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Chapter 6: the heavy world is moved.

Archimedes with his lever desired a place to stand that he might move the world of matter. Garrison with his paper, having found a place for his feet, demonstrated speedily his ability to push from its solid base the world of mind. His plan was very simple, viz., to reveal slavery as it then existed in its naked enormity, to the conscience of the North,to be “as harsh as truth and as uncompromising as justice.” And so, week after week, he packed in the columns of the Liberator facts, the most damning facts, against slaveholders, their cruelty and tyranny. He painted the woes of the slaves as if he, too, had been a slave. For the first time the masters found a man who rebuked them as not before had they been rebuked. Others may have equivocated, but this man called things by their proper names, a spade, a spade, and sin, sin. Others may have contented themselves with denunciations of the sins and with excuses for the sinner, as a creature of circumstances, the victim of ancestral transgressions, but this man offered no excuses for the slave-holding sinner. Him and his sin he denounced in language, which the Eternal puts only into the mouths of His prophets. It was, as he had said, “On this subject I do not wish to think, or speak, or write, with moderation.” The strength and resources of his mother-tongue seemed to him wholly

(I I 8) [119] inadequate for his needs, to express the transcendent wickedness of slave-holding. All the harsh, the stern, the terrible and tremendous energies of the English speech he drew upon, and launched at slaveholders. Amid all of this excess of the enthusiast there was the method of a calculating mind. He aimed to kindle a conflagration because he had icebergs to melt. “The public shall not be imposed upon,” he replied to one of his critics, “and men and things shall be called by their right names. I retract nothing, I blot out nothing. My language is exactly such as suits me; it will displease many, I know ; to displease them is my intention.” He was philosopher enough to see that he could reach the national conscience only by exciting the national anger. It was not popular rage, which he feared but popular apathy. If he could goad the people to anger on the subject of slavery he would soon be rid of their apathy. And so week after week he piled every sort of combustible material, which he was able to collect on board the Liberator and lighting it all, sent the fiery messenger blazing among the icebergs of the Union. Slaveholders were robbers, murderers, oppressors; they were guilty of all the sins of the decalogue, were in a word the chief of sinners. At the same moment that the reformer denied their right of property in the slave, he attacked their character also, held them up in their relation of masters to the reprobation of the nation and of mankind as monsters of injustice and inhumanity. The tone which he held toward them, steadily, without shadow of change, was the tone of a righteous man toward the workers of iniquity. The indifference, the apathy, the pro-slavery [120] sympathy and prejudice of the free States rendered the people of the North hardly less culpable. They were working iniquity with the people of the South. This was the long, sharp goad, which the young editor thrust in between the bars of the Union and stirred the guilty sections to quick and savage outbursts of temper against him and the bitter truths which he preached. Almost directly the proofs came to him that he was heard at the South and at the North alike. Angry growls reached his ears in the first month of the publication of the Liberator from some heartless New England editors in denunciation of his “violent and intemperate attacks on slaveholders.” The Journal, published at Louisville, Kentucky, and edited by George D. Prentice, declared that, “some of his opinions with regard to slavery in the United States are no better than lunacy.” The American Spectator published at the seat of the National Government, had hoped that the good sense of the “late talented and persecuted junior editor” of the Genius, “would erelong withdraw him even from the side of the Abolitionists.” And from farther South the growl which the reformer heard was unmistakably ferocious. It was from the State of South Carolina and the Camden Journal, which pronounced the Liberator “a scandalous and incendiary budget of sedition.” These were the beginning of the chorus of curses, which soon were to sing their serpent songs about his head. Profane and abusive letters from irate slaveholders and their Northern sympathisers began to pour into the sanctum of the editor. Within a few months after the first issue of the Liberator the whole aspect of the world without had changed toward [121] him. “Foes are on my right hand, and on my left,” he reported to some friends. “The tongue of detraction is busy against me. I have no communion with the world — the world none with me. The timid, the lukewarm, the base, affect to believe that my brains are disordered, and my words the ravings of a maniac. Even many of my friends — they who have grown up with me from my childhood — are transformed into scoffers and enemies.” The apathy of the press, and the apathy of the people were putting forth signs that the long winter of the land was passing away.

To a colored man belongs the high honor of having been the courier avant of the slavery agitation. This man was David Walker, who lived in Boston, and who published in 1829 a religio-political discussion of the status of the negroes of the United States in four articles. The wretchedness of the blacks in consequence of slavery he depicted in dark and bitter language. Theodore Parker, many years afterward, said that the negro was deficient in vengeance, the lowest form of justice. “Walker's appeal” evinced no deficiency in this respect in its author. The pamphlet found its way South, and was the cause of no little commotion among the master-class. It was looked upon as an instigation to servile insurrection. The “Appeal” was proscribed, and a price put upon the head of the author. Garrison deprecated the sanguinary character of the book. For he himself was the very reverse of Walker. Garrison was a full believer in the literal doctrine of non-resistance as enunciated by Jesus. He abhorred all war, and physical collisions of every description, as wicked and inhuman. He sang to the slave; [122]

Not by the sword shall your deliverance be;
     Not by the shedding of your master's blood,
Not by rebellion-or foul treachery,
     Upspringing suddenly, like swelling flood;
Revenge and rapine ne'er did bring forth good.
     God's time is best!-nor will it long delay;
Even now your barren cause begins to bud,
     And glorious shall the fruit be!-watch and pray,
For lo! the kindling dawn that ushers in the day.

He considered “Walker's appeal” “a most injudicious publication, yet warranted by the creed of an independent people.” He saw in our Fourth-of-July demonstrations, in our glorification of force as an instrument for achieving liberty, a constant incentive to the slaves to go and do likewise. If it was right for the men of 1776 to rise in rebellion against their mother-country, it surely could not be wrong were the slaves to revolt against their oppressors, and strike for their freedom. It certainly did not lie in the mouth of a people, who apotheosized force, to condemn them. What was sauce for the white man's goose was sauce for the black man's gander.

The South could not distinguish between this sort of reasoning, and an express and positive appeal to the slaves to cut the throats of their masters. The contents of the Liberator were quite as likely to produce a slave insurrection as was “Walker's appeal,” if the paper was allowed to circulate freely among the slave population. It was, in fact, more dangerous to the lives and interests of slaveholders by virtue of the pictorial representation of the barbarism and abomination of the peculiar institution, introduced as a feature of the Liberator in its seventeenth number, in the shape of a slave auction, where the slaves [123] are chattels, and classed with “horses and other cattle,” and where the tortures of the whipping-post are in vigorous operation. Here was a message, which every slave, however ignorant and illiterate could read. His instinct would tell him, wherever he saw the pictured horror, that a friend, not an enemy, had drawn it, but for what purpose? What was the secret meaning, which he was to extract from a portrayal of his woes at once so real and terrible. Was it to be a man, to seize the knife, the torch, to slay and burn his way to the rights and estate of a man? Garrison had put no such bloody import into the cut. It was designed not to appeal to the passions of the slaves, but to the conscience of the North. But the South did not so read it, was incapable, in fact, of so reading it. What it saw was a shockingly realistic representation of the wrongs of the slaves, the immediate and inevitable effect of which upon the slaves would be to incite them to sedition, to acts of revenge. Living as the slaveholders were over mines of powder and dynamite, it is not to be marveled at that the first flash of danger filled them with apprehension and terror. The awful memories of San Domingo flamed red and dreadful against the dark background of every Southern plantation and slave community. In the “belly” of the Liberator's picture were many San Domingos. Extreme fear is the beginning of madness; it is, indeed, a kind of madness. The South was suddenly plunged into a state of extreme fear toward which the Liberator and “Walker's appeal” were hurrying it, by one of those strange accidents or coincidences of history. [124]

This extraordinary circumstance was the slave insurrection in Southampton, Virginia, in the month of August, 1831. The leader of the uprising was the now famous Nat Turner. Brooding over the wrongs of his race for several years, he conceived that he was the divinely appointed agent to redress them. He was cast in the mould of those rude heroes, who spring out of the sides of oppression as isolated trees will sometimes grow out of clefts in a mountain. With his yearning to deliver his people, there mingled not a little religious frenzy and superstition. Getting his command from Heaven to arise against the masters, he awaited the sign from this same source of the moment for beginning the work of destruction. It came at last and on the night of August 21st; he and his confederates made a beginning by massacring first his own master, Mr. Joseph Travis, and his entire family. Turner's policy was remorseless enough. It was to spare no member of the white race, whether man, woman, or child, the very infant at the mother's breast was doomed to the knife, until he was able to collect such an assured force as would secure the success of the enterprise. This purpose was executed with terrible severity and exactness. All that night the work of extermination went on as the slave leader and his followers passed like fate from house to house, and plantation to plantation, leaving a wide swathe of death in their track. Terror filled the night, terror filled the State, the most abject terror clutched the bravest hearts. The panic was pitiable, horrible. James McDowell, one of the leaders of the Old Dominion, gave voice to the awful memories and sensations of that night, in the great antislavery [125] debate, which broke out in the Virginia Legislature, during the winter afterward. One of the legislators, joined to his idol, and who now, that the peril had passed, laughed at the uprising as a “petty affair.” McDowell retorted-“Was that a ‘petty affair,’ which erected a peaceful and confiding portion of the State into a military camp, which outlawed from pity the unfortunate beings whose brothers had offended; which barred every door, penetrated every bosom with fear or suspicion, which so banished every sense of security from every man's dwelling, that let but a hoof or horn break upon the silence of the night, and an aching throb would be driven to the heart? The husband would look to his weapon, and the mother would shudder and weep upon her cradle. Was it the fear of Nat Turner and his deluded, drunken handful of followers which produced such effects? Was it this that induced distant counties, where the very name of Southampton was strange, to arm and equip for a struggle? No, sir, it was the suspicion eternally attached to the slave himself, --a suspicion that a Nat Turner might be in every family, that the same bloody deed might be acted over at any time and in any place, that the materials for it were spread through the land, and were always ready for a like explosion.”

Sixty-one whites and more than a hundred blacks perished in this catastrophe. The news produced a profound sensation in the Union. Garrison himself, as he records, was horror-struck at the tidings. Eight months before he had in a strain of prophecy penetrated the future and caught a glimpse of just such an appalling tragedy: [126]

Wo, if it come with storm, and blood, and fire,
When midnight darkness veils the earth and sky!
Wo to the innocent babe — the guilty sire-
Mother and daughter-friends of kindred tie!
Stranger and citizen alike shall die!
Red-handed slaughter his revenge shall feed,
And havoc yell his ominous death-cry,
And wild despair in vain for mercy plead-
While hell itself shall shrink and sicken at the deed!

After the Southampton insurrection the slavery agitation increased apace, and the Liberator and its editor became instantly objects of dangerous notoriety in it. The eyes of the country were irresistibly drawn to them. They were at the bottom of the uprising, they were instigating the slaves to similar outbreaks. The savage growlings of a storm came thrilling on every breeze from the South, and wrathful mutterings against the agitator and his paper grew thenceforth more distinct and threatening throughout the free States. October 15, 1831, Garrison records in the Liberator that he “is constantly receiving from the slave States letters filled with the most diabolical threats and indecent language.” In the same month Georgetown, S. C., in a panic made it unlawful for a free colored person to take the Liberator from the post-office. In the same month the Charleston Mercury announced that “gentlemen of the first respectability” at Columbia had offered a reward of fifteen hundred dollars for the arrest and conviction of any white person circulating the Liberator, Walker's pamphlet, “or any other publication of seditious tendency.” In Georgia the same symptoms of fright were exhibited. In the same month the [127] grand jury at Raleigh, N. C., indicted William Lloyd Garrison and Isaac Knapp for circulating the Liberator in that county. It was even confidently expected that a requisition would be made by the Executive of the State upon the Governor of Massachusetts for their arrest, when they would be tried under a law, which made their action felony. “Whipping and imprisonment for the first offence, and death, without benefit of clergy, for the second.” Governor Floyd said in his message to the Virginia Legislature in December that there was good cause to suspect that the plans of the Southampton massacre were “designed and matured by unrestrained fanatics in some of the neighboring States.” Governor Hamilton sent to the South Carolina Legislature in the same month an excited message on the situation. He was in entire accord with the Virginia Executive as to the primary and potent agencies which led to the slave uprising in Virginia. They were “incendiary newspapers and other publications put forth in the nonslave-holding States, and freely circulated within the limits of Virginia.” As specimens of “incendiary newspapers and other publications, put forth in the non-slave-holding States,” the South Carolina official sent along with his message, copies of the Liberator and of Mr. Garrison's address to the “Free people of color,” for the enlightenment of the members of the Legislature. But it remained for Georgia to cap the climax of madness when her Legislature resolved: “That the sum of five thousand dollars be, and the same is hereby appropriated, to be paid to any person or persons who shall arrest, bring to trial and prosecute to conviction, under the laws of this State, the editor [128] or publisher of a certain paper called theLiberator, published in the town of Boston and State of Massachusetts; or who shall arrest and bring to trial and prosecute to conviction, under the laws of this State, any other person or persons who shall utter, publish, or circulate within the limits of this State said paper called the Liberator, or any other paper, circular, pamphlet, letter, or address of a seditious character.” This extraordinary resolve was signed Dec. 26, 1831, by “Wilson Lumpkin, Governor.” The whole South was in a state of terror. In its insane fright it would have made short shrift of the editor of the Liberator, had he by accident, force, or fraud have fallen into the clutches of its laws. The Georgia reward of five thousand dollars was as Mr. Garrison put it, “a bribe to kidnappers.” The Southern method of dealing with the agitation within the slave States was violent and effective. There could be no agitation after the agitators were abolished. And the Southern method was to abolish the agitators.

The suppression of Abolitionism within the slave States was no difficult matter, but its suppression at the North was a problem of a wholly different nature, as the South was not long in finding out. It would not understand why its violent treatment of the disease within its jurisdiction could not be prescribed as a remedy by the non-slave-holding half of the Union within its borders. And so the South began to call loudly and fiercely for the suppression of a movement calculated to incite the slaves to insubordination and rebellion. This demand of the South had its influence at the North. Such newspapers as the National Intelligencer, and the Boston Courier suggested [129] amendments to the laws whereby the publication of incendiary writings in the free States might be prohibited. The latter journal allowed that under the criminal code of Massachusetts “every man has a right to advocate Abolition, or conspiracy, or murder; for he may do all these without breaking our laws, although in any Southern State public justice and public safety would require his punishment.”

“ But,” the editor goes on to remark, “if we have no laws upon the subject, it is because the exigency was not anticipated . . . Penal statutes against treasonable and seditious publications are necessary in all communities. We have them for our own protection ; if they should include provisions for the protection of our neighbors it would be no additional encroachment upon the liberty of the press.” The Governors of Virginia and Georgia remonstrated with Harrison Gray Otis, who was Mayor of Boston in the memorable year of 1831, “against an incendiary newspaper published in Boston, and, as they alleged, thrown broadcast among their plantations, inciting to insurrection and its horrid results.” As a lawyer Mayor Otis, however, “perceived the intrinsic, if not insuperable obstacles to legislative enactments made to prevent crimes from being consummated beyond the local jurisdiction.” But the South was not seeking a legal opinion as to what it could or could not do. It demanded, legal or illegal,that Garrison and the Liberator be suppressed. To the Boston mayor the excitement over the editor and his paper seemed like much ado about nothing The cause appeared to his supercilious mind altogether inadequate to the effect. And so he set to work to reduce the panic by [130] exposing the vulgarity and insignificance of the object, which produced it. That he might give the Southern bugaboo its quietus, he directed one of his deputies to inquire into a publication, of which “no member of the city government, nor any person,” of his honor's acquaintance, “had ever heard.” The result of this inquiry Mayor Otis reported to the Southern functionaries.

“ Some time afterward,” he wrote, “it was reported to me by the city officers that they had ferreted out the paper and its editor; that his office was an obscure hole, his only visible auxiliary a negro boy, and his supporters a very few insignificant persons of all colors.”

With this bare bodkin Harrison Gray Otis thought to puncture the Southern panic. But the slaveholders had correcter notions of the nature and tendency of the Abolition enterprise than had the Boston mayor. They had a strange, an obstinate presentiment of disaster from the first instant that the Liberator loomed upon their horizon. It was a battery whose guns, unless silenced, would play havoc with Southern interests and the slave system; ergo, the paper must be suppressed; ergo, its editor must be silenced or destroyed. And so when Otis, from his serene height, assured them of his “belief that the new fanaticism had not made, nor was likely to make, proselytes among the respectable classes of our people,” they continued to listen to their fears, and to cry the louder for the suppression of the “incendiary newspaper published in Boston.”

The editor of that paper never flinched before the storm of malignity which was gathering about his [131] head. He pursued the even tenor of his way, laboring at the case more than fourteen hours every day, except Sundays, upon the paper, renewing, week after week, his assaults upon the citadel of the great iniquity, giving no quarter to slave-holding sinners, but carrying aloft the banner of immediate and Uncon-Ditional Emancipation. Otis had looked to numbers and respectability as his political barometer and cue; but when, after diligent search with official microscopes, he failed to observe the presence of either in connection with this “new fanaticism,” wise man that he was, he turned over and renewed his slumbers on the edge of a volcano whose ominous rumbling the Southern heart had heard and interpreted aright. He was too near to catch the true import of the detonations of those subterranean forces which were sounding, week after week, in the columns of the Liberator. They seemed trivial, harmless, contemptible, like the toy artillery of children bombarding Fort Independence. Garrison's moral earnestness and enthusiasm seemed to the Boston mayor like the impotent rage of a man nursing memories of personal injuries suffered at the South.

If there was panic in the South, there was none in the office of the Liberator. Unterrified by the commotion which his composing-stick was producing near and far, he laughed to scorn the abuse and threats of his enemies. When the news of the reward of the State of Georgia “for the abduction of his person” reached him, he did not quail, great as was his peril, but boldly replied:

Of one thing we are sure: all Southern threats and rewards will be insufficient to deter us from pursuing [132] the work of emancipation. As citizens of the United States we know our rights and dare maintain them. We have committed no crime, but are expending our health, comfort, and means for the salvation of our country, and for the interests and security of infatuated slaveholders, as well as for the relief of the poor slaves.

Archimedes with his lever had moved the world. Archimedes “in a small chamber, unfurnitured and mean,” had set a world of pro-slavery passions and prejudices spinning away into space:

Such earnest natures are the fiery pith,
     The compact nucleus, 'round which systems grow;
Mass after mass becomes inspired therewith,
     And whirls impregnate with the central glow.

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