William Ellery Channing.

The complete works of W.E. Channing: with an introduction online

. (page 128 of 169)
Online LibraryWilliam Ellery ChanningThe complete works of W.E. Channing: with an introduction → online text (page 128 of 169)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

good, as disjoined from this, as distinct from
justice and reverence for all rights, should be
comprehended and made our end. States-
men work in the dark until the idea of Right
towers above expediency or wealth. Woe to
that people which would found its prosperity
in wrong I It is time that the low maxims oif
policy, which have ruled for ages, should feU.
It is time that public interest should no longer
hallow injustice, and fortify government in
making the weak their prey.

In this discussion I have used the phrase.
Public or General Good, in its ownmon
acceptation, as signifying the safety and
prosperity of a state. Why can it not be
used in a larger sense? Why can it not be
made to comprehend inward and moral, as
well as outward good ? And why cannot (he
former be understood to be inoomparably
the most important element of the public
weal? Then, indeed, I should assent to the
proposition that the General Good b tbe
Supreme Law. So construed, it wouM sup-
port the great truths which I have maintained.
It would condemn the infliction of wrong on
the humblest individual as a national calamity.
It would plead with us to extend to every
individual the means of improving his cha-
racter and lot

If the remarks under this head be just, it
will follow that the good of the Indivklual is
more imp>ortant thaun the outward prosperity
of the State. The former is not vague azid
unsettled, like the Utter, and it bdongs to «

Digitized by V^OOQIC



higher order of interests. It consists in the
free exertion and expansion of the individual's
powers, especially of his higher faculties ; in
the energy of his intellect, conscience, and
good affections ; in sound judgment ; in the
acquisition of truth; in labouring honestly
for himself and his family ; in loving his
Creator, and subjecting his own will to the
Divine; in loving his fellow-creatures, and
making cheerful sacrifices to their happiness ;
in friendship ; in sensibility to the beautiful,
whether in nature or art; in loyalty to his
principles ; in moral courage ; in self-respect ;
m understanding and asserting his rights;
and in the Christian hope of immortality.
Such is the good of the Individual ; a more
sacred, exalted, enduring interest, than any
accessions of wealth or power to the State.
Let it not be sacrificed to these. He should
find, in his connection with the community,
aids to the accomplishment of these purposes
of his being, and not be chained and subdued
by it to the inferior interests of any fellow-

In all ages the Individual has. in one form
or another, been trodden in the dust. In
monarchies and aristocracies, he has been
sacrificed to One or to the Few ; who, regard-
ing government as an heirloom in their
ikmilies, and thinking of the people as made
only to live and die for their glory, have not
dreamed that the sovereign power was de-
signed to shield every man, without excep-
tion, from wrong. In the ancient RepubUcs,
the Glory of the State, especially Conquest,
was the end to which the individual was
expected to offer himself a victim, and in
promoting which no cruelty was to be de-
clined, no human right revered. He was
merged in a great whole, called the Common-
wealth, to which his whole nature was to be
immolated. It was the glory of the American
people, that, in their Declaration of Indepen-
dence, they took the ground of the indestruc-
tible rights of every human being. They
declared all men to be essentially equal, and
each bom to be free. They did not, like the
Greek or Roman, assert for themselves a
liberty which they burned to wrest from
other states. They spoke in the name of
humanity, as the representatives of the rights
of the feeblest as well as mightiest of their
race. They published tmiversal. everlasting
principles, which are to work out the deliver-
ance of every human being. Such was their
glory. Let not the idea of Rights be erased
from their children's minds by false ideas of
pubhc good. Let not the sacredness of In-
dividusu Man t>e forgotten in the feverish
pursuit of property. It is more important
that the Individual should respect himself,
and be respected by others, than that the
>yoaUh of both worlds should be accumulated

on our shores. National wealth is not the
end of society. It may exist where large
classes are depressed and wronged. It may
undermine a nation's spirit, institutions, and
independence. It can have no value and no
sure foundation, until the supremacy of the
Rights of the Individual is the first article of
a nation's faith, and until reverence for them
becomes the spirit of public men.

Perhaps it will be repUed to all which has
now been said, that there is an argument
from experience, which invalidates the doc-
trines of this section.' It may be said that
human rights, notwithstanding what has been
said of their sacredness, do and must yield to
the exigencies of real life ; that there is often
a stem necessity in human affairs to which
they bow. I may be asked whether, in the
history of nations, circumstances do not occur
in which the rigour of the principles now laid
down must be relaxed; whether, in seasons
of imminent peril to the state, private rights
must not give way. I may be asked whether
the establishment of martial law and a dic-
tator has not sometimes been justified and
demanded bv pubhc danger; and whether,
of course, the rights and liberties of the
individual are not held at the discretion of the
state. I admit, in reply, that extreme cases
mav occur, in which the exercise of rights
and freedom may be suspended; but sus-
pended only for their ultimate and permanent
security. At such times, when the frantic
fury of the many, or the usurpations of the
few, interrupt the administration of law, and
menace property and Ufe, society, threatened
with min, puts forth instinctivdy spasmodic
efforts for its own preservation. It flies to an
irresponsible dictator for its protection. But
in these cases, the peai idea of Rights pre-
dominates amidst their apparent subversion.
A power above all laws is conferred, only that
the empire of law may be restored. Despotic
restraints are imposed, only that liberty may
be rescued from ruin. All rights are involvcKl
in the safety of the state; and hence, in the
cases referred to, the saHety of the state becomes
the supreme law. The individual is bound for
a time to forego his freedom, for the salvation
of institutions without which liberty is but a
name. To argue from such sacrifices that he
majr be permanently made a slave, is as great
an insult to reason as to humanity. It may
be added, that sacrifices which may be de-
manded for the safety, are not due from the
individual to the prosperity, of the state. The
great end of civil society is to secure rights,
not accumulate wealth; and to merge the
former in the latter is to turn poUtical union
into de^dation and a scourge. The com-
munity IS bound to take the rights of each and
all under its guardianship. It roust substan-
tiate its claim to universal obedience by re-

Digitized by V300QIC



deeminif its pledge of umversal protection.
It must immolate no man to the prosperity of
the rest. Its laws should be made for all, its
tribunals opened to all. It cannot without
guilt abandon any of its members to private
oppression, to irresponsible power.

We have thus established the reality and
sacredness of human rights ; and that slavery
is an infraction of these, is too plain to need
any laboured proof. Slavery violates, not one,
but all; and violates them, not incideotally,
but necessarily, systematically, from its very
nature. In starting with the assumption that
the sUive is property, it sweeps away every
defence of human rights, and lays them in the
dust. Were it necessary, I might enumerate
them, and show how all faU before this terrible
usurpation ; but a few rernarks will suflUce.

Slavery strips man of the fundamental right
to inquire into, consult, and seek his own
happiness. His powers belong to another,
and for another they must be used. He must
form no plans, engage in no enterprises, for
bettering his condition. Whatever be his
capacities, however ec^ual to great improve-
ments of his lot, he is chained for life, by
another's will, to the same unvaried toil. He
is forbidden to do, for himself or others, the
work for which God stamped him with his own
image, and endowed him with his own best
S^ts.— Again, the slave is stripped of the
right to acquire property. Being himself
owned, his earxungs belong to another. He
can possess nothing but by favour. That right,
on which the development of men's powers
so much depends — the right to make accumu-
lations, to gain exclusive possessions by honest
industry — ^is withheld. ' ' The slave can acquire
nothing." says one of the slave codes, " but
what must belong to his master ;" and how-
ever this definition, which moves the indigna-
tion of the free, may \yt mitigated by favour,
the spirit of it enters into the very essence of
slavery. — ^Again, the slave is stripped of his
right to his wife and children. They belong
to another, and may be torn from him, one
and all, at any moment, at his master's plea-
sure. — ^Again, the slave is stripped of the right
lo the culture of his rational powers He is in
some cases deprived by law of instruction,
which is placed \rithin his reach bv the im-
provements of society and the philanthropy
of the age. He is not allowed to toil, that
his children may enjoy a better education
than himself. The most sacred ri^t of
human nature^-that of developing his best
faculties ~ is denied. Even shoukl it be
granted, it would be conceded as a favour,
and might at any moment be withheld by the
capricious will of another.—- Again, the slave
is deprived of the right erf self-defence. No
injury from a white man is he suffered to
repel, nor can he seek redress from the laws

of his country. If accnmtilated insult and
wrong provoke him to the slightest retalia-
tion, this effort for self-protection, allowed
and commended to others, is a crime, for
which he must pay a fearful penalty. — Again,
the slave is stripped of the right to be ex-
empted from all harm, except from wrong-
doing. He is subjected to the lash by those
whom he has never consented to serve, «aA
whose dajkn to him as property we have seen
to be a usurpation ; and this power of punish-
ment, which, if justiy claimed, should be ex-
ercised with a fJB^trful care, is often del^ated
to men in whose hands there is a moral cei^
tainty of its abuse.

I will add but one more example of the
violation of human rights by slavery. The
slave virtually suffers the wrong of robbery,
though with utter unconsciousness on the
part of those who inflict it It maj. indeed,
be generally thought that, as he Is suffered
to own nothing, he cannot ^1, at least,
under this kind of violence. But it is not
true that he owns nothing. Whatever -be
may be denied by man. he hoMs from nature
the most valuaMe property, and that from
which all other is denved. I mean his strength.
His labour is his own, by the gift of that God
who nerved his arm, and gave him inte1Ii«
gence and conscience to direct the use of it
to his own and others' happiness. No pos-
session is so precious as a man's force of body
and mind. The exertion of this in labour is
the great foundation and source of property
in outward things. The worth of articles m
traffic is measured bjr the labour expended in
their production. To the great mass of men,
in all countries, their strengtii or labour is
their whole fortune. To sei« on this would
be to rob them of thei^ alL In truth, no rob-
bery is so great as that to which the slave is
habitually subjected. To take by force a
man's whole estate, the fruit of vears of toQ,
would, by universal consent, be clenounced as
a great wrong; but what is this compared
with seising the man himself, and approprir
ating to our use the limbs, faculties, strength,
and labour by vi^ch all property is won and
held fast ? The right of property in outward
things is as nothing compared with our right
to oursehres. Were the slave-holder strippei l
of his fortune, he [would count the violenoe
slight, compared with what he would sofl^
were his person seised and devoted as a chattel
to another's use. Let it not be said that the
slave receives an equivalent, that he is fed and
clothed, and is not. therefore, robbed. Sup-
pose another to wrest from us a valued ptMh
session, and to pay us his own price. Shookl
we not think oui^ves robbed? Would Mt
the laws pronounce the invader a robber^ IGl
it consistent with the ri|^t of propprty Att
a roan should determine the equwalort fcr

Digitized by V3OOQ IC

ivhat he takes from his neighbour ? Especially
is it to be hoped that the equivalent due to
the labourer will be scrupulously weighed,
when he himself is held as property, and all
bis earnings are declared to be his masters.
So great an infraction of human right is slavery I
In reply to these remarks, it may be said
that the theory and practice of slavery differ ;
that the rights of the slave are not as wantonly
sported with as the claims of the master
might lead us to infer ; that some of his
possessions are sacred ; that not a few slave-
holders refuse to divorce husband and wife,
to sever parent and child ; and that in many
cases, the power of punishment is used so
reluctantly as to encourage insolence and
insubordination. All this I have no dis-
position to deny. Indeed it must be so. It
is not in human nature to wink wholly out of
sight the rights of a fellow-creature. Degrade
him as we may, we cannot altogether forget
his claims. In every slave-country there are,
imdoubtedly, masters who desire and purpose
to respect these to the full extent which the
nature of the relation will allow. Still human
rights are denied. They lie wholly at another's
mercy ; and we must have studied history in
vain, if we need be told that they will be con-
tinually the prey of this absolute power. — ^The
evils involved in and flowing from the denial
and infraction of the rights of the slave will
form the subject of a subsequent chapter.

Chapter III.
I HAVE endeavoured to show, in the pre-
ceding sections, that slavery is a violation of
sacred rights, the infliction of a great wrong.
And here a question arises. It may be asked
whether, by this language, I intend to fasten
on the slave-holder the charge of peculiar
guilt. On this point great explicitness is a
duty. S3rmpathy with the slave has often
degenerated into injustice towards the master.
I wish, then, to t)e understood, that in rank-
ing slaveiv among the greatest wrongs, I
speak of the injury endur^ by the slave, and
not of the character of the master. These
are distinct points. The former does not
determine the latter. The wrong is the same
to the slave, from whatever motive or spirit it
may be inflicted. But this motive or spirit
determines wholly the character of him who
inflicts it. Because a great injury is done to
another, it does not follow that he who does
it is a depraved man ; for he may do it un-
consciously, and, still more, may do it in the
belief that he confers a good. We have
learned little of moral science and of human
nature, if we do not know that guilt is to be
measured, not by the outward act, but by


unfaithfulness to conscience; and that the
consciences of men are often darkened by
education and other inauspicious influences.
All men have partial consciences, or want
comprehension of some duties. All partake,
in a measure, of the errors of the community
in which they live. Some are betrayed into
moral mistakes by the very force with which
conscience acts in regard to some particular
duty. As the intellect, in grasping one truth,
often loses its hold of others, and, by giving
itself up to one idea. £alls into exaggeration,
so the moral sense, in seizing on a particular
exercise of philanthropy, forgets other duties*
and will even violate many important pre-
cepts. In its passionate eagerness to carry one
to perfection. Innumerable illustrations may
be given of the liableness of men to monu
error. The practice which strikes one man
with horror may seem to another, who was
bom and brought up in the midst of it, not
only innocent but meritorious. We must
judge others, not by our light, but by their
own. We must take their place, and consider
what allowance we in their position might
justly expect. Our ancestors at the North
were concerned in the slave-trada Some of
us can recollect individuals of the coloured
race who were torn from Africa, and grew
old under oiu* parental roofs. Our ancestors
committed a deed now branded as piracy.
Were they, therefore, the oflscotiring of the
earth ? Were not some of them among the
best of their times? The administration oi
religion, in almost all past ages, has been a
violation of the sacred rights of conscience.
How many sects have persecuted and shed
blood I Were their members, therefore, mon-
sters of depravity ? The history of our race
is made up of wrongs, many of which were
committed without a suspicion of their true
character, and many from an urgent sense of
duty. A man lx>m among slaves, accustomed
to this relation from his birth, taught its
necessity by venerated parents, associating it
with all whom he reveres, and too familiar
with its evils to see and feel their magnitude,
can' hardly be expected to look on slavery as
it appears to more impartial and distant ob-
servers. Let it not be said that, when new
light is ofiEered him, he is criminal in rejecting
it. Are we all willing to receive new light ?
Can we woiKier that such a man should be
slow to be convinced of the criminality of an
abuse sanctioned by prescription, and which
has so interwoven itself with all the habits,
employments^ and economy of life, that he
can hardly conceive of the existence of so-
ciety without this all-pervading element?
May he not be true to his convictions of duty
in other relations, though he grievously err in
this? If, indeed, through cupidity and sel-
flshness, he stifle the monitions of conscience,

Digitized by V^OOQIC


warp his judgment, and repel the light, he
incurs great guilt. If he want virtue to resolve
on doing right, though at the loss of every
slave, he incurs great guilt. But who of us
can look into his heart ? To whom are the
secret workings there revealed?

Still more. There are masters who have
thrown off the natural prejudices of their
position, who see slavery as it is, and who
nold the slave chiefly, if not wholly, from dis-
interested considerations; and these deserve
great praise. They deplore and abhor the
institution ; but believing that partial eman-
cipation, in the present condition of society,
would bring immixed evil on bond and free,
they think themselves bound to continue the
relation, until it shall be dissolved by com-
prehensive and systematic measures of the
state. There are many of them who would
shudder as much as we at reducing a freeman
to bondage, but who are appalled by what
seem to them the perils and difficulties of
liberating multitudes, bom and brought up
to that condition. There are many who,
nominally holding the slave as property, still
hold him for his own good, and tor the public
order, and would blush to retain him on other
grounds. Are such men to be set down
among the unprincipled? Am I told that by
these remarks I extenuate slavery? I reply,
slavery is still a heavy yoke, and strips man
of his dearest rights, be the master's character
what it may. Slavery is not less a curse be-
cause long use may nave blinded most who
support it to its evils. Its influence is still
blighting, though conscientiously upheld.
Al^lute monarchy is still a scourge, though
among despots there have been good men.
It is possible to abhor and oppose bad insti-
tutions, and yet to abstain from indiscriminate
condemnation of those who cling to them,
and even to see in their ranks greater virtue
than in ourselves. It is true, and ought to
be cheerfully acknowledged, that in the Slave-
holding States may be found some of the
greatest names of our history, and, what is
still more important, bright examples of pri-
vate virtue and Christian love.

There is, however, there must be, in slave-
holding communities, a large class which
cannot be too severely condemned. There
are many— we fear, very many — who hold
their fellow-creatures in bondage from selflsh,
base motives. They hold the slave for gain,
whether justly or unjustly, they neither ask
nor care. They cling to him as property, and
have no faith in the principles which will
diminish a man's wealth. 'They hold him,
not for his own good, or the safety of the
state, but with precisely the same views with
which they hold a labouring horse, that is,
for the profit which they can wring from him.
They will not hear a word pf his wrongs ; for,

wronged or not, they will not let him go. He
is their property, and they mean not to be
poor for righteousness' sake. Such a class
there undoubtedly is among dave-holders ;
how large, their own consciences must detcr<»
mine. We are sure of it ; for, under such
circumstances, human nature will and must
come to this mournful result Now, to men
of this spirit, the explanations we have made
do in no degree apply. Such men ought to
tremble before the rebukes of outraged huma*
nity and indignant virtue. Slavery upheld for
gain is a great crime. He who has nothing
to urge against emancipation but that it witt
make him poorer, is bound 10 Immediate
Emancipation. He has no excuse for wrest-
ing from his brethren their rights. The pica
of benefit to the slave and the state avails
him nothing. He extorts by the lash that
labour to which he has no claim, through a
base selfishness. Every morsel of food thus
forced from the injured ought to be bitterer
than gall. His gold is cankered. The sweat
of the slave taints the luxuries for which it
streams. Better were it for the selfish wrong-
doer, of whom I speak, to live as the slave,
to clothe himself in the slave's raiment, to
eat the slave's coarse food, to till bis fields
with his own hands, than to pamper himself
by day, and pillow his head on down at night,
at the cost of a wantonly injured feUow-crea-
ture. , No fellow-creature can be so injiured
without taking terrible vengeance. He is
terribly aveng«i even now. Ine blight which
falls on the soul of the wrong-doer, the deso-
lation of his moral nature, is a more tenibls
calamity than he inflicts. In deadening bis
moral leelings, he dies to the proper happi-
ness of a man. In hardening his heart agaunst
his fellow-creatures, he sears it to all true joy.
In shutting his ear against the voice of justice^
he shuts out all the harmonies of the universe^
and turns the voice of God within him into
rebuke. He may prosper, indeed, and bold
faster the slave by whom he prospeis, but be
rivets heavier and more ignominious dains
on his own soul than he lays on others. No
punishment is so terrible as prosperous guilt.
No fiend, exhausting on us all his power of
torture, is so fearful as an oppressed feUow-
creature. The cry of the oppressed, unheard
on earth, is heard in heaven. God is just ;
and if justice reign, then the unjust mtist
terribly suffer. Then no being can profit by
evil-doing. Then all the laws of the universe
are ordinances against guilt. Then every
enjoyment gained by wrong-doing will tie
turned into a airse. No laws of nature are
so irrepealable as that law which binds guilt
and misery. God is just. Then all the ckh
fences which the oppressor rears against tbe
consequences of wrong-doing are v aJpH' SS
vain ^ wQuld b? hi$ strivinjp to mi«8t t^l^

Digitized by V3OOQ IC



single arm the ocean or whirlwind. He may
disarm the slave.' Can he disarm the slave's
Creator? He can crush the spirit of insur-
rection in a fellow-being. Can he crush the
awful spirit of justice and retribution in the
Almighty? He can still the murmur of dis-
content in his victim. Can he silence that
voice which speaks in thunder, and is to
break the sleep of the grave ? Can he always
still the reproving, avenging voice in his own
breast ?

I know it will be said, " You would make
us poor." Be poor, then, and thank God for
your honest poverty. Better be poor than
unjust Better beg than steal. Better live
in an alms-house — better die — than trample

Online LibraryWilliam Ellery ChanningThe complete works of W.E. Channing: with an introduction → online text (page 128 of 169)