The African Slave Trade/Chapter 1
Ecclesiastes iv. 1. So I returned, and considered all the oppressions that are done under the sun : and behold the tears of such as were oppressed, and they had no comforter; and on the side of their oppressors there was power; but they had no comforter.
It is certainly surprising, that in this nineteenth century, and under the light of free and Christian institutions, we should be called upon to discuss anew the subject of the African slave trade. It was supposed that the inexpediency and iniquity of this traffic were universally conceded; that the efforts of philanthropic and Christian men, upon two continents, to enlighten public opinion, had been successful; and that the action of our government and the governments of Europe in abolishing said traffic, was regarded as final.
But for several years past there has been growing up in the community a power that plants itself in direct antagonism to the teachings of our religion, the professed aim of our political institutions, the influence of our educational systems, and the
sentiments inculcated in our national literature. A battle is in progress between liberty and slavery, God's truth and the vile passions of men, that perils the existence of this republic, and touches every vital interest. And, to crown the triumphs of the slave power, we again have vessels fitting out in our ports, north and south, to bring to our shores the suffering children of Africa, and entail anew upon that continent and our own, the evils and horrors of this accursed traffic.
It may be a delicate question to inquire who, in the various States of this Union, are responsible for the growth of this evil; who, by their direct action, their silence, or their apologies for slavery, have made contributions to its strength. To his own conscience, and before God, each man must answer.
When benevolent societies, ecclesiastical bodies, an influential press, churches professing to be Christian, unite with a demoralized public opinion, and an oppressive secular authority, to perpetuate or extend a system of iniquity, there is created a force for evil, against which even millions of free Christian men find it difficult to contend. The virus enters the arteries and muscles of the national life, palsies the sinews of the natural strength, and poisons the fountains of national existence. And who will answer for the consequences of fostering such an evil in the heart of a country blessed as ours has been by Heaven? Have we received any special license to sin, with an exemption from the action of those eternal laws that bind the penalty to the transgression?
Is it not true now, as of the past, that "the nation and kingdom that will not serve Thee shall perish, yea, those nations shall be utterly wasted"? Could the spirits of departed American heroes return, with what increased emphasis would they reiterate the burning words that expressed their feelings and principles on this momentous question!
Referring to the struggle for American independence, and the palpable inconsistency of those who achieved it, Thomas Jefferson said:
If, then, every attribute of the Almighty is against the continuance of this system of oppression, with, what feelings must he view the efforts to revive the traffic in human beings, in the face of the existing light and wide-spread knowledge of the evils of slavery! We tremble when we remember that God is just, and that his justice can not sleep for ever.
It is true that there are persons, not a few, who do not recognize the views and attributes of the Almighty, when considering this question. The idea of a higher power than that of the slave power, has been, over and over again, treated with a sneer of contempt, in circles where we had a right to look for better things. Language has been used, and principles have been set forth, by professed teachers of public morals, that tend to sap the foundations of all morality, blunt the public conscience, bring contempt upon the religion of the Bible, and provoke the wrath of Heaven. And unless the nation will learn, by the teachings of revelation, and the ordinary course of divine providence, that there is a government above all human governments, and a power to which human authorities are amenable, we shall learn it in another way, and perhaps by a bitter experience. The words of Patrick Henry, the apostle of liberty, which he uttered in 1773, are peculiarly applicable to the present day. He said;
Indeed, to express our views of slavery and the slave trade, we could not employ more intense and truthful words than were uttered by the men who participated in the struggle for American liberty, who were members of the convention that framed the Constitution of the United States, and the leaders of public opinion in the early history of our nation.
We might quote the language of Gouverneur Morris, of Pennsylvania, who, early in the convention, said, "He never would concur in upholding domestic slavery. It was a nefarious institution. It was the curse of Heaven!"
The general opinion existing at that time is expressed by John Jay, James Monroe, Madison, Benjamin Franklin, and the immortal "Washington. Mr. Jay was known as the earnest and uncompromising advocate of freedom. In one of his letters from Spain, he wrote as follows:
Can any principles be clearer, more just, more humane than these?
The opinions and feelings of Washington, who was President of the Convention that formed the Constitution, may be gathered from his letters. In one addressed to Robert Morris, Esq., he said:
"I hope that it will not be conceived from these observations, that it is my wish to hold the unhappy people who are the subject of this letter, in slavery. I can only say, that there is not a man living, who wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a plan adopted for the abolition of it; but there is only one proper and effectual mode by which it can be accomplished, and that is, by the legislative authority; and this, as far as my suffrage will go, shall not be wanting" In another to John F. Mercer, Esq., he said;
In writing to Gen. Lafayette, he said :
These opinions, and many others that we might adduce, bearing against slavery as it existed at that period, bear, with augmented power, against the foreign traffic in slaves. Indeed, it was the influence of these very oj)inions, and the persevering efforts of these heroes, that secured the passage of the law for the abolition of the slave trade.
Having just emerged from the contest to secure American liberty, the inconsistency of upholding the slave traffic was too glaring not to be seen by every honest mind. And, at that time, under the tuition of the great American struggle, the hostility to slavery was national, and the pro-slavery spirit. was local, and mainly confined to those having a pecuniary interest in slaves. The system was looked upon as a temporary domestic evil, rather than as a permanent institution, and the Constitution was framed with reference to its gradual and final extinction.
Indeed, the political philosophy that underlay the American revolution, embraced not simply the freedom of this nation, but the rights of human nature. This was the animating spirit of the movement, as directly opposed to the evil we are considering as light is opposed to darkness.
Alexander Hamilton directed against the odious stamp act the authority of British law, as he found it written down by Blackstone.
Then, as if disdaining to stand on any mere human authority, however high, the framer of the American Constitution declared:
Lafayette closed his review of the Revolution, when returning to France, with this beautiful and glowing apostrophe: "May this great temple which we have just erected to liberty, always be an instruction to oppressors, an example to the oppressed, a refuge for the rights of the human race, and an object of delight to the manes of its founders,"
"Happy," (said Washington, when announcing the treaty of peace to the army,) "thrice happy shall they be pronounced hereafter, who shall have contributed any thing, who shall have performed the meanest office in erecting this stupendous fabric of freedom and empire on the broad basis of independency, who shall have assisted in protecting the rights of human nature, and establishing an asylum for the poor and oppressed of all nations and religions."
And would that the solemn injunction uttered at the close of the Convention that adopted the Federal Constitution might be sounded, in trumpet peals, through the length and breadth of our land. Said those noble patriots, "Let it he remembered that it has ever been the pride and boast of America that the rights for which she contended were the rights of human nature." How far the present generation has fallen from that sublime principle, I need not stop to show. That a fearful responsibility rests somewhere upon the creators of public opinion, in state and church, at this day, I solemnly believe.
One cause of this rapid retrograde movement is, doubtless, the strong effort that has been made to separate the evil of the extension of slavery and the revival of the trade, from the evil of the system itself.
Many have taken the ground, that while they were opposed to the introduction of slavery into new territories, and to the revival of the traffic, they would not interfere with it where it was an established institution. But the arguments employed against its extension or increase, if they have any force, lie equally against the system in any locality. If it is an evil in Kansas, it is just as much an evil in Virginia. If it is wrong to capture the African on his own soil, and subject him to the horrors of the slave ship, then it is wrong to retain him in slavery. And wherever an evil exists on the face of the earth, it is the duty of every honest man to express his convictions concerning it, and to do what lies legitimately in his power to remove it.
Much sophistry has been advanced on this point to strengthen the slave power, which has corrupted the public opinion in regard to our individual responsibility in relation to the evil.
In the early history of the country, our statesmen and theologians regarded slavery and the slave trade as one in nature and sinfulness.
In 1794, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of the United States expressed its opinion in the following language:
The state of public feeling in the year 1818, is indicated in the views expressed at that period by the same body, as may be seen in " The Digest of the General Assembly," from which the following extract is made:
"The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, having taken into consideration the subject of slavery, think proper to make known their sentiments upon it.
"We consider the voluntary enslaving of one part of the human race by another, as a gross violation of the most precious and sacred rights of human nature; as utterly inconsistent with the law of God, which requires us to love our neighbor as ourselves; and as totally irreconcilable with the spirit and principles of the gospel of Christ, which enjoins that 'all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them.' Slavery creates a paradox in the moral system; it exhibits rational, accountable, and immortal beings in such circumstances as scarcely to leave them the power of moral action. It exhibits them as dependent on the will of others, whether they shall receive religious instruction; whether they shall know and worship the true God; whether they shall enjoy the ordinances of the gospel; whether they shall perform the duties, and cherish the endearments of husbands and wives, parents and children neigbbors and friends; whether they shall preserve their chastity and purity, or regard the dictates of justice and humanity. Such are some of the consequences of slavery; consequences not imaginary, but which connect themselves with its very existence. The evils to which the slave is always exposed, often take place in their very worst degree and form; and where all of them do not take place, still the slave is deprived of his natural rights, degraded as a human being, and exposed to the danger of passing into the hands of a master, who may inflict upon him all the hardships and injuries which inhumanity and avarice may suggest.
"It is manifestly the duty of all Christians, when the inconsistency of slavery with the dictates of humanity and religion has been demonstrated, and is generally seen and acknowledged, to use their honest, earnest, and unwearied endeavors, as speedily as possible, to efface this blot on our holy religion, and to obtain the complete abolition of slavery/ throughout the world."
This is the precise language that that learned and pious body of men, at that time used. They desired, and they looked forward to, "the complete abolition of slavery throughout the world."
The slave trade they regarded as abolished, so far as the verdict of Christian nations could secure this end. And they were not troubled with any mawkish sensibility about expressing their views of the evils of the system, as they saw them under their own eye. The idea of throttling the slave trade with one hand, and feeding domestic slavery with the other, was one that never occurred to them. This is a modern invention, for which the present generation must have all the credit.