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A letter to the Hon. Harrison Gray Otis, Peleg Sprague, and Richard Fletcher, esq. .. online

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M Dccc xxxri.







Nothing, for which I have not the evidence of my senses, is to me more clear, thau
that it [slavery] will one day destroy that reverence for liberty, which is the vital
principle of our republic." — Speech 6/ William Pinknet in the Maryland House of
Delegates, 1789.

If any practices exist, contrary to the principles of justice and humanity, within the
reach of our laws or our influence, we are inexcusable, if we do not exert ourselves
to restrain and abolish them." — Daniel Webster's Plymouth Oration in 1820.






The following Letter appeared in the Boston
Courier, a short time after the meeting in Faneuil
Hall, to which it referred — long enough ago to
be forgotten by all but a few friends of the writer,
who thought some of the reminiscences contained
in it might be usefully republished at this time in
a less ephemeral form. The name of the writer
is not now attached to it for the reason originally
given in the Letter itself. It could add nothing
to the weight of any statements or opinions
contained in the article, which, being such as
he would never be ashamed to avow, he has
no hesitation in thus publishing anonymously.
A few notes are added, which seemed to be
needed in the advancing state of the subject in
the public interest.


Gentlemen, — I attended with great alacrity the
meeting of the 21st of August, in Faneuil Hall. It
was expected that you would there address your fellow-
citizens, on a question of momentous interest, and I
anticipated, probably in common with many others, a
degree of satisfaction in regard to it. For, hitherto, I
had had reason to feel something of that uneasiness,
which every lover of truth must experience, in regard
to important questions of morality or policy, when he
seems to himself to see the weight of reason on one
side, and that of authority on the other.

Though I have never been a member of any anti-
slavery society, it has happened to me to be intimately
acquainted with individuals belonging to the professional
and commercial classes of the community, whose judg-
ment in ordinary matters of worldly concernment 1
had every reason to respect, and whose uprightness and
intelligence I held in high estimation, who were at the
same time active members of these societies. I had
attended to their reasonings on the subject of slavery,
and perused pretty carefully many of their publications.
The former appeared to me to be sound, and the latter
to contain much good morality and poAverful argument,
though there was intermixed with these, at times, a
strength and even violence of denunciation, which I
could not quite approve, either on the score of propriety
or policy ; there were exemplifications, in short, of that
universal tendency of zeal in any cause to go beyond
the bounds of discretion ; a tendency, which, other
things being equal, is perhaps strong in proportion to
the intrinsic importance of its object.

On the other hand, gentlemen, I had found, almost
every where, out of the ranks of the abolitionists, a
disposition to denounce them, as a band of furious agi-
tators, who were ready to sacrifice every thing, which
their countrymen hold sacred, to a maniacal philan-
thropy; and I had received the impression, that the
great bulk of the leading men in society were inclined
to agree in a feeling of strong disapprobation of their

Under these circumstances, the desire was natural to
understand, first, whether the disapprobation thus felt
by the leading and influential men of our community,
whose opinions must, at all times, be, prrnia facie, en-
titled to respect, was confined to those proceedings of
some of the abolitionists, which had seemed to me to
be of doubtful propriety ; or whether it extended to the
whole tenor of their words and doings, plans and doc-
trines, in short, to the whole abolition movement.

In the second place, I expected, that, supposing it to
extend, as I suspected that it did extend, to the whole
project of the abolitionists, I should be enabled to under-
stand the reason of this disapprobation, by hearing them
explained by you, in detail, and thereby be relieved
from the weight of authority, which was oppressive,
without being satisfactory.

As my meaning in this last statement may not be
perfectly clear, I may observe in explanation of it, that
I consider every man to be under an obligation, more or
less strong, according to circumstances, to permit the
opinions to weigh with him, of all persons, who are on
other grounds entitled to his respect, so long as he is
unacquainted with the reasons of those opinions ; since
he is bound to suppose, that reasons exist, which might
affect his own opinions, provided he had an opportunity
of becoming acquainted with them. But, so soon as
the reasons themselves are fully made known to him,
much, if not the whole, of this obligation ceases to exist ;
the claim of authority being, in fact, waved by the
statement of reasons, which are substituted for it, in
every such instance, and which may of right be inde-
pendently considered.

Thus, if any judicious person were to declare to me
his belief in the existence of a sea-serpent, I should be
bound to allow some weight to the circumstance ; but
should he explain that his belief rested entirely upon
the fact of there being, in the public papers, a certificate
that such an animal had been seen by individuals,
whose persons and credibility were alike unknown to
him ; I think it would be absurd to allow any weight to
his opinion, additional to that of the testimony, or cer-
tificate, which would then become the proper subject of

In regard to the first question, which I stated to regard
the precise object of your disapprobation ; I think, that,
unless I have misunderstood the purport of your addresses,
I may venture to take it for granted, that it does truly
extend to the whole abolition movement, — to all the
doings of all the anti-slavery societies, so called, which
are now existing in the United States, — and for the fol-
lowing reasons ; that they are mere agitators, calculating
to get up an injurious excitement, which has no lawful
object : that they propose nothing for discussion, pro-
perly so called, nor offer any plan to effect the alleged

'' Sir, it is a mockery, and an insult to the understand-
ing, to call these publications [those which the abolition-
ists disseminate] discussions. Nothing is discussed,
nothing is proposed for discussion. No plan to effect
the alleged object. Nothing is said to enlighten the
mind or improve the heart, but every thing is said to
inflanie, and only to inflame^ the passions."

I quote the words of Mr. Fletcher, with whose opin-
ions you mxay all, I suppose, gentlemen, be held to agree
in substance, as his speech was the leading one, and was
referred to in the others, in terms of approbation, and
without exception to any of his views.

These then are the supposed facts, upon which your
expressions of reprobation are based, and the inference
from them, as drawn by you, I admit to be sound.
They would be ground sufficient, and few would need
the weight of your authority in addition to his belief of


their reality — but, for the same reason, that authority
can have little weight with those, who have evidence
satisfactory to themselves, that the facts are quite other-

I stated, gentlemen, that I expected satisfaction. I
received it abundantly. I have been certified from your
own lips of a deficiency of information on your part,
which, were I twenty years younger, would probably
have seemed to me remarkable in the case of men of so
much general information. I have, however, lived long
enough to find myself scantily informed on a . great
many subjects, with which I had persuaded myself that
I was well acquainted ; and to think it a more reasona-
ble ground of surprise, that men like yourselves should
have found time, among their various important cares
and duties, to know so much and so thoroughly on so
many subjects, than that there should be now and then
one, on which they seem to lack some information. I
have said, gentlemen, that there seems to me to be a
deficiency of information on your part in regard to this
matter, for the slightest suspicion of intentional misrep-
resentation is precluded by a knowledge of characters,
which the general opinion of their fellow-citizens places
in the front ranks in the array of integrity, intelligence,
and patriotism.

Allow me, gentlemen, respectfully to endeavour to
supply this deficiency, and to assiu'e you, that the mem-
bers of the anti-slavery societies in these States have a
plan, which they at least think lawful, and of which
they are constantly challenging the discussion, and to
explain to you its nature, as I understand it. Their
plan is to procure a majority of votes in Congress in
favor of bills for the abolition of slavery, in the Dis-
trict of Columbia,* and in those territories, now under
the jurisdiction of the general government, in which it
may be constitutionally abolished, and for the prohibition
of the domestic slave-trade between the States, f Their
plan is, further, to demonstrate to such of our Southern

* See note A. \ See note B.

brethren, as publicly declare, or silently maintain the
doctrine, that negro slavery is no evil, but a necessary
adjunct, or condition of unmixed republicanism ; to dem-
onstrate to these, I say, that it is truly " a great moral
and political evil " — or to use the words of one of your
number on a former occasion, ''amoral pestilence."
The words of him, I mean "that old man eloquent"*
who fifteen years ago on the floor of Congress prayed his
fellow-legislators not " to entail on posterity a scourge,
for which we reproach the memory of our ancestors,"
and — prayed in vain. And, further, to show to the
satisfoction of those gentlemen of the South, who truly
believe that slavery is such an evil and sincerely desire
to be rid of it, that there is no considerable difficulty
in effecting this object, except such as may arise from
their own want of energy, or the opposition of those,
who are far from considering it any disadvantage, or
from wishing to do away with it.

This comprehensive project they propose to promote
the consummation of, by the same ap])aratus of means,
which are in common use in this country. They pro-
pose to proceed precisely as those individuals did, who
set on foot the temperance project ; those, v/ho labored
to have the Bank of the United States rechartered ; or to
carry through a protecting tariff; or those, wlio now
labor to procure the election of Messrs. Webster, Van
Buren, White, or Harrison to the Presidency. They
propose like them to organize societies, publish papers,
make speeches, and set in motion all the machinery, by
which public opinion is ordinarily attempted to be in-

Now such a plan may in your opinion be a bad one,
but certainly it is a plan of some kind — and unless you
are prepared to take the ground that a large number of
your fellow-citizens are utterly false, it is one that they
believe to be a good and a lawful one. And as to the
means, although it may be readily admitted that there

* See note C.


have been defects in the execution of them, I am unable
to see any objection to the principle. That men, who
are continually, and in an unqualified manner, denounced
as fanatics, should occasionally lose their temper, is too
common an event to be a cause of surprise, or great
indignation ; though it may be of sorrow, that both
the cause and effect are matters of such ordinary obser-

Blameable however as means of this kind may appear
to you, they did not so appear to your fathers. Though
I am neither lawyer, nor legislator, I have some notion
that the establishment of a precedent may have an in-
fluence in favor of the attempt to bring this case under
some authority, which should Hmit the very strong lan-
guage of reprobation which has been applied to it.

I have at this moment before me^ gentlemen, a volume
of pamphlets, entitled "Minutes of the Proceedings of a
Convention of Delegates from the Abolition Societies,
established in different parts of the United States, as-
sembled at Philadelphia, on the first day of January,
1794," &c. &c. The same volume contains also the
constitution and act of incorporation of one of these
societies, of which Benjamin Franklin was president,
and, singular as it may seem to us now, the Rt. Hon.
William Pitt, Dr. Lettsom, Lafayette, and a whole
host of distinguished "foreigners," are among the names
mentioned in the act — and these persons, foreigners
and all, gentlemen, and ^'- tlieir successors,'^ are "declared
and created to be one body politic and corporate in
deed and in law, by the name, style, and title of " The
Pennsylvania Society for promoting the Abolition of Sla-
very, and for the relief of free negroes unlawfully held
in bondage and for improving the condition of the
African race," ifec. &c. — and this is the preamble of their

" It having pleased the Creator of the world to make
of one flesh all the children of men, it becomes them to
consult and promote each other's happiness, as 7nemhers
of the same family, however diversified they may be


by color, situation, religion, or different states of society.
It is more especially the duty of those persons, who pro-
fess to maintain for themselves the rights of human
nature, and who acknowledge the ohligaiions of Chris-
tianity, to use such means as are in their power to ex-
tend the blessings of freedom to every part of the human
race ; and in a more particular manner, to such of their
fellow-creatures as are entitled to freedom by the laws
and constitutions of any of the United States, and who.
notwithstanding, are detained in bondage by fraud, and
violence. From a full conviction of the truth and obli-
gation of these principles, fi^om a desire to diffuse them^
wherever the miseries and vices of Slavery exist, ^^ &c.
&c. &c. Such is the preamble to the constitution of
the society ; and, among the long array of venerable
names connected with it, we find some of those, which,
two years before, had been attached to that Constitution
of these United States, which is now held to frown so
sternly on such movements. And what did this society
do, gentlemen ? Just what the abolitionists propose to do
now. They petitioned Congress to do what they could
towards the abolition of slavery. The following is a
part of their memorial, which showed that,

'•'From a regard for the happiness of mankind, an
association was formed, several years since, in this State^
Pennsylvania, by a number of her citizens of various
religious denomhiations, for promoting the abolition of
slavery, and for the relief of those unlawfully held in
bondage. A just and acute conception of the true prin-
ciples of liberty, as it spread through the land, produced
accessions to their numbers, many friends to their cause,
and a legislative cooperation with their views, which,
by the blessing of Providence, have been successfully
directed to the relieving from bondage a large number of
their fellow-creatures of the African race. They have
also the satisfaction to observe, that, in consequence of
that spirit of philanthropy and genuine liberty, which is
generally diffusing its beneficial influence, similar insti-
tutions are forming at home and abroad.

^' That mankind are all formed by the same Almighty


Being, alike objects of his care and equally designed
for the enjoyment of happiness, the Christian rehgion
teaches us to believe, and the political creed of Americans
fully coincides with the position. Your memorialists,
particularly engaged in attending to the distresses
arising from slavery, believe it to be their indispensable
duty to present this subject to your notice. They have
observed with real satisfaction that many important and
salutary powers are vested in you for ' promoting the
welfare and securing the blessings of liberty to the peo-
ple of the United States ; ' and as they conceive, that
these blessings ought rightfully to be administered,
without distinction of color ^ to ail descriptions of people,
so they indulge themselves in the pleasing expectation,
that nothing, which can be done for the relief of the
unhappy objects of their care, will be either omitted or

" From a persuasion that equal liberty was originally
the portion, and is still the birth-right of all men ; and
influenced by the strong ties of humanity, and the prin-
ciples of their institution, your memorialists conceive
themselves bound to use all justifiable endeavours to
loosen the bands of slavery, and promote a general en-
joyment of the blessings of freedom. Under these im-
pressions, they earnestly entreat your serious attention
to the subject of slavery ; that you will be pleased to
countenance the restoration of liberty to those unhappy
men, who alone, in this land of freedom, are degraded
into perpetual bondage, and who, amidst the general joy
of surrounding freedom, are groaning in servile subjection,
that you will promote mercy and justice towards this
distressed race, and that you will step to the very verge
of the poicer vested in you for discouraging every species
of traffic in the persons of our fellow-men.

Signed, Benjamin Franklin, President.

This memorial was read in Congress on the 12th of
February, 1790; and how was it received? Gentlemen,
there is nothing new under the sun. The mind of man
runs its little mill-horse round, treading over and over


again the same worn footpath. On the question of com-
mitment, Mr. Tucker of South Carolina said, that "he
was surprised to see a memorial on this subject, and
that signed by a man loho ought to have known the Con-
stitution better. He thought it a mischievous attempt,
as it respected the persons in whose favor it was in-
tended. It would buoy them up with hopes, without
a foundation, and as they could not reason on the sub-
ject, as more enlightened men would, they might be
led to do, what they would be punished for, and the
owners of them, in their own defence, would be com-
pelled to exercise over them a severity, they were not
accustomed to. Do these men expect a general eman-
cipation of slaves by law ? This would never be sub-
mitted to by the Southern States without a civil war.
Do they mean to purchase their freedom ? He believed
their money would fall short of their price. But how is
it they are more concerned in this business than others ?
Are they the only persons who possess religion and
morality ? &c. &c. &c. ; and to say the best of this
memorial, it is an act of imprudence, which he hoped
would have no countenance from the House."

Mr. Seney of Maryland "denied that there was any
thing unconstitutional in the memorial, at least, if there
was, it had escaped his attention, and should be obliged
to the gentleman to point it out," &c. &c. &c.

Mr. Burke of South Carolina " saiv the disposition of
the House, and he feared it would be referred to a com-
mittee, maugre all their opposition ; but he must insist
that it prayed for an unconstitutional measure, &c. vfcc.
He was certain the commitment would sound an alarm,
and blow the trumpet of sedition in the Southern States.
He was sorry to see the petitioners paid more attention
to than the Constitution,'" &c. &c.

Mr. Scott of Pennsylvania said, "I cannot entertain a
doubt but the memorial is strictly agreeable to the con-
stitution. I cannot, for my part, conceive how any
person can be said to acquire a property in another ; I do
not stand in need of religious motives to induce me to
reprobate the traffic in human flesh ; other considerations


weigh with me to support the commitment of the me-
morial and every constitutional measure likely to bring
about its total abolition. Perhaps in our legislative
capacity we can go no farther than to impose a duty of
ten dollars, but / do not know how far I migld go. if I
was one of the Judges of the United States, and those
people were to come before me and claim their emancipa-
tion, hut I am sure I ivould go as far as I could.^'

Mr. Jackson of Georgia* "differed with the gentleman
last up, and supposed the master had ?i ciualified property
in his slave. The gentleman said, he did not stand in
need of religion to induce him to reprobate slavery ; but
if he is guided by that evidence, which the Christian
system is founded on, he will find that religion is not
against it, he will see, from Genesis to Revelation, the
current setting strong that way. Let me ask the gen-
tleman, if it is policy to bring forward a business, at this
moment, likely to light up the flame of civil discord ?
The gentleman says, if he was a federal judge, he does
not know to what length he would go in emancipating
this people ; but I believe his judgment would be of
short duration in Georgia: perhaps even the existence of
such a judge might he in danger.'^

Mr. Baldwin of Georgia "was sorry the subject had
ever been brought before Congress, because it was of a
delicate nature,''^ &c.

Mr. Smith of South-Carolina said, " When we entered
into this confederacy, we did it from political f not from
Qnor^al motives, and I do not think my constituents want
to learn morals from the petitioners. / do not helieve
they want improvement in their 'moral system : if they
do, they can get it at home. Such is the state of agri-
culture in that country that, without slaves, it must be
depopulated. Why will these people, then, make use
of arguments to induce the slave to turn his hand against
his master? "

Mr. Page of Virginia "was in favor of the commit-

* Sec note D. t See note E.


ment. The object of the memorial was, that Congress
would consider whether it be not in reahty within their
power to exercise justice and mercy, which, if adhered
to, they cannot doubt must produce the aboUtion of the
slave trade, ifcc. &c.

"With respect to the alarm that was apprehended, he
conjectured there was none ; but there might be a just
cause, if the memorial was not taken into consideration.
He placed himself in the case of a slave, and said, that on
hearing that Congress had refused to listen to the decent
suggestions of a respectable part of the community, he
should infer that the General Government had shut their
ears against the voice of humanity, and he should despair
of any alleviation of the miseries he and his posterity
had in prospect ; if any thing could induce hini to
rebel, it must be a stroke like this, impressing on his mind
all the horrors of despair.-^

Notwithstanding the alarm, gentlemen, the memorial
was committed, by a vote of 43 against 11.

The report was offered on the IGtli of March, and was
as follows : —

"That, from the nature of the matters contained in
those memorials, they were induced to examine the
powers vested in Congress, under the present constitu-
tion, relating to the abolition of slavery, and are clearly
of opinion,

" First, That the General Government is expressly
restrained iVom prohibiting the importation of such per-
sons -' as any of the States, 7iow existing, shall think
proper to admit, until the year 180S.'

" Secondly, That Congress, by a fair construction of
the Constitution, are equally restrained from interfering
in the emancipation of slaves, who already are, or who

1 3

Online LibraryGamaliel] [BradfordA letter to the Hon. Harrison Gray Otis, Peleg Sprague, and Richard Fletcher, esq. .. → online text (page 1 of 3)