The Slave Struggle in America/Lecture 2

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(George III. to Abraham Lincoln.)



At the first Continental Congress, held in 1774, the United Colonies pledged themselves that they would "neither import nor purchase any slave," and "would wholly discontinue the slave trade." The articles of association containing these pledges were adopted by the different colonies, and formed the basis of the American Constitution. North Carolina and Virginia warmly adopted the pledge; and Georgia, describing slavery as an unnatural practice, promised to use its "utmost endeavors for the manumission" of its slaves. Two years later it was decided, without opposition, in Congress, that "no slave be imported into any one of the thirteen colonies." But commercial interest was, notwithstanding, very strong, especially in the Southern States. In Jefferson's draft for the Declaration of Independence he arraigned George III. for forcing upon the American colonies that "execrable commerce." This clause was struck out by Congress, "in complaisance," Mr. Jefferson declared, "to South Carolina and Georgia." "Our Northern brethren," he added, "I believe felt a little tender under these censures. Although their people had very few slaves themselves, yet they had been pretty considerable carriers of them to others." In framing the Articles of Confederation, Maryland, Virginia, and South Carolina urged that their slaves were property, and if that were debated there was an end to confederation. The States were, therefore, left free to import whatever they liked, thus vetoing the decisions of the earlier congresses. Thus early did the Slave States make their influence felt by their threats of "no Union." The confederation secured to the citizens of all the States the right of inter-citizenship. This, however, did not suit the representatives of Georgia and South Carolina, who desired that this privilege should be confined to white persons; but eight of the thirteen States voting against it, their proposition was lost. Notwithstanding all this, Mr. Wilson, in his history of the "Rise and Fall of the Slave Power in America," says that there is no doubt that at the time of the Declaration of Independence a general desire prevailed amongst conscientious and enlightened people—including most of the leaders of the revolution—to put an end to the African slave trade, believing it inconsistent with the doctrines they were proclaiming and the civil institutions they were founding.

But slavery, fostered for so many years, was so bound up with the habits of the people, especially in the south, that, to quote Mr. Wilson's own words, it had "a tenacity of life not dreamed of by friend or foe."

When the Independence of the thirteen colonies was acknowledged, in 1782, there was a large and fertile piece of land conceded to belong to the new Republic, portions of which were claimed by several of the States under their respective charters. In 1784, Virginia ceded all lands claimed by her north-west of the Ohio river. A committee was appointed by Congress, and reported a plan for the government of these lands, wherein it was provided that "involuntary servitude" should cease after 1800. This clause was opposed by the Southern States, and ultimately struck out through their influence. The next year Rufus King moved for the immediate prohibition of slavery in the North-West territory, but his motion failed. In 1787, however, a committee of Congress, presided over by Nathan Dane, of Massachusetts, reported an ordinance in which it was provided that there should be neither involuntary servitude nor slavery in the lands north-west of the Ohio, and this was passed almost unanimously. The only vote against it was from New York.

In 1787 a Convention was called to frame the Constitution of the United States. When the basis of representation in Congress came on for discussion it was determined that all the States should be equally represented in the Senate. For the second chamber—the House of Representatives—Virginia proposed one representative for every 40,000 inhabitants, slaves to be counted in the ratio of three-fifths. A very heated discussion ensued, the Free States justly objecting to the slaves having votes at all, since they would not be allowed to use the votes, which would be used by their masters for their injury. The long and bitter discussion was only brought to a close by North Carolina declaring that she would not confederate unless slaves were counted as three-fifths at least. This Southern menace of "no Union" induced the Committee of Detail to make further concessions. No prohibition, no tax was put upon the importation of slaves, and no tax was laid upon the products of slave labor—rice, tobacco and indigo. When these points were debated Mr. Ellsworth, a member of the Committee, made a speech which stands out beyond others for its cold cruelty. He urged that in Maryland and Virginia—both, but Virginia especially, fast gaining the horrible name of "Slave-breeding States"—it was cheaper to raise than import slaves; but in the sickly rice swamps foreign importation was necessary, and it would be unjust to South Carolina and Georgia to prohibit their importation. He added: "Let us not intermeddle; as population increases, poor laborers will be so plenty as to render slaves useless." This debate, despite the grand and eloquent denunciations uttered by the more earnest advocates of abolition, ended in a compromise which permitted the slave trade until 1808, subject to a tax to be determined by Congress. Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Connecticut gave their votes in favor of the slave power. Shall we blame those New-England States for consenting to this measure? Let us think for a moment of the condition of affairs. A terrible war, lasting over eight years, but just ended with all the consequences which surely follow all wars, just or unjust. Credit destroyed, the country in confusion. What was to be done if the Southern States refused to confederate? The Colonies could certainly not maintain their independence if disunited. Here we have the key to the action of the New-England States when they conceded twenty years more life to slavery in North America. South Carolina demanded that fugitive slaves and servants should be delivered up like criminals, and an article was inserted enabling masters to recover their slaves escaping into other States.

The first Congress which met under the constitution had to discuss the tax upon imported slaves. A tax of ten dollars was proposed, and then withdrawn under great pressure. Before long came memorials lamenting the evils of slavery, and praying for their immediate abatement. But the slave-power in Congress was very strong, and these memorials gave rise to the most excited discussion. The first debate in Congress on anti-slavery petitions was on the presentation of a petition from some Quakers to the House of Representatives. Quakers were spoken of in the most contemptuous terms, and the representative from Georgia wanted "to know if the whole morality of the world is confined to Quakers?" "The Savior," he declared, "had more benevolence and commiseration than they pretend to have, and he admitted slavery." Later a memorial, signed by Benjamin Franklin, was presented, in which it was urged "that mankind are all formed by the same Almighty Being, alike objects of his care, and equally designed for the enjoyment of happiness." The representative of South Carolina replied that the Southern clergy did not condemn either slavery or the slave trade. Georgia boasted that religion was not only not against it, but that "from Genesis to Revelation the current was set strong the other way." In 1792 the Southern representatives demanded that an anti-slavery petition should be sent back to the petitioners. To its shame the House consented, and unfortunately it was not the only time that the House agreed to this direct violation of the right of petition when these petitions came from abolitionists. In January, 1793, by forty-eight votes to seven, an Act was passed giving to slaveholders the right to seize and return to slavery their fugitive bondmen; and, under color of this Act, not only were fugitive slaves captured, but a number of free colored persons kidnapped. Petitions were presented to Congress asking for protection against kidnapping. One memorial came from persons of African descent, natives of North Carolina, who had been emancipated and re-enslaved. The memorialists urged that, under the provisions of the Fugitive Slave Act, free colored persons were always liable to be seized and carried into bondage. To avoid this they had to flee from their country and separate from those nearest and dearest to them. This petition was presented by the representative of Pennsylvania, who spoke with horror of a reward offered for one of the petitioners, "ten dollars if taken alive, fifty dollars if found dead, and no questions asked." The Southern members asked that the petition should not be received, that it should be sent back to the petitioners. Eventually the House refused the petition. In 1799 a petition from some colored people, praying for a revision of the Fugitive Slave Act, and legislation which would tend to emancipate their brethren, was met by the Maryland representative, saying he hoped the petition would go "under the table rather than on it." He would make the Fugitive Act "stronger" instead of weakening it. Another member thought the temper of revolt was perceptible among the slaves, whilst arrogant Georgia hoped the petition would be treated with "the contempt it merited and thrown under the table."

Notwithstanding the stringent provisions of the Act, slaveholders found much difficulty in recapturing their runaway slaves, and time after time efforts were made to secure a law which would give slaveowners more power. In 1821 the Maryland representative complained to Congress of the interference of Quakers and others in preventing the reclamation of runaways, and "significantly hinted, that if effectual means were not taken to secure the rights of Southern States, they might be driven to take up arms in support of their rights." Notwithstanding threatening speeches like these, all efforts to strengthen this infamous law were unsuccessful until 1850. If the slaveholders were cruel and arrogant, there were a few abolitionists stern and devoted. One of those "Quakers and others," whose proud privilege it was, at the beginning of the present century, to give perhaps more cause of complaint to slaveholders than any other private man, was Isaac T. Hopper. Scores of men and women did this man quietly and unostentatiously help away from the slave plantations to Canada. Living in Philadelphia—the City of Brotherly Love, as its inhabitants are fond of styling it—in a Free State just bordering on a Slave State, Hopper's activity and ready wit saved many a colored fugitive from the slave-hunter's ferocity. Slaves residing for six months in Philadelphia, with the knowledge and consent of their masters, were then free by law, and Isaac Hopper took care to acquaint any slave brought into the city by visitors with this fact. In his house runaway slaves were always sure of finding food and shelter until they were ready to resume their flight. In consequence of the ever-ready aid he extended towards these persecuted people, he and his family were exposed to insult and even to violence. Southerners thought on his name with that bitter hate born of impotent rage. They could never catch the wary Hopper in flagrante delicto. They tried to revenge themselves upon his son, and nearly succeeded. The young man, then a lawyer in New York, had business in Savannah, and was there pointed out by a slave catcher—for the unhappy condition of affairs had even produced men who made the hunting of their fellow-men a profession—and while quietly supping at his hotel, John Hopper's room was broken into by a gang of violent men, who struck and spat upon him. They violently seized him, and bade him say his last prayers. The proprietor of the hotel urged the mob to carry Hopper downstairs: he was afraid for the safety of his building. At this moment the Mayor arrived, and had Hopper seized and put into a cell, there to await his trial. All night the infuriated Southern gentlemen howled round the prison, and were with difficulty restrained from breaking in. To pass away the time they erected a gallows, and got ready a lot of feathers and tub of tar. A storm came on and the crowd reluctantly dispersed before its fury. The prisoner, by connivance of the Mayor, with much difficulty, escaped to a ship bound for New York.

The "Underground Railroad" boasted of conveying 1,200 slaves every year into Canada. The name is said to have arisen in this way: A slave escaped from Kentucky, and was vainly sought after by his master. At last the master abandoned the search, saying, with some oaths, that the Abolitionists "must have a railroad underground by which they run off niggers." The term "Underground Railroad" was adopted by a set of men who had a certain systematic method of carrying off slaves from the plantations into Canada. The places where there were people willing to receive the runaways were called "stations," and at these stations trustworthy people acted as "conductors." Friendly Abolitionists in the Slave States cautiously made themselves acquainted with slaves desirous of escaping from bondage. They either personally delivered the fugitive to the next "conductor," or, if that were too dangerous, gave the slave all necessary instructions, and set his face towards the North Star.

The Abolitionists I propose to tell you about first are: Elias Hicks, Benjamin Lundy, and William Lloyd Garrison, and the history of their work will give us some insight into the early Abolition movement, in which these men took so prominent a part.

Elias Hicks, as doubtless most of you know, was a Quaker. He published his first work upon African slavery in the year 1814. His unvarying hostility to slavery gave much offence to the Friends, and charges were brought against him which ended in a division of their body. The opponents of Hicks were henceforth called "The Orthodox," and his adherents "Hicksites," or "Friends." So uncompromising was his opposition to slavery, that he not only preached against it in the North and in the South, in New York and Pennsylvania, in Virginia and the Carolinas, but he would not eat anything, nor wear anything, produced by the labor of slaves. We are told how, when he lay dying, his friends happened to put a cotton coverlet over him. He pushed it from him with all his feeble strength, and not until the coverlet was changed for a woollen blanket did he become tranquil. Elias Hicks was denounced by the clergy as an Atheist, and but a few years ago a representative was expelled from the Legislature on the ground that he was a "Hicksite."

But a man who did far more effective service in the early stage of the great anti-slavery movement was Benjamin Lundy. Born in New Jersey in 1789, of Quaker parents, he went, at the age of nineteen, to Wheeling, in Western Virginia, where he worked for a saddler. Wheeling was at this time a great thoroughfare of the slave-trade, and "coffles" of slaves were frequently passing through the city. The lad's heart was much moved. "I heard," he says, "the wail of the captive, I felt his pang of distress, and the iron entered my soul." Words which, if we may judge from his after life, must truly have pictured his feelings when he beheld the coffles of manacled victims. In 1815, Benjamin Lundy formed an anti-slavery society in Ohio, where he had settled with his family. It was called the "Union Humane Society," and soon had 500 members in that part of the state. He then started a paper called the Genius of Universal Emancipation, which after a few months he took to Tennessee. From Tennessee he went to Philadelphia—six hundred miles on horseback in midwinter—to attend the American Convention for the Abolition of Slavery. In 1824 he moved his paper from Tennessee to Baltimore, journeying thither on foot. On the way he delivered his first anti-slavery lecture at Deep Creek, in North Carolina, and then gave fifteen or twenty more lectures in different parts of the State. He assisted in forming several anti-slavery societies, and, finally arriving at Baltimore, found himself very "coolly" received. His articles against the domestic slave trade so exasperated the Baltimore slave-dealers, that he was brutally assaulted in the streets, and at last compelled to leave the city. In 1826 there were 140 anti-slavery societies, 106 of which were in the Southern States. Speaking approvingly of a resolution of an Ohio anti-slavery society, that it would support no persons for office who were not opposed to slavery, Benjamin Lundy urged that it was a great mistake to think that the Free States had nothing to do with slavery—they guaranteed the oppression of the colored man. In 1828 Lundy went into the Eastern States; at Boston he could not hear of one Abolitionist resident there. In the house where he boarded he met William Lloyd Garrison, who aided him in getting up meetings. Lundy then visited New Hampshire, Maine, Connecticut, and New York, travelling most of the time on foot, and delivering forty-three anti-slavery addresses on his way. Some time after he persuaded Lloyd Garrison to come and take charge of the Genius, which was changed from a monthly to a weekly journal, and conducted in the interest of temperance, emancipation, and peace. Lloyd Garrison's attacks on the domestic slave trade, and the conduct of a New-England ship-master in taking a cargo of slaves to the New Orleans' Market, led to his prosecution, trial, and imprisonment. Benjamin Lundy was himself persecuted, and so much outrage and violence were offered him that he was compelled to leave the city and remove his paper to Washington. The Genius failing, he started another in Philadelphia, which was afterwards taken up by J. G. Whittier, the Quaker poet, under the name of the Pennsylvania Freeman. Lundy then went west, and again tried to bring out his paper, but was attacked by fever and died at the age of fifty-one. In ten years—from 1820 to 1830—he travelled 25,000 miles, 5,000 of these on foot. He visited nineteen states, and delivered more than 200 lectures. Travelling in this way he printed his paper wherever he happened to be. He carried with him the type "heading," "column rules," etc., and brought out the Genius from any office he could. Sometimes he paid for its publication by working as a journeyman printer, and at other times supported himself by working at his saddler's trade.

The name of William Lloyd Garrison is indelibly written on the pages of the story of the abolition struggle. So great, so important was the part he played that an account, however slight, of the slave struggle in America would be of but little worth if it did not contain his name. W. L. Garrison was born in Massachusetts in 1804, was taught printing and began editing at the age of twenty-one. He edited many different papers in various towns, but finally, in 1831, he brought out the Liberator, which he edited for thirty-five years. He claimed for the slave "complete and immediate emancipation," no gradual emancipation, no packing the slave off to distant lands to find a home where he could, but "complete and immediate emancipation." He and Elizabeth Heyrick in England, sounded this note almost simultaneously. In speaking of Benjamin Lundy I told you how Lloyd Garrison was sentenced to fine and imprisonment. Arthur Tappan—one of two brothers whose earnest and unvarying devotion in this cause deserves far more than a passing mention—paid the fine, and after seven weeks' imprisonment Lloyd Garrison was liberated. From prison he went north, delivering anti-slavery lectures as he went, always urging immediate and unconditional emancipation.

Lloyd Garrison's language was denounced as vituperative, denunciatory, and severe. Even some most friendly to him were frightened by his passionate earnestness. But hear how he defends himself. "I am aware," he says, "that many object to the severity of my language; but is there not cause for severity? I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice. On this subject I do not wish to think, or speak, or write, with moderation. No!—no! Tell a man whose house is on fire to give a moderate alarm; tell him to moderately rescue his wife from the hands of the ravisher; tell the mother to gradually extricate her babe from the fire into which it has fallen; but urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present. I am in earnest—I will not equivocate—I will not excuse—I will not retreat a single inch—and I will be heard. The apathy of the people is enough to make every statue leap from its pedestal, and to hasten the resurrection of the dead!" It is not wonderful that his enemies trembled beneath the lash of his tongue; his pen, we are told, was, "if possible, more severe, caustic, and exasperating than his speech." While friends generally doubted and questioned, the slaveholders were stung to madness. In South Carolina a reward of 1,500 dollars was offered for the apprehension and conviction of anyone circulating the Liberator. In the district of Columbia twenty dollars' fine or thirty days' imprisonment was awarded to any free colored person for taking the Liberator from the post, and if unable to pay the fine or prison fees he was to be sold into slavery. In Georgia 5,000 dollars were offered for the arrest, prosecution, and conviction of the editor. All this had no effect in frightening William Lloyd Garrison. "I am not discouraged," he says, "I am not dismayed, but bolder and more confident than ever."


London: Printed by Annie Besant and Charles Bradlaugh,

28, Stonecutter Street, E.C.