The Slave Struggle in America/Lecture 4

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(George III. to Abraham Lincoln.)



John G. Whittier was appointed Secretary to the National Anti-slavery Convention in 1833, and a member of that Convention noted of the Quaker poet that "his broad, square forehead and well-cut features, aided by his incipient reputation as a poet, made him quite a noticeable feature in the Convention." Thirty years after Whittier had signed the Declaration of Sentiments he says: "I love, perhaps too well, the praise and goodwill of my fellow-men; but I set a higher value on my name as appended to the Anti-Slavery Declaration of 1833 than on the title page of any book." Mr. Wilson says: "In counsel and action always sagacious and practical, he participated in those movements which finally resulted in the organisation of that powerful body which overthrew the system of human bondage and dethroned the slave power. . . . . All along the struggle these lyrics of the meek-visaged, but fiery-souled Quaker rang out their notes of warning and appeal." His "Massachusetts to Virginia," "Stanzas for the Times," and a Virginia slave-mother's farewell to her daughters, once read will not be quickly forgotten. If to-day we, here in England, are moved by the fierce indignation, bitter sarcasms, and stern rebuke of his verses, we can well imagine how great was their influence fifty years ago in America. I quote the following lines from his "Stanzas," which may perchance suit other countries and other times, as they did America fifty years ago:—

"Up, then, in Freedom's manly part;
From greybeard eld to fiery youth,
And on the nation's naked heart
Scatter the living coals of Truth!
Up,—while ye slumber deeper yet
The shadow of our fame is growing.
Up,—while ye pause the sun may set
In blood, around our altars flowing!"

Not only did the anti-slavery cause have her poets, but she had on her side some of America's most eloquent men. Wendell Phillips, "the silver-tongued Demosthenes" as he has been called, made his first speech in Faneuil Hall, at a meeting called to express the horror of the Boston citizens at the murder of Lovejoy. This magnificent speech, delivered amidst the most excited outcries and uproar from the partisans of slavery, placed Wendell Phillips high amongst American orators; nor have his subsequent speeches diminished this fame. A learned and cultured man, his silver tongue and fluent pen were always ready in the cause of liberty. He was fearless in his denunciation of wrong-doing and merciless in his scathing criticism of the wrong-doer.

It was not unnatural that the intense excitement which prevailed throughout the States should in many places find its expression in violence. Riots were frequent, and poor Lovejoy's presses were not the only ones to suffer. In May, 1836, J. G. Birney brought out an anti-slavery paper called the Philanthropist in Cincinnati. Birney had been a great Kentucky slaveholder; but, becoming convinced of the crime of slavery, he liberated all his slaves, and devoted himself to the advocacy of immediate emancipation. In July a mob entered his office at midnight and destroyed his press and types, uttering the most violent threats unless his paper were destroyed. A meeting was held; it was determined to prevent the publication or distribution of Abolition papers in Cincinnati. As a result of this, a crowd entered and pillaged the office of the Philanthropist after dark. Having finished there, the rioters went to Mr. Birney's house, and, not finding him, wreaked their vengeance on the homes of the poor colored people. This mob was organised by wealthy influential men, amongst whom were ministers and Church members. In 1834 Lewis Tappan's house was sacked and damaged. In August of the same year there was a riot in Philadelphia, which lasted three nights. Forty-four houses inhabited by colored people were damaged, and many quite destroyed. "Many blacks were brutally beaten, one was killed outright, and another drowned in attempting to swim the Schuylkill to escape his tormentors." One Methodist minister, speaking against slavery in Massachusetts, was assaulted by a mob and his notes torn to pieces; another, speaking in New Hampshire, was dragged before the justice of the peace and sentenced to three months' imprisonment as a "common rioter and brawler." Churches and public halls were closed against Abolitionists. One hundred and twenty-five Boston citizens were refused the use of Faneuil Hall itself for an anti-slavery meeting, and but a short time after it was granted to fifteen hundred, who had asked for it for pro-slavery purposes.

The Boston Female Anti-slavery Society announced a meeting in October, 1835. The conveners were menaced and threatened. The city was posted with notices that "the infamous foreign scoundrel, Thompson," would speak at the meeting, and it would be fair for the friends of the Union to "snake him out." One hundred dollars were offered to the individual who would first lay hands on him, "so that he could be brought to the tar kettle." George Thompson was the man whose brilliant advocacy of West India emancipation Lord Brougham acknowledged when he said, in 1833: "I rise to take the crown of this most glorious victory from every other head, and place it upon George Thompson. He has done more than any other man to achieve it." The meeting had scarcely begun when the mayor came in, entreating the Boston women to dissolve their meeting, or he could not preserve the peace. The building was encompassed by an infuriated mob. The meeting adjourned, and the rioters burst in shrieking for Garrison, whom they knew to be there. They seized him and put a rope round him; they knocked his hat from his head, and tore his clothes from his body. As he was being dragged through the streets he was rescued by the mayor and put into the Leverett Street jail to save him from his would-be murderers. This mob also was organised by wealthy, influential and reputedly pious men. Did space permit, I could heap instances upon instances of the violence by which the upholders of slavery stifled speech and fettered press.

The Florida war was carried on through eight long years in the interest of Georgia slaveholders, and cost nearly forty million dollars and hundreds of lives. When Texas belonged to Mexico, slaveholders cast hungry eyes upon her fertile soil, and in defiance of the decree abolishing slavery throughout the Mexican Republic, adventurers from the Southern States migrated thither, carrying slaves with them. A conspiracy was formed to bring about the annexation of Texas, and the first step towards it was the recognition of her Independence in 1837. In 1841 slavery once more carried the day, and the resolution of annexation "was hailed with every demonstration of uproarious delight, by bonfires, illuminations and volleys of artillery, by social revelry and mutual congratulations." The most corrupt influences were brought to bear on Congress—Texan scrip, land speculations, and gamblings in human flesh were the influences moving those who inflicted this new wound on liberty. In 1846 Texas was admitted into the Union as a State.

Everywhere the slave power gained ground. Old laws oppressing free colored people were revived; new and harsher ones were enacted. In the Border States vain efforts were made on behalf of the colored race. In Kentucky a Convention was called, in 1849, for the revision of the Constitution. Meetings were held and resolutions passed against slavery. Eloquent speeches were made, and journalists wrote in favor of emancipation; but, to the bitter disappointment of all anti-slavery men, the Convention adopted in the new Constitution a provision asserting that "the right of property is before and higher than any constitutional sanction, and the right of the owners of a slave to such a slave and its increase is the same, and as inviolable as the right of the owner of any property whatever." Thus slavery showed how much stronger it really was than either its friends or foes believed it to be. The efforts of the friends of freedom seemed only to incite their adversaries to more united and determined action. The struggles in Kentucky are illustrations of the conflict through all the Border States.

Slave States and free States alike passed laws oppressing the colored people. "Black Laws" they were justly called. Early in this century Virginia had prohibited meetings or schools for teaching free negroes, and forbidden the preaching of slaves or free negroes. In 1838 she forbade free colored persons leaving the State for the purposes of education, on forfeiture of all right of return. In 1847 white persons were liable to punishment for instructing slaves. Postmasters had to give notice of the presence of anti-slavery publications; justices of the peace were required to burn any such, and punish those to whom they were sent. Citizenship was denied to free colored men. In 1851, if emancipated slaves remained in the State more than twelve months, they were liable to forfeit their freedom. The legislature could not emancipate any slave or the descendant of any slave, but it might impose conditions on the power of slaveholders to emancipate their slaves, and also pass laws to relieve the State of its free negro population by removal or otherwise, and a tax was imposed upon free male negroes between twenty-one and forty-five to defray the expenses of the Colonisation Board established for their removal. Maryland forbade colored persons the right to testify against whites, although slaves might against negroes. The legislature was forbidden to enact any law abolishing the relations between master and slave. Delaware forbade the emancipation of free negroes to any State save Maryland. Free negroes might not attend camp-meetings or political gatherings. Missouri forbade the immigration of free colored persons. Schools for the instruction of negroes in reading and writing, religious meetings of negroes, were prohibited unless a justice of the peace or constable were present. Indeed, Missouri actually declared such schools and religious meetings unlawful assemblages. Indiana—a Free State—forbade the entry of negroes and mulattoes, and fined all persons who aided or encouraged them 500 dollars for each offence. Marriages between white persons and those possessing one-eighth or more of negro blood were forbidden. Acts were passed for sending colored persons into Africa, annulling contracts with them, and prohibiting the evidence of persons having one-eighth or more of negro blood. No free colored person might come into the State of Illinois for the purpose of residing there; such persons were liable to be prosecuted, fined, and sold to pay the fine and costs. In 1857 Iowa prohibited colored immigration, and would not permit free colored persons to testify against whites. Similar laws were passed in other States; but, harsh as they were, many of the States in 1859 enacted others still more oppressive. Maryland forbade manumission. Virginia authorised the sale of free negroes who had been sentenced for "offences punishable by confinement in penitentiary." Louisiana gave colored people the alternative of slavery or of giving up their homes. North Carolina passed similar laws, and Georgia prohibited emancipation by will, declaring all such "null and void."

In 1850 a Bill was passed providing for the enforcement of the Act for the rendition of fugitive slaves, and the passage of this Bill spread the greatest alarm throughout the States. It was estimated that there were more than 20,000 fugitives in the Free States. The law had passed but eight days when a colored man was seized in New York and hurried to Baltimore, without even being permitted to say farewell to his wife and children. A few days more, and a similar case occurred in Philadelphia. Meetings were held, and anti-slavery men resolved to defend the black fugitives with their lives. Charles Sumner addressed a huge meeting in Faneuil Hall. "Oh! it were well," he said, "that the tidings should spread throughout the land that here in Massachusetts that accursed Bill has found no servant." But if the Bill found people to resist it, it also found people ready to carry it out. Slave-catching had become a profession, and dogs were trained to hunt negroes. Colored men were shot down remorselessly in attempting to escape, and white people convicted of aiding such escapes were imprisoned for years, and fined so heavily that sometimes, unable to pay such fines, they lingered in jail until they died.

In 1853 a Bill passed through Congress, dividing that vast region west and north-west of Missouri, and stretching right away to the Rocky Mountains, into two territories, the southern to be called Kansas and the northern Nebraska. All questions relating to slavery were to be left to the people or their representatives. Now, by the Missouri compromise all this beautiful land was reserved to freedom; but in 1836 the boundaries of Missouri were extended far westward, and all that free land was covered with slaves and slave-owners—a direct violation of the compromise. This Act, leaving the people of Kansas and Nebraska to choose slavery or freedom, was also in defiance ot the terms of the compromise, and, inasmuch as the land was already covered with slave-owners, was another triumph of the slave power.

In 1836 Charles Sumner delivered his immortal speech in Congress, on "The Crime against Kansas." Whittier said it was "a grand, a terrible phillippic, worthy of the great occasion; the severe and awful truth which the sharp agony of the national crisis demanded." Two days afterwards, while Sumner was writing at his desk in the Senate Chamber, Preston S. Brooks, of infamous memory, a representative of South Carolina, came up to him and said: "I have read your speech twice over carefully. It is a libel on South Carolina and Mr. Butler, who is a relative of mine." Thereupon he struck Charles Sumner on the head with a stick again and again—a dozen or twenty blows—until his victim lay on the floor bleeding and insensible. So seriously was Sumner injured that despite the utmost care it was four years before he was pronounced convalescent. Mr. Slidell, of Louisiana, who was in the anteroom with some other Senators, when a messenger rushed through, crying out that some one was beating Mr. Sumner, said: "We heard the remark without any particular emotion. I remained quietly in my seat, and the other gentlemen did the same." He saw the wounded man carried out, but "did not think it necessary to express any sympathy." Mr. Keitt, of South Carolina, stood by, urging Brooks on. Henry Wilson denounced the assault as "brutal, murderous and cowardly," and was accordingly challenged by Brooks. A motion was made for the expulsion of Brooks, but failed. A vote of censure was then passed by a vast majority. Brooks made a most insolent speech to the House, resigned his seat, and went back to his constituents, only to be returned again in two weeks triumphantly re-elected.

In 1859 it was the turn of the pro-slavery men to quail, and it was one man alone—John Brown, of Osawatomie—who spread the direst terror and confusion all through the Slave States. John Brown was a Puritan, descended in a straight line from Peter Brown, one of the Pilgrims who landed on Plymouth Rock on December 22nd, 1620. He was born in Connecticut in 1800, and taken at the age of five to Hudson, Ohio. As became his ancestry, he grew up into a sternly conscientious man: the great object of his life was to relieve the suffering and advocate the rights of the injured and oppressed. He was a most energetic and efficient agent of the Underground Railroad. Osawatomie was a town of Kansas; and in 1856, when the Kansas struggle was agitating the length and breadth of the land, the most revolting crimes were committed within the territory by Southerners and pro-slavery men. John Brown had a small force at his command, and had utterly routed one lot of marauders. This so exasperated the Missourians that they issued a violent appeal, calling upon the "young men and old" to be ready to go to Kansas. Accordingly a force of 500 men advanced on Osawatomie; they were arrested in their march by a little band of sixteen men under the leadership of John Brown. This was how he earned his name of "Osawatomie Brown." But it is not this little skirmish which has made him so famous, so honored. It is the raid on Harper's Ferry, the sublime daring and devotion that planned the deed, which has made the name of John Brown a landmark—as it were—in this too terrible history.

Brown had collected a few hundred dollars and a few men, and when he planned his attack on Harper's Ferry (Virginia) he thought the slaves would rise at once and fight for liberty. They were ready he believed, and needed but a head. October 24th, 1859, was fixed for the assault; but, fearing betrayal, the 16th was substituted, and in that way Brown deprived himself of some of his little force. At 10 p.m., fourteen white and five colored men under Brown's leadership entered the town, "took possession of the United States Armory Buildings, stopped the trains on the railroad, cut the telegraph wires, captured a number of citizens, liberated several slaves, and held the town for about thirty hours." This heroic little band was finally overcome by a detachment of the U.S. Marines. Brown was badly wounded, eight of his company were killed or mortally hurt——among these two of his sons—six were captured, and only five escaped. John Brown was tried and sentenced to execution. He died as only brave, true men know how to die, and Victor Hugo's words will well illustrate public opinion on his death. "Slaughtered," he wrote, "by the American Republic, the crime assumes the proportions of the nation which commits it." Stronger far in its effects than this rash attempt at freeing the bondmen of America was the nobility and grandeur of the mind that planned it. His life, his death made him a hero, and the "John Brown Song" was sung by many a regiment, when a year or two afterwards they fought against their own countrymen for freedom.

In 1859 the air was rife with sedition. South Carolina gave voice to the cry of "Slavery and Secession." Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Florida, took up the note. In Congress the representative of Virginia bade the Northern members go home and repress the Abolition spirit. Another member demanded Southern rights: "As God is my judge, I would shatter this Republic from turret to foundation before I would take one tittle less." Another—the representative of Mississippi—cried out: "I raise the banner of secession, and I will fight under it as long as blood ebbs and flows in my veins."

Then came the Presidential election for 1860. The Republican Convention met in May, and selected as its candidates Mr. W. H. Seward and Abraham Lincoln. Abraham Lincoln's candidature was confirmed on the fourth ballot. There were other candidates representing extreme Southern and medium views. Mr. Seward behaved nobly, notwithstanding his disappointment, because up to the last it had been believed that he would be the favored candidate. He made a tour through the Western States, advocating the Republican cause. On the 6th December Abraham Lincoln was elected President of the United States. On the 10th South Carolina declared her intention to secede, and on the 24th a proclamation was issued declaring South Carolina to be a "separate, sovereign, free and independent State." Then followed the war between North and South, and in 1864 Congress passed the famous 13th Amendment, providing that "neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction."


London: Printed by Annie Besant and Charles Bradlaugh,

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