William Slade.

Speech of Mr. Slade, of Vermont, on the abolition of slavery and the slave trade in the District of Columbia, delivered in the House of representatives of the U.S. December 20, 1837. To which is added the intended conclusion of the speech, suppressed by resolution of the House online

. (page 6 of 8)
Online LibraryWilliam SladeSpeech of Mr. Slade, of Vermont, on the abolition of slavery and the slave trade in the District of Columbia, delivered in the House of representatives of the U.S. December 20, 1837. To which is added the intended conclusion of the speech, suppressed by resolution of the House → online text (page 6 of 8)
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I might add numerous individual authorities, but my
limits must restrain me. I cannot, however, omit the
authority of Washington, which is most clear and expli-
cit. In writing to Robert Morris, on the 12th of April,
1786, he said — "There is not a man living, who wishes
more sincerely than I do, to seea plan adopted for the
abolition of slavery ; but there is only one proper and
effectual mode by which it can be accomplished, and
that is, by legislative authority; and this, as far as my
suffrage will go, shall never be wanting.'" On the 10th or
May, 1786, he thus writes to La Fayette — "It (abolition)
certainly might, and ought to be effected, and that, too,
by legislative authority." In a letter to John Fenton Mer-
cer, of September 9, 1786, he said — "It is among my
first wishes to see some plan adopted by which slavery
in this country may be abolished by law." In a letter
to John Sinclair, he says — "There are, in Pennsylva-
nia, laws, for the gradual abolition of slavery, which
neither Maryland nor Virginia have, at present ; but
which nothing is more certain than that they must have,
and at a period not remote."

Let me specially commend the authority of Wash-
ington to the attention of those who say that, if slavery
is let alone, it will, in due time, be abolished by volun-
tary emancipations. "There is (says that great man)
only one proper and effectual mode by which it can be
accomplished, and that is by legislative authority."
Washington reasoned right. Slavery will never be
abolished — it never has been, in any country — until the
strong hand of legislation is fastened on it.

Such, sir, are some of the examples and authorities
which sustain my position that the abolition of slavery
is within the competency of the law making power.

Put are examples and authorities necessary to sustain
this position? Is there not something within every man,
which tells him that the inviolability of property in hu-
man beings cannot stand upon the same ground as that
of property in the things that God has given to man for
his ownership and dominion? Yes, thank heaven,
there is that in man. It is the natural sense of justice
which God has implanted in the human bosom. It is
conscience, with its silent, steady, searching influence.
What else is it that so often visits the couch of the dy-
ing slave holder, and dictates the emancipation of his
slaves? What, but a conviction that all is not right in
the relation which death is about to sunder. If, then,
the legislature of a state dissolves that relation, it does
but respond to a feeling which plants thorns upon raany
a slave holder's pillow, and, following him to the verge
of life, compels him to release his grasp before he goes
to his final and fearful account.

The sense of justice of which I have spoken, has its
foundation in the great law of right which was impress-
ed upon the heart of man at his creation; which was
re-enacted in the decalogue; and finally summed up in

*This idea of excluding slavery from the northwest-
ern territory, seems to have been first brought out by
Mr. Jefferson, in 1734, in his report as chairman of a
committee of congress, of a plan for the government
of the western territory. It was not then adopted, but,
three years afterwards, it found a place in an ordinance
which may be ranked among the very first, in point of
importance, that was ever adopted by an American


x gingle compreh.ensiv.e precept, by tlv- Saviour of men.
It is to this that the world is indebted for all the ame-
liorations of the social stare, with which the progress of
Christianity has been signalized — and in nothing more
signalized, than in emancipation — emancipation of
mini?; emancipation of speech; emancipation of the
press; and, as an inevitable consequence: emancipa-
tion from slavery. I say inevitable, because slavery
can no more stand before a Free Press, than could the
Dagon of the'Philistines in the presence of the Ark of
the Almighty.

Wherever Christianity has carried its triumphs, have
the social and civil institutions of men felt the influence
of this great Jaw of eternal justice. It is this which
forms the basis of the English common law, and which
was so fearlessly applied by Lord Mansfield sixty-five
years ago, in the case of Somerset, in which he said—

"The~state of slavery is of such a nature, that it is
incapable of being introduced on any reasons, moral
or political, but. only positive law, which preserves its
force, long after the reasons, occasion, and time itself,
from whence it was created, are erased from memory.
It is so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it,
but positive law."

It was the same great law of right, which formed the
basis of the declaration of our independence; which
was incorporated in most of the state constitutions;
which was recognised in the ordinance of 1787; which
was re-enacted in the emancipation laws of numerous
states of this union; and which was expounded by
Franklin and Jefferson, in the papers I ha-vjn.een per-
mitted to read. It was the same, too, which cave
warmth and energy to the fearless eloquence of Pink-
ney, in a speech in the Maryland house of delegates,
in 1733, in which he said — ''By the eternal principles of
natural justice, no master in the state has a right to hold
his slave in bondage for a single hour "

But, Mr. Speaker, while emancipation has been thus
advancing, there are a class of objects which it has not
reached, and I trust, never will reach. It has not dis-
solved the natural relations. None who deserve to be
named, think of emancipating children from the con-
trol of parents, or of abolishing the marriage institution,
or of annulling the laws which protect the acquisition,
enjoyment, and inheritance of property. On the
contrary, as emancipation has progressed, have the
domestic relations, and the rights of property come to be
held more sacred, and to be protected by new and
more substantial safeguards.

The errors prevalent in regard to the right of the
law-making power to abolish slavery, arise from not
considering the real foundation on which slavery rests.

Slavery is the mere creature of positive law. The
law of ''natural justice" — older than human laws, and
paramount to them all — condemns it. Without the
support of positive law, it stands as a mere usurpation.
It may indeed shelter itself under the power of law;
but that power is as clear a usurpation, as the slavery it
protects. It is a mere attempt to sustain one wrong,
by the perpetration of another. It is precisely the same,
in principle, although the law-making power should
undertake, by statute, to sanction the violation of female
chastity, or the taking of human life without the com-
mission of crime; for a man's right to be protected in
his liberty, rests on precisely the same foundation, as
his right to the security of life; and the right of a wo-
man to exemption from slavery, is as complete as her
right to immunity from any other personal violation.

Now, what is it to abolish slavery? It is, to repeal
the positive laws which sanction it — in other words, to
repeal the laws which have repealed the eternal law of
justice, and to restore that law to its full force. This is
aeolition. Slavery would be thus' left, where positive
law found it — vilhout support. The law of nature will
not. sustain it: for every line of that law pronounces its
condemnation. The common law will not: for that is
based on the great law of natural justice, which per-
mits no man to be holden as property. "By the com-
mon law, (says lord chief iustice Holt,) no man can
have property in another." 'And lord Mansfield, in the

case to which I have referred, rested the liberation of
the slave on the same foundation.

I maintain, then, that it is within the competency of
legislative power to abolish slavery. There must, in-
deed, be such a power in civil government, or the insti-
tutions of the social state will have signally failed of ac-
complishing the great ends of their existence.
_ If I have succeeded in proving that congress has a
right to abolish slavery in this district, I have, of course,
proved its right to abolish the slave trade. Both rights
rest essentially on the same foundation — the absence of
all just title to property in man. The slave trade makes
a stronger appeal to oar sensibilities, but not to our
sense of justice. The right to abolish it, involves the
right to abolish slavery. One is. the parent — the other
the offspring. Wrong — clear, undeniable wrong, stamps
the character of both.


Having shown the power of congress over this sub-
ject, I proceed to consider some objections to the exer-
cise of the power.


It is said that we ought not to abolish slavery and
the slave trade here, because the people of this district
have not petitioned for it. The argument is, that, as
their interests are involved in this matter, their consent,
by way of petition, is to be regarded as a condition pre-
cedent to our legislation.

Now, sir, carry out this objection to its legitimate re-
sults, and what becomes of our exclusive jurisdiction
here? We thought that the power to legislate for this
district, had been given us by the people of the United
States, in the constitution. But we now find that the
exercise of that, power is to depend upon the people
here; and that it is their petitions that are to give us ju-
risdiction, and not the constitution. We thought that
the power was given us, for the purpose of rendering
Congress independent upon a. local power surrounding
its capitol; and yet we now find that we cannot move
a step without the consent of that power.

Do you say that the principle contended for, applies
only to the present case? Why to this case only? Is
it because emancipation affects the interests of the
people here? What legislation touching this district,
does not affect their interests? And if their consent is
to be obtained in this case, in what case must it not be

The truth is, the framers of the constitution intended
to make congress entirely independent of the people of
this district. You may, if you please, call this an ab-
solute government. But call it what you will, it is just
such a government as the constitution provides; and it
cannot be any other than it is, without subverting the
great design of the constitution in providing for a sepa-
rate territory as the capital of the United States.

And congress has uniformly proceeded on this
ground, in exercising its powers of legislation here.
The history of that legislation for five and thirty years,
does not present a single case in which the ground now
taken has been assumed. Why, sir, look at the legisla-
tion now in progress in another branch of congress,
touching the suppression of the circulation of small
notes in this district. Though it is a measure deeply
affecting the business and the interests of the people
here, no one has thought of inquiring whether they have
asked us to adopt the measure.

But, petitions have come up to us from this district,
on this very subject. I have already referred to a me-
morial presented [but a few years ago, signed by more
than eleven hundred citizens of the district — many of
them men of great respectability, and many of them
slave-holders — most earnestly and eloquently imploring
congress to abolish both slavery and the slave trade
here. That memorial is among the printed documents
of this house; and it speaks out on the subjects of
.slavery and the slave trade, with a boldness andearnest-
ness becoming their transcendant importance.





It is said, in the next place, that congress ought not to
abolish slavery and the slave trade here, because it
would be a violation of faith pledged to Virginia and
Maryland on the acceptance of the cessions of the ter-
ritory composing this district. The objection seems to
rest, in the first place, on the assumption that the ac-
tion of congress would excite hopes of emancipation
among the slaves in Virginia and Maryland, and there-
fore, produce discontent, and encourage insurrection.
Now, I admit the premises but deny the conclusion. 1
admit that the abolition of slavery here, would excite
hopes of emancipation in the neighboring states, be-
cause its tendency would be to increase the disposition
already felt in them, to abolish slavery. But would
this tend to insurrection? Not at all; unless it be an
insurrection of the generous feelings of our nature,
among the holders of slaves. Is this the insurrection
that gentlemen fear? Are they afraid of being con-
vinced that it is wrong to hold human beings as proper-
ty, and right and safe to emancipate them to the privi-
leges of men? To any other kind of insurrection than
this, I deny that it has any tendency. Insurrection!
massacre! murder! Are these the offspring of hope? Nay,
but of despuir. What will give such strength to the
human arm, or obduracy to the human heart, as des-
pair. But mercy — kindness — compassion— justice! Did
these, or the hope of them, ever turn a human heart
to adamant, or nerve a human arm for vengeance?

You may remind me of St. Domingo ; for that is the
standing bug-bear to frighten from every attempt at
emancipation. But what of St. Domingo? What but
an illustration of the correctness of what I have just
asserted? It was not emancipation, or the hope of it,
but an attempt to reduce the emancipated back to
bondage, that led to scenes which have given to the
name of insurrection so deep and enduring a horror.

A refutation of the argument drawn from appre-
hended insurrection, is furnished in the entire absence
of any manifestation of such a spirit, in the states bor-
dering on the free states, since the agitation of the sla-
very question commenced. Never have the slaves in
those states manifested less disposition to insurrection
than during this period. In indulging apprehensions of
insurrection— if indeed they are reallv indulged— it
seems not to be considered that the example of eman-
cipation acts, not merely on the mind of the slave, but,
with great force, on the mind of the slaveholder; tend-
ing to produce in him a conviction that emancipation is
sate, and that slavery is wrong. The consequence will
be (1 will not insult the slave holder by supposing the
contrary) more kindness on the part of the master, and
as a consequence of this, and the hope of ultimate de-
liverance, more contentment on the part of the slave.

But there is another consideration which seems not
to enter into the conceptions of the alarmists. It is the
security from insurrection furnished by abolitionists
themselves. Regarding them as friends, the slaves
have confidence in them, and will listen to their ad-
vice. And who does not know that wherever their
voice can reach the slaves, it is heard in earnest ad-
monitions to suppress all disposition to insurrection,
and wait for deliverance from the volutary action of
their masters, or the exertion of legislative power? An
illustration of this is presented in the proceedings of
the anti-slavery society of the state of Pennsylvania in
February, 1837, when it was "Resolved, that we earn-
estly recommend the colored people, both bond and free,
to fulfill all their moral, social and religious duties, and
thus show to the world that they deserve to be free.''

As it is tnus apparent that insurrection is not to be
apprehended, (unless an increase ©flight, and stronger
appeals to the sense of justice of slave holders should
enhance the oppressions of slaverv, which lam unwill-
ing to admit) I am justified in assuming that the whole
of this extraordinary claim in behalf of Virginia and
Maryland is prompted by the consideration that aboli-

tion here may exert an influence on the public mind
in those states favorable to abolition there.
^ The whole of the implied pledge amounts, then, to
this, — that congress will refrain from doing justice to
those under its exclusive, jurisdiction, because by the
mere force of its example, Maryland and Virginia may
be induced to go and do likewise. A more unreason-
able and absurd proposition in regard to the action of
this government, it seems to me, cannot be affirmed.
In considering the subject of this implied pledge, it
will occur to every one, on a first view of the subject,
to ask— why should a claim, involving such a reserva-
tion in favor of Virginia and Maryland, and imposing
such a restriction on the action of congress, have been
left to such a general implication? Why was there no
reservation to that effect, expressed in the acts of ces-
sion? or why, at least, was there not something express-
ed in them, from which such a reservation might be
reasonably and fairly inferred ? The subject ofresei-v-
ing rights was not unconsidered in making these ces-
sions. Both of them contain a special proviso — "that
nothing herein contained shall be construed to vest in
the United States any right of property in the soil, or to
affect the rights of individuals therein, otherwise than
the same shall, or may be transferred by such indivi-
duals to the United States." Why was it not added —
nor to vest in the United States any right to abolish slavery
and the slave trade within the limits of the ceded territory?

Theresas, certainly, more need of making this re-
servatioEpuxpressly, if such a reservation was intended
or desirechby the cedingstates, than to make the reser-
vation that was made; because the general grant of
"exclusive jurisdiction in all cases whatsoever," plainly
included the power to abolish slavery; while there
was nothing in the terms or nature of the cessions,
which could, without a reservation, "affect the rights of
individuals, - ' to the soil. The proviso to which I have
referred was introduced out of abundant caution. How
came that abundant caution to overlook the case now
in question? The abolition of slavery was then well
understood to be within the competency of legislative
power; and "exclusive jurisdiction in all cases what-
soever," manifestly included the "case" of the abolition
of slavery; and yet, while a proviso was introduced in-
to the cessions, reserving rights which really needed no
reservation, there was an absence of any attempt to
introduce a reservation in favor of slavery, which really
was needed, to save it — if it was to be saved — from be-
ing drawn within the grant of "exclusive jurisdiction
in all cases whatsoever."

The absence of all attempt to make a reservation
upon the point in question is rendered the more signifi-
cant and conclusive, by the fact, that, in the debates in
the Virginia convention, on the adoption of the consti-
tution, Mr. Madison, in reply to objections drawn from
the supposed grant by the constitution of unlimited
authority over the "ten miles square'' said — "there must
be a particular cession by particular states, of the dis-
trict to congress, and the states may spttle the terms of
the cession, and may make what stipulation they please
in it."* This suggestion seems to have satisfied Vir-
ginia jealousy, in regard to the powers granted by the
constitution to congress, over the district. This debate
was in 1788. In the very next year, the cession was
made by the legislature of that state — a body which

* I confess my inability to perceive the force of this
remark of Mr. Madison ; for, although the "particular
states" might make what stipulations they pleased in
their cessions of the "ten miles square," yet the conse-
quence of such stipulations as should impose a restraint
on the constitutional power of congress to "exercise
exclusive jurisdiction in all cases whatsoever,'' could
only be to render such cessions ineffectual and void —
congress having no power to accept a cession which
should not be inpursuance of the 8ih section of the 1st
article of the constitution, which provides for such
"exclusive legislation." But Mr. Madison's declara-
tion is good for the purpose of my argument; for, if it


contained, of course, a large number of the men who
had composed the convention of the previous year.
And vet, though we rind the legislature acting on Mr.
Madison's suggestion, so far as to make a reservation
in regard to ''any right of property in the soil," not a
word was introduced into the act of cession restricting,
or having the least tendency to restrict, the right of le-
gislating on the subject of slavery.

Thus, then, we find that all restriction on the power
of congress in favor of slavery was omitted from the
acts of cession, under circumstances plainly showing
that the omission was not inadvertent or accidental ;
while the relinquishment of jurisdiction by Virginia and
Maryland, and the grant of power to congress in the
constitution, are couched in terms so clear and unequi-
vocal, as to admit of no possible construction, excluding
the power in question. And yet, in face of all this, it
is now gravely contended that there was an implied
pledge on the part of the United States, by the mere
act of accepting these cessions, not to exercise a power
clearly granted in the constitution, and which, in ma-
king the cessions, Virginia and Maryland most signi-
ficantly omitted any attempt to control^

Equally preposterous does the pretension of "implied
faith" appear, when we consider the reasons which in-
duced the grant in the constitution of "exclusive ju-
risdiction," and the extent to which the principle in-
volved in the pretension may be carried. To the first,
I have already a "verted; and it must be apparent to
all, that such an "implied faith" would, in its whole
Tendency, be subversive of the purpose for which the
constitution provided a " ten miles square, '' for the seat
of government. It would place congress in the most
humiliating position imaginable; for, when the claim
now set up is stripped of its vague generalities, and pre-
sented in a definite form, it sends this government, up-
on every proposition to abolish slavery in this district, to
the supreme governments of Virginia and Maryland for
leave to act in the premises. Nor is the principle which
works this strange result, necessarily confined to the
case of slavery ; but it applies to every proposition to
do any thing affecting by possibility, the interests of
those states. Now, there are a great variety of cases in
which those interests may be affected by the general
influence of our legislation for the district: — such, for
example, as the regulation of the currency of the dis-
trict; and a prohibition of various immoral practices —
as the sale of lottery tickets, gambling, horse racing,
and the like; and also a prohibition ot duelling. So,
too, in the punishment of crimes, — as if we should
abolish the punishment of death, and greatly mitigate
other punishments. Any one can see, at a glance, how
very much the pecuniary interests of Virginia and Ma-
ryland, as in the case of the currency, and their legis-
lation, as in the other cases, might be affected by the con-
stitutional action of congress in regard to the district.

Take another case — that of imprisonment for debt;
(ajemnant of barbarism, and fit to hold companion-
ship with slavery;) and suppose we were to abolish
that. _ Why, forthwith, up rises the objection I am con-
sidering, in another form, arid demands, in behalf of
Virginia and Maryland, that we shall desist. "Hands
off," says the objector. _ Remember your "imjdied
faith.'' You are interfering with Virginia and Mary-
land 'Hjtstitutions:" for we have been accustomed,
"time whereof the memory of man runneth not to the
contrary," to cast, our debtors into prison, and not let
rhem come out thence, till they have paid the uttermost
farthing. How . can we live without the enjoyment
of this right? We shall be ruined; and the debtor part
of our communities will rise in rebellion, and tear down
our jails, which we have been at so much expense in

■ — . — —t- —

was understood that a limitation might be imposed in
the cessions, so as effectually to restrain the power of
congress, the omission to introduce such limitation be-
came most conclusive evidence of a willingness that
congress should exercise the power without limitation.

Whether, then, we consider the terms of the cessions

1 2 3 4 6 8

Online LibraryWilliam SladeSpeech of Mr. Slade, of Vermont, on the abolition of slavery and the slave trade in the District of Columbia, delivered in the House of representatives of the U.S. December 20, 1837. To which is added the intended conclusion of the speech, suppressed by resolution of the House → online text (page 6 of 8)