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13 January, 2012
The Conflict with Slavery
The Two Processions.
by John Greenleaf Whittier
"Look upon this picture, and on this." HAMLET.
Considering that we have a slave population of nearly three millions, and
that in one half of the states of the Republic it is more hazardous to
act upon the presumption that "all men are created free and equal" than
it would be in Austria or Russia, the lavish expression of sympathy and
extravagant jubilation with which, as a people, we are accustomed to
greet movements in favor of freedom abroad are not a little remarkable.
We almost went into ecstasies over the first French revolution; we filled
our papers with the speeches of orator Hunt and the English radicals; we
fraternized with the United Irishmen; we hailed as brothers in the cause
of freedom the very Mexicans whom we have since wasted with fire and
sword; our orators, North and South, grew eloquent and classic over the
Greek and Polish revolutions. In short, long ere this, if the walls of
kingcraft and despotism had been, like those of Jericho, destined to be
overthrown by sound, our Fourth of July cannon-shootings and bell-
ringings, together with our fierce, grandiloquent speech-makings in and
out of Congress, on the occasions referred to, would have left no stone
It is true that an exception must be made in the case of Hayti. We fired
no guns, drank no toasts, made no speeches in favor of the establishment
of that new republic in our neighborhood. The very mention of the
possibility that Haytien delegates might ask admittance to the congress
of the free republics of the New World at Panama "frightened from their
propriety" the eager propagandists of republicanism in the Senate, and
gave a death-blow to their philanthropic projects. But as Hayti is a
republic of blacks who, having revolted from their masters as well as
from the mother country, have placed themselves entirely without the pale
of Anglo-Saxon sympathy by their impertinent interference with the
monopoly of white liberty, this exception by no means disproves the
general fact, that in the matter of powder-burning, bell-jangling,
speech-making, toast-drinking admiration of freedom afar off and in the
abstract we have no rivals. The caricature of our "general sympathizers"
in Martin Chuzzlewit is by no means a fancy sketch.
The news of the revolution of the three days in Paris, and the triumph of
the French people over Charles X. and his ministers, as a matter of
course acted with great effect upon our national susceptibility. We all
threw up our hats in excessive joy at the spectacle of a king dashed down
headlong from his throne and chased out of his kingdom by his long-
suffering and oppressed subjects. We took half the credit of the
performance to ourselves, inasmuch as Lafayette was a principal actor in
it. Our editors, from Passamaquoddy to the Sabine, indited paragraphs
for a thousand and one newspapers, congratulating the Parisian patriots,
and prophesying all manner of evil to holy alliances, kings, and
aristocracies. The National Intelligencer for September 27, 1830,
contains a full account of the public rejoicings of the good people of
Washington on the occasion. Bells were rung in all the steeples, guns
were fired, and a grand procession was formed, including the President of
the United States, the heads of departments, and other public
functionaries. Decorated with tricolored ribbons, and with tricolored
flags mingling with the stripes and stars over their heads, and gazed
down upon by bright eyes from window and balcony, the "general
sympathizers" moved slowly and majestically through the broad avenue
towards the Capitol to celebrate the revival of French liberty in a
manner becoming the chosen rulers of a free people.
What a spectacle was this for the representatives of European kingcraft
at our seat of government! How the titled agents of Metternich and
Nicholas must have trembled, in view of this imposing demonstration, for
the safety of their "peculiar institutions!"
Unluckily, however, the moral effect of this grand spectacle was marred
somewhat by the appearance of another procession, moving in a contrary
direction. It was a gang of slaves! Handcuffed in pairs, with the
sullen sadness of despair in their faces, they marched wearily onward to
the music of the driver's whip and the clanking iron on their limbs.
Think of it! Shouts of triumph, rejoicing bells, gay banners, and
glittering cavalcades, in honor of Liberty, in immediate contrast with
men and women chained and driven like cattle to market! The editor of
the American Spectator, a paper published at Washington at that time,
speaking of this black procession of slavery, describes it as "driven
along by what had the appearance of a man on horseback." The miserable
wretches who composed it were doubtless consigned to a slave-jail to
await their purchase and transportation to the South or Southwest; and
perhaps formed a part of that drove of human beings which the same editor
states that he saw on the Saturday following, "males and females chained
in couples, starting from Robey's tavern, on foot, for Alexandria, to
embark on board a slave-ship."
At a Virginia camp-meeting, many years ago, one of the brethren,
attempting an exhortation, stammered, faltered, and finally came to a
dead stand. "Sit down, brother," said old Father Kyle, the one-eyed
abolition preacher; "it's no use to try; you can't preach with twenty
negroes sticking in your throat!" It strikes us that our country is very
much in the condition of the poor confused preacher at the camp-meeting.
Slavery sticks in its throat, and spoils its finest performances,
political and ecclesiastical; confuses the tongues of its evangelical
alliances; makes a farce of its Fourth of July celebrations; and, as in
the case of the grand Washington procession of 1830, sadly mars the
effect of its rejoicings in view of the progress of liberty abroad.
There is a stammer in all our exhortations; our moral and political
homilies are sure to run into confusions and contradictions; and the
response which comes to us from the nations is not unlike that of Father
Kyle to the planter's attempt at sermonizing: "It's no use, brother
Jonathan; you can't preach liberty with three millions of slaves in your