"At the Cost of Truth": Hannah Lawrence Schieffelin and the Gradual Abolition Debate

Born in 1758 to a wealthy Quaker family in New York City, Hannah Lawrence Schieffelin was the daughter of the prominent merchant, John Lawrence. Yet, she hardly acted the role society expected of her: the supposed, meek, domestic eighteenth-century housewife was not the paragon she fit. Instead, Schieffelin sat at the center of the New York City Revolutionary literary scene – a poet, an ardent, loud patriot, and widely known socialite. Unlike the Quaker women who were central in Revolutionary literary Philadelphia, Schieffelin’s poetry has gone understudied. Over the past decade, Schieffelin’s peers, such as Hannah Griffitts and Milcah Martha Moore, have appeared in American literature anthologies, and even then, it is with the caveat that their voices were unique for the time.

These presumptions are untrue. Recent scholarship has shown the extent to which women used their poetry to speak widely and freely about the cultural and political agendas that dominated their lives. Schieffelin was one of these women as she wrote fervently about religion, British military presence in the colonies, and national legacy.

This digital project is not meant to be an edited collection of her poetry. Rather, it will explore a moment in her life when she participated in a poetic debate on gradual abolition. In this debate, Schieffelin enacts how early Americans, especially Quakers, grappled with the notion of nation building considering the human atrocities inherent in slavery. This project’s purpose is to introduce Schieffelin, the debate at hand, and how she is forced to reconsider how historical legacies are built.

Visitors to this exhibit will find a short biography, images of Schieffelin’s original poetry, and a timeline that details her participation in the debate. All navigation is accessible in the tabs to the right of the page.


Kaitlin Tonti, Ph.D.