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13 January, 2012
The Conflict with Slavery
Letter to Samuel E. Sewall.
by John Greenleaf Whittier
HAVERHILL, 10th of 1st Mo., 1834.
SAMUEL E. SEWALL, ESQ.,
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-
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
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