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In 1758, Deborah Franklin commissioned a portrait of Benjamin Lay as a birthday present for her husband. Painted in oil by a local artist, it showed a spry, red-faced Lay outside his cave eight miles north of Philadelphia, holding a walking stick and his favorite Thomas Tryon book, a basket of vegetables and two melons at his feet. As Marcus Rediker notes in THE FEARLESS BENJAMIN LAY: THE QUAKER DWARF WHO BECAME THE FIRST REVOLUTIONARY ABOLITIONST (Beacon Press, $26.95), the portrait gives no indication of “the cause for which Benjamin was best known, his unbending opposition to slavery.” Lay, who was thrown out of so many Quaker meetings that I lost count, was a wild and vehement person, and the author of the wild and vehement antislavery tract All Slave-Keepers That Keep the Innocent in Bondage, Apostates. Benjamin Franklin published it in 1737, though he kept his name off it.

The first Quakers arose alongside Diggers, Levelers, and other radical elements unloosed by the English Revolution, and were vocal critics of impressment, servitude, and the impoverishment that followed the loss of the commons. A hundred years later, in America, Quakers held slaves and profited from slavery, and those who didn’t were too polite to talk about it. Rediker doesn’t lean too hard on the idea that it was Lay’s own difference that made him sensitive to the plight of suffering bodies, but he does suggest that the “Quaker comet” was uniquely empathetic for his time. His activism was rooted in a belief in the spiritual equality of mankind — a notion not embraced by other white abolitionists, whose politics were, at best, tinged with paternalism.

Portrait of Benjamin Lay, by Thomas Pole © Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, England/Bridgeman Images

Why was Lay able to see the evil of slavery at a time when so few whites could? As a teenager, he was a shepherd for his brother’s flock. Then he trained as a glover, an urban trade he despised. At the age of twenty-one he became a sailor. On his crossings he acquired “a hard-edged, hard-earned cosmopolitanism” and heard stories about the Middle Passage. He and his wife, Sarah, another little person, lived for eighteen months in Barbados, where they befriended slaves and witnessed the daily reality of the practice: humans “murthered by working hard, and starving, whipping, racking, hanging, burning, scalding, roasting, and other hellish torments.” Lay was also influenced by his reading of William Dell, an antinomian and chaplain of the New Model Army; Diogenes and other Cynics; and Tryon, who believed that human violence had its roots in the abuse of animals. Accordingly, Lay consumed only fruits, vegetables, milk, and water. (His favorite dish was “turnips boiled, and afterwards roasted.”) He went so far as to refuse to purchase or use anything made with slave labor. “In his time,” Rediker writes, “Benjamin may have been the most radical person on the planet.”

Early Quakers were anarchic and theatrical in their protests. They refused to doff their hats to social superiors and burned Bibles to insist on the importance of the “inward light.” They heckled so many ministers that Oliver Cromwell had to pass a proclamation against it. Lay also employed guerrilla tactics. He stood outside a Quaker meetinghouse with his bare foot in a snowbank; when friends advised him to get inside, he replied that though they cared for his discomfort, they lacked compassion for the slaves in the fields. If a slaveholder rose to speak, he would jump up and interrupt, “There’s another Negro-master!” Once, when he was ejected from a meeting, he lay down in the mud outside so that everyone would have to walk over him afterward. He sat in an open-air market smashing teacups to protest the bondage of those who harvested the tea and produced the sugar. At a yearly meeting of Philadelphia Quakers, he hid an animal bladder filled with pokeberry juice inside a Bible and, when the moment was ripe, ran a sword through the cover. “Thus shall God shed the blood of those persons who enslave their fellow creatures,” he announced. Rediker calls him “a deeply principled and often impossible man.” We might call him difficult — not as difficult as Sonia Orwell, perhaps, but a handful nonetheless.

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