Horace Bushnell.

A discourse on the slavery question, delivered in the North Church, Hartford, Thursday evening, Jan.10,1839 online

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Online LibraryHorace BushnellA discourse on the slavery question, delivered in the North Church, Hartford, Thursday evening, Jan.10,1839 → online text (page 1 of 3)
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Tlmrsday E^vening, Jan, 10, 1839.







To THE North Church and Congregation.

Brethren and Friends :

I readily acknowledge your property in my discourse, and yield it to
your service. Receivp it as a proof of my regard, in the truth. Knowing the
Christian good nature, with which some of your number who differ with me, have
received my discourse and concurred in its publication, I yield it up with a mixture
of sorrow and affection; wishing it were possible to make it more agreeable to
their views, and, especially, to those feelings of eternal attachment, of which they
make me conscious. H. B.


And falling into a place where two seas met, they ran the ship aground.

Navigation is dangerous, where two seas meet. The transi-
tion to my subject is obvious.

But let me remind you in passing, that Paul, who was pilot in
this memorable scene, did much more magnify his office, than if he
had only dared to speak in fair sailing and still water. Perhaps
too, it may serve your comfort to add the last words of the chap-
ter — And it came to pass, that they all escaped safe to land.*

Some of you will recollect that I addressed you on the subject
of Slavery at an early period, or within a few days of the first
outbreak of that movement which has since agitated our country.
The approach of some great struggle and final contest of opinion
on this subject, had long been evident, and the flame which now
burst out so fiercely hot, I did not doubt, must burn, either wisely
or madly, till the decree of an Irreversible Providence was accom-
plished in the downfal of this hideous institution. Not enlisting
therefore, in a vain attempt to controvert God's providence, I made
it my first care to fix the principles which ought to govern our

* The reader will easily imagine circumstances in a congregation, which might
give pertinency to the text, and to this little preface, and make them serviceable
m the promotion of good nature.

inquiries and preside in the settlement of our opinions. My
attempt was to subject the movement, as far as we are concerned,
to principle, and infuse into it the sober influence of reason and
intelligence. And now, after watching the movement for so long
a time, reading, conversing, hearing, with a mind fully open, as I
think, to conviction, it is a great satisfaction to me that I find occa-
sion to alter no one of the principles laid down, but, on the con-
trary, the best and sometimes the most painful reasons for adher-
ing to them, with greater firmness. I only think that I could now
state those principles with greater force and clearness. The
development of new facts also, since that time, might induce me to
alter the shade of one or two opinions then advanced subject to
those principles.

Since the time of which I speak, the discussion here in our city,
except so far as Colonization has been concerned, has been all in
a given line ; and in support of measures, in which I have never
been quite able to harmonize. I have been purposing, therefore,
for some months past, and looking for an opportunity to interpose
some views of a different complexion.

Nor has it been a less cogent motive with me, that I am often
pained to hear advanced opinions altogether unworthy of human-
ity and of that Christian liberty which can say with Paul — I was
free born : — opinions I must think, which if they come of hostil-
ity in one direction, have too strong an odor of servility in an-

My object this evening will be to present a general view of the
whole subject of slavery as related to the question of abolition. Of
course I shall not be able to bring set arguments for every asser-
tion made. My hope is rather to present a view, which taken in
the whole, will appear to be so reasonably cast, as to furnish its
own evidence.

As regards the matter of abolishing slavery in the Southern
portions of our country, there are two great questions, which
arise for discussion and settlement.

I. Whether such abolition is possible, or a duty obligatory on
the Southern Legislatures. And

11. What is our duty in reference to the subject ; what meas-
ures, if any, ought we to adopt with a view to hasten the result.

Let us glance at these questions separately..

The attempt has been often made, to show that holding a per-
son in legal bondage is of course a sin in all cases, and in every
moment of its continuance, — no matter what the circumstances,
no matter what the laws of the State, I believe it is now gene-
rally understood by the Anti-Slavery* advocates, that they gain
nothing by the argument, and in fact, that it has no foundation in
truth. The ground is too narrow. A thousand cases could be
stated, in time sufficient for the statement, where no man in his
senses, while the present laws continue in force, would charge
the mere temporary holding of slaves as a crime. And in
this view, all that we have heard in the way of calling our
countrymen pirates, man-stealers, and the like, is a mere indis-
criminate raving, entitled to no respect, and having no apology
but ignorance. Or if an attempt be made to reason out the jus-
tice of these epithets, it is only by that small logic, which distin-
guishes the class of petty Reformers.

If our countrymen are guilty in this matter of slavery, it is in
not holding what they know to be truth concerning it — not doing
what they are able, as individuals, properly enlightened, to pro-
duce a right action in their legislatures — and neglecting, in the
mean time, to guard the well-being of their slaves by acts of
parental and Christian kindness. That many of them incur great
personal guilt in the matter is not to be questioned. But yet, when
we speak of them, we ought to remember the fearfulness and dif-
ficulty of their state. Which way soever they turn, they meet
the view of something dark or frightful. It is too much to expect
of them that they will look at the subject very coolly — the infirm-
ity of human nature is scarcely equal to any such moderation.
Besides, they are born into the institution, and it is one of the ami-
able and dutiful tendencies of human nature to approve or rest in
the established habits and customs of ancestors. And thus, Wi\h-

* \\\st\.\ie.ierm Anti-Slavery in this discourse to dtisignate the society and its
members : and the terms abolition or abolitionist without any such reference, but aa
terms of description.


out vindicating slavery on the one hand, or imputing it to mere
pride, avarice, and ferocity, on the other, we find much to soften
our judgments and teacfi us a just forbearance. If there was
ever a people on earth involved in crime, who yet deserved sym-
pathy and gentlenesss at the hands of the good, it is the slave-hold-
ing portion of our country.

But while I say this, there are some three or four features in
American slavery, which no Christian, no man who has the com-
mon feelings of humanity, can think of without pity, disgust, and
shame, I am reluctant even to make any exception here, in favor
of those educated in slavery ; for I have never found a truly vir-
tuous minded man, from the slave-holding country, who did not
yield what I say. The features, of which I speak, are such, if we
look them in the face, as forbid all apology, all argument. Our
nature positively refuses to reason farther. Not that we are
here to give ourselves up to mere impulse, and forsvi^ear the
exercise of -our judgment, but that we are rea^y to judge, and
to say at the first flash of vision — away with it — nothing can be
worse — any thing beside must be better.

The obnoxious features in American slavery of which I speak
are these.

First and chief of all is the non-permission of the family state,
by the denial of marriage rites ; by tearing asunder those parents
whom God, more merciful than the laws, has doubtless accepted in
the rites of nature ; by stripping their children from their arms ; by
disallowing, if I should not rather say, extinguishing every affec-
tion which makes life human. I know of no term but one, which
designates this feature of slavery. It is, without a figure, the
cattle-state imported into humanity.

Another feature of American slavery is the absence of any real
protection to the body of the slave, in respect to limb, life, or chas-
tity. I am not ignorant of the various laws, in the statute-books,
against extreme punishments and cruel usage in various respects.
Still, it is philosophically true, that there are no such statutes, and
they are not to be named in making out the legal viev^r of slavery.
For, owing to the exclusion of testimony against their masters, on
the part of slaves, (necessary, perhaps, as a part of the histitu-
tion,) owing also to the power the master has to overawe their
complaints, or to take revenge afterwards, in case any attempt is

made to find protection against his cruelty, it may be said that they
CAN do nothing, but bow their body to fury and lust, and vent their
griefs in tears, which none but God will notice or regard.
I blush also to say, that, in a certain high point of civilized honor
and humanity, not even the form of a law exists, to maintain the
show of protection.

A third feature of American slavery, as a legal institution, is
that it nowhere recognizes, in the slave, a moral or intellectual
nature. He exists for another ; — in himself he is no man. He is a
muscular being only, in the laws, or, rather I should say, he is a
muscular tool, a thing composed of arms and legs and various
integuments convenient to do work with. A frightful system of
legalized selfishness has robbed him of himself. Light is denied
him, the windows of his soul are shut up by express statute. As
a creature of conscience, a creature of immortal wants, a crea-
ture in God's image, he has no legal existence.

Now observe — when I fix upon these three features of slavery
and take my stand for abolition before them, I do by no means
regard the view they present, as a picture of slavery in the life. I
only say — this is what the law permits it to be. The great
truth is here — the law draws back from the slave's well-being
and protection, and leaves him, virtually, in the absolute power of
his master as to family, as to body, as to mind, that is, as to every
thing of any value in his being. The condition of the slave, thus
deserted, is seldom as desperate as the law suffers it to be. In this
matter, he depends entirely upon the mercy, or the caprice of his
master. Sometimes, of course, he finds a parent in his master.
Oftener he only exists, under him, in the rank of a tolerably well-
kept drudge. No reasonable man, however, needs any other
proof, than that masters are men, to assure him that, in the exer-
cise of a power over their slaves so nearly absolute, there must
be scenes of crime and woe, too horrid and foul for the inspection
of day. For myself, I cannot think of slavery, in this view,
knowing as I do, the selfishness, the ferocity, the demoralized
passions of men, without such a sense of its woes and cruelties as
I cannot restrain. It compels me to say — I will not reason the
matter farther. No facts, no arguments, no apprehensions of
mischief in a change, shall put me at peace with these things.
They ought to be, will be, must be put away. And this to me is
the abolition of slavery.


I say to the South, this institution is your own, not ours. Take
your own way of proceeding. Modify your system as you
please. Invent any new fashion of society you please, or intro-
duce any old fashion. Create you a serfdom, or a villein socage,
or sweep the whole fabric away. But let me declare to you
that, until you have established the family state and made it sacred,
till you have given security to the body, till you have acknow-
ledged the immortal mind and manhood of your slave, you do
an offence to God and humanity, in the continuance of this
institution, which we must condemn. In this sense, I am ready
to go for the abolition of slavery, and I cannot think that any
man in New England, is so lost to the spirit of liberty and hu-
manity as to feel otherwise.

You observe here, that I rest myself, not on any vagrant
rumors or stories of hideous oppression. I fix on three simple
points in the ground work of slavery, where I can study it,
separate from all passion. I see it, in eadi of these three points, to
be clearly distinguished from that institution endured or licensed,
under the name of bondage, in the law of Moses, As a mere
being of reason too, and natural feeling, I see enough, at first
glance, in it, to put me into instant opposition. And that not in
disregard of consequences : for I say .at once, that a just God
never did or will make it necessary that such an institution should
continue. There can be no consequences worse than the thing
itself, provided there be a disposition on all sides, to concur in its
abolition, and no obstructions be thrown in the way, by ill-advised
and pernicious measures.

I do not, of course, forbid, when I shut up the subject to this
confined but conclusive view, that the discussion shall take a
wider range.

Let facts be set forth. Not such as merely show the fero-
city of some men, but such as show the ferocity of slavery. If it
were my object to sweep away the marriage state, what horrid
examples of cruelty in husbands could I produce. But such
examples would be only specimens of monstrosity in men, not
proofs of the merits of the domestic state. Draw out then the
portrait of the domestic slave trade. Describe the disgusting
scene of a slave-purchase in the market. Portray the miserable


slave-gang marching oft" to the far south-west, silent, weary, and
sick at heart, for the wives and children left behind and never to
be seen or heard of again on earth. Weep over the stain, which
slavery brings upon the honor of our common country. Ex-
hibit, in its true color, the miserable falsification which slavery
gives to all our boasted pretences of liberty, our avowed princi-
ples of equality. Deprecate the judgments of a just God. Show
the moral darkness of the great region of slavery, and claim it as
the right of Jesus Christ, that his gospel should be preached
and read by the slaves, and their immortal manhood acknow-
ledged : giving due credit always to those masters, who have so
far honored their Lord, as to become the instructors and guardi-
ans of their slaves ; and to those ministers of Christ, who have
been the faithful dispensers of salvation, among so many discour-

Take up the prudential view, and show the masters, as you
may by unquestionable facts, that if they should prefer to give
their slaves entire freedom, they may do it with perfect safety.
Show them, also, that they will lose nothing by emancipation.
The slaves will still exist on their soil, and constitute an article of
the general wealth, as truly as now. The labor-power will not
be destroyed, and it will be commanded at as cheap a rate as
now. Their plantations will produce as much, and the income
of their whole territory will be as great as now. So true is this,
that I would never consent to give them any compensation for
the loss of their slaves, by emancipation. Let them be remind-
ed, withal, that by the simple act of abolition, they will give
themselves ten or twenty representatives in Congress, above
their present number.

It ought to be a matter of great weight with us here at the
North, though difficult to be used in any appeal to the South,
that slavery has no agreement with the spirit of our institutions.
Their electors are not simple freemen, in the Northern sense.
They are rather so many little doges or sheiks who come together
to vote in their own name and in that of their slaves. The
equality, they speak of, is not the equality of citizens, but of so
many masterships or slavedoms. The notions bred in them by
their education, are too often correspondent. They grow up in com-
mand, not in concession. In childhood they make law, not learn
subordination to it. They invigorate their will, but not their


notions of equal justice. Their organ is power, not reason. And,
accordingly, when they come into the Congress of the nation,
they too often come with a jealous and imperious spirit, which
well nigh disqualifies them for a place in that reasoning and de-
liberative body. You have too long seen and felt what I speak
of to be ignorant of my meaning. Here is the point, where our
institutions have ever been most incommoded and their security
most endangered.

It will instruct us also, in examining this subject, to advert,
or rather to keep our eye fixed on the general movement of hu-
manity in this and past ages. From the day when the feudal
system received its death blow, to the present hour, the sun has
not been more '"steady in his circuit, than the civilized world
in its advance towards principles of liberty and equality.
This advance is the law of human existence, which you can no
more controvert than you can the law of the heavenly bodies.
It was this which found a tongue and awakened a moral sense
against the slave-trade in the British Parliament ; this which
opened British India to light ; this which moved the popular
reformers of the British Government ; this which, at length,
destroyed, by a grand stroke of legislation, the system of slavery
in the British Colonies. The independent existence of our
nation, and the new example of self-government here raised up,
within the past century, are the sign of a mighty purpose, which
penetrates the whole movement of humanity. We hear too,
at this moment, that the Czar of Russia is preparing the emanci-
pation of his serfs, and that all the monarchs on the Continent of
Europe are vieing with each other in the matter of popular educa-
tion. After so many ages of deferred hope and ineffectual striving,
the day of the people has come ! — man is now to be recognized in
the rights of his being, and valued in his immortal properties.

I turn here, on the one hand, to our Southern brethren, and say,
here is a force in motion which you cannot long resist. The
law of human society is against you, and you can as easily drive
back the sun. The moral position of the world begins to reflect
a peculiar disgrace on your institutions. You feel it now ; you
will feel it more ; you will be compelled to yield to the feeling.
I make no doubt that you are now firmly resolved to face out
the odium of the human race ; but you cannot hold that resolve.
Man's will is stout enough for a short time, but it can no


more hold out in a long strain, than the muscles of his arm or
his leg.

I turn on the other hand, to our Anti-Slavery brethren, and
say, do not regard yourselves too hastily, as the beginning of a
movement for liberty, or assume too much consequence to your-
selves in the organization you have raised up. Neither conclude,
too hastily, that what you are doing is a real advantage. The
destruction of slavery vv^ill be accomplished, either with you, or
without you; or, if you make it necessary, in spite of you.
There is a law, in the case, above you, and above us all. The
river has been in motion for ages, with a deep, strong, broad-
sweeping current. You may disturb the clearness of its waters,
you may pump off some fraction of it into bye trenches and
ponds ; but still, it will flow on in its predestined course, in the
power and undiverted majesty of Him who bids it flow.

We cannot avoid asking too, as we discuss this subject, what
will be the result to the slaves, if emancipated 1 Will it do them any
real service? In reply to this question, I am obliged to say that I do
not anticipate any such bright destiny opening on the African race,
in this country, as seems to occupy the vision of our Anti-Slavery
brethren. They cherish egregious expectations, in this matter, I
am confident, and the zeal which actuates them is, so far, out
of proportion. Their action would be more healthful, if they had
a more modest estimate of the good, which is probably to be
accomplished, in behalf of the colored race. The vision of a new
created, enlightened race of Christian freemen, which they ever
hold up before them, to inflame their benevolence and swell their
appeals, I am sorry to feel, has too slender a support in the sober
facts of history and the laws of population ascertained in political
science. There is no example in history, where an uncultivated
and barbarous stock has been elevated in the midst of a culti-
vated and civilized stock ; and I have no expectation that there
ever will be. When the Goths overrun Italy, they held, of course,
the position of power themselves, and were, in fact, quite as ele-
vated in their stock, as the Roman people, with the exception of
some few noble families. On the other hand, the ancient Britons,
the primitive stock of the island, being a barbarous race, soon
dwindled to extinction under their Saxon conquerors. The
Aborigines of our own continent, both in South and North
America, are rapidly hastening towards the same fate. In


British India, New Holland, and South Africa, a like result is
also approaching. My expectation is that the African race, in
this country, would soon begin to dwindle towards extinction,
in the same way, if emancipated. Some few persons would, of
course, be much elevated by their new privileges ; as we see in
the case of individuals among our Indian tribes. I am far from
thinking that the African is incapable of elevation. We have
facts enough to prove the contrary. The difficulty is to elevate
the race as a race among us. Our fathers were able, by their
missions among the Indians, to produce some ripe examples of
character, but they could never lift any whole tribe into such ad-
vancement as to save them from extinction. So in attempting
to elevate the African race among us, there is too great a disad-
vantage against them in the beginning, to allow any hope of
success. They need five hundred or a thousand years of culti-
vation to give them a fair chance. They cannot maintain the
competition, they will be preyed upon and over-reached, they
will not respect themselves, they will grow discouraged, they
will,many of them, betake themselves to idleness, vice, and crime;
by all these conjoint influences they will be kept down and grad-
ually diminished in numbers. At present they are kept from a
decline in population, only by the interest their masters have in
them. Their law of population, now, is the same as that of neat
cattle, and as the herd will dwindle when the herdsman with-
draws his care, so will they. It would not be strange, if vices,
which taint the blood and cut down life, should, within fifty years,
penetrate the whole stock, and begin to hurry them off', in a pro-
cess of premature extinction ; as we know to be the case with
another barbarous people, now fast yielding to the infection of

If we suppose that Christian benevolence will undertake for
the race and will rescue them from the doom, otherwise sure to
overtake them, doubtless much will be attempted and much done
in that way. But the work is so great, the amount of Christian
instruction and patronage requisite, so far beyond the possible
supply, as effectually to cut off" all hope of success. An attempt
has been in progress, in this city, for many years, to elevate the
African race. The most active and zealous members of our
churches have labored in the work with much of their Master's
patience and fidelity. Progress has indeed been made. But


these brethren will tell you, that they have discouragements to
contend with, which no one could know, who had not tried
the deficiencies of an uncultivated race. But when can you
expect, that the immense colored population of the South will
find a body of Christian teachers and friends engaged for them,
as well manned, and vigorous, and bountiful, as the patrons of
this little school and church ? Not a tenth, not a fiftieth of this
labor and charity can ever be their lot.

Furthermore, I have facts to show the probable decline of our
colored population in a state of freedom, which leave us no need
of speculation. Take the case of the Irish. It is not true, as
many suppose, that they become an integral part of our nation
to any considerable extent. They become extinct. It is very
seldom that their children born in this country live to mature

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Online LibraryHorace BushnellA discourse on the slavery question, delivered in the North Church, Hartford, Thursday evening, Jan.10,1839 → online text (page 1 of 3)