The Principles of Shipley
Thomas Shipley is the most famous abolitionist you’ve never heard of.
A white American living in Philadelphia during an age of slavery, Shipley’s lifelong devotion to freedom made him a beloved icon within the Black community. His tireless efforts helped free hundreds of Black Americans captured by slaveowners and kidnappers while his lobbying of the Pennsylvania state legislature protected thousands more. Despite his pacifist upbringing as a Quaker, Shipley did not hesitate to throw himself into carnage, whether that meant testifying against slaveowners, pursuing slavecatchers, outwitting kidnappers, or charging headlong into a vicious race riot.
One of his eulogists and fellow abolitionist friends Isaac Parrish christened him an “advisor and protector” of Black Americans, for, on every occasion of popular tumult in which the safety of the black community was under threat, Shipley could be found at his post, “fearlessly defending their rights” and using his political influence with those in authority to “throw around them the protection of the laws.”
So who was Thomas Shipley, and why did Black Americans consider him their most “sincere and active friend”?
Born in Philadelphia in 1787 and orphaned by age six, Shipley was adopted into the household of fellow Quaker Isaac Bartram, who had married Thomas’ older sister. He attended boarding school in West Chester, Pennsylvania, and throughout his youth possessed an uncommon perseverance, love of reading, and peaceful disposition. Upon leaving school he apprenticed to the hardware business, and later, he and his brother-in-law opened their own hardware store on Market Street in Philadelphia.
At age 20 Shipley joined the renowned Pennsylvania Abolition Society (PAS), a group of wealthy and middle-class Quakers set on emancipating Black Americans. Though Pennsylvania passed a gradual emancipation act in 1780, Black Americans still faced constant harassment and violence, especially in Philadelphia. The PAS worked in close conjunction with the black community, serving as free legal counsel and investigating slaveowners’ claims and the kidnappers prowling the city in search of vulnerable Black Americans.
While Shipley attended PAS meetings, took copious notes, and served on the organization’s Board of Education for Black Youth, his role as the leader of the Acting Committee made him an abolitionist legend. As what could be called the PAS’ enforcer group, the Acting Committee consisted of young white abolitionist men who met monthly to discuss problems plaguing Black life in Philadelphia. Most importantly, the Acting Committee investigated slaveowners’ claims and the activities of professional kidnappers by corroborating evidence, pursuing leads, speaking with informants, referring cases to the PAS’ roster of exceptional lawyers, and even helping accused fugitives escape. Thomas Shipley’s leadership role with the Acting Committee helped lay the foundation for what became known as the Underground Railroad.
In 1820, Shipley and the Acting Committee spearheaded Pennsylvania state legislation that increased the penalties for kidnapping free Blacks to sell down south. Six years later, Shipley traveled to the state capital of Harrisburg to lobby legislators to prevent influential Maryland slaveowners from turning Pennsylvania into a slavecatcher’s paradise. Maryland representatives feared that Pennsylvanians might not return supposed fugitives, especially because of abolitionists like Shipley and his white and Black allies.
While Pennsylvania lawmakers made concessions to Maryland in the resulting legislature, namely, by agreeing that state officials could issue removals of fugitive slaves, the combined efforts of Shipley and the Black abolitionists Richard Allen and Stephen Gloucester in Harrisburg convinced legislators to include an amendment disallowing slaveowner testimony in fugitive slave cases.
Thomas Shipley was also one of the earliest proponents of immediate, as opposed to gradual, emancipation. Abolitionist heroes like Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison espoused what contemporaries called “immediatism,” the immediate, uncompensated, and total emancipation of enslaved Black Americans. Some PAS members were wary of Douglass and Garrison, preferring to take a gradual course in eliminating the institution by petitioning influential politicians. This new wave of abolitionists, labelled radical by their enemies, viewed these conservative methods of emancipation as inferior to their method of constant and unequivocal agitation on the slavery question.
Shipley’s experiences in the PAS Acting Committee and with the Black community revealed to him a pressing need to eliminate slavery in all its forms immediately, for hardly a day went by in which he did not personally tend to the needs of an accused fugitive slave or the heartbroken family of a Black kidnapping victim.
As a founder of the American Anti-Slavery Society, Shipley was present for the organization’s first convention held in Philadelphia in December 1833. This new society, comprised of immediatists, pledged to “organize Anti-Slavery Societies, if possible, in every city, town and village in [America],” “send forth agents to lift up the voice of remonstrance, of warning, of entreaty, and of rebuke,” and “circulate, unsparingly and extensively, antislavery tracts and periodicals.” Over the next two years the AAS would send over 1,000,000 abolitionist tracts and letters across the Union, infuriating slaveowners and their northern allies.
Throughout the 1830s, Shipley and his Black and white allies in Philadelphia endured the wrath of pro-slavery forces within the city. Two major race riots erupted there in 1834 and 1835, and in both cases, white Philadelphians burned most of Black Philadelphia to the ground. In the words of one eyewitness, “law and order were laid waste, and the officers of justice looked on, some perhaps with dismay, and others with indifference.”
The 1835 riot began after a Black man from Cuba named Juan tried to kill the man who kidnapped him. News of the attempted murder soon spread across Philadelphia, giving many working class whites a pretext to attack Black Philadelphians. As vengeful whites ransacked Black Philadelphia, mercilessly beating random black men, women, and children, and setting fire to their homes, Thomas Shipley sprang into action.
Disguising himself as a rioter, he mingled with them both to get a clear sense of their next target and learn their names and faces to later report to authorities. Sure enough, the mob caught wind of a group of 60 black men holed-up in Benezet Hall, a meeting place named after the famous abolitionist Anthony Benezet. Aware of their plans and seeing them brandish their clubs, swords, shillelaghs, and pistols, Shipley broke off from the group and sprinted to the hall.
When he arrived, several Black men came out ready to fight, thinking that Shipley was the leader of the mob. As he raised his voice to the men, “the effect was electric,” according to one witness, “[because] the whole throng knew him as their friend.” Heeding his warning and trusting in Shipley, the men escaped as the mayor and police officers dispersed the mob. Later, Shipley testified against the ringleaders of the riot, many of whom were sentenced to prison.
Tragically, Thomas Shipley died a year after this riot. Thousands of Black Philadelphians passed by his house, hoping to catch one last glimpse of the man who dedicated his life to protecting them. Thousands more attended his funeral at the Arch Street meetinghouse in Philadelphia and watched as six Black pallbearers lowered his coffin into the ground.
While relatively unknown to Americans today, Thomas Shipley’s legacy informs much of our views of abolitionism in general; in this sense, all Americans already know Thomas Shipley. We already know Thomas Shipley through the Underground Railroad, a movement descended from his actions with white and Black allies. We recognize Thomas Shipley in Americans’ dedication to the immediate and total emancipation of enslaved Americans. And we already know Thomas Shipley because, in the words of the black abolitionist Robert Purvis, “the principles of Shipley” are American principles, the most important of which is the “practical recognition of natural and equal rights amongst men.” Although he did not live to see the end of slavery, Shipley’s important work forwarded the realization of the fundamental dignity and equality of all human beings.
Elliott Drago serves as the JMC’s Editorial Officer. He is a historian of American history and the author of Street Diplomacy: The Politics of Slavery and Freedom in Philadelphia, 1820-1850 (Johns-Hopkins University Press, 2022).
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