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The Conflict with Slavery
Democracy and Slavery.

by John Greenleaf Whittier

[1843.]

The great leader of American Democracy, Thomas Jefferson, was an ultra- abolitionist in theory, while from youth to age a slave-holder in practice. With a zeal which never abated, with a warmth which the frost of years could not chill, he urged the great truths, that each man should be the guardian of his own weal; that one man should never have absolute control over another. He maintained the entire equality of the race, the inherent right of self-ownership, the equal claim of all to a fair participation in the enactment of the laws by which they are governed.

He saw clearly that slavery, as it existed in the South and on his own plantation, was inconsistent with this doctrine. His early efforts for emancipation in Virginia failed of success; but he next turned his attention to the vast northwestern territory, and laid the foundation of that ordinance of 1787, which, like the flaming sword of the angel at the gates of Paradise, has effectually guarded that territory against the entrance of slavery. Nor did he stop here. He was the friend and admirer of the ultra-abolitionists of revolutionary France; he warmly urged his British friend, Dr. Price, to send his anti-slavery pamphlets into Virginia; he omitted no opportunity to protest against slavery as anti-democratic, unjust, and dangerous to the common welfare; and in his letter to the territorial governor of Illinois, written in old age, he bequeathed, in earnest and affecting language, the cause of negro emancipation to the rising generation. "This enterprise," said he, "is for the young, for those who can carry it forward to its consummation. It shall have all my prayers, and these are the only weapons of an old man."

Such was Thomas Jefferson, the great founder of American Democracy, the advocate of the equality of human rights, irrespective of any conditions of birth, or climate, or color. His political doctrines, it is strange to say, found their earliest recipients and most zealous admirers in the slave states of the Union. The privileged class of slaveholders, whose rank and station "supersede the necessity of an order of nobility," became earnest advocates of equality among themselves--the democracy of aristocracy. With the misery and degradation of servitude always before them, in the condition of their own slaves, an intense love of personal independence, and a haughty impatience of any control over their actions, prepared them to adopt the democratic idea, so far as it might be applied to their own order. Of that enlarged and generous democracy, the love, not of individual freedom alone, but of the rights and liberties of all men, the unselfish desire to give to others the privileges which all men value for themselves, we are constrained to believe the great body of Thomas Jefferson's slave-holding admirers had no adequate conception. They were just such democrats as the patricians of Rome and the aristocracy of Venice; lords over their own plantations, a sort of "holy alliance" of planters, admitting and defending each other's divine right of mastership.

Still, in Virginia, Maryland, and in other sections of the slave states, truer exponents and exemplifiers of the idea of democracy, as it existed in the mind of Jefferson, were not wanting. In the debate on the memorials presented to the first Congress of the United States, praying for the abolition of slavery, the voice of the Virginia delegation in that body was unanimous in deprecation of slavery as an evil, social, moral, and political. In the Virginia constitutional convention--of 1829 there were men who had the wisdom to perceive and the firmness to declare that slavery was not only incompatible with the honor and prosperity of the state, but wholly indefensible on any grounds which could be consistently taken by a republican people. In the debate on the same subject in the legislature in 1832, universal and impartial democracy found utterance from eloquent lips. We might say as much of Kentucky, the child of Virginia. But it remains true that these were exceptions to the general rule. With the language of universal liberty on their lips, and moved by the most zealous spirit of democratic propagandism, the greater number of the slave-holders of the Union seem never to have understood the true meaning, or to have measured the length and breadth of that doctrine which they were the first to adopt, and of which they have claimed all along to be the peculiar and chosen advocates.

The Northern States were slow to adopt the Democratic creed. The oligarchy of New England, and the rich proprietors and landholders of the Middle States, turned with alarm and horror from the levelling doctrines urged upon them by the "liberty and equality" propagandists of the South. The doctrines of Virginia were quite as unpalatable to Massachusetts at the beginning of the present century as those of Massachusetts now are to the Old Dominion. Democracy interfered with old usages and time-honored institutions, and threatened to plough up the very foundations of the social fabric. It was zealously opposed by the representatives of New England in Congress and in the home legislatures; and in many pulpits hands were lifted to God in humble entreaty that the curse and bane of democracy, an offshoot of the rabid Jacobinism of revolutionary France, might not be permitted to take root and overshadow the goodly heritage of Puritanism. The alarmists of the South, in their most fervid pictures of the evils to be apprehended from the prevalence of anti-slavery doctrines in their midst, have drawn nothing more fearful than the visions of such

          "Prophets of war and harbingers of ill"


as Fisher Ames in the forum and Parish in the desk, when contemplating the inroads of Jeffersonian democracy upon the politics, religion, and property of the North.

But great numbers of the free laborers of the Northern States, the mechanics and small farmers, took a very different view of the matter. The doctrines of Jefferson were received as their political gospel. It was in vain that federalism denounced with indignation the impertinent inconsistency of slave-holding interference in behalf of liberty in the free states. Come the doctrine from whom it might, the people felt it to be true. State after state revolted from the ranks of federalism, and enrolled itself on the side of democracy. The old order of things was broken up; equality before the law was established, religious tests and restrictions of the right of suffrage were abrogated. Take Massachusetts, for example. There the resistance to democratic principles was the most strenuous and longest continued. Yet, at this time, there is no state in the Union more thorough in its practical adoption of them. No property qualifications or religious tests prevail; all distinctions of sect, birth, or color, are repudiated, and suffrage is universal. The democracy, which in the South has only been held in a state of gaseous abstraction, hardened into concrete reality in the cold air of the North. The ideal became practical, for it had found lodgment among men who were accustomed to act out their convictions and test all their theories by actual experience.

While thus making a practical application of the new doctrine, the people of the free states could not but perceive the incongruity of democracy and slavery.

Selleck Osborn, who narrowly escaped the honor of a Democratic martyr in Connecticut, denounced slave-holding, in common with other forms of oppression. Barlow, fresh from communion with Gregoire, Brissot, and Robespierre, devoted to negro slavery some of the most vigorous and truthful lines of his great poem. Eaton, returning from his romantic achievements in Tunis for the deliverance of white slaves, improved the occasion to read a lecture to his countrymen on the inconsistency and guilt of holding blacks in servitude. In the Missouri struggle of 1819- 20, the people of the free states, with a few ignoble exceptions, took issue with the South against the extension of slavery. Some ten years later, the present antislavery agitation commenced. It originated, beyond a question, in the democratic element. With the words of Jefferson on their lips, young, earnest, and enthusiastic men called the attention of the community to the moral wrong and political reproach of slavery. In the name and spirit of democracy, the moral and political powers of the people were invoked to limit, discountenance, and put an end to a system so manifestly subversive of its foundation principles. It was a revival of the language of Jefferson and Page and Randolph, an echo of the voice of him who penned the Declaration of Independence and originated the ordinance of 1787.

Meanwhile the South had wellnigh forgotten the actual significance of the teachings of its early political prophets, and their renewal in the shape of abolitionism was, as might have been expected, strange and unwelcome. Pleasant enough it had been to hold up occasionally these democratic abstractions for the purpose of challenging the world's admiration and cheaply acquiring the character of lovers of liberty and equality. Frederick of Prussia, apostrophizing the shades of Cato and Brutus,

          "Vous de la liberte heros que je revere,"


while in the full exercise of his despotic power, was quite as consistent as these democratic slaveowners, whose admiration of liberty increased in exact ratio with its distance from their own plantations. They had not calculated upon seeing their doctrine clothed with life and power, a practical reality, pressing for application to their slaves as well as to themselves. They had not taken into account the beautiful ordination of Providence, that no man can vindicate his own rights, without directly or impliedly including in that vindication the rights of all other men. The haughty and oppressive barons who wrung from their reluctant monarch the Great Charter at Runnymede, acting only for themselves and their class, little dreamed of the universal application which has since been made of their guaranty of rights and liberties. As little did the nobles of the parliament of Paris, when strengthening themselves by limiting the kingly prerogative, dream of the emancipation of their own serfs, by a revolution to which they were blindly giving the first impulse. God's truth is universal; it cannot be monopolized by selfishness.
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