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Robert J. (Robert Jefferson) Breckinridge.

Hints on slavery online

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HINTS ON SLAVERY.

FOUNDED ON THE STATE OF THE CONSTITUTION, LAWS, AND
POLITICS OF KENTUCKY, THIRTEEN YEARS AGO.



(it^^This article was printed first in the Kentuclcy Reporter, at Lexington,
Ky.', in weekly Nos., in the months of April, May, and June, 1830 Though
the interest which may have onc€ attached to them, was purely local, and
the influence they may have exerted in forming public sentmient long ago, must
have been confined to the comparatively narrow circulation of the several mland
newspapers which printed them; yet the transcendent importance of the subject
they discuss, and the constant and increasing agitation of the public mind tbroug i-
out this country, and indeed throughout the whole world m regard to it, might
possibly excuse one even more careless— if Buch a one there be— than the editor
of this periodical, in regard to the fate of his literary labors, for recalling from the
silence of the past, productions which the hatred, and malice, and folly of re enl-
less public persecution and private revenge would not allow to expire. It is hop-
ed and believed that men of candid and moderate views— (and what other viewg
were ever either just in themselves or capable of being permanently estab ished r)
—will find here little to condemn, if they find nothing worthy of being brought,
a second time, before the public. , , ,

It is somewhat in the nature of a personal duty to his own character, that the
editor of this Magazine re-publishes this portion of his labors, when acting on a
theatre very different from that on which he has been for many years engaged.
Le^al and political studies have long ceased to engage his particular attention, and
have lost some of their special interest in his eyes. They are noble and useful
studies; but there are others still more so. These publications, however, occupy
so importaulia place in the infamous .accusations of that most atrocious of all
slanderers— iRo&erf Wicldiffe, Sen.-|that it has been judged proper and becom-
ing to precede any reply to his third published attack", by a re-pnntol that about
which he has printed so much malignant falsehood. It may be that God would
thus oblige us to vindicate again opinions, which if they are founded m clear reason,
and sustained by public necessity, must have a decided interest m the eyes of
good and wise men; and, seeing the constitutional and legal questions are nearly the
same in all the slave stales as in Ky., they present the case of slavery in a light
which, though it is much overlooked, is yet extremely important, if not decisive.

The Nos. are now re-printed exactly as they were originally published, preserv-
ing^ even the signature, and the lateral enumeration; minute facts, it is true, but
yet important enough to be the basis of several falsehoods by I\lr. \V icklille.
Years of subsequent observation and study would have induced us to modify
some expressions, perhaps to qualify some opinions. But we have preferred the
other course; and here, without shame, perhaps it may be allowed to us to say,
with some emotions of honest satisfaction, present the naked, original, and undis-
auised, leveller, sans culotte, pettifogger, demagogue, and traitor, which our wise,
learned, polite, honest, and truthful accuser, Robert Wickliffe, Sen. , represents us to
have been, in our first estate— to the scrutiny of ail who choose to gaze upon him.

One thing is at least remarkable; amid all the abuse heaped upon these ISos. by
Mr. Wickliffe and his handful of followers, during thirteen years nearly, not even
a pretence has been made of answering the argument they contain, and the moral
1



.KsB-T

they assert. It is comparatively an easy thing to make truth ignominious; it fe^
another work entirely, to make it false. It is very easy to pollute a file; it is very
hard to eat itc^Df)

No. I. — What are the advantages of domestic slavery ? Such
an inquiry naturally suggests itself when we consider that in the
circular address of our Senator in the General Assembly from this
county, one part of four is taken up in exhibiting the evils which
must necessarily result from permitting (hose who own no slaves
to express an authoritative opinion on that subject.

If I understand the argument of Mr. Wickliffe, it is in substance
this. After expressing his decided hostility to every effort for call-
ing a convention to amend the constitution of this state, he pro-
ceeds to give the reasons of those who favor that measure ; which
he reduces to three — first, that all officers, judicial and ministerial,
shall be elective by the people ; second, that judges shall hold their
offices only for a limited period ; third, " to effect emancipation
of slaves." The first two are dealt with in a very few lines, brief
and bitter. The third project is argued at some length. He op-
poses it on the score of inhumanity to the slaves, by reason of the
condition into which experience and reason also justify us in say-
ing they must fall, as freed men, whether they remain among us or
go to other states. He objects to it also, because the attempt to
emancipate our slaves would not in fact succeed, but would only
drive the slave owners with their slaves to the southern states of
this Union, where he supposes slavery must continue " for centu-
ries yet to come." He considers the consequences of such a
migration terrible " to the wealth and capital of the state ;" and
again adduces the argument from inhumanity to the slaves, as they
would be removed to "countries where their slavery would be
more intolerant than it is at present." The general diffusion of
slaves over extensive portions of the nation, is looked upon as
tending more to the final emancipation of the race, than gathering
them in large masses; inasmuch as such a policy would "in time
efface the distinctive marks of color" — and wear out, rather than
break the chain of slavery. The wish is expressed that slavery
should not be perpetual : and the conviction, that Providence will
point out the means of effecting its extinction. But the opinion
is stated, that it is better to retain the blacks in slavery than to turn
them loose among us as freemen: and that any scheme "to be
effectual, must be general in all the states." Mr. W. then pledges
himself " at all times to aid in whatever will tend to effect the
emancipation of the whole slave population gradually." In the
preceding argument he takes it as unquestionably true, that in any
constitution which would now be formed, slavery would be abol-
ished ; and again warns slave-owners throughout the state, "of the
danger to the tenure by which they hold their slaves" which would
result 'from a convention.' He refers to the yearly returns of the
commissioners of tax, and states as his opinion that not " one
voter in ten, in the state is a slave-holder." " In this state of the
polls" he asks ' what chance can the slave-holder have to retain
his slaves, if by a new constitution he is left at the mercy of the
annual Legislature of the state?' Again, he argues "that while



"the constitution secures the rights of the masters to their slaves,
*' the religious societies that abhor the principle of slavery, feel
"themselves restrained to be silent as to its evils: but so soon as
*' it becomes a question to be settled in a new constitution, all such
" feel themselves called on by the principles of their religion, to
" act, and will act, as their consciences dictate." In this contest,
already so unequal, he supposes that for three hundred miles along
our northern border, the non-slave holding states and their presses
will exert their influence against the slave holder. Amid these
multiplied evils, it will be too late to repent " that he has from
prejudice, passion, or whim and ca[)rice given up a constitution
under which he was happy as well as secure in the possession of
his property." An appeal " to every sober-minded man of every
party" — and a serious admonition to the slave-holders in particular,
to have this subject settled and their final determination known
before the next session of the General Assembly, closes the argu-
ment. The paper from which the foregoing analysis is taken, is
addressed " to the freemen of the county of Fayette," and pub-
lished in the Reporter of February 17ih, signed R. Wickliffe. It
has been my object to give a fair, indeed an ample abstract of the
argument, and that, as far as my limits would permit, in the words
of the author. I think he will not complain of injustice on that
score ; or if any has been inadvertently done him, he has some
reason to know that there are very few persons who would deal
with his errors more lightly, or receive the truths he would utter,
with the increased favor derived from high personal consideration,
more readily than myself.

I have been myself opposed to the project of calling a conven-
tion to amend our state constitution ; and have manifested that
opposition in a public manner. I now see no reason to think, that
I was then in error. No state that is deeply involved in difficul-
ties, of whatever kind, can live quietly under any regularly adminis-
tered government. Nor could it form any scheme of fundamental
law, which would be the most acceptable to itself in the ordinary
condition of its aflfairs. Hence it has grown into a maxim, that
a period of great public excitement is not the best time for amend-
ing the constitutions of states. Perhaps for fifteen years back in
this state, it would not have been wise to call a convention.

Mr. Jefferson has said, he was convinced it would be to the ad-
vantage of mankind if all nations could call conventions to exam-
ine into the state of their civil constitutions three or four times in
a century. Though there may be some eccentricity, there is also
much wisdom in this reflection. I think no assemblage of persons
in any nation, who represented the body of the people, has at any
time met, without producing a salutary effect on the institutions
of their country. No revolution has ever been brought about by
the desire of the mass of the people, that did not give them ulti-
mately a better condition of government. Every attempt to give
dignity to the common people, the bulk of mankind, by an increas-
ed participation in the ordering of public affairs — from the seces-
sion of the Roman tribes to the sacred mount, and as much farther
back as history will carry us, down to the late convention in Vir-



ginia, has added more or less to the progress of free opinions. To"
avoid the force of this reasoning as applied to ourselves, it must
be shown, that by a fortunate application of all the knowledge of
mankind in relation to government, and by the most happy con-
currence of every necessary circumstance, we at last succeeded in
establishing a perfect constitution. Yet " that the present consti-
tution is imperfect all admit," Mr. Wickliffe himself being judge ;
who adds to that admission, the declaration " I would myself make
alterations in the constitution, were it left alone to me." As this
precedent condition is not likely to be acceded to, that part of the
subject need be pressed no fariher.

Our constitution is an excellent one. In addition to the vener-
ation which I feel for it as the organic law of my state, under which
I have lived and was born ; and the hardly inferior regard which it
challenges as a very high effort of intellectual power, for the time
in which it was formed, and the opportunities of those who gave
it birth ; there are personal recollections which commend it in a
peculiar manner to my admiration. That the lapse of more than
thirty years, during which the human race has made very great
advances, should have exhibited some considerable errors of theory,
and some practical inconveniences in our system, is no disparage-
ment to those who formed it under a state of things somewhat dif-
ferent from the present. In the declaration of our national inde-
pendence (an authority we all bow to) it is asserted !' that mankind
are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right
themselves by abolishing forms to which they are accustomed."
Acting upon this principle, and clinging with parental fondness to
the instrument they had produced, the gentlemen who formed our
present constitution, while they recognized the right in every com-
munity to alter or even to abolish its government, interposed the
most intricate machinery for the execution of any such projects;
and by the provision for its amendment have provided effectually
against any alteration. Let any one consult article 9th, and he
will see no reason why the most nervous admirer of that instrument
should dread its fate. If the whole commonwealth with one accord
were to demand its alteration, it could not be effected in much less
than three years (a period as long as the cycle of some politicians,)
from the meeting of that General Assembly which should set vig-
orously and successfully about its accomplishment. If to this we
add the repeated votes of the people and the Legislature, twice of
one, three times of the other, a majority of all who are entitled to
vote being required at every step, and those who do not vote count-
ed in the negative, and other obstacles that interfere, it may be
safely said there is no probability that a convention will be speedily
called to amend the constitution of Kentucky.

With this view of the subject, it is not necessary that I should
point out any portion of that instrument which I might consider
defective ; the more especially as the propriety of calling a con-
vention was not the subject I wished to consider. It may be proper
to observe that the reasoning of Mr. W. on that matter seems to
me to be destitute of his usual ability, and his array of the opinions
of his adversaries incorrect. I except of course the question of



slavery, which I design more particularly to examine. While I
admit therefore that our affairs are tolerably well conducted under
the existinor constitution, and believe that it is nearly hopeless to
attempt its amendment, I have made these general observations, to
show, that in a period like the present, no danger is to be appre-
hended from the calling of a convention, and therefore that no
attention is due to that view of the subject which attempts to make
the questions of slavery and old constitution, or convention and
emancipation, reciprocally operate on each other. Indeed it ap-
pears extraordinary to me that those who hold the opinions avow-
ed in the circular should not have considered any such mingling
of debated questions hii^hly injurious to the success of their cause:
for in that paper itself, it is in substance admitted, that nine tenths
of this community favor opinions, whose probable success is urged
as a reason why another set of opinions about which the same
community is more nearly divided should not succeed. If nine
tenths of the voters of this state favor emancipation, it seems curi-
ous to urge them to oppose a convenlion for the reason that a
convention would also favor emancipation. I have taken a differ-
ent view of this subject, and been led to different conclusions.
By making Mr. Wickliffe's argument the foundation of what I
intend to say, it will afford me an opportunity of remarking on
certain principles of great importance to us all, in regard to which
doctrines are inculcated from which I dissent. B.

No. II. — I had not thought that any individual could be found
in this Community who would give it as his opinion, that if a con-
vention were called to amend the constitution of this state, as soon
as by the present constitution it could be called, that convention
would recommend the immediate abolition of slavery in the com-
monwealth. Nor did I suppose that any individual could be found,
who would give it as his opinion, that any reasonable portion of
those who favor the call of a convention, are favorable to immediate
emancipation. No one that I have heard of, ever advocated such
a plan of abolition as that denounced in the circular, whereby the
slaves are to be freed and turned loose at once among us. Such
an idea was never pressed for one moment by any person whatever
within my knowledge. But, on the other hand, the most ardent
friends of the American Colonization Society have avowed the
opinion so clung to and reiterated by Mr. W., that slavery itself
was preferable to the general residence among us of manumitted
slaves. This idea, whether true or false, may be said to be almost
universal. It could not therefore be just reasoning, to suppose
that opinions are held which all men renounce, and then infer from
them the magnitude of evils which must be absolutely imaginary.

It cannot be supposed that the abolition intended to be de-
nounced was a gradual abolition ; because Mr. W. in the very
argument expressly declares himself no friend to the perpetuity of
slavery; expresses his belief that Heaven will put an end to its
inflictions, and in terms, pledges himself " at all times to aid in
whatever shall tend to emancipate the whole slave population
gradually." What scheme different from that, as applied to Ken-



tiicky, did any one ever advocate ? To emancipate "the whole
slave population gradually" has been the uniform plan, when any
thing has been urged on the public attention in this state, and
which has been achieved in those states, to whose example an ap-
peal is made to deter others, by its inhumanity to the blacks, fro:T«
following their career. I confess I do not perceive the value of
that advocacy, which finds even in the partial success of cherished
plans, enough of evil to deter all others from similar attempts.

As to any arguments drawn from the fine theories of persons of
sensibility, regarding the cruelty of freeing persons who are only
sufficiently informed to be slaves, I confess I could never see their
force. A very small portion of acquired knowledge is necessary
to enable men to sustain the relations of independent communities ;
or, as we have some reason to know, to govern them. Still less is
required to fit a man to become a peaceable and industrious citizen.
In relation'to this particular race we are not without experience.
The mulattoes of Hayti under Petion and the blacks under Chris-
tophe have exhibited more knowledge of the principles of free
government, than most white nations who have peopled the earth.
The blacks had sense enough to know when Christophe tyrannised
over them ; and though he was a wise and firm prince, they over-
threw his government and established one much better. Since the
union of the Island in a republic under President Boyer (whose
mother was a Congo negress, and his father a French tailor, an
odd compound for a wise man,) few governments are better or
more quietly administered. The colony at Liberia is a model of
wood order. Nor is there any reason to believe that any of the
South American states have regretted the decrees emancipating
their slaves en masse, by which their revolutions have been attend-
ed. However a sense of duty to ourselves may deter us from
attempting a sudden and general emancipation while other and
better hopes remain, it is little better than mockery to place our
conduct on the footing of humanity to those from whom we with-
hold the highest enjoyments of nature. He who has lost his liberty
has littfe else to lose over which humanity can weep.

Free negroes are very seldom good citizens; and for a reason
suflTiciently evident ; they are not citizens at all. The law views
them with constant jealousy, and barely tolerates their existence in
the country. It can never be otherwise with any degraded caste.
The aroument proves nothing beyond the admission 1 have made ;
least of all does it prove that because the blacks are bad citizens
when free, therefore they are good citizens when slaves. The end
proposed should be to get rid of both classes, or if that is not
practicable, then of the worst. For it is not the part of a wise
man to make no effort to amend his condition, lest perchance, he
may not succeed at every point.

It seems to have been perceived that all arguments drawn from
the sources I have hitherto touched, were without any solid foun-
dation ; and hence the whole ground is varied, and another and
incompatible aspect of the case presented. The present argument
is, that slave-owners will not wait to come under the operation of
any system of abolition ; but will remove from the commonwealth



with their slaves ; thus, as it is added, producing consequences
"upon the wealth and capital of the state (which) are to my mind
terrible, in driving a large portion of the industry, talents and cap-
ital from the state." But even here we are met again by the argu-
ment of inhumanity, that our slaves will be carried by their masters
to a region where their servitude will be more rigorous than here.
This is really taxing us too far. For the self-same act we become
responsible in two opposite and irreconcilable ways : first for the
cruelty of degrading our slaves by freeing them at home, and second
for the cruelty of sending the same slaves into a distant and more
aggravated bondage. This argument about inhumanity is a gar-
ment thread-bare and utterly past service.

The address estimates the slave population of this state at two
hundred thousand souls ; which is I suppose not far from correct.
If there is any error, it may be a little too high. The voters
of the state are estimated, by it, to be more than nine tenths
non slave-holders. Taking that estimate, there are about eight
thousand voters who own the whole slaves of the commonwealth.
Allowing five persons to the family of each voter, as an average,
and the aggregate of the population we should lose, by an effort at
gradual emancipation, including all ages and complexions, would,
according to the circular address, be about two hundred and forty
thousand souls, I suppose our whole population now exceeds seven
hundred thousand souls; from which the proposed emigration would
take off about one third, embracing therein all the blacks and some
thousands of the whites. This statement is merely carried out for
the sake of distinctness, for a more chimerical notion could not
readily be propagated.

The truth is that those who own no slaves have remained quiet
on this subject. So far as they have been compelled to act, they
have exercised an astonishing liberality and forbearance towards
slave owners. If my slave is hanged for burning the mansion of
my father, who is a slave-holder, then my neighbour who owns no
slaves is taxed to aid in paying me for the one executed. If my
slave is hung for killing the son of my neighbour, who owns no
slaves, his land and other property are taxed to aid in paying me
for the executed negro. Yet these laws are enacted by a commu-
nity, in which nine out of every ten persons who had a vote in
passing them, own no slaves ; and who could not on that account
be safely trusted to re-model the forms of the government, lest they
should emancipate the slaves in a body — with which design I un-
derstand them to be substantially charged in the paper under con-
sideration. It has been by the owners of slaves that the question
of slavery has been most maturely considered. And as they have
examined it, a great change has been wrought in their sentiments.
For example — Mr. Wickliffe is a slave-holder and resists the
idea of a gradual abolition of slavery in Kentucky, among other
reasons, because it would diminish the wealth of the state, and
drive industry and capital from it : I also am a slave-holder — as
much below Mr. Wickliffe in wealth, as in consequence and influ-
ence — but a slave-holder to the extent of my estate, in as large a
ratio perhaps as hnnself, and I am as thoroughly convinced as I


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Online LibraryRobert J. (Robert Jefferson) BreckinridgeHints on slavery → online text (page 1 of 4)