We learn from History that we never learn anything from history. — G. W. F. Hegel

Negro and the Nation - G. S. Merriam




Birney, Channing, and Webster

Of the moderate wing of the anti-slavery men, a good representative was James G. Birney. With the fine physical presence and genial manhood of the typical Kentuckian, he had a well-balanced mind and a thorough loyalty to the sense of duty, which broadened as he grew. Removing to Alabama, he became anti-slavery in his sentiments, and he was a friend not only of the negro, but of all who were oppressed. As the legal representative of the Cherokee nation he stood for years between the Indians and those who would wrong them. He identified himself for a time with the colonization cause; and, finding himself growing powerless in Southern communities, he removed to Ohio, where there was a strong and vigorous anti-slavery propaganda. One incident of his life in Cincinnati illustrates the concrete form which slavery sometimes took. A Missourian owned a slave girl who was his own daughter, a cultivated and refined woman. He took her to the East for a visit, treated her habitually as one of his own family, but refused her prayers for freedom. Dreading the possibilities of her lot, she made her escape in Cincinnati; and, concealing her identity and history, she got a situation as a servant in Mr. Birney's family. One day when he was absent from the city she came home in terror; she had been recognized on the street by two professional slave-catchers; now she told her story and implored protection. In vain,—the officers of the law dragged her from the house; a judge gave speedy sentence that she was a slave; she was taken sobbing to jail; and the next day she was carried down the river to New Orleans, where she was sold on the auction block,—and never heard of again.

Birney took part in the work of the new anti-slavery societies, but he did not follow Garrison's no-government theories. He favored for a while the policy of throwing the anti-slavery strength for such congressional nominees of the regular parties as favored their views, and several candidates were chosen in this way. But when Clay became pronounced against the Abolitionists, and even John Quincy Adams, after championing the right of petition, voted against the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia, Birney and his sympathizers gave up hope of help from existing parties, and organized their own party for the election of 1840. Its principles were resistance to slavery extension, and opposition to slavery so far as was practicable under the Constitution,—the principles later of the Republican party. Birney was nominated for President, and this handful of voters was the seed of the harvest twenty years later. He was again the candidate in 1844, with an increased support, and the party now was named "The Liberty Party."

A leader and type of the moderate anti-slavery sentiment was William Ellery Channing. In Channing was a blending of high moral ideals, intelligent views of human nature and society, an apostle's earnestness wedded with "sweet reasonableness," and a personal character of rare symmetry and beauty. He was an evolutionist and not a revolutionist. Foremost among the group of New England ministers who broadened and ripened out of the orthodoxy of their day, and were ostracized by their former brethren, he was forced into the position of leader of a new sect, but his utterances and spirit were always those of a minister of the church universal. He was the early advocate of most of the religious and social reforms which have since come to the front. By preference, he always used the methods of peace and persuasion. He had made early acquaintance with slavery in a two-years' residence in Richmond while a young man. He was always opposed to it, but his attention was long absorbed by the immediate needs of his own people. He spent half a year in Santa Cruz, for his health, in 1830-1,—just when Garrison was starting the Liberator,—and slavery came home to him with new force. The plantation on which he lived was one of the best in the West Indies. The proprietor had taken a pride in the character and condition of his slaves. But he had fallen into bankruptcy, his estate had been sold, and the new proprietor left it in charge of an overseer who was a passionate and licentious man, under whom the slaves suffered a very different treatment. Most pathetic incidents came under Dr. Channing's notice. But from all he saw about him he concluded that the physical sufferings of the slaves had been exaggerated by report; that, with occasional cruelties, they were better off as to physical comfort than most of the European peasantry. He writes to an English correspondent, "I suspect that a gang of negroes receive fewer stripes than a company of soldiers of the same number in your army"; that they are under a less iron discipline and suffer incomparably less than soldiers in a campaign. But he adds, and always insists, that their condition degrades them intellectually and morally, lowers them toward the brutes, and in this respect the misery of slavery cannot be expressed too strongly. Marriage is almost unknown; family life, with its mutual dependence and the resulting tenderness, scarcely exists; and thus "the poor negro is excluded from Nature's primary school for the affections and the whole character." "The like causes are fatal to energy, foresight, self-control."

The inspiration of Channing's creed, the soul of the new movement in religion, was the potential nobility of human nature—a nobility to be made real by utmost effort of the individual, and by all wisest appliances of society. It was from this standpoint that he judged slavery, and in this spirit that while still in Santa Cruz he began to write his treatise upon it.

Returning to Boston, he spoke with clearness and weight to his congregation: "I think no power of conception can do justice to the evils of slavery. They are chiefly moral, they act on the mind, and through the mind bring intense suffering to the body. As far as the human soul can be destroyed, slavery is that destroyer." Having borne his testimony, he devoted himself to the general work of his ministry. The violence of the men who had come to the front in Abolitionism was not only against his taste and feeling, but against his deep convictions; as he had written years before to Webster, he saw in these denunciations of the slave-holder seeds of a harvest of sectional hate and national disaster.

A characteristic conversation with him is recorded by Rev. Samuel J. May, himself in full alliance with the Abolitionists, but a man of great sweetness and sanity, never diverted from his religious ministry or losing his mental balance. Dr. Channing dwelt on the excesses of the Abolitionists until Mr. May was aroused, and broke out: "Dr. Channing, I am tired of these complaints! The cause of suffering humanity, the cause of our oppressed, crushed, colored countrymen, has called as loudly upon others as upon us, who are known as the Abolitionists. But the others have done nothing. The wise and prudent saw the wrong, but did nothing to remove it. The priest and Levite passed by on the other side; the children of Abraham held their peace, until 'the very stones have cried out' against this tremendous wickedness. The people who have taken up the cause may lack the calmness and discretion of scholars, clergy, and statesmen,—but the scholars, clergy, and statesmen, have done nothing. We Abolitionists are just what we are,—babes and sucklings, obscure men, silly women, publicans, sinners; and we shall manage the matter we have taken in hand just as might be expected of such persons as we are. It is unbecoming in able men, who stood by and would do nothing, to complain of us because we manage this matter no better."

And so the torrent of words dashed upon the silent listener, until the speaker suddenly bethought himself and stopped in abashment,—this man he was rebuking had been to him as a father in God, his kind friend from childhood, and first among the great and good. Almost overwhelmed by his own temerity, he watched the agitated face of his hearer and waited in painful suspense for the reply. At last, in a very subdued manner and in his kindest tones of voice, he said, "Brother May, I acknowledge the justice of your reproof; I have been silent too long."

May's appeal had only quickened a little the sure work of Channing's conscience. A few months later, in December, 1835, he published his short treatise on Slavery. No weightier word on the subject was ever spoken. If mankind were moved by their higher reason the North would not have waited twenty years to be converted to anti-slavery by Uncle Tom's Cabin. And if the South had been wise in her day, she would have listened to this noble and persuasive utterance. No passion sullied its temper; slave and slave-holder were held in equal regard; the case was pleaded on irresistible grounds—of facts beyond question and rooted in the very constitution of human nature. The needed, the righteous, the inevitable reform, was shown as part of the upward movement of humanity, and as appealing to every consideration of practical wisdom and of justice. The little book of 150 pages deserves to be held as a classic in American history.

Channing never lost the sense of proportion in his own work. He went on giving inspiration and leadership to religious thought and to social advance. It was neither necessary nor possible for him to be in close sympathy or habitual alliance with the extreme Abolitionists. But he vindicated the right of free speech when it was denied them, and he was recognized by the best of their number as a friend of the cause. Mrs. Lydia Maria Child,—like Mr. May, one of the finest spirits among the Abolitionists—wrote: "He constantly grew upon my respect, until I came to regard him as the wisest as well as the gentlest apostle of humanity. I owe him thanks for preserving me from the one-sidedness to which zealous reformers are so apt to run. He never sought to undervalue the importance of anti-slavery, but he said many things to prevent me from looking upon it as the only question interesting to humanity."

Side by side with the anti-slavery sentiment was growing another sentiment—distinct from it, at first often in practical hostility to it, but at last blending with it for a common triumph. It was the sentiment of American nationality—the love of the Union. The separate colonies were brought together in the Revolution by a common peril and a common struggle. Then their tendency to fall apart was counteracted by the strong bond of the Constitution and the Federal government. Diverse interests and mutual distrust still tended to draw them asunder. With the continuance of the Union, the strengthening of the tie by use, the hallowing of old associations under the glamour of memory, and the growth of the new bonds of commerce and travel, the sense of a common country and destiny began to take root in the hearts of men, and on occasion disclosed itself with the strength and nobility of a heroic passion. True, a new rift was appearing, in the doctrine of nullification and the question of slavery, but this evoked at times a more militant and again a more appealing aspect in the sentiment of union. Jackson seemed to rise from the rough frontiersman to the guardian of the nation when he gave the word, "The Federal Union—it must be preserved!" Clay found the noblest exercise of his eloquence and his diplomacy in evoking the national spirit and in harmonizing the differences which threatened it. But the most stirring voice and effective leadership was that of Daniel Webster.

As Webster is judged in the retrospect, we see that he was not so much a statesman, still less a moral idealist, as an advocate. His lucidity of statement and emotional power were not matched by constructive ability. His name is associated with no great measure of administration, no large and definite policy. He was luminous in statement rather than sagacious in judgment, an advocate rather than a judge. On the platform or in the Senate he was still pre-eminently the lawyer, in that, like a lawyer, he was the representative and exponent of established interests,—not the projector of new social adjustments. Civil law represents a vast accumulated experience and tradition of mankind; it has been slowly wrought out, as a regulation and adjustment of existing interests; with an effort toward equity, as understood by the best intelligence of each period, but always with immense regard for precedent and previous usage. It was in this spirit, highly conservative of what has already been secured, and extremely cautious toward radical change, that Webster habitually dealt with political institutions. It was characteristic of him that in the Massachusetts constitutional convention in 1820 he pleaded strongly for the retention of the property qualification of voters for State senators. But when the tide moved irresistibly toward manhood suffrage, he acquiesced.

But conservative as he was by nature, he was in profound sympathy with a sentiment which while rooted in the past was yet in the '20s and '30s a young, plastic, growing idea,—the idea of American Union, indissoluble, perpetual. No voice was so powerful as Webster's to fill the minds and hearts of man with this lofty passion. His orations at Plymouth Rock, at Bunker Hill, and upon the simultaneous deaths of Adams and Jefferson, his vindication of the national idea against the localism of Hayne and Calhoun,—were organ-voices of patriotism. They thrilled the souls of those who listened; they went over the country and printed themselves on the minds of men; school-boys declaimed passages from them; they became part of the gospel of the American people.

We may quote a single passage from the address inspired by that dramatic circumstance, the death at once of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, on the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence: "It cannot be denied, but by those who would dispute against the sun, that with America and in America a new era commences in human affairs. This era is distinguished by free representative governments, by entire religious liberty, by improved systems of national intercourse, by a newly awakened and an unconquerable spirit of free inquiry, and by a diffusion of knowledge through the community, such as has been before altogether unknown and unheard of. America, America, our country, fellow-countrymen, our own dear and native land, is inseparably connected, fast bound up, in fortune and by fate, with these great interests. If they fall, we fall with them; if they stand, it will be because we have maintained them. . . . If we cherish the virtues and the principles of our fathers, heaven will assist us to carry on the work of human liberty and human happiness. Auspicious omens cheer us. Great examples are before us. Our own firmament now shines brightly upon our paths. Washington is in the upper sky. These other stars have now joined the American constellation; they circle round their center, and the heavens beam with new light. Beneath this illumination let us walk the course of life, and at its close devoutly commend our beloved country, the common parent of us all, to the Divine Benignity."