Lecture I. Introductory remarks on the subject of African slavery in the United States.

  • General subject enunciated
  • -- Why this discussion may be regarded as humiliating by Southern people -- other stand-points, however, disclose an urgent necessity, at this time, for a thorough investigation of the whole subject -- the results to which it is the object of these lectures to conduct the mind.

the great question which arises in discussing the slavery of the African population of this country — correctly known as “Domestic slavery” --is this: Is the institution of domestic slavery sinful?

The position I propose to maintain in these lectures is, that slavery, per se, is right; or that [12] the great abstract principle of slavery is right, because it is a fundamental principle of the social state; and that domestic slavery, as an institution, is fully justified by the condition and circumstances (essential and relative) of the African race in this country, and therefore equally right.

I confess that it is somewhat humiliating to discuss the question enunciated — Is the institution of domestic slavery sinful? The affirmative assumes that an immense community of Southern people, of undoubted piety, are, nevertheless, involved in great moral delinquency on the subject of slavery. This is a palpable absurdity in regard to a great many. For nothing is more certain than this, that if it be sinful, they either know it, or are competent to know it, and hence are responsible. And as no plea of necessity can justify an enlightened man in committing known sin, it follows that all such Southern people are highly culpable, which is utterly inconsistent with the admission that they are pious. To say, as some are accustomed to do, that “slavery is certainly wrong in the abstract,” that is, in plain terms, in itself sinful, but that they cannot help themselves, appears to me to be wholly unfounded. It assumes that a man may be absolutely compelled to commit sin. This certainly cannot be true. All candid minds will readily allow, that so far as [13] Deity has yet explained himself, he has in no instance enjoined upon man the observance of any principle as his duty, which he may be compelled, in the order of his providence, to violate. It is equally false in fact, for it is not true that we are absolutely compelled to be slaveholders. If government be, as it undoubtedly is, the agent of the people, and the people choose, they are certainly competent by this agent to free themselves from this institution. True, the immense cost of such an enterprise would be the least in the catalogue of evils resulting from it; for the total ruin of the African race in this country may be put down among the rest. But what of all this? Nothing can justify an enlightened and civilized people in committing sin. No; not even the sacrifice of life itself. Withal, if the civil society refuse to make so costly a sacrifice to avoid sin, there is nothing that can compel any individual citizen to remain a slaveholder. He can live in the community, as some do, without even hiring or owning a slave; or he can remove to one of the so-called free States. We should give no countenance, therefore, to any such mere attempts to apologize for domestic slavery. The conduct of bad men may sometimes find apologists. The conduct of good men always admits of defence. Hence, with many others, I have often been [14] grieved by the repeated attempts of certain pseudo-friends to pass off this flimsy and ridiculous apology as an able defence of the South.

In maintaining the institution of domestic slavery, we are either right or wrong, in a moral point of view. We ask no mere apology on the score of necessity, and we can certainly claim none on the ground of ignorance. Those who affirm that we are wrong, directly attack our morals. In doing this, they arraign the character of many thousands, who are among the most civilized and pious people now living. This fact alone is a sufficient refutation of so foul an aspersion; and in this view, it may be readily admitted that any attempt at a more formal refutation is a humiliating condescension, to which few Southern men can willingly submit.

But there is another stand-point from which this subject is to be viewed, and which reflects it in a very different light, and clearly indicates the duty of submitting it to the test of the soundest principles of philosophy and religion. It is this: the ascendency which certain popular errors on the subject of African slavery have acquired, and the extent to which they peril the peace of the country, if not the very liberties of the whole republic. I allude to the fact that there are many in the country — and not a few of this number spread [15] through our Southern States--who would not intentionally arraign the piety of their fellow-citizens, but whose minds (it is painfully humiliating to know) are in a state of great embarrassment on this subject; so much so, that they are constantly liable to be made the victims of any fanatical influences abroad in the land, no less than the dupes of that large class of political aspirants who, reckless of both truth and morals, would secure their elevation at any price.

Nor need we wonder at the ascendency of erroneous opinions on the subject of slavery, any mor<*>than at the results which they threaten.

At an early period in our history, Thomas Jefferson denounced domestic slavery as sinful, per se, and declared that “there was no attribute in the Divine mind which could take sides with the whites in a controversy between the races:” thus assuming in this remark, that the providences as well as the attributes of the Deity are against the slaveholder. Owing to the prominence given by our Puritan fathers to the higher institutions of learning, together with the fact that the soil and the climate of New England were unfavorable to agricultural pursuits, citizens of these States have, from an early period in the history of the republic, supplied the most of the text-books for the schools and colleges of the whole country. This [16] grossly offensive error of Mr. Jefferson has been more or less diffused through the whole of these text-books. It has been among the first of speculations upon abstract truth presented to the minds of the American people. It has been studiously inculcated from professors' chairs in colleges and universities in the Northern States, while Southern literary institutions have been for the most part silent. The pulpits of the South have also lent their aid, and in some instances have been zealous and active in propagating this error.

As early as 1780, the Methodists declared, in a general convention of preachers, that “slavery is contrary to the laws of God, man, and nature, and hurtful to society; contrary to the dictates of conscience and pure religion; doing that which we would not that others should do to us and ours; and that we pass our disapprobation upon all our friends who keep slaves, and advise their freedom.” This doctrine was reasserted after the organization of the Church in 1784, and, with short intervals of time, and unimportant variations of phraseology, the essential features of this doctrine have been adhered to until the present time, by this most numerous body of professing Christians in this country. At an early day, Bishop Coke, of the M. E. Church, openly advocated this doctrine in the pulpits of the country, until [17] silenced by the force of public opinion; yet he did not cease, while he remained in the country, to exert the full amount of his personal influence in private and social circles against the institution of domestic slavery. His example was followed by a large number of his preachers, and many ministers of other Christian denominations, who imbibed the same doctrine and were animated by the same spirit of hostility to the institution; and who, like himself, were only held in abeyance by the same force of public opinion. Many politicians, also, there were, from time to time, who did not scruple to avow Mr. Jefferson's doctrine, and like him affect to foresee dreadful calamities overhanging the country as a consequence of domestic slavery. In view of these facts, it cannot be a matter of surprise that abolition opinions and sentiments should pervade the non-slaveholding sections of the country; and that at least a private but painful impression or suspicion that there must be something wrong in the principle of domestic slavery, should be found to pervade a portion even of the Southern mind. Reluctant as we may be to admit the truth, necessity compels us to do so. Let the following facts bear witness.

No communities on earth are so free from domestic insurrections, and the disturbing influences which come up from the lower orders of society, [18] as those of the Southern States of this Union. The social condition of England and Ireland, and the states of the continent of Europe, are per. petually subject to the disturbing and ruinous influence of local, and often widely spread, insurrectionary movements against the social order, and even the safety of the governments. Nor are the Northern States of this Union any more free from these agrarian movements, than may be accounted for by the relative sparseness of their population. Yet a general feeling of security pervades all these people, whilst it is notorious that there are a great many in Southern communities who are in a constant state of feverish excitement on the subject of domestic insurrections. Any announcement of that kind is sufficient to convulse a whole community. The trifling affair of Nat. Turner (trifling compared with the frequent disturbances and loss of life common in the communities just referred to) painfully agitated the whole State of Virginia; and occupied her Legislature through a whole winter in grave discussions as to the “best means of freeing the State from the incubus of slavery.” These results have all followed from the causes at which we have glanced.

In this state of things, it is in vain to appeal to the fact that Mr. Jefferson, though a profound [19] statesman, and to some extent a logician, was neither a divine nor a metaphysician; and that no people on the globe have shared more largely in the blessings of a bountiful Providence than those of the Southern States of this Union. In the progress of civilization and religion, they have advanced more rapidly than any communities in the country. Still, Mr. Jefferson's name does not lose its enchantment; and having already learned to despise the unexampled blessings of Providence, many of the Southern people actually believed — until railroad communications began to dispel the illusion — that their own happy States were really falling back in civilization to the darkness of the middle ages. Add to all this, the halls of legislation continue to echo the opinion that “domestic slavery is a great moral, political, and social evil.” In this connection, the phrase, moral evil, is restricted to its appropriate meaning, sin. No doubt, Messrs. Doddridge, Rives, Clay, Webster, and many others — illustrious names!--who have substantially used this language in various connections, only meant to deprecate the evils of slavery in strong terms, that they might propitiate a more favorable consideration of what they had to say in its defence. But if we be correct in the position already postulated, it is quite time our politicians, no less than our ecclesiastics, had [20] learned to chasten their language on this subject, The fountains of public thought and feeling have, to a great extent, been poisoned: that is, the abstract opinions and religious sentiments of the people have been corrupted and perverted.

The three great Protestant denominations1 of the country have been torn asunder. The flags of their time-honored unions are trailing in the dust; and they have ceased to operate as bonds to our political union. A secret suspicion of the morality of African slavery in the South, occupies the minds of many of our best citizens — citizens who are at a vast remove from the fanaticism which stigmatizes those who are known as the ultra abolitionists of the country. The great family of Methodists in the District of Columbia, the slave States of Delaware and Maryland, in Western Virginia, and a part of Missouri, retain their connection with the abolition division of the M. E. Church. All along the line of division between the M. E. Church, North, and the M. E. Church, South,--running through Virginia, Kentucky, and Missouri,--the evils resulting from the [21] conflict and strife of opinions on this subject are daily multiplying. The experiment of abolition fanaticism is progressing; and the souls as well as the bodies of men are in the crucible. It is clear that “whilst we have slept, an enemy hath sown these tares,” in our literature, our politics, and our theology.

Two striking phenomena remain to be noticed and accounted for. Amid all the conflict of opinion and feeling upon this subject,--which was inseparable from doctrines so utterly at war with the practices of the country — a conflict which at an. early period found its way into the halls of legislation, civil and ecclesiastical, and has not ceased to the present time to modify the federal politics of the country,--the African population has yielded only to certain physical and moral laws as to the place of its location; whilst the institution of slavery, which embodies the great mass of that population in the country, has held on the even tenor of its way, unchecked in the slightest degree by the antagonistic doctrines and sentiment which have warred so fiercely against it, and which at so many periods have threatened the country with a legion of disastrous consequences. In the first place, the African population has gradually receded to those sections of the Union which, from their climate and soil, were better [22] adapted to slave labor. Why did not the abstract opinions and sentiments set forth by Mr. Jefferson and the M. E. Church, and which are supposed to have given birth to the emancipation laws of the Northern States, operate to retain within those States the large portion of slave population then held, and secure their practical freedom? Why did they escape the supposed charity of these doctrines, and find their way, not as freemen, but as slaves, to a climate and soil more congenial to their nature and destiny? Are these doctrines real abstract truths, as their advocates profess to believe them to be? Then they are fundamental — they are vital — they are life-giving, and can never fail to impress their own essential character upon every system to which they are applied. The citizens of the Northern States adopted these doctrines. Then it was an affair of conscience. Emancipation laws were said to be the result. But that these laws, supposed to be founded in the belief of certain great abstract truths, which secured to the African his civil freedom, should operate only to transfer him to a climate and soil better suited to his condition as a slave, is a phenomenon for which the hypothesis does not ac,count. And again, the institution itself, of domestic slavery, by reason of causes which are evidently, though mysteriously, at work, is this [23] day more firmly grounded in the confidence of the great mass of the Southern people, and more extensively ramified and interlocked with other civil institutions of the whole country, than at any former period of its history! How is this? The abstract opinions and sentiments in question, pervading our literature, our politics, and our theology, have been adopted by so many of our citizens as to entitle the doctrine to be regarded as a kind of national belief — the sentiment a kind of national feeling. We are told that all men believe slavery to be wrong in principle; that is, wrong in itself! and that all men feel that it is wrong! And certain it is, there is more truth than fiction in all this! It is strictly true, as to the citizens of the so-called free States. The same doctrine is not without advocates at the South; whilst many more, as we have before stated, who may not be said to believe it, are nevertheless often the subjects of painful misgivings. They fear it may be true. The causes to which we have traced this, fully account for it; and we need not fear to state the truth. But then again, the question recurs — How is this, that the institution itself, a great practical truth, should daily, for a long series of years, become more and more practical — a fixed fact in the country? Truly, this is a phenomenon for which the philosophy of the day will not [24] account. If those who believed this doctrine were ruthless fanatics — ultra abolitionists in the strictest sense — if those who oppose it were really “pro-slavery” men, in the bad sense in which certain persons understand this phrase, that is, men who, on the subject of slavery, wickedly do what they know and feel to be wrong: on either hypothesis we could account for the phenomenon in question. But these are not the men with whom I deal in these lectures. I lay all such out of the account. They are men not to be reasoned with. No: the men of whom I speak, both North and South, are candid, honest men. I personally know many of them at the North. I have met them on great battle-fields, where more than blood was shed! I know them to be good men and true, and I believe the same of the large class they represent. With many of those at the South who affiliate with them in opinion as firm believers in Jefferson's doctrine, or whose embryo opinions excite painful misgivings of mind, I have often communed freely, and have equal confidence in their integrity and honesty. The whole taken together form a very numerous class, and may be safely regarded as embodying the national belief and feeling on the subject of slavery. And yet we find that slavery is a great practical truth, a fixed fact in the country. Now, can it be true [25] that this opinion and feeling embodies a great abstract truth — a fundamental, vital, immutable principle, which never did and never can fail to hold practical error in check, because it takes hold of the conscience of an honest people — and whose tendency, therefore, is always to an ultimate practical triumph, with all those who honestly receive it? We dare not affirm this.

It is not mere belief, nor is it mere honesty, that produces results in practice; but it is the reception of the truth in an honest heart, which can never fail to result in practice. Now in this case the people are honest, and the people believe; and if it be essential truth which they thus believe, then, we say, the fact that in all those States of this republic in which climate and soil are adapted to African labor — that precisely there the institution of domestic slavery should be rooted in the practice of a large portion of this believing and honest people, and that it should strike its roots into the federal constitution, and penetrate deeper and deeper every year into the legislation of the whole country, and thus implicate more and more the whole mass of this believing people in the sin of it, is a phenomenon, for which the postulate, that it is the truth they believe, does not account — nor can it be made to account.

A false principle may be believed to be the truth. [26] And a false principle believed, has its results, be cause it is believed; and they very much resemble the results of truth believed. But we dare not admit that error can take hold of the conscience as pure principle, essential truth will do it. But, again, there is another great psychological fact, which is often overlooked. A false principle may be honestly believed by minds which, at the same time, adopt antagonistic principles that are essential truths; but, owing to various causes calculated to confuse the ideas, the inconsistency is not perceived. Now, in such a case as this, the principle of essential truth is really brought into practical antagonism with essential error, and that in the same minds and upon the same subject. And as truth is more powerful than error in the minds of all honest people, the truth holds its way in practical results, in defiance of false principle, which is relatively powerless in the presence of truth. The antagonism between the false principle and the practical results of things may be perceived and acknowledged; whilst the antagonism of the false principle with the true principle, which underlies and produces these practical results by a law of its own operation, is not only not perceived, but actually denied to exist. Now so long as this false principle is honestly believed to be true, and clearly perceived to be in conflict with the practice, [27] but not perceived to be in conflict with other and more latent principles, which are in themselves truths, and admitted to be truths, and which produce this practice, just so long will this false principle wage war, by the simple law of belief, against this practice. But as this war is not sufficiently potent to overturn this practice, because it is founded on the belief of principles true in themselves, the practice will remain; and so long as this false belief remains, the strife with the practice must remain. Hence, if this be the state of the public mind in this country on the subject of African slavery, and it find no efficient remedy, we can see nothing awaiting us but interminable strife — men against themselves — the country against the country! We forbear to sketch the future.

But, young gentlemen, I submit if this psychology may not furnish a solution of the phenomena I have brought to your notice, and also a remedy against that otherwise interminable strife which has already done so much to impair the moral power and blight the fairest hopes of the country. May it not be that in admitting the great abstract doctrine of Mr. Jefferson, that the principle of African slavery is, per se, sinful, and that, as such, the attributes and providence of Deity are opposed to all who practice it, we have most [28] unwisely admitted a false doctrine? And as this false doctrine, though honestly believed by a number sufficiently large to designate it as the national belief and the national feeling, has utterly failed to abolish or even to modify the institution of African slavery, does it not afford a strong and clear presumption, to say the least, that this system which has held unbroken dominion over the African race in this country for over two centuries, and which continues to strike its roots deeper and deeper into all the relations of society, North and South--that this system, so potent in practical results, and so heedless of the fierce war that is waged against it, is, after all, underlaid somewhere by a vast mine of principles — pure essential truths--which are firmly rooted in the belief of all civilized and honest men, and which, all along, have imparted a spontaneous being and activity to the system, and will continue to do so perhaps as long as any considerable portion of the race shall remain in the country?

If this hypothesis shall prove true, the sovereign remedy for the otherwise interminable strife, so potent for mischief, is at hand. Let us then free ourselves, let us free the country, of the dominion of Mr. Jefferson's philosophy, because it is false. In doing this, we shall terminate the conflict which now rages with so much violence. We shall be [29] free to address ourselves to any modifications in the system of African slavery which may be demanded to adapt it to the progress of civilization.

Regarding the whole subject in this light, the duty of thoroughly investigating it seems to me to be laid upon the country as a moral necessity. It is useless to talk of “delicacy and humiliation,” in the presence of such fruits as a false philosophy has already borne plentifully throughout the land.

As your chosen instructor, I owe you a service. I dare not give up your minds to the dominion of Wayland's Philosophy, (your text,) nor to any other text on this subject, now known to the country. I propose to lead your way in exploring the mine of truth which we may assume to underlie the system of African slavery. We may look with confidence to reach these results:

1. That the philosophy of Jefferson is false, and that the opposite is true, namely, that the great abstract principle of domestic slavery is, per se, right; and therefore it is not in the use but in the abuse of this principle that we are liable to sin, and thereby incur the Divine displeasure.

2. That we should have a Southern literature. Our schools must be supplied with correct text-books on this subject. The poison which our texts now contain must be distilled from them by the learned of the land. The Church should not [30] only right herself as she has done in the South, but her voice should be heard in the pulpit enforcing right principles, as well as right duties, upon this subject. Truth is at all times intolerant of any abuse. Her voice should certainly be heard under circumstances so urgent as the present. It is due to many in Southern communities whose minds are, more or less, disturbed by the long-continued abuse of the pulpit, and the social influence of mistaken ministers of religion in private life. It is due to the interests of our common country. We have lost much already in suppressing the truth. We have much to gain by boldly asserting her claims — for “truth is great, and will prevail!”

Truth crushed to earth will rise again:
     The eternal years of God are hers;
But Error, wounded, writhes in pain,
     And dies amid her worshippers.

1 The Methodists and Baptists, it is well known, divided directly upon the subject of slavery; and the Presbyterians mediately upon a question of constitutional law; but there is reason to believe that the slavery agitation in the Presbyterian Church precipitated a division, which otherwise would probably have been averted.

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