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Chapter 2: the Background

Let us consider the first fifty years of our national history. There was never a moment during this time when the slavery issue was not a sleeping serpent. That issue lay coiled up under the table during the deliberations of the Constitutional Convention in 1787. It was, owing to the invention of the cotton gin, more than half awake at the time of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803; and slavery was continued in the Louisiana Territory by the terms of the treaty. Thereafter slavery was always in everyone's mind, though not always on his tongue. A slave state and a free state were, as a matter of practice, always admitted in pairs. Thus, Vermont and Kentucky, Tennessee and Ohio, Louisiana and Indiana, Mississippi and Illinois, had each been offset against the other. This was to preserve the balance of power. The whole country, however, was in a state of unstable equilibrium and [10] the era of good feeling oscillated upon the top of a craggy peak.

At last, in 1818-20, came two years of fierce, open struggle over slavery in the admission of Missouri, which state was formed from part of the Louisiana Purchase. Southern threats of disunion clashed with Northern taunts of defiance in the House of Representatives. In the outcome, the Missouri Compromise admitted Missouri with slavery; and prohibited slavery in that part of the Louisiana Purchase which lay north of the latitude of 36° 30', except in the portion included in Missouri. This compromise became, in the public mind, as sacred as the Constitution itself; so that when, in 1854, the Compromise was repealed, the whole North felt that the bottom had dropped out of their government. The North believed itself to be betrayed. The savage feeling which led up to war developed rapidly at the North after this time. The war came as the final outcome of a great malady. But we must return to 1820.

During the decade that followed the Missouri Compromise everyone in America fell sick. It was not a sickness that kept men in bed. They went about their businessthe lawyer to court, the lady to pay calls, the [11] merchant to his wharf. The amusements, and the religious, literary, and educational occupations of mankind went forward as usual. But they all went forward under the gradually descending fringe of a mist, an unwholesome-feeling cloud of oppression. No one could say why it was that his food did not nourish him quite as it used to do, nor his unspoken philosophy of life any longer cover the needs of his nature. This was especially strange, because everybody ought to have been perfectly happy. Had not the country emerged from the War of the Revolution in the shape of a new and glorious Birth of Time — a sample to all mankind? Had it not survived the dangers of the second war with Great Britain? And what then remained for us except to go forward victoriously and become a splendid, successful, vigorous, and benevolent people? Everything was settled that concerned the stability of our form of government. The future could surely contain nothing except joyous progress.

The Americans of 1820-30 expounded the glorious nature of their own destiny. They challenged the casual visitor to deny it; and became quite noted for their insistence upon this claim, and for their determination [12] to secure the acknowledgement of it by all men.

At the bottom of this nervous concern there was not, as is generally supposed, merely the bumptious pride and ignorance of a new nation. There was something more complex and more honorable; there was an inner knowledge that none of these things were true. This knowledge was forced upon our fathers by their familiarity with their own political literature and with the Declaration of Independence in particular. There was a chasm between the agreeable statement that all men are created free and equal, and the horrible fact of human slavery. The thought of this incongruity troubled every American. No recondite or difficult reasoning was required to produce the mental anguish that now began to oppress America. The only thing necessary was leisure for anguish, and this leisure first became possible at the close of the second war with Great Britain. The operation of the thought was almost entirely unconscious, and its issue in pain almost entirely unexpressed.

The articulate classes had not talked much about slavery since the days of the constitutional compromises, and it is the aged Jefferson [13] who writes from Monticello apropos of the Missouri Compromise--“This momentous question, like a fire-bell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror. I considered it at once the knell of the Union.”

Now there never was a moment in the history of the country when this fire-bell was quite silent. The educational policy of the articulate classes of society during the first fifty years of the Nation's life had been to hush the bell.

Ever since the Southern members in the Constitutional Convention had showed their teeth, and threatened to withdraw if slavery were disturbed, a policy of silence had been adopted. The questions covered by the Constitution were to be regarded as conclusively settled. The bandages must never be taken off them. Any person who reviews the history of the American Revolution can sympathize with this timidity; for it seems like a miracle that the Colonies should ever have come together-so antagonistic were their interests, and their ideals. The Colonists feared some new breach, and there ensued a non-intellectual determination that certain questions should not be re-examined: this determination [14] gradually grew into our great stupefying dogma which says to the private citizen, “This is our way of doing things: youbedamned: intellect has nothing to do with the matter: it is American.” This dogma, which arose out of the needs of our early days, has become the most widespread form of metaphysical faith among us. No doubt all nations harbor similar prejudices as to their own institutions; but the nations of Europe have been jostled into liberalism by their contiguity one with another; and the jostling is now being extended to us. During our early history, however, we were isolated, and our intellectual classes took their American history a little too seriously. The state of mind of our statesmen and scholars in that epoch is well summed up in Webster's reply to Hayne. That speech closes an epoch. It is the great paving-stone of conclusive demonstration, placed upon the mouth of a natural spring.

All this while something had been left out in all the nation's political and social philosophy — something which policy forbade men to search for, and this something was beginning to move in the pit of the stomach of Americans, and to make them feel exceedingly and vaguely ill. In order to bind [15] the Colonies into a more lasting union, a certain suppression of truth, a certain trampling upon instinct had been resorted to in the Constitution. All the parties to that instrument thoroughly understood the iniquity of slavery and deplored it. All the parties were ashamed of slavery and yet felt obliged to perpetuate it. They wrapped up a twenty years protection of the African slave trade in a colorless phrase.

“The migration or importation of such persons as any of the states now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the year one thousand eight hundred and eight, but a tax or duty may be imposed on such importations, not exceeding ten dollars for each person.”

Now the slave trade meant the purchase upon African coasts of negroes and negresses, their branding, herding, manacling, and transportation between decks across tropical seas. The African slave trade is probably the most brutal organized crime in history. Our fathers did not dare to name it. So of the fugitive-slave law;--the Constitution deals with it in the cruel, quiet way in which monstrous tyranny deals with the fictions of administrative law. “No [16] person held to service or labor in one state under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labor; but shall be delivered up on claim of the party to whom such service or labor may be due.”

In an age in which the Inquisition is absolutely dominant, its officials are almost kind. The leaden touch of hypocrisy was thus in the heart of our Constitution. Coldheartedness radiated from the Ark of our Covenant. We condone this because we know that many of these fathers really did believe that slavery was probably going to diminish and die out in the country. Even while protecting it they hoped for the best, and knew not what they did. But as slavery became more important instead of less important, and as the cruelty of it became more visible, the bond of the document pressed upon the conscience of the people. We had undertaken more than we could perform. The suppression of truth, the trampling upon instinct, which we had accepted as a duty, was stifling us. For the first fifty years of our national life no reaction was visible. And then there ensued a fermentation, a tumult in the heart which nothing [17] could quell. This tumult began long before it showed itself. Its dialectic and logic were developed and ready for use, like the wings of the locust in the shell. The natures of men were beginning to heave and to swell — and at last, when Garrison speaks out, behold, he is in electrical communication with an age over-charged with passion. His thought is understood immediately. Every implication, every consequence, every remote contingency has been anticipated in the public consciousness, and there ensues explosion after explosion: crash generates crash: storm-routes of continuous passion plow the heavens across the continent from sea to sea. In truth our whole civilization, our social life, our religious feelings, our political ideas, had all become accommodated to cruelty, representative of tyranny. The gigantic backbone of business-interest was a slavery backbone. We were a slave republic. For a generation, nay, for two hundred years, we had tolerated slavery; and for a generation it had been a sacred thing — a man must suppress his feelings in speaking of it.

Now there is nothing more injurious to the character and to the intellect than the suppression of generous emotion. It means [18] death:--sickness to the individual, blight to the race. Compassion shining through the heart wears the very name and face of Divine Life. It makes the limbs strong and the mind capable; it strengthens the stomach and supports the intestines. Cramp this emotion, and you will have a half-dead man, whose children will be less well-nourished than himself.

It is hard to imagine the falsetto condition of life in the Northern States in 1829; --the lack of spontaneity and naturalness about everybody, so far as externals went, and the presence of extreme solicitude in the bottom of everybody's heart. Emerson speaks in his journal (1834) of the fine manners of the young Southerners, brought up amidst slavery, and of the deference which Northerners, both old and young, habitually paid to the people of the South. It seems to have been regarded as a social duty at the North to shield the feelings of Southerners, and, as it were, to apologize for not owning slaves. The feelings of the Northern philanthropist, however, were never regarded with delicacy. On the contrary it was thought to be his duty to suppress his feelings. Any exhibition of humane sentiment where slavery was concerned — and it was [19] always concerned — was punished immediately. The most natural impulses, the most simple acts of human piety could be indulged in only through an initiation of fierce pain, generally followed by social ostracism. The right to draw one's breath involved a struggle with Apollyon.

“ Only a few days before one of our meetings,” writes Henry I. Bowditch, one of Garrison's early recruits from the social world of Boston, “a young lady had hoped that I ‘would never become an Abolitionist,’ and about the same time Frederick Douglass appeared as a runaway slave. He was at the meeting in Marlboroa Chapel. Of course I was introduced to him, and, as I would have invited a white friend, I asked him home to dine with me in my small abode in Bedford Street. It is useless to deny that I did not like the thought of walking with him in open midday up Washington Street. I hoped I would not meet any of my acquaintances. I had, however, hardly turned into the street before I met the young lady who had expressed her wish as above stated. I am glad now to say that I did not skulk. I looked at her straight and bowed in ‘my most gracious manner’ as if I were ‘all right,’ while I saw by her look of regret that [20] she thought me ‘all wrong.’ It was, however, something like a cold sponge-bath,that Washington Street walk by the side of a black man,--rather terrible at the outset, but wonderfully warming and refreshing afterwards! I had literally jumped ‘in medias res.’ But I did not hear until years afterwards, and a long time after Douglass had held office in Washington under Federal Government, and the slavery of his own race had been washed out in blood, what I was doing for him at the moment that as a friend I asked him to walk home with me to dinner. How little do we appreciate acts that seem trivial or something worse to us, but which to others, affected by such acts, are of indispensable importance! Beautiful to me seems now the act, inasmuch as it helped to raise a poor, down-trodden soul into a proper self-appreciation. And how much I thank God that He led me by giving me a love of freedom, and something like a conscience to act as I did then.” 1

The strain of that walk upon Bowditch [21] is felt forty years later in his account of it. The profound political instinct which led him to take the walk is as noticeable as the religious nature of his impulse. It is wonderful to reflect how little the significance of the act could have been understood by any casual observer of the scene. Here is a man who turns down one street rather than another, upon meeting an acquaintance. He looks like a gentleman doing an act of politeness; while he is, in fact, a saint going through the fire for his faith, and a hero saving the republic. So banal are externals, so deep is reality. But our present interest in the incident lies in this — that it measures the separation of Massachusetts from the ordinary standards of Europe. Frederick Douglass was almost a man of genius and he looked like a man of genius. His photograph at the time of his escape from slavery might be the photograph of a musician or a painter. He was the kind of man who, in a Paris or London salon, would excite anyone's passing notice, as perhaps a South American diplomat or artist.

An intelligent foreign observer might have told Bowditch that the sufferings which both Bowditch and Douglass were enduring betrayed the fact that a social [22] revolution was under way. They were the sign of an approaching homogeneity. This universal disturbance, this universal throe is the first thing that all the people of the United States ever experienced together. Their former unions had been political and external: this was spiritual and internal.

We are familiar with the Northern form of the uneasiness, because the Northerner could speak. He cried out; and through his utterance came the cure. But of the pain of the Southerner, to whom all expression of feeling was denied, we know nothing. With the rise of Abolition, perished every vestige of free speech at the South. Events now converged to crush the manhood out of the slave-holding classes. A Southerner could not be gentle, unselfish, quick to speak his thought, or genuinely interested in anything. His opinions were prepared for him before he was born; and they were lightkilling illusions — the precursors of mania. The enactment of very stringent and inhuman slave codes, and the prohibition of all education to the slaves followed in the wake of the Abolition outbreaks. The maturing of a sort of philosophy of slavery, according to which slavery was seen as the cornerstone [23] of religion and progress, was the work of the following decade, and the task of Calhoun. The corollaries to this philosophy which involved an abandonment of popular education, and the cutting-off of the South from every intellectual contact with the civilization of Europe, were duly worked out during the next thirty years. By the time the war came there existed a sort of Religion of Slavedom. The Pro-slavery Northern Democrats of Buchanan's time held opinions which would have shocked the most pronounced slaveholders of 1820. During all this time Virginia and the Carolinas — which constituted the Holy Land of the Slave Dispensation — endured a silent exodus and migration on the part of the more liberal spirits. Men even went to New Orleans to escape the tyranny of slave opinion at Charleston. Thus were the souls of Americans squeezed and their tempers made acid. A slightly too ready responsiveness to stimulus of any kind came to be the mark of the American, whether at the North or at the South; the difference being that the too ready response at the South was apt to be an insult, at the North an apology. This hair-trigger nervousness on the part of everybody was the result of poison in the [24] system. What could the manly Southern youth do? Leave all and follow Abolition? He knew of Abolition only that it was a villainous attack on his father's character and property. He was in the grip of a relentless, moving hurricane of distorted views, false feelings, erroneous philosophy; and he knew nothing clearly, understood nothing clearly, until he perished upon the battlefields of the Civil War, fighting like a hero.

It is impossible in describing the course of the Slave Power between 1832-65 to avoid harsh language. If ever wickedness came upward in the counsels of men, it did so here. Yet there are elements in all these matters which elude our analysis. The virtues glimmer and seem to go out; but they are never really extinguished. How much idealism, how much latent heroism must have existed in the South during all these years before the war, was seen when the war came. Villains do not choose for themselves Commanders like Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. It is lost, that old society, and it died almost speechless-died justly and inevitably. Yet we do well to remember with what a flame of sacrifice it perished, to remember with what force, what devotion, what heroism, Humanity [25] showed herself to be still adorned in that hour of an all-devouring atonement.

The great fever came to an end with Appomattox. The delirium stopped: the plague had been expelled. The nation was not dead: the nation was at the beginning of a long convalescence. It is, however, about the earlier symptoms of the disorder that I would speak here, about the presentiments of headache and nausea, and about that dreadfullest moment in all sickness (as it seems to me), the moment when we admit that something serious is coming on.

The struggle between the North and the South began over free speech about the negro, and especially about the right of benevolent people at the North to extend their benevolence to the negro, as, for instance, in their schools, Sunday-schools, hospitals, etc. Now the South sincerely believed that the Missouri Compromise of 1820 had morally bound the North not to talk about slavery in private conversation, and not to treat the negro as a human being. The South had succeeded in imposing this conviction upon the whole North.

“ The patriotism of all classes,” wrote Edward Everett, Governor of Massachusetts, in a message to his Legislature, “the patriotism [26] of all classes must be invoked to abstain from discussion, which by exasperating the master, can have no other effect than to render more oppressive the condition of the slave.”

This paralysis of dumbness and of fear touched everyone. It was not exactly fear, either, but a sort of subtle freemasonry, a secret belief that nothing must be disturbed. The Southerners lived in sincere terror of slave uprisings-and they managed to convey a mysterious tremor to the North upon the subject.

Dr. Channing was that age's figure-head. He was the most eminent man in the country; the moral sciences were his province. He was, therefore, constantly appealed to by all persons and parties upon the slavery question. His responses and his conduct upon such occasions give the best key to that age which we have; and his character will be discussed as long as posterity takes an interest in the epoch. This must be my excuse for recurring to Dr. Channing from time to time and for using him, at this point, to illustrate the flatness and tameness of good men in that age; yes, to illustrate the spiritual domination of evil at the time when Garrison began his crusade. The drawingrooms [27] of our grandfathers' times contained automata; ghosts clustered about the dinner tables. The people had forgotten what the sound of a man's voice was like. That is why they were so startled by Garrison.

Even Channing, who was a true saint, and, when time was given him, a courageous man, is an injured being-like a beautiful plant which has grown to maturity in a dungeon. Under the pressure of his own conscience and of certain hammering Abolitionists who were his friends, he wrote an analysis of slavery, and stood shoulder to shoulder with the Abolitionists on the question of free speech. It is to his everlasting honor that he did this: for he sincerely deplored the methods of the Abolitionists and was incapable of understanding their mission. By his writings on slavery and by his act in standing by the Abolitionists on the question of free speech, Channing became a broken idol to all of the South and to half of his Boston admirers. We must never confound him, as the Abolitionists were prone to do, with the contemporary flock of time-serving parsons. Channing was a man who could, and did, go through the fire for principle. But he was a man lacking in instinct, a sad man, too [28] reasonable to understand this crisis or know how to meet it. He was trampled upon by his congregation, and knew not how to save himself.

Dr. Channing's coldness toward Abolition might be shown by his words to Daniel Webster in 1828, deprecating any agitation of the slavery question; by his studied avoidance of Garrison in social life; by his inability, even in the Essay on Slavery, to see the importance of the Abolition movement;--or in a hundred other ways. On the other hand, Dr. Channing's services to the Antislavery cause could be illustrated by this same essay, and by the esteem and love which many leading Anti-slavery people always bore him. Let us, however, go to the bottom of the whole matter.

On January 13th, 1840, Dr. Charles Follen, a German enthusiast and one of the few highly educated men among the Abolitionists, was burned alive in the ill-fated steamer Lexington, while on a journey from New York to Boston. Follen was a young doctor of laws and a teacher at the University of Jena, who had been prosecuted for his liberal opinions by the reactionary governments of Prussia and Austria in 1824. He had fled to Switzerland and thence to the [29] United States. His friends in this country secured him a post as lecturer, and afterwards as professor, at Harvard College; which post he lost through expressing his opinions on slavery. He afterwards took a pastorate in the Unitarian Church and lost it through the same cause.

Follen was what Goethe used to call a “Schoene Seele,” --beloved of all. He was an especial friend of Channing's. His tragic death was at the time considered by the Abolitionists as the severest blow which they had yet received. They sought a place to hold a commemorative meeting in his honor, and they applied to Channing for permission to use his church; which Channing accorded. The standing committee of the church, however, cancelled this permission. Channing's biographer speaks as follows:

Nothing in all his (Channing's) intercourse with his people, nothing in his whole Anti-slavery experience, caused him so much pain as a refusal of the use of the church to the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society, on the sad occasion when all truehearted persons were called to mourn the awful death of Charles Follen, and when the Rev. S. J. May had prepared a discourse [30] in commemoration of the rare virtues of that heroic and honored man. It was not only the insult to the memory of a beloved friend that grieved him — though this could not but shock his quick and delicate feelings; still less was it the disregard, under such touching circumstances, of his wellknown wishes, that wounded him most deeply; but this manifestation of a want of high sentiment in the congregation to which, for so many years, he had officiated as pastor, made him question the usefulness of his whole ministry. To what end had he poured out his soul, if such conduct was a practical embodiment of the principles and precepts which he had so earnestly inculcated? This event brought home to his heart the conviction that the need was very urgent of a thorough application of the Christian law of love to all existing social relations.

It is evident to the common mind that Channing should have resigned his post rather than accept this affront from his flock. Nay, Channing should have resigned twenty years earlier, and upon the first occasion when any such subjection of his own impulses was required of him. The anecdote shows the skeleton that lurked in all the [31] vestry rooms of that period. It shows also how partial are the philosophic illuminations of men. Dr. Channing disbelieved in the principle of association. It was one of the points in his disapproval of the Anti-slavery people that they worked through associations; for he had a philosophic disbelief in the theory of association. I share this disbelief with Dr. Channing; the miserable squabbles between Anti-slavery associations in which the reformers wasted their force and impaired their tempers, show very clearly the dangers inherent in association, which dangers Channing very clearly saw. Yet Channing was himself the servant of an association; and every fault in his relation to the great moral question of his time may be traced to that fact.

Association,--business or social, literary or artistic, religious or scientific,--all association is opposed to any disrupting idea. The merchants and lawyers of Boston fled Abolition as a plague; they regarded Abolition as an enemy to be fought with all weapons. Garrison was once taken to hear Dr. Channing by an acquaintance of both parties, and he sat in a pew which belonged to a conservative family, but which that family had been in the habit of throwing open to others. [32] On the Tuesday following this apparition of Garrison in the sacred pew, the future use of it was withdrawn by a stiff note from the conservative family. The reason for this excess of caution was that the South disciplined Northern merchants by a withdrawal of business; and the South kept its eyes open. A rumor that Garrison had been seen in a particular pew might make the pewowner a marked man for commercial punishment. “Mr. May,” said a New York merchant of the first rank to the reformer, whom he summoned to an interview during the progress of an Anti-slavery meeting, “Mr. May, we are not such fools as not to know that slavery is a great evil; a great wrong. But it was consented to by the founders of our Republic. It was provided for in the Constitution of our Union. A great portion of the property of the Southerners is invested under its sanction; and the business of the North, as well as the South, has become adjusted to it. There are millions upon millions of dollars due from Southerners to the merchants and mechanics of this city alone, the payment of which would be jeopardized by any rupture between the North and the South. We cannot afford, sir, to let you and your associates succeed [33] in your endeavor to overthrow slavery. It is not a matter of principle with us. It is a matter of business necessity. We cannot afford to let you succeed. And I have called you out to let you know, and to let your fellow laborers know, that we do not mean to allow you to succeed. We mean, sir,” said he, with increased emphasis,--“we mean, sir, to put you Abolitionists down,--by fair means if we can, by foul means if we must.”

Truly the world was not very different then from what it is to-day. If a man takes a stand against any business interest, however iniquitous, that interest will strike at him on the following day.

1 Many years afterwards, when an assemblage of anti-slavery veterans and hosts of young colored men were honoring Frederick Douglass in a public hall in Boston, he alluded to this incident with the remark, “Dr. Bowditch I greet joyfully here, for he first treated me as if I were a man.”

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