- The Conflict with Slavery (The Abolitionists. Their Sentiments and Objects.) by John Greenleaf Whittier
HumanitiesWeb HumanitiesWeb
Periods Alphabetically Nationality Topics Themes Genres Glossary

Selected Works
According To...
Related Materials


Get Your Degree!

Find schools and get information on the program that’s right for you.

Powered by Campus Explorer

& etc

All Rights Reserved.

Site last updated
28 October, 2012
Real Time Analytics

The Conflict with Slavery
The Abolitionists. Their Sentiments and Objects.

by John Greenleaf Whittier

Two letters to the 'Jeffersonian and Times', Richmond, Va.


A friend has banded me a late number of your paper, containing a brief notice of a pamphlet, which I have recently published on the subject of slavery.

From an occasional perusal of your paper, I have formed a favorable opinion of your talent and independence. Compelled to dissent from some of your political sentiments, I still give you full credit for the lofty tone of sincerity and manliness with which these sentiments are avowed and defended.

I perceive that since the adjustment of the tariff question a new subject of discontent and agitation seems to engross your attention.

The "accursed tariff" has no sooner ceased to be the stone of stumbling and the rock of offence, than the "abolition doctrines of the Northern enthusiasts," as you are pleased to term the doctrines of your own Jefferson, furnish, in your opinion, a sufficient reason for poising the "Ancient Dominion" on its sovereignty, and rousing every slaveowner to military preparations, until the entire South, from the Potomac to the Gulf, shall bristle with bayonets, "like quills upon the fretful porcupine."

In proof of a conspiracy against your "vested rights," you have commenced publishing copious extracts from the pamphlets and periodicals of the abolitionists of New England and New York. An extract from my own pamphlet you have headed "The Fanatics," and in introducing it to your readers you inform them that "it exhibits, in strong colors, the morbid spirit of that false and fanatical philanthropy, which is at work in the Northern states, and, to some extent, in the South."

Gentlemen, so far as I am personally concerned in the matter, I feel no disposition to take exceptions to any epithets which you may see fit to apply to me or my writings. A humble son of New England--a tiller of her rugged soil, and a companion of her unostentatious yeomanry--it matters little, in any personal consideration of the subject, whether the voice of praise or opprobrium reaches me from beyond the narrow limits of my immediate neighborhood.

But when I find my opinions quoted as the sentiment of New England, and then denounced as dangerous, "false and fanatical;" and especially when I see them made the occasion of earnest appeals to the prejudices and sectional jealousies of the South, it becomes me to endeavor to establish their truths, and defend them from illegitimate influences and unjust suspicions.

In the first place, then, let me say, that if it be criminal to publicly express a belief that it is in the power of the slave states to emancipate their slaves, with profit and safety to themselves, and that such is their immediate duty, a majority of the people of New England are wholly guiltless. Of course, all are nominally opposed to slavery; but upon the little band of abolitionists should the anathemas of the slave- holder be directed, for they are the agitators of whom you complain, men who are acting under a solemn conviction of duty, and who are bending every energy of their minds to the accomplishment of their object.

And that object is the overthrow of slavery in the United States, by such means only as are sanctioned by law, humanity, and religion.

I shall endeavor, gentlemen, as briefly as may be, to give you some of our reasons for opposing slavery and seeking its abolition; and, secondly, to explain our mode of operation; to disclose our plan of emancipation, fully and entirely. We wish to do nothing darkly; frank republicans, we acknowledge no double-dealing. At this busy season of the year, I cannot but regret that I have not leisure for such a deliberate examination of the subject as even my poor ability might warrant. My remarks, penned in the intervals of labor, must necessarily be brief, and wanting in coherence.

We seek the abolishment of slavery

1. Because it is contrary to the law of God.

In your paper of the 2d of 7th mo., the same in which you denounce the "false and fanatical philanthropy" of abolitionists, you avow yourselves members of the Bible Society, and bestow warm and deserved encomiums on the "truly pious undertaking of sending the truth among all nations."

You, therefore, gentlemen, whatever others may do, will not accuse me of "fanaticism," if I endeavor to sustain my first great reason for opposing slavery by a reference to the volume of inspiration:

"Therefore, all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you do ye even so to them."

"Wherefore now let the fear of the Lord be upon you, take heed and do it; for there is no iniquity with the Lord, nor respect of persons."

"Is not this the fast that I have chosen? To loose the bands of wickedness; to undo the heavy burdens and let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke?"

"If a man be found stealing any of his brethren, and maketh merchandise of him, or selling him, that thief shall die."

"Of a truth, I perceive that God is no respecter of persons."

"And he that stealeth a man and selleth him, or if he be found in his hands, he shall surely be put to death."

2. Because it is an open violation of all human equality, of the laws of Nature and of nations.

The fundamental principle of all equal and just law is contained in the following extract from Blackstone's Commentaries, Introduction, sec. 2.

"The rights which God and Nature have established, and which are therefore called natural rights, such as life and liberty, need not the aid of human laws to be more effectually vested in every man than they are; neither do they receive any additional strength when declared by municipal laws to be inviolable: on the contrary, no human legislation has power to abridge or destroy there, unless the owner shall himself commit some act that amounts to a forfeiture."

Has the negro committed such offence? Above all, has his infant child forfeited its unalienable right?

Surely it can be no act of the innocent child.

Yet you must prove the forfeiture, or no human legislation can deprive that child of its freedom.

Its black skin constitutes the forfeiture!

What! throw the responsibility upon God! Charge the common Father of the white and the black, He, who is no respecter of persons, with plundering His unoffending children of all which makes the boon of existence desirable; their personal liberty!

"We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."-- [Declaration of Independence, from the pen of Thomas Jefferson.]

In this general and unqualified declaration, on the 4th of July, 1776, all the people of the United States, without distinction of color, were proclaimed free, by the delegates of the people of those states assembled in their highest sovereign capacity.

For more than half a century we have openly violated that solemn declaration.

3. Because it renders nugatory the otherwise beneficial example of our free institutions, and exposes us to the scorn and reproach of the liberal and enlightened of other nations.

"Chains clank and groans echo around the walls of their spotless Congress."--[Francis Jeffrey.]

"Man to be possessed by man! Man to be made property of! The image of the Deity to be put under the yoke! Let these usurpers show us their title-deeds!"--[Simon Boliver.]

"When I am indulging in my views of American prospects and American liberty, it is mortifying to be told that in that very country a large portion of the people are slaves! It is a dark spot on the face of the nation. Such a state of things cannot always exist."--[Lafayette.]

"I deem it right to raise my humble voice to convince the citizens of America that the slaveholding states are held in abomination by all those whose opinion ought to be valuable. Man is the property of man in about one half of the American States: let them not therefore dare to prate of their institutions or of their national freedom, while they hold their fellow-men in bondage! Of all men living, the American citizen who is the owner of slaves is the most despicable. He is a political hypocrite of the very worst description. The friends of humanity and liberty in Europe should join in one universal cry of shame on the American slave- holders! 'Base wretches!' should we shout in chorus; 'base wretches! how dare you profane the temple of national freedom, the sacred fane of republican rites, with the presence and the sufferings of human beings in chains and slavery!'"--[Daniel O'Connell.]

4. Because it subjects one portion of our American brethren to the unrestrained violence and unholy passions of another.

Here, gentlemen, I might summon to my support a cloud of witnesses, a host of incontrovertible, damning facts, the legitimate results of a system whose tendency is to harden and deprave the heart. But I will not descend to particulars. I am willing to believe that the majority of the masters of your section of the country are disposed to treat their unfortunate slaves with kindness. But where the dreadful privilege of slave-holding is extended to all, in every neighborhood, there must be individuals whose cupidity is unrestrained by any principle of humanity, whose lusts are fiercely indulged, whose fearful power over the bodies, nay, may I not say the souls, of their victims is daily and hourly abused.

Will the evidence of your own Jefferson, on this point, be admissible?

"The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise, of the most boisterous passions; the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submission on the other. Our children see this, and learn to imitate it. The parent storms, the child looks on, catches the lineaments of wrath, puts on the same airs in the circle of smaller slaves, gives loose to the worst of passions; and thus nursed, educated, and daily exercised in tyranny, cannot fail to be stamped by it with odious peculiarities. The man must be a prodigy who can retain his morals and manners undepraved by such circumstances."--[Notes on Virginia, p. 241.]

"Il n'existe a la verite aucune loi qui protege l'esclave le mauvais traitement du maitre," says Achille Murat, himself a Floridian slave- holder, in his late work on the United States.

Gentlemen, is not this true? Does there exist even in Virginia any law limiting the punishment of a slave? Are there any bounds prescribed, beyond which the brutal, the revengeful, the intoxicated slave-master, acting in the double capacity of judge and executioner, cannot pass?

You will, perhaps, tell me that the general law against murder applies alike to master and slave. True; but will you point out instances of masters suffering the penalty of that law for the murder of their slaves? If you examine your judicial reports you will find the wilful murder of a slave decided to be only a trespass!--[Virginia Reports, vol. v. p. 481, Harris versus Nichols.]

It indeed argues well for Virginian pride of character, that latterly, the law, which expressly sanctioned the murder of a slave, who in the language of Georgia and North Carolina, "died of moderate correction," has been repealed. But, although the letter of the law is changed, its practice remains the same. In proof of this, I would refer to Brockenborough and Holmes' Virginia Cases, p. 258.

In Georgia and North Carolina the murder of a slave is tolerated and justified by law, provided that in the opinion of the court he died "of moderate correction!"

In South Carolina the following clause of a law enacted in 1740 is still in force:--

"If any slave shall suffer in his life, limbs, or members, when no white person shall be present, or being present shall neglect or refuse to give evidence concerning the same, in every such case the owner or other person who shall have the care and government of the slave shall be deemed and taken to be guilty of such offence; unless such owner or other person can make the contrary appear by good and sufficient evidence, or shall by his own oath clear and exculpate himself, which oath every court where such offence shall be tried is hereby empowered to administer and to acquit the offender accordingly, if clear proof of the offence be not made by two witnesses at least, any law, usage, or custom to the contrary notwithstanding."

Is not this offering a reward for perjury? And what shall we think of that misnamed court of justice, where it is optional with the witnesses, in a case of life and death, to give or withhold their testimony.

5. Because it induces dangerous sectional jealousies, creates of necessity a struggle between the opposing interests of free and slave labor, and threatens the integrity of the Union.

That sectional jealousies do exist, the tone of your paper, gentlemen, is of itself an evidence, if indeed any were needed. The moral sentiment of the free states is against slavery. The freeman has declared his unwillingness that his labor should be reduced to a level with that of slaves. Harsh epithets and harsh threats have been freely exchanged, until the beautiful Potomac, wherever it winds its way to the ocean, has become the dividing line, not of territory only, but of feeling, interest, national pride, a moral division.

What shook the pillars of the Union when the Missouri question was agitated? What but a few months ago arrayed in arms a state against the Union, and the Union against a state?

From Maine to Florida, gentlemen, the answer must be the same, slavery.

6. Because of its pernicious influence upon national wealth and prosperity.

Political economy has been the peculiar study of Virginia. But there are some important truths connected with this science which she has hitherto overlooked or wantonly disregarded.

Population increasing with the means of subsistence is a fair test of national wealth.

By reference to the several censuses of the United States, it will be seen that the white population increases nearly twice as fast in states where there are few or no slaves as in the slave states.

Again, in the latter states the slave population has increased twice as fast as the white. Let us take, for example, the period of twenty years, from 1790 to 1810, and compare the increase of the two classes in three of the Southern states.

Per cent. of whites.  Per cent. of blacks.
Maryland       13                  31
Virginia       24                  38
North Carolina 30                  70

The causes of this disproportionate increase, so inimical to the true interests of the country, are very manifest.

A large proportion of the free inhabitants of the United States are dependent upon their labor for subsistence. The forced, unnatural system of slavery in some of the states renders the demand for free laborers less urgent; they are not so readily and abundantly supplied with the means of subsistence as those of their own class in the free states, and as the necessaries of life diminish population also diminishes.

There is yet another cause for the decline of the white population. In the free states labor is reputable. The statesman, whose eloquence has electrified a nation, does not disdain in the intervals of the public service to handle the axe and the hoe. And the woman whose beauty, talents, and accomplishments have won the admiration of all deems it no degradation to "look well to her household."

But the slave stamps with indelible ignominy the character of occupation. It is a disgrace for a highborn Virginian or chivalrous Carolinian to labor, side by side, with the low, despised, miserable black man. Wretched must be the condition of the poorer classes of whites in a slave-holding community! Compelled to perform the despised offices of the slave, they can hardly rise above his level. They become the pariahs of society. No wonder, then, that the tide of emigration flows from the slave-cursed shores of the Atlantic to the free valleys of the West.

In New England the labor of a farmer or mechanic is worth from $150 to $200 per annum. That of a female from $50 to $100. Our entire population, with the exception of those engaged in mercantile affairs, the professional classes, and a very few moneyed idlers, are working men and women. If that of the South were equally employed (and slavery apart, there is no reason why they should not be), how large an addition would be annually made to the wealth of the country? The truth is, a very considerable portion of the national wealth produced by Northern labor is taxed to defray the expenses of twenty-five representatives of Southern property in Congress, and to maintain an army mainly for the protection of the slave-master against the dangerous tendencies of that property.

In the early and better days of the Roman Republic, the ancient warriors and statesmen cultivated their fields with their own hands; but so soon as their agriculture was left to the slaves, it visibly declined, the once fertile fields became pastures, and the inhabitants of that garden of the world were dependent upon foreign nations for the necessaries of life. The beautiful villages, once peopled by free contented laborers, became tenantless, and, over the waste of solitude, we see, here and there, at weary distances, the palaces of the master, contrasting painfully with the wretched cottages and subterranean cells of the slave. In speaking of the extraordinary fertility of the soil in the early times of the Republic, Pliny inquires, "What was the cause of these abundant harvests? It was this, that men of rank employed themselves in the culture of the fields; whereas now it is left to wretches loaded with fetters, who carry in their countenances the shameful evidence of their slavery."

And what was true in the days of the Roman is now written legibly upon the soil of your own Virginia. A traveller in your state, in contemplating the decline of its agriculture, has justly remarked that, "if the miserable condition of the negro had left his mind for reflection, he would laugh in his chains to see how slavery has stricken the land with ugliness."

Is the rapid increase of a population of slaves in itself no evil? In all the slave states the increase of the slaves is vastly more rapid than that of the whites or free blacks. When we recollect that they are under no natural or moral restraint, careless of providing food or clothing for themselves or their children; when, too, we consider that they are raised as an article of profitable traffic, like the cattle of New England and the hogs of Kentucky; that it is a matter of interest, of dollars and cents, to the master that they should multiply as fast as possible, there is surely nothing at all surprising in the increase of their numbers. Would to heaven there were also nothing alarming!

7. Because, by the terms of the national compact, the free and the slave states are alike involved in the guilt of maintaining slavery, and the citizens of the former are liable, at any moment, to be called upon to aid the latter in suppressing, at the point of the bayonet, the insurrection of the slaves.

Slavery is, at the best, an unnatural state. And Nature, when her eternal principles are violated, is perpetually struggling to restore them to their first estate.

All history, ancient and modern, is full of warning on this point. Need I refer to the many revolts of the Roman and Grecian slaves, the bloody insurrection of Etruria, the horrible servile wars of Sicily and Capua? Or, to come down to later times, to France in the fourteenth century, Germany in the sixteenth, to Malta in the last? Need I call to mind the untold horrors of St. Domingo, when that island, under the curse of its servile war, glowed redly in the view of earth and heaven,--an open hell? Have our own peculiar warnings gone by unheeded,--the frequent slave insurrections of the South? One horrible tragedy, gentlemen, must still be fresh in your recollection,--Southampton, with its fired dwellings and ghastly dead! Southampton, with its dreadful associations, of the death struggle with the insurgents, the groans of the tortured negroes, the lamentations of the surviving whites over woman in her innocence and beauty, and childhood, and hoary age!

"The hour of emancipation," said Thomas Jefferson, "is advancing in the march of time. It will come. If not brought on by the generous energy of our own minds, it will come by the bloody process of St. Domingo!"

To the just and prophetic language of your own great statesman I have but a few words to add. They shall be those of truth and soberness.

We regard the slave system in your section of the country as a great evil, moral and political,--an evil which, if left to itself for even a few years longer, will give the entire South into the hands of the blacks.

The terms of the national compact compel us to consider more than two millions of our fellow-beings as your property; not, indeed, morally, really, de facto, but still legally your property! We acknowledge that you have a power derived from the United States Constitution to hold this "property," but we deny that you have any moral right to take advantage of that power. For truth will not allow us to admit that any human law or compact can make void or put aside the ordinance of the living God and the eternal laws of Nature.

We therefore hold it to be the duty of the people of the slave-holding states to begin the work of emancipation now; that any delay must be dangerous to themselves in time and eternity, and full of injustice to their slaves and to their brethren of the free states.

Because the slave has never forfeited his right to freedom, and the continuance of his servitude is a continuance of robbery; and because, in the event of a servile war, the people of the free states would be called upon to take a part in its unutterable horrors.

New England would obey that call, for she will abide unto death by the Constitution of the land. Yet what must be the feelings of her citizens, while engaged in hunting down like wild beasts their fellow-men--brutal and black it may be, but still oppressed, suffering human beings, struggling madly and desperately for their liberty, if they feel and know that the necessity of so doing has resulted from a blind fatality on the part of the oppressor, a reckless disregard of the warnings of earth and heaven, an obstinate perseverance in a system founded and sustained by robbery and wrong?

All wars are horrible, wicked, inexcusable, and truly and solemnly has Jefferson himself said that, in a contest of this kind, between the slave and the master, "the Almighty has no attribute which could take side with us."

Understand us, gentlemen. We only ask to have the fearful necessity taken away from us of sustaining the wretched policy of slavery by moral influence or physical force. We ask alone to be allowed to wash our hands of the blood of millions of your fellow-beings, the cry of whom is rising up as a swift witness unto God against us.

8. Because all the facts connected with the subject warrant us in a most confident belief that a speedy and general emancipation might be made with entire safety, and that the consequences of such an emancipation would be highly beneficial to the planters of the South.

Awful as may be their estimate in time and eternity, I will not, gentlemen, dwell upon the priceless benefits of a conscience at rest, a soul redeemed from the all-polluting influences of slavery, and against which the cry of the laborer whose hire has been kept back by fraud does not ascend. Nor will I rest the defence of my position upon the fact that it can never be unsafe to obey the commands of God. These are the old and common arguments of "fanatics" and "enthusiasts," melting away like frost-work in the glorious sunshine of expediency and utility. In the light of these modern luminaries, then, let us reason together.

A long and careful examination of the subject will I think fully justify me in advancing this general proposition.

Wherever, whether in Europe, the East and West Indies, South America, or in our own country, a fair experiment has been made of the comparative expense of free and slave labor, the result has uniformly been favorable to the former.

     [See Brougham's Colonial Policy.  Hodgdon's Letter to Jean Baptiste
     Say.  Waleh's Brazil.  Official Letter of Hon.  Mr. Ward, from
     Mexico.  Dr. Dickson's Mitigation of Slavery.  Franklin on The
     Peopling of Countries.  Ramsay's Essay.  Botham's Sugar Cultivation
     in Batavia.  Marsden's History of Sumatra.  Coxe's Travels.  Dr.
     Anderson's Observations on Slavery.  Storch's Political Economy.
     Adam Smith.  J. Jeremies' Essays.  Humboldt's Travels, etc., etc.]

Here, gentlemen, the issue is tendered. Standing on your own ground of expediency, I am ready to defend my position.

I pass from the utility to the safety of emancipation. And here, gentlemen, I shall probably be met at the outset with your supposed consequences, bloodshed, rapine, promiscuous massacre!

The facts, gentlemen! In God's name, bring out your facts! If slavery is to cast over the prosperity of our country the thick shadow of an everlasting curse, because emancipation is dreaded as a remedy worse than the disease itself, let us know the real grounds of your fear.

Do you find them in the emancipation of the South American Republics? In Hayti? In the partial experiments of some of the West India Islands? Does history, ancient or modern, justify your fears? Can you find any excuse for them in the nature of the human mind, everywhere maddened by injury and conciliated by kindness? No, gentlemen; the dangers of slavery are manifest and real, all history lies open for your warning. But the dangers of emancipation, of "doing justly and loving mercy," exist only in your imaginations. You cannot produce one fact in corroboration of your fears. You cannot point to the stain of a single drop of any master's blood shed by the slave he has emancipated.

I have now given some of our reasons for opposing slavery. In my next letter I shall explain our method of opposition, and I trust I shall be able to show that there is nothing "fanatical," nothing "unconstitutional," and nothing unchristian in that method.

In the mean time, gentlemen, I am your friend and well-wisher.

HAVERHILL, MASS., 22d 7th Mo., 1833.


The abolitionists of the North have been grossly misrepresented. In attacking the system of slavery, they have never recommended any measure or measures conflicting with the Constitution of the United States.

They have never sought to excite or encourage a spirit of rebellion among the slaves: on the contrary, they would hold any such attempt, by whomsoever made, in utter and stern abhorrence.

All the leading abolitionists of my acquaintance are, from principle, opposed to war of all kinds, believing that the benefits of no war whatever can compensate for the sacrifice of one human life by violence.

Consequently, they would be the first to deprecate any physical interference with your slave system on the part of the general government.

They are, without exception, opposed to any political interposition of the government, in regard to slavery as it exists in the states. For, although they feel and see that the canker of the moral disease is affecting all parts of the confederacy, they believe that the remedy lies with yourselves alone. Any such interference they would consider unlawful and unconstitutional; and the exercise of unconstitutional power, although sanctioned by the majority of a republican government, they believe to be a tyranny as monstrous and as odious as the despotism of a Turkish Sultan.

Having made this disclaimer on the part of myself and my friends, let me inquire from whence this charge of advocating the interference of the general government with the sovereign jurisdiction of the states has arisen? Will you, gentlemen, will the able editors of the United States Telegraph and the Columbian Telescope, explain? For myself, I have sought in vain among the writings of our "Northern Enthusiasts," and among the speeches of the Northern statesmen and politicians, for some grounds for the accusation.

The doctrine, such as it is, does not belong to us. I think it may be traced home to the South, to Virginia, to her Convention of 1829, to the speech of Ex-President Monroe, on the white basis question.

"As to emancipation," said that distinguished son of your state, "if ever that should take place, it cannot be done by the state; it must be done by the Union."

Again, "If emancipation can ever be effected, it can only be done with the aid of the general government."

Gentlemen, you are welcome to your doctrine. It has no advocates among the abolitionists of New England.

We aim to overthrow slavery by the moral influence of an enlightened public sentiment;

By a clear and fearless exposition of the guilt of holding property in man;

By analyzing the true nature of slavery, and boldly rebuking sin;

By a general dissemination of the truths of political economy, in regard to free and slave labor;

By appeals from the pulpit to the consciences of men;

By the powerful influence of the public press;

By the formation of societies whose object shall be to oppose the principle of slavery by such means as are consistent with our obligations to law, religion, and humanity;

By elevating, by means of education and sympathy, the character of the free people of color among us.

Our testimony against slavery is the same which has uniformly, and with so much success, been applied to prevailing iniquity in all ages of the world, the truths of divine revelation.

Believing that there can be nothing in the Providence of God to which His holy and eternal law is not strictly applicable, we maintain that no circumstances can justify the slave-holder in a continuance of his system.

That the fact that this system did not originate with the present generation is no apology for retaining it, inasmuch as crime cannot be entailed; and no one is under a necessity of sinning because others have done so before him;

That the domestic slave-trade is as repugnant to the laws of God, and should be as odious in the eyes of a Christian community, as the foreign;

That the black child born in a slave plantation is not "an entailed article of property;" and that the white man who makes of that child a slave is a thief and a robber, stealing the child as the sea pirate stole his father!

We do not talk of gradual abolition, because, as Christians, we find no authority for advocating a gradual relinquishment of sin. We say to slaveholders, "Repent now, to-day, immediately;" just as we say to the intemperate, "Break off from your vice at once; touch not, taste not, handle not, from henceforth forever."

Besides, the plan of gradual abolition has been tried in this country and the West Indies, and found wanting. It has been in operation in our slave states ever since the Declaration of Independence, and its results are before the nation. Let us see.

The Abolitionists 79

In 1790 there were in the slave states south of the Potomac and the Ohio 20,415 free blacks. Their increase for the ten years following was at the rate of sixty per cent., their number in 1800 being 32,604. In 1810 there were 58,046, an increase of seventy-five per cent. This comparatively large increase was, in a great measure, owing to the free discussions going on in England and in this country on the subject of the slave-trade and the rights of man. The benevolent impulse extended to the slave-masters, and manumissions were frequent. But the salutary impression died away; the hand of oppression closed again upon its victims; and the increase for the period of twenty years, 1810 to 1830, was only seventy-seven per cent., about one half of what it was in the ten years from 1800 to 1810. And this is the practical result of the much-lauded plan of gradual abolition.

In 1790, in the states above mentioned, there were only 550,604 slaves, but in 1830 there were 1,874,098! And this, too, is gradual abolition.

"What, then!" perhaps you will ask, "do you expect to overthrow our whole slave system at once? to turn loose to-day two millions of negroes?"

No, gentlemen; we expect no such thing. Enough for us if in the spirit of fraternal duty we point to your notice the commands of God; if we urge you by every cherished remembrance of common sacrifices upon a common altar, by every consideration of humanity, justice, and expediency, to begin now, without a moment's delay, to break away from your miserable system,--to begin the work of moral reformation, as God commands you to begin, not as selfishness, or worldly policy, or short-sighted political expediency, may chance to dictate.

Such is our doctrine of immediate emancipation. A doctrine founded on God's eternal truth, plain, simple, and perfect,--the doctrine of immediate, unprocrastinated repentance applied to the sin of slavery.

Of this doctrine, and of our plan for crrrying it into effect, I have given an exposition, with the most earnest regard to the truth. Does either embrace anything false, fanatical, or unconstitutional? Do they afford a reasonable protext for your fierce denunciations of your Northern brethren? Do they furnish occasion for your newspaper chivalry, your stereotyped demonstrations of Southern magnanimity and Yankee meanness?--things, let me say, unworthy of Virginians, degrading to yourselves, insulting to us.

Gentlemen, it is too late for Virginia, with all her lofty intellect and nobility of feeling, to defend and advocate the principle of slavery. The death-like silence which for nearly two centuries brooded over her execrable system has been broken; light is pouring in upon the minds of her citizens; truth is abroad, "searching out and overturning the lies of the age." A moral reformation has been already awakened, and it cannot now be drugged to sleep by the sophistries of detected sin. A thousand intelligences are at work in her land; a thousand of her noblest hearts are glowing with the redeeming spirit of that true philanthropy, which is moving all the world. No, gentlemen; light is spreading from the hills of Western Virginia to the extremest East. You cannot arrest its progress. It is searching the consciences; it is exercising the reason; it is appealing to the noblest characteristics of intelligent Virginians. It is no foreign influence. From every abandoned plantation where the profitless fern and thistle have sprung up under the heel of slavery; from every falling mansion of the master, through whose windows the fox may look out securely, and over whose hearth-stone the thin grass is creeping, a warning voice is sinking deeply into all hearts not imbruted by avarice, indolence, and the lust of power.

Abolitionist as I am, the intellectual character of Virginia has no warmer admirer than myself. Her great names, her moral trophies, the glories of her early day, the still proud and living testimonials of her mental power, I freely acknowledge and strongly appreciate. And, believe me, it is with no other feelings than those of regret and heartfelt sorrow that I speak plainly of her great error, her giant crime, a crime which is visibly calling down upon her the curse of an offended Deity. But I cannot forget that upon some of the most influential and highly favored of her sons rests the responsibility at the present time of sustaining this fearful iniquity. Blind to the signs of the times, careless of the wishes of thousands of their white fellow-citizens and of the manifold wrongs of the black man, they have dared to excuse, defend, nay, eulogize, the black abominations of slavery.

Against the tottering ark of the idol these strong men have placed their shoulders. That ark must fall; that idol must be cast down; what, then, will be the fate of their supporters?

When the Convention of 1829 had gathered in its splendid galaxy of talents the great names of Virginia, the friends of civil liberty turned their eyes towards it in the earnest hope and confidence that it would adopt some measures in regard to slavery worthy of the high character of its members and of the age in which they lived. I need not say how deep and bitter was our disappointment. Western Virginia indeed spoke on that occasion, through some of her delegates, the words of truth and humanity. But their counsels and warnings were unavailing; the majority turned away to listen to the bewildering eloquence of Leigh and Upshur and Randolph, as they desecrated their great intellects to the defence of that system of oppression under which the whole land is groaning. The memorial of the citizens of Augusta County, bearing the signatures of many slave- holders, placed the evils of slavery in a strong light before the convention. Its facts and arguments could only be arbitrarily thrust aside and wantonly disregarded; they could not be disproved.

"In a political point of view," says the memorial, "we esteem slavery an evil greater than the aggregate of all the other evils which beset us, and we are perfectly willing to bear our proportion of the burden of removing it. We ask, further, What is the evil of any such alarm as our proposition may excite in minds unnecessarily jealous compared with that of the fatal catastrophe which ultimately awaits our country, and the general depravation of manners which slavery has already produced and is producing?"

I cannot forbear giving one more extract from this paper. The memorialists state their belief

"That the labor of slaves is vastly less productive than that of freemen; that it therefore requires a larger space to furnish subsistence for a given number of the former than of the latter; that the employment of the former necessarily excludes that of the latter; that hence our population, white and black, averages seventeen, when it ought, and would under other circumstances, average, as in New England, at least sixty to a square mile; that the possession and management of slaves form a source of endless vexation and misery in the house, and of waste and ruin on the farm; that the youth of the country are growing up with a contempt of steady industry as a low and servile thing, which contempt induces idleness and all its attendant effeminacy, vice, and worthlessness; that the waste of the products of the land, nay, of the land itself, is bringing poverty on all its inhabitants; that this poverty and the sparseness of population either prevent the institution of schools throughout the country, or keep them in a most languid and inefficient condition; and that the same causes most obviously paralyze all our schemes and efforts for the useful improvement of the country."

Gentlemen, you have only to look around you to know that this picture has been drawn with the pencil of truth. What has made desolate and sterile one of the loveliest regions of the whole earth? What mean the signs of wasteful neglect, of long improvidence around you: the half-finished mansion already falling into decay, the broken-down enclosures, the weed- grown garden the slave hut open to the elements, the hillsides galled and naked, the fields below them run over with brier and fern? Is all this in the ordinary course of nature? Has man husbanded well the good gifts of God, and are they nevertheless passing from him, by a process of deterioration over which he has no control? No, gentlemen. For more than two centuries the cold and rocky soil of New England has yielded its annual tribute, and it still lies green and luxuriant beneath the sun of our brief summer. The nerved and ever-exercised arm of free labor has changed a landscape wild and savage as the night scenery of Salvator Rosa into one of pastoral beauty,--the abode of independence and happiness. Under a similar system of economy and industry, how would Virginia, rich with Nature's prodigal blessings, have worn at this time over all her territory the smiles of plenty, the charms of rewarded industry! What a change would have been manifest in your whole character! Freemen in the place of slaves, industry, reputable economy, a virtue, dissipation despised, emigration unnecessary!

     [A late Virginia member of Congress described the Virginia slave-
     holder as follows: "He is an Eastern Virginian whose good fortune it
     has been to have been born wealthy, and to have become a profound
     politician at twenty-one without study or labor.  This individual,
     from birth and habit, is above all labor and exertion.  He never
     moves a finger for any useful purpose; he lives on the labor of his
     slaves, and even this labor he is too proud and indolent to direct
     in person.  While he is at his ease, a mercenary with a whip in his
     hand drives his slaves in the field.  Their dinner, consisting of a
     few scraps and lean bones, is eaten in the burning sun.  They have
     no time to go to a shade and be refreshed such easement is reserved
     for the horses"!--Speech of Hon. P. P. Doddridge in House of
     Delegates, 1829.]

All this, you will say, comes too late; the curse is upon you, the evil in the vitals of your state, the desolation widening day by day. No, it is not too late. There are elements in the Virginian character capable of meeting the danger, extreme as it is, and turning it aside. Could you but forget for a time partisan contest and unprofitable political speculations, you might successfully meet the dangerous exigencies of your state with those efficient remedies which the spirit of the age suggests; you might, and that too without pecuniary loss, relinquish your claims to human beings as slaves, and employ them as free laborers, under such restraint and supervision as their present degraded condition may render necessary. In the language of one of your own citizens, "it is useless for you to attempt to linger on the skirts of the age which is departed. The action of existing causes and principles is steady and progressive. It cannot be retarded, unless you would blow out all the moral lights around you; and if you refuse to keep up with it, you will be towed in the wake, whether you will or not."--[Speech in Virginia legislature, 1832.]

The late noble example of the eloquent statesman of Roanoke, the manumission of his slaves, speaks volumes to his political friends. In the last hour of existence, when his soul was struggling from his broken tenement, his latest effort was the confirmation of this generous act of a former period. Light rest the turf upon him beneath his own patrimonial oaks! The prayers of many hearts made happy by his benevolence shall linger over his grave and bless it.

Gentlemen, in concluding these letters, let me once more assure you that I entertain towards you and your political friends none other than kindly feelings. If I have spoken at all with apparent harshness, it has been of principles rather than of men. But I deprecate no censure. Conscious of the honest and patriotic motives which have prompted their avowal, I cheerfully leave my sentiments to their fate. Despised and contemned as they may be, I believe they cannot be gainsaid. Sustained by the truth as it exists in Nature and Revelation, sanctioned by the prevailing spirit of the age, they are yet destined to work out the political and moral regeneration of our country. The opposition which they meet with does not dishearten me. In the lofty confidence of John Milton, I believe that "though all the winds of doctrine be let loose upon the earth, so Truth be among them, we need not fear. Let her and Falsehood grapple; whoever knew her to be put to the worst in a free and open encounter?"

HAVERHILL, MASS., 29th of 7th Mo., 1833.

Terms Defined

Referenced Works