A VIRGINIAN’S VIEW OF THE SLAVERY QUESTION.
Duties of the North and of the South.
Preached in the Unitarian Church, Washington City, D.C.
January 26, 1856
By Rev. M.D. Conway, Pastor.
It is now eight weeks, and the Congress of these States, called as if in bitter irony, United, is still unorganized. There is reason enough for the grave apprehension new pressing upon the mind of every patriot. Our young Hercules, just as his labours have arisen before him, and the nations looked on to see him strangle the Hydra here, and there unbar the flood of Reform toward manifold Augean stables, suddenly becomes paralyzed. Oh, son of Jove, last and strongest, what is this! Whither has they noble promise fled?
We meet here, my friends, on a common ground. Varied perceptions of the relations of that common ground to human welfare separate us into different parties. We are also of diverse sections. I do not think the pulpit should be used to assail any of these, as such. I, therefore, shall not permit myself a doubt, as I touch this most sensitive subject, that you will sympathize with me and with each other. I do so only because, in these troubled times, my heart burns to point you to the ancient landmarks of Right and Wrong, which, when seen, none can fail to acknowledge; for, like the objects of the ear and eye, they are their own evidence. I shall not make any partisan statement, for I belong to no party; but there is one phase of the present state of things which enters my pulpit, whether I will or not. This are of the circle--not the arts of the politician or economist--the pulpit cannot be true to itself without interpreting. And I am constrained to believe it a mathematical certainty that any arc of any circle, moral or geometric, being given, the others may be discovered and described, and the radii traced to their centre.
I shall waste no words on the dogma that such subjects are not proper to the pulpit. Christ and Paul found them appropriate to their ministry. If moral questions should not enter here, what should? And if questions involving the happiness of millions, and the good relations of section with section, and man with man, throughout the land, are not moral, what are?
It was the saddest day that ever dawned on the country when this was made any other than a moral question. In the day when it was made one of national political issue the wind was sown; to-day, we reap the whirlwind. It is exclusively a moral question, as are all questions affecting humanity. It is not a question of North and South--those very terms should be banished as unhealthy here. How completely do we find moral perceptions obscured, when here, in the noon of the Nineteenth Century, on a question involving more entirely than any other the just relations of men toward each other and toward God, a great nation is geographically divided. Men with divine should must be lumped with the clod whereon they tread, and certain principles and ideas considered as exclusively products of certain sections, as coffee or cotton. Given a man’s longitude and latitude, and you may predict his views on slavery, and nearly everything else; as when you know the way the wind blows, you may announce with certainty the position of the nearest weather-vanes.
But in the present state of things, the political view hears its triumph of Doom. The old party watch-fires are but blackened earth and ashes: their lives have fallen in unpleasant places. A fearful disintegration has supervened the political mass. Let us hope by the working of a higher synthesis. Hitherto we have had ancestral compacts and the political representation of negroes canvassed. Men have spoken of what is “wise and expedient,” rather than what is right. You need not that any one should show you how this political treatment has miserably failed, even in objects no higher than its own. Each party has come forward with its nostrum, declaring itself the original old Dr. Jacob Townsend, whose pills, and none others, were genuine: each was to bring repose to the distracted patient and soothe irritation by profounder nationality. The inflammation has spread with every Administration until this; and with this, the very powers which enable inflammation to spread seem nearly death-still. I doubt not it would be so with the administration of any merely political party in the country. Let the people know, then, that this is the grand success of the political treatment of the slavery question--every wheel of the Government stilled!
In this state of things, it will not be the popular [illegible] but they who live smothering that heart, who will withstand those who now, when all other methods fail, present The One Path, opened up before the country in the Christian LAW, First pure, then peaceable. Every man knows how alone he gets peace. Priests may mumble over the souls of the departed, or beneath them, Requiescat in pace, but no soul ever rested in peace until it had entered in the less; each atom obeys the laws of the sphere. Nations began with individuals, and are now but collections of them, and must obey the laws of individuals. With both, peace blossoms only on the stem of purity.
This, then, will save us from any national peril, that the Conscience shall be enthroned everywhere Absolute Monarch. It must be allowed untrammeled action, wherever in any man it prohibits slaveholding, and wherever in any man it does not. Only let men feel that they are living and voting at unity with their best light of duty, and they demand no more, but are at ease. When agitation is abroad, it is certain that the lash of Conscience has been loosened somewhere.
In order to secure this, we are called to mutual concession--to the concession of each moral sense to the other of all it claims--it being understood that nothing can be claimed by either for political advantage, but only from such a sense of the moral necessity of such a claim as shall never shrink from any results whatever, which are needed to secure it. If the two portions of the country cannot unite, and feel at the same moment ready to face the Eternal Judge, with the full conviction that they re each completely true to God and to every man, white and black, bond and free, on Earth, let them sink together beneath the waters under the Earth, but never, never unite, or remain united!
We are called the more to this concession, because the error has been with both sides, and is now. The men whose consciences were first stirred on this subject have dwelt on the inhumanity of slaveholders, without remembering to ask whether they were not slaveholders. For whatever the Federal Government sanctions or adopts is of course by complicity of all who are parties to that Federal compact. As the people of Virginia did not derive their power to hold slaves from the Union, and do not now, of course none of the rest of the States, or of the individuals of the States, are involved in it. They are, indeed, in a high sense, concerned in all that concerns their fellow-men; but not otherwise are they morally involved, than as they are in widow-burning in Hindostan, or cannibalism in the Fejee Islands. Do we, as Americans, take upon our consciences the sins, as we may think them, of Great Britain or Japan, because we have treaties with those nations? Do England and France become responsible for one another’s policy, or assume each other’s National Church, because for a different object, they have formed an alliance? The United States are but such an alliance. And, as England and France have only a common responsibility for what is done in the war with Russia, so have the people of the free States only a responsibility for what is done by the Federal Union as such. So we can only look upon the position of the class of anti-slavery men whose motto is “No union with slaveholders” as a blunder, occasioned by their not having union with their real duty. Had they worked by the Christian principle, “First cast the beam out of thine own eye, and so see clearly to cast the mote out of thy brother’s”; had they not wasted their energies on slavery in the South, but concentrated them on slavery in the North, they would have put in a demand which, so surely as God made man alike in Maine and California, would have received the approval of every sincere soul from Maine to California.
This blunder has had its antithetical one in the South. And here, I may say, we must guard against our prejudices. As a Virginian, with no tie of relationship northward, of the remotest kind, past or present, I feel how easily I might slide into a justification of my dear mother, the South. But the soul knows no prejudices or sections, and must see all under the pure light of reason and conscience.
The first error of the South has been an impatience in the discussion of this question, reminding calm men of those unfortunate persons met with in lunatic asylums, who speak rationally on all the topics until you touch that on which they are deranged, when their insanity bursts wildly forth. This has caused them to put themselves in an attitude before the world which has brought down its severest censure; and feeling that this was not just what they deserved—since they were at least sincere—it has led them on to a still great greater rage against a judgment which, however unfair, was the result of their own mistaken heat. It has precluded freedom of discussion even among themselves; a policy which no human brain or heart ever respected yet. The native sons of the South have again and again sought to discuss it in their own vicinities, and have as often been threatened and visited with angry processes, though the privilege is secured them in the Bill of Rights of nearly every Southern State. The South has thus lost the confidence of many of her own children, who find that a freedom exercised by their lordly ancestors, Washington, Jefferson, Henry, and by them transmitted as an eternal inheritance, is now denied them by men who beside those are Lilliputian. Those who deny that the full sunlight should play above and beneath and around any subject, can never convince any disinterested person that they are in the right. This was true before Jesus said, ‘Whoso doeth right cometh to the light,’ and it has been true ever since, and will be true to all eternity. What would men, including the South, say to Christ’s getting into a passion with an antagonist, or Plato’s refusing to hear the other side in an argument?
Blunder is of a prickly-pear growth, one leaf developed from another. This impossibility of free speech in the South has preserved a code of slavery which is far beneath her moral sense, but which cannot become a dead letter so long as there are wicked and selfish men in the world. As an evidence of this, it is a familiar fact that the wretched men termed ‘Negro-drivers’ are held, with their families, in scorn by all classes of society in the South; yet no business is more entirely legal.
How is the code to be reformed. If it is a crime to broach the subject? Take any Southern man, and ask him if he believes that these blacks should be so completely in the possession of the whites that there should be no security to the marital relation: that one man should have the power, if he wills, to separate the families he owns to any extent? Ask him if he believes that immortal beings should be reared in brutal ignorance? (and those who do otherwise break the laws. How sadly suggestive is the fact, that the only other people who forbid education to any, are the Yezeddis of Mesopotamia, who are the only race of Devil worshippers!) A Southern man will reply, no.
And yet these laws remain there, trained by Southerners who are not men, to bear the cruelest fruits; such as have aroused the open indignation of the world, and the secret indignation of thousands of Southern hearts, and shall continue it, until human souls, North and South, are fatherless, and no divine instincts of justice and pity flow out from God’s heart.
Thus both sides, by their own premises, need internal reform. But our reference now is to the great moral responsibility pressing on each and growing out of our being one people. I would the pressure were heavier! In this country [illegible] [illegible] [illegible phrase] happiness, or misery, elevation or degradation of men, women, and children, everywhere—are shared by every tax-payer and voter, the moral responsibility resting on each man is tremendous. What abject cant is it to say, the North has nothing to do with Slavery. Nothing to do with it! When the National flag cannot wave over a slave in this District, nor in any United States Territory, who is not a slave by Northern as well as Southern consent! Never was any duty plainer than theirs to attend to this affair—to see what it is which they by their representatives, have been perpetually sanctioning and extending. There is need that the voice of the ancient prophet should e in every breath which stirs the free airs of Free States, crying to each man this day, ‘Arise; for this matter belongeth unto thee!’
I alluded just now to those who had assailed the Southern institution, and neglected the demonstrable fact that the first and (until attended to) the only assailable thing with them was their complicity in it. The only sin of these is a confused perception. But there is another class of real criminals. It is they who see slavery to be wrong, and see how they participate in it, and might free themselves from it, but suffer themselves to be overcome by its allurements. I have been ashamed to hear, in Boston, the descendants of the Puritans apologizing for slavery. They thought a Southern man would like that. But no Southern man would like that! The Southerners, thank God, are not so bad; they say, Slavery is right; if not, there is no apology for it. John Randolph spoke their sentiment, when, pointing his finger at one such man in Congress, he said, ‘I envy not the heart nor the head of a man who can come here form the North and defend slavery.’ Southern politicians are willing to make use of such, whilst they laugh in their sleeves; but the nobler men and women of the South grieve to see men falling thus meanly.
Here at Washington it has been as the fly in wheat—one noble head after another laid low; falling into infidelity, as the Slavery Power has cast some web of interest around them. And those who believe, with Christianity, that it profits not a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul, turn pale and say, ‘Who falls next?’ No matter if the concession is for ‘Peace.’ So did the army on the Alps desire nothing so much as peace,--to lie down anywhere and sleep; and those who slept, never woke more! Nothing is deadlier, at time, than peace; and invariably when, as in this case, the word ‘Peace is but a cover of your desire that your personal interest and business should be undisturbed—a disguise of that only Satan, selfishness.
Ah, ye American men! Too soon have you inscribed on our banner, Peaceable! More successful had it been, if the word had been in the order in which the ancient Christian places it—first pure, then peaceable! Never was there but one path given men to walk in: it is that of a pure conscience. Whether the light be dim or bright, it is in the right direction; guilt is in veering from that. There may be innumerable crooked lines between two points, but one straight. What is the right line between us and that peace we all crave?
We can all imagine two men of entire candor and courtesy—the one Southern, and believing slavery right in itself; the other Northern, and believing it wrong—coming to an understanding on the subject; the common postulate being, only that neither must himself do what he believe essentially wrong.
Southerner—I believe the institution is best for the white and colored races.
Notherner—I make no doubt of your sincerity but would like to discuss it.
Sou.—We may do what presently, but will you not allow that, so long as I hold that opinion, you have no right of any kind to interfere with what I hold legally as property?
Nor.—I do see that. The wrong is not in my detestation of slavery, nor my endeavor to inspire you with a like feeling, but in my attempting a right thing in a wrong way.
Sou.—Which is always an unsuccessful way.
Nor.—Now let us define the other side. I believe that slavery is the ‘wild and guilty fantasy’ that Brougham called it, or the ‘sum of all villanies’ which Wesley pronounced it. You are connected with it sincerely, and therefore, unless you have refused possible light, innocently; but if I am connected with it, I sin.
Nor.—If you and I have partnership in a slave, your innocence does not exculpate me.
Nor.—If you seek to make me a party to anything which I hold wrong, you are guilty, even though you believe it right, unless you can first persuade me also that it is right.
Sou.—It is so.
Nor.—And if our firm cannot remain without involving me in this wrong, my one path is out of it. The firm must be dissolved.
Now, my friends, let us approach our national agitations thus simply and quietly. The people of the United States are a firm. Wherever the firm deals with slavery, all deal with slavery; and the General Government has dealt, and does now deal, with that local institution. I appeal to you Southern men, is it not the only right thing for those who believe slavery to be sinful. Whether it be really so or not firmly to declare themselves free from all share in it, if not by your concession then by whatever means they can: but certainly to do it?
But, it is said, your fathers conceded this and that, and will you not stand by their compact?
If there be any compact, and it pledges me to what I feel wrong, shall I be judged by my father’s light?
But if, in obedience to your conscience, you should injure this Union, you would cause great evils—evils greater than slavery.
Evils are not as bad as sins. We do not wish to rid ourselves of our share in national slaveholding, as from an evil disease, but as a moral defection, as falsehood or theft would be, Evil is a part of God’s Law, for he says by every prophet, ‘I create evil.’ He is responsible for whatever evils ensue; we only for doing his will. Is not my soul his voice? And when I reject that voice which assures me it is wrong to do this, is it not a lack of faith in Him? As one who should say, ‘Thou, Infinite Being! Didst bid me thus, but didst not foresee, as I do, that this and that evil would follow!’
‘Will you imperil the interests of thirty millions of whites for three or four of Africans?’
The adages, reply the others, are very good: Honestly, even in the old Roman sense, embracing all that is just and true to God and man, is the best policy. Right never wronged any man. The interests of the three or four millions of negroes are not so near to us as the interests of the whites deem from what, by our creed, is far worse, the crime of enslaving them. If I rob you, you know I am the far worse off of the two.
‘Then, if you think thus, we must separate. We think you in error, that you cannot think out institution is right: or that even to say it is inexpedient, or an evil, does not define your view: that you must count it immoral. Certainly, nothing however valuable, should induce us to do wrong: and the South admires, as much as any people, the brave words of Phocion, “Let justice be done, though the heavens fall!”
But, it is replied, it does not end here. You say we must secede. But this proceeds from the assumption that the Union is inextricably involved in the policy which makes all hold slaves. We do not believe that. We think the Union is involved in freedom, and that all its pro-slavery proclivities are usurpations. We believe, indeed, that it does not interfere with you in your Slaveholding, nor the English in their Aristocracy, nor the Arabs in their Mahomedanism; but, at the same time, we believe our Constitution protects us from compulsory sanction of these, and protects us in our freedom. Thus, we cannot enlist against it, but only to redeem it from the distractions resulting from a misinterpretation of our compact. If there is secession, it cannot be on our side.
On this assertion, now made by a large portion of this nation in terrible earnest, hangs all the excitement, and will hang more and more. Crimination and violence serve no purpose here. Both are equally sincere. Individuals may be insincere, but no large mass of men can hold together with means and influence for any length of time on an affected or financial basis. Hypocrisy would forbid the enthusiasm manifested on both sides: and the outlay necessary for a cause cools all fanaticism.
How, then, shall these be reconciled with each other, preserving self-truthfulness?
We must set aside here those who cry ‘Peace,’ when there is none. I, for one, have lost forever my faith in those self-styled conservatives, who would rely upon ‘putting down agitation.’ That cry has been sounded for a score of years, and with what success any one may see by going no father than the House of Representatives. Stop agitation! So Xerxes forbade the sea to advance; so the Phoenicians shot arrows into the clouds when a storm arose; so an English gentleman wrote an elaborate treatise, showing conclusively that the Atlantic could never be crossed by steam, which went out to America in the first steamer. Stop agitation! Judging by late events in Kansas, one would say it would take much more agitation than the country has yet known, to put down agitation.
No; this scab of Acquiescence, which you would bring over the sore, is not a cure, even if you could get it; the fester would only deepen more treacherously. Agitation is not the disease, but the friendly symptom which admonishes of disease. Eruption and fever are the health of a disease, but the by the eradication of the undying cause.
How, then, is Peace, which all love, and which is for the interest of all, to come?
Let St. James answer: By the wisdom which cometh from above, which is first pure, then peaceable. Let every man in the Union only feel assured that he stands beneath the sheltering wing of his country, a pure man. Let men cease to see the National Flag discolored by what they believe dishonorable and wrong, and then be told they have nothing to do with it, when each stands with his share in the eye of God and man! Then shall that unrest, which is the sign of the strong lash of Conscience, cease. Then shall the word Slavery, that dirge of our woes, never more disorganize Congress, for it will be beyond Congress. I pity the Northern man who finds repose whilst his hand is binding slaves; still more the Southern man who would desire to have him find peace in impurity.
I know how large a number of good men in the North this position will offend. But I am ready to reiterate that, when their personal responsibility for the bondage of a man anywhere is past, slavery only addresses them as other evils. A man cannot, of course, cease his testimony against whatever is to him wrong, except by being so far forth implicated in it. It may, however, be emphatically announced to this class, that if all they had ever thought, said, or written, on this topic—abstractly good, as much of it is—were condensed into one word, it would be to the act which would have freed them, or any one of them, from complicity in the thing, as a child’s play to the great Lisbon Earthquake. If any of them thinks that the preservation of the Union involves such complicity, let him not turn phrase-monger, but himself secede, and rot in prison, ere he pays taxes or accepts advantages in his State through which he is inevitably involved. No eloquence would persuade like this. A great action is by its divine nature irresistible; great words are good only when difficulties make them great actions. In some way or other, nations are at the mercy of strong men, and then thousand flee before one. Truly, says the Brahmin:--
‘Devoutly speak, and men
Devoutly listen to thee;
Devoutly act, and then
The strength of God acts through thee.’
How Godlike is it to be brace and true! There never was a soul conceived in God’s mind, or projected into the North or South, or East or West, who in itself honored dapperness or cowardice, and respected not an honest, unflinching stand on any side. I am a Southern man, and I fear not contradiction from any one born there when I say that they all respect a man from the North who will not bend from his principles; and that not one of them thinks a doughface worthy to be valued as more than a catspaw. A heroic action, which is such only because imperiling large interests, is a new star lit in the heavens. Men see it, and feel the presence of the unseen higher Power; they know with joy that the earth is more than a moving ant hill. This joy cannot be moved by any danger or loss. If the Union were sundered by such a stand, does it not pay in that it props the whole earth? For were the Union divided on a principle of right, a voice like the angel-hymn of a Second Advent would go forth, proclaiming the law by which thrones tremble, and all oppressions and evils fall as leaves in October: First pure, then peaceable.
Before all, then, let us dismiss Fear. Let us, with Montaigne, fear nothing so much as fear. Southern men! Northern men! Be one in being brave for your light and your right! If it should be found ever necessary to separate—as I pray I may never believe more than I do now—still would mutual honor survive; and by no event can any obstruction befall the vast destiny for which these superb American hill and plains were planned. By their great strength, these national throes proclaim the grandeur of a Nation’s new birth. Hark! There is now as of old a voice on the angry waters, ‘It is I: be not afraid.’ Serene and unharmed above our small cares and storms is enthroned the Genius in whose mind once, as in an egg, lay the Western Hemisphere, and Columbus, and Washington, and to our tearful prayer replies, Oh man, think you that I have created these in vain? Know that until God is dethroned, the Right must prevail: until He dies, nothing good can die!