Charles L. (Charles Lemuel) Thompson.

America's misfortune; or, A practical view of slavery online

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Bible, for there are verj'^ few who do not feel its sanc-
tion in the course they are pursuing of the greatest con-
sequence, however much they may at times discard the
idea that it is a revelation from God. The fact that the
votaries of any system can plausibly argue its inno-
cence or justice from the Bible, proves nothing in its
justification ; it may be right, and there is an equal
probability that it is wrong. There are few vices, how-
ever disgusting or polluting, in the j^ractice of which
men will not resort to the Bible for shelter. The
drunkard tells us that Paul advised Timothy " to
take a little wine for his stomach's sake," while he
well knows, or ought to know, tliat the Bible declares
that "no drunkard shall inherit the kingdom of God."
The Sabbath-breaker, while pursuing his worldly busi-
ness upon the Lord's day, although unable to conceal
his sense of-^iiit^- will cite to us the passage in which
a man is authorized to '* lift his sheep from the pit."
The polygamist and the debauchee will refer us to
Abraham and Solomon, regardless of the numerous
and strong denunciations of Scripture against fornica-
tion, and the repeated instances of its punishment.
And in like manner may the thief adduce the exam-
ple of Christ, who plucked corn to appease his hunger;
and the gambler the casting of lots in the case of
Jonah, in both which cases the preservation of life
was the motive. The practice of fleeing to the Bible
for absolution from guilt, as in ancient times the fugi-
tive from justice sought safety by laying hold upon
the horns of the altar, is a most weak and dangerous

34 AMERICA'S misfortune; or,

one. It is weak, because it is attempting toliide from
that God Avhose wrath is sure to overtake the guiltj^ ;
and it is dangerous, because it perverts God's truth,
and leads to a continually increasing license in sin.

We doubt not that there are many in our country
who defend American slavery upon Scripture grounds
with comparative innocence, never having carefully
compared it with Bible slavery, and observed the
striking dissimilarity ; but it is a subject well worthy
the attention of all, and especially of every Christian.

"What was true of ancient Jewish slavery, we believe
was true of all the ancient systems, as regards freedom
from many of the abuses of our system. The Greeks
had several grades of society, the lowest of which was
the slave. Insolvent debtors and captives taken in
war were liable to this degradation. But though
serving heathen masters, their lives were in a great
measure sacred, and not trifled with by individuals
with impunity; nor were they continually suffering
painful separations. Rome, too, had numerous slaves
conquered by her arms in battle. A long line of
prisoners often followed the victorious general to the
Eternal City, " that sat upon her seven hills, and from
her throne of beauty ruled the world."

JSTot unfrequently, it is true, a violent death pre-
vented a long life of servitude in a distant province ;
but the captive had never before him the prospect of
being the victim of a system of oppression continually
sundering the strongest and tenderest ties upon earth.

The Greek and Roman slaves, whom the result of
a battle had reduced to this state, had not the humili-


ating reflections of the American slave, for it was an
adverse fate, and not merely the cupidity of a foreign
nation to which tliey owed their subjection. They
were not haunted by the thought that either they or
their ancestors were stolen from their homes, and
bound with chains never to be broken ; they fougJd^
and their enemies ivon. If we turn from ancient to
modern slavery, our system, we believe, will gain
nothing. The autocrat of Russia has slaves, numbered
by millions, whom he may compel, even to the last
man, to spend their lives in military service for his
personal aggrandizement. Their jDroperty is his prop-
erty ; their energies are his energies ; their wills his
will ; their consciences his conscience ; their lives his
lives : he thinks and they act. The Russian nobility,
too, have their millions of vassals, but of course with
less power over them. The Russian serf is, and ever
has been, a slave in his own home. He is never sold
from field to field to fill the cofiers of his owner ; he is
sold only with the land which he tills, and though he
and his family may be regarded as mere appendages,
they are, except in case of war, fixed appendages.
He lives where his fathers lived, and dies where they

There are slaves in the Brazilian mines, but when
the slave enters them it is usually for life, with little
prospect of more intolerable circumstances, or any
change of masters or companions. Africa has a vast
number of slaves, more degraded by far than our own,
yet it is not slavery which makes them so, for this is
perhaps the most favorable condition for these sunken,

S6 America's misforttjne; oe,

wretched masses, as it is doubtless the most eiFectual
restraint which can be imposed upon their well known
barbarous propensities. Possessed of a most fertile
soil, their indolence seems proportionate ; and the more
laborious way of obtaining their sustenance from the
culture of the earth, is greatly discarded by those who
have the physical strength to compel their weaker but
more industrious neighbors to share with them, human
life being of little account. In such a country slavery
seems almost indispensable to the existence of society,
and it differs almost as widely, in point of utility^ from
American slavery as the healthful government of the
parent from absolute despotism. The one serves as
the life-blood of community, while the other merely
aggrandizes him who possesses arbitrary power. Tiie
caste system of India may be regarded as a species of
slavery, for all but the highest caste feel a crushing
weight. The feudal system of the middle ages, many
traces of which remain in Europe to the j)resent day,
was also a system of vassalage.

There is no community on earth in which slavery,
in some of its phases, is not visible. The man of no-
ble blood looks down upon his common neighbor,
feeling that his presence should inspire profound re-
spect. He may be a man of the kindest feelings, but
he knows little of the struggles produced by the sup-
ple bow in the breast of him who wields it. The man
of wealth rules with a golden sceptre his poor depend-
ants, not because he is better, mentally or mora-lly, for
the beggar may yet draw the lightnings from their
path, or move kings and lords by his eloquence ; and


he may have a purity of character upon which angels
do not look nnmoved ; but while he is poor and ob-
scure he is a slave. The educated man possesses an
acknowledged superiority over the ignorant. The man
of high moral worth is regarded with deference by the
vicious. But in all these cases, they who bow feel that
they to whom they bow have, by their 230sition, some
claim to distinction. The man of native or acquired
eminence may do much to elevate his race, and his
elevation may serve as a diamond to reflect tlie light
which shines up from a pure and benevolent heart.

But the slave in our Southern States feels that the
system beneath which he groans is the offspring of
crime ; that his master's position, having no founda-
tion in justice, is an assumed one, rendering it more
intolerable to him, and to every lover of humanity,
than his own. There are everywhere numerous man-
ifestations of subjection to a power within the man
himself. The miser who starves in the midst of his
treasures, and hugs them even in the agonies of death,
or the man who barters affection, or happiness, or
conscience, for gold, is a slave to avarice. The un-
scrupulous politician is a slave to the love of dis-
tinction. Ambition has countless numbers of vassals.
The debauchee is a slave to lust, and the drunkard to
an insatiable appetite. In like manner a man may be
a servant to the noblest desires of which human na-
ture is susceptible. The scholar yields to a thirst fur
knowledge, the professional man to his profession, and
the martyr at the stake to an unsullied conscience.
But all these kinds of servitude, being voluntary, are

88 America's misfortune; opw,

destitute of that which withers the heart of the negro
slave in America.

The frequent assertion that the condition of the slave
at the South is not more intolerable than that of the
poor laborer at the North, deserves attention. As re-
gards physical comfort, there ma}^ not be a wide dif-
ference, but in the spiritual suifering there can be no
comparison. There is no law at the North to fetter
the highest aspirations of the poorest individual. He
may rise, ordinarily, if he will, and there is ever a
powerful motive. He has an interest in the welfare
of the nation of which he is a constituent part; in its
civil aifairs, for every law that is enacted has a bear-
ing upon himself, either direct, or by his connection
with society ; in its intellectual and moral advancement,
for his character is formed in a great measure by so-
ciety around him, and he can do little to improve
that society but by personal improvement. He feels
also that coming generations have claims upon him
which maynot be disregarded ; for his domestic hearth
is so securely guarded that no man may with impunity
invade the peace and sanctity of his family, to tear
from him the companion whom he loves, or the chil-
dren whom God has committed to his care.

Far different is it with the slave at the South.
Looking back, he sees that for generations his kind
have dragged out their miserable lives upon the same
soil, and before him is nothing but thick gloom and
hopeless interminable bondage. The feeling that as a
social, intellectual, and religious being, he is trodden
to the earth, oppresses him by day, and harasses him


by night. He knows that he is human, and yet he
i'eels that he is degraded nearly to a level with the
brute. lie is, doubtless, sometimes conscious that his
race have been placed deservedly and inevitably at a
disadvantage ; his color is sufficient to teach him this ;
but it is difficult for him to see that American slavery
is necessarily any part of that disadvantage. That
this slavery will result in the highest good of his race
is, we believe, seldom within the ken of his vision.
He has little motive or opportunity to rise ; hence
what wonder that the man seems to become a brute,
and the brute a machine ?

We are sometimes pointed to the British peasantry,
and told to behold misery akin to that of the Ameri-
can slave. But despite poverty, ignorance, and his
little children pale and dwarfed with their unreason-
able and almost incessant toils, the pauper in Eng-
land or Ireland rejoices that perpetual degradation is
not an absolute necessity, and hope whispers to him
that his darling child may yet tread the paths of honor
and usefulness. That champion of temperance, whose
fame is world-wide — almost, if not quite, the greatest
of living orators — is the son of an English peasant.

We have hitherto dwelt in a good measure upon the
influence of slavery upon the colored man. Its other
effects upon our country demand notice.

We doubt not that the slaveholder is generally an
affectionate husband, a tender parent, a valuable
citizen, and often a worthy member of the church.
His estate, not unfrequently, has been hereditary for
generations, and he regards such possessions with a

40 America's misfoettjne ; on,

feeling akin to reverence. The abuses of slavery he con-
siders as not necessary, but incidental, to a system which
may be not only harmless, but productive of good. In
other latitudes he sees abuse of animals, unkind treat-
ment of domestics, oppression of tenants, ruinous con
finement of operatives in manufactories, contempt for
the poor, fraternal q^uarrels, filial hatred, and parental
cruelty. These crimes, and all the others to which de-
praved man is prone, he knows are too common, and will
be till the day of the millennium. He knows that human
nature in all ages and countries has been the same, as
when the favored but sometimes erring Psalmist de-
clared, "there is none that doeth good, no not one."
He feels grateful for the consciousness that his servants
love him, some of them almost as a father. No cruel
overseer, no bloody lash, no harsh language, are known
by his servants ; to him they look as their natural
protector, for his comfort they will willingly suffer;
their master's family is their family, his wealth their
w^ealth, and his honor their honor; death or dire ne-
cessity alone separate families on his estate. And
3''et w^e believe that a contented slaveholder is rarely
found. He must at times awake to the horrors of the
system, and shudder at the thought that he is in any
way connected with it. But his position seems to
have been forced upon him. He had no share in
bringing the colored man from the land of his birth,
or in framing that constitution which recognizes prop-
erty in man, while he has a family dependent upon
him, w^ith no other income than slave labor. Sad
thoughts, doubtless, fill his mind when he returns


from a ]N!"orthern tour, where lie has witnessed more
enterprise, more intelligence, pm'er morals, and more '
general happiness.

Tlie influence of slaverj^ upon the financial interests
of our country claims attention. It is doubtless true
that in any community the valuation of property is
low, in proportion to the standard of morals ; hence,
whatever vitiates a community impoverishes it. But
we believe it plain, that in addition to this, slavery
has a direct exhausting tendency. The slave has very
little motive to do his field task in that manner which
will be most beneficial to the soil ; for whether it is
so performed or not he is equally sure of a living, and
this he knows is all he will receive at best ; and even
if the motive existed, the unphilosophical nature of
the colored man generally renders it impossible for
him to pursue the best course in the various branches
of agriculture. Hence it is not strange that experi-
ence should prove that soils upon which slave labor is
employed, after a time become exhausted. In some
places in the Xorthern slaveholding States, slavery is
dying out, because the soil will not support it ; and
the slaves are taken to new fields in the far South.
The soil of the State of Virginia is by nature almost
unsurpassed in fertility ; but slavery has nearly worn
out its surface, and slaveholders prefer to leave it, as
many have done, rather than attempt to resuscitate it
by improved culture. And doubtless this is the wiser
course for them ; for if they were to make trial of the
oiher, with their limited practical knowledge of agri-
culture, there would be 2;reat danger of failure. This

42 America's misfortune; or,

practice of impoverishing the State, by even tempora-
rily exhausting its soil, is a most reprehensible one in
every point of view. If he who causes two blades of
grass to grow where there was but one, is a public
benefactor, he who lessens in any degree the pro-
ductiveness of the earth, does mankind a manifest
injury. He abuses a gift that God has put into
his hands, and for which He will hold him strictly
accountable; and a community doing this is a na-
tional incubus. ISTorthern farmers and European
emio^rants — diverted from the "West, where their en-
terprise might do much to develop the hidden re-
sources of our country — are seeking the deserted,
slave-worn soil of the older slave States, and, by their
vigorous efforts, restoring its fertility. But beside ex-
hausting the soil, slavery is a hindrance to enterprise.
Land proprietors, who are not laborers usually, fail to
develop their manufacturing and commercial resources ;
for the very act of performing labor of any kind, not
only quickens discernment as to the best method of
performing it, but it gives in all cases the ability and
the inclination to perform an increased amount, thus
widening the scope of action. Excellent manufac-
turing facilities in the South, except those which have
chanced to attract the attention of the Korthern capi-
talist, remain in a great measure unimproved. Other
internal improvements, especially railroads, which have
done so much to develop the resources of the ^orth,
are comparatively few.

The slaveholder living at his ease is to a great
degree indiiferent to his pecuniary interests, or those


of community, beyond the supply of Lis own wants.
Hence finance suffers from sloth, and the national
hive is encumbered with a class which in the apiary
are intolerable.

As regards the employment of paid and unpaid
servants, we believe that the pecuniary advantages
of the former course to the employer have been so
fully demonstrated that the subject does not here
demand discussion.

Slavery being thus financially a consumer^ rather
than a producer, not only the South, but the whole
country, suffers loss in consequence. But we believe
that the system is not less joolitically a consumer. It
is, doubtless, bad policy for any government to attach
to itself a cumbrous mass, weighing down its wheels,
and never aiding to push them forward, except in the
descent to ruin. The disfranchisement of a laro^e class
in any country creates such an incumbrance. They
must be governed, while they have nothing to do with
the administration of the government. The slaves of
Greece and Rome only made the downfall of those
nations more terrible, much as they had augmented
the national pride; and if the United States were to
be attacked by a powerful foe, our slave population
would be a most dangerous element, and a source of
continual apprehension. It is no easy task to fight
for freedom, much less for oppressors.

But slavery, beside being financially and politically
a consumer, hinders the development of our national
power. As a necessar}^ consequence, the "masterly
inactivity" which prevails among the higher classes


at tlie South, produces physical debility and enerva-
tion of character. Nothing but severe struggling can
give strength, although there are few who will volun-
tarily endure hardship ; and there is great danger,
that in a community where manual labor is highly
unpopular, proper physical exercise and even neces-
sary recreation will be neglected.

Public opinion is powerful, and an individual highly
sensitive to it will often adhere to rules and customs
which he has strong fears are not right, instead of
using his influence, as he might, perhaps, effectually,
to alter or remove them. We believe that we do the
Southern gentleman no injustice when we say that
he is almost proverbially delicate and effeminate ; and
that, though Southern climates are debilitating, his
weakness is to be attributed in no small measure to
the existence of a sj^stem which places manual labor
almost entirely beyond his reach. The weaker sex, also,
are made still more weak ; and doubtless the stricken
parent or husband often follows the object of his
affections to the grave without fully realizing that a
mistaken kindness, in suffering the neglect of her
physical education, has sent her there.

Man is at best a frail being, and that he should be
made artificially more so is a deeply humiliating
thought, especially when we consider that the mind
inevitably suffers with the body.

The mental debility which characterizes every com-
munity in which such a sj'stem of slavery as our
own exists, is a serious evil. Setting aside physical
weakness, other causes render this a necessity. The


ignorance of the enslaved cripples the mental energies
of all who come within the sphere of its influence ; for,
however wide the difference, man invariably sympa-
thizes with and becomes assimilated to those by whom
he is sm-rounded.

The common school system for the education of the
masses, enjoyed by the North, is little known in the
South ; and the lamentable consequence is, that in
some of their States many of the adult wliite popula-
tion can neither read nor write. We believe that the
mutual exchange of residences, by the Southern stu-
dent and the Northern teacher, beside doing much to
strengthen the bonds of our Union, is destined to aid
greatly in dispelling this dark cloud which now settles
upon the Southern horizon ; but we doubt if anything
but the sun of freedom will be sufficient for its entire

A few years before his death. General Jackson was
riding with a friend among the rural towns of one of
the New England States, and both were much pleased
with the indications of enterprise, intelligence, and good
morals, which everywhere met their view. The Gen-
eral was asked to what all this was to be attributed,
and his well-known answer is worthy the remembrance
of all : " To the church yonder, and the school-house
beside it." The General, as our readers are aware,
was a resident of the South, and well qualified to
judge of the value of the literary and religious privi-
leges enjoyed by the North.

While we mourn over the state of vital Christianity
in the Southern church, as indicated by the small

46 America's misfortune; or,

amount of their contributions for religious purposes,
we are compelled to go still farther, and acknowledge
that it is doubtful whether the code of morals in our
Southern States has a parallel in any Christian coun-
try on the globe

Some years since, the son of an eminent professional
gentleman — the latter an acquaintance of the writer's
family — having completed his collegiate course, left
his home in 'New England, and engaged in teaching
in one of the Southern States. lie soon became popu-
lar, gained friends, and married. This teacher had
one day punished a pupil, at which a near relativo
being greatly enraged, visited him in his room, and
gave vent to his anger by inflicting a cowhiding. The
friends of the teacher urged upon him the necessity
of retaliation, and he obeyed their wishes. A few
days afterward, he met the offending gentleman in the
street, and upon presenting a pistol, the other fired,
but without effect, and was immediately shot dead by
the teacher — the first to display a deadly weapon.
No arrest was made, and at the funeral the officiating
clergyman remarked, "You must not call thi^ mur-
der, for, sad as is the fact, the transaction is sanc-
tioned by the customs of our society." This case,
though by no means an anomaly in the history of the
South, is sufficient to teach us that no one, in a com-
munity where the lives of an inferior class are trifled
with, is safe. Our w^hole country suffers in conse-
quence of the barbarity which slavery engenders.

A few years since, a citizen of Massachusetts, having
been convicted in a Southern State of aiding slaves to


escape from their masters, was sentenced to receive a
large brand in his hand, beside standing an hour in
the pillorj, and other punishment. And whoever is
apprehended in a slave State, in thus obeying the more
generous impulses of his nature, has but a faint hope
\)f a reasonable degree of judicial clemency.

We are well aware that the South are not unmind-
ful of these serious evils of which slavery is the source.
There are, doubtless, numerous reasons why many who
feel deeply upon this subject have never spoken boldly
their real sentiments. Some, probably, can not suffi-
ciently overcome tlie love of their property to advocate
measures which would deprive them of most that they
possess ; some have not sufficient moral courage to
utter that which would render them unpopular ; and
man}^, without doubt, fear to do anything which shall
endanger the peace of society, dreading the conse-
quences to community of making known to the slaves
their abhorrence of the system. But some do speak
and act. The following extract from a late Kentucky
paper is worthy of notice : " It has been proposed to
us by several gentlemen, who own slaves in Kentuck}',
that they (the slaveholders) hold a convention at Frank-
fort to adopt some plan for the abolition of slavery,
and that we so announce it; and that the Hon. W. J.

L , of P county, a slaveholder, be appointed

by the friends of the convention as one in this part
of the State to draw up a proposition for its gradual

In some of the Korthern slave States, men dissatis-
fied with the system arp going still farther, and making

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Online LibraryCharles L. (Charles Lemuel) ThompsonAmerica's misfortune; or, A practical view of slavery → online text (page 3 of 6)