illustrated outline of a person's head with a red thumbprint on the forehead with an outline of the devil behind

The Devil and Tom Walker

by Washington Irving
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In "The Devil and Tom Walker," how does Tom's refusal to become a slave trader reflect the social and moral beliefs of Washington Irving and the religious people of the time period?

Tom's refusal to turn into a slave trader reflects Washington Irving's view that slavery is an immoral institution. Tom's horror at the slave trade reflected the views of abolitionist groups such as the Quakers and the Methodists, among others, that slavery was an intolerably evil institution that must be abolished. These groups believed slavery to be both a social and a moral evil.

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The introduction to the Gutenberg on line edition of this story states that for Washington Irving, the true devil was not a supernatural being but slave traders and witch persecutors. Therefore, Tom's refusal to fit out a slave ship and become a slave trader reflects Irving's abhorrence of the slave trade. Tom may be corruptible, but slavery, "the black traffic," as it is called in the story, is beyond the pale of even a very bad man who has sold his soul to the devil:

This, however, Tom resolutely refused: he was bad enough in all conscience; but the devil himself could not tempt him to turn slave-trader.

In the story, we also learn that the "black man," the devil, persecutes the religious groups that fought slavery, such as Quakers.

Tom's horror at the slave trade reflected the view of abolitionist groups such as the Quakers, certain Methodists, and the Transcendentalists, among others, that slavery was an intolerably evil institution that must be abolished. These groups, on the whole, believed slavery to be both a social and a moral evil. Quaker John Woolman, for example, worked tirelessly to eradicate slave-owning among Quakers (some did own slaves in the eighteenth century—at least until Woolman persuaded them otherwise). Woolman, like others, based this stand both on how slavery created a sick society of overly pampered whites and overly abused blacks, as well as basing his stand on the violation of the Christian command that one should love one's neighbor as oneself.

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In his dealings with "Old Scratch," Tom Walker refuses to outfit a slave ship as originally requested by the Devil: "Tom resolutely refused: he was bad enough in all conscience, but the Devil himself could not tempt him to turn slave-trader." Despite being one of the home ports for slave-trading vessels in 18th century America and the first colony to recognize slavery as a legal institution, Massachusetts—especially Boston—contained a population which gradually came to view slavery with distaste.

As early as 1701, pamphlets condemning slavery appeared in New England, usually penned by Puritans who hoped to refute earlier justifications for slavery based on religious tenets. Religious arguments tended to be used both for and against slavery. Massachusetts was also the first state to ban slavery in 1783. While arguments often contained religious concerns, there were also economic and secular reasons for the condemnation of slavery. Both Benjamin Franklin and the economist Adam Smith looked at slavery as an outmoded source of labor in a free market system. Moreover, the United States Constitution seemed to champion equality, which was another argument against slavery (notwithstanding the compromise which made each slave only count as two-thirds of a person).

One of Washington Irving's biographers claims the author was never an "outspoken abolitionist," yet it seems that having as loathsome a character as Tom Walker refuse to dabble in the selling of human beings is an explicit denouncement of the institution. On the other hand, it might also be argued that since Tom really was a detestable character, his choice of usury instead of slavery marks the former trade as far worse. Indeed, in 18th-century America, usury would have been frowned upon by both religious and secular groups, while slavery was often viewed as necessary to the economic well-being of the colonies.

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