Warner Mifflin, Unflinching Quaker Abolitionist (review)

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Warner Mifflin, Unflinching Quaker Abolitionist
Written by Gary B. Nash
Reviewed by Emily M. Teipe

In Warner Mifflin, Unflinching Quaker Abolitionist, Professor Gary B. Nash brings to life a long-neglected leader of the Quaker abolitionist movement. Although largely unknown to historians and scholars, Mifflin was known and admired by his contemporaries – including such prominent figures as Washington, Adams, Franklin, and Jefferson – who saw in him a tireless and premiere legislative lobbyist who worked at the local, state, and federal levels for the emancipation of slaves and the abolition of slavery.

As one of the first lobbyists in the U.S., he developed a strategy for influencing political leaders. A persistent, zealous, dedicated abolitionist, Mifflin reached out to those in power and should be remembered as the first to propose on the national stage that slaves must be emancipated and that they deserved financial compensation for their labor. An active Quaker Minister and Delaware slaveholder, Mifflin freed his own slaves between 1774 and 1775, made restitution to them, and then began the long trek toward abolishing slavery. He campaigned relentlessly within Friends’ meetings and without, traveling throughout New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, and beyond, urging and pleading with slave-holders wherever he found them to free their slaves without delay.

Warner Mifflin held a dual reputation. Some saw him as a champion for the abolitionist cause, “an unapologetic, able, determined, and fearless figure, willing to wage war against the evil of slavery” (p. 94). Others viewed him as an object of ridicule. He was reviled by his opponents (some within his own social circle, as well as southern slave holders and political enemies), who referred to him as a dangerous Quaker and the “embodiment of hypocrisy, smug moralism, and officiousness” (p. 171).

Professor Nash provides a view of the American Revolution like none other. Even as the war was raging, Warner Mifflin ventured through military ranks and battlefields preaching and pressuring the opposition to end slavery.

The author makes a compelling case for the significance of Warner Mifflin as an abolitionist leader whose work spanned the first and second generation of Quaker antislavery activists and for Mifflin’s original proposal that “restitution” or reparations be made to the emancipated (p. 101). Nash ferreted out a staggering amount of material documenting Mifflin’s life and career: government documents, minutes and records of numerous Friends’ meetings, as well as Quaker correspondence, family records, and personal journals, and has used these to carve out a rich biography of a complex, dedicated, flawed, and driven man.

Warner Mifflin, Unflinching Quaker Abolitionist is a major contribution to the history of both the antislavery movement and the role of Quaker abolitionists, but it is especially valuable for vivifying Warner Mifflin back into the historical light of the Quaker ministry and abolitionism – movements he molded and energized. It is safe to say that without this study, this notable leader might otherwise have remained a cipher.

This book was published in 2017 as one volume in the series Early American Studies by University of Pennsylvania Press. ~~~

Emily M. Teipe, professor of History and Women’s Studies at Fullerton College, is a member of the Whitleaf Meeting in Whittier, California (PYM).