Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Benezet, Anthony

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BENEZET, ANTHONY (1713–1784), philanthropist and social reformer, was descended from an old and wealthy French family, and was born at St. Quentin, France, 31 Jan. 1713–4. His father lost his property on account of his protestant opinions, and came to London, where he obtained some success in business. The son was placed in a mercantile house, but, objecting from conscientious scruples to engage in commerce, he chose a mechanical trade instead, and became apprentice to a cooper. Some time after his arrival in London along with his father he joined the Society of Friends. In 1731 the family emigrated to America and settled in Philadelphia, Anthony obtaining an engagement as teacher at Germantown, and also employment as a proof reader. This situation he exchanged in 1742 for that of English master in the Friends' school at Philadelphia founded by William Penn, and in 1756 he established a school of his own for the instruction of females. As in training the young he laid the principal stress on personal influence and kindness, so in his capacity of social reformer it was his aim to make these supreme in all the relationships of life. In 1750 he began to interest himself in the negro slaves of America, and established an evening school for slaves in Philadelphia, taught by himself with great success, besides contributing numerous articles to almanacs and newspapers on the evils and unlawfulness of slavery, he published in 1762 'An Account of that Part of Africa inhabited by the Negroes;' in 1767 'A Caution and Warning to Great Britain and her Colonies on the calamitous State of the enslaved Negroes;' and in 1771 'Some Account of Guinea, with an Enquiry into the Slave Trade.' These pamphlets were printed at his own expense, and circulated among persons of influence. Although they produced almost no immediate impression on the public mind, yet as it was through their perusal that Clarkson was successful in gaining the prize at Oxford for a Latin dissertation on slavery, and was led to take an interest in the abolition of the slave trade, their connection with the final result can, in part at least, be clearly traced. In harmony with his efforts on behalf of the negroes, Benezet was a strenuous defender of the rights of the aboriginal races in America. In 1766 he took an active part in founding the 'Friendly Association for Regaining and Preserving Peace with the Indians by Pacific Measures,' and in 1784 he published 'Some Observations on the Situation, Disposition, and Character of the Indian Natives of the Continent.' As was to be expected from his quaker principles, he also made use of his pen to advocate the total abolition of war. On this subject he addressed a letter to King Frederick of Prussia, and in 1776 he published 'Thoughts on War,' which was followed in 1778 by 'Serious Reflections on the Times.' In 1780 he published in English and French 'A Short Account of the Religious Society of the Quakers,' giving the best succinct view of the principles as well as the discipline and economy of the society that had then appeared; and in 1782 he expounded some of the leading principles of the society in a small work on the 'Plainness and Innocent Simplicity of the Christian Religion.'

Benezet was a zealous advocate of temperance, and in 1778 published a small pamphlet against the use of spirituous liquors. Towards the close of his life he resolved, on account of his compassionate sentiments towards the lower creation, to discontinue the use of animal food. His private habits were remarkably simple, and his life was spent in the constant practice of charity and wise generosity. He died 3 May 1784.

[Rush's Essays (1798), 311–4; American Museum, ix. 192–4; Vaux's Memoirs of Anthony Benezet (1817); Allen's American Biographical Dictionary, 83–4.]

T. F. H.