Charles L. (Charles Lemuel) Thompson.

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

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48 amekica's misfortune; or,

eftorts to organize parties, who shall go to territories
where slavery has not yet gained firm footing, and
strengthen the hands of those who are there endeavor-
ino; to establish free institutions. We believe that
if that portion of the slaveholders who desire to be
rid of the evil would express their views calmly, but
fearlessly, upon every proj)er occasion^ and labor to
effect the needed reform in public sentiment npon a
subject of such vital interest to the South, as if they
themselves were in the place of the oppressed, they
would " not labor in vain, nor spend their strength for

The late aggressions of slavery must not be over-
looked. We will select but a very few instances, and
the first of these is the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 —
a law equally unjust to the Southern slave and the
]N^orthern freeman. It is to be regretted that the sud-
den removal of Mr. Webster from the Senate, while the
subject was before Congress, prevented his presenting
the bill which he had drafted. This bill required more
care in the seizure and trial of the fugitive, and the
great weight of ability and influence which he pos-
sessed would alone have done much toward securing
its passage. We do not say that such a law was de-
sirable, except as the least of two evils. This law,
placing as it does the freedom of the colored man in
the power of an inadequate tribunal and an incompe-
tent number of witnesses, is an especial wrong to him ;
for in any part of the United States, if at any moment
he is unable to j)roduce free papers, there is but a step
between him and slavery. We will not, however,


dwell upon this much agitated subject, but consider
the law in its other bearings. It was perhaps a neces-
sary provision in the Constitution of the United States
that the slave should not be free by going from his
master to a free State ; otherwise citizens of the free
States would have had the power to liberate slaves
almost at their own option, thus virtually annulling
the laws of the slave States in direct violation of the
letter and spirit of the above named document, which
gives no power to interfere with the laws of a sister
State. But the Constitution does not define the tribu-
nal before which the alleged fugitive shall be ar-
raigned, nor the number of witnesses requisite to
substantiate the claim, leaving these matters, like
many others of a domestic nature, to be decided in
each State by the people of the State ; and we believe
that tlie action of Congress, in determining these points,
and requiring the Northern citizen to aid in the capture
of the fugitive was a palpable usurpation. This law is
]:)eculiarly repugnant to the North, inasmuch as it com-
pels tliem actively to aid in sustaining a system which
tliey believe to be unjust. They are no longer allowed
the limits granted tliem by the Constitution, but are
forced to do the bidding of their sister States. The
Constitution requires nu aid from the North in reclaim-
iuir fu^^itive slaves, but merely their surrender. In a
free country, where law is the public sentiment, an
enactment doing violence to the feelings of those upon
whom it was intended to be binding, is powerless as
the grasp of an infant; and the law in question we
believe to be much of this character. At the time of

60 America's misfortune; or,

its enactment, eminent and considerate gentlemen of
the South predicted that a law so ultra would injure
rather than benefit them ; and we believe that their
predictions have been verified, for instead of increas-
ing, it lessens the security of slave property ; and,
like every law which regards not justice and human-
ity, proves the rack for the torture of its authors. The
jSTorth have been greatly aroused by its injustice,
and we doubt if any law of our country, since the time
of the Revolution, has been violated by organized
force with greater impunity ; men, as is well known,
having risen in bands for the rescue of fugitives, and
often so strongly sustained by the sympathies of their
fellow-citizens that there were none to bring them to trial
for their misdemeanor. If we mistake not, this law
has created a symj^athy w^ith the fugitive which could
hardly have been produced in any other way; so gen-
eral is it that at present in most of the Northern States
a fugitive is rarely hindered in his progress ; and the
large numbers who are constantly arriving in Canada
show that they are not backward in improving their
opportunity. The feeling against this law is steadily

In the metropolis of Xew England, where there has
probably been more excitement upon this subject than
in any other city, after the capture of a fugitive in their
midst, in 1S54, (if w^e mistake not,) a large number of
prominent citizens petitioned for the repeal of the law,
who at first strongly supported it. And in another
Northern city, recently, a slaveliokler in pursuit of a
fugitive, unable to procure the services of an attorney,


was comj)elled to return to his Southern home alone.
It may be a question whether duty requires any in
the ^orth to induce the slave to leave his master
without his consent, as it has, at least, the appearance
of unwarrantable interference with the laws of the
South ; but if the Constitution is to be our guide, no
one disregards any of the obligations of a good citizen,
who, seeing the fugitive in a free State, gives him food,
or clothing, or shelter, or otherwise aids him in his
northward progress. Hence, an eminent Northern
divine, strongly conservative upon slavery, has said :
" If a fugitive wishing shelter for a night were to call
upon me, I would point him to my barn, and tell him
that if he could there be safe it should be at his ser-
vice ; and if called upon by an officer, I would bid him
search the premises for himself." This was the lan-
guage of one having no sympathy with abolitionists,
and we believe that he spoke the sentiments of a very
large class, who are lovers not only of law, but also
of justice.

As regards the question so much agitated within the
xast few years, whether the laws of God or man should
nave precedence, it might be establishing a rule liable
to serious abuse to say that where they conflict, the
latter are null and void, if the conscience of the indi-
vidual were to be the guide. Saul, of Tarsus, " verily
thought he was doing God service" while persecuting
the Church ; and so, doubtless, have many since his
time, while propagating false religions. The great
number of fanatics and errorists of the present day,
who in various ways are disturbing the peace of

52 America's misfoktune; oe,

society, are doubtless many of them sincere. To give
every man the liberty to set aside such human laws
as he might deem contrary to the Bible, would lead
directly to anarchy. But where, as in the present
case, a community decide almost unanimously that a
law is unrighteous, we believe their judgment worthy
of respect, and they who have forced the law upon the
country can have no ground of surprise or complaint
if it is not observed.

We are well aware that the inclination to run away
greatly depreciates the value of the slave, and that the
law of 1850 was intended as a restraint upon it ; but
the event has proved that a stringent enactment can
not change the current of the human will.

The horrid practice of kidnapping the JSTorthern free-
man is, we trust, but little indulged in at the present
day ; but we know of nothing more nearly resembling
it than the seizure of a fugitive under this law.

We alluded above to the late aggressions of slavery ;
but ever since its introduction into the country, its
spirit may be said to have been continually aggressive.
Commencing in one of the Southern colonies, it spread
throughout the whole, North as well as South. It is
but a few years since we read of the death of a colored
woman, in one of the JSTew England States, formerly a
slave in the same State, and never legally free. A few
similar cases, in which the parties were still living,
were brought to light by the last census. But slavery
has for many years been confined mainly to the South.

It w^as owing, we believe, more to the fact that the
colored man can not endure the cold of the E'orthern


winter without great inconvenience, tlian to any other,
that slavery was abolished at the North ; for we have
yet to learn that human nature varies essentially in
the different sections of our country. It is doubtless
a great blessing to the North to be rid of slaverj^ ; but
when they consider that when the Constitution was
adopted the Northern delegates were more lenient to
it than the Southern, it becomes them to be cautious,
lest they judge others for that of which they also might
be guilty, if their soil and climate were similar.

But while slavery has been abolished in many of
the States, and in others it exists only in a mitigated
form, it has been continually spreading over new soil
in the South ; so that it is doubtful whether it has
ever had a firmer hold upon our country, as regards
extent of territory, than at present.

Slavery seems governed more by circumstances than
by law, for, where these are favorable, it is often found
existinsr without the sanction of anv enactment. Al-
though j^^'ohihited in California, at the time of her
admission into the Union, slaveholders have been con-
tinually going there with their slaves, and holding
them unmolested. At first, an enactment of the State
Legislature required the few slaves that had already
been introduced to be removed within a fixed period:
at its expiration, however, the number had rather in-
creased than decreased, and the time for their removal
was extended ; and it is to be feared that hereafter
slavery will there be a growing system.

Till the establishment of the Missouri Compromise
line in 1820, Mason's and Dixon's line — which wo

54: America's misfortune; oe,

believe did not extend west of the Mississippi — for
many years separated the domain of freedom from
that of slavery ; but the Compromise line has not been
as effectual, and the late comjjletiori of the repeal of
this compromise, and the admission of slavery into the
territories of Kansas and ISTebraska, have caused an
excitement which has few parallels in the history of
our country. This subject demands careful notice.
Much as the event is to be deplored, we believe that
the annulling process was commenced long ago, and
ly the North. Although there was no actual stipula-
tion that the Korth should not interfere with slavery
in territories south of the line of this compromise, yet
non-interference must have been tacitly understood by
the South as a part of the compact virtually binding
upon the E'orth. But the JSTorth have either put a
different construction upon this compact, or willfully
violated it, having repeatedly made attempts to ex-
clude slavery from Southern territories, by action of
Congress, as in the case of New Mexico. and i Uta h.

It is universally admitted that when one party to a
contract has violated any of its conditions it is no
longer binding upon the other : hence, we believe that
the Missouri Compromise was virtually repealed years
before the organization of the Kansas and Nebraska
territories, and that the South only pursued a course
at that time to which they had been tempted by the
previous action of the North.

It is, doubtless, in all cases, a weak and dangerous
policy to make any compromise with that which in its
nature or tendency is evil. It is unsafe for the drunk-


ard, the thief, or the profime man, to attempt to reform
gradually ; and he who does it will almost surely fail.
The Bible, which should be the foundation of all legis-
lation in Christian countries, by implication strongly
condemns any concession to evil. In speaking of mur-
der, God says, ''Moreover, ye shall take no satisfaction
for the life of the murderer," forbidding any deviation
from the strict rule of justice ; and the whole tenor of
the Bible is to the same eifect.

The Missouri Compromise, being a compact between
right and wrong, contained in itself a most powerful
element of self-destruction ; and hence none can won-
der at its fate. It may be said that it was better, in
the peculiar circumstances, to compromise than to
leave a vast field at the ^orth forever open to slavery;
and so it might at the moment seem to short-sighted

We are too apt to fear that the Almighty will not
avenge his own honor, and that it is necessary, by ex-
treme measures, to take the work almost entirely into
our own hands ; but the result usually shows us our
foll}^ AYe believe that most will agree that freedom
has probably lost, rather than gained, by the Missouri
Compromise. It is doubtful, indeed, whether any ad-
vantage has been derived from it. It has not excluded
slavery from any territory congenial to it; nor has it
silenced agitation in regard to others, for in nearly or
quite every case of territorial organization the slavery
question has been debated with more or less animosity;
and in the last contest slavery has come off victorious.
But the fact that the South were free from obligation

56 AJkiERicA's misfortune; oe

to the I'Tortli to observe this compact, does not for a
moment justify them in violating the dictates of hu-
manity and the law of God ; and for every such act
individuals and communities will be held strictly ac-
countable when human tribunals shall be no longer in
existence. The agreement of the South to the Mis-
souri Compromise was an acknowledgment on their
part that slavery oiujlit not to extend farther Korth
than the line therein established ; and what was wrong
thirty-five years since can not have a different char-
acter at present. The ultra partizans of slavery, by
their late efforts to extend the system in the North,
have not only aroused indignation there, but they have
disregarded the will of a large number in their own
midst, as is constantly becoming more and more ap-
parent ; and some who openly condemn their course
are able and prominent men, not entirely controlled
by selfish motives. The disposition of the South to
extend slavery had led us. in some instances, to acquire
territory at the expense, if we mistake not, of the na-
tional honor. At present Cuba is the great desire of
the slavery propagandists, — we do not say of the South
in general — for we do not believe it — but of that por-
tion who have not probably fully weighed the evils
of their favorite institution, and their ISTorthern coad-
jutors, who are hardly aware how great a stigma they
are bringing upon our nation. The anxiety to obtain
Cuba is, we fear, causing those who are endeavoring to
effect its annexation to advocate measures which they
would condemn, if resorted to by the statesmen of any
other Christian nation. We refer to the threatening


process. "The time lias come," say thej, "when the
interests of a large portion of our country demand
its annexation. The valley of the Mississippi is not
safe while Cuba remains in her present position ; the
shipping of this vast region, which passes near her
shores, is in constant danger ; and in one way or an-
other the island must be acquired." This is the sub-
stance of the language used. But wherein the danger
to our commerce consists, they do not tell us. The in-
habitants of Cuba are not pirates, nor are they disposed
to molest American vessels passing them peaceably ;
and we believe that the danger alluded to is mainly,
if not entirely, imaginary. No grievance, other than
of a most trivial nature, is cited upon which to base
their complaints. And if outrages had been perpe-
trated, the cession of the island to those injured would
seem to be rather a novel mode of adjusting interna-
tional difficulties. We know of no instance in which
a Christian nation has sought the acquisition of an
island of marauders, which was an object of terror, to
secure itself from injury. The true course in such a
case would seem to be to present the case to the home
government ; and, if disregarded, to resort to armed

An aggressive spirit, especially where the acquisi-
tion of territory is the great motive, is a most danger-
ous one, as is fully proved by the history of ancient
nations. Rome conquered, and grasped, and enslaved,
till her name was a terror to the world ; and awfully
were the nations avenged when the mighty Nortliern

powers laid her in ruins. But dangerous as is such a

58 America's misfortune; or,

policy, we believe that it would be vastly better for
those who are bo anxious for the acquisition of Cuba,
to avow their real motives, as they would thus at least
gain a reputation for honesty ; and the belief which
some of them cherish in the justice of slavery would
do more to palliate their course than a long array of
specious arguments, destitute of any real foundation.

An Eastern traveler relates, that, resting one warm
day under the shade of a tree, his attention was drawn
to a pair of birds, who were bearing leaves to their
nest above, which contained their young brood. The
parents had been warned of the approach of a serpent,
which soon reached the nest, darted his tongue against
the leaves, and fell back dead. To the infant birds,
their shield was harmless ; to him it was death.

There is a possibility that the propagandists of
slavery will in their eagerness, by trampling upon
justice, approach the poisoned leaves.

The wounded lion makes one desperate plunge, and
is still in death ; and perhaps the friends of freedom
will soon rejoice that the late attempts of slavery to
strengthen itself in our country were but its dying
throes. Whether this shall be the case or not, it be-
comes every American patriot to labor earnestly that
its grave may not, through any want of candor or
proper forbearance, be made by hands stained with

The growth of anti-slavery feeling in the ]^orth has
been rapid, it having scarcely manifested itself till
within the last twenty years. Its beginnings were
feeble and inauspicious. In the writer's native village —


one of the most quiet in New England — when the first
series of anti-slavery lectures was delivered, tin horns
and stale eggs were brought freely into requisition ;
and many prominent and peace-loving citizens seemed
to believe that the new doctrine was akin to sedition.
In an adjoining town, not far from this time, an acad-
emy to which colored pupils had been admitted, was
drawn to quite a distance from its foundation by the
oxen of the neighboring farmers, and the school was
thus violently broken up. A similar feeling generally
pervaded the North.

The pioneers in the anti-slavery, movement were,
doubtless, generally actuated by the most worthy mo-
tives, if one might judge from their zeal, and the time
and money which they freely spent. It is true that
many were ultra, but this can not be wondered at,
when we consider that they had very incorrect no-
tions of slavery. The enormities of the system were
proclaimed long and loudly by men gifted with the
ability to speak or write forcibly, but not thoroughly
acquainted with their subject. The consequence was,
that many men, sensible in other matters, were led
to believe that the cruelties, which were so much dwelt
upon, were common and necessary to slavery; that
whipping, scanty fare, and family separations, were
the rule, and cases of clemency exceptions. It could
hardly have been expected that men thus instigated
would keep within the bounds of prudence.

From the main body, the more ultra abolitionists
were in a few years separated, when it was found

60 America's misfortune; or,

whither they were leading. It is hardly necessary to
say that this party is very small, and increasing slow-
ly, if at all. A party professing to believe the Amer-
ican church a nuisance, and the Constitution of the
United States "a covenant with death and an agree-
ment with hell," can hope for but little favor in our
country. They have in their ranks men of great abil-
ity, and high attainments as scholars and orators^; and
while we differ from them as to mode, we doubt not
that generally they are deeply interested in the welfare
of the slave. Their career is a striking illustration of
the truth, that however devoid of reason a creed may
be, it will find adherents. But occasionally individ-
uals belonging to this party have given proof of their

A few years since, a man of very good standing in
a town near Boston, avowed the belief that it was
right for white and colored persons to intermarry, and
that he would have no objection to it in the case of
his own daughter. The latter, although not yet arrived
at maturity, and much beloved by her parents, soon
put his sincerity to the test. A colored man, with
whom she had formed some acquaintance, besought
her to elope, and marry him, and she consented. The
father, upon learning what she had done, took a more
rational view of the subject, and determined at once
to free her from so unnatural a union. The result was
that she was placed in an asylum, upon a plea of

The more rational portion of those termed aholi-
Umiists, althoujrh in favor of immediate emancipation,


on most points differ widely from the above class :
we believe, however, that the adoption of their plans
would not be practicable, if it were desirable. In the
excess of their good will toward the slave, they seem
to forget, in a great measure, the position of his mas-
ter. They forget that in most cases his ancestors were
slaveholders^, and that he has imbibed almost a rever-
ence for the institution from the same source from
which in infancy he drew his daily life; they forget
that the teacher who gave bent to his young mind,
and the pastor whom he deemed almost infallible,
taught him that slavery was a great blessing to the
colored race, and almost indispensable to the Southern
community ; and they seem especially to forget that
he has never, like themselves, lived where he could
behold the blessings of freedom. They seem to be-
lieve that he ought, as soon as the wickedness of
slavery is brought to his notice, to view the subject in
the same light with themselves.

It must be evident to every one who will give the
matter careful consideration, that to require the slave-
holder to give up all his slaves at once, and without
any remuneration, would in many cases subject him
to 2:reat embarrassment. It is said that the freed slaves
would generally remain with their former masters, and
labor as hired servants ; but there could be no assur-
ance of this. They would, we believe, be continually
anxious to seek elsewhere that independence which it
is doubtful if they can ever attain on this continent,
but which to them may continually seem almost within
their grasp. If the North were to open her arms to


tLem, they would doubtless flee in great numbers to
her embrace, to dwell with those who have so loudly
and earnestly proclaimed their sympathy. The prospect
of reducing his family to want, would, in his opinion, in
most cases, at least, justify the slaveholder in refusing
to give up his slaves, even if he could see that their
good required it ; for there are few who do not feel
under greater obligation to their families than to all
beside upon earth. But the slaveholder does not be-
lieve, nor can he be made to believe, that the condition
of the slaves, generally, would be improved by their
receiving unconditional freedom in a mass, and with
no preparation for it. The condition of the free col-
ored population of our country renders this impossible.
Hence, whether considering his own interests, or those
of his slaves, the slaveholder must, almost inevitably,
be opposed to immediate general emancipation. And
if this be so, the scheme is impracticable, for with our
present Constitution there can be no compulsion in
this matter.

We think it equally doubtful whether immediate
emancipation is desirable. In all countries, many
years of experience are required before children are
permitted to be free from tlie restraint of parents ;
their own safety renders this course indispensable.
And in all civilized communities provision is made
for those who are in any way incapacitated to take
care of themselves, to prevent self-destruction.

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Online LibraryCharles L. (Charles Lemuel) ThompsonAmerica's misfortune; or, A practical view of slavery → online text (page 4 of 6)