James M. (James Madison) MacDonald.

The perfect law of liberty. An address, delivered in Rehoboth church, Iowa, July 4th, 1860 online

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Online LibraryJames M. (James Madison) MacDonaldThe perfect law of liberty. An address, delivered in Rehoboth church, Iowa, July 4th, 1860 → online text (page 1 of 4)
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JULY 4TH, 1860.







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The subject on which you have invited me to speak, is one of no
ordinary magnitude and importance. The interest which it is awaken-
ing, the agitation which it is producing, and the " irrepressible con-
flict" which it has created between hostile parties, invest it with an
importance possessed by few, if any other questions, in morals or po-
litics. In the consideration of this subject the strongest emotions,
and the tenderest sympathies of our nature are excited. The Creator
" has made of one blood all nations of men to dwell on all the face of
the earth." The human race, therefore, possesses a common nature,
and forms one universal brotherhood, so that members of the human
family ought to be able to say in the language of Juvenal, a native of
Africa, and once a Roman slave — "I am a man, and I FEEL AN inte-
rest IN EVERY thing that concerns humanity."

If it be so that men form one common brotherhood, and have a
common nature, then the wrong done to one is wrong done to all.
For the principle which justifies the enslaving of an African, will
equally justify the enslaving of the European or American. The mo-
rality or religion which teaches that it is right to enslave the black
man, also teaches the justice of enslaving the white man, for morality
and religion know nothing of distinctions founded on the colour of the
skin. Let it be proved that it is right to enslave the dark-skinned
man and woman, and it is proved that we may take the proudest son
of nobility, and the fairest daughter of luxury and refinement, and
sell them like beasts in the market. Strange, then, it is indeed, that
every one who cherishes a sacred regard for the invaluable right of
life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, does not cry out against
slavery as an intolerable wrong to humanity.

Additional importance is given to this question by the fact that the
slaveholder and his abettors attempt to take shelter under the shield
of the holy religion of Christ. The apologist for slavery turns with
sanctimonious mien to the sacred Oracles, and triumphantly exclaims,
"Here is my warrant for enslaving my fellow-men." Who, then, that
regards the Bible as the great charter of human liberty, and the gospel
as breathing the spirit of Him who was anointed to preach the gospel

* Published by request of the Audience.

[ 4 ]

to the poor, was sent to heal the broken-hearted, to preach delive-
rance to the captives, and to set at liberty them that are bruised, does
not feel his soul kindling with indignation at the profanity of the man
who thrusts his hands into that sacred ark, to bring forth chains and
manacles for human limbs? Grant that the Bible sanctions slavery,
and the star of human hope sets for ever, and the darkness of despair
settles down on the oppressed and struggling races of men. But,
blessed be its eternal Author, every page is full of encouragement.
Its statutes secure to man his right to liberty, its divine songs breathe
consolation for the oppressed, and teach him to sing of the vengeance
treasured up for the oppressor.

The question is, then, very naturally suggested, Why is it that there
are on the earth so many millions of oppressed, notwithstanding more
than eighteen centuries have elapsed since heavenly messengers pro-
claimed at the advent of the Saviour, "On earth peace, and good- will
to men?" Is it the practical application of that religion which he
taught? Nay, it is the violation of its principles, the transgression
of its precepts, the utter disregard and trampling under foot its laws,
that has made one part of our race abject slaves, and the other tyrants
and despots to harass and spoil them.

I shall, therefore, devote the time allowed me on this occasion to
an examination of the laws and principles of the Old and New Testa-
ment, so far as they relate to this subject. The propriety and the
necessity of such an examination, is obvious. 1. The Bible is the
source to which the ablest advocates of slavery always appeal. Mi-
nisters of the gospel, with shame the confession is made, are the most
unblushing defenders of the system, and their appeal is always to the
Scriptures. It is proper, then, to meet them, and vanquish them,
if possible, on their own chosen ground. 2. There are no doubt many
persons deluded into the belief that slavery is sanctioned by the Scrip-
tures of truth. 3. The teaching of pro-slavery ministers and churches
has made, and is still making scores, yea hundreds and thousands of
infidels. The very light of nature shows that the dogma, which asserts
that one man may hold property in another, is the proton-pseudos,
or first lie of the age. And hence men very naturally conclude that
if the Bible contains that doctrine, it cannot have proceeded from the
same just and holy. God who created them, and laid deep in their moral
constitution " the self-evident truth that all men are created free and
equal, and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable
rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."
4. Political action alone is not sufficient to settle this great question.
It may contribute to this end, but it may be safely said that history
affords no instance of any great moral question being settled by mere
political action. The ground on which, as a question of morals, it
must be settled, is this — the law of God is the supreme rule govern-
ing men in every relation of life, and that law contains no warrant
for slaveholding; but, on the contrary, expressly condemns it.

It is necessary to the successful examination of this subject, that
we understand clearly and definitely what slavery is. It is impossi-
ble to speak intelligently on any subject, unless we understand it.
And in defining slavery, the properties of a true definition must not
be forgotten. A definition, to be complete, should "unfold the whole

[ 5 ]

of what is involved in the meaning of the word defined; that is, (when
it is a connotative word,) the whole of what it connotes. In defining
a name, however, it is not usual to specify its entire connotation, but
so much only as is sufficient to mark out the objects usually denoted
by it from all other known objects." * Webster thus explains : — " De-
finition. In logic, the explication of the essence of a thing by its
kind and difference." No definition of slavery, then, can be regarded
as adequate which does not give its distinctive attribute.

Guided by these rules, we readily perceive the imperfection of
many of the definitions given by writers and speakers on this sub-
ject. Dr. Paley defines it to be involuntary servitude. He says: —
" Servitude differs from slavery in this, that the servant contracts to
work for his master; while the slave, without such contract, is com-
pelled to labour." f This is incomplete, because it does not distin-
guish it from other kinds of service. A child is required to labour
for its parents, without its consent; and if a parent or guardian binds
a child or ward as an apprentice, it is required to labour without its
consent, but who regards it as a slave? Dr. Rice's definition is still
more defective. He defines it to be simply the claim of one man to
the services of another. " If there is any thing necessarily included
in slaveholding, except the claim of one man to the services of another,
will Mr. B. please inform us what it is?"! But does this give us a
single distinctive feature of slavery? If one man hires another, and
pays him for his labour, he has a claim on his services, but is he his
slave? The master has a claim on the service of an apprentice for
the consideration of teaching him a valuable trade, is he therefore a
slave? If we employ an attorney, and pay him his fees, we have a
claim on his services. If a congregation calls a minister, and pays
him a salary, there is a claim established to his services. If we em-
ploy a physician by the year, and pay him, we have a claim on his
services. Are all these, therefore, slaves? They are, according to
Dr. R's. definition. Is it not, however, a little remarkable, that it
should be thought necessary to spend four days in an effort to prove
that it is not in itself sinful for one man to have a claim on the ser-
vices of another? Inasmuch as this has never been denied, his la-
bour is briefly described in the following words — " carrying coals to

What, then, constitutes slavery ? It is the holding of property in
man. The master claims that the slave is his property, subject to
bargain and sale, just as is his horse. Slavery not being a natural
relation, is just whatever the laws regulating the system make it: and
history shows that these laws have been much the same in every age
and nation in which slavery has ever existed. According to t^e
Roman law, the slave was the property of his master. Adams says: —
" Slaves were not esteemed as persons, but as things, and might be
transferred from one owner to another, like any other effects. They
could not make a will, nor inherit any thing?" § Another writer says
that they were held, "pro nullis, pro mortu/'s, pro quadruped ibus:"
that is, for nothing, for dead, for beast3. The same principle per-

* Mills' Logic, p. 77. f Moral Philosophy, p. SO.

% Debates with Blanckard, p. 32. $ Roman Antiquities, p. 43.

[ 6 ]

vades the slave laws of this country. The Civil Code of South Caro-
lina contains the following statute: — "Slaves shall be deemed sold,
taken, reputed and adjudged in law to be chattels personal in the
hands of their owners and possessors, and their executors, adminis-
trators, and assigns, to all intents, constructions, and purposes what-
soever." * This principle is found in all the laws of the slave states,
and in all the decisions of the courts in relation to slavery. In a suit
brought for the recovery of the children of a slave mother, the children
having been bequeathed by the will of the master before they were
born, the claim of the plaintiff was sustained by the higher courts on
the following ground: — "He who is the absolute owner of a tiling,
owns all its faculties for profit or increase, and he may, no doubt,
grant the profits or increase, as well as the thing itself." f But there
is no necessity to multiply proof. Take away this element from the
laws, strip the master of the right to call his slave his property, and
slavery is effectually and for ever abolished.

The question then is, Do the laws of the Old and New Testament
sanction slavery; that is, the holding of property in man? This ques-
tion must be answered in the negative. It is not sanctioned —

I. In the patriarchal servitude. To this the advocate of slavery
refers, as affording very plain evidence that slavery is a Bible institu-
tion. He appeals to the fact that "Abraham had servants born in
his house, and bought with money." But it is not easy to see where
the force of this allegation lies. In order to establish the position
which it is brought to prove, it must be shown that these servants
were slaves; or, in other words, were goods and chattels personal to
all intents and purposes whatsoever; for' if they were not, it will
never prove slavery to be right. That they were not slaves, appears
from the following considerations:

1. They do not seem to have been regarded as constituting the
wealth of the patriarchs. When their wealth alone is spoken of, lan-
guage such as the following is used: — "And Abram was very rich in
cattle, and in silver and in gold." (Gen. xiii. 2.) When his great-
ness is spoken of in connexion with his wealth, then his servants are
mentioned. "And he said, I am Abraham's servant, and the Lord
hath blessed my master greatly; and he is become great: and he hath
given him flocks, and herds, and silver and gold, and men-servants
and maid-servants, and camels and asses." (Gen. xxiv. 34, 35.) Of
Isaac it is said: — "And the man waxed great, and went forward, and
grew, until he became great; for he had possessions of flocks, and
possessions of herds, and great store of servants." (Gen. xxvi. 13, 14.)
So, when Rachel and Leah speak of the great riches which God had
taken from their father, and given to Jacob, there is mention made of
his cattle and his goods, but not of his servants. (Gen. xxxi. 16 — 18.)
And when Hamor and Shechem were endeavouring to persuade the
Shechemites to form an alliance with Jacob, they held out as an in-
ducement that all Jacob's substance would be theirs, but they do not
mention his servants as constituting any part of this wealth. (Gen.
xxxiv. 21.) Now it is, to say the least, very remarkable that their ser-
vants arc always left out of the enumeration when their wealth alone
is indicated, if they were property in the hands of their masters.

* Prince's Digest; p. 446. t Wheeler, p. 28.

[ 7 ]

2. The status of these servants must have been very different from
that of a slave, because they were the legal heirs of their masters, in
case the master had no children. "And Abram said, Behold, to me
thou hast given no seed ; and lo, one born in my house is mine heir."
Ishmael, too, the son of Hagar, Sarah's handmaid, was also entitled to
a part of the inheritance. To prevent this, it was also necessary to
drive out Hagar and her son from the family. " Cast out this bond-
woman and her son; for the son of this bond-woman shall not be heir
with my son, even with Isaac." (Gen. xxi. 10.) Now, was it ever
heard that such a thing had occurred in the whole history of slavery?
Was any Southern slaveholder ever under the necessity of driving out
some dark-skinned Hagar, lest her son, and his son, a bright, copper-
coloured Ishmael, should be an heir equally with the children of his
white wife? The very law which creates the status of the slave, for-
bids it. When he is made the goods and chattels of his master, it
would be as preposterous to speak of his being an heir, as it would to
predicate the like of his horse or ox. "A slave is one who is in the
power of a master, to whom he belongs. The master may sell him,
dispose of his person, his industry, and his labour; he can do nothing,
possess nothing, nor acquire anything but what must belong to. his
master."* Had they been slaves, then, of the same class with Ame-
rican slaves, they would have been, in relation to heirship, as well as
every thing else, in the power of the master.

3. The children of female servants, when they became secondary
wives of their masters, were on a perfect equality with the children of
the first wife. Jacob first married two sisters, Leah and Rachel.
Both of these had children. He also took their handmaids, Zilpah and
Bilhah, as secondary wives. These two women also had children, Dan
and Naphtali, Gad and Asher. Now, when Jacob comes to die, and
pronounce the patriarchal benediction on his sons, these children are
placed on a perfect equality with the sons of Leah and Rachel. " Dan
shall judge his people as one of the tribes of Israel." "Out of Asher
his bread shall be fat, and he shall yield royal dainties." (Gen. xxx.
5 — 13; xlix. 16 — 21.) Had these female servants been slaves, their
children never could have been on an equality with the sons of the
first wife; for the laf of slavery is partus sequitur ventrem, the child
follows the condition of the mother. If they had been slaves, this law
would have made their children slaves.

4. The fact of their being bought with money, is no proof that they
were slaves. (1.) Because the Hebrew word, (ka?ia,) translated
" bought," signifies primarily, to create, to found; and secondarily, to
get, to obtain, to acquire. When Cain was born, Eve says: — "I have
gotten (fcanthe) a man from the Lord." (Gen. iv. 1.) Solomon
says: — "With all thy getting, get (Jcena) understanding." (Prov.
iv. 7.) " He that heareth reproof, getteth (Jcana) understand-
ing." (Prov. xv. 32.) In Isaiah xi. 11, it is translated "recover."
" The Lord shall set his hand again the second time to recover (le-
Jcanoth) the remnant of his people." It is evident, then, that the
word, as applied to servants, might with equal propriety be rendered
"obtained," or "acquired." Now, how do men get hired servants?

* Civil Code of Louisiana; Stroud, p. 22.

[ 8 ]

(2.) Because there are many instances mentioned of the buying of
persons, in which slavery is out of the question. It is plain that Ja-
cob bought Leah and Rachel. It is true he did not pay money for
them, but labour; nevertheless they say of their father, "For he hath
sold us." Were they Jacob's slaves? Again, Boaz bought Ruth.
" Moreover Ruth, the Moabitess, the -wife of Mahlon, have I pur-
chased." (Ruth iv. 10.) Was she his slave? We read, too, that the
prophet Hosea made a similar purchase: — " So I bought her to me for
fifteen pieces of silver, and for an homer of barley, and a half ho-
mer of barley." (Hos. iii. 2.) Now all these must have been slaves —
goods and chattels, if Abraham's buying or getting servants with
money converted them into property.

5. The case of Hagar, and her being sent back by the angel, is no
proof that they were slaves. It is, indeed, regarded as very conclu-
sive by pro-slavery men. It is Dr. Rice's first Bible argument in fa-
vour of slaveholding. "My first proof is, that Hagar was the female
slave of Abraham and Sarah." Great stress is laid on the meaning
of the Hebrew word shifha. "Sarah calls her 'my maid.' The He-
brew word shifha, translated maid, signifies a female slave." * In de-
termining the meaning of a word, it is in vain to parade lexicons and
commentaries. There is a higher law by which even lexicons must be
tried, and that law is usage or custom. A Roman rhetorician says,
" Consuetudo omnium clomina rernm, turn maxime verborum est;"
that is, Usage is the mistress of all things, but especially of words.
Horace, in his Ars De Poetica, speaking of the influence of usage, or
custom, in retaining or rejecting words, says: —

"Si volet usus
Queni penes arbitrium est, et jus, et norma loquendi. ,;

which is thus freely rendered by Francis,

"Whose arbitrary sway
The words and forms of language must obey. 1 '

Dr. Campbell, in his Philosophy of Rhetoric, endorses this, and adds:
"Every tongue whatsoever, is founded in use or custom." By this
rule let the word shifha be tried. It is found in the following, among
many other places. Ruth ii. 18: — "Thou hast spoken friendly unto
thine handmaid." Here Ruth calls herself the shtfha of Boaz, and
of course she must have been his female slave ! In 1 Sam. i. 18, Han-
nah speaking to Eli says, " Let thine handmaid (shifha) find grace in
thy sight." Was she Eli's female slave? The wife of Nabal thus ad-
dresses David : — " Let thy handmaid (shifha) abide a servant, to wash
the feet of the servants of my lord." (1 Sam. xxv. 41.) See also 2
Kings iv. 2. It is applied to Bilhah and Zilpah, the handmaids of
Leah and Rachel. (Gen. xxix. 24, 29.) Now, does the application of
this word to them indicate that they were slaves? Josephus, a Jew-
ish priest and historian, undoubtedly understood the Hebrew language
better than any of our modern doctors of divinity, and he says: —
" Zilpah was handmaid to Leah, and Bilhah to Rachel, by no means
slaves; but, however, subject to their mistresses. "f Will any assert that
he did not know the meaning of the word shifha? The meaning of

* Debate with Blanchard, p. 260.

t Jewish Antiquities, p. 40, Morgan & Sanxay Ed.

[ 9 J

the word, then, is a slippery foundation on which to stand in this ar-

Was there any thing, then, in her condition indicating that she was
a slave? No. It has been shown that her son was Abraham's heir,
and consequently her condition was not that of a slave. The treat-
ment which she received at the hand of Sarah is no evidence that she
was a slave. " Hagar," says Dr. Rice, "was punished by Sarali for
contemptuous behaviour." * Another doctor, of the same school, says
that "it was severe corporeal punishment." They both seem to think
that this is pretty plain proof that she was a slave. It might be a
question with some who are not favoured with so much light as doc-
tors of divinity are supposed to have, where they got their information.
The Bible says no such thing. It says, " When Sarah dealt hardly
with her, she fled from her face." (Gen. xvi. 6.) This, however, is
entirely consistent with the idea of her being a hired servant. It is
no uncommon thing to hear hired labourers complaining that their em-
ployers have dealt hardly with them.

There is, moreover, no difficulty in accounting for the angel's direct-
ing her to return, and be subject to her mistress. For the subjection
is no more than is required of them that are hired. The hired la-
bourer is required to submit to the orders of his employer. Bilhah
and Zilpah were subject to their mistresses, though by no means slaves.
And she was under obligations to return, because she had become
Abraham's wife, and as such bound to remain in the house of her hus-
band. Even anti-slavery men advise wives not to leave their husbands.

If Hagar was a slave, why were Abraham and Sarah under the ne-
cessity of driving her out, to prevent Ishmael's inheriting part of the
estate? Why did they not think of selling her and her boy, just as
the pious Christian of the South sells his black concubine, and his and
her children, whenever he wishes to be rid of their presence ? How
was it that they found it necessary to " cast her out," especially when
Sarah was a mistress so very cruel, that she inflicted severe corporeal
punishment upon her? The patriarchs of the South never find them-
selves under the necessity of doing so with their slaves. On the con-
trary, they have great difficulty to prevent their escaping on under-
ground railroads. They find' fugitive slave laws, and blood-hounds,
and United States marshals, more ferocious, and incomparably meaner
than blood-hounds, necessary in order to prevent their Hagars and
Ishmaels from taking unceremonious leave for regions lying toward
the North Star.

The query will no doubt be raised, If the patriarchal servants were
not slaves, what were they? It is sufficient to say, If they were not
slaves, it is no matter what they were, so far as this controversy is
concerned. The argument for slavery, drawn from this servitude, must
be futile. A little reflection, however, should convince any one that
their condition was a voluntary one. The sacred historian relates an
instance of Abraham, when a stranger dwelling in the plain of Mamre,
arming three hundred trained servants, and pursuing after the cap-
tors of Lot to Hobah, on the left of Damascus. Now, calculating ac-
cording to the usual proportion of those able to bear arms, Abraham

* Debate with Blauchard, p. 261.

[ io ]

must have had nearly two thousand servants. ' But what power had
he to retain them in servitude, contrary to their will? What power
had he to compel the three hundred armed soldiers to return with him
from the region of Damascus? Evidently none at all. This, how-
ever, according to Paley's and Webster's definition, shows that they
were not slaves. Webster says: — "Servant differs from slave, as the
servant's subjection to a master is voluntary, the slave's is not."

There is little doubt that the servants of Abraham were his clients,
and that he was their patron. This relation was very common in the
Roman empire and in Oriental countries. "That the patricians and
plebeians might be connected together by the strictest bonds, Romulus
ordained that every plebeian should choose from the patricians any one
he pleased, as his patron, or protector, whose client he was called,
(quod eum colebat.) It was the part of the patron to advise and to
defend his client, to assist him with his interest and substance; in
short, to do every thing for him that a parent uses to do for his chil-

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Online LibraryJames M. (James Madison) MacDonaldThe perfect law of liberty. An address, delivered in Rehoboth church, Iowa, July 4th, 1860 → online text (page 1 of 4)