William Ellery Channing.

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

. (page 136 of 169)
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die, rather than surrender their dearest
liberties, taught the lawless that they had a
foe to contend with whom it was not sale to
press, whilst, like all manly appeals, it called
forth reflection and sympathy in the better
portion of the community. In the name
of freedom and humanity, I thank them.
Through their courage, the violence, which
might have fiimish^ a precedent fatal to
freedom, is to become, I trust, a warning
to the lawless of the folly as well as crime of
attempting to crush opinion by Force.

Of all powers, the last to be entrusted to
the multitude of men is that of determining
what questions shall be discussed. The
greatest truths are often the most unpopular
and exasperating ; and were they to be denied
discussion till the ifiany should be ready to
accept them, they would never establish them-
selves in the general mind. The pn^fress of
society depends on nothing more than on the
exposure of time-sanctioned abuses, which
cannot be touched without offending multi-
tudes, than on the promulgation of principles
which are in advance of public sentiment
and practice, and which are consequently at
war with the habits, prejudices, and imme-
diate interests of large classes of the com-
munity. Of consequence, the multitude, if
once allowed to dictate or proscribe subjects
of discussion, would strike society with spiri-
tual blindness and death. The worid is to
be carried forward by truth, which at first
offends, which wins its way by degrees, which
the many hate and would rejoice to cru^
The right of free discussion is therefore to be
guarded by the friends of mankind with pecu-
liar jealousy. It is at once the most sacred and
most endangered of all our rights. He who
would rob his neighbour of it, should have a
mark set on him as the worst enemy of freedfwn.

I do not know that our history contains a
page more disgraceful to us as freemen than
that which records the violences against the
Abolitionists. As a f>eople, we are charge-
able with other and worse misdeeds, but noDe
so flagrantly opposed to the spirit of liberty,
the very spirit of our institutions, and of
which we make our chief boast Who, let
me ask, are the men whose offences are so
aggravated, that they must be denied thepKO^
tection of the laws, and be given up to the
worst passions of the multitude? A» tlitfy
profligate in principle and life, tcMliaa of
impious or servile doctrines, Uus WwanS e t of

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God and their race? I speak not from vague
rumour, but from better means of know-
ledge, when I say, that a body of men and
women more blameless than the Abolitionists,
in their various relations, or more disposed
to adopt a rigid construction of the Christian
precepts, cannot be found among us. Of
their judiciousness and wisdom I do not
speak ; but I believe they yield to no party
in moral worth. Their great crime, and one
which in this land of libertv is to be punished
above all crimes, is this, that they carry the
doctrine of human equality to its full extent,
that they plead vehemently for the oppressed,
that they assail wrong-doing however sanc-
tioned by opinion or intrenched behind wealth
and power, that their zeal for human rights
is without mec^ure, that they associate them-
selves fervently with the Christians and phi-
lanthropists of other countries against the
worst relic of bartttirous times. Such is the
ofTence against which mobs are arrayed, and
which is counted so flagrant, that a summary
justice, too indignant to wait for the tardy
progress of tribtmals, must take the punish-
ment into its own hands.

How strange, in a free country, that the
men from whom the liberty of speech is to
be torn are those who use it in pleading for
freedom, who devote themselves to the vin-
dication of human rights I What a spectacle
is presented to the world by a republic, in
which sentence of proscription is passed on
citizens who labour bv addressing men's
consciences to enforce the truth that slavery
is the greatest of wrongs ! Through the
civiliKd world, the best and greatest men
are bearing joint witness against slavery.
Christians of all denominations and condi-
tions, rich and poor, learned and ignorant,
are bound in a holy league against this most
degrading form of oppression. But, in free
America, the language which despots tolerate
must not be heard. One would think that
freemen might be pardoned, if the view of
fellow-creatures stripped of all human rights
should move them to vehemence of speech.
But, whilst on all other subjects the deeply
stirred feelings may overflow in earnest re-
monstrance, on slavery the freemen must
speak in whispers, or pay the penalty of per-
secution for the natural utterance of strong
emotion.

1 am aware that the outrages on the Abo-
litionists are justified or palliated by various
considerations; nor is this surprising; for
when did violence ever want excuse? It is
said that Abolitionism tends to stir up insur-
rection at the South, and to dissolve the
Union. Of all pretences for resorting to
lawless force, the most dangerous is the ten-
dency of measures or opinions. Almost all
men see ruinous tendencies in whatever op-



poses their particular interests or views. All
the political parties which have convulsed
our country have seen tendencies to national
destruction in the principles of their oppo-
nents. So infinite are the connections and
consequences of human affairs, that nothing
can be done in which some dangerous ten-
dency may not be detected. There is a ten-
dency in arguments against any old establish-
ment to unsettle all institutions, because all
hang together. There is a tendency in the
laying bare of deep-rooted abuses to throw
a community into a storm. Liberty tends
to licentiousness, government to despotism.
Exclude all enterprises which may have evil
results, and human life will stagnate. Wise
men are not easily deterred by difliculties and
perils from a course of action which promises
great good. Especially when justice and
humanity cry aloud for the removal of an
enormous social evil, it is unworthy of men
and Christians to let the imagination run riot
among p>ossibIe dangers, instead of rousing
every energy of mind to study how the evil
may be taken away, and the perils which ac-
company beneficisd changes may be escaped.
As to the charge brought against the Abo-
litionists, of stirring up insurrection at the
South, I have never met the shadow of a
proof that this nefarioiis project was medi-
tated by a single member of their body.
The accusation is repelled by their characters
and principles as well as by facts ; nor can I
easily conceive of a sane man giving it belief.
As to the "tendency" of their measures to
this result, it is such only as we have seen to
belong to all human aifairs, and such as may
easily be guarded against. The truth is,
that any exposition of Slavery, no matter
from whom it may come, may chance to
favour revolt. It may chance to fall into
the hands of a fanatic, who may think him-
self summoned by Heaven to remove vio-
lently this great Mrrong ; or it may happen to
reach the hut of some intelligent daring slave,
who may think himself called to be the
avenger of his race. All things are possible.
A casual, innocent remark in conversation,
may put wild projects into the unbalanced or
disordered mind of some hearer. Must we,
then, live in perpetual silence? Do such
chances make it our duty to shut our lips on
the subject of an enormous ^Tong, and never
to send from the press a reprol^tion of the
evil ? The truth is, that the great danger to
the slave-holder comes from slavery itself,
from the silent innovations of time, from
political conflicts and convulsions, and not
from the writings of strangers. I readily
grant that the Abolitionists, in consequence
of their number and their systematic and
public efforts, are more likely to be heard of
by the slave than a solitary individual who



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THB ABOLITIONISTS.



espouses his cause. But when I consider
how steadily they have condemned the resort
to force on the part of the oppressed ; when
I consider what power the master possesses
of excluding incendiary influences, if such
are threatened from abroad ; when I remem-
ber that, during the late unparalleled excite-
ment at the South, not a symptom of revolt
appeared ; and when to all this I add the
strongly manifested purpose of the Free
States to put forth their power, if required,
for the sui>pression of insurrection, it seems
to me that none but the most delicate nerves
can be disturbed by the movements of the
Abolitionists. Can any man, who has a
sense of character, affect to believe that the
tendency of Abolitionism to stir up a servile
war is so palpable and resistless as to require
the immediate application of force for its
suppression, as to demand the substitution
of mobs for the action of law, as to justify
the violation of the most sacred right of the
citizen?

As to the other charge, that the measures
of the Abolitionists endanger our National
Union, and must therefore be put down by
any and every means, it is weaker than the
former. Against whom has not this charge
been hurled ? What party among us has not
been loaded with this reproach ? Do not we
at the North almost unanimously believe that
the spirit and measures of Nullification have
a direct and immediate tendency to dissolve
the Union? But are we therefore autho-
rized to silence the nuUifier by violence?
Should a leader of that party travel among
us, is he to be mobbed ? Let me further ask,
how is it that the Abolitionists endanger the
Union? The only reply which I have heard
is, that they exasperate the South. And is it a
crime to exasperate men ? Who then so cri-
minal as the Founder and primitive teachers
of our faith ? Have we yet to learn that, in
cases of exasperation, the blame is as apt to lie
with those who take, as with those who occa-
sion, offence? How stfange the doctrine, that
men are to be proscribe for uttering lan-
guage which gives offence, are to be out-
kiw^ for putting their neighbours into a
passion I Let it also be considered that the
Abolitionists are not the only people who
exasp>erate the South. Can the calmest book
be written on Slavery without producing the
same effect ? Can the Chief Justice of Mas-
sachusetts expound the constitution and laws
of that commonwealth according to their free
spirit, and of course in opposition to Slavery,
without awakening indignation? Is not the
doctrine, that Congress has the right of
putting an end to Slavery in the District of
Columbia, denounced as fiercely as the writ-
ings and harangues of AbolidonisU? Where
then shall mobs stop, if the crime of exas-



perating the South b so heinous as to deserve
their vengeance? If the philanthrofHSt and
Christian must be silenced on the subject of
Slavery, lest they wound the sensitive cars cf
the South, ought (he judge and legislator to
be spared? Who does not see that these
apologies for lawless force, if they have any
validity, will bring every good man under its
iron sway ?

In these remarks you learn my abhorrence
of the violence offered to the Abolitionists^
and my admiration of the spirit they have
opposed to it. May they vindicate to the end
the rights which in their persons have been
outraged I Allow me now to express mj
earnest desire and hope that the Abolitionists
will maintain the liberty of speech and the
press, not only by asserting it 6nnly, but by
using it wisely, deliberately, generously, and
under the control of the severest moral prin-
ciple. It is my earnest desire that th^will
exercise it in the spirit of Christians and
philanthropists, with a supreme k>ve of truth,
without passion or bitterness, and without
that fanaticism which cannot discern the true
proportions of things, which exaggerates or
distorts whatever favours or confivks with its
end, which sees no goodness except in its
own ranks, which shuts itself up in one object,
and is blind to all besides. Liberty supers
from nothing more than from hcentiousness,
and I fear that Abolitionists are not to be
absolved from this abuse of it. It seems to
roe that they are particulariy opoi to one
reproach. Their writings have be«i blemished
by a spirit of intolerance, sweeping censure,
and rash, injurious judgment. I do not
mean to bring this charge against all their
publications. Yburs, as far as I have seen
them, are an honourable exception; and
others, I know, deserve the same praise. But
Abolitionism, in the main, has spoken in an
intolerant tone, and in this way has repelled
many good minds, given great advantsige to
its opponents, and diminished the energy and
effect of its appeals. I should r^oke to see
it purified from this stain.

Abolitionism seems to me to have been
intolerant towards the slave-holders, and
towards those in the Free States who oppose
them, or who refuse to take jart in tbetr
measures. I say, first, towards the slam-
holder. The Abolitionist has not spoken, and
cannot speak, against slavery too strongly.
No language can exceed the enormity of tbe
wrong. But the whole class of siave-boldeis
often meets a treatment in anti-slavery pufali*
cations which is felt to be unjust, a^id is
certainly unwise. We always injure oar-
selves in placing our adversary on the fooling
of an injured man. One groundless duvsie
helps him to repel many which aie
There is indeed a portion of "



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who deserve the severest reprobation. In every
such community there are many who hold
their fellow-creatures in bondage for gain — for
mere gain. They perpetuate this odious
sjrstcm not reiuctantly, but from choice ; not
because the public safety compels them, as
they think, to act the part of despots, but
because they love despotism, and count
money their supreme good. Provided they
can be supported hi ease and indulgence,
can be pampered and enriched, they care not
for the means. They care not what wrongs
or stripes are inflicted, what sweat is extorted,
what powers of the immortal soul are crushed.
For such men no rebuke can be too severe.
If any vehemence of language can pierce
their consciences, let It be used. The man
who holds slaves for gain is, in effect, though
unconsciously, the worst of robbers ; for he
selfishly robs his fellow-creatures, not only of
their property, but of themselves. He is the
worst of t3rrants, for, whilst absolute govern-
ments spoil men of civil, he strips them of per-
sonal rights. But I do not, cannot believe,
that the majority of slave-holders are of the
character now described. I b<dieve that the
majority, could they be persuaded of the con-
sistency of emancipation with the well-being of
the coloured race and with social order, would
relinquish their hold on the slave, and sacri-
fice their imagined property in him to the
claims of justice and humanity. They shrink
from emancipation, because it seems to them
a precipice. Having seen the coloured man
continually dependent on foreign guidance
and control, they think him incapable of pro-
viding for himself. Having seen the labouring
class kept down by force, they feel as if the
removal of this restraint would be a signal to
universal lawlessness and crime. That such
opinions absolve from all blame those who
perpetuate slaveiv, I do not say. That they
are often strengtnened by the self-interest of
the master, I cannot doubt ; for we see men
everywhere grasping and defending doctrines
which confirm their property and power. I
acknowledge, too, that the ready, unhesitating
acquiescence of the slave-holder in such loose
notions, especially at the present moment, is
a bad symptom. In the present age, when a
flood of light has been thrown on the evils of
slavery, and when the whole civilized world
cries out against it as the greatest of wrongs ;
and in this country, where the doctrine oif
human rights has been expounded by the
profoundest minds, and sealed with the best
blood, a fearful responsibility is assumed by
masters, who, pronouncing emancipation
hopeless, make no serious, anxious inquiry
after the means of accomplishing it, and no
serious effort to remove the supposed unfitness
of the slave for freedom. Still, while there
to much to be condemned in the prevalent



opinions and feelings at the South, we have
no warrant for denying to all slave-holders
moral and religious excellence. The whole
history of the world shows us that a culpable
blindness in regard to one class of obligations
may consist with a sincere reverence for
religious and moral principles, as far as they
are understood. In estimating men's charac-
ters, we must never forget the disadvantages
under which they labour. Slavery, upheld,
as it is at the South, by the deepest prejudices
of education, by the sanction of laws, by the
prescription of ages, and by real difficulties
attending emancipation, cannot easily be
viewed in that region as it appears to more
distant and impartial observers. The hate-
fulness of the S3rstem ought to be strongly
exposed, and it cannot be exposed too
strongly ; but this hatefulness must not be
attached to all who sustain slavery. There
are pure and generous spirits at the South,
and they are to be honoured the more for
the sore trials amidst which their virtues have
gained strength. The Abolitionists, in their
zeal, seem to have overlooked these truths in
a great degree, and by their intolerance
towards the slave-holder have awakened
towards him sympathy rather than indigna-
tion, and weakened the effect of their just in-
vectives against the system which he upholds.

I think, too, that they are chargeable with
a like intolerance towards those in the Free
States who oppose them, or who refuse to
participate in their operations. They have
been apt to set down opposition to themselves
as equivalent to attachment to slavery. Re-
garding their own dogmas as the only true
feith, and making their own zeal the standard
of a true interest in the oppressed, they have
been apt to cast scornful looks and reproaches
on those who have spoken in doubt or dis-
pleasure of their movements. This has made
them many foes. They have been too belli-
gerent to make friends. I do not mean, in
these remarks, that the Abolitionists have
had nothing to blame in their opponents.
Among these are not a few deserving severe
reprehension, and I have no desire to shield
them from it. But the great mass who have
refused to take part in the anti-slavery move-
ment have been governed by pure motives.
If they have erred, they have not erred wil-
lingly, or from the influence of low and
servile passions. They have consequently
been wronged by the treatment they have re-
ceived at the hands of the Abolitionists, and
men are not brought over by wrongs to a
good cause.

1 have said that I have no desire to shield
the unworthy among ourselves. We have
those whose opposition to Abolitionism has
been wicked, and merits reprobation. Such
are to be found in all classes; forming, indeed,



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THi, ABOLITIONISTS,



a minority in each, yet numerous enough to
deserve attention and to do much harm.
Such are to be found in what is called the
highest class of society, that is, among the
rich and fashionable; and the cause is obvious.
The rich and fashionable belong to the same
caste with the slave-holder; and men are'apt to
sympathize with their own caste more readily
than with those beneath them. The slave is
too low, too vulgar, to awaken interest in
those who abhor vulgarity more than oppres-
sion and crime, and who found all their self-
admiration on the rank they occupy in the
social scale. Far be it from me to charge on
the rich or fashionable, as a class, this moral
degradation; but among them are the wor-
shippers of high degree, who would think their
dignity soiled bv touching the cause of a
menial, degraded race, and who load its ad-
vocates with ridicule and scorn.

Then, in the commercial class, there are
unworthy opposers of Abolitionism. There
are those whose interests rouse them to with-
stand ev«y movement which may offend the
South. They have profitable connections
%vith the slave-holder, which must not be en-
dangered bv expressions of sympathy with
the slave. Gain is their god, and they sacri-
fice on this altar without compunction the
rights and happiness of their fellow-creatures.
To such, the philanthropy which would
break every chain is fanaticism, or a pretence.
Nothing in their own souls helps them to com-
prehend the fervour of men who feel for the
wronged, and who hazard property and life
in exposing the wrong. Your '• Narrative of
the Riotous Proceedings at Cincinnati" shows
to what a fearful extent the spirit of humanity,
justice, and freedom may be supplanted by
the accursed lust of gain. This, however,
cannot surprise us. Our present civilization
is characterized and tainted by a devouring
greediness of wealth; and a cause which
asserts right against wealth, must stir up bitter
opposition, especially in cities where this
divinity is most adored. Every lar^e city
will furnish those who would sooner nvet the
chain on the slave than lose a commission
or retrench an expenditure. I would on no
account intimate that such men constitute the
majority of the commercial class. I rejoice
to know that a more honourable spirit pre-
vails in the community which falls more
immediately under my notice. Still, the
passion for gain is everywhere sapping
pure and generous feeling, and everywhere
raises up bitter foes against any reform
which may threaten to turn aside a stream of
wealth. I sometimes feel as if a great social
revolution were necessary to break up our
present mercenary civilization, in order that
Christianity,' now repelled by the almost
universal worldliness. may come into new



contact with the soul, and mAy reconstrtict
society after its own pure and disinterested
principles.

In another class, which contains many ex«
cellent people, may also be found unworthy
opposers of all anti-slavery movements, t
refer to the Conservative class, to those who
are tremblingly alive to the spirit of innovatioa
now abroad in the world, who have little or
no faith in human progress, who are anxioos
to secure what is now gained rather than to
gain more, to whom that watchword of the
times. Reform, sounds like a knelL Among
these are to be found individuals who. from
no benevolent interest in society, but simply
because they have drawn high prizes in the
lottery of Ufe, are unwilling that the most
enormous abuses should be touched, lest the
established order of things, so {propitious to
themselves, should be disturbed. A paksying,
petrifying order, keeping things as they are.
seems to them the Id^ of a perfect com-
munity, and they have no patience with the
rude cry of reformers for the restoration of
human beings to their long-lost rights.

I will only add the politicians, as another
class which has furnished selfish assailants
of AboUtionism. Among our politicians are
men who regard public life as a chan»ed
circle into which moral principle roust not
enter, who know no law but expediency, who
are prepared to kiss the feet of the South for
southern votes, and who stand ready io edio
all the vituperations of the slave-holder
against the active enemies of slavery in the
Free States.

For these various descriptions of sdfi^
opponents of AboUtionism, I make no apology.
Let them be visited with just rebuke. But
they, after all, form but a small part of tlat
great body in the Free States vrho look od
the present anti-slavery movement with dis-
trust and disapprobation. The vast majcxity
in the Free States, who refuse communion
with you, are not actuated by base oonstdoa-
tions. The fear of a servile war, the fear of
political convulsions, a percep^tion of the
difficulties of great social chsmges, self-dis-
trust, a dread of rashness, these and the like
motives have great influence in deterring
multitudes from giving their countenance to
what seem to them violent movements' for the
abolition of slavery. That a culpable in-
sensibility to the evils and wrongs of this
nefarious institution is too common in the
class of which I now speak, I do not mean to
deny. Still, how vast a proportion of the
intelligence, virtue, and piety of the country
is to be found in their ranks ! To speak of
them slightly, contemptuously, bitterly, is to
do great wrong; and such speaking, I lattv



Online LibraryWilliam Ellery ChanningThe complete works of W.E. Channing: with an introduction → online text (page 136 of 169)