There is a fascinating scene from colonial times to put in your mind’s eye the next time you are headed toward Greenbackville, Va. That pretty little waterfront town sits just below the Maryland border. Getting there involves traveling along State Line Road, where you’ll pass Captain’s Cove, a big modern housing development with a golf course, a marina, and lots of other amenities.
In the mid-1700s, this was the site of a plantation called Pharsalia. Named for an epic poem from Roman times, the plantation produced various cereals and fruits, along with flax and livestock.
The scene you want to think about here unfolded in about 1759. A crew of farmhands is toiling in a field. Two young men stand together, engaged in the sort of serious conversation that teenagers have sometimes when they go back and forth about the big picture of life. One of the young men is mostly listening—he is white, about 14 years old, and the son of Pharsalia’s master. The young man doing the talking is black and legally owned by that same master.
Many decades later, the white teen would recall this conversation as the start of a life-changing journey. The black teen “questioned me whether I thought it could be right that [blacks in slavery] should be toiling to raise me, so that I might be sent to school, and that by and by their children must do the same for mine.”
In that moment, the white teen was annoyed by the question. He brushed it aside as a dumb hypothetical that had nothing to do with the real world. But in the days, months, and years that followed, the question posed by the young black man proved difficult to dismiss so easily. It lodged in the white man’s heart like a seed, patiently waiting to sprout and, then, perhaps, flower:
“His reasonings so impressed me as never to be erased from my mind.”
Two things made Pharsalia an unusual place for its time. First, more than 100 blacks lived in slavery there. Plantations that size were the exception, not the rule, on the Delmarva Peninsula. Most slave-holding farms here were smaller, family-run affairs, with the enslaved work force numbering between a handful and a dozen.
Second, Pharsalia’s master was a Quaker. By this point, Virginians had spent the better part of a century working to drive every last member of that “radical,” “troublesome” sect out of their Anglican-ruled colony. They taxed, fined, and arrested Quakers. They outlawed their religious services, too. Most Quakers on Virginia’s Eastern Shore gave up and moved north, into Maryland. Historian Kirk Mariner says the last known public act of Quaker worship below that border was a wedding held at Pharsalia in 1753, six years before our two teenagers had their conversation in the field.
At this point, Quakers had not yet become full-fledged antislavery activists. Many, including the master of Pharsalia, Daniel Mifflin owned slaves. Very few Friends were losing sleep at this early date over the morality of human bondage.
That white boy in the field was Daniel’s eldest son, Warner. The seed that lodged in his heart that day took a long time to germinate. Oh, he vowed to himself soon after that conversation “never to be a slaveholder,” but it was an immature teenage sort of vow, soon overpowered by the realities of life in slavery times.
“Thus situated [on a plantation], I was in great danger of becoming blinded by the influence of Custom, the bias of Education, and the delusions of self-interest; from whence I [became] fettered as in the Chains of wrong habits.”
In his early 20s Mifflin married Elizabeth Johns of Cecil County, Md. Her family had property in Kent County, Del., and the newlyweds settled on Chestnut Grove, a farm just south of Dover, near Camden. Elizabeth’s family gave some slaves to the couple as a wedding gift. Mifflin’s father sent some congratulatory slaves up from Pharsalia as well.
There are hints in the historical record that Mifflin wasn’t the most devout of Quakers during this period. He took on a couple of public posts in his community—justice of the peace, for instance—that were frowned upon by most Friends. Those posts involved lots of appointments and socializing in Warner’s home, which is why he “kept the bottle [of alcohol] and the [drinking] bowl on the table from morning till night.”
Not exactly standard Quaker procedure, which is how the Quaker historian Henry W. Wilbur came to sum up the state of young Warner Mifflin’s soul this way:
“While a birthright member of the Society of Friends, it would seem that as a young man he did not very greatly value the good order of the Society.”
In time, Mifflin moved back into the fold. He became a regular at the Murderkill (or sometimes Motherkiln) Friends Meeting House in Magnolia. Perhaps the simple passing of years revived his faith, the responsibilities of adulthood and family piling up. Perhaps he returned to meetings in search of solace from the struggles he endured. Elizabeth died nine years into their marriage. Mifflin remarried, to Anne Emlen. He had 12 children between his two wives. Six of those children died before the age of four.
By the early 1770s, the larger Quaker group that oversaw activities at Murderkill—it was called the Duck Creek Friends Meeting—began giving leadership responsibilities to Mifflin. He was chosen several times to represent Duck Creek at “quarterly meetings” with other meeting houses in the area. In 1774, he was chosen by that quarterly gathering as its representative at an even bigger “annual meeting” in Philadelphia.
By Quaker standards, this seems to have been quite a notable honor. Fifteen years have passed by this point since Mifflin had that conversation in the field at Pharsalia. On the eve of the Revolutionary War, Quakers were really starting to dip their toes into antislavery waters. They had decided that the acts of buying and selling of human beings were wrong, but they hadn’t pulled the trigger yet on the notion that simply owning slaves was morally objectionable.
That began to change—and quickly—with that September 1774 annual meeting, which is quite a celebrated affair in the history of American abolitionism. Alas, Mifflin was unable to attend. Shortly before the session he fell victim to what at the time was called “bilious fever.” It might have been malaria, viral hepatitis, or sepsis. Whatever it was, the illness put him through eight dreadful, sweat-soaked days. One of his daughters fell ill, too. Both recovered, albeit slowly. In the midst of this, his wife gave birth, but prematurely.
Resigning himself to “the will of Him that knows what is best for us,” an exhausted Mifflin stayed home with his family and missed out on the session where the Quakers at last made a headfirst dive into those abolitionist waters, coming out against the whole shebang of slavery, no more nitpicking involved.
Later in life Mifflin would come to regard those days he spent bedridden with bilious fever as another turning point in his life. It was while tossing and turning in agony that fully confronted—at long last—the provocative question that black teenager had posed to him back at Pharsalia. He compared the fever to a thunderstorm in his heart.
“He who hath his way in the clouds, in the whirlwind, the earthquake, and thick darkness, was pleased to arouse me to greater vigilance by his terrors for sin. I could get no rest or peace of mind, day or night. Every flash [of lightning] appeared as though it might be the instrument to dispatch me into a state of fixedness.”
Mifflin emerged from that fever convinced that his soul might end up “excluded from happiness if I continued in this breach of the Divine law, written upon my heart as by the finger of Heaven.” His modern-day biographer, Gary B. Nash, adds a point here that is worth pausing a moment to think about:
“It was not the last time [Mifflin] would confess that the spring of action was as much to save his own soul as the lives of the enslaved.”
The next month, October 1774, Mifflin freed the three slaves who had come into his marriage by way of his wife’s family, along with the two children belonging to one of those slaves. Three months after that, he finished the personal business at hand, freeing everyone else under his legal control.
“I Warner Mifflin … fully persuaded in my conscience that it is a sin of a deep dye to make slaves of my fellow creatures, or to continue them in slavery, and believing it to be impossible to obtain the peace my soul desires while my hands are found full of injustices, as by unjustly detaining in bondage, those that have as just and equitable rights to their freedom and [the] liberty of their persons as myself … I declare all the Negroes I have hereafter named absolutely free, them and their posterity forever.”
Quakers of that time were renowned for being sharp and honest businessmen, so it’s not surprising that Mifflin applied that expertise to his actions here. He estimated the monetary value of a year’s slave labor at 270 pounds, then paid many of his former slaves for their years of labor, with 7 percent interest tacked on. In one case, of a man with nine years of service, Mifflin handed over 2,295 pounds to pay for those years of “unrequited toil.”
Freeing his own slaves was just the beginning of Warner Mifflin’s fight to advance the cause of freedom. His first stop armed with a newfound missionary zeal was at his father’s house back in Virginia. Daniel Mifflin soon manumitted 98 slaves from bondage, declaring himself “convinced of the iniquity and injustice of detaining my fellow Creatures in bondage.” He was the first slave owner on Virginia’s Eastern Shore to take that legal step, though he had to file the papers involved in Delaware because it was actually illegal at that point for owners in Virginia to free their slaves.
This law became Warner Mifflin’s next target. In 1782, he spent more than two weeks in the state capital of Richmond lobbying with a group of other Quaker leaders to have that law changed. The campaign succeeded. By the end of that year, slaveowners in Accomack County alone had filed paperwork freeing 136 blacks from bondage. That number would climb into the thousands in the years that followed.
Back home in Delaware, Mifflin’s constant cajoling of his neighbors played a role in transforming the legal status of the black population of Kent County. By 1800, nearly three in four black residents of the county were legally free. Also in this period, Delaware prohibited the importation of slaves from out of state and required any slave owner who wanted to sell his “property” to an out-of-state owner to seek approval from a panel of three judges. Mifflin helped push those changes through, too.
In the 1790s, Mifflin turned his attention to the federal government, leading a lobbying effort to convince senators and representatives to take action against slavery. Those efforts did not bear any immediate fruit, but they did mark the first time that senators and representatives argued in public sessions over what role, if any, slavery should play in the United States.
There is a sad irony about the way Warner Mifflin died, but it comes with an added bit of heroism as well. Do you remember how his bout with bilious fever caused him to miss that historic “annual meeting” of Quakers in 1774? Well, he got to attend the 1798 version of that meeting, only to find himself in the midst of a wicked yellow fever outbreak in Philadelphia. He caught a fatal dose of that fever while ministering to the sick.
Here is how the Quaker historian Henry Wilbur summed up Mifflin’s life:
“It is probably not too much to say that next to John Woolman, Warner Mifflin did more than any other man … to clear the Society of Friends from complicity with chattel slavery. … There is a bravery about a man like Warner Mifflin which puts to blush the brutal bravery of battles, and baptizes the individual spirit with a constancy and consistency that might become contagious in our time for the good of all time.”
–written by Jim Duffy for Secrets of the Eastern Shore/Whimbrel Creations in 2020. All rights reserved. Research by Makena Duffy.
NOTE #1: Warner Mifflin did plenty in life to earn our admiration. But I wish he had done one more thing, which is to record the name of the young black man whose question helped to spark his transformation in life. And maybe also to tell us what became of that young black man? Was he freed by Mifflin’s father? If so, did he prosper later in life? Alas, no one knows the answer to these questions.
- NOTE #2: The sort of conversation that unfolded in the field at Pharsalia may not have been as unusual as we might assume. By accident, while engaged with this research, I came across a magazine article that mentioned how a young Frederick Douglass, while still enslaved and living in Baltimore, had a number of conversations with young white boys along these lines. In one of his autobiographies, Douglass writes that all of these conversations turned out similar to the way it went for Mifflin. He did not “remember [meeting a single white] boy…who defended the slave system; but I have often had boys to console me, with the hope that something would yet occur, by which I might be made free. Over and over again, they have told me, that they believed I had as good a right to be free as they had….”
- NOTE #3: If you are traveling in central Delaware, there is a historic marker that honors Warner Mifflin in the Quaker graveyard where he is buried. It stands within the town limits of Magnolia, along State Street a little south of Quaker Hill Road. Nothing remains of the Murderkill Meeting House that once stood near here, but the graveyard remains well kept.