The Great Debate
Against slavery, as it happened.
Jun 3, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 36 • By KEN MASUGI
Replete with stunning horror stories, as one would expect, this remarkable collection of antislavery writing astonishes nonetheless. For example: “Our first black President was a man of such distinguished talents, that none chose to risk their own reputation for discernment by not acknowledging it”—which is from an anonymous short story, not contemporary media fawning, published in William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator on April 2, 1831.
Liberated slaves—‘contrabands of war’—at Cumberland Landing, Virginia (1862)
Edited by James Basker, the illustrious president of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, and on a chronological path marked by 216 selections and 158 authors, this is an essential collection for understanding the passionate debate over slavery that exploded into the Civil War.
Starting with the first antislavery protest of 1688, readers eventually arrive at Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address and the Thirteenth Amendment. Many of the most notable writers of the nineteenth century appear—from Emerson and Longfellow to Whitman and Melville—and we rediscover familiar names as authors of antislavery literature, such as Louisa May Alcott and her short story “The Hour,” about a successful slave rebellion. Most of the excerpts are a few pages long—in some instances, they are page-long poems. Given the most pages, just under 50 pages each, are Harriet Beecher Stowe, Frederick Douglass, and William Wells Brown, who, in the editor’s judgment, was “probably the most accomplished African American man of letters of the nineteenth century.”
Providing brief but rich introductions, James Basker wisely brings us obscure writings rather than better-known and readily available ones. But there are risks in this approach: Omission of the most significant sources of antislavery thought (such as Jefferson’s first draft of the Declaration of Independence and the Northwest Ordinance) and the editor’s regard for literary and first-hand resources pushes out legal and political documents.
The injustice of slavery to the slave, the master, and the national character rubs us raw. We all know generally about these evils from reading Frederick Douglass, but this collection distills the horror in excruciating detail: from the kidnapping of Africans, to their journey through the Middle Passage, to the brutalities of slave life—including sexual exploitation—to their auctioning, and, for some, their escape to freedom, for others, subsequent return to their owners (or at least those who asserted ownership). We feel the depth and breadth of antislavery passions and arguments rooted in both Christian faith and natural law.
With two millennia of biblical knowledge and natural-right philosophy as a backdrop, Americans always knew that their slavery was a unique form of tyranny, and its earliest critics recognized its peculiar evil and its deadliness to the hopes of the New World. The early question, in the 1688 Resolutions of the Mennonites of Germantown, Pennsylvania, still abides: “[H]ave these negers [sic] not as much right to fight for their freedom, as you have to keep them slaves?” Just over a hundred years after the Mennonites, a survivor of the Middle Passage writes, “Hath not the African as good a right, / Deriv’d from nature to enslave the white?” Theodore Dwight, in a poem written for the New-Haven Gazette in 1788, has an African mother yell at a slave ship: “Christians! Who’s the GOD you worship?”
The accumulation of brutality and calculation required to seize, transport, sell, buy, and manage slaves harried the founding generation. This habituation to evil eroded republican morals and industry, as Noah Webster noted in 1793. In Benjamin Rush’s “The Paradise of Negro-Slaves—a dream” (1787), the departed describe the violence of their deaths. The black architect Benjamin Banneker may have authored a magazine article, under the signature of “Othello,” arguing that slavery “should be abolished, particularly in this country, because it is inconsistent with the declared principles of the American Revolution.” This logic Banneker later threw in the face of Thomas Jefferson, who could only politely respond by offering his best wishes. George Washington was well aware of the need for emancipation, writing to Robert Morris in 1786: “There is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a plan adopted for the abolition of” slavery.
Sardonic Americans, such as Benjamin Franklin and his “translation” of a Muslim justification for slavery, echoed Montesquieu’s satirical defense of racial slavery. Perhaps they also found inspiration in Shylock’s speech justifying his contract for a pound of flesh by comparing it to a slave contract. (The Merchant of Venice was then the most frequently performed Shakespeare play in America.) Without slaves, as one author puts it, how can we have “rum to make punch to intoxicate us”? The black poet Phyllis Wheatley, referring to “natural rights,” archly observes: “I humbly think it does not require the Penetration of a Philosopher to determine” the superiority of liberty to servitude. To teach a lesson about inflicting pain, one Quaker even temporarily kidnaps the son of a slaveholding friend.
Garrison’s Truisms (1831) would later encapsulate such contradictions (“Our slaves must be educated for freedom. Our slaves must never learn the alphabet, because knowledge would teach them to throw off their yoke”), and two Quaker women published an antislavery primer for children: A is an abolitionist. . . . H is the Hound. . . . S is the Sugar, that the slave / Is toiling hard to make, / To put into your pie and tea, / Your candy, and your cake. . . . W is the Whipping-post . . .
Works of fiction expanded the collective imagination about slaves’ potential. Douglass’s only novel, Heroic Slave, portrays the crafty, historical Madison Washington, in anticipation of Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno. The same anonymous author who sketched the first black president in Garrison’s Liberator also imagines a successful civil war by blacks, with decisive intervention from Liberia and Haiti, the pleadings of black ministers for merciful treatment of whites, and demands for colonization or execution of former slaveholders. In addition to memoirs of slavery and slave-trading, William Wells Brown wrote a novel, Clotel; or, The President’s Daughter, about “a fearful increase of half whites, most of whose fathers are slaveowners, and their mothers slaves.” Brown observed, “Society does not frown upon the man who sits with his mulatto child upon his knee, whilst its mother stands a slave behind his chair.” Behold a slave auction “at which the bones, muscles, sinews, blood, and nerves of a young lady of sixteen were sold for five hundred dollars,” and her morality, intellect, Christianity, and “her chastity and virtue” would each raise the bidding by hundreds more.
Of course, the plain facts of slavery suffice to teach its evil. In one tragicomic recollection, former slave Henry Bibb describes how slaves were prepared for examination and sale. Literacy had to be denied, as educated slaves would be more eager to escape. Allowed by his master to seek a purchaser who might take him with his family north, Bibb is mistaken for a slavetrader, as many Creoles “set their mulatto children free, and make slaveholders of them.” Another slave escaped by enclosing himself in a box and having himself sent to Philadelphia. Abolitionists would buy up slaves to free them.
Slavery besmirched the national character, as those of the founding generation continued to argue well into the nineteenth century. John Jay, proposing restrictions on the internal slave trade during the Missouri crisis, and John Quincy Adams, in advocating the release of slaves in the Amistad case, attempted to save the Founders’ restrictions on slavery and the argument for universal, natural liberty. Jay would halt the “discordancy with the principles of the Revolution.” In “The Two Altars,” Harriet Beecher Stowe compares the altar of sacrifice of 1776 with that of 1850, which saw the fugitive slave laws passed as part of the Compromise of 1850. The founding generation’s sacrifices should be compared with those of the slaves’ loss of freedom. On the eve of the Civil War, Ralph Waldo Emerson sneers, “Who makes the Abolitionist? The Slaveholder,” and he eulogizes John Brown as “the founder of liberty in Kansas.” Two nations were forming in an increasingly divided house. Advocates for slavery, chastised by abolitionists’ heated denunciations, began to proclaim the virtues of slave society, and thus the Civil War came.
Does this collection of passionate voices obscure the most intelligent and efficacious ones? Abraham Lincoln forged an American response to slavery, joining Christian and natural law principles under the yoke of constitutionalism. Lincoln opposed slavery principally because it contradicted the uniquely American experiment in self-government. Hence, his Peoria speech (1854) refers to the Declaration of Independence as “the white man’s charter of freedom”—meaning that it was in the self-interest of democratic republican white men to extend the logic of the Declaration to all people.
Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address transformed his First Inaugural’s message of Southern responsibility for the rebellion into the American burden of slavery. But what we don’t see here is Lincoln’s calculated emancipation strategy. Nor do we see the abolitionists in their approval of Southern secession and their opposition to Lincoln in both presidential campaigns. We always knew slavery was wrong, but eliminating it was another order of challenge for the cause of liberty in America.
Ken Masugi teaches in the Ashbrook Center’s Master of Arts in American government and history program.