William Ellery Channing.

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

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visions of our country s glory, before which nation, renoimcing and defying this, cannot
all the glories of the past are to fade away ? be free, cannot be great.
Is it presumption to say that, if just to Religious men in this community— and they
ourselves and all nations, we shall be felt are many— arc peculiarly bound to read the
through this whole continent, that we shall future history of their country, not in the
spread our language, institutions, and civiliza- flattering promises of politicians, but in the
tion through a wider space than any nation warnings of conscience, and in the declara-
has yet filled with a like beneficent influence ? tion of God's Word. They know, and should
And are we prepared to barter these hopes, make it known, that nations cannot consoli-
this sublime moral empire, for conquests by date free institutions and secure a lasting
force ? Are we prepared to sink to the level prosperity by crime. They know that retri-
of unprincipled nations, to content ourselves bution awaits communities as wall as indi-
with a vulgar, guilty greatness, to adopt in viduals; and they should tremble amidst
our youth maxims and ends which must their hopes, when, with this solemn truth on
brand our future with sordidness, oppression, their minds, they look round on their country,
and shame? This country cannot without Let them consider the clearness with which
peculiar infamy run the common race of God's will is now made known, and the signal
national rapacity. Our origin, institutions, blessings of his Providence poured out on
and position are peculiar, and all favour this people, with a profusion accorded to no
an upright, honourable coxu-se. We have other under heaven ; and then let them con-
not the apologies of nations hemmed in sider our ingratitude for his boundless gifts,
by narrow bounds, or threatened by the over- our abuse of his beneficence to sensual and
shadowing power of ambitious neighbours, selfish gratification, our unmeasured, un-
If we surrender ourselves to a selfish policy, righteous love of gain, our unprincipled
we shall sin almost without temptation, and party spirit, and our faithless and cruel
forfeit opportunities of greatness vouchsafed wrongs towards the Indian race ; and can
to no other people, for a prize below con- they help fearing that the cup of wrath is
tempt. filling for this people ? Men, buried in them-

I have alluded to the want of wisdom with selves and in outward interests, atheists in
which we are accustomed to speak of our heart and life, may scoff at the doctrine of
destiny as a people. We are destined (that national retribution, because they do not see
is the word) to overspread North America; God's hand stretched out to destroy guilty
and, intoxicated with the idea, it matters communities. But does not all history teach
little to us how we accomplish our fate. To that the unlicensed passions of a guilty people
spread, to supplant others, to cover a bound- are more terrible ministers of punishment than
less space, this seems our ambition, no matter miraculous inflictions? To chastise and de-
what influence we spread with us. Why can- stroy, God need not interfere by supernatural
not we rise to noble conceptions of our judgments. In every community there arc
destiny ? Why do we not feel that our work elements of discord, revolution, and ruin,
as a nation is, to carry freedom, religion, pent up in the human soul, which need only
science, and a nobler form of human nature to be quickened and set free by a new order
over this continent ? and why do we not of events, to shake and convulse the whole
remember, that to diffuse these blessings we social fabric. Never were the causes of
must first cherL^ them in our own borden ; disastrous change in human aflairs more
and that whatever deeply and permanently active than at the present moment. Society
corrupts us will make our spreading mfluence heaves and trembles from the struggle of op-
a curse, not a blessing, to this new world ? posing principles, as the earth quakes through
It is a common idea in Europe that we are the force of central fires. This is not the
destined to spread an inferior civilization over time for presumption, for defying Heaven b^
North America ; that our slaveiy and our new crimes, for giving a new range to cupi-
absorption in gain and outward interests dity and ambition. Men who fear God must
mark us out as fated to fall behind the old fear for their country in this "day of provo-
world in the higher improvements of human cation," and they will be false to their countiy
nature, in the philosophy, the refinements, if they look on passively, and see without
the enthusiasm of literature and the arts, remonstrance the consummation of a great
which throw a lustre round other countries, national crime, which cannot fail to bring
I am not prophet enough to read our fate. I down awful retribution,
believe, indeed, that we arc to inak« our I am aware that there are those who, on

XT z

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reading these pages, wul smile at my simpli-
city in urging moral and religious motives,
disinterested considerations, lofty aims, on a
politician. The common notion is. that the
course of a man embarked in public life will
be shaped bv the bearing of passing events
on his immediate popularity ; that virtue and
freedom, however they may round his periods
in the senate, have little influence on his vote.
But I do not believe that public life is neces-
sarily degrading, or that a statesman is in-
capable of looking above himself. Public
life appeals to the noblest as well as basest
principles of human nature. It holds up for
pursuit enduring fame, as well as the noto-
riety of the passing hour. By giving oppor-
tunities of acting on the vast and permanent
interests of a nation, it often creates a deqp
sense of responsibility, and a generous self-
oblivion. I have too much faith in human
nature to distrust the influence of great truths
and high motives on any class of men. espe-
cially on men of commanding intelligence.
There is a congeniality between vast powers
of thought and dignity of purpose. None
are so capable of sacrificing themselves as
those who have most to sacrifice, who, in
offering themselves, make the greatest offer-
ings to humanity. With this conviction. I am
not discouraged by the anticipated smiles and
scoffs of those who will think that, in insist-
ing on national purity as the essential con-
dition of freedom and greatness, I have
"preached" to the winds. To you. Sir,
rectitude is not an empty name, nor will a
measure fraught with lasting corruption and
shame to vour country, seem to you anything
but a fearful caUimity.

I have now finished the task which I have
felt mjrself bound to undertake. That I have
escaped all error, I cannot hope. That I may
have fallen into occasional exaggeration, I
ought perhaps to fear, from the earnestness
with which I have written. But of the essen-
tial truth of the views here commimicated, I
cannot doubt. It is exceedingly to be re-
gretted that the subject of this letter has as
yet draHn little attention at the North. The
unprecedented pecuniary difficulties pressing
now on the country have absorbed the public
mind. And vet these difficulties, shotild they
be aggravated and continued far beyond what
is most dreaded, would be a light national
evil compared with the annexation of Texas
to the Union. I trust the people will not
slumber on the td%e of this precipice till it
.<(haU be too late to reflect and provide for
safetjr. Too much time has been given for
the ripening of this unrighteous project. I
doubt not, as I have said, that opposition
exists to it in the Slave-holding States. This,
if manifested in any strength, would imme-
diately defeat it. The other States should

raise a voice against it. like the voice df
many waters. Party dissensions should be
swallowed up in this vast common interest
The will of the people, too strong and fixed
to be resisted, should be expressed to Con-
gress in remonstrances from towns, cities,
counties, and legislatures. Let no man, who
feels the greatness of the evil which threatens
us. satisfy himself with unprofitable regrets;
but let each embody his opposition in a fonii
which will give incitement to his neigfabouis,
and act on men in power.

I take it for granted that those who differ
from me will ascribe what I have writtea
to unworthy motives. This is the commoD
mode of parrying unwelcome truths ; and it
is not without iimuence where the author is
unknown. May I, then, be allowed to say.
that I have strong reasons for believing that,
among the many defects of this letter, those
of imworthy intention are not to be num-
bered? The reluctance with which I have
written satisfies me that I have nor been
impelled by any headlong passion. Nor can
I have been impelled by party spirit. I am
pledged to no party. In truth, I do not feel
myself able to form a decisive opinion on the
subjects which now inflame and divide the
country, and which can be very little under*
stood except by men who have made a siu<fy
of commerce and finance. As to having
written from that most common motive, the
desire of distinction, I may be permitted to
say, that to win the public ear I need not
engage in a controversy which will expose
me to unmeasured reproach. Mav I add.
that I have lived long enough to team the
worth of applause? Could I. indeed, admk
the slightest hope of securing to myself thM
enduring fame which future ages award to
the Ughts and benefactors of their race, 1
could not but be stirrKl by the jxrospetL
But notoriety among contemporaries. cl>-
tained by taking part in the irritating discus-
sions of the day, I would not stretch out a
hand to secure.

I cannot but fear that the eamestnesi
with which I have written may seem to hadH-
cate an imdue excitement of mind. But I
have all along felt distinctly the importance
of calmness, and have seemed to myself to
maintain it. I have prepared this letter, not
amidst the goadings, irritations, and feveri^
tumults of a crowded city, but in the still-
ness of retirement, amid scenes of peace and
beauty. Hardly an hour has passed in which
I have not sought relief from the exIiaustioB
of writing by walking abroad amidst GcMcf^
works, which seldom fail to breathe ti»^
quillity, and whidi. by their harmony wtA
beneficence, continually cheer me. as cMl*
blems and prophecies of a more harmooioai
and blessed state of human affidrs tbm hm

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yet been known. Perhaps some will object
it to me that a man, living in such retirement,
unfits himself to judge of passing events, that
he is prone to substitute his visions for reali-
ties, and to legislate for a world which does
not exist. I adcnowledge the danger of such
a position. On the other hand, it is equally
true that the man who lives in a crowd and
receives perpetual impulse from its prejudices
and passions, who connects himself with a
party and looks to it for rei^-ard, cannot easily
keep his mind open to truth, or sacrifice the
interests of the moment to everlasting princi-
ples and the enduring welfare of his country.
Everywhere our frail nature is severely tried.
AH circumstances have their perils. In every
condition there are biases to wrong judgment
and incitements to wrong action. Through
such discipline we are to make our way to
truth and perfection. The dread of these
dangers must not keep us inactive. Having
sought to understand the difficulties in our
respective paths, and having done what we
can to learn the truth, we must commit
ourselves to our convictions without fear,
expressing them in word and action, and
leaving results to Him who will accept our
pure purpose, and whose providence is the
pledge of the ultimate triumphs of humanity
and uprightness.

You and I, my dear Sir, arc approaching
that period of life when the passions lose
much of their force, when disappointment,
bereavement, the fall of our contemporaries
on the right hand and the left, and long ex-
perience of the emptiness of human favour
and of the instability of all earthly goods,
are teaching us the lofty lessons of superiority
to the fleeting opinion of our day, of reliance
on the everliSting law of Right, of reference
to a Higher Judge than man, of solemn
anticipation of our final account. Permit
me to close this letter with desiring for you,
in your commanding station, what I ask for
myself in private life, that we may be faithful
to ourselves, to our country, to mankind, to
the benevolent principles of the Christian
faith, and to the common Father of the whole
human race.

Very respectfully,

Your friend and servant,

William E. Channing.

Newport, R.I., August i, 1837.

Note. — ^A few remarks, which have been
suggested since the completion of the preced-
ingletter, I shall throw into a note.

The recognition of the independence of
Texas by our government is to be lamented,
as unbecomingly hasty, and as a violation of
the principle adopted by Mr. Monroe in

regard to the Spanish colonies. •• These new
states." he sajrs. " bad completely established
their independence before we acknowledged
them." We have recognized, Texas as a
nation, having all the attributes of soverei^ty,
and competent to the discharge of all the
obligations of an independent state. And
what is Texas ? A collection of a few settle-
ments, which would vanish at once were a
Mexican army of any force to enter the
country. One decisive victory would scatter
all Texas like a horde of Tartars, and not a
trace of its institutions and population would
remain. We have been accustomed to think
of a nation as something permanent, as hav-
ing some fixtures, some lasting bond of
union. There would be nothing to hold
Texas together were her single, small army
to be routed in one battle. To send a
minister plenipotentiary to such a handful of
people, made up chiefly of our own citizens,
IS to degrade the forms of national inter-
course. This new republic, with its president
and diplomatic corps, hais been called a
Farce. But the tragic element prevails so
much over the farcical in this whole business,
that we cannot laugh at it. The movements
of our government in regard to Texas are
chiefly interesting as they are thought to
indicate a disposition favourable to its an-
nexation to our country. But we will not
believe that the government is resolved on
this great wrong, unless we are compelled so
to do. We hope that the present adminis-
tration will secure the confidence of good
men by well-considered and upright mea-
sures, looking beyond momentary interests
to the lasting peace, order, and strength of
the country.

There is another objection to the annexa-
tion of Texas, which, after our late experi-
ence, is entitled to attention. This possession
will involve us in new Indian wars. Texas,
besides being open to the irruption of the
tribes within our territories, has a tribe of its
own, the Camanches, which is described as
more formidable than any in North America.
Such foes are not to be coveted. The
Indians ! that ominous word, which ought to
pierce the conscience of this nation more
than the savage war-cry pierces the ear. The
Indians ! Have we not inflicted and en-
dured evil enough in our intercourse with
this wretched people, to abstain from new
wars with them ? Is the tragedy of Florida
to be acted again and again in our own day,
and in our children's?

In addition to what I have said of the
constitutional objections to the annexation oc
Texas to our country, I would observe, that
we may infer, from the history and language
of the Constitution, that our national Union
was so far from being intended to spread

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slavery over new countries, that, bad the pos-
sibility of snch a result been anticipated,
decided provisions would have been intro-
duced for its prevention. It is worthy of
remark, how anxious the framers of that
instrument were to exclude from it the word
Slavery. Tliey were not willing that this
feature of our social system should be be-
trayed in the constniction of our free govern-
ment. A stranger might read it without
suspecting the existence of this institution
among us. Were slavery lo be wholly abo-
lished here, no change would be needed in
the Constitution, nor would any part become
obsolete except an obscure clause, which, in
apportioning the representatives, provides that
there shall be added to the whole number of
free persons "three-fifths of other persons."
Slavery is studiously thrown into the bacjc-
ground. How httle did our forefathers sup-
pose that it was to become a leading interest
of the government, to which our peace at
home and abroad was to be made a sacrifice 1

I have said, that I desire no political union
with communities bent on spreading and per-
petuating slavery. It is hairdly necessary tQ
observe, that this was not intended to express
a desire to decUne friendly intercourse with
the members of those communities. Indi-
viduals who have received from their ancestors
some pernicious prejudice or institution, may
still, in their general spirit, be disinterested
and just. Our testimony against the wrong
which such men practise is not to be stifled or
impaired by the feelings of interest or attach-
ment which they inspire; nor, on the other
hand, must this wrong be spread by our
imaginations over their whole characters, so as
to seem their sole attribute, and so as to hixle
all their claims to regard. In an age of reform,
one of the hardest duties is to be inflexibly
hostile to the long-rooted corruptions of society,
and at the same time to be candid and just to
those who uphold them. It is true that, with
the most friendly feeUngs, we shall probably
give oflTence to those who are interested in
abuses which we condemn. But we are not
on this account absolved from the duty of
cultivating and expressing kindness ^nd justice,
of laying strong restraint on our passions, and
of avoiding all needless provocation.

The speech of Mr. Adams on the subject of
the preceding letter, delivered in Congress, in
December, 1835, should be republished and
circulated. It deserves to be read as a
specimen of parliamentary eloquence ; and
its moral and political views are worthy of its
eminent author.

There seems to be an apprehension at the
South that the Free States, should they obtain
the ascendency, might be disposed to use the
powers of the government for the abob'tion of
slavery. On this point there is but one

feeling at the North. The Free States fed
that they have no more right to abolish slavery
in the Slave-holding States than in a foreign
country. They regard the matter as wholly
out of their reach. They, indeed, claim the
right of setting forth the evils of slavery, as
of any other pernicious and morally wrong
institution. But the thought of touching the
laws which estabhshed it in any State, they
reject without a discordant voice. In regard
to the District of Columbia, many of us fed
that slavery continues there by the action of
all the States ; that the Free Stales, therefore,
are responsible for it ; and we maintain that it
is most unreasonable that an institution should
be sustained by those who bold it to be im-
moral and pernicious. But we feel no such
responsibility for slavery in the Slave- holding
States. These States must determine for
themselves how long it shall continue, and
by what means it shall be abolished. We
solemnly urge them to use their power for its
removal; but nothing would tempt us to
wrest the power from them, if we could. The
South has fears that the Free States may be
hurried away by " enthusiasm " into usurpa-
tion of unconstitutional powers on the sul^ect.
One is tempted to smile at the want of ac-
quaintance with the North which sxich an
apprehension betrays. This enthusiasm, to
endanger the South, must spread through all
the Free Slates; for, as the sUve-holders are
unanimous, nothing but a like unanimity in
their opponents can expose them to hann.
And is it possible that a large number of
communities, spread over a vast surface,
having a diversity of interests, and all ab-
sorbed in the pursuit of gain to a d^ree,
perhaps, without a parallel, should be driven
by a moral, philanthropic enthusiasm into
violations of a national compact, by which
their peace and prosperity would be put in
peril, and into combined and lawless efifocts
against other communities with whom tb^
sustain exceedingly profitable connections, and
from whom they could not be sundered with-
out serious loss? Whoever is acquainted
with the Free States knows that the excesses
to which they are exposed are not so much
those of enthusiasm as of caution and
worldly prudence. The patience with which
they have endured recent %iolent measures
directed against their citizens, shows little
propensity to rashness. The danger is not
so much that they will invade the rights of
other members of the confederacy, as thai
they will be indifferent to their owik

I have spoken in this letter of the estima.-
tion in which this country is held abroad. I
hope I shall not be numbered among those;
too common here, who are irritably alive to
the opinions of other nations, to the censures
and misrepresentations of travellexs. To •

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great and growing people, how insignificant is
Uie praise or blame of a traveller or a nation !
•• None of these things move me." But one
thing does move me. It is a sore evil that
freedom should be blasphemed, that repub-
hcan institutions should forfeit the confidence
of mankind through the unfaithfulness of this
people to their trust.

In reviewing this letter, I perceive that I
have used the strong language in which the
apprehension of great evils naturally expresses
itself. I hope this will not be construed as
betokening any anxieties or misgivings in
regard to the issues of passing events. I
place a cheerful trust in Providence. The
triumphs in evil, which men call great, are
but clouds passing over the serene and ever-
lasting heavens. Public men may, in craft or

passion, decree violence and oppression. But
silently, irresistibly, they and their works are
swept away. A voice of encouragement
comes to us from the ruins of the past, from
the humiliations of the proud, from the pros*
trate thrones of conquerors, from the baffled
schemes of statesmen, from the reprobation
with which the present age looks back on the
unrighteous policy of former times. Such
sentence the future will pass on present
wrongs. Men, measures, and all earthly
interests pass away ; but Principles are Eter-
nal. Truth, justice, and goodness partake of
the omnipotence and immutableness of God,
whose essence they are. In these it becomes
us to place a calm, joyful trust, in the darkest

In a Letter to Jonathan Phillips^ Esq,

My Dbak Sir, — On reading Mr. Clay's
speech on Slavery, many thoughts were sug-
gested to me which I wished to communicate ;
and our conversation of last evening confirmed
me in the purpose of laying- them before the
public. I have resolved to give my views in
the form of a letter, because I can do my
work more easily and rapidly in this way than
in any other. A general methodical discus-
sion of the subject would be more agreeable
to me; but we must do what we can. I must
write in haste, or not at all. If others would
take the subject in hand, I should gladly be
silent Something ought to be spoken on the
occasion ; but who will speak ? My range of
topics win be somewhat large ; nor, if good
can be done, shall 1 hesitate to stray beyond
the document which first suggested this com-

I shall often be obliged to introduce the
name of Mr. Clay; but, as you will see, I
regard him in this discussion simply as the
representative of a body of men— simply as
having given wide circulation to a set Of
opinions. I have nothing to do with his
motives. It is common to ascribe the efforts
of politicians to selfish aims. But why mix
up the man with the cause? In general, we
do well to let an opponent's motives alone.
We are seldom just to them. Our own
motives on such occasions are often worse
than those we assail. Besides, our business
is with the arguments, not the character, of
an adversary. A speech is not refuted by
imputations, true or false, on the speaker.

Online LibraryWilliam Ellery ChanningThe complete works of W.E. Channing: with an introduction → online text (page 142 of 169)