Thomas Day.

Fragment of an original letter on the slavery of the negroes : written in the year 1776 online

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Online LibraryThomas DayFragment of an original letter on the slavery of the negroes : written in the year 1776 → online text (page 1 of 2)
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Cette soil* insatiable de l'or a donne naissance au plus infame, au
plus atroce de tous les commerces, celui des esclaves. On parle de
crimes contre nature, et l'on ne cite pas celui la comme le plus ex-
ecrable.' — Histoire Philosophique des deux Indes.


Opposite Burlington House, Piccadilly.


At the office of « The Liberator,' No. 10, Merchants' Hali.


The following Letter was written in the year 1776, at the
request of an American gentleman, who desired to know my
sentiments upon the Slavery of the Negroes, and professed
an intention of restoring all his own to liberty, could he be
convinced that duty required the sacrifice. I therefore sent
him the following Essay, the imperfections of which may per-
haps be something extenuated by the precipitation with which
it was written. It has lain by me many years in obscurity ;
nor did I choose to produce it during the progress of the A-
merican contest. Since the -^appy termination of that disas-
trous war, I have shewn it to some of my particular -friends,
who have honored me so far as to desire copies, and to sug-
gest that its publication might not be unattended with utility.
After reflecting upon the subject, I have chosen to comply
with their wishes, and present this Fragment to the public ;
because, whatever discredit it brings upon my head, it may
contribute to establish the sincerity of my heart ; and if a
single human being should by my means be restored to hap-
piness, it is an ample recompense for all the dangers I may
incur as an author. Should this Essay ever reach America,
it perhaps might displease those who have not learned to dis-
cern friends from flatterers, and to distinguish between the
language of truth and calumny. Those, on the contrary, who
are enlightened by a more extensive knowledge of human
nature, may perhaps respect an Englishman, who, after dar-
ing to assert their cause through all the varied events of the
late Revolution, dares now, with equal intrepidity, assert the
cause of Truth and Justice, and of that part of the human
species whose wrongs are yet unredressed, and almost un-
pitied. Should it be asked, why I rather publish a Fragment
than a complete Essay, I can only answer, that I respect
truth so much, that I am not inclined to violate it even as an
author ; and that this Letter having been really written in
the year 1776, and being still in the possession of the gentle-
man to whom it was sent, I do not choose to piece it with
additions in the year 1784.


Sir — I was extremely surprised at receiving a Letter, in
an unknown hand, which desired me to give my sentiments
relative to the Slavery of the Negroes ; till reading to the
end, I recollected the name of a gentleman, whom I had the
pleasure of seeing with Mr Laurens.* Much as I am flat-
tered by finding my opinion of any consequence with a gen-
tleman, of whom I have heard so advantageous a character, I
am still more surprised, that he can ask it upon such a ques-
tion ; a question which 1 am sure his own humanity and good
sense will be sufficient to decide, if he attend, for a moment,
to their dictates. I respect you, Sir, too much to doubt the
sincerity of the declaration you make, when you profess to
be guided by reason and morality upon this question ; for this
is the only arbitration which any man can have to consult
upon a subject like this : where they are silent, the voice of
the whole world ought to be disregarded; and where they

* Colonel John Laurens, son of Henry Laurens, Esq. formerly Presi-
dent of the Congress. This young gentleman was sent over to England
for his education, where lie endeared himself to all who knew him, by his
abilities and affectionate temper. In the beginning of the year 1777, he
joined the American army, and from that time was foremost in every
danger. He was present and distinguished himself in every action of the
army under General Washington, and was amongst the foremost that en-
tered the British lines at Yorktown. He fell August 27th, 1782, one of
the last victims to this disastrous war, in an obscure skirmish wirii a for-
aging party. For several days preceding the action, he had been confined
to his bed by a raging fever, but left it at the call of duty, and met his

Those who were intimately acquainted with this young man, will rank
his martial qualities, by which he is chiefly known, as lowest in the cata-
logue of his virtues. They Avill lament the untimely loss of a clear dis-
cerning mind, that united the solid powers of the understanding with in-
flexible integrity. In him, his country has lost one of its noblest and
most useful citizens ] his father, the kindest and most affectionate friend ;
and all the wretched, a generous and disinterested patron. O my un-
fortunate country ! must I add, that when I consider all the leaders of
thy factions, all thy hereditary magistrates, all that are destined to en-
gross thy dignities or share thy spoils, I seek in vain a Colonel John
Laurens !


approve, the dissent of all mankind can have no influence
upon a mind like yours. But as you expressly desire to know
my sentiments, I must waive both preface and ceremony, and
address you with the modest freedom that becomes one man
when he is speaking to another upon the most important
question in the universe.

As a member of that society which has now made a sol-
emn Appeal to Heaven, and taken up arms against the nation
to which it owes its establishment, you must admit that there
are such things as Right and Justice, to which the whole
human species have an indefeasible claim. Indeed, unless
there be such a thing as justice, it is in vain we inquire about
its precepts, or refer to its arbitration.. He that admits no
right but force, no justice but superior violence, arms every
man against himself, and justifies all excesses. If it be law-
ful to injure, because we can; if we may seize the property
of another, insult his person, or force him to labor for our
luxury or caprice, merely because he is weaker; this princi-
ple will be equally fatal to ourselves, when fortune shall strip
us of that power which is our only prerogative, and shift the
plea of superiority. You are to remember that, upon this
supposition, your slaves, the instant they shall become the
strongest, will have a right to the services of yourself and
every other gentleman of the southern colonies; will have a
right to force you to labor naked in the sun to the music of
whips and chains ; to rob you of every thing which is now
dear to your indolence, or necessary to your pleasures ; to
goad you to every species of servile drudgery, and punish
you for their amusement and caprice ; will have a right to
exhaust your youth in servitude, and to abandon your age to
wretchedness and diseases : in one word, Sir, they will have
a right to use you, as you do them.

Let us, therefore, leave principles which can be maintained
by no one but a professed enemy to mankind ; who would at
one stroke extirpate every thing which alleviates the evils of
life, and arm every man in an eternal war against his fellow-
creatures, — to inquire what are the real dictates of that jus-
tice, whose existence, I am persuaded, we both allow. You,
therefore, admit there are certain claims, which, for want of
a better name, we call rights, to which the human species
has an indisputable title. To express myself in other words,
' There is a method of pursuing our own happiness in such a
manner, that we may promote the general good at the same
time ; or, at least, not interfere with it.' This, our reason
assures us, is the privilege of every created being ; and while
he confines himself within these bounds, we feel the most
cordial approbation of his conduct. We love, and esteem,


and sympathise with him, from the very constitution of our
nature. On the contrary, whenever any one disturbs or in-
jures a being acting- in this manner, or prevents him from at-
taining the good to which he is impelled, we feel our hatred
and indignation most forcibly excited against the aggressor.
We consider such a character as armed against, the welfare
of the world, and as one who is endeavoring to make the
common good subservient to his oAvn selfishness. I appeal
to the generosity of your own nature, for the existence of
these principles. Have they not, a thousand times, animated
you to acts of virtue and humanity, as well as inspired you
with an involuntary reverence for all who acted from their
impulse ? Have they not often pleaded the cause of the
wretch that lay trembling and defenceless at your feet, and,
in spite of the prejudices of your country and education,
whispered to your mind that one human being ought not to
hold his existence by the tenure of another's will ? Do not
these principles now inspire you, and frequently impel you
beyond the bounds of prudence and safety, while what you
call your country's cause animates you to exertion ? But this
cause is only the united cause and interest of every particu-
lar man ; those rights which the great Creator taught him to
discover when he gave him reason, which he urges him to
defend by passion, and which a mind like yours prizes be-
yond all the gratifications of sense, and dares to grasp at
even while it is perishing. This appears to me a plain and
concise deduction of morality, which means nothing more
than that method or rule of conduct by which the whole hu-
man species may attain the greatest possible degree of hap-
piness. And I rather choose to express myself so, because
I thus comprehend all sects and opinions. The religious man
allows that the happiness of the species is the great end of
the Deity, which he promotes by the rewards and punish-
ments of a future state : the disciple of Shaftsbury under-
stands this, when he talks of the beauty of virtue and the
love of order: and even the gloomy pupil of Hobbes, who
resolves every thing into self-interest, must allow the exist-
ence of moral distinctions, so far as they influence the wel-
fare of the species.

This universal morality appears to me to be the only ra-
tional and legal foundation of all human government; which
ought to be nothing more than the application of this general
rule to particular societies, and the enforcing it by civil es-
tablishments. If, therefore, it be granted, that the rights of
a nation are nothing more than the rights of every man in it,
and that all just and legal authority supposes a delegated
power entrusted solely for the purpose of promoting the gen-


eral good ; it will appear evident, that every individual in the
universe possesses certain rights, which no man can divest
him of without injustice, unless he be guilty of some crime
against society which exposes him to its vengeance.

Hence it follows, that whenever any nation attacks the
rights and happiness of another nation, its deserves to find its
own destruction in the attempt ; and whenever any individ-
ual presumes to exercise this species of authority over his
fellow-creatures, he must be a tyrant and an oppressor, whom
it is permitted to destroy by every possible method. Who-
ever would deny this, must either deny the existence of right
and justice entirely, and then it is in vain to argue ; or must
show some natural distinction, by which one part of the spe-
cies is entitled to privileges from which the other is excluded.

The first supposition [ have already considered, and the
second is altogether absurd : for all alterations and distinc-
tions among mankind solely arise from civil government,
which has no other foundation than natural right ; and natural
right, for that reason, must be a principle of higher authority
than civil government. Whenever, therefore, civil govern-
ment tends to destroy and confound the rights of nature, it
ceases to have any claim to our obedience ; it becomes ty-
ranny, corruption and despotism — a pest instead of a blessing
— and subversive cf every purpose for which it was instituted,
or ought to be continued.

I am extremely fearful of expressing myself obscurely
upon so abstract a subject, and must, therefore, though with
the hazard of prolixity, attempt to place it in a different light
If you imagine any number of the human species assembled
in some particular part of the globe, without any form of
government established among them; it is evident, that these
individuals may either live together in such a manner as to
produce mutual comfort and assistance, or may be the cause
of continual misery to each other. No proposition in the
mathematics can be investigated with more precision than
the methods of conduct which have these contrary tenden-
cies. Every disposition which inclines one man to assist
another, or to avoid giving him offence and doing injury,
must necessarily contribute to the common welfare ; which
would be perfect, were these dispositions cultivated in the
greatest possible degree. On the contrary, every disposition,
which, either by fraud or violence, tends to interrupt the per-
sonal security of individuals, or to deprive them of those
things which they have acquired by their industry, is detri-
mental to the sum of happiness, and would, if carried to the
greatest possible degree, entirely destroy that part of the
species. In this view of things, morality arises from neces-


sity, and comprehends ' certain rules of conduct founded upon
the relations which beings endowed with particular faculties
bear to each other ; which rules, when properly observed,
produce happiness to society ; but when violated or neglect-
ed, as necessarily occasion misery as fire or pointed substan-
ces excite pain, when they act too forcibly upon the nerves.'

I hardly think that the greatest sceptic will deny these
distinctions, founded upon facts as certain as the impression
of any material substance upon our senses. If we now pro-
ceed a little farther, we shall find that the dispositions which
*produce these different kinds of conduct are by the moralists
expressed by different names, and enforced by different mo-
tives, according to their several systems ; while natural re-
ligion adds its sanctions, and inclines us to believe that the
Deity himself, who has displayed so great an attention to the
happiness and preservation of his creatures here, may extend
his benevolence to another stage of existence, and compen-,
sate the evils sometimes suffered, unmeritedly, below. But
if we admit the evidence of revealed religion, the scheme of
human things is perfect as it is august ; the clouds which
overshadowed our horizon are dissipated ; and the gradual pro-
gress of triumphant virtue, through dangers and difficulties,
to eternal happiness, is displayed and ascertained.

Having laid down these principles, it is easy to apply them
to the particular case in question. Slavery is the absolute
dependance of one man upon another ; and is, therefore, as
inconsistent with all ideas of justice, as despotism is with the
rights of nature. It is a crime so monstrous against the hu-
man species, that all those who practise it deserve to be ex-
tirpated from the earth. It is no little, indirect attack upon
the safety and happiness of our fellow-creatures, but one that
boldly strikes at the foundations of all humanity and justice.
Robbers invade the property, and murderers the life of human
beings ; but he that holds another man in bondage subjects
the whole sum of his existence to oppression, bereaves him
of every hope, and is, therefore, more detestable than robber
and assassin combined. But if no one who has common feel-
ing will commit the outrage, no one of common sense will
attempt to justify it by argument ; since it would involve him
in the grossest and most inextricable contradictions. He
must allow that every man has by nature a right to life, yet
that every other man has a right to rob him of it ; that every
man has an equal right to subsistence, yet that every other
man may deprive him of all the means ; and that while every
individual is justified by nature and the Deity in pursuing his
own happiness by all innocent methods, every other individ-
ual is equally justified in making him miserable. In short, it


is reducing every thing to the state before described, a state
of contest and desolation, from which right and justice are
equally excluded.

Of you, Sir, who say that you have several slaves, I beg
leave to ask, what are the rights you claim over them? Have
you a right to torture them when they are guilty of no faults ?
Have you a right to kill them for your diversion ? Is your
power circumscribed by no bounds, and are there particular
beings who bring into the world all the rights which you
yourself can pretend to, but have so entirely lost them by
being transported into another country, as to be beyond the
protection both of Nature and of Nature's God ?

Surely, Sir, unless I am deceived in you, you are a man
both of honor and humanity. You start at the idea of wanton
and unprovoked barbarity. You would not murder a slave to
shew your dexterity, nor maim him to prove your strength ;
you would not dash an infant upon the ground to feed your
dogs, even though he was black ; nor would you rip up the
belly of his mother while she was suckling him, to improve
your skill in anatomy. You neither would, nor dare you com-
mit actions like these ; you feel that you have no right to do
them; or, if you have, that every other man has an equal and
superior right to destroy you like a beast of prey. What
then are your rights ? I anticipate your answer : You will
feed and clothe your negroes ; you will treat them with hu-
manity and tenderness, and then you have a right to moder-
ate advantage from their labors. All this, Sir, is well ; and
could I conceive you ever had acted in another manner, I
should never have troubled you with this tedious letter. —
While your negroes choose to stay with you upon these
terms, this is a fair and equitable compact. But what if they
choose to leave you, will you let them go ? If you do, you
are a man — a man of honor, sense and humanity ; but, I fear,
no West Indian.

Are there no whips, no gibbets, no punishments more
dreadful than death itself for contumacious slaves ? And what
is this but claiming the detestable power I have mentioned
above, that of making other beings miserable, for your inter-
est or amusement ? Who, Sir, gave you a title to their la-
bors, or a right to confine them to loathsome drudgery? —
And, if you have no right to this, what are the punishments
you pretend to inflict but so many additional outrages ? Has
a robber a claim upon your life because you withhold your
property ? or a ravisher a right to a woman's blood because
she defends her chastity ? Either then prove your right to
t.heir labors, or acknowledge that the punishments inflicted


upon the fugitive slaves are a flagitious insult upon justice,
humanity and common sense.

Permit me, here, to examine for a moment the nature of
the title by which you claim an irredeemable property in the
labors of your fellow-creatures. A wretch devoid of com-
passion and understanding, who calls himself a king of some
part of Africa which suffers the calamity of being frequented
by the Europeans, seizes his innocent subjects, or engages
in an unnecessary war to furnish himself with prisoners ; —
these are loaded with chains, torn from all their comforts and
connexions, and driven (like beasts to the slaughter-house)
down to the sea shore, where the mild subjects of a christian
government and a religious king are waiting to agree for the
purchase, and to transport them to America. They are then
thrust by hundreds into the infectious hold of a ship, in which
the greater part frequently perishes by disease, while the rest
are reserved to experience the candor and humanity of Amer-
ican patriots. If you have never yet considered it, pause
here for a moment, and endeavor to impress upon your mind
the feelings of a being full as sensible, and perhaps more in-
nocent, than you or I, which is thus torn in an instant from
every thing that makes life agreeable ; from country, friends
and parents ; from the intercourse of mutual affection with
mistress, lover or child ; which, possessed of feelings more
exquisite than European hearts can conceive, is separated for
ever from all it loves ; that, reduced to a depth of misery,
which, even in the midst of freedom and affluence, would be
sufficient to overwhelm the most hardened disposition, in-
stead of friends and comforters and obsequious attendants,
sees itself surrounded with unrelenting persecutors and un-
pitying enemies ; wretches who, by long intercourse with
misery, are grown callous to its agonies ; who answer tears
with taunts, and complaints with torture ! I shudder at the
horrors which I describe, and blush to be a human creature !
Yet these are not the colors of description, but a recital of
facts less strong than the reality. Can any man reflect upon
these things without unutterable remorse ? Can he know
that, perhaps while he is wallowing in luxury and sensuality,,
there are beings whose existence he has embittered, mothers
shrieking for their children, and children perishing for want
of their mother's care ; wretches who are frantic with rage,
and shame, and desperation, or pining in all the agonies of a
slow and painful death, who might have been at peace if he
had never existed ? Can any man know this, and hope for
mercy, either from his fellow-creatures or his God ? After
the arrival of the surviving wretches in America, you well
know in what manner they are transferred to their conscien~


tious masters ; — how they are brought into the market, na-
ked, weeping, and in chains ; — how one man dares to exam-
ine his fellow-creatures as he would do beasts, and bargain
for their persons ; — how all the most sacred duties, affections,
and feelings of the human heart, are violated and insulted ; —
and thus you dare to call yourselves the masters of wretches
whom you have acquired by fraud, and retain by violence ! —
While I am tracing this picture, — which you and every man,
who has been in the islands or southern colonies of America,
knows to be true, — my astonishment exceeds even my horror,
to find it possible that any one should seriously doubt whether
an equitable title to hold human beings in bondage can be
thus acquired.

With what face, Sir, can he who has never respected the
rights of nature in another, pretend to claim them in his own
favor ? How dare the inhabitants of the southern colonies
speak of privileges and justice ? Is money of so much more
importance than life? Or have the Americans shared the
dispensing power of Saint Peter's successors, to excuse their
own observance of those rules which they impose on others?
If there be an object truly ridiculous in nature, it is an Amer-
ican patriot, signing resolutions of independency with the
one hand, and with the other brandishing a whip over his
affrighted slaves.

If men would be consistent, they must admit all the con-
sequences of their own principles; and you and your coun-
trymen are reduced to the dilemma of either acknowledging
the rights of your negroes, or of surrendering your own. If
there be certain natural and universal rights, as the Declara-
tions of your Congress so repeatedly affirm, I wonder how
the unfortunate Africans have incurred their forfeiture. Is
it the antiquity, or the virtues, or the great qualities of the
English-Americans which constitutes the difference, and en-
titles them to rights from which they totally exclude more
than a fourth part of the species ? Or do you choose to make
use of that argument, which the great Montesquieu has
thrown out as the severest ridicule, that they are black, and
you white ? that you have lank, long hair, while theirs is short
and woolly ?

The more attentively you consider this subject, the more
clearly you will perceive, that every plea, which can be ad-


Online LibraryThomas DayFragment of an original letter on the slavery of the negroes : written in the year 1776 → online text (page 1 of 2)