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Oak Knoll, Danvers, Mass.,
11th mo., 30, 1883.
I need not say how gladly I would be with you at the semi-centennial of the American Anti-slavery Society. I am, I regret to say, quite unable to gratify this wish, and can only represent myself by a letter.
Looking back over the long years of half a century, I can scarcely realize the conditions under which the convention of 1833 assembled. Slavery was predominant. Like Apollyon in Pilgrim’s Progress, it “straddled over the whole breadth of the way.” Church and state, press and pulpit, business interests, literature, and fashion were prostrate at its feet. Our convention, with few exceptions, was composed of men without influence or position, poor and little known, strong only in their convictions and faith in the justice of their cause. To onlookers our endeavor to undo the evil work of two centuries and convert a nation to the “great renunciation” involved in emancipation must have seemed absurd in the last degree. Our voices in such an atmosphere found no echo. We could look for no response but laughs of derision or the missiles of a mob.
But we felt that we had the strength of truth on our side; we were right, and all the world about us was wrong. We had faith, hope, and enthusiasm, and did our work, nothing doubting, amidst a generation who first despised and then feared and hated us. For myself I have never ceased to be grateful to the Divine Providence for the privilege of taking a part in that work.
And now for more than twenty years we have had a free country. No slave treads its soil. The anticipated dangerous consequences of complete emancipation have not been felt. I he emancipated class, as a whole, have done wisely and well under circumstances of peculiar difficulty. The masters have learned that cotton can be raised better by free than by slave labor, and nobody now wishes a return to slave-holding. Sectional prejudices are subsiding, the bitterness of the civil war is slowly passing away. We are beginning to feel that we are one people, with no really clashing interests, and none more truly rejoice in the growing prosperity of the South than the old abolitionists, who hated slavery as a curse to the master as well as to the slave.
In view of this commemorative semi-centennial occasion, many thoughts crowd upon me; memory recalls vanished faces and voices long hushed. Of those who acted with me in the convention fifty years ago nearly all have passed into another state of being. We who remain must soon follow; we have seen the fulfilment of our desire; we have outlived scorn and persecution; the lengthening shadows invite us to rest. If, in looking back, we feel that we sometimes erred through impatient zeal in our contest with a great wrong, we have the satisfaction of knowing that we were influenced by no merely selfish considerations. The low light of our setting sun shines over a free, united people, and our last prayer shall be for their peace, prosperity, and happiness.
Committees were chosen to draft a constitution for a national Anti-Slavery Society, nominate a list of officers, and prepare a declaration of principles to be signed by the members. Dr. A. L. Cox of New York, while these committees were absent, read something from my pen eulogistic of William Lloyd Garrison; and Lewis Tappan and Amos A. Phelps, a Congregational clergyman of Boston, afterwards one of the most devoted laborers in the cause, followed in generous commendation of the zeal, courage, and devotion of the young pioneer. The president, after calling James McCrummell, one of the two or three colored members of the convention, to the chair, made some eloquent remarks upon those editors who had ventured to advocate emancipation. At the close of his speech a young man rose to speak, whose appearance at once arrested my attention. I think I have never seen a finer face and figure; and his manner, words, and bearing were in keeping. “Who is he?” I asked of one of the Pennsylvania delegates. “Robert Purvis, of this city, a colored man,” was the answer. He began by uttering his heart-felt thanks to the delegates who had convened for the deliverance of his people. He spoke of Garrison in terms of warmest eulogy, as one who had stirred the heart of the nation, broken the tomb-like slumber of the Church, and compelled it to listen to the story of the slave’s wrongs. He closed by declaring that the friends of colored Americans would not be forgotten. “Their memories,” he said, “will be cherished when pyramids and monuments shall have crumbled in dust. The flood of time, which is sweeping away the refuge of lies, is bearing on the advocates of our cause to a glorious immortality.”
The committee on the constitution made their report, which after discussion was adopted. It disclaimed any right or intention of interfering, otherwise than by persuasion and Christian expostulation, with slavery as it existed in the States, but affirming the duty of Congress to abolish it in the District of Columbia and Territories, and to put an end to the domestic slave-trade. A list of officers of the new society was then chosen: Arthur Tappan, of New York, president, and Elizur Wright, Jr., William Lloyd Garrison, and A. L. Cox, secretaries. Among the vice-presidents was Dr. Lord, of Dartmouth College, then professedly in favor of emancipation, but who afterwards turned a moral somersault, a self-inversion which left him ever after on his head instead of his feet. He became a querulous advocate of slavery as a divine institution, and denounced woe upon the abolitionists for interfering with the will and purpose of the Creator. As the cause of freedom gained ground, the poor man’s heart failed him, and his hope for Church and State grew fainter and fainter. A sad prophet of the evangel of slavery, he testified in the unwilling ears of an unbelieving generation, and died at last, despairing of a world which seemed determined that Canaan should no longer be cursed, nor Onesimus sent back to Philemon.
The committee on the declaration of principles, of which I was a member, held a long session discussing the proper scope and tenor of the document. But little progress being made, it was finally decided to intrust the matter to a sub-committee, consisting of William L. Garrison, S. J. May, and myself; and, after a brief consultation and comparison of each other’s views the drafting of the important paper was assigned to the former gentleman. We agreed to meet him at his lodgings in the house of a colored friend early the next morning. It was still dark when we climbed up to his room, and the lamp was still burning by the light of which he was writing the last sentence of the declaration. We read it carefully, made a few verbal changes, and submitted it to the large committee, who unanimously agreed to report it to the convention.
The paper was read to the convention by Dr. Atlee, chairman of the committee, and listened to with the profoundest interest.
Commencing with a reference to the time, fifty-seven years before, when, in the same city of Philadelphia, our fathers announced to the world their Declaration of Independence, – based on the self-evident truths of human equality and rights, – and appealed to arms for its defence, it spoke of the new enterprise as one “without which that of our fathers is incomplete,” and as transcending theirs in magnitude, solemnity, and probable results as much “as moral truth does physical force.” It spoke of the difference of the two in the means and ends proposed, and of the trifling grievances of our fathers compared with the wrongs and sufferings of the slaves, which it forcibly characterized as unequalled by any others on the face of the earth. It claimed that the nation was bound to repent at once, to let the oppressed go free, and to admit them to all the rights and privileges of others; because, it asserted, no man has a right to enslave or imbrute his brother; because liberty is inalienable; because there is no difference in principle between slave-holding and man-stealing, which the law brands as piracy; and because no length of bondage can invalidate man’s claim to himself, or render slave laws anything but “an audacious usurpation.”
It maintained that no compensation should be given to planters emancipating slaves, because that would be a surrender of fundamental principles. “Slavery is a crime, and is, therefore, not an article to be sold”; because slave- holders are not just proprietors of what they claim; because emancipation would destroy only nominal, not real, property; and because compensation, if given at all, should be given to the slaves.
It declared any “scheme of expatriation” to be “delusive, cruel, and dangerous.” It fully recognized the right of each state to legislate exclusively on the subject of slavery within its limits, and conceded that Congress, under the present national compact, had no right to interfere, though still contending that it had the power, and should exercise it, “to suppress the domestic slave-trade between the several states,” and “to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia, and in those portions of our territory which the Constitution has placed under its exclusive jurisdiction.” After clearly and emphatically avowing the principles underlying the enterprise, and guarding with scrupulous care the rights of persons and states under the Constitution, in prosecuting it, the declaration closed with these eloquent words: -
“We also maintain that there are at the present time the highest obligations resting upon the people of the free states to remove slavery by moral and political action, as prescribed in the Constitution of the United States. They are now living under a pledge of their tremendous physical force to fasten the galling fetters of tyranny upon the limbs of millions in the Southern states; they are liable to be called at any moment to suppress a general insurrection of the slaves; they authorize the slave-holder to vote on three-fifths of his slaves as property, and thus enable him to perpetuate his oppression; they support a standing army at the South for its protection: and they seize the slave who has escaped into their territories, and send him back to be tortured by an enraged master or a brutal driver. This relation to slavery is criminal and full of danger. It must be broken up.
“These are our views and principles, – these our designs and measures. With entire confidence in the overruling justice of God, we plant ourselves upon the Declaration of Independence and the truths of divine revelation as upon the everlasting rock.
“We shall organize anti-slavery societies, if possible, in every city, town, and village in our land.
“We shall send forth agents to lift up the voice of remonstrance, of warning, of entreaty and rebuke.
“We shall circulate unsparingly and extensively anti-slavery tracts and periodicals.
“We shall enlist the pulpit and the press in the cause of the suffering and the dumb.
“We shall aim at a purification of the churches from all participation in the guilt of slavery.
“We shall encourage the labor of freemen over that of the slaves, by giving a preference to their productions; and
“We shall spare no exertions nor means to bring the whole nation to speedy repentance.
“Our trust for victory is solely in God. We may be personally defeated, but our principles never. Truth, justice, reason, humanity, must and will gloriously triumph. Already a host is coming up to the help of the Lord against the mighty, and the prospect before us is full of encouragement.
“Submitting this declaration to the candid examination of the people of this country and of the friends of liberty all over the world, we hereby affix our signatures to it, pledging ourselves that, under the guidance and by the help of Almighty God, we will do all that in us lies, consistently with this declaration of our principles, to overthrow the most execrable system of slavery that has ever been witnessed upon earth, to deliver our land from its deadliest curse, to wipe out the foulest stain which rests upon our national escutcheon, and to secure to the colored population of the United States all the rights and privileges which belong to them as men and as Americans, come what may to our persons, our interests, or our reputations, whether we live to witness the triumph of justice, liberty, and humanity, or perish untimely as martyrs in this great, benevolent, and holy cause.”
The reading of the paper was followed by a discussion which lasted several hours. A member of the Society of Friends moved its immediate adoption. “We have,” he said, “all given it our assent: every heart here responds to it. It is a doctrine of Friends that these strong and deep impressions should be heeded.” The convention, nevertheless, deemed it important to go over the declaration carefully, paragraph by paragraph. During the discussion one of the spectators asked leave to say a few words. A beautiful and graceful woman, in the prime of life, with a face beneath her plain cap as finely intellectual as that of Madame Roland, offered some wise and valuable suggestions, in a clear, sweet voice, the charm of which I have never forgotten. It was Lucretia Mott, of Philadelphia. The president courteously thanked her, and encouraged her to take a part in the discussion. On the morning of the last day of our session the declaration, with its few verbal amendments, carefully engrossed on parchment, was brought before the convention. Samuel J. May rose to read it for the last time. His sweet, persuasive voice faltered with the intensity of his emotions as he repeated the solemn pledges of the concluding paragraphs. After a season of silence, David Thurston, of Maine, rose as his name was called by one of the secretaries, and affixed his name to the document. One after another passed up to the platform, signed, and retired in silence. All felt the deep responsibility of the occasion: the shadow and forecast of a lifelong struggle rested upon every countenance.
Our work as a convention was now done. President Green arose to make the concluding address. The circumstances under which it was uttered may have lent it an impressiveness not its own; but, as I now recall it, it seems to me the most powerful and eloquent speech to which I have ever listened. He passed in review the work that had been done, the constitution of the new society, the declaration of sentiments, and the union and earnestness which had marked the proceedings. His closing words will never be forgotten by those who heard them: -
“Brethren, it has been good to be here. In this hallowed atmosphere I have been revived and refreshed. This brief interview has more than repaid me for all that I have ever suffered. I have here met congenial minds. I have rejoiced in sympathies delightful to the soul. Heart has beat responsive to heart, and the holy work of seeking to benefit the outraged and despised has proved the most blessed employment.
“But now we must retire from these balmy influences, and breathe another atmosphere. The chill hoar frost will be upon us. The storm and tempest will rise, and the waves of persecution will dash against our souls. Let us be prepared for the worst. Let us fasten ourselves to the throne of God as with hooks of steel. If we cling not to him, our names to that document will be but as dust.
“Let us court no applause, indulge in no spirit of vain boasting. Let us be assured that our only hope in grappling with the bony monster is in an Arm that is stronger than ours. Let us fix our gaze on God, and walk in the light of his countenance. If our cause be just, – and we know it is, – his omnipotence is pledged to its triumph. Let this cause be entwined around the very fibres of our hearts. Let our hearts grow to it, so that nothing but death can sunder the bond.”
He ceased, and then, amidst a silence broken only by the deep-drawn breath of emotion in the assembly, lifted up his voice in a prayer to Almighty God, full of fervor and feeling, imploring his blessing and sanctification upon the convention and its labors. And with the solemnity of this supplication in our hearts we clasped hands in farewell, and went forth each man to his place of duty, not knowing the things that should befall us as individuals, but with a confidence never shaken by abuse and persecution in the certain triumph of our cause.
Amesbury, 24th 11th mo, 1863.
My dear Friend, – I have received thy kind letter with the accompanying circular, inviting me to attend the commemoration of the thirtieth anniversary of the formation of the American Anti-slavery Society at Philadelphia. It is with the deepest regret that I am compelled by the feeble state of my health to give up all hope of meeting thee and my other old and dear friends on an occasion of so much interest. How much it costs me to acquiesce in the hard necessity thy own feelings will tell thee better than any words of mine.
I look back over thirty years, and call to mind all the circumstances of my journey to Philadelphia, in company with thyself and the excellent Dr. Thurston, of Maine, even then as we thought an old man, but still living, and true as ever to the good cause. I recall the early gray morning when, with Samuel J. May, our colleague on the committee to prepare a Declaration of Sentiments for the convention, I climbed to the small “upper chamber” of a colored friend to hear thee read the first draft of a paper which will live as long as our national history I see the members of the convention, solemnized by the responsibility, rise one by one, and solemnly affix their names to that stern pledge of fidelity to freedom. Of the signers, many have passed away from earth, a few have faltered and turned back; but I believe the majority still live to rejoice over the great triumph of truth and justice, and to devote what remains of time and strength to the cause to which they consecrated their youth and manhood thirty years ago.
For, while we may well thank God and congratulate one another on the prospect of the speedy emancipation of the slaves of the United States, we must not for a moment forget that from this hour new and mighty responsibilities devolve upon us to aid, direct, and educate these millions left free, indeed, but bewildered, ignorant, naked, and foodless in the wild chaos of civil war. We have to undo the accumulated wrongs of two centuries, to remake the manhood which slavery has well-nigh unmade, to see to it that the long-oppressed colored man has a fair field for development and improvement, and to tread under our feet the last vestige of that hateful prejudice which has been the strongest external support of Southern slavery. We must lift ourselves at once to the true Christian [attitude] where all distinctions of black and white are overlooked in the heartfelt recognition of the brotherhood of man.
I must not close this letter without confessing that I cannot be sufficiently thankful to the Divine Providence which, in a great measure through thy instrumentality, turned me away so early from what Roger Williams calls “the world’s great trinity, pleasure, profit, and honor,” to take side with the poor and oppressed. I am not insensible to literary reputation. I love, perhaps too well, the praise and good-will of my fellow-men; but I set a higher value on my name as appended to the Antislavery Declaration of 1833 than on the title-page of any book. Looking over a life marked by many errors and shortcomings, I rejoice that I have been able to maintain the pledge of that signature, and that, in the long intervening years,
“My voice, though not the loudest has been heard
Wherever Freedom raised her cry of pain.”
Let me, through thee, extend a warm greeting to the friends, whether of our own or the new generation, who may assemble on the occasion of commemoration. There is work yet to be done which will task the best efforts of us all. For thyself, I need not say that the love and esteem of early boyhood have lost nothing by the test of time; and
I am, very cordially, thy friend,
JOHN G. WHITTIER.