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Lecture VI: the abstract principle of slavery discussed on Scripture grounds, and misrepresentations of the principle examined.

  • The true subjective right of self-control defined according to the Scriptures
  • -- the abstract principle of slavery sanctioned by the Scriptures -- the Roman government -- Dr. Wayland's Scripture argument examined and refuted -- the positions of Dr. Channing and Prof. Whewell examined and refuted.

the inquiry, if the institution of domestic slavery existing amongst us agrees in its details with the teachings of the Holy Scriptures, is reserved for a future lecture. We now inquire how far it agrees with the Holy Scriptures in its great fundamental principles?--the abstract principles which, thus far, have been shown to be right.

We, of course, acknowledge the full authority of the Scriptures. Although not a formal philosophical treatise, the Bible embodies no other than the profoundest principles both of mental and moral science; and all its teachings are in accordance [133] with them. “To the law,” then, “and to the testimony.” Do they sanction the principles I have sought to establish? Do they accord to man any other subjective right of self-control than simply the right to do that which in itself is right--that is, good? True, they assume that he has the power to do wrong, but at the same time they deny to him all right to do wrong. All those scriptures which forbid his doing wrong, and enjoin it upon him to do right, under severe penalties for disobedience, are in proof. They are too numerous and familiar to require that I quote them. They all assume that he has power to do either right or wrong, but only a right to do that which is right. Whoever, then, sets up a right to do a thing, and can give no better reason for it than that he has power to do it in virtue of his humanity, and that therefore others should not interpose obstacles in the way of his doing it; on peril of abridging him of a natural right, assumes far more than the Scriptures allow him; nay, he assumes that which is forbidden him in Holy Scripture, no less than in reason and common sense; and if allowed to exercise such lawless power, under the plea of natural right, he could not fail to put an end to all law, and to precipitate society into a state of anarchy. Therefore, the government which places minors, aliens, and [134] citizens, who at the same time allow themselves to be subjects of a foreign prince, together with uncivilized persons, in circumstances in which they cannot, or are not likely, to injure their neighbors, or to injure society, does not, for that reason, deprive them of a natural right, unless it could be shown that they have a natural right to do the very thing which the Scriptures declare they have no right to do, that is, to injure their neighbors! It further follows, that the right to do an act which involves accountability, is the right to do that which, in itself, is right; or, in other words, the only natural right of self-control is the right to do that which is good. Hence, those who claim for any class of society a right to political sovereignty, should be prepared to show that the essential good requires that such privilege be accorded them, or they fail to establish their right, for the reason that no right can ever be justly acquired which does not coincide with the natural right to do good.

Again, we have shown that the abstract principle of slavery is control by the will of another, with its correlatives: that this is an essential element of all government; for a government which did not exercise the right to control men, even against their wills, under given circumstances, would be no government at all. Do these views accord [135] with the teachings of the Holy Scriptures? That control is an. essential idea of government, is an intuitive perception, and needs no proof. The question then resolves itself into this: Do the Scriptures sanction government? That the Bible itself is only a system of government, will not be disputed. It forbids and commands, and requires all men to conform their volitions to its requirements, as to that which is in itself good. Moreover, it sanctions civil government in the most express terms: “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever, therefore, resisteth the power,” that is, the authority of government, “resisteth the ordinance of God; and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation,” etc. (Rom. XIII. 1-7. See A. Clarke's notes.) This was said to the Roman Christians, and was an injunction to obey Caesar's government. In that government, it is well known, the slavery element greatly predominated: but little room was left for the exercise of self-control; political sovereignty being denied to the people. In declaring government, even in this extreme form of controlling the wills of men, to be his appointment, God establishes the principle, as in itself right. Dr. Wayland, however, (see article, Modes in which Personal Liberty [136] may be violated,) affirms, “that the gospel is diametrically opposed to the principle of slavery.”

The moral precepts of the Bible, which he assumes to be diametrically opposed to the principle of slavery, are, (as quoted by himself,) “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself; and all things whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, do ye even so unto them.” He says that, “were this precept obeyed, it is manifest that slavery could not in fact exist for a single instant. The principle of the precept is absolutely subversive of the principle of slavery.” That the gospel should, nevertheless, acknowledge slaveholders (for neither the Jewish nor the Roman law required any citizen to hold slaves) as “believers,” and “worthy of all honor,” and require of the Christian slaves held by them to acknowledge them as brethren, that is, good men, and accord them all honor, is evidently a troublesome question to the Doctor. There is no room for surprise. The second scripture quoted, it is allowed, interprets the first. In what sense then are we to understand the duty inculcated in the second? There are only two senses in which the form of the expression will allow us to evolve any significance whatever. The first is, Do unto another whatsoever you would have him to do unto you, if you were in his situation; and the second is, [137] Do unto another whatsoever you would have a right to require another to do unto you, if you were in his circumstances.

Now if we could suppose that the Saviour intended his language to be understood in the first sense, it will not perhaps be disputed that it is our duty to abolish domestic slavery, for we should, no doubt, desire to be released, if we were in a state of domestic slavery. But, unfortunately for the argument, this interpretation would not stop at the abolition of domestic slavery in the case of the African. It would reach to the domestic slavery of the child also. There is scarcely a wayward lad in Christendom who could not justly claim release from parental restraint on the same principle! Nay, more, the criminal at the bar of civil justice, the inmates of State prisons, and the poor man in his hovel, would all claim release! And as that which is duty in others, in such cases, is a right in them, not to grant them release would certainly be a denial of their just rights! Is this the sense in which Dr. Wayland would have us understand the Saviour of mankind? Certain it is, that this is the only sense in which his words can be understood so as to involve the necessary abolition of slavery! We cheerfully acquit Dr. W. from the purpose to teach any such agrarian folly. Still, we can see no good reason why one [138] so eminent, as a Christian and a scholar, should permit even an early prejudice as to a practical question, about which he allows that he is uninformed, to betray him into such views of a plain principle as logically involve him in the grossest absurdities.

That the second sense given is the proper one in which to understand the Saviour's doctrine can admit of no dispute. What we should have a right to claim, if we were in the circumstances of a slave, is precisely that which we are to accord to such slave, according to the precept of the Saviour. If we should have a right to claim political sovereignty, in those circumstances, we are bound to allow them such sovereignty, that is, release them from slavery. This directly involves the question, Whether they are fitted for that self-government which is involved in such sovereignty? That they are not so in virtue of their humanity merely, we have proved; and whether they are so or not, by acquirement, is a practical question which Dr. Wayland allows that he is not competent to decide. This question will be met in another place. It is sufficient here to state, that the scripture so confidently relied on as repudiating the principle of slavery, is found not to reach the question of the principle at all, and, therefore, is wholly misapplied.

The patriarchal form of government, which existed [139] before the theocracy of the Jews, constituted the patriarch (he being the head of the family) the owner of slaves. Abraham, Lot, and others, held them in large numbers. These men enjoyed the unqualified approbation of Jehovah, and in their character of slaveholders, no less than in many other respects. According to Dr. W., they enjoyed the Divine approbation in the practice of iniquity; for he says, the Bible condemns both the principle and the practice of slavery!

It is evident that the Jews brought slaves with them from Egypt; for the terms of the Decalogue not only imply that they were familiar with domestic slavery, but also that it was, at that time, an existing practice among them. But more than this, the Decalogue is strictly the constitution which Jehovah himself gave to the Jewish nation. Now to assume that he provided in this constitution to protect in all time to come (for it is allowed to embody immutable principles) a relation which was, in itself, an iniquity, is more than a mere absurdity--it is profanity. And it is certain that the tenth article of this constitution provides to protect the right of property in slaves: “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's man-servant, nor his maid-servant, nor any thing that is thy neighbor's.”

The Saviour has recognized this law, as it was [140] originally designed to be, of universal obligation and force: “Think not that I am come to destroy the law or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.” Matt. v. 17.

In accordance with this fundamental law of the nation, God proceeded to provide in their civil institutions for the operation of a regular system of domestic slavery. Under these institutions, a Hebrew might lose his liberty and become a domestic slave, in six different ways. (See A. Clarke, on Ex. XXI.)

1. In extreme poverty, he might sell his liberty. Lev. XXV. 39: “If thy brother be waxed poor and be sold unto thee.”

2. A father might sell his child. Ex. XXI. 7: “If a man sell his daughter to be a maid-servant.”

3. Insolvent debtors became the slaves of their creditors. 2 Kings IV. 1 : “My husband is dead, and the creditor is come to take unto him my two sons to be bondsmen.” Also, Matt. XVIII. 25.

4. A thief, if he had not money to pay the fine laid on him by the law, was to be sold for his profit whom he had robbed. Ex. XXII. 3: “If he have nothing, then he shall be sold for the theft.”

5. A Hebrew was liable to be taken in war, and sold for a slave. 2 Chron. XII. 8.

6. A Hebrew slave who had been ransomed from a Gentile by a Hebrew, might be sold [141] by him who ransomed him to one of his own nation.

All who became slaves under this system were emancipated in the seventh year, except those who should refuse to accept liberty. Ex. XXI. 2-6. They were emancipated in the year of jubilee.

But then, the law further provided for domestic slaves in perpetuity.

“Both thy bondmen and thy bondmaids which thou shalt have, shall be of the heathen that are round about you: of them shall ye buy bondmen and bondmaids. Moreover, of the children of the strangers that do sojourn among you, of them shall ye buy, and of their families that are with you, which they begat in your land; and they shall be your possession; and ye shall take them as an inheritance for your children after you, to inherit them for a possession: they shall be your bondmen for ever; but over your brethren, the children of Israel, ye shall not rule over one another with rigor.” Lev. XXV. 44-46.

The attempts which are sometimes made to prove that δοῦλος, of the Septuagint, and servus, of the Vulgate version, translated indifferently servant or slave, means only a hired servant, need only to be mentioned to be refuted. That these terms defined an actual state of slavery among the Greeks and Romans, no one acquainted with [142] the facts will deny. But whatever might be their original meaning, they are to be understood, as Bible terms, in the sense of the original Hebrew, which they are employed to express. Now, nothing is more certain than this, that the Hebrew Bible (and the same is true of the English translation) speaks of servants, hired servants, and bond servants. The term servant is the generic form, and evidently means, a person who is controlled by the will of another: hired servant is one who serves in that way by contract for a definite period; whilst bond servant is one who has either contracted to do so through his whole life, or who, by the usages of war, or by inheritance, or by purchase from another, was so bound to service--(such as Paul calls a “servant under the yoke.” 2 Tim. VI. 1.) These different relations are distinctly marked by the use of these terms in the Bible, and especially the meaning of bond servant, in distinction from a hired servant: “If thy brother that dwelleth by thee be waxen poor, and be sold unto thee, thou shalt not compel him to serve as a bond servant, but as a hired servant, and as a sojourner, shall he be.” Lev. XXV. 39, 40.

Thus we find that the Jewish constitution provided to protect the right of property in servants or slaves in the generic sense: that is, whether in the one form or the other; and that He who gave [143] them their civil institutions, also provided under their constitution for the organization of a regular system of domestic slavery, in two distinct forms: the one, the enslavement, in the true generic sense, of Hebrews in given circumstances, for a definite period; and the other, the enslavement, in the same sense, of the neighboring heathen, in perpetuity.

Such was the legal origin of domestic slavery among the Jews. During all the calamities that have befallen that people, this constitution and these laws have known neither repeal nor modification. At no period of their history were they without domestic slaves; and when the Saviour dwelt among them, the whole land was filled with such slaves. No State in this Union can with more propriety be regarded a slaveholding community, than was that of the Jewish people in the days of the Saviour. In every congregation which he addressed, bond slaves may have mingled. The hospitalities of every family of which he partook, were probably ministered to him, more or less, by domestic slaves. And in all this time, and under all these circumstances, not a word is known to have escaped him, either in public or in private, declaring the relation of master and slave to be sinful! But, on the contrary, Paul's denunciation.--1 Tim. VI. 3--of the theachers [144] of abolition doctrines, that they “consent not to wholesome words, even the words of our Lord Jesus Christ,” is sufficient reason to believe that he was always understood to approve of the relation, and to condemn in express terms all attempts to abolish it as a duty of the religion which he taught. And certain it is, that this relation is made the subject of some of his most eloquent allusions, and the basis of some of his most instructive parables: “One is your master, even Christ,” Matt. XXIII. 10: “Good master, what shall I do?” Mark x. 17: “No man can serve two masters,” Matt. VI. 24--are specimens of the former; whilst the parable, Matt. XIII. 24-28, “And the servants said, Wilt thou that we go and gather them up?” --of the vineyard, Matt. XXI.; of the talents, Matt. XXV.; and others of a similar nature, are striking examples of the latter. And yet, young gentlemen, the author of your text says, the doctrines of the Bible, and especially the teachings of the Saviour, are “diametrically opposed to both the principle and the practice of domestic slavery.” If this be true, it is really passing strange that Jehovah himself should provide, in the organic law of the Jewish commonwealth, for the working of a system of domestic slavery, and, by a series of laws drawn up under this constitution, set such a system in [145] actual operation; and that the Saviour of mankind should also give, according to every legitimate interpretation that can be put, either upon his language or his conduct, his unqualified approbation to that which was so flatly opposed to all his doctrines! It is saying but little of all this to affirm that it is grossly absurd! It can appeal to no doctrine that we are aware of for its defence, unless it be the kindred absurdity that the will of God is not the rule of right, in this sense, that it always conforms to that which, in itself, is right, i. e., good; but that it is the rule of right in this other sense, that it is absolutely, in itself, the only rule of right; and that, in the case under consideration, domestic slavery was right for the Jews, because God so willed it, but the same thing in principle, and under similar circumstances, would be wrong for any other people, because in regard to them God had willed differently: thus assigning to Deity the power to make the wrong the right, and the right the wrong! We regret to know that this absurd view of the Divine volitions has found its way beyond the pages of Dr. Paley. It is countenanced by some writers of eminent distinction in theology. But to give it a definite application in any case, is all that is required for its entire refutation. We rely with confidence on the conclusion that what God thus provided for in [146] the Jewish constitution, was right in principle in itself and that, under the circumstances of the Jewish people, it was right in practice.

Among the strange, if not wholly unaccountable, misconceptions, if not gross misrepresentations, of the fundamental ideas of domestic slavery, we may place those of Dr. Channing and Prof. Whewell. The latter, in his “Elements of morality” states that “slavery converts a person into a thing — a subject merely passive, without any of the recognized attributes of human nature.” “A slave,” he further says, “in the eye of the law which stamps him with that character, is not acknowledged as a man. He is reduced to the level of a brute;” that is, as he explains it, “he is divested of his moral nature.”

Dr. Channing, the great apostle of Unitarianism in America, says, “The very idea of a slave is that he belongs to another: that he is bound to live and labor for another; to be another's instrument, that is, in all things, just as a threshing-machine, or another beast of burden; and to make another's will his habitual law, however adverse to his own” He adds, in another place, “We have thus established the reality and sacredness of human rights; and that slavery is an infraction of these, is too plain to need any labored proof. Slavery violates not one, but all; violates them not incidentally, [147] but necessarily, systematically, from its very nature.”

These, together with your text, young gentlemen, are leading authorities on this subject. Following these, we should adopt the belief that the principle of slavery in question is, as they express it, “an absorption of the humanity of one man into the will of another;” or, in other words, that “slavery contemplates him, not as a responsible, but a mere sentient being — not as a man, but a brute.”

If this be so, the wonder is not, as they affirm, that the civilized world is so indignant at its outrageous wrongs, but that “it has been so slow in detecting its gross and palpable enormities: that mankind, for so many ages, acquiesced in a system as monstrously unnatural as would be a general effort to walk upon the head or to think with the feet!” We need have no hesitation in flatly denying the truth of this description, and pronouncing it a caricature. For if this be a faithful description, we can safely affirm that no instance of slavery ever existed under the authority of law in any nation known to history.

In the first place, the state of things so rhetorically described is a palpable impossibility. The constitution of the human mind is in flat contradiction to the idea of the absorption of the will, [148] the conscience, and the understanding of one man into the personality of another! This is a state of things which the human mind cannot even conceive to be possible, but does intuitively perceive to be utterly impossible. In the next place, we affirm that the idea of personal rights and personal responsibility pervades the whole system. Both the Divine and human laws which recognize the system, assume the personality and responsibility of the slave. Even under the Roman and Grecian codes — which recognized far more stringent forms of slavery than that of the African in this country, at any period of its history — this view of the system will find no support. Paul and Peter, who wrote with special allusion to slaves under these laws, so far from regarding this personality as lost and swallowed up in the humanity of the master, expressly assumed their personality and responsibility. For whilst they recognize him as a servant, they treat him as a man: they declare him possessed, though a slave, of certain rights, which it was injustice in the master to disregard, and under obligation to certain duties, as a slave, which it would be sinful in him to neglect; and, moreover, that it was the office of that religion whose functions they filled, to protect these rights and duties with its most solemn sanctions. Hence they enjoin upon masters the moral obligation of [149] rendering to their bondmen “that which is just and equal,” and upon servants to “be subject to their masters with all fear, not only to the good and gentle, but also to the froward. For this is thank-worthy, if a man, for conscience toward God, endure grief, suffering wrongfully.” Was this treating them as beings whose wills were absorbed in the humanity of the master, who therefore was the only accountable person for all their conduct! Nothing could be more alien from truth, and significant of falsehood! No: obedience is never applied, except as a figurative term, and especially by the apostles, to any but rational and accountable beings. And with such inspired requisitions before us--“obedience from the one, and Justice from the other” --it is grossly absurd to affirm that the relation of master and slave regards the slave as a brute, and not as an accountable man. “The blind passivity of a corpse, or the mechanical obedience of a tool,” which Channing and Whewell regard as constituting the essential idea of slavery, seems never to have entered the minds of the apostles. They considered slavery as a social and political economy, in which relations involving reciprocal rights and duties subsisted, between moral, intelligent, and responsible beings, between whom, as between men in other relations, religion held the scales of justice. [150] [151] [152] ment, although, in adapting itself to his moral condition, it may assume an extreme form of despotism.

Whether the Southern States of this Union have wisely adapted this principle to the moral condition of the African population residing within their borders, and thereby secured to them an essentially free government, remains to be considered.

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