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Chapter 4: pro-slavery prejudice

The intensity-perhaps density would be a better word in this connection — of the prejudice that confronted the Abolitionists when they entered on their work is not describable by any expressions we have in our language. In the South it was soon settled that no man could preach Anti-Slaveryism and live. In the North the conditions were not much better. Every man and woman-because the muster-roll of the Abolition propagandists was recruited from both sexes-carried on the work at the hazard of his or her life. Sneers, scowls, hootings, curses, and rough handling were absolutely certain. One incident throws light on the state of feeling at that time.

When Pennsylvania Hall, which the Abolitionists of Philadelphia-largely Quakers-had erected for a meeting place at a cost of forty thousand dollars was fired by a mob, the fire department of that city threw water on surrounding property, but not one drop would it contribute to save the property of the Abolitionists.

Why was it that this devotion to slavery and this hostility to its opposers prevailed in the non-slaveholding States? They had not always existed. Indeed, [31] there was a time, not so many years before, when slavery was generally denounced; when men like Washington and Jefferson and Henry, although themselves slave-owners, led public opinion in its condemnation. Everybody was anticipating the day of universal emancipation, when suddenlyalmost in the twinkling of an eye — there was a change. If it had been a weather-cock — as to a considerable extent it was, and is-public opinion could not have more quickly veered about.

Slavery became the popular idol in the North as well as in the South. Opposition to it was not only offensive, but dangerous. It was sacrilege.

So far as the South was concerned the revolution is easily accounted for. Slavery became profitable. A Yankee magician had touched it with a wand of gold, and from being a languishing, struggling system, it quickly developed into a money-maker.

Whitney, the Connecticut mechanical genius, by the invention of the cotton-gin, made the production of cotton a highly lucrative industry. The price of negroes to work the cotton fields at once went up, and yet the supply was inadequate. Northernly slave States could not produce cotton, but they could produce negroes. They shared in the golden harvest. Such cities as Baltimore, Washington, Richmond, Wheeling, and Louisville became centers of a flourishing traffic in human beings. They had great warehouses, commonly spoken of as “nigger pens,” in which the “hands” that were to make the cotton were temporarily gathered, and long coffles — that is, processions of men and women, each with a hand attached to a common rope or [32] chain-marched through their streets with faces turned southward.

The slave-owners were numerically a lean minority even in the South, but their mastery over their fellow-citizens was absolute. Nor was there any mystery about it. As the owners of four million slaves, on an average worth not far from five hundred dollars each, they formed the greatest industrial combination-what at this time we would call a trust-ever known to this or any other country. Our mighty Steel Corporation would have been a baby beside it. If to-day all our great financial companies were consolidated, the unit would scarcely come up to the dimensions of that one association. It was not incorporated in law, but its union was perfect. Bound together by a common interest and a common feeling, its members — in the highest sense co-partners in business and in politics, in peace and in war — were prepared to act together as one man.

But why, I again ask, were the Northern people so infatuated with slavery? They raised no cotton and they raised no negroes, but many of them, and especially their political leaders, carried their adulation almost to idolatry.

When Elijah P. Lovejoy was shot down like a dog, and William Lloyd Garrison was dragged half naked and half lifeless through the streets of Boston, and other outrages of like import were being perpetrated all over the North, it was carefully given out that those deeds were not the work of irresponsible rowdies, but of “gentlemen” --of merchants, manufacturers, and members of the professions. They claimed the credit for such achievements. [33]

There were reasons for such a state of things — some very solid, because financial.

The North and the South were extensively interlaced by mutual interests. With slave labor the Southern planters made cotton, and with the proceeds of their cotton they bought Northern machinery and merchandise. They sent their boys and girls to Northern schools. They came North themselves when their pockets were full, and freely spent their money at Northern hotels, Northern theatres, Northern race-tracks, and other Northern places of entertainment.

Then there were other ties than those of business. The great political parties had each a Southern wing. Religious denominations had their Southern members. Every kind of trade and calling had its Southern outlet.

But social connections were the strongest of all, and probably had most to do in making Northern sentiment. Southern gentlemen were popular in the North. They spent money lavishly. Their manners were grandiose. They talked boastfully of the number of their “niggers,” and told how they were accustomed to “wallop” them.

Then there were marriage ties between the sections. Many domestic alliances strengthened the bond between slavery and the aristocracy of the North.

In the circles in which these things were going on, it was the fashion to denounce the Abolitionists. Women were the most bitter. The slightest suspicion of sympathy with the “fanatics” was fatal to social ambition. Mrs. Henry Chapman, the wife of [34] a wealthy Boston shipping merchant who gave orders that no slaves should be carried on his vessels, was a brilliant woman and a leader in the highest sense in that city. But when she consented to preside over a small conference of Anti-Slavery women, society cut her dead, her former associates refusing to recognize her on the street. The families of Arthur and Lewis Tappan, the distinguished merchants of New York, were noted for their intelligence and culture, but when the heads of the families came to be classified as Abolitionists the doors of all fashionable mansions were at once shut against them. They in other ways suffered for their opinions. The home of Lewis Tappan was invaded by a mob, and furniture, books, and bric-a-brac were carried to the street and there burned to ashes.

The masses of the Northern people were, however, led to favor slavery by other arguments. One of them was that the slaves, if manumitted, would at once rush to the North and overrun the free States. I have heard that proposition warmly supported by fairly intelligent persons.

Another argument that weighed with a surprisingly large number of people, was that civil equality would be followed by social equality. As soon as they were free, negro men, it was said, would marry white wives. “Do you want your son or your daughter to marry a nigger?” was regarded as a knockout anti-Abolitionist argument. The idea, of course, was absurd. “Is it to be inferred that because I don't want a negro woman for a slave, I do want her for a wife?” was one of the quaint and pithy observations attributed to Mr. Lincoln. I [35] heard Prof. Hudson, of Oberlin College, express the same idea in about the same words many years before.

And yet there were plenty of Northern people to whom “Amalgamation” --the word used to describe the apprehended union of the races — was a veritable scarecrow. A young gentleman in a neighborhood near where I lived when a boy was in all respects eligible for matrimony. He became devoted to the daughter of an old farmer who had been a Kentuckian, and asked him for her hand. “But I am told,” said the old gentleman, “that you are an Abolitionist.” The young man admitted the justice of the charge. “Then, sir,” fairly roared the old man, “you can't have my daughter; go and marry a nigger.”

But what probably gave slavery its strongest hold upon the favor of Northern people was the animosity toward the negro that prevailed among them. Nowhere was he treated by them like a human being. The “black laws,” as those statutes in a number of free States that regulated the treatment of the blacks were appropriately called, were inhuman in the extreme. Ohio was in the main a liberal State. She was called a free State, but her negroes were not free men. Under her laws they could only remain in the State by giving bonds for good behavior. Any one employing negroes, not so bonded, was liable to a fine of one hundred dollars. They could not vote, of course. They could not testify in a case in which a white man was interested. They could not send their children to schools which they helped to support. The only thing they could do “like a white man” was to pay taxes. [36]

The prejudice against the poor creatures in Ohio was much stronger than that they encountered on the other side of the Ohio River in the slave State of Kentucky. Here — in Kentucky--they were property, and they generally received the care and consideration that ownership ordinarily establishes. The interest of the master was a factor in their behalf. In many instances there was genuine affection between owner and slave. “How much better off they would be if they only had good masters,” was a remark I very often heard in Ohio, as the negroes would go slouching by with hanging heads and averted countenances. There is no doubt that at this time the physical condition of the blacks was generally much better in slavery than it was in freedom. What stronger testimony to the innate desire for liberty — what Byron has described as “The eternal spirit of the chainless mind” --than the fact that slaves who were the most indulgently treated, were constantly escaping from the easy and careless life they led to the hostilities and barbarities of the free States, and they never went back except under compulsion.

O carry me back to old Virginy,
To old Virginy's shore,

was the refrain of a song that was very popular in those days, and which was much affected by what were called “negro minstrels.” It was assumed to express the feelings of colored fugitives from bondage when they had time to realize what freedom meant in their cases, but I never heard the words [37] from the lips of a man who had lived in a state of servitude.

I have elsewhere referred to the fact that women were often the most bitter in their denunciations of the Abolitionists. In the neighborhood in which I passed my early days was a lady who was born and raised in the North, and who probably had no decided sentiment, one way or the other, on the slavery question; but who about this time spent several months in a visit to one of the slave States. She came back thoroughly imbued with admiration for “the institution.” She could not find words to describe the good times that were enjoyed by the wives and daughters of the slave-owners. They had nothing to do except to take the world easy, and that, according to her account, they did with great unanimity. The slaves, were, she declared, the happiest people in the world, all care and responsibility being taken from their shoulders by masters who were kind enough to look out for their wants.

But one day she unwittingly exposed a glimpse of the reverse side of the picture. She told the story of a young slave girl who had been accused of larceny. She had picked up some trifling article that ordinarily no one would have cared anything about; but at this time it was thought well to make an example of somebody. The wrists of the poor creature were fastened together by a cord that passed through a ring in the side of the barn, which had been put there for that purpose, and she was drawn up, with her face to the building, until her toes barely touched the ground. Then, in the [38] presence of all her fellow-slaves, and with her clothing so detached as to expose her naked shoulders, she was flogged until the blood trickled down her back.

“I felt almost as bad for her,” said the narrator, “as if she had been one of my own kind.”

“Thank God she was not one of your kind!” exclaimed a voice that fairly sizzled with rage.

The speaker who happened to be present was a relative of the author and a red-hot Abolitionist.

Then came a furious war of words, the two enraged women shouting maledictions in each other's faces. As a boy, I enjoyed the performance hugely until I began to see that there was danger of a collision. As the only male present, it would be my duty to interfere in case the combatants came to blows, or rather to scratches and hair-pulling. I did not like the prospect, which seemed to me to be really alarming, and was thinking of some peaceable solution, when the two women, looking into each other's inflamed faces, suddenly realized the ridiculousness of the situation and broke into hearty peals of laughter. That, of course, ended the controversy, not a little to the relief of the writer.

If the influence of a great majority of the women of that day was thrown on the side of slavery, as was undoubtedly the case, the minority largely made up for the disparity of numbers by the spunk and aggressiveness of their demonstrations. A good many of the most indomitable and effective Abolition lecturers were women-such as Mrs. Lucretia Mott, the Grimke sisters, Abby Kelly, and others whose names are here omitted, although they richly deserve [39] to be mentioned. Of all that sisterhood, the most pugnacious undoubtedly was Abby Kelly, a little New England woman, with, as the name would indicate, an Irish crossing of the blood. I heard her once, and it seemed to me that I never listened to a tongue that was so sharp and merciless. Her eyes were small and it appeared to me that they contracted, when she was speaking, until they emitted sparks of fire. Although she went by her maiden name, she was a married woman, being the wife of Stephen Foster, a professional Abolitionist agitator and lecturer. Although himself noted for the bitterness of his speech, when it came to hard-hitting vituperation he could not begin to “hold a candle” to his little wife.

The two traveled together and spoke from the same platforms. They were constantly getting into hot water through the hostility of mobs, which they seemed to enjoy most heartily. Foster's life was more than once in serious danger, but they kept right on and never showed the slightest fear. The only meeting addressed by them that I attended, though held on the Sabbath, was ended by the throwing of stones and sticks and addled eggs.

But if the current of public opinion in the North suddenly turned, and for a long time ran with overwhelming force in favor of slavery, it changed about almost as suddenly and ran with equal force in the opposite direction. The county in which I lived when a boy, that furnished only one vote for the first Abolitionist presidential ticket, became a Republican stronghold. It was in what had been a Whig district, and when the Whig party went to [40] pieces, the most of its debris drifted into the Republican lines.

On the occasion of one of the pro-slavery mobs I elsewhere tell about, when a supply of eggs with which to garnish the Abolitionists was wanted, and the money for their purchase was called for, the town constable — the peace officer of the community --put his hand in his pocket and supplied the funds.

A few years thereafter, on my return to the village after a considerable absence, I found that I had come just in time to attend a Republican rally which was that day to be held in a near-by grove. When I reached the scene of operations a procession to march to the grove was being formed. There was considerable enthusiasm and noise, but by far the most excited individual was the Grand Marshal and Master of Ceremonies. Seated on a high horse, he was riding up and down the line shouting out his orders with tremendous unction. He was the constable of the egg-buying episode.

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