The GOSPEL TRUTH
THEODORE WELD: CRUSADER FOR FREEDOM
BENJAMIN P. THOMAS
A SYSTEM SANCTIONED BY TIME
The abolitionists insisted there was nothing to be said in slavery's favor. Yet, at its theoretical best, it was a system that assured the Negro worker food, clothing, shelter, fair working conditions, care in sickness and old age--a system that brought security from the cradle to the grave, a boon for which free labor is still striving. Its defenders claimed that it brought the benefits of Christian civilization to a benighted race and provided the master race with wealth and leisure for attainment of the highest culture.
At its worst, however, it was a horror, for it gave one man unmitigated authority over another, even to the power of life and death. To be sure, there were laws to restrain brutality and sadism, but their enforcement was altogether in the hands of the master race. No Negro could bear witness against a white man, and white men were reluctant to take the part of the Negro where the master-slave relation was involved. Public opinion was a more powerful deterrent to brutish practices than law, and even stronger was self-interest, inasmuch as slaves were valuable property. Nor were the practices of slavery as revolting to the conscience of that time as they would be today. The favorite disciplinary instrument was the lash; but flogging was still a legal and customary punishment in the American navy. Many an American jack-tar bore the welts of the cat-o'-nine-tails on his back, and when flogging was outlawed in 1850, high naval officers predicted a breakdown of discipline on shipboard.
It is futile to indulge in generalizations ahout slavery. Even today historians disagree, and their conclusions are still too often colored by sectional bias. One of the ablest modern studies by a Southerner seems to a Northern student to be no more than "a latter-day phase of the pro-slavery argument," and Northern treatments are apt to seem obfuscated and preiudiced to Southerners. As a matter of fact, the source materials on slavery are so varied and voluminous that one is all too prone to see in them what his subconscious bias makes him wish to see.
For the slave's condition varied with the sort of work he did: whether he was a liveried flunky in a pretentious mansion, or a drudging field hand. It varied with his location: be it the tobacco and cotton region of the border and middle states, the Black Belt, the miasmatic rice swamps of South Carolina, or the sugar plantations of Louisiana. It was also conditioned by the size of the economic unit to which the slave belonged: whether it was a small farm where he came under the direct supervision of the master, or a far-flung plantation where the Negroes worked in gangs under bosses and overseers. Primarily, and in every case, however, it depended upon personal characteristics and temperament, on the whims and traits and differences of human nature.
The food of the slave was plain. His house was usually little more than a rude shelter. He worked long hours. But so did the Northern farmer and mill hand, and so did the frontiersman who was seeking to hew out a future with ax or plow. Defenders of slavery seldom failed to contrast the lot of the Northern worker, laboring until age or ill health brought him down and then thrown on his own resources, with that of the slave, who was supposedly assured of care when he fell ill or could work no longer. But the slave was in a fixed condition for life, whereas the Northern laborer was never denied the chance to better his lot, and often did. Abraham Lincoln summed it up succinctly when he said: "I never knew a man who wished to be himself a slave. Consider if you know any good thing, that no man desires for himself."
The most vicious maxim of the system and the prop on which it was sustained was its denial of human attributes to the Negro--the insistence upon his innate moral and intellectual inferiority to the white man, and his assignment to a position in the order of nature only a little more exalted than that of a brute. With few exceptions this notion found favor both North and South. It was the crux of the slave system, the keystone of the arch, the shoring strut that held the structure up. Once grant that the Negro was a man like other men, and the prime justification for slavery fell to the ground.
Slavery had always had its critics, South as well as North. The Quakers had early taken the view that it was wrong and had forbidden members of their congregations to own slaves. For the rest, Southerners, being more closely involved with the system, were naturally more concerned about it than Northerners. Washington, Jefferson, Patrick Henry, Madison, Monroe, John Randolph of Roanoke had all opposed it, and in Colonial and Revolutionary times, and even as late as the early years of the nineteenth century, most thinking Southerners conceded it to be an evil. But they refused to take responsibility for it, accounting themselves victims of an inherited system. And if their forebears were culpable for fostering it, they were no more to be blamed than the British government, which had encouraged the bringing of slaves to the colonies in the face of Colonial protests, nor than the Yankee shipmasters, who had grown rich from the slave traffic. As a matter of fact, the slaveowner saw himself as worthy of some sympathy by reason of his being obliged to live encompassed by a host of ignorant and brutal savages who would probably welcome a chance to murder him and his kin. In 1791 the blacks of Santo Domingo had revolted and slaked their blood lust with a horrible massacre of the whites, and who could tell when the Southern slaves might take it into their heads to do the same? Not a few people, both North and South, were convinced that to agitate the slave question was to invite a bloody revolt. Fear was to be a strong factor in popular detestation of the abolitionists.
Negroes were originally held in bondage in the North as well as in the South; but as climatic and economic conditions proved unfavorable, slavery was proscribed in one Northern state after another. During the period of the Revolutionary War it seemed to be waning even in the South; and many Southerners, perhaps even a majority in the border states, were willing to see it go. But there was one insuperable difficulty. What should be done with the blacks if they were freed?
In many sections of the South the blacks had come to outnumber the whites; elsewhere they were a numerous minority. To the Southern mind it was unthinkable that a million or more freed Negroes should remain in the South unless they were subjected to white control. But how to control them if they were freed? Many of the slaves were but a step or two removed from barbarism and the memory of the Santo Domingo slaughter still burned vividly in Southern minds. A latter-day Southern historian has seen the "central theme of Southern history" as a determination on the part of the Caucasian element to keep the South a white man's country. Another historian sees the key to the Southern attitude in the determination of the planter class to retain control. Well aware of the threat to his own dominance in the potential political power of the Southern mudsill, especially if he should seek alliance with the working masses of the North, the planter sought to smother the poor white's incipient class consciousness by rousing his race prejudice and sectional pride.
Whichever thesis one accepts, it is still true that the race problem transcended the problem of slavery, and it was as difficult of solution then as it continues to be today.
Colonization of the Negroes in some foreign land seemed to offer the only solution, and in 1817 the American Colonization Society was organized to encourage manumission accompanied by transportation of freed colored persons to Liberia. Southern legislatures gave official endorsement to the project and sometimes granted funds to further it.
But even while slavery was being decried, it was slowly, almost imperceptibly, reaching out its tentacles to encompass the nation. The system underwent great changes during the first years of the nineteenth century, changes that were analogous to those accompanying the industrial development in the North. As a result of the invention of the cotton gin in 1793, the profits of cotton culture increased enormously. Until this new development, most slaveholders owned only a few slaves. In Southern towns and villages, doctors, lawyers, and prominent businessmen might hold one or two household servants. On the smaller farms the owner and his sons often worked in the fields side by side with their slaves. Old ladies and elderly gentlemen might own three or four Negroes whom they hired out, taking their wages for support. In 1790 it was estimated that there were twenty thousand families owning one slave apiece, slightly more than fifteen thousand families that owned from five to nine slaves each, and not more than two hundred and forty-three families in the entire nation who could boast of a hundred or more.
But the cotton gin, together with the exploitation of the rich soil of the Old Southwest and the insatiable demands of the English cotton mills with their improved machinery, brought agricultural capitalism to the South, just as other inventions were bringing industrial capitalism to the North. In some regions farms gave way to plantations, where slaves were worked in gangs. As the demand for slaves increased, slave breeding became a lucrative business in the border slave states, where slavery as an agricultural system was becoming unprofitable. With employment of over- seers on the expanding plantations, the planter lost his personal contact with his slaves, just as the New England mill owner lost his personal relationship with his employees. Profits became enormous, and with increased profits came a change in Southern sentiment.
Nor was this change confined to the South. The slave economy meshed with the economic life of the whole nation and brought profits to the North as well as to the South. Northern manufacturers found raw material and mass markets below the Mason-Dixon line, and Northern merchants welcomed the trade of Southern planters. Northern ships carried lucrative cargoes of slave products--cotton, rice, sugar, tobacco; and Northern banks held loans secured by Southern land and Southern crops and Southern "chattels." The Northern aristocrat was as fearful of an awakening of the masses as was the Southern planter, and quite as willing to resort to racial prejudice to lull class consciousness. Northern laborers had no desire to compete with a host of freed black workers. To the great majority of people it seemed best to leave the South and its "peculiar institution" alone. The tentacles of slavery curled ever more tightly about the economic, social, and political life of the entire nation, squeezing and enmeshing, warping the country's thinking.
The attitude of the country was reflected by the church, whose membership was a cross-section of the population, and whose dominant elements were the elder clergy and the munificent contributors, both naturally inclined to conservatism. Slaveholding communicants and Southern clergymen were no less pious than their Northern brethren, and to the latter it was unthinkable to adjudge them sinful. Then, too, there was the matter of church unity. The Northern clergy were well enough acquainted with the sentiment of church members to foresee that slavery agitation would not only sunder the national denominational organizations, but would also foment bitter quarrels within individual congregations. Rufus Choate expressed the general feeling against agitation of the subject in a speech to a group of Harvard divinity students when he declared: "I go to my pew as I go to my bed, for repose."
But if this was the prevailing attitude, it was not universal. Abolition was a religious movement, and the churches would provide it with leadership and recruits. "The largest part of abolitionists are Christians," wrote Lewis Tappan on November 13, 1835, "men devotedly pious .... I rely chiefly upon pious men & women in this matter. They will be meek & prayerful; & God will prosper them." Harriet Beecher Stowe summed up the church's position when she explained that it was responsible for the continued existence of slavery, inasmuch as it had the power to put it down but would not do so. On the other hand, a majority of the abolitionists were church members, and many of the most influential antislavery workers were ministers.
But the antislavery element was insignificant at first. Slavery could boast of many friends at the North, and those who were not friendly were generally acquiescent. Hostile to scolds and troublemakers, most persons wanted well enough let alone. Still, there was a latent dislike of slavery that became manifest whenever the institution showed a disposition to spread, and coupled with this was a sectional jealousy of the power of the "slaveocracy" in national affairs, a power which would be augmented if the balance of slave and free-state representation in the United States Senate should be upset.
In 1820, when Missouri applied for admission to the Union with a constitution sanctioning slavery, Congressman Tallmadge of New York had moved to amend the enabling act with a prohibition of slavery. But Southern representatives sprang sturdily to slavery's defense. As the debate waxed acrimonious, Northern congressmen, while disclaiming any intention of molesting slavery in the states where it existed, denounced it as a social anachronism, a transgression of God's will, and a mockery of the American ideal of democracy as proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence. Southern congressmen preferred not to discuss the ethics of slavery; their defense was based on strict construction of the Constitution and the right of each new state to determine its own internal policies. But a few days after the passage of the compromise measure, which admitted Maine as a free state as an offset to Missouri, and prohibited the introduction of slavery into any other part of the Louisiana Purchase north of the parallel of 36°30', John Quincy Adams, who had followed the development of the Southern argument with deep misgivings, asserted: "The discussion of this Missouri question has betrayed the secret of their souls. In the abstract they admit that slavery is an evil, they disclaim all participation in the introduction of it, and cast all upon the shoulders of our grandam Britain. But when probed to the quick upon it, they show at the bottom of their souls pride and vainglory in their condition of masterdom."
Jefferson likened the debates over the Missouri Compromise to a firebell in the night, and as the fearsome tolling sounded over the South, the more radical proslavery leaders began to develop the argument that slavery was a positive good, a blessing to master and slave alike. This theory was accepted more readily in the deep South than in the border states, where criticism of slavery could still frequently be heard. As late as 1831 Weld found no hindrance to fair-minded discussion in Kentucky and even as far south as northern Alabama. Less than two years after Weld's visit, however, it had come to be that antislavery discussion even in Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, and Kentucky must be of local origin and tactful in tone. No longer was it safe for an outsider to voice objections. In the deep South there was no longer toleration of criticism from any source, and this taboo would soon embrace the border states as well. Freedom of speech and of the press were passing in the South. "We are sorry to see the Southern people running headlong into a fanaticism as hateful as that of the abolitionists," a Northern friend of Southern rights lamented? For decades there had been a movement of antislavery Southerners to the free Northwest; now in the eighteen-thirties a number of potential liberal leaders who would not be throttled in the expression of their antislavery sentiments joined the northward trek, thus depriving the South of that very influence that might have effected an amelioration of the harsher features of slavery and given Southern thought a liberal leavening.
The changing Southern attitude toward slavery became manifest and vocal when young Garrison, founding his antislavery newspaper, the Liberator, in Boston, on January 1, 1831, brought slavery under a galling attack. For Garrison was purposely provocative, his target the nation's conscience. "I am accused of harsh language," he observed. "I admit the charge. I have not been able to find a soft word to describe villainy, or to identify the perpetrator of it. The man who makes a chattel of his brother--what is he? The man who keeps back the hire of his laborers by fraud--what is he? They who prohibit the circulation of the Bible--what are they? They who compel three millions of men and women to herd together, like brute beasts--what are they? They who sell mothers by the pound, and children in lots to suit purchasers--what are they? I care not what terms are applied to them, provided they do apply. If they are not thieves, if they are not tyrants, if they are not men-stealers, I should like to know what is their true character, and by what names they may be called. It is as mild an epithet to say that a thief is a thief, as it is to say that a spade is a spade.
"The anti-slavery cause is beset with many dangers; but there is one which we have special reason to apprehend. It is that this hollow cant about hard language will insensibly check the free utterance of thought and close application of truth .... The whole scope of the English language is inadequate to describe the horrors and impurities of slavery. Instead, therefore, of repudiating any of its strong terms, we rather need a new and stronger dialect."
Cloaked in a hidebound righteousness, Garrison was incapable of entertaining the thought that he might be unfair. Nor could he understand why men should hate him when he merely meant to scourge away their sins.
Although he was soon to come to symbolize fanaticism in the minds of his enemies, Garrison's appearance and manners were those of the urbane gentleman. A native of Newburyport, Massachusetts, two years younger than Weld, he was only twenty-six when he founded the Liberator. While serving his apprenticeship on sundry New England newspapers, he had denounced war, intemperance, lotteries, imprisonment for debt, infidelity and irreligion, and transportation of mail on Sunday. He had edited the Genius of Emancipation in Baltimore in partnership with the pioneer abolitionist, Benjamin Lundy, and had served a jail term there for libeling a slave-carrying shipowner. His benevolence, like that of most reformers of his day, was all-embracing. The whole sum of the world's evils must be eradicated that man might be brought to perfection. Even for a millennialist his thinking was uncommonly advanced. "In attempting to put away the evil that is in the world," he wrote, "we must forget all national distinctions and geographical boundaries, and remember that we are indeed members of one family, to whom there is nothing foreign, nothing remote." As motto for the Liberator he proclaimed: "Our Country is the World--Our Countrymen are all Mankind." With the passing years he would mark the presence of evil behind every bush, and his sharp but scattering volleys would draw heavy counterfire.
Within eight months of the founding of the Liberator there was bloodshed in the South. The slave Nat Turner led a Negro insurrection in Virginia that resulted in the murder of several whites. The rising was speedily put down, and the participants were punished ruthlessly, a number of them with death; but many a Southern family wondered if other would-be Nat Turners might be lurking in the darkness which enshrouded the Negro shanties behind the big house. Southerners recalled the incendiary Yankee paper that had been coming in the mails. Was this abolition editor inciting the slaves?
As a matter of fact, Garrison deplored violence and had never sent a copy of his paper to a slave. There was really no connection between the founding of the Liberator and Nat Turner's gamble with fate. But how could the South know that? A Washington editor denounced the man whose fanaticism had "caused the plains of the South to be manured with human blood." Georgetown, D.C., prescribed a fine of twenty-five dollars or thirty days in jail for any free colored person who took a copy of the Liberator from the post office; and if the fine and jail fees were not paid, the offender was to be sold into slavery for four months.
A "Vigilance Association" in Columbia, South Carolina, offered fifteen hundred dollars reward for the arrest and conviction of any person circulating the Liberator or any other paper of "Seditious tendencies." At Raleigh, North Carolina, Garrison and his partner, Isaac Knapp, were indicted for felony under a newly enacted law which prescribed whipping and imprisonment for inciting slaves to revolt, and death if the offense should be repeated. The Georgia legislature offered five thousand dollars reward to anyone who would bring Garrison into the state for arrest and conviction. As Garrison looked out on Boston Harbor and saw ships taking cargo for the South, he must have wondered if he might be dragged from his bed some stormy night and hustled aboard.
The night of January 6, 1832, would have been an ideal time. Pitch black darkness settled over Boston as a shrieking nor'easter drove in from the tumbling North Atlantic bringing rain and sleet and snow. The streets were deep in slush. But if any of slavery's hirelings had come for Garrison that night they would not have found him at home. Early in the evening he had set out for the African Baptist Church on "Nigger Hill." Toward this humble meeting house other men from various parts of Boston were also picking their way. They came in secret, for if their purpose had been known the public temper would have raged more fiercely than the elements.
In the basement of the little colored church they organized the New England Antislavery Society. This was to be the fulcrum of Garrison's power within the antislavery movement. Antedating the American Antislavery Society, it eventually became auxiliary to it. Garrison played only a minor part in the organization of the national society and held only a minor office until years later. As late as January, 1833, Weld knew little about him. On December 31, I832, Garrison invited Weld to speak at the anniversary meeting of the New England Society. Replying on January 2, Weld declined because of prior engagements. "Besides, Sir," he added, "I am ignorant of the history, specific plans, modes of operation, present position and ultimate aims of the N.E. Anti Slavery Society .... I have been quite out of the range of its publications, have never seen any of them or indeed any expose of its operations, and all the definite knowledge of its plans and principles which I possess has been filtrated thro the perversions and distortions of its avowed opposers."
Weld's assertion is significant. First, it shows that the New York group of antislavery leaders with whom he was associated were working independently of Garrison. Second, it substantiates the assertion of a modern student of the antislavery movement that it was really Garrison's enemies who gave him fame. Except for a small group of radicals, mostly in New England, Garrison had little following. The Liberator's circulation was never large; indeed, it was sustained in large degree by the subscriptions of free Negroes. Northern papers would probably have paid little attention to it had the Southern press also ignored it. But to the South it gave examples of what Southerners took for typical abolitionist pronouncements. Southern papers clipped Garrison's articles and editorialized about them. In this way they were brought to the attention of Northern editors. Thus Garrison came to symbolize the abolition movement. An elementary principle of propaganda is that it is more effective against a man than against an idea. In Garrison the proslavery element found just the sort of target it wanted, and proceeded to make him notorious. Garrison's primacy in bringing the slavery issue into prominence cannot be denied. But modern historical research has demonstrated that it was the New York group of abolitionists, abetted by the Westerners whom Weld would bring into the movement, that gave antislavery its most effective impulse.
As the South closed ranks against antislavery argument, the American Colonization Society was the only emancipationist organization that was tolerated in the South, and with the changing attitude toward slavery its program also changed. In the face of Southern opinion it was useless to urge general manumission, even if the leaders of the Colonization Society had not already realized that such a goal was beyond their means in any event. For even to transport the annual increase in the slave population to Liberia would take more ships than were available. So the colonizationists worked with individual masters who showed a disposition to emancipate their slaves provided they could be taken out of the country and given a start on their own. Removal of Negroes already free was also a prime objective and one with which both North and South were sympathetic, inasmuch as free Negroes were regarded as a nuisance everywhere. Despised as little better than animals, living apart in poverty and filth, denied opportunity for education and self-betterment, these unfortunate victims of race prejudice were for the most part ignorant, diseased, and often criminal. And in the South they were deemed a dangerous element whose presence incited discontent among the slaves.
Prior to the abolition movement, the American Colonization Society was accepted everywhere as "a most glorious Christian enterprise." Every church in the land set apart one Sunday every year for a colonization sermon and offering. The society published a monthly magazine and employed a number of agents. It won a large following of intelligent liberals both North and South, and many persons--among them Abraham Lincoln until late in his career--thought that colonization offered the most practical solution of the race problem. But the abolitionists claimed that the society subscribed to the "degraded race" belief and held the slaveholder blameless. They thought it lulled the public conscience, for wherever its doctrines had permeated, abolitionism met apathy or hostility. Once when Lewis Tappan had listened for an hour to a colonization sermon, he vented his displeasure by dropping two copies of an abolition pamphlet, The Slave's Friend,--and nothing more--into the collection box." Colonization was the major hindrance to the beginnings of the abolition movement. In order to obtain a hearing, the abolitionists discovered that they must first discredit it.
Garrison had directed his guns upon it in the early issues of the Liberator, and in 1832, he not only stepped up his fire but took to the lecture platform. More effective, however, was his treatise, Thoughts on African Colonization, in which he accused the Colonization Society of deceiving and misleading the nation. It was not truly opposed to slavery, he contended, it was really an apologist for slaveholders. The patrons of this society "content themselves with representing slavery as an evil," he complained, "a misfortune,--a calamity which has been entailed upon us by former generations,--and not as an individual CRIME, embracing in its folds robbery, cruelty, oppression and piracy. They do not identify the criminals; they make no direct, pungent, earnest appeal to the consciences of men-stealers." In July, 1833, a group of New York abolitionists wrote a challenging letter to the Colonization Society asking if its aim was to effect the "complete extinction of slavery in the United States." Weld, Arthur and Lewis Tappan, and Charles G. Finney were included among the signers. The next month Weld's name appeared again, along with those of Asa Mahan, John Morgan, Green, Storrs, and more than a hundred others, most of whom were ministers, on "A Declaration of Sentiment" favoring immediate abolition, which had been drawn up by the Reverend Amos A. Phelps. Abolitionists were convinced that colonizationists were much more interested in removing the free blacks to Africa than in giving the slaves their freedom.
Thus, by the time of Weld's matriculation at Lane Seminary, abolition had had two manifestations, one centering in Boston, the other in New York. The New York group was just now organized and under way. The Boston movement, headed up by Garrison, had already engendered disapprobation so emphatic as to make it evident that the great majority of people were content with the status quo. "Away with these dangerous agitators!" was the prevailing sentiment, both North and South.
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