He sounds like a fascinating nonfiction character—too quirky to be true—but radical Quaker dwarf Benjamin Lay truly lived, and historian Marcus Rediker has brought his virtually unknown story to life in The Fearless Benjamin Lay: The Quaker Dwarf Who Became the First Revolutionary Abolitionist. Mocked as “the little hunchback” and written off by his contemporaries as “cracked in the head,” Benjamin Lay was uncompromising in his stance against slavery, and wholly committed himself to convince his fellow Quakers to denounce and abolish it. In many ways, he was prescient and ultra-modern for his time, the eighteenth century. Lay’s worldview was an astonishing combination of Quakerism, vegetarianism, animal rights, opposition to the death penalty, and abolitionism. Until his death in 1759, he lived a life of resistance.
Rediker has done us an incredible service by moving Lay from a minor figure to his long-deserved place in the larger drama of American history. It’s high time we got to know Lay better! Here are some remarkable facts about this man who, according to Rediker, “embodies a higher set of American ideals and is a more suitable hero for a society that values democracy, diversity, and equality.”
Fact 1: Benjamin Lay was born a dwarf in 1682, growing to be a little over four feet tall, with an over-curvature of the thoracic vertebrae. By some definition “disabled,” he never saw himself impaired or diminished in any way. In fact, his life as a dwarf was key to his empathy with enslaved Blacks, the poor, with animals, and with all the natural world.
Fact 2: Benjamin Lay wasn’t formally educated or “enlightened,” which could account for the fact that he’s been neglected in abolitionist history. He was self-educated. The men of his era who were educated and literate were often the ones who supported slavery or owned slaves, such as Thomas Jefferson. This is exactly what Benjamin Lay rallied against.
Fact 3: Benjamin Lay worked several trades, including shepherd, sailor, glover, petty merchant, and commoner. His ideas about abolitionism stem from his background of an ordinary working man. The history of antislavery has been largely associated with such “Enlightened” elites such as Voltaire.
Fact 4: From 1718 to 1720, Benjamin Lay saw firsthand the atrocities of slavery during his experience in Barbados, where he developed personal relationships with the enslaved. He would see the same atrocities in Pennsylvania.
Fact 5: Benjamin Lay drank only water and milk and embraced vegetarianism, subsisting largely on fruits and nuts.
Fact 6: Benjamin Lay was married to Sarah Smith, also a little person, who shared his strong social justice beliefs.
Fact 7: Benjamin Lay’s record of troublemaking in Quaker communities was highlighted by dramatic displays of guerrilla theater. During a Quaker meeting in 1738, he stood up, stabbed a hidden animal bladder filled with pokeberry juice with a sword, and splattered the “blood” over the heads and bodies of congregants who kept slaves. “Thus shall God shed the blood of those persons who enslave their fellow creatures,” he thundered.
Fact 8: Benjamin Lay lived in a cave where he kept two hundred books, cultivated his own food, and made his own clothes. As Rediker writes in the book, “He lived the principles that today animate a global movement against sweatshops, whose logo-adorned clothing and shoes disguise the horrific conditions under which workers produce them. By boycotting slave-produced commodities, Lay pioneered the politics of consumption and initiated a tactic that would become central to the ultimate success of abolition in the nineteenth century.”
Fact 9: Benjamin Lay wrote a book demanding the complete abolition of slavery, All Slave-Keepers That Keep the Innocent in Bondage, Apostates. Part autobiography and part prophetic Biblical polemic against slavery, the book was published in 1738 by his friend and printer Benjamin Franklin. This book is a founding text of Atlantic antislavery.
About Marcus Rediker
Marcus Rediker is Distinguished Professor of Atlantic History at the University of Pittsburgh and Senior Research Fellow at the Collège d’études mondiales in Paris. His books have won numerous awards and been translated into fourteen languages. They include The Many-Headed Hydra (Beacon Press, 2000; with Peter Linebaugh), Villains of All Nations (Beacon Press, 2004), The Slave Ship (2007), The Amistad Rebellion (2012), and Outlaws of the Atlantic (Beacon Press, 2015). Rediker is also the producer of the prize-winning documentary film Ghosts of Amistad: In the Footsteps of the Rebels (Tony Buba, director), about the popular memory of the 1839 Amistad rebellion in contemporary Sierra Leone. He lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Visit his website.