William Ellery Channing.

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

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beings who enter their ports.

\\^en we look into the Constitution, we
see not one express obUgation imposed in
regard to slavery. •• Persons held to ser\'ice
or labour in one State imder the laws thereof,"
and who escape from it, are to be restored.
This language, as we have seen in the first
part of this Tract, was adopted to exclude
the recognition of the lawfulness of slavery
• • in a moral point of view." The Constitu-
tion, in requiring the surrender of slaves in
one case only, leaves them in all other cases
to come under the operation of the laws of
the Free States, when foimd within the limits
of the same. Does not the Constitution, then,
plainly expect that slaves from the South, if
carried into foreign ports, \vill fall under the
operation of the laws established there?

There Is still another view. Slavery !s
limited in this country to one region. In
the rest of the country it docs not exist ; and,

still more, it is regarded as a violation of thtf
law of natiu^e and of God. Now the General
Gdvemment, when it calls on foreign nations
to respect the claims of the slave-holder,
speaks in the name, not merely of the Slave
States, but of the Free — in the name of thd
whole people. And ought the whole people
to be thus committed to the cause of sikvery,
unless an undoubted, unequivocal obligation
is imposed on them by the Constitution to
assume its defence? unless a clear case can
be made out against the Free States ? The
Constitution is to be explained in part by thft
known views of its authors. We have seen how
slow they were to recognize a moral right in
slavery. Did they intend that we should as*
sert its claims to the ends of the earth ?

It is true the national government has in-
terfered to claim slaves thrown on a foreign
shore, and this consideration is of weight.
But, in so grave an affair, it does not decide
the constitutional question. That the admin-
istration of the national government has been
unduly swayed by the slave-holding portion
of the country we of the North believe. That
under this influence an unwarrantable exten-
sion of constitutional powers has taken place
is very conceivable. False interpretations of
such an instrument, which /avour the interests
of one part of the people without apparently
touching the rest of the community, easily
steal into the public policy. Time alone ex-
poses them, and time ought not to be alleged
as a reason for their continuance.

In interpreting the Constitution, it is not
onlv necessaiy to consult the history of the
period of its formation, but to apply to it the
principles of universal jusdce. Its author^
honoured these, and did not intend to estab-
lish a government in hostility to them. They
acted in the spirit of reverence for human
rights. This is eminently the spirit of the
Constitution, and by this it should be con-
strued. Doubtful articles should receive an
interpretation which will bring them into
harmony with the immutable Uws of duty.
Any other construction virtually falls to the
ground. It is of no force, for it cannot shake
tne authority of God. On these principles
we maintain that the Constitution does not
and cannot bind the government to demand
from the whole human race respect to the
municipal law of Southern slavery.

This topic is not a merely speculative one»
but of great practical importance. Our honour
as a people is involved in the construction of
the Constitution now pleaded for. This is
not the dav for setting up pretensions in
favour of slavery, for demanding from the
whole civilized world succour and counte-
nance in enforcing our property in man. We
disgrace ourselves in sending abroad ministers
on such a message. We shotild regard our
character too much to thrust tjie dcforroity

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and stench of shivery hito the eyes and nostrils
of the worid. We should regard too much
the reputation of honourable men, who re-
present us in foreign countries, to employ
them in this low woric. An American, alive
to his country's honour, cannot easily bear
this humiliation abroad. It is enough that,
in our private intercourse with foreigners, we
are set down as citizens of a slave-holding
country. But we need not and ought not to
hold up our shame in the blase of courts, in
the high places of the world. We ought not
industriously to invite men everywhere to in-
spect our wounds and ulcers. Let us keep our
dishonour at home. The Free States especially
should shrink from this exposure. They should
insist that slavery shall be a State interest, not
a national concern; that this brand shall not be
fixed on our diplomacy, on our foreign policy;
that the name of American shall not become
synonymous everywhere with oppression.

But something more than dishonour is to be
feared, if our government shall persevere in
its efiforts for maintaining the claims of slave-
holders in foreign countries. Such claims, if
asserted in earnest, must issue in war. for they
cannot be acceded to. England has taken her
ground on this matter; so ought the Free
States. On this point we ought to speak
plainly, unconditionally, without softening
language. We ought to say to the South, to
Congress, to the world : "We will not fight
for slavery. We can die for Truth, for Justice,
for Rights. We will not die, or inflict death,
in support of wrongs." In truth, this spirit,
this determination, exists now so extensively
in the Free States that it is utterlv impossible
for a war to be carried on in behalf of slavery ;
and, such being the fact, all diplomacy in its
behalf becomes a mockery. It is a disgraceful
show for no possible benefit. Even could
war be declared for this end, the deep moral
feeling of a large part of the community
would rob it of all, energy, and would ensure
defeat and shame. Baid as we think men,
they cannot fight against their consciences.
The physical nature finds its strength in the
moral. The rudest soldiers are sustained by
the ideaof acting under some lawful authority ;
and on this account have an advantage over
pirates, who either cower, or abandon them-
selves to a desperation which, by robbing them
of a guiding intelli^nce, makes them an easier
prey. In proportion as a people become en-
lightened, and especially in proportion as they
recognize the principles of Christianity, it is
harder to drive them into a war. The moral
sense, which in an ignorant age or commimity
is easily blinded, cannot in their case be
imposed on without much skilful sophistry.
They take the jusdce of a war less and less on
trust. They must see that they have right
on their side, or they are no match for a foe.
This country has the best materials for an army

in a ri^teous cause, and the worst in a wicked
one. No martial law could drive us to battle
for the slave-holder's claim to the aid or
countenance of foreign powers. We could
not fight in such a quarreL Our *' hands
would hang down " as truW as if loaded with
material chains. To fight lor a cause at which
we blush ! for a cause which conscience pro-
tests against ! for a cause on which we dare
not ask the blessing of God ! The thmg is
impossible. Our moral sympathies would
desert to our foe. We should honour him for
not sufilring a slave to tread his soiL God
keep us from being plunged into a war of any
kind 1 But if the evil is to be borne, let us hare,
at least, the consolation that oin- blood is shed
for undoubted rights ; that we have truth, jus-
tice, honour on our side; that religion, freedom,
and humanity are not leagued with our foe.

•• Thrice is he armed who hath his quarrel Just,
And he but naked, though locked up in aeel.
Whose consdence with ^Justice b carvpced."

I proceed, in the third place, to another
topic, which will complete my remarks on the
Duties of the Free States in relation to slavery
under the present provisions of the Constitu-
tion, lliese States are bound to insist on ilu
abolition of slavery and th* slavt'^atU in tJu
District of Columbia, Their power in dus
regard is unquestionable. To Congress is
committed exclusively the government of the
District, and it is committed without any re-
strictions. In this sphere of its action the
General Go\'vmment has no Umitations. but
those which are found in the principles of the
Constitution and of universal justice. The
power of abolishing slavery in the District is
a rightful one, and must be lodged somewhoe.
and can be exercised by Congress alone. And
this authority ought not to sleep.

Slavery.in the District of Columbia is not
Southern slavery. It has no local character.
It is the slavery of the United States f It
belongs equally to the free and to the siave-
hold'mg portion of the country. It is cmr in-
stitution as truly as if it were planted in the
midst of us ; for this District is the ^^ntnnK^
ground of the nation. Its institutions exist
solely by authority of the nation. They are
as truly expressions of the national will as
any acts of Congress whatever. V/e ah
upholdt he slave-code under which men aic
bought and sold and whipped at their mastars*
pleasure. Every slave-auction in the District
is held under our legislation. We are e«en
told that the prison of the District is used for
the safe keeping of the slaves who are biocq^
there for sale. In the former part of thur
remarks I said that the Free States had no
participation in this evil. I forgot the District
of Columbia. There we sustain it as I
we support the navy or army. It
then, to be abolished at once. And in t
this action we express no hostiUQr i

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Southern institutions. We do not think of the
South. We see within a spot under our
jurisdiction a great wrong sustained by law.
For this law we are responsible. For all its
fruits we must give accoimt. We owe, then,
to God, to conscience, to rectitude, our best
efforts for its abolition. We have no thought
of limiting Southern institutions. It is our
own unjust, unhallowed institution which we
resolve no longer to maintain. Can the Free
States consent to continue their partnership in
this wrong? They have not even the poor
consolation of profiting by the crime. The
handful of slaves in the District may be of
some worth to a few masters, but are utterly
insignificant in their relation to the country.
They might be bought by the government and
set free at less expense than is incurred in
passing many an act of Congress.

Emancipation in the present case is op-
posed by the South, not on account of any harm
to be endured by the District or the country,
but simply .because this measure would be a
pubUc, formal utterance of the moral convic-
tion of the Free States on the subject of
slavery. Our case is a hard one indeed. We
are required to support what we abhor, be-
cause by withdrawing our support we shall
express our abhorrence of it. We must go on
sinning, lest we become witnesses against sin.

Could we root slavery out of the District
without declaring it to be evil, emancipation
would be comparatively easy ; but we are re-
quired to sustain it bemuse we think it evil,
and must not show our thoughts. We must
cUng to a wrong because our associates at
the South will not consent to the reproof im-
plied in our desertion of it. And can it be
that we are so wanting in moral principle and
force as to yield to these passionate partners?
Is not our path clear? Can anything autho-
rize us to sanction slavery by solemn acts
of legislation? Are any violations of right so
iniquitous as those which are perpetrated bv
law, by that fimction of sovereignty which
has the maintenance of right for its founda-
tion and end? Can it he that the Free
States send their most illustrious men to
Congress to set their seal to slavery? that the
national government, intended to be the
centre of what is most august and imposing
in our land, should be turned into a legis-
lature of a slave-district, and should put forth
its vast powers in sustaining a barbarous slave-
code ? If this must be. then does it not seem
fit that the national eagle should add the
whip of the overseer to the arrows and olive-
branch which he now grasps in his talons ?

But this is not all. The District of Colum-
bia is not only tainted with slavery, but it is
Vk great— I believe the greatest— slave-market
in our country. To this human bein^ are
driven as cattle ; driven sometimes, if not
often, in chains. It is even reported that the

slave-coffle is sometimes headed by the flag of
the United States. To this spot— the metro-
polis of our nation — are brought multitudes
of our fellow-creatures, torn from their homes
by force and for others' gain, and heart-
stricken by the thou^^ht of birthplace and
friends to be seen no more. Here women are
widowed and children made orphans, whilst
the husband and the parent still Uve. A
more cruel minister than death has been at
work in their forsaken huts. These wronged
fellow-beings are then set up for sale, and
women, as well as men, are subjected to an
examination like that which draught-horses
undergo at an auction. That the seat of the
national government should be made a mart
for this shameful traffic is not to be endured.
On this point ^me deference is due to the
Free States and the character of the country.
The spot on which we all meet as equals, and
which is equally under the jurisdiction of all,
ought to be kept clean from a trade which
the majority think inhuman and a disgrace to
the land. On this point there can be no
doubt as to the constitutional power of Con-
gress. That body may certainly remove a
nuisance from a spot which is subject to its
unrestricted authority. A common to>a*nship
may abate nuisances. In many of the States
the municipal authorities may prohibit, if
they see fit, the sale of ardent spirits within
their limits. Congress mav certainly say.
that the "ten-miles square ' ceded to the
United States shall not be a market forslaves.
Washington holds a peculiar relation to the
country. Foreigners repair to it as the spot in
which toobserveour institutions. That slaver)',
oiu- chief stain.should beexposed most ostenta-
tiously at the seat of government is a violation
of national decency, a sign of moral obtuse-
ness, of insensibility to the moral judgment of
mankind, which ought immediately to cease.

I have now spoken of the Duties of the Free
States under the Constitution as it now exists.
I proceed to a still higher duty incimibent on
them, which is, to seek earnestly and resolutely
for such amendments of the Constitution as
shall entirely release them from the obligation
of yielding support in any way or degree to
slavery, and shall so determine the relation
between the Free and Slave States as to put
an end to all collision on this subject.

This I have said is a Duty, and as such it
should be constantly regarded. The Free
States should act in it with the calmness and
inflexibleness of principle, avoiding on the one
hand passionatencss, vehemence, invective,
and on the other a spirit of expediency. It is
a question, not of interest, but of Rights, and
consequently above expediency. Happily,
interest and duty go together in this matter;
and were it not so, our first homage should
be paid to the Right. The Free States
should say, calmly, but firmly, to the South :

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"We cannot participate in slavery. It is
yours, wholly and exclusively. On you alone
the responsibility rests. You must maintain
and defend it by your own arras. As respects
slavery we are distinct communities, as truly
as in respect to institutions for the support of
the poor or for the education of our children.
Your slavery is no national concern. The
nation must know nothing of it — must do
nothing in reference to it. We will not touch
your slaves, to free or restore them. Our
powers in the State or National Governments •
shall not be used to destroy or to uphold
your peculiar institutions. We only ask such
modifications of the national charter as shall
set us free from all obligation to uphold what
we condemn. In regard to slavery, the line
between the Slave and the Free States is a
great gulf. You must hot pass it to enforce
your supposed tights as slave-holders, nor
will we cross it to annul or violate the laws
on which this evil system rests."

The reasons for thus modifying the Consti-
tution are numerous. The first has beert
again and again intimated. The moral senti-
ment of the North demands it. Since the
adoption of the Constitution a new state of
mind in regard to slavery has spread through
the civilized world. It is not of American
growth only, but subsists and acts more power-
fully abroad than at home. Slavery, regarded
formerly as a question of great interest, is
now a question of conscience. Vast nimibers
in the Free States cannot without self-reproach
give it sanction or aid. From many family
altars the prayer rises to God for our brethren
in bonds. The anti-slavery principle finds
utterance in our churches, by our firesides,
and in our public meetings. Now the Con-
stitution ought to be brought into harmonv
with the moral convictions of the people. A
government resisting these deprives itself of
its chief support. If we were to call on the
South for a modification of the Constitution,
under the influence of any private motives,
any interests, any passions, we ought not to
bfc heard. But the slave-holders, as men of
principle and of honour, should shrink from
asking u5 to do what we deliberately and
conscientiously cdndemn. Allow it, that our
moral sense is too scrupulous. We must still
reverence and obey it. We have no higher
law than oUi* conviction of duty. We ought
especially not to be asked to resist it in a case
like the present, when our conscience is in
imison with the conscience of the civilized
world. Christendom resfjonds to our repro-
bation of slavery ; atid can we be expected to
surrender our principles to a handful of men
personally interested in the evil ? We say to
the South : "We are willing to be joined
with you as a nation for weal or for woe.
We reach to you the hand of fellowship.
We ask but one thing ; do not require us to

surrender what is dearer than life or nation,
our sense of du^, our lojralty to conscience
and God." Will an honourable people de-
mand this sacrifice from us ? Great defaence
is due to the moral sense of a community.
This should take rank abote political consi-
derations. To ask a people to trifle with and
slight it is to invite them to self-degradation.
No profit can repay their loss, no accession of
power can hide their shame.

Another reason for modifying the Constito-
tion, so that slavery shall l)e wholly^ excluded
from the class of national objects, is found in
the fact that this interest, if sdlowed to sustain
itself by the national arm, will intertwine itself
more and more with public measui^, and
will colour our whole poh'cy, so that the Free
States will be more and more compelled io
link themselves with its support. Could the
agency of the government in regard to this
subject be rigidly defined, the evil would be
more tolerable. But it is natural that the
Slave-holding States should seek to make the
national power as far as possible a buttress of
their "peculiar institution." It is as slave-
holders, rather than as Americans, that tbey
stand in Congress ; slavery must be secured,
whatever befall other interests of the country.
The people of the North little understand
what the national government has done for
the "peculiar institution" of the South. It
has been, and is» the friend of the shive-
holder, and the enemy of the slave. The
national government authorises not onh^ the
apprehension and imprisontnent in the Dis-
trict of Columbia of a coloured mail suspected
of being a runaway, but the sale of him as a
slave, if within a certain time he cannot prove
his freedom. The national government has
endeavoured to obtain by negotiation the
restoration of fugitive slaves who had sought
and found freedom in Canada, and has offered
in return to restore fugitives from the West
Indies. It has disgraced itself in the vicir of
all Europe by claimbg, as property, Elates
who have been shipwtecked on the Brltfcfli
islands, and who, by touching Britisb s^
had become free. It has instructed its fe-
presentative at Madrid to announce to tlto
Spanish Court " that the emandpatfcm of
the slave population of Cuba would be very
severely felt in the adjacent shores of fl*
United States." It has purchased a ^ttSi Hfl-
settled territory which it has given tip to te
overrun with slavery. Are we wiUiHg^ Ml
the national power, in which all the Slated
have a common interest and shate« ibldfiof'
the use of which we are all tespoiteM^
should be so employed ?

How far slavery does and trill smw Oift
national government may be judged ftOOl tts
fact that It is a bond of union to aU whoito^
ticipate in it ; that the South is ptepaaW^t
it for a co-operation unknown ait tbn tMAi

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and that, of consequence, it gives to the
South, in no small degree, the control of the
country. The jealousies of the slave-holder
never sleep. They mix with and determine
our public policy in matters which we might
think least open to this pernicious infllience.
Of late, one of the most distinguished men
in the country,* the citizen of a Free State,
was nominated as Minister to the English
Court. He had one qualification, perhaps,
at>ove any man who could have been selected
for the ollice ; that is, a thorough acquaintance
with our controversy with Great Britain as to
the northern boundary. His large intellectual
culture, his literary eminence, his admirable
pow ers, and his experience in public affairs,
titted him to represent the United States in
the metropolis of Europe, where a man of
narrow education and ordinary powers would
dishonour his country. But the nomination
of this gentleman was resisted vehemently
in the Senate, on the ground that he had
expressed his moral opposition to slavery;
and that he would not, therefore, plead the
cause of slavery at the Court of St. Tames.
For a time his appointment was despaired of,
and it was confirmed at last only by a firm-
ness of remonstrance which the South could
not safely oppose. The action of the slave-
holders on this subject, thou^jh not carried
through, does not the less manifest their spirit
and policy. They have virtually expressed
their purplose to exclude from all places of trust
and honour every man from the North who
expresses his moral feelings against slavery.
And as these feelings are spreading among us
and gaining strength, the slave-holder has
virtually passed a sentence of proscription on
the North. If possible, the door of the Cabinet
is to be shut in our faces. The executive power
must be lodged in other hands. Our most
enlightened and virtuous citizens must not
represent the country abroad. This rejection
of a man on the ground of a moral conviction
which pervades the North is equivalent to
a general disfranchisement. A new test for
office, never dreamed of before, is to exclude
lis itorci the service of the country in thosfc
high public trusts which are the chief instru-
ments of public Influence. And can we con-
sent to become a proscribed race? Shall our
adherence to great principles be punished by
civil degradation? Can we renounce all kin-
dred with our fathers, and suffer our very love
of freedom and justice to be a brand of dis-
qualification for ofl^ces which by the Consti-
tu'ion are thrown equally open to all ?

The nomination ot our Minister to England
was all but rejected, and in this we see how
slavery has complicated itself with our most
important national affairs; how it determines
the weightiest acts of the general govern-
ment ; how it taints our foreign as well as

• Edward Ercrctt,

domestic policy. The North cannot hope to
escape with lending a helping hand now and
then to Southern institutions. We must put
our shoulders to the wheel. We must be
povemed throughout with reference to slavery.
Were this the place, it would be easy to show
how the South, by a skilful management of
the parties of the North, has bent and may
continue to bend the General Government to
its purposes ; how slavery has been made a
means of concentrating power into the hands
of those who uphold it. This institution is
not a narrow interest, seldom intruding itself,

Online LibraryWilliam Ellery ChanningThe complete works of W.E. Channing: with an introduction → online text (page 161 of 169)