Negro and the Nation - G. S. Merriam

The Acts of the Fathers

The revolt of the colonists from British rule was not inspired originally by abstract enthusiasm for the rights of man. It was rather a demand for the chartered rights of British subjects, according to the liberal principles set forth by Locke and Chatham and Burke and Fox; a demand pushed on by the self-asserting strength of communities become too vigorous to endure control from a remote seat of empire, especially when that control was exercised in a harsh and arbitrary spirit. The revolutionary tide was swelled from various sources: by the mob eager to worry a red-coated sentry or to join in a raid under Indian disguise; by men who embodied the common sense and rough energy of the plain people, like Samuel Adams and Thomas Paine; by men of practical statesmanship, like Franklin and Washington, who saw that the time had come when the colonists could best manage their own affairs; and by generous enthusiasts for humanity, like Jefferson and Patrick Henry.

With the minds of thoughtful men thoroughly wakened on the subject of human rights, it was impossible not to reflect on the wrongs of the slaves, incomparably worse than those against which their masters had taken up arms. As the political institutions of the young Federation were remolded, so grave a matter as slavery could not be ignored. Virginia in 1772 voted an address to the King remonstrating against the continuance of the African slave trade. The address was ignored, and Jefferson in the first draft of the Declaration alleged this as one of the wrongs suffered at the hands of the British government, but his colleagues suppressed the clause. In 1778 Virginia forbade the importation of slaves into her ports. The next year Jefferson proposed to the Legislature an elaborate plan for gradual emancipation, but it failed of consideration. Maryland followed Virginia in forbidding the importation of slaves from Africa. Virginia in 1782 passed a law by which manumission of slaves, which before had required special legislative permission, might be given at the will of the master. For the next ten years manumission went on at the rate of 8000 a year. Afterward the law was made more restrictive. Massachusetts adopted in 1780 a constitution and bill of rights, asserting, as the Declaration had done, that all men are born free and have an equal and inalienable right to defend their lives and liberties, to acquire property and to seek and obtain freedom and happiness. A test case was made up to decide the status of a slave, and the Supreme Court ruled that under this clause slavery no longer existed in Massachusetts. Its 6000 negroes were now entitled to the suffrage on the same terms as the whites. The same held good of the free blacks in four other States. In all the States but Massachusetts slavery retained a legal existence, the number ranging in 1790 from 158 in New Hampshire to nearly 4000 in Pennsylvania, over 21,000 in New York, 100,000 in each of the Carolinas, and about 300,000 in Virginia. Ships of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and the Middle States were still busy in bringing negroes from Africa to the South, though there were brave men like Dr. Hopkins at Newport who denounced the traffic in its strongholds.

Jefferson planned nobly for the exclusion of slavery from the whole as yet unorganized domain of the nation, a measure which would have belted the slave States with free territory, and so worked toward universal freedom. The sentiment of the time gave success to half his plan. His proposal in the ordinance of 1784 missed success in the Continental Congress by the vote of a single State. The principle was embodied in the ordinance of 1787 (when Jefferson was abroad as Minister to France), but with its operations limited to the Northwestern territory, the country south of the Ohio being left under the influence of the slave States from which it had been settled.

The young nation crystalized into form in the constitutional convention of 1787, and the ratification of its act by the people. It was indeed, as John Fiske's admirable book names it, "the critical period of American history." To human eyes it was the parting of the ways between disintegration toward anarchy, and the birth of a nation with fairer opportunities and higher ideals than any that had gone before. The work of those forty men in half a year has hardly a parallel. Individually they were the pick and flower of their communities. The circumstances compelled them to keep in such touch with the people of those communities that their action would be ratified. They included men of the broadest theoretical statesmanship, like Madison and Hamilton; men of great practical sense and magnanimity, like Washington and Franklin; and they also included and needed to include the representatives of various local and national interests. They had been schooled by the training of many momentous years, and the emergency brought out the strongest traits of the men and of the people behind them.

A prime necessity was willingness to make mutual concessions, together with good judgment as to where those concessions must stop. Large States against small States, seaport against farm, North against South and East against West, slave society against free society—each must be willing to give as well as to take, or the common cause was lost. The theorists, too, must make their sacrifices; the believers in centralization, the believers in diffusion of power; Madisonians, Hamiltonians, Jeffersonians—all must concede something, or there could be no nation. And between principles of moral right and wrong,—here, too, can there be compromise? Easy to give a sweeping No; but when honest men's ideas of right and wrong fundamentally differ, when personal ideals and social utilities are in seeming contradiction, the answer may be no easy one.

The great difficulty at the outset, as to the relative power in Congress of the large and small States, was settled at last by the happy compromise of making the Senate representative of the States in equality, and the House representative of the whole people alike. But then came the question, Should the representation be based on numbers or on wealth? The decision to count men and not dollars was a momentous one; it told for democracy even more than the framers knew. But now again, Shall this count of men include slaves? Slaves, who have no voice in the government, and are as much the property of their owners as horses and oxen? Yes, the slaves should be counted as men, in the distribution of political power,—so said South Carolina and Georgia. In that demand there disclosed itself what proved to be the most determined and aggressive interest in the convention,—the slavery interest in the two most southern States. Virginia, inspired and led by Washington, Madison, and Mason, was unfriendly to the strengthening of the slave power, and the border and central as well as the eastern States were inclined the same way. But South Carolina and Georgia, united and determined, had this powerful leverage; from the first dispute, their representatives habitually declared that unless their demands were granted their States would not join the Union. Now it had been agreed that the Constitution should only become operative on the assent by popular vote of nine of the thirteen States, and it was plain that at the best there would be great difficulty in getting that number. With two lost in advance the case looked almost hopeless. South Carolina and Georgia saw their advantage, and pushed it with equal resolution and dexterity. The question of representation was settled by a singular compromise: To the free population was to be added in the count three-fifths of the slave population. The slave was, for political purposes, three-fifths a man and two-fifths a chattel. Illogical to grotesqueness, this arrangement—in effect a concession to the most objectionable species of property of a political advantage denied to all other property—yet seemed to the wisest leaders of the convention not too heavy a price for the establishment of the Union. The provision that fugitive slaves should be returned had already been made, apparently with little opposition.

But the price was by no means all paid. When the powers of Congress came to be defined, the extreme South demanded that it be not allowed to forbid the importation of African slaves. With the example of Virginia and Maryland in view, it was clear that the tide was running so strongly against the traffic that Congress was sure to prohibit it unless restrained from doing so. Against such restraint there was strong protest from Virginia and the middle States. "The traffic is infernal," said Mason of Virginia. "To permit it is against every principle of honor and safety," said Dickinson of Delaware. But the two Pinckneys and their colleague said, "Leave us the traffic, or South Carolina and Georgia will not join your Union." The leading members from the northern and New England States actually favored the provision, to conciliate the extreme South. The matter went to a committee of one from each State. There it was discussed along with another question: It had been proposed to restrict Congress from legislating on navigation and kindred subjects except by a two-thirds vote of each House. This went sorely against the commercial North, which was eager to wield the whole power of the government in favor of its shipping interests. Of this power the South was afraid, and how well grounded was the importance each section attached to it was made plain when a generation later the North used its dearly-bought privilege to fashion such tariff laws as drove South Carolina to the verge of revolt. Now in the committee a bargain was struck: The slave trade should be extended till 1800, and in compensation Congress should be allowed to legislate on navigation as on other subjects. The report coming into the convention, South Carolina was still unsatisfied. "Eight more years for the African trade, until 1808," said Pinckney, and Gorham of Massachusetts supported him. Vainly did Madison protest, and Virginia, Delaware, Pennsylvania and New Jersey vote against the whole scheme. The alliance of New England commerce and Carolina slavery triumphed, and the African slave trade was sanctioned for twenty years.

For the compromise on representation it might be pleaded, that by it no license was given to wrong; there was only a concession of disproportionate power to one section, fairly outweighed in the scale of the public good by the establishment of a great political order. But the action on the slave trade was the deliberate sanction for twenty years of man-stealing of the most flagitious sort. It was aimed at the strengthening and perpetuation of an institution which even its champions at that time only defended as a necessary evil. And this action was taken, not after all other means to secure the Union had been exhausted, but as the price which New England was willing to pay for an advantage to her commercial interests.

At a later day, there were those who made it a reproach to the convention, and a condemnation of their whole work, that they imposed no prohibition on slavery as it existed in the States. But if such prohibition was to be attempted, the convention might as well never have met. The whole theory of the occasion was that the States, as individual communities, were to be left substantially as they were; self-governing, except as they intrusted certain definite functions to the general government. When only a single State, and that almost without cost, had abolished slavery within itself, it was out of the question that all of the States should through their common agents decree an act of social virtue wholly beyond what they had individually achieved. Any human State exists only by tolerating in its individual citizens a wide freedom of action, even in matters of ethical quality; and a federated nation must allow its local communities largely to fix their own standard of social conduct. At the point which the American people had reached, the next imperative step of evolution was that they unite themselves in a social organism, such as must allow free play to many divergencies. For the convention to take direct action for the abolition of slavery was beyond the possibilities of the case. It was in making provision for the extension of the evil that it was untrue to its ideal, sacrificed its possibilities, and opened the door for the long domination of a mischievous element.

But the main work of the convention was well and wisely done. Not less fine was the self-control and sagacity with which the people and their leaders debated and finally adopted the new order. Advocates of a stronger government, like Hamilton, and champions of a more popular system, like Samuel Adams and Jefferson, sank their preferences and successfully urged their constituents to accept this as the best available settlement. Slavery played very little part in the popular discussions, and only a few keen observers like Madison read the portents in that quarter. The young nation was swept at once into difficulties and struggles in other directions.

A word, before we follow the history, as to the sentiments of the great leaders in this period. Broadly, they all viewed slavery as a wrong and evil; they looked hopefully for its early extinction; they recognized great difficulties in adapting the negro to conditions of freedom; and they were in general too much absorbed in other and pressing problems to direct much practical effort toward emancipation. Washington's view is nowhere better given than in the casual talk so graphically reported by Bernard. He desired universal liberty, but believed it would only come when the negroes were fit for it; at present they were as unqualified to live without a master's control as children or idiots. Washington's way was to look at facts and to deal with a situation as he found it, and not to try to order the world by general and abstract ideals. He was intensely practical, responsive to each present call of duty, and in his conception of duty taking wider and wider views as he was trained by years and experience. The incident which brought him and Bernard together was characteristic; if any chaise was upset in his neighborhood, trust Washington to have a hand in righting it! The natural reply to his talk about the negroes might have been: "Since you desire their freedom, but think them not fit for it, why not make a business—you and the country—of making them fit?" And the answer fairly might have been: "The country and I have as yet had too much else to do." Besides his public services, he was a planter on the largest scale; thousands of acres and hundreds of slaves had come to him by inheritance and by marriage. He was most thorough and successful in his private affairs; through all his cares in the Revolution, scarcely ever visiting his home, he kept in close touch with his steward and regulated the plantation's management by constant correspondence. He had the reputation of a just but strict master. His slaves were well fed and clothed; they were supported in infancy and old age; they were trained in work according to their capacity, and taught something of morals and religion; in point of physical comfort and security, and of industrial and moral development, they were by no means at the bottom of the scale of humanity. The slave-holder's position, however unjust by an absolute standard, and with great possibilities of abuse, was, in the case of the rightly-disposed man—and such were common—a position which had its grave duties and often onerous burdens to be conscientiously borne.

Hardly was the war ended when the country's needs summoned Washington again to long and arduous service. Retired from the Presidency, his successor called him, not in vain, to head the army which the threatened French war would call into action. Who can blame him that he did not undertake in addition a complete reorganization of the labor system of his own farms and of Virginia? Inconsistent perhaps it was,—a very human inconsistency,—that his slaves, who, he told Bernard, were unfit for freedom, were given their freedom by his will, though not until his wife's death. That we may take as an imperfect essay of conscience to deal with a situation so complicated that no ideal solution was apparent. But we may fairly read as his unspoken legacy to his countrymen of the next generation: "My associates and I have won national independence, social order, and equal rights for our own race; deal you as courageously and strongly with the problems which remain."

Jefferson was an enthusiast for moral ideals, and a warm believer in the merit and trustworthiness of average humanity. He ennobled the struggle of the colonies against England by writing on the flag the universal and undying ideas that the authority of governments rests solely on their justice and public utility, and that every man has an inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And Jefferson did not flinch, as did many of his associates, from giving that right a full and general application to blacks as well as whites. Nor was he a mere doctrinaire. As he revolted from the abstract injustice of slavery, so its concrete abuses as he saw them, filled him with horror. He wrote: "I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just." He described what he had seen. "The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions,—the most unremitting despotism on the one part and degrading submission on the other. Our children see this, and learn to imitate it, for man is an imitative animal. . . . The parent storms, the child looks on, catches the lineaments of wrath, puts on the same airs in the circle of smaller slaves, gives a loose rein to the worst of passions; and thus nursed, educated, and daily exercised in tyranny, cannot but be stamped by it with odious peculiarities."

But Jefferson shared a common belief of his time, that it was futile to hope to "retain and incorporate the blacks into the State." He wrote: "Deep-rooted prejudices of the whites, ten thousand recollections of blacks of injuries sustained, new provocations, the real distinction Nature has made, and many other circumstances, will divide us into parties and produce convulsions which will probably never end but in the extermination of one or the other race." So he looked for a remedy to emancipation followed by deportation. But he hesitated to affirm any essential inferiority in the negro race. He wrote: "The opinion that they are inferior in the faculties of reason and imagination must be hazarded with great diffidence." Later he wrote that "they were gaining daily in the opinions of nations, and hopeful advances are making toward their re-establishment on an equal footing with other colors of the human family."

Jefferson was more than a theorist; he was skillful to persuade men, and to organize and lead a party. His general tendency was "along the line of least resistance,"—the summoning of men to free themselves from oppressive restraint; and he was highly successful until he called on them for severe self-sacrifice, when his supporters were apt suddenly to fail him. Virginia gladly followed his lead in abolishing primogeniture and entail, and overthrowing the Established Church. She even consented, in 1778, to abolish the African slave-trade, being then in little need of more slaves than she possessed. In 1779 he planned a far more radical and costly project—a general emancipation. All slaves born after the passage of the act were to be free; they were to dwell with their parents till a certain age, then to be educated at the public expense in "tillage, arts, or sciences," until the males were twenty-one years old and the females eighteen; then they were to be colonized in some suitable region, furnished with arms, implements, seeds and cattle; declared a free and independent people, under American protection until strong enough to stand alone; and meanwhile their place as laborers was to be filled by whites sent for by vessels to other parts of the world. It is hardly strange that the Legislature did not even take the measure into consideration, and it does not appear that Jefferson ever returned to it. Practical legislation was not his forte. But his influence told nobly, as has been related, in barring slavery from the Northwestern territory, and, had just a little more support been found in 1784, would have saved the Southwest also to freedom, with almost certain promise of result in early freeing of the whole country. Just two or three votes in the Continental Congress,—on such small hinges does the destiny of nations seem to turn.

The inertia which holds men even exceptionally high-minded from breaking strong ties of custom and convenience is shown by a letter of Patrick Henry to a Quaker in 1773, in which he declared slavery "as repugnant to humanity as it is inconsistent with the Bible and destructive of liberty. Every thinking, honest man rejects it as speculation, but how few in practice from conscientious motives! Would any one believe that I am a master of slaves of my own purchase? I am drawn along by the general inconvenience of living without them."

There is no need to dwell further on the anti-slavery sentiments of the group of great leaders who were the glory of the nation. It is to be noted that Franklin took a characteristically active part in aiding to establish an anti-slavery society in Philadelphia in 1782. Shrewd as he was high-minded and benevolent, Franklin was always a special master in organizing men in societies for effective and progressive action. His tact won France to the American alliance, and decisively turned the scale in the Revolutionary war; and his conciliatory yet resolute spirit was a main factor in the constitutional convention. This Pennsylvania anti-slavery society led the way to the early adoption by the State of gradual emancipation. Franklin, an optimist by temperament and by his large faith in mankind, looked confidently for the early end of slavery; as fast as men ripened into honesty and sense, he thought, they would recognize the folly and wrong of it.

Looking from the leaders to the mass of the community, in this early period, we see these broad facts. Slavery was regarded by all as an evil, and by most as a wrong. Even its champions in the convention claimed no more for it than that it was a necessary evil; one of the Pinckneys expressed the hope of its extinction at an early day, and the other Pinckney dissented only in thinking this too sanguine. Further, there was a distinct wave of anti-slavery sentiment, sympathetic with the lofty temper of the Revolution and the genesis of a free nation. That wave was strong enough to wipe out slavery where its economic hold was slight; it was plainly destined to sweep at least through all the Northern and Middle States, and hope was high that it might go farther. But this moral enthusiasm broke helpless against the institution wherever a strong property interest was involved with it. Manumission in the South went no further than a few individuals. Virginia and Maryland, needing no more slaves, ceased importing them; but South Carolina and Georgia bargained successfully for a twenty years' supply. Massachusetts, having almost inadvertently freed her few slaves, was willing that the stream of misery should still flow on from Africa to the South. In a word, so far as the negroes were concerned, the supposed material interest of the whites remained the dominating factor throughout the country.