- The Conflict with Slavery (Letter to Samuel E. Sewall.) by John Greenleaf Whittier
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The Conflict with Slavery
Letter to Samuel E. Sewall.

by John Greenleaf Whittier

HAVERHILL, 10th of 1st Mo., 1834.

Secretary New England A. S. Society

DEAR FRIEND,--I regret that circumstances beyond my control will not allow of my attendance at the annual meeting of the New England Anti- Slavery Society.

I need not say to the members of that society that I am with them, heart and soul, in the cause of abolition; the abolition not of physical slavery alone, abhorrent and monstrous as it is, but of that intellectual slavery, the bondage of corrupt and mistaken opinion, which has fettered as with iron the moral energies and intellectual strength of New England.

For what is slavery, after all, but fear,--fear, forcing mind and body into unnatural action? And it matters little whether it be the terror of the slave-whip on the body, or of the scourge of popular opinion upon the inner man.

We all know how often the representatives of the Southern division of the country have amused themselves in Congress by applying the opprobrious name of "slave" to the free Northern laborer. And how familiar have the significant epithets of "white slave" and "dough-face" become!

I fear these epithets have not been wholly misapplied. Have we not been told here, gravely and authoritatively, by some of our learned judges, divines, and politicians, that we, the free people of New England, have no right to discuss the subject of slavery? Freemen, and no right to suggest the duty or the policy of a practical adherence to the doctrines of that immortal declaration upon which our liberties are founded! Christians, enjoying perfect liberty of conscience, yet possessing no right to breathe one whisper against a system of adultery and blood, which is filling the whole land with abomination and blasphemy! And this craven sentiment is echoed by the very men whose industry is taxed to defray the expenses of twenty-five representatives of property, vested in beings fashioned in the awful image of their Maker; by men whose hard earnings aid in supporting a standing army mainly for the protection of slaveholding indolence; by men who are liable at any moment to be called from the field and workshop to put down by force the ever upward tendencies of oppressed humanity, to aid the negro-breeder and the negro- trader in the prosecution of a traffic most horrible in the eye of God, to wall round with their bayonets two millions of colored Americans, children of a common Father and heirs of a common eternity, while the broken chain is riveted anew and the thrown-off fetter replaced.

I am for the abolition of this kind of slavery. It must be accomplished before we can hope to abolish the negro slavery of the country. The people of the free states, with a perfect understanding of their own rights and a sacred respect for the rights of others, must put their strong shoulders to the work of moral reform, and our statesmen, orators, and politicians will follow, floating as they must with the tendency of the current, the mere indices of popular sentiment. They cannot be expected to lead in this matter. They are but instruments in the hands of the people for good or evil:--

          "A breath can make them, as a breath has made."

Be it our task to give tone and direction to these instruments; to turn the tide of popular feeling into the pure channels of justice; to break up the sinful silence of the nation; to bring the vaunted Christianity of our age and country to the test of truth; to try the strength and purity of our republicanism. If the Christianity we profess has not power to pull down the strongholds of prejudice, and overcome hate, and melt the heart of oppression, it is not of God. If our republicanism is based on other foundation than justice and humanity, let it fall forever.

No better evidence is needed of the suicidal policy of this nation than the death-like silence on the subject of slavery which pervades its public documents. Who that peruses the annual messages of the national executive would, from their perusal alone, conjecture that such an evil as slavery had existence among us? Have the people reflected upon the cause of this silence? The evil has grown to be too monstrous to be questioned. Its very magnitude has sealed the lips of the rulers. Uneasily, and troubled with its dream of guilt, the nation sleeps on. The volcano is beneath. God is above us.

At every step of our peaceful and legal agitation of this subject we are met with one grave objection. We are told that the system which we are conscientiously opposing is recognized and protected by the Constitution. For all the benefits of our fathers' patriotism--and they are neither few nor trifling--let us be grateful to God and to their memories. But it should not be forgotten that the same constitutional compact which now sanctions slavery guaranteed protection for twenty years to the foreign slave-trade. It threw the shield of its "sanctity" around the now universally branded pirate. It legalized the most abhorrent system of robbery which ever cursed the family of man.

During those years of sinful compromise the crime of man-robbery less atrocious than at present? Because the Constitution permitted, in that single crime, the violation of all the commandments of God, was that violation less terrible to earth or offensive to heaven?

No one now defends that "constitutional" slavetrade. Loaded with the curse of God and man, it stands amidst minor iniquities, like Satan in Pandemonium, preeminent and monstrous in crime.

And if the slave-trade has become thus odious, what must be the fate, erelong, of its parent, slavery? If the mere consequence be thus blackening under the execration of all the world, who shall measure the dreadful amount of infamy which must finally settle on the cause itself? The titled ecclesiastic and the ambitious statesman should have their warning on this point. They should know that public opinion is steadily turning to the light of truth. The fountains are breaking up around us, and the great deep will soon be in motion. A stern, uncompromising, and solemn spirit of inquiry is abroad. It cannot be arrested, and its result may be easily foreseen. It will not long be popular to talk of the legality of soul-murder, the constitutionality of man-robbery.

One word in relation to our duty to our Southern brethren. If we detest their system of slavery in our hearts, let us not play the hypocrite with our lips. Let us not pay so poor a compliment to their understandings as to suppose that we can deceive them into a compliance with our views of justice by ambiguous sophistry, and overcome their sinful practices and established prejudices by miserable stratagem. Let us not first do violence to our consciences by admitting their moral right to property in man, and then go to work like so many vagabond pedlers to cheat them out of it. They have a right to complain of such treatment. It is mean, and wicked, and dishonorable. Let us rather treat our Southern friends as intelligent and high-minded men, who, whatever may be their faults, despise unmanly artifice, and loathe cant, and abhor hypocrisy. Connected with them, not by political ties alone, but by common sacrifices and mutual benefits, let us seek to expostulate with them earnestly and openly, to gain at least their confidence in our sincerity, to appeal to their consciences, reason, and interests; and, using no other weapons than those of moral truth, contend fearlessly with the evil system they are cherishing. And if, in an immediate compliance with the strict demands of justice, they should need our aid and sympathy, let us open to them our hearts and our purses. But in the name of sincerity, and for the love of peace and the harmony of the Union, let there be no more mining and countermining, no more blending of apology with denunciation, no more Janus-like systems of reform, with one face for the South and another for the North.

If we steadily adhere to the principles upon which we have heretofore acted, if we present our naked hearts to the view of all, if we meet the threats and violence of our misguided enemies with the bare bosom and weaponless hand of innocence, may we not trust that the arm of our Heavenly Father will be under us, to strengthen and support us? And although we may not be able to save our country from the awful judgment she is provoking, though the pillars of the Union fall and all the elements of her greatness perish, still let it be our part to rally around the standard of truth and justice, to wash our hands of evil, to keep our own souls unspotted, and, bearing our testimony and lifting our warning voices to the last, leave the event in the hands of a righteous God.

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