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26 June, 2013
The Conflict with Slavery
Democracy and Slavery.
by John Greenleaf Whittier
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
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
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
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.