"This iniquitous practice": Brookeville's Slave Problem

The Society of Friends is often celebrated as one of the first groups to recognize and speak about the immorality of slavery in America. When President Madison famously arrived in the summer of 1814, Brookeville's Quakers had already freed most of their slaves, many of whom still lived in the surrounding neighborhoods. But even though most of Brookeville's residents believed owning slaves to be unethical, the town was still home to young slaves waiting to be freed and those who worked for the town's non-Quaker residents. While the Quaker families in Brookeville rejected slavery, the town that welcomed President Madison was not free of inequality. 

    Early Efforts to End Slavery

The belief that human slavery was a moral abomination gained popularity among members of the Society of Friends long before it did so elsewhere in the nation. As early as the seventeenth century, select Friends began questioning the morality of the "traffick of men-body," as members of the Germantown Monthly Meeting in Pennsylvania first condemned slavery in 1688.[1] These Friends objected to slavery as an instigator of violence and as a conspicuous display of wealth. Some Quakers even accused slave-owning Friends of laziness and hypocrisy. Quakers dissented against slavery mainly out of the conviction that all people, regardless of skin color, were equal in God’s eyes.[2] While these earliest voices were the minority among Quakers at the time, opposition to slavery on moral grounds swelled among Friends over the course of the eighteenth century.

In 1768, the Baltimore Yearly Meeting of Friends made its first serious declaration against slavery, forbidding Quakers from owning, buying, or selling slaves. By 1806, the Meeting expected Quakers to wash their hands of slavery entirely by refraining from hiring slaves, purchasing slaves in order to free them, or even settling estates that included slaves.[3] The prescribed punishment for all of these actions was disownment: removal from full membership in the Society. 

Despite the serious and unequivocal nature of the Meeting's regulations, Friends' support for ending slavery was both complicated and limited. Almost all of Brookeville's residents (and indeed the majority of Quakers) were not truly abolitionists in that they did not advocate for a nationwide ban on slavery. Instead, Brookeville's Friends are better described as antislavery activists: they ardently condemned enslavement in their own families and religious meetings, but they did not attempt to eradicate slavery in America more broadly. Many decades would pass before Quakers and other activists openly embraced abolitionist ideologies.

     Slow Progress  

Almost all of Brookeville's and Sandy Spring's most-prominent residents owned slaves, even after the Baltimore Yearly Meeting's 1768 decree against slavery. Brookeville's founder, Richard Thomas Jr., owned at least twenty-four slaves over the course of his life.[4] Gerard Brooke held seven in bondage, while Margaret Brooke kept one slave and Mary Brooke had seven. Even Thomas P. Stabler, who was very active in the Quaker meeting, owned four humans as property. In addition to these, Roger Brooke owned two slaves, Bernard Gilpin had nine, and John Thomas, once a clerk for the meeting at Indian Spring, held at least thirty.[5]

Read the names of Brookeville's slaveholders and their slaves

Friends living around Brookeville were also slower to embrace antislavery than were Quakers in other regions, particularly on Maryland's Eastern Shore.[6] The Indian Spring Monthly Meeting which oversaw Brookeville's Friends demonstrated a significant reluctance to enforce the Yearly Meeting’s rules against slave-owning. The meeting did not form its first committee designed to “visit and treat with those friends who are in the practice of keeping slaves” until 1779, fully ten years after the yearly meeting implored Quakers to free their slaves.[7] The Monthly Meeting at Indian Spring also delayed disowning slave-owners until 1781, over a decade after the Yearly Meeting decreed that slave owners should be punished.[8]

When the Indian Spring meeting did discuss disowning members for refusing to free their slaves, debate over obstinate owners sometimes lasted for months before the meeting decided upon a verdict.[9] Eventually, seventeen members including those from prominent Quaker families such as the Plummers, the Govers, and the Johns, refused to comply with the meeting's orders and lost their status as full       members.[10] Notably, even though Brookeville's residents owned slaves, none of them were ever formally sanctioned by the meeting.[11]

    Brookeville's Manumissions

Though some Quakers refused to give up their slaves, most of Brookeville's residents did support the Meeting's efforts. Some of Brookeville's Friends, most notably Isaac Briggs and Thomas Moore, never owned slaves at all. Even Brookeville's Friends who did own slaves eventually freed all of them through a legal process called "manumission." Between the Yearly Meeting's declaration against slavery in 1768 and Brookeville's founding around 1800, thirteen members submitted manumissions to the Monthly Meeting at Indian Spring.[12] One Friend, Samuel Snowden, freed eighty-four people in 1787, the largest number of slaves ever manumitted by a Maryland Quaker at one time.[13] Richard Thomas Jr. was one of the first residents of Brookeville to manumit his slaves, which he did shortly before asking to be reinstated as a full member of the meeting in 1792.[14] Thomas was not alone. All of Brookeville's Quakers willingly manumitted their slaves thereafter.[15]

Read the names of many of the slaves manumitted in Brookeville and Sandy Spring

Even these records of manumissions complicate Brookeville's relationship with slavery, however. Many of the Quakers' manumissions were late, decades after the Indian Spring meeting ceased actively pursuing slave-owners. Caleb Bentley owned two slaves named Esther and Eliza, but he did not manumit the two girls until 1815, almost fifty years after the Yearly Meeting's declaration in 1768. Around the same time, both Gerard Brooke and Samuel Thomas Sr. chose to free their remaining slaves. Bernard Gilpin, Henrietta Thomas BentleyMargaret Brooke, and Thomas P. Stabler (who made his last manumission as late as 1832), all freed their human chattel after 1800.[16]

In part, these late manumissions were a result of generational differences. While Brookeville's founders embraced antislavery, their parents' and grandparents' generations were less likely to do so. Because of this, many of Brookeville’s residents received slaves as inheritances from older relatives who resisted the changes in the meeting. Age limitations on manumissions were also responsible for Brookeville’s persistent slave population. In 1796, the General Assembly forbade Marylanders from freeing slaves who were over forty-five years old.[17] Quaker custom dictated that slaves who were under eighteen or twenty-one years old could not be freed either, reasoning that it was cruel to free slaves who were unable to work or provide for themselves. Often, Quakers instead designated a future date at which those underage slaves would be granted freedom.[18] Slave owners were still responsible for caring for elderly slaves and manumitted children until they came of age. Many of the slaves listed in Brookeville's manumissions were underage and legally the wards of their Quaker masters for decades to come.

Because of these requirements, Quaker households in Brookeville undoubtedly contained slaves. Though the young girl named Hannah that  Richard Thomas Jr. inherited from his father’s estate in 1805 had already been manumitted, Thomas Jr. was responsible for caring for the girl, who would remain a slave until she turned eighteen.[19] This was the case for most of Brookeville's masters who freed enslaved children, some of whom would not reach the age of majority until the 1830s. In addition, non-Quaker residents living in Brookeville had no moral impediment to owning slaves and likely kept them in town. For instance, Brookeville's Baptist store-keeper, Brice John Gassaway, never manumitted his two slaves, Isaac and Harry.[20]

    Additional Limitations

Brookeville's devotion to antislavery was further tempered by the residents' relationships with their remaining slaves. In some cases, the Quakers living in the town continued to treat manumitted children as slaves by using their uncompensated labor. Brookeville’s Friends also bought and sold manumitted children like eight-year old Joshua, who passed hands from Sarah Thomas to Gerard Brooke in 1806.[21] Even Caleb Bentley defied the meeting by loaning money to his Quaker neighbor Samuel Leeke, who used Bentley's funds to make a purchase which included a slave.[22]

By the 1790s the Baltimore Yearly Meeting's internal struggle with slavery appeared to be finished. Most members were clear of owning slaves and the Meeting no longer addressed the issue with as much enthusiasm.[23] Around the same time, the Indian Spring Monthly Meeting reported that “friends are careful to bear a testimony against slavery (except one instance under care),” and Indian Spring appeared to lose interest in investigating and regulating slave-holding.[24] The Meeting formed no new committees on the subject and ceased visiting and disowning members. While Brookeville's Quakers did not support the antislavery movement as enthusiastically as possible, by the 1820s most of the town's residents were no longer enmeshed in the terrible practice of human bondage. The Quakers of Sandy Spring soon turned their attention towards caring for growing population of freed slaves in and around Brookeville.

Learn more about Quakers and the large free African American population around Brookeville

Megan O'Hern, 2014

  ← Return to Explore Brookeville's Community


  1. ^ "A Minute Against Slavery, Addressed to Germantown Monthly Meeting, 1688," Quaker Heritage Press. See also Kenneth Carroll, "Maryland Quaker and Slavery," Quaker History 72, no. 1 (Spring 1983), 27. 

  2. ^ Donna McDaniel and Vanessa Julye, Fit for Freedom, Not for Friendship: Quakers, African Americans, and the Myth of Racial Justice (Philadelphia: Quaker Press, 2009), 14-15.

  3. ^ Carroll, "Maryland Quakers and Slavery," 34-5; “The Discipline of the Yearly Meeting of Friends held in Baltimore,” 1806-7 in Baltimore Yearly Meeting, Religious Society of Friends, Minutes, 1790-1850, pp. 275-6 [MSA SC 2400 SCM 549-1].

  4. ^ Thomas manumitted seventeen slaves at one time. He had also inherited seven underage slaves from his father in 1806. MONTGOMERY COUNTY COURT (Land Records) 30 April 1792, Liber E, pp. 72-3 and 74, Manumission, Richard Thomas Jr. to Negro Bet and others [MSA CE 148-5]; MONTGOMERY COUNTY REGISTER OF WILLS (Estate Record) "List of the Young Negroes belonging to the Estate of Richard Thomas deceased as divided among the representatives agreeably to the appointment in 1807," Liber L, p. 245, MdHR12,394 [MSA C1138-10, 01/17/08/009].

  5. ^ MONTGOMERY COUNTY COURT (Land Records) 9 Dec. 1794, Liber F-6, pg. 89, Manumission, Gerard Brooke to Negro Young and others [MSA CE 148-6]. Here after written as: Gerard Brooke to Negro Nace, manumission, 17 July 1815, Liber S-19, pg. 265 [MSA CE 148-19]; Margaret Brooke to Negro Flora, manumssion, 7 April 1815, Liber S-19, pg. 156 [MSA CE 148-19]; 1790 U.S. Census, Montgomery County, Maryland, p. 44, Mary Brooke; Thomas P. Stabler to Negroes Betsey and Alla, manumission, 9 Sep. 1816, Liber BS-4, pg. 553 [MSA CE 148-30]; Thomas P. Stabler to Thomas Waters, manumission, 3 March 1825, Liber T, pg. 138 [MSA CE 148-21]; Thomas P. Stabler to Philip Hamilton, manumission, 2 Jan. 1832, Liber X, pg. 568 [MSA CE 148-25]; 1810 U.S. Census, Montgomery County, Maryland, pg. 939, Roger Brooke; Bernard Gilpin to Negro Rezin, manumission, 29 July 1809, Liber O, pg. 308 [MSA CE 148-15]; Bernard Gilpin to Negro Caty and others, manumission, 30 March 1813, Liber Q, pg. 295 [MSA CE 148-17]; Bernard Gilpin to Negro Lucy and others, manumission, 21 July 1815, Liber S-19, pg. 274 [MSA CE 148-19]; John Thomas to Negro John and others and to Negro Nelly and others, manumission, 20 March 1779, Liber A, pp. 260-261 [MSA CE 148-1].

  6. ^ Friends on Maryland's Eastern Shore led the ground-breaking reforms against slavery at the Yearly Meeting in the 1760s and began manumitting their slaves much earlier than Friends living on the other side of the Chesapeake Bay. This was in part a consequence of Eastern Shore farmers’ transition away from cultivating labor-intensive tobacco toward grain, making slave labor less vital to the region’s economy. On the contrary, Friends in Montgomery County continued to grow tobacco and were therefore more reliant upon slavery. See Carroll, "Maryland Quakers and Slavery," 31.

  7. ^ Indian Spring Monthly Meeting; Minutes (Sandy Spring), 1772-1817, 06/18/1779 [MSA SC 2978 SCM 638-1].

  8. ^ Indian Spring Monthly Meeting; Minutes (Sandy Spring), 1772-1817, 06/16/1780 [MSA SC 2978 SCM 638-1].

  9. ^ Such deferment of punishment, when compared with almost immediate disownment for marrying outside of the Quaker faith or engaging in lewd behavior, places into question the degree to which Indian Spring’s Friends embraced the Society's written ideals.

  10. ^ At the Indian Spring Monthly Meeting, support for antislavery may have fallen along age lines. One committee reported on its efforts to eradicate slave-holding among Friends in 1780, noting that “a degree of hope remains for the youth… but it was sorrowful to find the like did not appear in the more advanced in years.” Friends also may have been divided by gender. Of the seventeen individuals disowned for refusing to free their slaves, thirteen were women. See Indian Spring Monthly Meeting; Minutes (Sandy Spring), 1772-1817, 03/17/1780 [MSA SC 2978 SCM 638-1].

  11. ^ It is unclear why this is so, though it is likely that most of Brookeville's Quakers residents did not accumulate their slaves until after the meeting lost interest in actively regulating slave-holding.

  12. ^ Indian Spring Monthly Meeting; Minutes (Sandy Spring), 1772-1817 [MSA SC 2978 SCM 638-1].

  13. ^ Carroll, "Maryland Quakers and Slavery," 40. See also Indian Spring Monthly Meeting; Minutes (Sandy Spring), 1772-1817, 02/16/1787 [MSA SC 2978 SCM 638-1].

  14. ^ See note 4. The meeting disowned Thomas in 1778 for affirming his support of the Colonies during the American Revolution, and action deemed to support warfare.

  15. ^ Manumissions for some residents have not yet been found. There is no record of Roger Brooke or Mary Brooke, among others, freeing their slaves. However, that could be because the slaves they owned had already been manumitted, were too old to be manumitted, or the records are missing. The lack of a manumission is not an indication of support for the slave system.

  16. ^ Caleb Bentley to Negroes Esther and Eliza, manumission, 17 July 1815, Liber S-19, pg. 265 [MSA CE 148-19]; Samuel Thomas to Negro Lloyd and others, manumission, 17 July 1815, Liber S-19, pg. 266 [MSA CE 148-19]; Henrietta Thomas to Negroes Janny and Nanny, manumission, 13 Feb. 1801, Liber I, pg. 363 [MSA CE 148-10]; Henrietta Thomas to Negro Andrew and others, manumission, 24 March 1801, Liber I, pg. 385 [MSA CE 148-10]; For citations of the manumissions of Gerard Brooke, Bernard Gilpin, Margaret Brooke, and Thomas P. Stabler, see note 5.

  17. ^ Laws of 1796, Ch. 67. Archives of Maryland Online, vol. 105, p. 249. The law of 1796 changed a law passed in 1752 which set the upper age limit for manumissions at fifty years old. See Laws of 1752, Ch. 1. Archives of Maryland Online, vol. 50, p. 76. This same law also made it illegal to manumit slaves in a will, a provision which was not changed until 1790.

  18. ^ This future date was legally binding. All future owners of those enslaved children had to free them at the date legally designated by their previous owner.

  19. ^ MONTGOMERY COUNTY REGISTER OF WILLS (Estate Record) "List of the Young Negroes belonging to the Estate of Richard Thomas deceased as divided among the representatives agreeably to the appointment in 1807," Liber L, p. 245, [MSA C1130-10, 01/17/08/009].

  20. ^ MONTGOMERY COUNTY REGISTER OF WILLS (Estate Record), 4 May 1816, Inventory of property of Brice John Gassaway,  Liber I, p. 505 [MSA C1138-11].

  21. ^ SPECIAL COLLECTIONS (Mary Farquhar Green Collection) Account book of Gerard Brooke, March 20, 1806 transaction with Sarah Thomas for Negro boy Joshua [MSA SC 566-1-98, 00/09/06/06].

  22. ^ MONTGOMERY COUNTY COURT (Land Records) 11 February 1802, Liber K, p. 135-136, Bill of Sale, Israel Leeke to Caleb Bentley and Samuel Leeke, several household items [MSA CE 148-11].

  23. ^ McDaniel and Julye, Fit for Freedom, Not for Friendship, 38; see also Baltimore Yearly Meeting, Religious Society of Friends, Minutes, 1790-1850, pg. 30 [MSA SC 2400 SCM 549-1].

  24. ^ Indian Spring Monthly Meeting; Minutes (Sandy Spring), 1772-1817, 07/20/1792 [MSA SC 2978 SCM 638-1.