William Ellery Channing.

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

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of Freedom, because white and coloured

g;oph; walked together in the streets ?
urope might well open its eyes in wonder.
On that continent, with all its aristocracy,
the coloured man mixes freely with his fellow-
creatures. He passes for a man. He some-
times receives tne countenance of the rich,
and has even found his wav into the palaces
of the great. In Europe, the doctrine would
be thought too absurd for refutation, that a
coloured man, of pure morals and piety, of
cultivated intellect and refined manners, was
not a fit companion for the best in the land.
What must Europe have said when brought
to understand that, in a republic founded on
the principles of human rights and equality,
people are placed beyond the protection of
the laws, for treating an African as a man?
This Philadelphia doctrine deserves no mercy.
AVhat an insult is thrown on human nature, in
making it a heinous crime to sit or walk with
a human being, whoever he may be !

It j]ust occurs to me that I have forgotten
the circumstance which filled to overflowing
the cup of Abolitionist widcedness in Phila-
delphia. The great offence was this, that
certain young women, of anti-slavery faith,
were seen to walk the streets with coloured
young men ! Of the truth of this allegation,
which has been denied, I am not able to
judge ; but, allowing its correctness, I must
think that to violate the majesty of the laws,
and to convulse a whole city, because a few
yotmg women thought fit to manifest in this
way their benevolence towards a despised race,

" Resembles ocean into tempest wrought
To waft a feather, or to drown a fly.

Offences against manners are wisely left to
the scourge of public opinion, whicn proves
itself, in such cases, a more effectual as well
j« more merciful discipline than burning or
the gallows. If ridicule and indignation wH



not put down supposed misdemeanois of this
class, what will force avail?— May I be here
allowed to counsel my fair abolitionist friends
(if they have really fallen into the " unpar-
donable transgression " laid to their chaige),
to respect hei^safter the usages of society iti
regard to their communications with the other
se^ ? If their anti-slavery zeal compels them
to bear testimony against the prejudice which
excludes the coloured people from the society
of the whites, let them choose for their asso-
ciates the women of the despised caste.
With less defiance of opinion, they will thus
give equal expression to iheir inter^t in the
wronged. I believe, however, that the less
conspicuouis their z6al in this and other public
movements, the better. There are none for
whom I feel a deeper and more affectionate
solicitude than for the voung of the other
sex ; and when I think of their inexperience,
and of the strength of their sensibility, and
then consider how exposed they are, on
occasions of struggle and excitement, to un-
conscious imprudences which may ihnow a
shade over tneir characters not soon to be
dispelled, and which, in their calmer hotirs,
may visit them with secret upbraidings. or
with fears of having started from the prop^
path, I cannot but desire that, whilst they
open their hearts to all generous symp;^ihles,
they should postpone the public manifesta-
tion of their zeal to a riper age.

The violence which was offered the Aboli-
tionists for their reception of the coloured
people to fteer social intercourse, was the
more aggravated, because, if they erred in
the matter, their motive was a generous one,
not got up for the occasion, but proved to be
sincere by their whole conduct. They say
that the coloured race, ground as they have
been in the dust by long tyranny, and stiH
suffering under prejtidices which forbid their
elevation, are entitled to peculiar regard frcan
the disciples of him who came to raise the
fallen, "to seek and save the lost." They
look on this people with peculiar sympathy,
because subjected to peculiar hardships.
With this view, they are anxious to brnik
down the distinction, or at least to diminish
the distance, between the black man and tbe
white, believing that in this way only tbe
degrading influences of the Injuries of y^a
can be overcome. Allow this to be an erroc;
is it not a generous one? Is there nothiog
holy in sympathy with the wronged? Aie
feelings of benevolent concern, for wbate^rar
portion of our race, to be in^ted. and to
bring down violence on our heads, becaose
they transgress conventional rules and the
forms of "good society?" That ign<xavt
and coarse people should treat the motives <rf
the Abolitionists with scorn eaonot ^nrpcte
us; but that any, who belong td -^fbSl %



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called the respectable and refined class,
should join the fierce multitude in perse-
cuting men of worth and humanity, admits
no excuse. Does it not show that the line
of separation between the high and low is
not as broad as we sometimes imagine ; that
much which passes for refinement is mere
gloss ; and that when the passions are stirred
up by the concurrence of numbers, ' ' the
friends of order " can set laws at defiance as
boldly as the multitude?

This outrage, if viewed in its political
asjDccts, deserves severe reprobation. Mob-
law, in this country, ought always to be
frowned down. It is an invasion of the
fundamental principle of our institutions, of
the sovereignty of the people, and the more
dangerous, because it seems to the multitude
to be an assertion of the principle which it
overthrows. The sovereignty of the people
has here but one mode of^manifestation, and
that is the laws. It can express itself in no
other way; and, consequently, a mob, in
forcibly suspending the laws, and in substi-
tuting its own win for that which the legiti-
mate organs of the people have proclaimed,
usurps for a time the sovereignty of the
state, and is virtually rebellion. In a des-
potism the laws are of less moment than in a
free country, becaase in the former there is a
force above the laws, an irresistible will, which
has at its disposal a subservient soldiery and
summary punishments, to maintain some-
thing like order in the state. But in a re-
public there is nothing higher than the laws ;
and in shaking the authority of these, the
whole social edifice is shaken. Reverence
for the laws is the essential spirit, the guardian
power of a free state. Take this away, and
no physical force can take its place. The
force is in the excited multitude, and in
proportion as it is roused against law, it
prepares the way and constitutes a demand
for a more regular, despotic power, which,
bad as it is, is better than the tyranny of
crowds. There is, indeed, as I have inti-
mated, one case where popular commotion
does comparatively little harm. I mean that
which is excited by some daring crime which
the laws sternly forbid, and which sends an
electric thrill of horror through a virtuous
comraunitv. In such a case the public with-
out law do the work of law, and enforce
those natural, eternal principles of right on
which all legislation should rest. Even this
violence, however, is dangerous. But, be it
ever so blameless, who can bring under this
head the outrage offered to Abolitionists,
men who had broken no law, and whose
distinction was that they had planted them-
selves on th(^ ground of natural and ever-
lasting right ?

This outrage against the Abolitionists



made little impression on the country at
large. It was pronounced wrong, of course ;
but then we were told that the Abolitionists
were so imprudent, so fierce, so given to
denunciations, so intolerant towards all who
differ from them, that they had no great
claim to sympathy ! Everywhere the ex-
cesses of the Abolitionists are used to palliate
the persecution which they suffer. But are
they the only intolerant people in the country?
Is there a single poUtical party which does
not deal as freely in denunciation ? Is there
a religious sect which has not its measure of
bitterness ? I ask, as before, if fierce denun-
ciation is to be visited with flames, where
will the conflagration stop ?

In thus spe^ng, let me not be considered
as blind to the errors of the Abolitionists.
My interest in their object increases my pain
at their defects. When I consider them as
havihg espoused a just and holy cause, I am
peculiarly grieved by the appearances of pas-
sionate severity in their writing, speeches,
and movements. Such men ought to find in
the grandeur, purity, and benevolence of their
end, irresistible motives to self-control, to a
spirit of equity and mildness, to a calm, lofty
trust in God. I grieve that in an age when
the power of Gentleness and Meekness is
beginning to be understood, they have sought
strength m very different weapons. I do not
deny their error; but I say, let there be
some proportion between the punishment and
the offence. Is nothing to be pardoned to
men who have meditated on great wrongs,
until their spirits are deeply stirred ? Is
vehemence in such men tlie impardonable
sin? Must we rigidly insist that they shall
weigh every word before they speak? When
all England was on fire with the injuries of
the slave, is it wonderful that men in this
country, where the evil is most towering,
should echo in louder tones the cry which
came to them over the ocean ? Is it wonder-
ful that women, thinking of more than a
million of their own sex, at no great distance,
exposed to degradation and prostitution,
should, in their grief and indignation, repel
every extenuating plea for the supporters of
these abominations? Was it possible that
none should speak on this subject but the
wise and prudent? Does not every great
cause gather round itself vehement spirits?
Must no evil be touched till we have assur-
ance that it shall be shaken and subverted by
rule ? We bear extravagance and vehemence
elsewhere, without burning down men's
houses. Why this singular sensitiveness to
anti-slavery vehemence, except it be that
slavery, which so many call an evil with the
lips, has never come as an evil to their con-
sciences and hearts?

But, it is said, the Abolitionists injure a
X X a



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jrood cause. Be it so. I think ihey have
doce it harm as well as good. But is not this
the common course of human affeirs ? What
good cause is not harmed, and sometimes
thrown back, by its best friends? In the
present imperfect state of our nature, men
seldom take a strong hold on any great
object, without falling into excess. Enthu-
siasm, by which I mean a disproportionate
strength of feeling and emotion, such as in-
terferes more or less with the judgment,
seems almost inseparable from earnestness.
The calm reason, the single idea of Rig:ht,
the principle of pure love, such as it exists
in God, serene and unimpassioned — these
divine impulses seldom of themselves carry
men through great enterprises. Human pas-
sionateness mixes with higher influences.
This Is to be lamented, and much evil is
done; but we must endure enthusiasm with
its excesses, or sink into a lifeless monotony.
These excesses we ought to rebuke and dis-
courage ; but we must not hunt them down
as the greatest crimes. We must take heed
lest in our war against rashness we quench
all the generous sentiments of human nature.
It is natural to desire that evils should be
removed gently, imperceptibly, without agi-
tation; and the more ot this quiet process
the better. But it is not ordinarily by such pro-
cesses that the mysterioiis providence of God
purifies society. Religion and freedom have
made their way through struggles and storms.
Established evils naturally oppose an iron
front to reform ; and the spirit of reform,
gathering new vehemence from oppositions,
pours itself forth in passionate efforts. Man
is not good enough yet to join invincible
courage, zeal, and struggle, with all-suffering
meekness. But must conflict with evil cease,
because it will be marred with human im-
perfection ? Must the burning spirit lock up
its sympathies with suffering humanity, be-
cause not sure of being always self-possessed ?
Do we forgive nothing to the warm-hearted?
Should we not labour to temper and guide
aright excessive real in a virtuous cause, in-
st^d of persecuting it as the worst of crimes?
The Abolitionists deserve rebuke ; but let
it be proportioned to the offence. They do
wrong in their angiy denunciation of slave-
holders. But is calling the slave-holder hard
names a crime of unparalleled aggravation ?
Is it not, at least, as great a crime to spoil a
man of his rights and liberty, to make him a
chattel, and trample him in the dust ? And
why shall the latter offender escape with so
much gentler rebuke? I know, as well as
the slave-holder, what it is to bear the burden
of hard names. The South has not been
sparing of its invectives in return for my poor
efforts against slavery. I understand the
evil of reproach; and I am compelled to



pronounce it a veiy slight one, and not to be
named in comparison with bondage; and
why is it that he who inflicts the former
should be called to drink the cup of wrath to
the very dregs, whilst he who inflicts the
latter receives hardly a mild rebuke?

I say these things, not as a partisan of the
Abolitionists, but from a love of justice.
They seem to me greatly wronged by the
unparalleled persecution to which they have
been exposed ; and the wronged should never
want a defender. But I am not of them.
In the spirit of many of them, I see much to
condemn. I utteriy disapprove their sweep-
ing denunciations. I fear that their scorn of
expediency may degenerate into recklessness.
I fear that, as a natural if not necessary con-
sequence of their multiplied meetings, bdd
chiefly for excitement, their zeal must often
be forced, got up for effect — a {HOduct of
calculation, not a swell of the heart. I con-
fide in them the less, the more they increase.
I fear that their resort to political action will
impair their singleness ot purpose and their
moral power. I distrust the ^rstem of asso-
ciation and agitation in a cause like this.
But because I see among them somewboa to
fear and blame, must I shut my eyes on more
which I ought to commend ? Must not men
of pure and lofty aims beiionoured, because,
like everything human, the^r are not free from
fault? I respect the Abolitionists for main-
taining great principles with courage and
fervour, amidst scorn and vicdoice. Can
men have a higher claim to respect? In
their body, amidst prejudiced, luurow-minded,
conceited, self-seeking members, such as are
found in all associations, there is a large pro-
portion of uncompromising, single-hearted
friends of truth, right, and freedom ; and
such men are securities against the adopttcm
of criminal ends or criminal means. In their
front rank— perhaps at their head — is Genit
Smith ; a man worthy of all honour for bis
overflowing munificence, for his calm ^
invincible moral courage, for his Christian
liberality, embracing men of every sect and
name, and for his deep, active, inexhaustible
sympathy with the sinful, suffering, and
oppressed. In their ranks may also be found
our common friend. Charles F<^en, that
genuine man, that heroic spirit, whose 1o^
of freedom unites, in rare harmony, the did
Roman force with Christian love; in wfooin
we see the generous, rash enthusiasm of his
youth, tempered by time and trial into a
most sweet and winning virtue. I coiild
name others, honoured and dear. I do not,
for the sake of such, shut my eyes on Ae
defects of the association ; but that it shoold
be selected for outrage and persecution, iiat
monstrous wrong, against which s<denin lOjfr-
timony ought to fc>e borne. •



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There is one consolation attending perse-
cution. It often exalts the spirit of the
sufferer, and often covers with honour those
whom it had destined to shame. Who made
Socrates the most venerable name of anti-
quity? The men who mixed for him the
cup of hemlock, and drove him as a criminal
from the world which he had enlightened.
Providence teaches us the doctrine of retri-
bution very touchingly in the fact that future
ages guard with peculiar reverence the memo-
ries of men who, in their own times, were
contemned, abhorred, hunted hke wild beasts,
and destroyed by fire or sword, for their
fidelity to truth. Fhat the Abolitionists have
grown strong under outrage, we know; and
in this I should rejoice were their cause ever
so bad ; because persecution must be worse,
and its defeat must be a good. I wish that
persecution, if not checked b^ principle, may
be stayed by seeing that it nghts against it-
self, and builds up those whom it toils to
destroy. How long the Abolitionists will be
remembered, I know not ; but as long as
they live in history, they will wear as a crown
the sufferings which they have so firmly borne.
Posterity will be just to them ; nor can I
doubt what doom posterity will pronounce
on the mobs or single men who have laboured
to silence them by brutal force. I should be
glad to see them exchanging their array of
affiliated societies for less conspicuous and
artificial means of action. But let them not
do this from subserviency to opinion, or in
opposition to their sense of right. Let them
yield nothing to fear. Let them never be
false to that great cause which they have
fought for so manfully — Freedom of Speech.
Let them never give countenance to the doc-
trine, which all tyrants hold, that material
power, physical pain, is mightier than the
convictions of Reason, than the principle of
Duty, than the Love of God and mankind.
Sooner may they pine and perish in prisons,
sooner bleed or be strangled by the execu-
tioner, than surrender their deliberate prin-
ciples to lawless violence.

In the remarks now made on the recent
outrage at Philadelphia, I have felt myself
bound to use great plainness of speech. Had
I consulted my feelings, I should have been
silent. In that city I have old and dear
friends, and have received hospitalities which
I remember with gratitude. But we are not
allowed to "confer with flesh and blood."
I beg, however, to say, in order to prevent
misinterpretation, that I have not thought
for a moment of holding up Philadelphia as
the worst of cities. I do not infer from a
single tumult the character of a vast popula-
tion. How many thousands of that metro-
polis took no part in the transaction under
consideration I And of those who gave it



their active or passive sanction, how many
thousands were' hurried on by imitation and
sympathy, were swept away by a common
impulse, without comprehending the import
of the deed! In a popular ferment indi-
viduals lay aside themselves for a time, and
do what they would shrink from if left to act
on their separate responsibility. In all cities,
it is true of the vast majority of men that
their consciences cannot stand alone. Their
principles, as they call them, are echoes of
general sentiment. Their sense of duty, un-
propped by opinion, totters, and, too often,
falls. One of the saddest views of society is
the almost universal want of self-determined,
self-subsistent virtue. It is, therefore, no
sign of unparalleled depravity that a com-
munity proves false to great principles in
seasons of excitement. All great cities abound
in ignorance, prejudice, passion, selfish con-
formity to the world, and monil corruption
in its grosser and more refined forms ; and
that these bitter fountains should sometimes
burst forth, is a matter of course. I ascribe
to no city precedence in virtue or crime. I
would only say that Philadelphia has placed
herself, more conspicuously than other cities,
on a bad eminence, and she must hold it,
until buildings devoted to Liberty of Speech
can stand unharmed on her soil.

I now finish this long letter. Your pa-
tience, my dear Sh*, has not, I trust, been
exhausted. Whether this communication
will answer the public ends which I have pro-
posed, I know not ; but it will do one good,
of a personal nature. It will be a memorial,
however brief, of a friendship which began
in our youth, and which has withstood the
vicissitudes of so many years, that we may
expect it to go down with us to our graves.
It pleases me that our names should be
associated in a work which, though written
in haste, and for a temporary exigency, yet
reflects something of both our minds. It
is fit that the thoughts unfolded in this letter
should be addressed to one with whom I
have conversed long and familiarly on the
great interests of human nature. I owe you
much for the light and strength you have
given me, and especially for the faith and
hope which, under much personal suffering
and depression, you have cherished and ex-
pressed in regard to the destinies of our race.
We have given much of our sympathy to the
multitude. We have felt more for the many
who are forgotten than for the few who shine;
and our great inquiry has been, how the
mass of men may be raised from ignorance
and sensuality to a higher social, intellectual,
moral, and religious hfe. We have rejoiced
together in the progress already made by
individuals and communities; but a voice
has come to tis from the depths of human



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suffering, from the abuses of the social state,
from the teachings of Jesus Christ, urging the
need of new struggle with giant evils, and of
new efforts for the diffusion of comforts,
refinements, quickening truths, enlightened
piety, and disinterested virtue. A few years
will bring us to our journey's end. To the
last, I trust, we shall speak words of blessing
to our race, and words of encouragement to
all who toil and suffer for its good. Through
God's grace we hope for another Ufe; but
that life, >ve believe, will in some respects be
one with this. Our deep sympathies with the
great human family will, we believe, survive
the grave. We shall then rejoice in the in-
terpretation of the dark mysteries of the pre-
sent state, of the woes and oppressions now
so rife on earth. May it not be hoped that,
instead of our present poor and broken la-
bours, we shall ihen render services to our
brethren worthy of that nobler life? But
the future will reveal its own secrets. It is
enough to know that this human worid, of
which we form a portion, Uves, suffers, and
is moving onward, under the eye and care of
the Infinite Father. Before his pure, omni-
potent goodness, all oppressions must fall;
and under his reign our highest aspirations,
prayers, and hopes for siiffering humanity
must, sooner or later, receive an accomplish-
ment, beyond the power of prophecy to utter
or of thought to comprehend.



Notes.
Note ^.— As the page here referred to was
passing through the press, I understood tliat
it was maintained by some that the treatment
which Abolition petitions had received from
Congress was not so peculiar as I had sup-
posed ; and I state this that the reader may
inquire for himself. For one, I feel little dis-
position to inquire. It is very possible that, in
this world of tyranny and usurpation, scat-
tered precedents may be found, which, if used
for interpreting and defining our rights, would
reduce them all to insignificance. A man,
jealous of his rights, wm not yield them to
this, or any other kind of logic. We have
here the case of a great number of petitions
from all parts of the Free States, and from
citizens of intelligence and blameless cha-
racteh which, before being presented, were
denied, by a resolution of Congress, the usual
notice and consideration. It was not the case
of a single petition poming from a half-insane
man, from an eccentric schemer, bearing on
its face the marks of mental aberration, or
asking for something palpably absurd and
unconstitutional. The petitions ot the Abo-
litionists greatly exceeded in number all the
other petitions to Congress taken together.
They represented large masses of citizens,



who prayed for what is pronounced consti-
tutional by our wisest men. And Congress
resolved, before these petitions were offcretl,
that, on being presentai, they should be laid
on the table without debate, and that no
member should have the privilege of saying a
word in their behalf, or of calling them up
for consideration or for any action in relation
to them at a future time. Has anjrthing like
this ever occurred before ? Or, if it has. shall
we go to such precedents for an interpretation
of the right of petition? Is it not plain that,



Online LibraryWilliam Ellery ChanningThe complete works of W.E. Channing: with an introduction → online text (page 149 of 169)