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26 June, 2013
The Conflict with Slavery
by John Greenleaf Whittier
Read at the semi-centennial celebration of the American Anti-Slavery
Society at Philadelphia, on the 3d December, 1883.
OAK KNOLL, DANVERS, MASS.,
11th mo., 30, 1883.
I need not say how gladly I would be with you at the semi-centennial of
the American Anti-Slavery Society. I am, I regret to say, quite unable
to gratify this wish, and can only represent myself by a letter.
Looking back over the long years of half a century, I can scarcely
realize the conditions under which the convention of 1833 assembled.
Slavery was predominant. Like Apollyon in Pilgrim's Progress, it
"straddled over the whole breadth of the way." Church and state, press
and pulpit, business interests, literature, and fashion were prostrate at
its feet. Our convention, with few exceptions, was composed of men
without influence or position, poor and little known, strong only in
their convictions and faith in the justice of their cause. To onlookers
our endeavor to undo the evil work of two centuries and convert a nation
to the "great renunciation" involved in emancipation must have seemed
absurd in the last degree. Our voices in such an atmosphere found no
echo. We could look for no response but laughs of derision or the
missiles of a mob.
But we felt that we had the strength of truth on our side; we were right,
and all the world about us was wrong. We had faith, hope, and
enthusiasm, and did our work, nothing doubting, amidst a generation who
first despised and then feared and hated us. For myself I have never
ceased to be grateful to the Divine Providence for the privilege of
taking a part in that work.
And now for more than twenty years we have had a free country. No slave
treads its soil. The anticipated dangerous consequences of complete
emancipation have not been felt. The emancipated class, as a whole, have
done wisely, and well under circumstances of peculiar difficulty. The
masters have learned that cotton can be raised better by free than by
slave labor, and nobody now wishes a return to slave-holding. Sectional
prejudices are subsiding, the bitterness of the civil war is slowly
passing away. We are beginning to feel that we are one people, with no
really clashing interests, and none more truly rejoice in the growing
prosperity of the South than the old abolitionists, who hated slavery as
a curse to the master as well as to the slave.
In view of this commemorative semi-centennial occasion, many thoughts
crowd upon me; memory recalls vanished faces and voices long hushed. Of
those who acted with me in the convention fifty years ago nearly all have
passed into another state of being. We who remain must soon follow; we
have seen the fulfilment of our desire; we have outlived scorn and
persecution; the lengthening shadows invite us to rest. If, in looking
back, we feel that we sometimes erred through impatient zeal in our
contest with a great wrong, we have the satisfaction of knowing that we
were influenced by no merely selfish considerations. The low light of
our setting sun shines over a free, united people, and our last prayer
shall be for their peace, prosperity, and happiness.