Negro and the Nation - G. S. Merriam

Calhoun and Garrison

Thus, with the beginning of the second third of the nineteenth century, the issue as to American slavery was distinctly drawn, and the leading parties to it had taken their positions. Let us try to understand the motive and spirit of each.

In the new phase of affairs, the chief feature was the changed attitude of the South. In the sentiment of its leading and representative men, there had been three stages: first, "slavery is an evil, and we will soon get rid of it"; next, "slavery is an evil, but we do not know how to get rid of it"; now it became "slavery is good and right, and we will maintain it." To this ground the South came with surprising suddenness in the years immediately following 1833. What caused the change? The favorite Southern explanation has been that the violence of the Abolitionists exasperated the South, checked its drift toward emancipation, and provoked it in self-defense to justify and extend its system. This may be effective as a criticism of the extreme Abolitionists, but as regards the South it is rather a confession than a defense. On a subject involving its whole prosperity, its essential character, its relation to the world's civilization, did it reverse its course at the bitter words of a few critics? If that were true, it would bespeak passionate irritability, an incapacity for the healthy give-and-take of practical life, in keeping with the worst that could be said of the effect of slavery on the master. In truth the violence of Garrison and his few followers was but a minor element in the case. Slavery had become immensely profitable; it was the corner-stone of a social fabric in which the upper class had an extremely comfortable place; it was involved with the whole social and political life of the section. It was too important to be dealt with half-heartedly: it must be accepted, justified, believed in,—or it must be abandoned. John Randolph of Roanoke had said of slavery: "We are holding a wolf by the ears; it is perilous alike to hold on or to let go." But one or the other must be done, and the South elected to keep on holding the wolf.

The better to understand the developments of the following years, it will be well to consider a group of representative men,—Calhoun, Garrison, Birney, Channing, and Webster.

Calhoun had many of the elements of high statesmanship—clear views, strong convictions, forcible speech. He was ambitious, but in no ignoble fashion; he often served his country well, as in his efficient administration of the war department under Munroe, his protest against the spoils system and the personal government of Jackson, and his influence in averting war with England over the Oregon boundary in 1845-46. After the Presidency was clearly out of his reach—from 1832—he was growingly identified with and devoted to the interests of his own section, yet always with a patriotic regard for the Union as a whole. He had that fondness for theories and abstractions which was characteristic of the Southern statesmen, fostered perhaps by the isolated life of the plantation. With this went a kind of provincialism of thought, bred from the wide difference which slavery made from the life of the world at large. When Calhoun, in one of his Senate orations was magnifying the advantage of slave over free labor, Wade of Ohio, who sat listening intently, turned to a neighbor and exclaimed: "That man lives off of all traveled roads!" He had neither the arts nor the magnetism of the popular politician; he won no such personal following as Clay and Jackson; but the South more and more accepted him as the most logical and far-seeing champion of its peculiar interests.

His personality had much in common with Jonathan Edwards. There was in both the same inflexible logic and devotion to ideas, the same personal purity and austerity. The place of the mystic's fire which burned in Edwards was taken in Calhoun by a passionate devotion to the commonwealth. In both there was a certain moral callousness which made the one view with complacence a universe including a perpetual hell of unspeakable torments; while the other accepted as the ideal society a system in which the lowest class was permanently debased. Each was the champion of a cause destined to defeat because condemned by the moral sentiment of the world,—Edwards the advocate of Calvinism, and Calhoun of slavery.

Calhoun is to be regarded as a typical slave-holder of the better class. He owned and cultivated a plantation with several hundred slaves; spent much time upon it; made it profitable, and dispensed a generous hospitality. Such a plantation was a little community, organized and administered with no small labor and skill; with house servants, often holding a friendly and intimate relation with the family; with a few trained mechanics and a multitude of field hands. As to physical comfort the slaves were probably as well or better provided than the bulk of European peasantry,—this on the testimony of witnesses as unfriendly to slavery as Fanny Kemble and Dr. Channing. Order and some degree of morality were enforced, and religion, largely of the emotional type, prevailed widely. So much may be said, perhaps, for the average plantation, certainly for the better class, and a very large class. Joseph Le Conte, the eminent scientist, a writer of the highest credit, in his pleasing autobiography describes his boyhood on a Georgia plantation, and characterizes his father as a man of rare excellence to whom he owed the best of his mental inheritance. He writes of him: "The best qualities of character were constantly exercised in the just, wise, and kindly management of his 200 slaves. The negroes were strongly attached to him, and proud of calling him master. . . . There never was a more orderly, nor apparently a happier working class than the negroes of Liberty county as I knew them in my boyhood."

Against this description are to be set such statements as this made by Frederick Law Olmsted, after many months of travel in the South: "The field hand negro is on an average a very poor and a very bad creature, much worse than I had supposed before I had seen him and grown familiar with his stupidity, indolence, duplicity, and sensuality. He seems to be but an imperfect man, incapable of taking care of himself in a civilized manner, and his presence in large numbers must be considered a dangerous circumstance to a civilized people." Olmsted saw no resource but gradual emancipation with suitable training. A resident of this same Liberty county, Rev. C. C. Jones, himself a staunch supporter of slavery, but urgent for giving better religious instruction to the slaves, wrote in 1842; "That the negroes are in a degraded state is a fact, so far as my knowledge extends, universally conceded. . . . Negro marriages are neither recognized nor protected by law. Uncleanness—this sin may be considered as universal. . . . They are proverbial thieves." But how could "religious instruction" produce chastity in those for whom the law did not recognize marriage, or honesty in those who themselves were stolen?

But the bright side of the medal, which had so dark an obverse, was the interpretation on which Calhoun and the slave-holding class took their stand. They resolutely ignored the frequent abuses and the essential degradation of manhood. They fashioned the theory—it was the old familiar theory of past ages, but had fallen out of sight in the enthusiasm of the revolutionary period—that society rightly and properly is constituted with a servile class as its base. Calhoun declared: "I hold that there never has yet existed a wealthy and civilized society in which one portion of the community did not, in point of fact, live on the labor of the other." And generally, he adds, the condition of the laborer has been worse than it now is in the South. In advance of civilization, he declares, there always comes a conflict between capital and labor; and this conflict the South avoids by unflinchingly holding the laborer in his subject condition.

Calhoun is dead, and slavery is dead, but the ideas he then avowed are still powerfully, if more latently, asserting themselves in our social order.

For these theories the slave-holders now found justification from the ministers of religion. The South held more tenaciously than any other section to the old-fashioned type of Christianity. In earlier days, religious teachers—as in the unanimous vote of the Presbyterian General Assembly in 1818—had held slavery to be "utterly inconsistent with the law of God, which requires us to love our neighbor as ourselves." But now the Southern ministers of all denominations appealed for ample justification to slavery as it was permitted under the Jewish law, and as it existed in the time of Christ and the Apostles, and was unrebuked by them. They went further back, and in the curse pronounced by Noah upon the unfilial Ham and his posterity, they found warrant for holding the African in perpetual bondage. So the South closed up its ranks, in Church and State, and answered its critics with self-justification, and with counterattack on what it declared to be their unconstitutional, anarchic, and infidel teachings.

The agitation against slavery took on a new phase with the appearance of Garrison and his founding of the Liberator and the New England Anti-slavery Society in 1831. Garrison was filled and possessed with one idea—the wrongs of the slave, and the instant, pressing, universal duty of giving him freedom. It was in him an unselfish and heroic passion. For it he cheerfully accepted hardship, obloquy, peril. He saw no difficulties except in the sin of wrongdoers and their allies; the only course he admitted was immediate emancipation by the master of his human property, and the instant co?peration and urgency of all others to this end. His words were charged with passion; they kindled sympathetic souls with their own flame; they roused to a like heat those whom they assailed; and they sent thrills of alarm, wonder, and wrath, through the community. Wherever the Liberator went, or the lecturers of the new anti-slavery societies were heard, there could be no indifference or forgetfulness as to slavery. Hitherto, to the immense mass of people throughout the North, it had been a far-away and unimportant matter. Now it was sent home to the business and bosoms of all men.

The anti-slavery movement changed its character. Garrison entered on a very active campaign, lecturing and establishing local societies. Prominent among his assistants was George Thompson, one of the English Abolitionists, who, after the emancipation of the West India slaves by the British government at a cost of ?20,000,000, came to this country and acted as Garrison's ally, winning some converts by his eloquence, but heightening the unpopularity of the movement through the general hostility to foreign interference. The early societies had been largely in the border States, and their efforts had an immediate object in the political action of their own communities. Now, the resentment and fear of the slave-holding interest soon drove them out of those communities. They spread faster than ever,—in a few years it was said that they were 1300,—but were confined to the free States. What immediate and practical aim could they pursue? It was the question of practical action that brought Garrison's views to a sharp test, and soon divided him from the great body of anti-slavery people.

In Garrison's mind there was room for only one idea at a time. Slavery was a crime, a sin, an abomination,—that to him was the first, the last, the whole truth of the matter. He had little education, and he had not in the least a judicial or an open mind. It was to him clear and certain that the blacks were in every way the equal of the whites. Of the complexity of human society; of the vital necessity of a political bond uniting communities, and of the inevitable imperfections and compromises which are the price of an established social order; of the process of evolution by which humanity slowly grows from one stage into another; of the fact that the negro was in some ways better as a slave in America than as a savage in Africa, and that there must be other intermediate stages in his development; of the consideration due to honest differences of opinion and to deeply-rooted habits—of all this Garrison was as ignorant as a six-years-old child. When facts came in his way, he denied them; when institutions stood across his path, he denounced them; when men differed from him, he assailed them.

As to a practical course of action by Northern people, he was absolutely without resource. How were they to free the slaves? Not by force—force was to Garrison as wicked as slavery itself. By their votes? That was only possible under the government as ordained by the Constitution; and the Constitution allowed no action against slavery except by each State for itself. The worse then for the Constitution! Ere many years Garrison declared, and put as a standing heading to the Liberator: "The United States Constitution Is a Covenant with Death and an Agreement with Hell." He went further; for a time at least he held that all human governments, as resting on force, were sinful, and to be ignored, or passively submitted to, without taking active part. He declared the Union, as a compact with slave-holders, was worthy only to be dissolved. But how even dissolve it, since he counselled his followers not to vote? And if it were dissolved, how would the slaves be any nearer freedom? Was there any possible good outcome to non-voting and dissolution of the Union, except that there would then be no complicity with slave-holders? And would such escape from complicity be any help to the slave, any service to humanity, anything more than an egotistic separation from political society, a mere refined selfishness?

Such questions never troubled Garrison. Instead of answering them, he found something else to denounce. The churches he thought were derelict, in that they did not bear testimony against slavery. True, most of the great religious bodies of the country were soon rent asunder on the question: Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, were divided between North and South, because neither side could tolerate the other's position on slavery. But nothing satisfied Mr. Garrison. To him the churches were "cages of unclean birds and synagogues of Satan."

But if the gun was ill-aimed, at least the recoil was prodigious. It is unreasonable to attribute principally to the violence of the Liberator the new and determined rally of the South in defense of slavery,—Calhoun and his followers had far wider grounds for their action than that,—but undoubtedly that violence helped to consolidate and intensify the Southern resistance. The Abolitionist papers were at first sent all over the South. The Southerners saw little difference between such papers as the Liberator and such direct incitements to insurrection as Walker's Appeal; and the horrors of Nat Turner's rising were fresh in mind. They put all Abolitionist teaching under a common ban. At the North, the anti-slavery cause became associated in the popular mind with hostility to the government, to the churches, to the established usages of society. It was Charles Sumner who said: "An omnibus load of Boston Abolitionists had done more harm to the anti-slavery cause than all its enemies."

Garrison's own following was soon divided, and a large part drew away from him. The most important division came on the question of political action, when, in the Presidential election of 1840, the practical wing entered into the political field, as the inevitable and only arena for effective action; nominated a candidate, and laid the foundation for the election of Lincoln twenty years later. In the American Anti-slavery Society there came a contest; Garrison triumphed by a narrow vote, but a secession followed. Of his immediate and permanent allies the most important was Wendell Phillips. He threw himself heart and soul into the cause; he gave to it an educated and brilliant mind, and a fascinating oratory; he was as uncompromising and censorious as Garrison.

Garrison always held a place of honor and friendship among the Abolitionists, even those who refused to follow his leadership. In private life his genial and winning traits were as marked as was his fierceness on the platform. The term "Abolitionist" is somewhat indefinite, but it may best be defined as denoting a person to whom the supreme interest in public affairs was the extinction of slavery. It included not only those who shared Garrison's ideas of non-voting and peaceable disunion, but those, too, like Birney and Whittier, who respected the Constitution and worked for their cause through a political party. The term also applied to the few who, like John Brown, would attack slavery by force of arms. On the other hand, the name Abolitionist did not properly belong to those who were opposed to slavery, but held that opposition along with other political tenets and not as a supreme article of faith. These were best included under the general term of "anti-slavery men," a designation accepted by many of the Free Soil, Whig and Democratic parties, and later by the Republican party. The classification cannot be made exact, but the word "Abolitionists" generally designated the men and women to whom the extinction of slavery was a primary interest, and who gave to it their habitual and earnest attention, through the anti-slavery societies and otherwise. In this broader sense, the Abolitionists were a notable company. They were bound together by a disinterested and noble sentiment, and by sacrifices to the cause. The hostility aroused by Garrison, Phillips, Pilsbury, and a few like-minded associates, extended to many who went to no such extremes. The anti-slavery speakers were sometimes mobbed: once in Boston a rope was round Garrison's neck and his life was in peril; meetings were broken up; and the respectable part of the community sometimes encouraged or tolerated these assaults. Actual physical injury was very rare, but a hostile social atmosphere was the frequent price of fidelity to conscience.

Among the most notable of the leaders was Gerritt Smith. He took active part in politics, and was for a time in Congress. He is finely characterized by Andrew D. White:

"Of all tribunes of the people I have ever known he dwells in my memory as possessing the greatest variety of gifts. He had the prestige given by great wealth, by lavish generosity, by transparent honesty, by earnestness of purpose, by advocacy of every good cause, by a superb presence, and by natural eloquence of a very high order. He was very tall and large, with a noble head, an earnest yet kindly face, and of all human voices I have ever heard his was the most remarkable for its richness, depth, and strength."

Women took a prominent and honorable part; the venerable and beautiful Lucretia Mott gave her benign presence to the gatherings; Lydia Maria Child made heavy sacrifices in the good cause. In the common ardor, and with a Quaker precedent, women took part as speakers. Women's rights was closely united with anti-slavery; and hence came a fresh odium from conservative quarters, while the admirable bearing of the leading women won growing favor for both lines of emancipation. The makers of the new American literature were friends of the anti-slavery cause. Emerson gave to it his words of serene inspiration. Whittier was among its ardent apostles, shared in its political activity, and sang lyrics of freedom. Bryant was its strong advocate in journalism. Lowell, drawn by his noble wife, came as a strong ally, and the Biglow Papers gave what had been greatly lacking,—the salt of humor.

The Abolitionists might be compared to a comet,—a body with a bright head and a nebulous tail. Like all radicals and reformers they had a fringe of unbalanced and crotchety folk. It must be said, too, that absorption in a topic remote from the concerns of one's daily life is apt to be somewhat distracting and demoralizing. Dr. Joseph Henry Allen—an admirable and too little known writer—has in an eloquent and beautiful passage described the Abolitionists (though he was not one of them) as the devotees of a genuine and heroic religion. But any adequate religion must find its main application in the duties and services of the immediate present; and the men and women who were possessed day and night by the wrongs of those to whom they could render little service, were apt to be thrown out of touch with near and homely relations, and become what are now called "cranks."

But to appreciate the service of the Abolitionists we must remember that up to the birth of the Republican party in 1854 almost all of the political leaders and men of public affairs, as well as most of the churches, colleges, and professional educators, held aloof from the anti-slavery cause. With a few exceptions, they left the work of educating public sentiment, and shaping some policy on the supreme question, to be done by this little company,—of lecturers, ministers, literary men and women. These did loyally and bravely according to their lights; and they had their reward, outwardly in unpopularity and sometimes persecution, but inwardly in a social atmosphere within their own body, warm, joyful, and religious; and the sense of alliance with the Divine Force in the universe. Said Wendell Phillips: "One man with God is a majority."