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

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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 7 of 8)
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by Virginia and Maryland; the omission by those states
of any attempt to impose restraint on the power of
exclusive legislation by congress; the obvious purposes
for which that power was granted; or the extent to
which the principle of the objection might, if carried
out, be applied — we come to the conclusion that there
is no foundation for the claim, that we are prohibited, by
an implied pledge, from acting on the subject before us.

A further and conclusive argument may be drawn
from a consideration of the peculiar circumstances un-
der winch the cessions were made, and the state of
feeling in Virginia and Maryland on the subject of
slavery, at the time they were made.

It is well known that the question with regard to the
location of the seat of government was, for a longtime,
sharply contested in congress — Pennsylvania, Dela-
ware, Maryland, and Virginia, each claiming the privi-
lege of having it within their respective limits — the two
latter urgently pressing for a decision in favor of the
location at this place- Of the fifty-nine members of the
first congress, thirty-four were from the states north of
Virginia and Maryland; in all of which, as well as in
Virginia and Maryland themselves, there existed a
strong anti-slavery feeling. What, in such a state of
thing's, would have been the result of a proposition on
the part of Virginia and Maryland, to incorporate a
"stipulation" in favor of slavery,, in the acts of cession?
Most uudoubtedly a rejection of the proposition to locate
the seat of government here. Nobody can doubt this;
and none can doubt that Virginia and Maryland per-
fectly understood it. They had no disposition, then, to
claim that the power of abolishing slavery should be ex-
cepted from the grant of exclusive power to legislate in
all cases; and they had as little disposition to talk of an
implied understanding to that effect. Sir, if they had
done cither, we should now have been conducting our
deliberations v-ithin the limits of the Key-Stone State.

But independently of a desire to obtain the location
of the seat, of government here, there existed too strong
an anti-slavery feeling in Virginia and Maryland, to ad-
mit of any attempt to make a "stipulation" in the ces-
sions, in favor of slavery. This fact deserves the most
serious consideration: for the question is, not what Vir-
ginia and Maryland would now have to be expressed or
understood, if the cessions were now to be made, but
what was the understanding then, when the cessions
were made? — or, what circumstances existed, from
which a pledge of any kind, in favor of slaveiy, can be

To show the extent and strength of the opposition to
slavery in Virginia and Maryland, at that time, let me
refer to the well known opinions of some of their lead-
ing public men. Washington, as I have already shown,
not only expressed his decided hostility to slavery, but
took the high ground of declaring that it ought "to be
abolished by law, and that, at a period li not, remote." —
Jefferson, in his letter to Doctor Price, to which I have
already referred, said— "this (Virginia) is the next state
to which we may turn our eves for the interesting spec-
tacle of justice in conflict with avarice and oppression;
a conflict in which the sacred side is gaining daily re-
cruits from the young men, who have sucked in the
principles of liberty with their mothers milk." In his
notes on Virginia, written in 1781, he says — "I think a
change already perceptible, since the origin of the pre-
sent revolution. _ The spirit of the master is abating;
that of the slave is rising from the dust; his condition
mollifying, and the way, I hope, preparing, under the
auspices of _ Heaven, for a total e?nancipation.'' Mr.
Madison said, in the first congress, on the presentation
of memorials from abolition societies touching the slave
trade— -"It is to be hoped that, by expressing a national
disapprobation of this trade, we may destroy it, and save
ourselves from reproaches, and our posterity the imbecility
ever attendant on a country filled with slaves." Mr.
Parker, of Virginia, said, in the same debate— "He
hoped congress would do all that lay in their power to
restore to human nature its inherent privileges, and, ir


possible, to wipe off the sligma which America labored
under. The inconsistency in our principles, with which
we are justly charged, should be done away, that we
may show by our actions, the pure beneficence of the
doctrine we held out to the world in our declaration of
independence." Patrick Henry said in the debates
in the Virginia convention, on the adoption of the fed-
eral constitution — "Another thing will contribute to
bring this event (the abolition ,of slavery) about. —
Slavery is detested. We feel us effects: we deplore
it with all the pity of humanity." In 1777, Jefferson,
Pendleton, Wythe, Mason, and Lee, were appointed
by the legislature of Virginia, a committee to revise the
laws of the state; and, in the discharge of their duty,
they agreed to propose, as an amendment to a bill they
had reported concerning slaves, a plan for the gradual
abolition of slavery. It was finally concluded, not
then to bring forward the proposition; it having been
found, as Mr. Jefferson declared, that the public mind
would not yet bear it. "Yet, (said Mr. Jefferson,) the
day is not distant, when it must bear, and adopt it, or
do worse. Nothing is more certainly written in the book
of fate, than that these people are to be free."

The same disposition in regard to slavery was mani-
fested by Pinkney, MARTiiN T ,_and other leading men of
Maryland. The following, from a speech of Pinkney,
in the Maryland house of delegates, in 1789, is a speci-
men of the freedom and boldness with which slavery
was assailed at that period. It shows how strong were
the workings of his great mind, and how vigorous the
pulsations of his noble heart, while contemplating the
wrongs inflicted on the African race, and their shame-
less inconsistency with our professed devotion to the
cause of freedom.

"Sir, (said Mr. P.) let gentlemen put it home to them-
selves, that after Providence has crowned our exertions
in the cause of freedom with success, and led us on to
independence through a myriad of dangers, and in de-
fiance of obstacles crowding thick upon each other, we
should not so soon forget the principles upon which we
fled to arms, and lose all sense of that interposition of
Heaven, by which alone we could have been saved
from the grasp of arbitrary power. We may talk of
liberty in our public councils, and fancy that we _ feel a
reverence for her dictates — we may declaim, with all
the vehemence of animated rhetoric, against oppres-
sion, and flatter ourselves that we detest the ugly mon-
ster — but so long as we continue to cherish the poison-
ous weed of partial slavery among us, the world will
doubt our sincerity. In the name of Heaven, with
what face can we coll ourselves the friends of equal free-
dom, and the inherent rights of our species, when we
wantonly pass laws inimical to each — when we reject
every opportunity of destroying, by silent, impercepti-
ble degrees, the horrid fabric of individual bondage,
reared by the mercenary hands of those from whom
the sacred flame of liberty received no devotion? * * *

"Is it, Mr. Speaker, because, the complexion of these
devoted victims is not quite so delicate as ours — is it be-
. cause their untutored minds {humbled and debated by the
hereditary yoke) appear less active and capacious than
our own — or is it because we have been so habituated
to their situation as to become callous to the horrors of
it — that we are determined, whether politic or not, to
keep them, till time shall be no more, on a level with the
brutes? For 'nothing,' says Montesquieu, 'so much as-
similates a man to a brute, as being among freemen,
himself a slave.'

"Call not Maryland a land of liberty — do not pretend-
that she has chosen this country for an asylum — that
here she has erected her temple, and consecrated her
shrine — when here, alas, her unhallowed enemy holds
his hellish Pandemonium, and our rulers offer sacrifice
at his polluted altars. The lily and the bramble may
grow in social proximity — but liberty and slavery delight
in separation."

Referring, in the same speech, to the condition of
slaves, as "the mere goods and chattels of their masters,"
Mr. Pinkney said (what I have before quoted) — "Sir,
by the eternal principles of natural justice, no master in

the state has a right to hold his slave in bondage a single

Such was the language of leading men of Virginia
and Maryland, at, and immediately preceding, the pe-
riod when an implied pledge to perpetuate slavery is
sought to be attached to an acceptance from those states
of the cession of this district. But I have yet further
evidence of the tendency of public opinion in those
states, at that period. I have had occasion to refer to
the memorial to congress in 1790, of an abolition society
in Pennsylvania, of which doctor Franklin was presi-
dent. But was Pennsylvania the only state which con-
tained an abolition society? And was doctor Franklin
the only distinguished man connected with such a so-
ciety? No sir; far from it. Besides the abolition society
of Pennsylvania, there were societies of this description,
not only in Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey,
but in Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia! They were
state societies, with numerous auxiliaries; and had con-
nected with them, such men as Swift and Tracy, of
Connecticut — Jay and Hamilton, of New York — gov-
ernor Bloomfield, of New Jersey— Franklin and
Rush, of Pennsylvania — Bayard and Rodney, of Dela-
ware — Chase and Martin, of Maryland, and McLean,
Anthony, and Pleasants, of Virginia.* It is remarka-
ble that the Maryland and Virginia abolition societies
were formed in 1789, and 1791, almost exactly cotem-
porary with the cessions, and acceptance, of the terri-
tory forming this district.

And now, sir, to show you something of the princi-
ples and purposes of these societies, let me call your at-
tention to the following extract from one of their memo-
rials to congress. I quote from a memorial of the aboli-
tion society of the state of Virginia.

"Your memorialists, fully believing that righteousness
exalteth a nation, and that slavery is not only an odious
degradation, but an outrageous violation of one of the
most essential rights of human nature, and utterly re-
pugnant to the precepts of the gospel, which breathes
peace on earth, and good will to men, lament- that a
practice so inconsistent with true policy, and the ina-
lienable rights of man, should subsist in so enlightened
an age, and among a people professing that all mankind
are, by nature, equally entitled to freedom."

Such, Mr. Speaker, are some of the evidences which
exist, of the state of public feeling, on the subject of
slavery, about the period of the cessions and acceptance
of this district — especially in Virginia and Marylaud.
And is there any thing in all this to justify the prelension
now set up, of an implied pledge to those states in favor
of slavery in the ceded territory? No sir. Nothing can
be more absurd. Every thing connected with the his-
tory of those times utterly forbids such an implication.
Indeed, if we were to go aside from the language of the
acts of cession, and seek elsewhere, for grounds on
which to rest an implied pledge, should we not be driven
to an opposite conclusion? Would not the implied
pledge be found to be, rather that we woidd, than that
we would not abolish slavery in this district? It seems
to me it would. How did the matter stand? Virginia
and Maryland w : ere about to part with their power to
abolish slavery in this district; and if the question had
been put to Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Henry,
Pendleton, Wythe, Mason, Lee, Pleasants, Pinkney,
Martin, and the numerous other men who were giving
tone to public sentiment in favor of abolition, whether
they would have a stipulation to restrain congress from
acting on the subject here, who can doubt that they
would have instantly said, no; we will neither propose
nor agree to any such stipulation. If congress shall be
disposed to abolish slavery in the district, let them do it.
There will then be anotber example added to that of
Pennsylvania, to induce Virginia and Maryland to do
right. That such would have been, their language, it is
impossible to doubt. And yet, gentlemen now talk of
an implied pledge, that congress would not even begin to

*William Henry Harrison, now general Harrison,
of Ohio, was a member of the Virginia abolition socie-
ty, being then axifizen of that stats.


abolish slavery in this district, fifty years after general
Washington said that the example of the abolition by
Pennsylvania must be followed by Virginia and Mary-
land "at a period not remote!''


There is another objection, somewhat allied that just
considered, which I must notice. The constitution, it is
said, contains a guaranty in favor of shivery. Under
this supposed guaranty, it is contended that this gov-
ernment is bound to refrain from all legislation tending
to impair the security and stability of that institution;
and not only so,_but that it is bound to interpose its
shield against all influences from the non-slave-holding
states, having that tendency.

The first thing that strikes the mind, on looking at
this objection, is the magnitude of the claim involved


slavery! And this guaranty is claimed to be part of
a constitution, formed at the close of a seven years war,
waged in defence ot the principle that all men are
created equal! — a guaranty, involving disabilities, and
obligations, on the part of this government, then un-
known to the constitution of any state in the civilized
world!* — a guaranty, which, to become effectual, must
shut up the fountains of thought — command men not
to reason — disperse their peaceable assemblies — seal
their.lips — seize their pens — manacle their presses, and
shut out their prayers from the ears of their representa-
tives in the halls of legislation!

What a guaranty! Where is it to be found? We-
are told it is a constitutional guaranty. It should, then,
be found in the constitution; not in obscure intima-
tions — not in far-fetched, labored constructions; but in
clear, distinct, and well defined stipulations. Where
are they?

Other limitations on the power of congress, and
guaranties in favor of particular rights, are clearly
stated. The first article of amendment prohibits con-
gress from making any religious establishment — from
restraining the people in the free exercise of their reli-
gion, and from abridging the freedom of speech and
the press, and the right to assemble and petition for a
redress of grievances. There are, also, in the subse-
quent amendments, numerous other restrictions in fa-
vor of the rights of the people. Why was the guaranty
in favor of slavery, now relied on, omitted? Let it not
be said that it is contained in that amendment which
prohibits the taking of "private property for public use
without compensation." Nobody thought of that as
applicable to the case of slavery: for, in the first place,
the constitution no where speaks of slaves under the
denomination of u private property,'" but as "jxrsons
held to service;" and in the next place, abolition does
not take them as "private property for public use," as it
would, if it drove them from private plantations to pub-
lic works; but it takes from the usurpations of slavery
the protection of law, and restores to men their "private
property" in themselves.

,The power to abolish slavery was never more fully
understood to be within the competency of legislation,
than at the time the constitution was formed ; and no
body had ever heard abolition spoken of as the ""taking
of private property for public use." Why, then, if it was
intended to restrain congress from abolishing slavery,
in the exercise of its otherwise unlimited power of le-
gislation for this district, was not the restriction made
in terms natural and appropriate to such a purpose?
So, too, the freedom of speech and of the press was
never more fully exercised against slavery than at that

*At the time of the adoption of the federal con-
stitution, there was not a state in the union whose
constitution prohibited the abolition of slavery by the
legislature. Since that time, in the progress of improve-
ment, such a prohibition has been introduced into the
constitutions of the following states, namely: of Geor-
gia, in 1798; Kentucky, in 1799; Mississippi, in 1817;
Alabama, in 1819; and Arkansas, in 1836.

time; and why was notthe"anti-slavery exercise of that
freedom excepted from the solemn guarantee of it in
the article of amendment to which I have alluded?

Mr. Speaker: there is no wonder that the constitu-
tion contains no trace of the pretended guaranty in
favor of slavery. It would present one of the greatest
absurdities upon the face of the earth. What greater
absurdity could there be _ than a Union composed of
states having free constitutions, every o?ie of which guar-
antees freedom of speech and of the press — with a pro-
hibition of the free interchange of thought and feeling
between its members, incorporated, in the very law of
its creation! — a prohibition rendering the members of
the confederacy, in fact, more foreign to each other,
than either of them are to the nations of another he-
misphere! What a Union! Sir, the statesmen of '87
never dreamed of such a union. The conception did
not enter the mind of one of them.

But, Mr. Speaker, we are told that the constitution
was founded in a spirit of concession and compromise
in regard to slavery, and that there was in this a sort of
guaranty to the South against any legislation on the sub-
ject for this district, and any discussion of it by the peo-
ple of the non-slave holding states. I know, sir, there
was concession and compromise in the formation of
the constitution; and I know who have the benefits of
therm They are the slave holding states. Under the
constitution, they enjoy — what they had not without it,
and what they will loose if they give it up — the right to
reclaim, within the free states, their fugitive slaves; and
also the right to claim the power of the union to protect
them from "domestic violence.'' They obtained also
in the '"compromise," a right to have three-fifths of their
slave property included in the basis of representation.

Now, sir, are not these concessions — with the exclu-
sive power retained by the slave states over the subject
of slavery within their limits — enough, in all good con-
science, to be made in favor of slavery? Must the spi-
rit in which they were made be urged as the founda-
tion of a claim for still further concessions? — conces-
sions, in fact, that were not even suggested when the
constitution was formed? Who then asked that the
freedom of Speech, and of the Press, and of the Post
Office should be abridged in favor of slavery! No body.
Such a proposition would have been responded to by a
NO that would have reverberated from one end of the
continent to the other. And yet we are now called on
to yield all this — to sacrifice, moreover, the right of the
people to petition, and surrender our own right to ban-
ish slavery and the slave trade from this Capital of the
republic — all in the spirit of concession and compro-
mise which formed the constitution!

Mr. Speaker: this claim of "concession and com-
promise" will never stop, till it has made slaves of us
all. It demands every thing, and gives nothing. It
cannot defend slavery, and therefore demands that
nobody shall assail it! Concession truly! Sir, I yield to
none in my desire for peace and harmony : but they
may be purchased at too dear a rate. In this case, the
demand is too exorbitant — theprice too great. I cannot
pay it. My constituents cannot. The north cannot —
it ought not — it will not.

While considering the extraordinary claim that con-
gress shall not exercise one of its most obvious powers
— that of abolishing slavery in this district — because it
may weaken the institution of slavery, and countenance
its abolition elsewhere, I have been struck with the
ground taken by Mr. Madison, in the debate in the
congress of 1789, to which I have referred. That de-
bate, it will be remembered, was upon a memorial of
Dr. Franklin, president of the abolition society of Penn-
sylvania, praying, among other things, that congress
would "step to the verge of the power vested" in it,
for discouraging the traffic in slaves. Mr. Madison "ad-
mitted (says the report of that debate) that congress
is restricted by the constitution from taking measures
to abolish the slave trade. Yet there are, (said he,) a
variety of ways by which it could countenance the
abolition; and regulations might be made, in relation to
the introduction of them into the new states to be form-

e,d out of the western territory. He thought the object
well worthy of consideration."

Thus congress, though restrained from abolishing the
foreign slave trade with the states, as it now is, from
abolishing slavery in them, might, nevertheless, accord-
ing to Mr. Madison, "in a variety of ways, countenance
the abolition of the trade."

Apply this to the present case. How would Mr. Ma-
dison reason, if he were here. He would admit, as
we all do, that congress has no power to abolish slave

claims on this government for protection beyond the
strict letter of the constitution: that the spirit of . the
constitution, and of all our constitutions, was against
it; and that, if it took the "pound of flesh,'' it must
take it by the letter of the bond. Regarding it as a
question in which the dearest rights of human nature
were involved, he was willing, with Franklin, to "step
to the very verge of the power'' vested by the constitu-
tion, to "discountenance" immediately, a trade which
that instrument expressly prohibited congress from

ry in the states, any more than it had to abolish the j abolishing prior to the year 1803. How completely

foreign slave trade in 1739; but he might say, as he then
said— "there are a variety of ways by which it can
countenance the abolition" — such, for example, as the
abolishing of slavery in the District of Columbia, and
the other territories, and prohibiting the slave trade here,
and the commerce in slaves, between the states.

The same ground, substantially, was taken by Mr.
Madison at the previous session of congress, in the dis-
cussion of the bill laying duties on imports. Upon a
proposition made by Mr. Parker, of Virginia to amend
the bill, by inserting a clause, imposing a duty oi ten
dollars on each slave imported, it was urged by Mr.
Jackson, of Georgia, that the operation of such a tax
would be particularly injurious to that state, which very
much needed the importation of slaves. Mr. Madison,
in reply, said:

"The dictates of humanity, the principles of the peo-
ple, the national safety and happiness, and prudent po-
licy require it of us. The constitution has particularly
called our attention to it ; and of all the articles con-
tained in the bill before us, this is one of the last I should
be willing to make a concession upon, so far as I am
at liberty to go, according to the terms of the constitu-
tion, or principles of justice. *',_* * * * It is to be^
hoped that, by expressing a national disapprobation of
this trade, we may destroy it and save ourselves from
reproaches, and our posterity the imbecility ever attend-
ant on a country filled with slaves. I do not wish to
say any thing harsh to the hearing of gentlemen who
entertain different sentiments from me, or different from
those I represent; but if there is any one point in which
it is clearly the policy of this nation, so far as we con-
stitutionally can, to vary the practice obtaining under
so me of trie state governments, it is this. But it is cer-
tain a majority of the states are opposed to this practice;
therefore, upon principle, we ought to discountenance
it, as far as is in our power.''

Here, then, we see the same enlarged and liberal
view taken by Mr. Madison, as in the debate on the
abolition memorials. To refrain from exercising a con-
stitutional right, though it might operate somewhat par-

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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 7 of 8)