Masterpieces of Negro Eloquence/Liberia: Its Struggles and Its Promises

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By Hon. Hilary Teague
Senator at Monrovia, Liberia

   As far back towards the infancy of our race as history and tradition are able to conduct us, we have found the custom everywhere prevailing among mankind, to mark by some striking exhibition, those events which were important and interesting, either in their immediate bearing or in their remote consequences upon the destiny of those among whom they occurred. These events are epochs in the history of man; they mark the rise and fall of kingdoms and of dynasties; they record the movements of the human mind, and the influence of those movements upon the destinies of the race; and whilst they frequently disclose to us the sad and sickening spectacle of innocence bending under the yoke of injustice, and of weakness robbed and despoiled by the hand of an unscrupulous oppression, they occasionally display, as a theme for admiring contemplation, the sublime spectacle of the human mind, roused by a concurrence of circumstances, to vigorous advances in the career of improvement.

   The utility of thus marking the progress of time—of recording the occurrence of events, and of holding up remarkable personages to the contemplation of mankind—is too obvious to need remark. It arises from the instincts of mankind, the irrepressible spirit of emulation, and the ardent longings after immortality; and this restless passion to perpetuate their existence which they find it impossible to suppress, impels them to secure the admiration of succeeding generations in the performance of deeds, by which, although dead, they may yet speak. In commemorating events thus powerful in forming the manners and sentiments of mankind, and in rousing them to strenuous exertion and to high and sustained emulation, it is obvious that such, and such only, should be selected as virtue and humanity would approve; and that, if any of an opposite character be held up, they should be displayed only as beacons, or as towering Pharos throwing a strong but lurid light to mark the melancholy grave of mad ambition, and to warn the inexperienced voyager of the existing danger.

   Thanks to the improved and humanized spirit—or should I not rather say, the chastened and pacific civilization of the age in which we live?—that laurels gathered upon the field of mortal strife, and bedewed with the tears of the widow and the orphan, are regarded now, not with admiration, but with horror; that the armed warrior, reeking in the gore of murdered thousands, who, in the age that is just passing away, would have been hailed with noisy acclamation by the senseless crowd, is now regarded only as the savage commissioner of an unsparing oppression, or at best, as the ghostly executioner of an unpitying justice. He who would embalm his name in the grateful remembrance of coming generations; he who would secure for himself a niche in the temple of undying fame; he who would hew out for himself a monument of which his country may boast; he who would entail upon heirs a name which they may be proud to wear, must seek some other field than that of battle as the theatre of his exploits.

   We have not yet numbered twenty-six years since he who is the oldest colonist amongst us was the inhabitant—not the citizen—of a country, and that, too, the country of his birth, where the prevailing sentiment is, that he and his race are incapacitated by an inherent defect in their mental constitution, to enjoy that greatest of all blessings, and to exercise that greatest of all rights, bestowed by a beneficent God upon his rational creatures, namely, the government of themselves by themselves. Acting upon this opinion, an opinion as false as it is foul—acting upon this opinion, as upon a self-evident proposition, those who held it proceeded with a fiendish consistency to deny the rights of citizens to those whom they had declared incapable of performing the duties of citizens. It is not necessary, and therefore I will not disgust you with the hideous picture of that state of things which followed upon the prevalence of this blasphemous theory. The bare mention that such an opinion prevailed would be sufficient to call up in the mind, even of those who had never witnessed its operation, images of the most sickening and revolting character. Under the iron reign of this crushing sentiment, most of us who are assembled here to-day drew our first breath, and sighed away the years of our youth. No hope cheered us; no noble object looming in the dim and distant future kindled our ambition. Oppression—cold, cheerless oppression, like the dreary region of eternal winter,—chilled every noble passion and fettered and paralyzed every arm. And if among the oppressed millions there were found here and there one in whose bosom the last glimmer of a generous passion was not yet extinguished—one, who, from the midst of inglorious slumberers in the deep degradation around him, would lift up his voice and demand those rights which the God of nature hath bestowed in equal gift upon all His rational creatures, he was met at once, by those who had at first denied and then enforced, with the stern reply that for him and for all his race, liberty and expatriation are inseparable.

   Dreadful as the alternative was, fearful as was the experiment now proposed to be tried, there were hearts equal to the task; hearts which quailed not at the dangers which loomed and frowned in the distance, but calm, cool, and fixed in their purpose, prepared to meet them with the watchword, "Give me liberty or give me death."

   Passing by intermediate events, which, did the time allow, it would be interesting to notice, we hasten to the grand event—the era of our separate existence, when the American flag first flung out its graceful folds to the breeze on the heights of Mesurado, and the pilgrims, relying upon the protection of Heaven and the moral grandeur of their cause, took solemn possession of the land in the name of Virtue, Humanity, and Religion.

   It would discover an unpardonable apathy were we to pass on without pausing a moment to reflect upon the emotions which heaved the bosoms of the pilgrims, when they stood for the first time where we now stand. What a prospect spread out before them! They stood in the midst of an ancient wilderness, rank and compacted with the growth of a thousand years, unthinned and unreclaimed by a single stroke of the woodman's axe. Few and far between might be found inconsiderable openings, where the ignorant native erected his rude habitation, or savage as his patrimonial wilderness, celebrated his bloody rites, and presented his votive gifts to demons. The rainy season—that terrible ordeal of foreign constitutions—was about setting in; the lurid lightning shot its fiery bolts into the forest around them, the thunder muttered its angry tones over their head, and the frail tenements, the best which their circumstances could afford, to shield them from a scorching sun by day and drenching rains at night, had not yet been completed. To suppose that at this time, when all things above and around them seemed to combine their influence against them; to suppose they did not perceive the full danger and magnitude of the enterprise they had embarked in, would be to suppose, not that they were heroes, but that they had lost the sensibility of men. True courage is equally remote from blind recklessness and unmanning timidity; and true heroism does not consist in insensibility to danger. He is a hero who calmly meets, and fearlessly grapples with the dangers which duty and honor forbid him to decline. The pilgrims rose to a full perception of all the circumstances of their condition. But when they looked back to that country from which they had come, and remembered the degradations in that house of bondage out of which they had been so fortunate as to escape, they bethought themselves; and, recollecting the high satisfaction with which they knew success would gladden their hearts, the rich inheritance they would entail upon their children, and the powerful aid it would lend to the cause of universal humanity, they yielded to the noble inspiration and girded them to the battle either for doing or for suffering.

   Let it not be supposed, because I have laid universal humanity under a tribute of gratitude to the founders of Liberia, that I have attached to their humble achievements too important an influence in that grand system of agencies which is now at work, renovating human society, and purifying and enlarging the sources of its enjoyment. In the system of that Almighty Being, without whose notice not a sparrow falls to the ground,

"Who sees, with equal eye as God of all,
A hero perish, or a sparrow fall,
Atoms or systems into ruin hurled,
And now a bubble-burst, and now a world."

   "Righteousness exalteth a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people." All attempts to correct the depravity of man, to stay the headlong propensity to vice, to abate the madness of ambition, will be found deplorably inefficient, unless we apply the restrictions and the tremendous sanctions of religion. A profound regard and deference for religion, a constant recognition of our dependence upon God, and of our obligation and accountability to Him; an ever-present, ever-pressing sense of His universal and all-controlling providence, this, and only this, can give energy to the arm of law, cool the raging fever of the passions, and abate the lofty pretensions of mad ambition. In prosperity, let us bring out our thank-offering, and present it with cheerful hearts in orderly, virtuous, and religious conduct. In adversity, let us consider, confess our sins, and abase ourselves before the throne of God. In danger, let us go to Him, whose prerogative it is to deliver; let us go to Him, with the humility and confidence which a deep conviction that the battle is not to the strong nor the race to the swift, is calculated to inspire.

   Fellow citizens! we stand now on ground never occupied by a people before. However insignificant we may regard ourselves, the eyes of Europe and America are upon us, as a germ, destined to burst from its enclosure in the earth, unfold its petals to the genial air, rise to the height and swell to the dimensions of the full-grown tree, or (inglorious fate) to shrivel, to die, and to be buried in oblivion. Rise, fellow citizens, rise to a clear and full perception of your tremendous responsibilities! Upon you, rely upon it, depends in a measure you can hardly conceive the future destiny of your race. You—you are to give the answer, whether the African race is doomed to unterminable degradation, a hideous blot on the fair face of Creation, a libel upon the dignity of human nature, or whether it is capable to take an honorable rank amongst the great family of nations! The friends of the colony are trembling: The enemies of the colored man are hoping. Say, fellow citizens, will you palsy the hands of your friends and sicken their hearts, and gladden the souls of your enemies, by a base refusal to enter upon a career of glory which is now opening so propitiously before you? The genius of universal emancipation, bending from her lofty seat, invites you to accept the wreath of national independence. The voice of your friends, swelling upon the breeze, cries to you from afar—Raise your standard! Assert your independence! throw out your banners to the wind! And will the descendants of the mighty Pharaohs, that awed the world; will the sons of him who drove back the serried legions of Rome and laid siege to the "eternal city"—will they, the achievements of whose fathers are yet the wonder and admiration of the world—will they refuse the proffered boon? Never! never!! never!!! Shades of the mighty dead! spirits of departed great ones! inspire us, animate us to the task; nerve us for the battle! Pour into our bosom a portion of that ardor and patriotism which bore you on to battle, to victory, and to conquest. Shall Liberia live? Yes; in the generous emotions now swelling in your bosom; in the high and noble purpose—now fixing itself in your mind, and referring into the unyieldingness of indomitable principle, we hear the inspiring response—Liberia shall live before God and before the nations of the earth!

   The night is passing away; the dusky shades are fleeing and even now

"Jocund day stands tiptoe
On the misty mountain top."

  • A speech delivered in 1846, on the anniversary of the founding of the Republic of Liberia.