the role of slavery in financing the North and emerging capitalism. This is not the history we learned in school. Nor is it the romantic history generally told at colonial monuments and museums. But it should be.

Phillip Seitz

The family story begins with John Chew (1587-1668) arriving at Jamestown VA in 1623 attended by two indentured servants. John was a successful merchant seeking fortune in the New World. He became a trader, planter, and legislator in the Virginia colony. On his death, he bequeathed four slaves to his second wife Rachaell. It should be noted by this date chattel slavery (ie slaves for life) had been firmly established in the colony for Africans. Half the immigration from Europe before Independence were indentured servants, but they earned their freedom in five years typically.

There are many Samuels and Benjamins in this chronology. It is confusing.

John's third son Samuel Chew (1630-1677) settled in Maryland and served in the Assembly and the Provincial Court. In a propitious development, he met the Quaker founder George Fox in 1672 and joined the Society of Friends, and became associated with the William Penn family, future owner of Pennsylvania and the "Three Lower Counties" (DE). Samuel's will left a 600 acre plantation to his wife and first born son, as well as slaves and indentured servants. Samuel's eldest son owned 160 slaves. Samuel's sixth son Benjamin Chew (1671-1699) more modestly owned ten slaves and contracts for three indentured servants. 

Benjamin's (1671-1699) first son Samuel Chew (1693-1743) became a hard working doctor and secured the financial fortunes for future Chew generations in Philadelphia. Samuel became the legal representative to the Penn family, moved to Philadelphia in 1734, and received a grant of 3000 acres in Delaware from Penns' private reserve. He later moved to Delaware (then known as the Lower Counties) and managed his three plantations. He was the largest slaveholder in Delaware. He was still a Quaker.

Samuel's (1693-1743) first son Benjamin Chew (1722-1810) obtained a first class education at Middle Temple in London, and had a long legal career including Chief Justice of Pennsylvania in 1774. He built his elegant summer retreat Cliveden House in then suburban Germantown between 1763 and 1767. He was wealthy. He was legal counsel to the Penn family, a money lender, and landowner of nine plantations in Delaware and Maryland, and large slaveholder. Like the Penns, he left the Society of the Friends in the 1760s for the Anglican Church (Church of England). Because of his association with the British rulers, he was detained by the Continental Congress during the British occupation of Philadelphia. The Chew family were persona non grata for 20 years after the Revolutionary War, but their wealth remained intact. Benjamin's only son Benjamin Chew Jr. (1758-1844) managed the family estates in Maryland and Delaware and speculated in land with indifferent results. One successful investment was Philadelphia's earliest railroad in the 1830s connecting suburban Germantown to downtown Philadelphia. Benjamin Jr. and his son also named Benjamin (1793-1864) dissipated their fortune by the 1850s.

It was up to grandson Samuel Chew (1832-1887) to restore the family fortune and Cliveden House. He married the daughter of David S. Brown, a wealthy textile magnate in Philadelphia and New Jersey. Samuel became a manager in Brown's corporation, and later the executor of Brown's estate in 1877. This became the basis for the Chew family wealth up to the present day.

Cliveden House 1878

Seitz could recount this complicated history because the Chew family saved extensive written records from the earliest days. In 2006 the Historical Society of Pennsylvania received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (now threatened by Trump budget cuts) to catalog the voluminous Chew Family Papers, which filled 885 boxes. Seitz began mining this material, and discovered accounts of slaves who worked the Chew plantations and estate in the 18th and 19th century. This is the part of American history that has generally been omitted from history books. Just recently Washington's slaves in Philadelphia and Mt. Vernon, and Jefferson's slaves at Montecello have been acknowledged and included in the historical memorials. Chattel slavery and wage slavery built this country. These are the true founding fathers and mothers, rather than the wealthy landowners who met at Carpenters' Hall in Philadelphia in 1774. Seitz tells some of their stories.

Slaves were not passive victims. Seitz devotes one chapter to Chief Justice Benjamin Chew's (1722-1810) Whitehall Plantation, the largest in Delaware with 1000 acres and 60 slaves. He first grew tobacco, and later diversified into wheat, fodder and livestock. Seitz reprints correspondence between Benjamin Chew in Philadelphia and his overseers during the 1790s. The overseers were having trouble with recalcitrant slaves and seeking assistance from Chew. The slaves were so unruly that Benjamin Chew finally decided to sell Whitehall in 1803. He could not find a buyer willing to purchase the land with its troublesome enslaved Black people. Delaware law prohibited selling slaves out of state, and Chew could not find a buyer for his slaves in state. He finally liberated his slaves at Whitehall and sold the plantation at a loss to a neighboring farmer.

In Pennsylvania the Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery passed in 1780. It was a conservative bill. It freed a child of a slave woman at age 28, which meant slavery lingered on in Pennsylvania for decades. It also stated any slave brought into Pennsylvania and retained for more than 6 months would be freed. This complicated life for slaveholders in Philadephia like George Washington and Benjamin Chew.

Charity Castle 
Seitz tells the story of the enslaved woman Charity Castle at Cliveden House in 1814. Charity accompanied her mistress Harriet Chew, who was escaping an abusive marriage in Maryland, back to her family home at Cliveden. As the six month deadline approached, Harriet's husband made efforts to retrieve Charity from Philadelphia before she could legally claim her freedom. Charity did not want to return to slavery in Maryland. She had also been abused- probably raped- by Harriet's husband. Charity then fell on the woodpile behind Cliveden, and was badly injured and could not travel. A contentious legal battle ensued between Benjamin Chew Jr., Harriet's husband, and Philadelphia lawyer William Lewis representing Charity Castle's free black husband. William Lewis argued "accident made her a slave, accident made her free, and it seems right that she should avail herself of it." Phillip Seitz does not know how the case resolved. Sometimes the abolitionists won.

During the 19th century the Chew family gradually sold or lost their plantations and slave holdings in Delaware and Maryland. With Samuel Chew (1832-1887) they became manufacturers and capitalists in David Brown's Washington Manufacturing Company. The Philadelphia Chews no longer owned slaves; instead they owned mills that processed slave cotton with waged labor. Actually, much of Phildelphia's economy depended on the products of slavery- tobacco, wheat and cotton. In the run-up to the Civil War, the Philadelphia ruling class and many white workers defended slavery. It brought wealth and jobs to the city, even though slavery was manifestly inhuman and unstable. Once secession and the Civil War commenced, the North had to win the war to save their industries, save the republic, and subsequently emancipate the slaves.

Cliveden today

The legacy of slavery in America is exemplified by the Chew story at Cliveden House. Much of the industrial revolution and Northern wealth was financed by slave labor. How much is hotly debated by historians. The large present day wealth gap between white families and black families in the US derives from 250 years of chattel slavery and 100 years of de jure discrimination. The divisions of race and class are still with us, and still dominate US politics today. Phillip Sietz's local history of the Cliveden House in Mt. Airy is sadly contemporary.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the great review, Frank. Yes, this is at the core of American history and should be taught to all students. I hadn't really considered how close Philadelphia was to "the South," with big slave-holding plantations extremely close. In New England, we were farther away from such plantations, but still there were many slaves, and of course, the emerging industrial economy was largely based on slavery. We just celebrated the 175th anniversary of the "utopian" Northampton Association for Education and Industry with a conference; it was a center for radical abolitionists, including many free blacks and escaped slaves.