William Lloyd Garrison.

Selections from the writings and speeches of William Lloyd Garrison. With an appendix .. online

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more than with the intention of the scrivener whom we
' employ to write the deed of a parcel of land.' We see no
pertinency in the illustration: the analogy is defective. A
scrivener employed to write a deed — to write as ordered by
us — to write according to an approved and established form ;
in the name of common sense, is he, or his avocation, or
his deed, or all together, to be compared with a deliberative
assembly, chosen by popular suffrage, and invested with
powers to frame a new government, in some shape or other
endurable, if not every thing desirable ! NoWj historically
and legally, it is a matter of great moment to know what the
framers of the Constitution understood and meant by every
article, section and clause of it ; what they expressed in
plain and unequivocal language, there being no necessity for
using any other ; what they embodied in equivocal or collu-
sive phraseology, to meet a disagreeable necessity ; what
they implied by circumlocution, to cover up positive wicked-
ness ; and what they asserted in direct terms. It was given


to them to frame the instrument, as, representing conflicting
interests and opposite parts of the country, they could best
agree ; but after its adoption, the nation became responsible
for it, as made in good faith by their authorized representa-

Again it is said, we are to look after the intention of the
adopters, not that of the framers of the Constitution. We do
not see that any thing is gained by this distinction. That the
adopters and framers of that instrument understood its con-
ditions and requirements in precisely the same manner is
historically certain ; and especially as to whatever is in it
relating to slavery and the slave trade. The law of Con-
gress, providing for the recapture of fugitive slaves, was
passed almost immediately after the adoption of the Consti-
tution : who cried out against it as unconstitutional ? When
Southern representatives of the slave population (on the
three-fifths basis) first made their appearance in Congress,
who raised his voice against them in the name of the Con-
stitution ? The foreign slave traffic was prosecuted under
our star-spangled banner more vigorously after than before
the adoption of that instrument : who dreamed of its being
an illegal trade ? There were at least six hundred thousand
slaves in the country, at the adoption of the Constitution :
who thought, believed, or proclaimed, that they were made
free by it ? If, then, they who adopted it so understood and
so designed it, how came the slaveholding South to vote for
it ? and how came it to pass, that, under the ' supreme law
of the land,' not a single slave thereby became free ?
When was the will, yes, the very purpose of a people, so
instantly nullified before ? ' The slave system, it was sup-
posed, (!) could not extend beyond that generation ' ; but
though the Constitution demanded its abolition, neither dur-
ing that generation was it applied, nor has it been at any
subsequent period, in any other manner than to extend


and perpetuate what it was framed to suppress ! All logi-
cal gravity terminates here in loud and long-protracted

, But this is not the height of this folly. We are told, that
it was thought better to let slavery live on in sufferance
through that generation, at least, than to disturb the infant
and unconsolidated nation by putting an immediate stop to
it! So, then, even at that period, an attempt to give the
slaves the benefit of the Anti-Slavery Constitution aforesaid
would have convulsed the land, and blown the Union sky

/ high ! Undoubtedly ; because no such Constitution was
ever adopted, and for no other reason ! And is any one so
infatuated as to believe, that what could not be done sixty
years ago, with only six hundred thousand slaves to be lib-
erated, without convulsing the country, can now be done
' by the strict rules of legal interpretation,' in utter disregard
of all the facts and all the precedents in our national history,
with fifteen instead of six slave States, and three millions of
slaves, without filling the land with a deluge of blood ? Sup-
posing — v.'hat is not within the scope of probabilities — that
we could win over to their view of the Constitution a major-
ity, ay, the entire body of the people of the North, so that

J they could control the action of Congress through their rep-
resentatives, and in this manner decree the abolition of
slavery throughout the South — could we hope to witness

. / even the enactment of such a decree, (to say nothing of its
enforcement,) without its being accompanied by the most
fearful consequences } Does any reply, that a fear of conse-
quences should not deter us from doing right ? This is cheer-
fully granted : but are these Anti-Slavery interpreters ready
for a civil war, as the inevitable result of their construction

Vof the Constitution ? What reason have they to believe,
from the past, that a civil war would not immediately follow,
in the case supposed } Why, even a Wilmot proviso is



shaking this Union to its foundation, so that ' men's hearts
are failing them for fear.' Where, then, and what is to be
the Union, under this new constitutional interpretation ?

Away with all verbal casuistry, all legal quibbling, the idle
parade of Lord Mansfield's decision in the case of Somerset,
the useless appeals to Blackstone's Commentaries, and the
like, to prove that the United States Constitution is an Anti-
Slavery instrument ! It is worse than labor lost, and, as a
false issue, cannot advance, but must rather retard, the Anti-
Slavery movement. Let there be no dodging, no shuffling,
no evasion. Let us confess the sin of our fathers, and our
own sin as a people, in conspiring for the degradation and
enslavement of the colored race among us. Let us be
honest with the facts of history, and acknowledge the com-
promises that were made to secure the adoption of the
Constitution, and the consequent establishment of the Union.
Let us, who profess to abhor slavery, and who claim to be
freemen indeed, dissolve the bands that connect us with the
Slave Power, religiously and poUtically ; not doubting that a
faithful adherence to principle will be the wisest policy, the
highest expediency, for ourselves and our posterity, for the
miserable victims of Southern oppression, and for the cause
of liberty throughout the world.

We regard this as indeed a solemn crisis, which requires
of every man sobriety of thought, prophetic forecast, inde-
pendent judgment, invincible determination, and a sound
heart. A revolutionary step is one that should not be taken
hastily, nor followed under the influence of impulsive imita-
tion. To know what spirits they are of — whether they
have counted the cost of the warfare — what are the princi-
ples they advocate — and how they are to achieve their
object — is the first duty of revolutionists.

But, while circumspection and prudence arc excellent
qualities in every great emergency, they become the allies


of tyranny whenever they restrain prompt, bold and decisive
action against it.

We charge upon the present national compact, that it was
formed at the expense of human liberty, by a profligate sur-
render of principle, and to this hour is cemented with human

We charge upon the American Constitution, that it con-
tains provisions, and enjoins duties, which make it unlawful
for freemen to take the oath of allegiance to it, because they
are expressly designed to favor a slaveholding oligarchy,
and, consequently, to make one portion of the people a prey
to another.

It was pleaded at the time of its adoption, it is pleaded
now, that, without such a compromise, there could have been
no union ; that, without union, the colonies would have
become an easy prey to the mother country ; and, hence,
that it was an act of necessity, deplorable indeed when
viewed alone, but absolutely indispensable to the safety of
the republic.

To this we reply : The plea is as profligate as the act
was tyrannical. It is the Jesuitical doctrine, that the end
sanctifies the means. It is a confession of sin, but the denial
of any guilt in its perpetration. This plea is sufficiently
broad to cover all the oppression and villany that the sun
has witnessed in his circuit, since God said, ' Let there be
light.' It assumes that to be practicable which is impossi-
ble, namely, that there can be freedom with slavery, union
with injustice, and safety with bloodguiltiness. A union of
virtue with pollution is the triumph of licentiousness. A
partnership between right and wrong is wholly wrong.
A compromise of the principles of justice is the deification
of crime.

Better that the American Union had never been formed,
than that it should have been obtained at such a frightful


cost ! If they were guilty who fashioned it, but who couUl ^
not foresee all its frightful consequences, how much more
guilty are they, who, in full view of all that has resulted
from it, clamor for hs perpetuity ! If it was sinful at the
commencement to adopt it, on the ground of escaping a
greater evil, is it not equally sinful to swear to support it for
the same reason, or until, in process of time, it be purged
from its corruption ?

The fact is, the compromise alluded to, instead of effect-
ing a union, rendered it impracticable ; unless by the term
union we are to understand the absolute reign of the slave-
holding power over the whole country, to the prostration of
Northern rights. It is not certain, it is not even probable,
that if the present Constitution had not been adopted, the
mother country would have reconquered the colonics. The
spirit that would have chosen danger in preference to crime,
to perish with justice rather than live with dishonor, to dare
and suffer whatever might betide, rather than sacrifice the
rights of one human being, could never have been subjugat-
ed by any mortal power. Surely, it is paying a poor tribute
to the valor and devotion of our revolutionary fathers in the
cause of liberty, to say that, if they had sternly refused to
sacrifice their principles, they would have fallen an easy prey
to the despotic power of England.

To the argument, that the words ' slaves ' and ' slavery ' '
are not to be found in the Constitution, and therefore that it
was never intended to give any protection or countenance to
the slave system, it is sufficient to reply, that though no such ^
words are contained in the instrument, other words were
used, intelligently and specifically, to meet the necessities of
slavery ; and that these were adopted in good faith, to be
observed until a constitutional change could be effected.-
On this point, as to the design of certain provisions, no intel-
ligent man can honestlv entertain a doubt. If it be objected,


that though these provisions were meant to cover slavery, yet,
as they can fairly be interpreted to mean something exactly
the reverse, it is allowable to give to them such an interpre-
tation, especially as the cause of freedom will thereby be
promoted — we reply, that this is to advocate fraud and
violence toward one of the contracting parlies, whose co-
operation was secured only by an express agreement and
understanding between them both, in regard to the clauses
alluded to; and that such a construction, if enforced by
pains and penalties, would unquestionably lead to a civil war,
in which the aggrieved party would justly claim to have been
betrayed, and robbed of their constitutional rights.

Again, if it be said, that those clauses, being immoral, are
null and void — we reply, it is true they are not to be observ-
ed ; but it is also true, that they are portions of an instru-
ment, the support of which, as a whole, is required by oath
or affirmation ; and, therefore, because they are immoral,
and because of this obligation to enforce immorality, no one
/ can innocently swear to support the Constitution.

Again, if it be objected, that the Constitution was formed
by the people of the United States, in order to establish jus-
tice, to promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings
of liberty to themselves and their posterity ; and, therefore,
it is to be so construed as to harmonize with these objects ;
we reply, again, that its language is not to be interpreted in
a sense which neither of the contracting parties understood,
and which would frustrate every design of their alliance —
to wit, union at the expense of the colored population of the
country. Moreover, nothing is more certain than that the
preamble alluded to never included, in the minds of those
who framed it, those who were then pining in bondage — for,
in that case, a general emancipation of the slaves would
have instantly been proclaimed throughout the United States.
The words, ' secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and


our posterity,' assuredly did not mean to include the slave
population. ' To promote the general welfare,' referred to
their own welfare exclusively. ' To establish justice,' was
understood to be for their sole benefit as slaveholders, and
the guilty abettors of slavery. This is demonstrated by
other parts of the same instrument, and by their own prac-
tice under it.

We would not detract aught from what is justly their due ;
but it is as reprehensible to give them credit for what they
did not possess, as it is to rob them of what is theirs. It is ^
absurd, it is false, it is an insult to the common sense of
mankind, to pretend that the Constitution was intended to
embrace the entire population of the country under its shel-
tering wings ; or that the parties to it were actuated by a '^
sense of justice and the spirit of impa^ial liberty ; or that it
needs no alteration, but only a new interpretation, to make
it harmonize with the object aimed at by its adoption. As ''
truly might it be argued, that because it is asserted in the
Declaration of Independence, that all men are created equal,
and endowed with an inalienable right to liberty, therefore
none of its signers were slaveholders, and since its adoption
slavery has been banished from the American soil ! The ^
truth is, our fathers were intent on securing liberty to them-
selves, without being very scrupulous as to the means they '
used to accomplish their purpose. They were not actuated ^
by the spirit of universal philanthropy ; and though in
words they recognised occasionally the brotherhood of the
human race, in practice they continually denied it. They
did not blush to enslave a portion of their fellow-men, and to
buy and sell them as cattle in the market, while they were
fighting against the oppression of the mother country, and
boasting of their regard for the rights of man. Why, then,
concede to them virtues which they did not possess ? \\'hy


cling to the falsehood, that they were no respecters of per-
sons in the formation of the government ?

Alas ! that they had no more fear of God, no more regard
for man, in their hearts ! ' The iniquity of the house of
Israel and Judah (the North and South) is exceeding great,
and the land is full of blood, and the city full of perverse-
ness ; for they say, the Lord hath forsaken the earth, and
the Lord seeth not.'

If, in utter disregard of all historical facts, it is still
asserted, that the Constitution needs no amendment to make
it a free instrument, adapted to all the exigencies of a free
people, and was never intended to give any strength or coun-
tenance to the slave system — the indignant spirit of insulted
Liberty replies : — ' What though ihe assertion be true ? Of
what avail is a mere piece of parchment ? In itself, though
it be written all over with words of truth and freedom —
though its provisions be as impartial and just as words can
express, or the imagination paint — though it be as pure as
the gospel, and breathe only the spirit of Heaven — it is
powerless ; it has no executive vitality ; it is a lifeless corpse,
even though beautiful in death. I am famishing for lack of
\/ bread ! How is my appetite relieved by holding up to my
gaze a painted loaf.? I am manacled, wounded, bleeding,
dying ! What consolation is it to know, that they who are
seeking to destroy my life, profess in words to be my
friends ? If the liberties of the people have been betray-
ed — if judgment has been turned away backward, and jus-
tice standeth afar off, and truth has fallen in the streets, and
equity cannot enter — if the princes of the land are roar-
ing lions, the judges evening wolves, the people light and
treacherous persons, the priests covered with pollution — if
we are living under a frightful despotism, which scoffs at all
constitutional restraints, and wields the resources of the


nation to promote its own bloody purposes — tell us not that
the forms of freedom are still left to us ! ' Would such
tameness and submission have freighted the May Flower
for Plymouth Rock ? Would it have resisted the Stamp
Act, the Tea Tax, or any of those entering wedges of tyran-
ny with which the British government sought to rive the
liberties of America ? The wheel of the Revolution would
have rusted on its axle, if a spirit so weak had been the
only power to give it motion. Did our fathers say, when
their rights and liberties were infringed — "Why, what is
done cannot be undone ! That is the first thought ! " No, it
was the last thing they thought of: or, rather, it never
entered their minds at all. They sprang to the conclusion
at once — " What is done shall be undone ! That is our first
and only thought ! " '

* Is water running in our veins ? Do we remember still
Old Plymouth Rock, and Lexington, and famous Bunker Hill ?
The debt we owe our fathers' graves ? and to the yet unborn,
Whose heritage ourselves must make a thing of pride or scorn ?

Gray Plymouth Rock hath yet a tongue, and Concord is not dumb ;.-
And voices from our fathers' graves and from the future come :
They call on us to stand our ground — they charge us still to be
Not only free from chains ourselves, but foremost to make free !.'

It is of little consequence who is on the throne, if there
be behind it a power mightier than the throne. It matters
not what is the theory of the government, if the practice of
the government be unjust and tyrannical. We rise in rebel-
lion against a despotism incomparably more dreadful than
that which induced the colonists to take up arms against the
mother country ; not on account of a three-penny tax on
tea, but because fetters of living iron are fastened on the
limbs of millions of our countrymen, and our most sacred
rights are trampled in the dust. As citizens of the State, we


appeal to the State in vain for protection and redress. As
citizens of the United States, we are treated as outlaws in
one half of the country, and the national government con-
sents to our destruction. We are denied the right of loco-
motion, freedom of speech, the right of petition, the liberty
of the press, the right peaceably to assemble together to
protest against oppression and plead for liberty — at least, in
fifteen States of the Union. If we venture, as avowed
and unflinching abolitionists, to travel South of Mason and
Dixon's line, we do so at the peril of our lives. If we
would escape torture and death, on visiting any of the slave
States, we must stifle our conscientious convictions, bear no
testimony against cruelty and tyranny, suppress the strug-
gling emotions of humanity, divest ourselves of all letters
and papers of an anti-slavery character, and do homage to
the slaveholding power — or run the risk of a cruel martyr-
dom ! These are appalling and undeniable facts.

Three millions of the American people are crushed under
the American Union ! They are held as slaves, trafficked
as merchandise, registered as goods and chattels ! The
government gives them no protection — the government is
their enemy, the government keeps them in chains ! Where
they lie bleeding, we are prostrate by their side — in their
sorrows and sufferings we participate — their stripes are
inflicted on our bodies, their shackles are fastened on our
limbs, their cause is ours ! The Union which grinds them
to the dust rests upon us, and with them we will struggle to
overthrow it! The Constitution which subjects them to
hopeless bondage is one that we cannot swear to support.
Our motto is, ' No Union with Slaveholders,' either
religious or political. They are the fiercest enemies of man-
kind, and the bitterest foes of God ! We separate from
them, not in anger, not in malice, not for a selfish purpose,
not to do them an injury, not to cease warning, exhorting.


reproving them for their crimes, not 1o leave the perishing
bondman to his fate — O no! But to clear our skirts of
innocent blood — to give the oppressor no countenance —
and to hasten the downfall of slavery in America, and ^
throughout the world !

Do you ask what can be done if you abandon the ballot-
box ? What did the crucified Nazarene do without the
elective franchise ? What did the apostles do ? What did
the glorious army of martyrs and confessors do ? What
did Luther and his intrepid associates do ?

'It thou must stand alono, what tlicn ? The honor shall be more !
But thou canst never stand alone while Heaven still arches o'er —
"While tliere's a God to worship, a devil to be denied —
The good and true of every age stand with thee, side by side ! '

The form of government that shall succeed the present
government of the United States, let time determine. It
would be a waste of time to argue that question, until the
people are regenerated and turned from their iniquity. Ours
is no anarchical movement, but one of order and obedience.
In ceasing from oppression, we establish liberty. What is
now fragmentary shall in due time be crystalized, and shine
like a gem set in the heavens, for a light to all coming ages.

* • When the powers of government came to be delegated to the
Union, the South — that is, South Carolina and Georgia — refused
their subscription to the parchment, till it should be saturated with
the infection of slavery, which no fumigation could purify, no quar-
antine could extinguish. The freemen of the North gave way, and
the deadly venom of slavery was infused into the Constitution of
freedom. Its first consequence has been to invert the first principle
of Democracy, that the will of tlie majority of numbers shall rule
the land. Ey means of the double representation, the minority
command the whole, and a knot of slaveholders give the law and
prescribe the policy of the country.' — John Qlincy Adams.


jlB '(£r in mill; of Jfiitlnm

God speed the year of jubilee,

The wide world o'er !
When from their galling chains set free,
Th' oppressed shall vilely bend the knee,
And wear the yoke of tyranny,

Like brutes, no more : —
That teak will come, and Freedom's reign
To man his plundered rights again


God speed the day when human blood

Shall cease to flow !
In every clime be understood
The claims of human brotherhood,
And each return for evil, good —

Not blow for blow : —
That day will come, all feuds to end,
And change into a faithful friend

Each foe.

God speed the hour, the glorious hour,

When none on earth
Shall exercise a lordly power.
Nor in a tyrant's presence cower,
But all to Manhood's stature tower,

By equal birth ! —
That hour will come, to each, to all,
And from his prison-house the thrall

Go forth.

Until that year, day, hour arrive, —

If life be given, —
With head and heart and hand I'll strive
To break the rod, and rend the gyve, —
The spoiler of his prey deprive, —

So witness Heaven !
And never from my chosen post,
Whate'er the peril or the cost,

Be driven.


It is the strength and glory of the Anti-Slavery cause, that
its principles are so simple and elementary, and yet so vital
to freedom, morality and religion, as to commend themselves
to the understandings and consciences of men of every sect
and party, every creed and persuasion, every caste and color.
They are self-evident truths — fixed stars in the moral firma-

Online LibraryWilliam Lloyd GarrisonSelections from the writings and speeches of William Lloyd Garrison. With an appendix .. → online text (page 24 of 33)