William Ellery Channing.

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

. (page 160 of 169)
Online LibraryWilliam Ellery ChanningThe complete works of W.E. Channing: with an introduction → online text (page 160 of 169)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

the weal and woe of nations, the solemn
questions of peace and' war, of life and
death, are determined. On this account every
man who has studied human duty, human
perfection, human happiness, has a right and
IS bbund to speak on matters of public con-
cern, though his judgment maybe contemned
by hackneyed politicians. It seems, indeed,
to be thought by some that politics are mys-
teries, which only the initiated must deal
with. But in this country they belong to the
people. Public Questions are and ought to
be subjected to tne moral judgment of the
coramimity. They ought to be referred to
the religion which we profess. Christianity
was meant to be brought into actual life.
The high and the low, private and public
men, are alike to bow before it. To remove
any sphere of human action from its cogni-
zance is virtually to deny its divinity, and to
absolve all men from its control. Under these
impressions I shall speak of the Duties of the
Free States. Duties rank higher than interests,
and deserve the first regard. It is my particular
object to consider the obligations of the Free
States in regard to slavery ; but I shall not stop
at these. Other obligations need to be pressed.
It is not, indeed, easy to confine one's self with-
in rigid boimds, when the subject of Duty is
discussed ; and accordingly I shall add re-
marks on a few topics not intimately con-
nected with slavery, though, in truth, this sub-
ject will be found to insinuate itself into all.

I am to speak of the Duty of the Free
States; but it is important to observe that I
mean by these, not merely communities repre-
sented m legislatures, but, much more, the
individuals, the people, who compose them.
I shall speak, not of what we are bound to
do as sovereignties, but as men, as Christians.
I shall speak not merely of the action of
government, but of the influence which every
man is bound to exert in the sphere in whicn
Providence has placed him ; of the obligations
of the individual to bring public opinion and
public affairs, as far as he may, to the stan-
dard of truth and rectitude.

I insist on this, because the feeling of in-
dividual responsibihty is very much lost, in
consequence of the excessive deference of the
private man to the government imder which
he lives. On the subject of slavery in par-
ticular, the responsibility both at the North
and South is shifted very much from the indi-
vidual to the state. The private conscience
is merged in the pubUc. What the govern-
ment determines, the multitude of men are
apt to think right. We do not exercise our
moral judgment because it has been fore-
stalled by the constitution and by the laws.

We are members of a community, and this
relation triumphs over all others.

Now, the truth is, that no decision of the
state absolves us from the moral law, from the
authority of conscience. It is no excuse for
our wrong-doing that the artificial organiza-
tion called society has done wrong. It is of
the highest moment that the prex'alent notions
of a man's relation to the state should be
rectified. The idea of this relation is so
exaggerated and perverted as to impair the
force of every other. A man's country is
more thought of than his nature. His con-
nection with a particular community is more
respected than his connection with God. His
alliance with his race is reduced to a nullity
by his alliance with the state. He must be
ready to give up his race, to sacrifice all its
rights and interests, that the Uttle spot where
he was bom may triumph or prosper. The
history of nations is very much the history
of the immolation of the individual to the
country. His nationality stands out before
all his other attributes. The nation, repre-
sented by one or a few individuals, has arro-
gated to itself the dignity of being the foun-
tain of all his rights. It has made his religion
for him. Its will, called law, has taken place
of all other laws. It has seized on the indi-
vidual as its tool, and doomed him to Uve
and die for its most selfish purposes. The
sacredness of the individual is even yet so
Uttle understood that the. freest country on
earth is talking of war, because a local law,
enslaving the individual, is not recognized by
the whole earth. But the nation is not every-
thing. The nation is not the foimtain of
right. Our first duties are not to oiu* country.
Our first allegiance is not due to its laws.
We belong first to God, and next to our race.
We were, indeed, made for partial, domestic,
and national ties and affections, and these are
essential means of our education and happiness
in this first stage of our being ; but all these
are to be kept in subjection to the laws of
universal justice and humanity. They are
intended to train us up to these. In these
consists our hkeness to the Divinity. From
these considerations it will be seen that the
following remarks are not addressed to bodies
pohtic so much as to individuals.

The Duty of the Free States in regard to
slavery may be classed under two heads.
First, these States are bound to construe
with the utmost strictness all the articles of
the Constitution which in any way touch on
slavery, so that they may do nothing in aid
of this institution but what is undeniably de-
manded by that instrument; and secondly,
they are bound to seek earnestly such amend-
ments of the Constitution as will remove this
subject wholly firom the cognizance of the
general government ; such as will be just
alike to the North and South ; such as will
3 A a

Digitized by VaOOQlC



release the North from all obligation what-
ever to support or sanction slavery, and as
will ensure the South from all attempts by
the Free States to stir up the slaves.

First, the Free States are bound to confine
all action in regard to slavery to the narrowest
limits which will satisfy the Constitution.
Under this head, our attention is naturally
drawn first to the chief, and I may say the
only express, provision of the instrument re-
lating to this subject. I refer to the clause
requiring that a slave escaping into the Free
States shall be delivered up, on the claim of
his master. This provision may seem clear ;
but the execution of it in such a manner as
to accomplish its end, and yet to prevent the
encroachments of slavery on the Free States,
is not easy. The provision was designed to
give authority to the master to claim the fugi-
tive slave. But, in doing this, a far higher
good than the recovery of a thousand slaves
flying from the South is put in peril, and that
is the freedom of the coloured population of
the' North ; and we are bound to insist that
this freedom shall be placed beyond the reach
of peril. Thisdangeris not imaginary. Kid-
napping in the Free States is one of the evils
which have grown out of our connection with
slavery, and it has been carried on with cir-
cumstances of great barbarity. Thus slavery
has been recruited from the North.

The law of Congress, framed to cany into
effect the constitutional provision to which we
have referred, almost seems to have been de-
signed to give shelter to this crime. No care
has been taken to shield the coloured man at
the North. The slave-holder or slave-hunter
may carry him before a justice of the peace as a
fugitive, and may himself be a witness in the
case, and this tribunal mav send the acctised
to perpetual bondage. We all know how and
by whom a commission of justice of the
peace is often obtained. We know that a
claim of more than twenty dollars is not left
to the decision of a iustice's court. We know
the advantage which may be enjoyed before
such a magistrate by the rich slave-holder
over a poor, perhaps friendless labourer.
And yet 'to this tribunal it is given to pass
a sentence on a human being as terrible ns
death. An officer not trusted with the adju-
dication of property exceeding t\venty dollars
is allowed to make a man a slave for life.

To repair this great injustice, to prevent
the transportation of our dtizeos to slavery,
some of the State legislatures have held them-
selves bound to supply the deficiencies of the
law of Congress, and for this end have referred
the suspected slave to a higher tribunal, and
given him the benefit of trial by jury. To
our great sorrow, this State legislation has
l>eeji pronounced unconstitutional by a recent
deoeeof the Supreme Court of the United
States ; so that tlie coloured man is driven

back to the Court towhichhchad been unjustly
doomed before. On this decree it becontes
me not to pass sentence; but one thing is
clear, that the Free States are now bound to
the most earnest efforts to protect thatportk>n
of their citizens exposed to the peril oi being
carried into bondage.

The grand principle to be laid down is, that
it is infinitely more important to preserve a free
citizen from being made a slave than to send
back a fugitive slave to his chain. This idea is
to rule over and determine all the legislation on
this subject. Let the fugitive be delivered up.
but by such processes as will prevent a free-
man from being delivered up also. For this
end full provision must be made. On this
point the Constitution, and a still higher law.
that of nature and God, speak the same lan-
guage; and we must insist that these high
authorities shall be revered.

The Constitution opens with these memor-
able words: "We, the people of the United
States, in order to form a more perfect union*
establish justice, ensure domestic tranquillity,
provide for the common defence, promote the
general welfare, and secure iAe Messimgi ef
liberly to ourselves and our posted^, w
ordain and establish this Constitution K>r the
United States of America." It is understood
and conceded that this preamble does not
confer on the national government any poweis
but such as are specified in the subsequent
articles of the instrument; but it teaches, and
was designed to teach, the spirit in which
these powers are to be interpreted and brought
into action. "To secure the blessings of
liberty" is enumerated among the purposes
of the national comi>act ; and whoever Imows
the history of the Constitution knows that
this was the grand purpose for which the
powers of the Constitution were confetnxL
That the liberty of each man, of the obscurest
man, should be inviolate ; this was the mastex^
thought in theauthors of this immortal charter.
According to these views, we have a right to
demand of Congress, as their highest ooo-
stitutional duty, to carry into the enactment
of every law a reverence for the freedom of
each and all. A law palpably esposiog
the freeman to be made a sJa\x, and even
rendering his subjection to this cruel doom
nearly sure, is one of the most unconstitntkiiial
acts, if the spirit of the Constitution be re-
garded, which the national legislature am
commit. The Constitution is violaled, jiot
only by the assumption of powers not qqh*
ceded, but equally by using cq n oeded
powers to the frustration of the end for wfe3eb
they were conferred. In the law re^ula&ue
the delivery of supposed fixatives, the SfcCpt
end of the national charter is sacrificed tO%R
accidental provision. This Constitutidll ^^Ite
not established to send |)ack €tKtti to\ ~
The article requiring this act of Gbft '

Digitized by V3OOQ IC



States was forced on them by the circum-
stances of the times, and submitted to as a
hard necessity. It did not enter into the
essence of the instrument ; whilst the security
of freedom was its great, living, all-per\ading
idea. We see the tendency of slavery to
warp the Constitution to its purposes in the
law for restoring the flying bondman. Under
this not a few, having not only the same
natural but legal rights with oiuselves, have
been subjected to the lash of the overseer.

But a higher law than the Constitution pro-
tests against the act of Congress on this
point. According to the law of nature, no
greater crime against a human being can be
committed than to make him a slave. This
is to strike a blow at the very heart and centre
of all his rights as a man ; to put him beneath
his race. On the ground of the immutable
law of nature, our government has pronounced
the act of making a man a slave on the coast
of Africa to be piracy — a capital crime. And
shall the same government enact or sustain
a law which exposes the freeman here to be
reduced to slavery, which gives facilities to
the unprincipled for accomplishing this infi-
nite wrong? And what is the end for which
the freeman is so exposed ? It is that a man
flying from an unjust yoke may be forced back
to bondage— an end against which natural
and divine justice protests ; so that, to confirm
and perpetuate one violation of the moral
law, another still greater is left open and
made easy to the kidnapper.

There seems no need of enlarging on this
point. Every man who enjoys liberty can
understand what it is to be made a slave, to
be held and treated as property, to be sub-
jected to arbitrary will, to arbitrary punish-
ment, to the loss of wife and child, at an-
other's pleasure. Every man knows what he
would feel at having a son or a daughter torn
from him and sent to slavery. And liberty is
not a whit dearer to us than it is to a human
brother whose only misfortune it is to wear a
darker skin. We are bound to extend to him
the same protection of law as to our own child.

To condemn a man to perpetual slavery is
as solemn a sentence as to condemn him to
death. Before being thus doomed he has a
right to all the means of defence which are
granted to a man who is tried for his life. All
the rules, forms, solemnities by which inno-
cence is secured from being confoimded with
guilt he has a right to demand. In the pre-
sent case the principle is eminently applicable,
that many guilty should escape rather than
tlrnt one Innocent man should suffer; because
the guilt of running away from an "owner"
is of too faint a colour to be seen by some of
the best eyes, whilst that of enslaving the free
is of the darkest hue.

The Constitution provides that no man
shall ' • be deprived of life, liberty, or property,

without due process of law." A man deli-
vered up as a slave is deprived of all property,
all liberty, and placed in a condition where
life and limb are held at another's pleasure.
Does he enjoy the benefits of " a due process
of law," when a common justice of the peace,
selected by the master, and receiving the
master as a witness, passes sentence on him
without jury and without appeal ?

It is of great importance that a new and
satisfactory law on this subject should be
passed by Congress. It is a serious evil to
perpetuate legislation against which the moral
sense of the community protests. In this
country public opinion is the strength of the
laws, is the grand force with which the public
authorities must surround themselves. The
present law for the recovery of fugitive slaves
IS reprobated, not by the passions, but by the
deliberate moral judgments of large portions
of the Free States ; and such being the case,
it cannot be executed. There are a thousand
ways of evading it without force. In some
parts of the country, I fear, it might be
resisted by force, should its execution be
urged ; and although a law demanded by
justice should never be yielded to the fear of
tumult ; though we ought to encounter
violence rather than m^e a sacrifice of
duty; yet, on the other hand, it is most
unwise to uphold a palpably imrighteous law,
which by its unrighteousness endangers the
public peace. In such a case the chief
responsibility for the danger rests on the
obstinacy of the legislator. The appointed
guardian of social order proves its foe.

A trial by jury ought to be granted to the
suspected fugitive, as being the most effectual
provision for innocence known to our laws.
It is said that, under such a process, the
slave will not be restored to his master.
Undoubtedly the jury is an imperfect tri-
bunal, and may often fail of a wise and just
administration of the laws. But, as we have
seen, the first question to be asked is. How
shall the freeman be preserved from being
sentenced to slavery? This is an infinitely
greater evil than the escape of the fugitive ;
and, to avert this, a trial by jury should be
granted, unless some other process as safe
and effectual can be devised.

In these remarks I would not intimate that
the slave-holders as a body desire a loose law,
which will place the innocent at their mercy,
in order to be kidnappers. The South is as
incapable of this baseness as the North. But
in both regions there are too many men pro-
fligate enough to use such a law for the
perpetration of the greatest crime. We know *
that the existing law has been so used that the
facilities and temptations which it ministers to
the grossest violation of right have whetted
cupidity and instigated to cruelty. Then it
must be changed.

Digitized by V^OOQIC



The slave-holder must not sav that a chance
will annul his claim on the flsring slave. He
ought to consider that, in insisting on pro-
cesses for enforcing his claim which cannot
but result in enslavmg the free, he virtually
enrols himself among kidnappers. Still more,
he should understand that his only chance of
asserting his claim rests on the establishment
of such a law as will secure the rights of the
coloured man of the Free States. There is a
jealousy on this point among us, which, as it
is righteous, must be respected. It is a
spreading jealousy, and will obstruct more
and more the operation of the existing law.
It must not be spoken of as a fever which has
reached its height. It is a sign of returning
moral healfh, and its progress will be aided
by perseverance in immoraJ means of reclaim-
ing the flying slave.

Having shown how the Free States are
bound to construe the clause of the Con-
stitution relating to furtive slaves, or, rathen
" persons held to ser\'ice in other States," I
proceed, in the second place, to show the
strict construction which should be given to
those parts of the Constitution under which
the Geneml Government has been led to take
slavery into its protection, in i/s inttrcourse
^viih foreign nations. This agency is believed
to be wholly without warrant ; and it threatens
so to extend itself, and to disturb so much
our relations with foreign states, that we are
bound, not only by considerations of morality^
but of our essential interests, to reduce it
within the precise limits of the Constitution.

By this instrument the powers of declaring
war, appointing ambassadors, raising armies,
and making treaties are conferred on the
national government. The protection of our
rights against foreign powers was undoubtedly
a principal end of the Union. Every part of
the country expects and requires it "to pro-
vide for the common defence." But it is
plain that this duty of the national govern-
ment, to watch over our rights abroad, can-
not go beyond those rights. It cannot seek
redress but for wTongs inflicted by foreign
powers. To insist on groundless, unreason-
able claims is an unwarrantable abuse of
po\ter; and to put in pril our national peace
by assertion of these is to violate at once the
national charter, and the higher kiw of uni-
versal Justice and good-will.

The grand principle to be adopted by the
North is this, that, because certain States of
this Union see fit to pronounce certain human
beings within iheir territory to be property.
. foreign nations are not bound to regard and
treat these persons as property when brought
within their jurisdiction. Of consequence,
the national government has no claim on
foreign governments in regard to slaves
carried beyond the limits of the South and
found n other countries. The master has no

authority over them in a foreign land. They
appear there as men. They have rights there
as real, as sacred, as the cotmtry has from
which they came, and these must on no
account be sported with.

The rights of the individual lie at the
verv foundation of dwl society ; and society,
truiy constituted, confirms, instead of taking
them awav. The simple idea of a nation is,
that it is the union of a multitude to establish
and enforce laws for the protection of t\trj
right. A nation is not to depart from thtf,
its true idea, its primitive end, and deny to
human beings entering its bordere the com-
mon rights of humanity, because these men
have been seized in another part of the world
and reduced to the condition of chattels or
brutes. One injustice does not induce the
necessity of another. Because a man fe
\\Tonged in one place, it does not foUow that
he must be wronged everywhere. A par-
ticular state cannot by its form of legWaiion
bind the whole earth to become partakers
with it in a crime. It would seem as if the
fact of a man's having been injured on one
spot were rather a reason for his enjoying
peculiar protection elsewhere.

The local, municipal law which ordaitls
slavery in a state does not make it just, docs
not make man rightful property, even in the
mrticular country where it is established
This law, however, is to be respected in a
certain sense by foreign nations. These must
not enter the slave-holding country^ to enforce
emancipation. But, in thus restraming tbon-
selves, they acknowledge no moral right in
the master, no moral validity in the law de-
claring man property. They act simply on
the principle, that one nation is not to ftiter-
hieddle wuh the legislation of another, be it
wise or foolish, just or unjust. Fbrejgn
nations are not to touch a law creating stavm
in a particular country, because they tOQch
none of the laws there. If that eoontry
choose to ordain polygamy, as In the Eastern
world, or stealing, as in Sparta, or prostitu-
tion, as in some established religioctt of
antiquity, no other nations can intorfi^ to
repeal these ordinances. But, becaose on-
molested in the place of theur birth, are these
institutions to be carried beyond it, to be
regarded as sacred by other govemmeft^lotd
not only to be allowed, but to be eta^tscA.
in foreign regions? Shall a MahdMlta
cotmtry hold itself wronged and dectftelTtf
because one of its subjects, cattyin^^inBlhi
a hundred wives, cannot set afi a hai^tt ft.A
Christian country, or cannot recelvife Iftiii
and succour of the authorities of k ttttto
port in recovering fifty of hii woMtfjJCi
had found their way to the Shore? ^~^ '
tribunals of a country to letid theOKWAttt
the execution of foreign latfrs
opposed to its own, and which liot M^f^lll

Digitized by VjOOQIC



policy, but its religion and moral sense,
condemn? •

Tiie sum of these remarks is, that slavery
Is not to be spoken of as recognized in
any sense whatever by nations which dis-
claim it; that to them it does not exist £A
a right anywhere ; that in their own jurisdic-
tion it cannot exist as a fact ; and from these
views it follows that no nation, allowing or
ordaining slavery within its limits, has a right
to demand any recognition of it in any shape
or degree beyond its own borde^^. To
attempt to protect it or to require protection
for it m the ports of another country, is to set
up not merely a groundless, but an iniquitous
claim. To cliarge another country \^-ith wrong-
doing for not aiding us to retain this property
is to do wrong ourselves, and to offer an
insult to a more righteous community.

The Constitution, then, which commits to
the national authorities the maintenance of
our rights abroad, is transcended, its powers
are unwarrantably stretched, when the govern-
ment goes abroad to claim respect in any
form or degree to the slave-laws of a part of
this country, or when it introduces slavery at
all as a matter of controversy into our discus-
sions with foreign powers. To these slavery
does not exist. In their own sphere they do
not become accountable to us by utter dis-
regard of the slave-laws of the South, or by
remsing to see anything but men in the slaves
of that region, when carried by any means
whatever within their bounds. Slavery is a
word which should never be uttered between
us and foreign states. It is as local a matter
as the licensing of gambling-houses at New
Orleans, and can with no more fitness be
made a matter of diplomacy. It is we who
are guilty of encroachment, when we deny
the right of other nations to follow their own
laws, rather than ours, within their own
limits, and to regard as men all human

Online LibraryWilliam Ellery ChanningThe complete works of W.E. Channing: with an introduction → online text (page 160 of 169)