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The Conflict with Slavery
What is Slavery

by John Greenleaf Whittier

     Addressed to the Liberty Party Convention at New Bedford in
     September, 1843.


I have just received your kind invitation to attend the meeting of the Liberty Party in New Bedford on the 2d of next month. Believe me, it is with no ordinary feelings of regret that I find myself under the necessity of foregoing the pleasure of meeting with you on that occasion. But I need not say to you, and through you to the convention, that you have my hearty sympathy.

I am with the Liberty Party because it is the only party in the country which is striving openly and honestly to reduce to practice the great truths which lie at the foundation of our republic: all men created equal, endowed with rights inalienable; the security of these rights the only just object of government; the right of the people to alter or modify government until this great object is attained. Precious and glorious truths! Sacred in the sight of their Divine Author, grateful and beneficent to suffering humanity, essential elements of that ultimate and universal government of which God is laying the strong and wide foundations, turning and overturning, until He whose right it is shall rule. The voice which calls upon us to sustain them is the voice of God. In the eloquent language of the lamented Myron Holley, the man who first lifted up the standard of the Liberty Party: "He calls upon us to sustain these truths in the recorded voice of the holy of ancient times. He calls us to sustain them in the sound as of many waters and mighty thunderings rising from the fields of Europe, converted into one vast Aceldama by the exertions of despots to suppress them; in the persuasive history of the best thoughts and boldest deeds of all our brave, self- sacrificing ancestors; in the tender, heart-reaching whispers of our children, preparing to suffer or enjoy the future, as we leave it for them; in the broken and disordered but moving accents of half our race yet groping in darkness and galled by the chains of bondage. He calls upon us to sustain them by the solemn and considerate use of all the powers with which He has invested us." In a time of almost universal political scepticism, in the midst of a pervading and growing unbelief in the great principles enunciated in the revolutionary declaration, the Liberty Party has dared to avow its belief in these truths, and to carry them into action as far as it has the power. It is a protest against the political infidelity of the day, a recurrence to first principles, a summons once more to that deserted altar upon which our fathers laid their offerings.

It may be asked why it is that a party resting upon such broad principles is directing its exclusive exertions against slavery. "Are there not other great interests?" ask all manner of Whig and Democrat editors and politicians. "Consider, for instance," say the Democrats, "the mighty question which is agitating us, whether a 'Northern man with Southern principles' or a Southern man with the principles of a Nero or Caligula shall be President." "Or look at us," say the Whigs, "deprived of our inalienable right to office by this Tyler-Calhoun administration. And bethink you, gentlemen, how could your Liberty Party do better than to vote with us for a man who, if he does hold some threescore of slaves, and maintain that 'two hundred years of legislation has sanctioned and sanctified negro slavery,' is, at the same time, the champion of Greek liberty, and Polish liberty, and South American liberty, and, in short, of all sorts of liberties, save liberty at home."

Yes, friends, we have considered all this, and more, namely, that one sixth part of our entire population are slaves, and that you, with your subtreasuries and national banks, propose no relief for them. Nay, farther, it is because both of you, when in power, have used your authority to rivet closer the chains of unhappy millions, that we have been compelled to abandon you, and form a liberty party having for its first object the breaking of these chains.

What is slavery? For upon the answer to this question must the Liberty Party depend for its justification.

The slave laws of the South tell us that it is the conversion of men into articles of property; the transformation of sentient immortal beings into "chattels personal." The principle of a reciprocity of benefits, which to some extent characterizes all other relations, does not exist in that of master and slave. The master holds the plough which turns the soil of his plantation, the horse which draws it, and the slave who guides it by one and the same tenure. The profit of the master is the great end of the slave's existence. For this end he is fed, clothed, and prescribed for in sickness. He learns nothing, acquires nothing, for himself. He cannot use his own body for his own benefit. His very personality is destroyed. He is a mere instrument, a means in the hands of another for the accomplishment of an end in which his own interests are not regarded, a machine moved not by his own will, but by another's. In him the awful distinction between a person and a thing is annihilated: he is thrust down from the place which God and Nature assigned him, from the equal companionship of rational intelligence's,--a man herded with beasts, an immortal nature classed with the wares of the merchant!

The relations of parent and child, master and apprentice, government and subject, are based upon the principle of benevolence, reciprocal benefits, and the wants of human society; relations which sacredly respect the rights and legacies which God has given to all His rational creatures. But slavery exists only by annihilating or monopolizing these rights and legacies. In every other modification of society, man's personal ownership remains secure. He may be oppressed, deprived of privileges, loaded with burdens, hemmed about with legal disabilities, his liberties restrained. But, through all, the right to his own body and soul remains inviolate. He retains his inherent, original possession of himself. Even crime cannot forfeit it, for that law which destroys his personality makes void its own claims upon him as a moral agent; and the power to punish ceases with the accountability of the criminal. He may suffer and die under the penalties of the law, but he suffers as a man, he perishes as a man, and not as a thing. To the last moments of his existence the rights of a moral agent are his; they go with him to the grave; they constitute the ground of his accountability at the bar of infinite justice,--rights fixed, eternal, inseparable; attributes of all rational intelligence in time and eternity; the same in essence, and differing in degree only, with those of the highest moral being, of God himself.

Slavery alone lays its grasp upon the right of personal ownership, that foundation right, the removal of which uncreates the man; a right which God himself could not take away without absolving the being thus deprived of all moral accountability; and so far as that being is concerned, making sin and holiness, crime and virtue, words without significance, and the promises and sanctions of revelation, dreams. Hence, the crowning horror of slavery, that which lifts it above all other iniquities, is not that it usurps the prerogatives of Deity, but that it attempts that which even He who has said, "All souls are mine," cannot do, without breaking up the foundations of His moral government. Slavery is, in fact, a struggle with the Almighty for dominion over His rational creatures. It is leagued with the powers of darkness, in wresting man from his Maker. It is blasphemy lifting brazen brow and violent hand to heaven, attempting a reversal of God's laws. Man claiming the right to uncreate his brother; to undo that last and most glorious work, which God himself pronounced good, amidst the rejoicing hosts of heaven! Man arrogating to himself the right to change, for his own selfish purposes, the beautiful order of created existences; to pluck the crown of an immortal nature, scarce lower than that of angels, from the brow of his brother; to erase the God-like image and superscription stamped upon him by the hand of his Creator, and to write on the despoiled and desecrated tablet, "A chattel personal!"

This, then, is slavery. Nature, with her thousand voices, cries out against it. Against it, divine revelation launches its thunders. The voice of God condemns it in the deep places of the human heart. The woes and wrongs unutterable which attend this dreadful violation of natural justice, the stripes, the tortures, the sunderings of kindred, the desolation of human affections, the unchastity and lust, the toil uncompensated, the abrogated marriage, the legalized heathenism, the burial of the mind, are but the mere incidentals of the first grand outrage, that seizure of the entire man, nerve, sinew, and spirit, which robs him of his body, and God of his soul. These are but the natural results and outward demonstrations of slavery, the crystallizations from the chattel principle.

It is against this system, in its active operation upon three millions of our countrymen, that the Liberty Party is, for the present, directing all its efforts. With such an object well may we be "men of one idea." Nor do we neglect "other great interests," for all are colored and controlled by slavery, and the removal of this disastrous influence would most effectually benefit them.

Political action is the result and immediate object of moral suasion on this subject. Action, action, is the spirit's means of progress, its sole test of rectitude, its only source of happiness. And should not decided action follow our deep convictions of the wrong of slavery? Shall we denounce the slave-holders of the states, while we retain our slavery in the District of Columbia? Shall we pray that the God of the oppressed will turn the hearts of "the rulers" in South Carolina, while we, the rulers of the District, refuse to open the prisons and break up the slave-markets on its ten miles square? God keep us from such hypocrisy! Everybody now professes to be opposed to slavery. The leaders of the two great political parties are grievously concerned lest the purity of the antislavery enterprise will suffer in its connection with politics. In the midst of grossest pro-slavery action, they are full of anti-slavery sentiment. They love the cause, but, on the whole, think it too good for this world. They would keep it sublimated, aloft, out of vulgar reach or use altogether, intangible as Magellan's clouds. Everybody will join us in denouncing slavery, in the abstract; not a faithless priest nor politician will oppose us; abandon action, and forsooth we can have an abolition millennium; the wolf shall lie down with the lamb, while slavery in practice clanks, in derision, its three millions of unbroken chains. Our opponents have no fear of the harmless spectre of an abstract idea. They dread it only when it puts on the flesh and sinews of a practical reality, and lifts its right arm in the strength which God giveth to do as well as theorize.

As honest men, then, we must needs act; let us do so as becomes men engaged in a great and solemn cause. Not by processions and idle parades and spasmodic enthusiasms, by shallow tricks and shows and artifices, can a cause like ours be carried onward. Leave these to parties contending for office, as the "spoils of victory." We need no disguises, nor false pretences, nor subterfuges; enough for us to present before our fellow- countrymen the holy truths of freedom, in their unadorned and native beauty. Dark as the present may seem, let us remember with hearty confidence that truth and right are destined to triumph. Let us blot out the word "discouragement" from the anti-slavery vocabulary. Let the enemies of freedom be discouraged; let the advocates of oppression despair; but let those who grapple with wrong and falsehood, in the name of God and in the power of His truth, take courage. Slavery must die. The Lord hath spoken it. The vials of His hot displeasure, like those which chastised the nations in the Apocalyptic vision, are smoking even now, above its "habitations of cruelty." It can no longer be borne with by Heaven. Universal humanity cries out against it. Let us work, then, to hasten its downfall, doing whatsoever our hands find to do, "with all our might."

October, 1843.
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