previous next

Letter from Naples (1841).

Naples, April 12, 1841.
Dear Garrison,--I have borne very constantly in mind my promise, in London, to write you, but have found nothing in my way which I thought would be of interest; and these late lines come not as a letter, but only as an excuse. For I know nothing now of interest, except, perhaps, the loss of my “Liberators,” which the custom-house of his Holiness--under the general rule, I believe, forbidding all which has not passed the censorship — took from me as I went up to Rome, and which now lie at Civita Vecchia, waiting for me if I ever return that way.

'T is a melancholy tour, this through Europe; and I do not understand how any one can return from it without being, in Coleridge's phrase, “a sadder and a wiser man.” Every reflecting mind at home must be struck with the many social evils which prevail around; but the most careless eye cannot avoid seeing the painful contrasts which sadden one here at every step,--wealth beyond that of fairy tales, and poverty all bare and starved at its side; refinement face to face with barbarism; cultivation which hardly finds room to be, crowded out on all sides by so much debasement. I have been surprised to find so much faith in Catholicism as seems to exist among the Italians, even those who make what is called the higher classes. Men and women [220] of every rank, and with every appearance of sincerity, really crowd the churches. Amid the regret with which a Protestant witnesses such a fact, there is much to admire in the democratic method of Catholic worship. No “sit-thou — here” and “stand-thou-there” spirit class out the audience; no hateful honeycomb of pews deforms the church. The beggar in rags, the peasant in his soiled and labor-stained homespun, kneel on the broad marble side by side with fashion and rank, right under the hundred lamps which burn constantly at the high altar of St. Peter's; and this all unnoticed, and seemingly unconscious of any difference between themselves and their fellow-worshippers. This is as it should be. Here, at least, Rome preserves the spirit of the early ages. 'T was well said,--

I love the ever open door
That welcomes to the house of God;
I love the wide-spread marble floor,
By every foot in freedom trod.

One pardons much for such a trait, and I have lost half my dislike to the wearisomely frequent priestly dress, since I have seen it worn by a colored man who mingled freely with those about him, and was not stared at as a monster when he entered the frowning portal of the Propaganda College at Rome.

Italy, however, is truly the land where “every prospect pleases, and only man is vile.” Here one seems really to stand on the matchless shores of that sea where have passed some of the most interesting events in the history of our race. All Europe is, indeed, the treasure-house of rich memories, with every city a shrine. Mayence, the mother of printing and free trade; Amalfi, with her Pandects, the fountain of law, her compass of commerce, her Masaniello of popular freedom; Naples, [221] with her buried satellite of Pompeii; Florence, with her galaxy of genius; Rome, whose name is at once history and description,--will, indeed, ever be the Meccas of the mind. One must see them to realize the boundless wealth, the luxury, the refinement of art, to which the ancients had attained. The modern world deems itself rich when it gathers up only the fragments. But all the fascinations of art, all the luxuries of modern civilization, are no balance to the misery which bad laws and bad religion alike entail on the bulk of the people. The Apollo himself cannot dazzle one blind to the rags, want, and misery which surround him. Nature is not wholly beautiful. For even when she marries a matchless sky to her bay of Naples, the impression is saddened by the presence of degraded and suffering humanity. When you meet in the space of the same street a man encompassed with all the equipage of wealth, and the beggar on whose brow disease and starvation have written broadly his title to your pity, the question is involuntary, Is this a Christian city? Are both these Christians? To my mind the answer is, No. In our own country the same contrast exists, but it is not so painfully prominent as here. I hope the discussion of this question of property will not cease till the Church is convinced that, from Christian lips, ownership means nothing but responsibility for the right use of what God has given; that the title of a needy brother is as sacred as the owner's own, and is infringed upon, too, whenever that owner allows the siren voice of his own tastes to drown the cry of another's necessities.

The Woman Question is another topic in which every one who-becomes familiar with European customs must, I think, take a still deeper interest than before. Most Americans are shocked to see women engaged in every kind of labor, and doing full one half of the hard [222] work on the continent, from macadamizing roads up through every kind of agricultural and town work. The last link that is left of the Feudal system hangs on the limbs of woman. The superiority of man, which an age of violence and military organization originated, still survives, even in the lowest classes; and you never meet a band of peasants by the road-side with a heavy burden among them that you do not see it on the head of woman, while the men of the party lounge carelessly along. There is one great advantage in this, though little meant as such. Women are almost, if not entirely, as unrestrained in action and choice of pursuit as men; and this state of things gives us an opportunity of observing how woman's approach to the enjoyment of her rights, even under so many unfavorable circumstances, affects society. A poor education and false faith of course deeply affect the moral condition of these nations; but making a fair allowance for both,--if the testimony of those long resident here may be trusted,--this difference of social habits in no degree contributes to render it inferior to our own. The experiment of woman's presence everywhere in social life,--of sex debarring her from no scene, and excusing her from no toil,--has been fairly tried in France, Italy, and Germany, and its compatibility with good morals and every social good put beyond a doubt. I can give only a traveller's impression, with such information as he gathers in passing, and refer especially to those classes whom a kind Providence has obliged to let their own hands minister to their wants. Among others, of course, wealth and idleness produce only corruption. Every hour of life, and especially every step we have taken in these countries, show us more and more the importance of the Woman Question, as it is called.

You must not think my long silence has sprung from [223] any want of interest in the cause. This moral stagnation and death here only make us value more highly the stirring arena at home. You live fast, battling for humanity against so many forms of oppression. None know what it is to live till they redeem life from its seeming monotony by laying it a sacrifice on the altar of some great cause. There is more happiness in one such hour than in dwelling forever with the beautiful and grand which Angelo's chisel has redeemed from the “marble chaos,” or the pencil of Raphael has given to immortality. Nothing brings back home so pleasantly, or with so much vividness, to Ann,1 as to see a colored man occasionally in the street; so you see we are ready to return to our posts in nothing changed.

Indeed, there is one view in which I have learned to value my absence. I recognize in some degree the truth of the assertion that associations tend to destroy individual independence; and I have found difficulty in answering others, however clear my own mind might be, when charged with taking steps which the sober judgment of age would regret,--with being hurried recklessly forward by the enthusiasm of the moment and the excitement of heated meetings. I am glad, therefore, to have had the opportunity of holding up the cause, with all its incidents and bearings, calmly before my own mind; of having distance of place perform, as far as possible, the part of distance of years; of being able to look back, cleared of all excitement, though not I hope of all enthusiasm, by other scenes and studies, upon the course we have taken the last few years;and having done so, I am rejoiced to say that every hour of such thought convinces me more and more of the overwhelming claims our cause has on the life-long devotion of each of us; of the perfect rightfulness, as well as [224] the expediency, of every step we have taken, while I recognize still more clearly than ever the folly of yielding up its mighty interests to prejudices, however sacred,--or, on the other hand, of attempting to gain it a temporary success by sacrificing to it other rights which, whether more or less important, are still rights, and to be sacredly respected; and I hope to be permitted to return to my place, prepared to urge its claims with more earnestness, and to stand fearlessly by it without a doubt of its success.

When Paul's “appeal unto Caesar” brought him into this Bay of Naples, he must have seen all its fair shores and jutting headlands covered with bath and villa, imperial palaces and temples of the gods. A prisoner of a despised race, he stood, perhaps for the first time, in the presence of the pomp and luxury of the Roman people. Even amid their ruins, I could not but realize how strong the faith of the Apostle to believe that the message he bore would triumph alike over their power and their religion. Struggling against priest and people, may we cherish a like faith!

Yours truly, Wendell Phillips.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide Places (automatically extracted)

View a map of the most frequently mentioned places in this document.

Sort places alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a place to search for it in this document.
Europe (3)
St. Peter (Minnesota, United States) (1)
Providence, R. I. (Rhode Island, United States) (1)
France (France) (1)
Florence (Italy) (1)

Download Pleiades ancient places geospacial dataset for this text.

hide People (automatically extracted)
Sort people alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a person to search for him/her in this document.
Wendell Phillips (2)
Paul (1)
Helen Eliza Garrison (1)
Coleridge (1)
Caesar (1)
Michael Angelo (1)
Americans (1)
hide Dates (automatically extracted)
Sort dates alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a date to search for it in this document.
April 12th, 1841 AD (1)
1841 AD (1)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: