Liberty Chimes: Self‐Reliance or Slave Rebellion?
We find two broad methods affecting the end of slavery: 1) absolute self‐reliant independence by abolitionists, and 2) challenging the slave to rebel.
Anthony Comegna, PhD
Assistant Editor for Intellectual History
For our next number from Liberty Chimes, Whipple provides another poem (this one by James Russell Lowell, easily one of the most important American poets ever) and two short essays–one by Henry Clapp, Jr. (one of the founders of American “Bohemianism”) and one by a semi‐anonymous author styled simply “C.” Interestingly enough, even with such short selections we see in them reflections of the sorts of differences between abolitionists that divided Rhode Island’s movement in the first place. On the one hand, we have Clapp’s powerful and uncompromising call for self‐reliance; on the other, C. essentially chastises slaves for failing to meet their end of the abolition bargain.
Clapp—a lifelong and radical sort of reformer who really lived his principles daily—advises abolitionists that they should have nothing whatsoever to do with the means of coercion. Just as Fourier and other communitarian socialists might advise those disappointed with the new industrial society to secede from it completely, sever all ties to the evil and exploitative system, and in time strangle out injustice with the strength of natural influence alone–Clapp rejects the whole general thrust of abolition politics, calling public opinion (and the pursuit thereof) “unstable as water,” an “ever‐shifting current” which washes over the mass of people and leaves behind “earthy incrustations” which blot out the very soul. Clapp proposes a thorough‐going policy of personal self‐reliance. Not atomistic individualism, but an internalized sense of purpose and meaning coming entirely from the self, from within the individual. When abolitionists depended entirely and only on themselves, they would no longer be supporting the slave economy, the slave state, or a slave society. In other words, there was always more one could do to help dissolve the bonds holding people in slavery; there was always something else a free northerner could do to make life more difficult for the planter and ease the slave’s path toward her natural liberty.
Yet, then again (and especially within the Rhode Island antislavery movement), it seems C. held the more popular opinion. And while I doubt that Clapp’s relative lack of popularity would upset him, C.’s expression that abolitionism really depended upon the slaves themselves and their own willingness to fight for freedom reflected a large segment of northern opinion. Within the Dorr movement, for example, very many of Dorr’s personal correspondents wondered what northerners had to do with slavery at all. They already saw themselves as self‐reliant, at least regarding that particular prickly and discomforting matter—there was not much else an antislavery man could do short of wishing more slaves would turn Frederick Douglass and start rebelling against their masters en masse. C. begins the essay with a favorite quote among those historical figures who loved to excuse the continued existence of slavery under their watch: “Who would be free themselves, must strike the first blow.” The line comes originally from Lord Byron’s “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage,” and a discussion of Greece under Ottoman rule. Byron famously fought personally in the Greek War for Independence (1821–1829) and this particular line was quoted far and wide by both abolitionists (like Frederick Douglass) and anti‐abolitionists (like a huge number of newspaper editors and politicians who wanted to excuse themselves of any direct action). For now, we leave it to the readers to decide which is the correct interpretation or use of the Byron quote—Is it a recognition of the slave’s power, or a deflection of moral responsibility?—and to make an assessment of these seemingly oppositional points of view about antislavery tactics.
Thy love thou sentest oft to me, And still, as oft, I thrust back; Thy messengers I could not see In those who every thing did lack, The poor, the outcast, and the black.
Pride held his hand before mine eyes, The world with flattery stuffed mine ears; I looked to see a monarch’s guise, Nor dreamed thy love would knock for years, Poor, naked, fettered, full of tears.
Yet, when I sent my love to thee, Thou with a smile didst take it in, And entertain’dst it royally, Though grinned with earth, with hunger thin, And leprous with the taint of sin.
Now, every day thy love I meet, As o’er the earth it wanders wide, With weary step and bleeding feet, Still knocking at the heart of pride And offering grace, though still denied.
By H. Clapp, JR
Antislavery has no lesson which it teaches so plainly as the great lesson of self‐reliance. I do not, of course, mean by self‐reliance, that intense egotism which discovers no wisdom beyond the narrow walls of its own mind, and which is therefore as superficial as it is supercilious, and as intolerable as it is intolerant;-but rather, and simply, that unfaltering reliance on one’s highest convictions and purest instincts, which is supremely indifferent to the ever‐shifting current of popular feeling, while at the same time it sees beneath the earthy incrustations of every soul some spark of the absolute truth.
“Unstable as water” must that mind be which takes for its pole‐star either public opinion, or the opinion of any sect, clique or individual. It may seem, at first glance, like a becoming humility, to distrust the uncertain light which flickers in one’s own soul, and be guided by what seems the fixed ray of some brighter luminary;-but, depend upon it, such a course pursued continually and implicitly, though it may commence in a healthful diffidence of one’s own powers, will soon degenerate into the most debasing servility. By all means call to your aid , in every important matter, all the counsel and advice which you can command; but, as you value your uprightness of soul, and desire to walk in the path of infinite progress, do not receive one jot or title of it as authority. However hallowed by time, or endeared by association, or defied by superstition, listen to no one as an authority, and be subject to no rule but the clear utterance of your own reason, and the still small voice of your own soul.
It is the utter want of this self‐reliance which keeps many beautiful spirits aloof from the antislavery movement. They cannot but perceive, and to some extent appreciate its claims upon their attention; but their moral systems have become so completely unnerved and confused by long, sad years of devotion to sect and authority, that they have no confidence in their own judgement, and are frightened by their own footfall and shadow. Seeing that the Genius of Reform is superior to those Creeds and Teachers which they have been accustomed to receive and reverence as the exponents and expositors of God’s Truth, they feel that every touch of her mighty wand is moral desolation and death. And in their present servile and abject state well they may; for the very sight of her makes the walls of their sanctuary tremble , and shrinks their high priests, who but now bore the seeming of brave and portly men, into pitiful cowards and hideous dwarfs.
Nothing in the history of the world is more striking, or more instructive of good, than the withering effect which this same Genius of Reform has upon the popular religion, and its servile adherents. Her approach is more terrible to them than “an army with banners.” To their disordered eyes her white robes are spotted with blood, and her peaceful wand is a flaming sword. They flee from her as from pestilence, ad at the mention of her name the traitorous blood deserts their cheeks, and with livid face, and lurid eyes the poor things appeal piteously to the rude populace to save their priesthood from death, and the ark of their God from desolation.
So strong is the hold which the popular religion‐cowardly and ignoble as we have seen it to be‐ has upon the thoughtless multitude, they dare not take a step without consent of its authorities, who have the good sense to perceive that any new step‐unless it be a step backward‐ will prove fatal to its existence. And so the people hold back, despite their inmost convictions, from every onward movement , and throw all the obstacles in its way which, with their remaining courage, they dare to.
Now it seems to me that it only needs for the great mass of the community to do their own thinking in order to remedy this state of things, and secure an immense accession to the reform ranks.
And it is equally necessary to continue in this excellent habit (of doing one’s own thinking instead of having it, like so much sewing “done out”) after you have entered those ranks. To this end–if the reader will pardon a little dogmatic advice–sign no creeds; bind yourselves to no Kings or Presidents; submit your judgement to no committees; engage in no political tactics; and submit to no parliamentary, congressional, or (for they are all of a piece) constabular discipline. Touch any of these things and you will be defiled. Engage in any of them, and you will find (if you are a fugitive from church or state) that you have only changed one priesthood for another,-and that while you have been congratulating yourself on a happy escape from the meshes of sect and clique, you are more hopelessly entangled in its cunning web than ever. The only hope of your soul‐here or “hereafter”-is the preservation of your individuality,-in other words the maintenance of your own soul as a separate, distinct, entire existence, subject to no authority and amenable to no discipline,-save the authority and discipline of the divine law as written out and declared by “’the oracle within.:”
A Thought Upon Emancipation
“Hereditary bondsmen! know ye not, Who would be free themselves, must strike the blow?”
The abolitionists during the last twelve years have, by incessant and untiring zeal and labor, accomplished wonders. They have spoken loud and long in behalf of human rights, and the whole nation has heard their terrible denunciations against slavery, and their earnest and thrilling appeals for freedom. They have removed the drapery, which while it allowed the “happy” and “contented” features of slavery to be seen, hid the awful enormity of the slave system from public view. And now, that system reeking with blood of its millions of victims, whose bodies have been tortured and whose minds have been ruined‐stands exposed to gaze of the world, in the full broad light of day.
But much yet remains to be done, and much that can only be accomplished by the efforts of the race in whose behalf the abolitionists are labouring.
“Who would be free, themselves must strike the blow.” The efforts of the abolitionists may possibly remove the outward forms of bondage. The lash may no longer be raised‐the human auction block may no longer be sold like cattle.-But after all‐the real freedom of the negro race can never be attained except by the unceasing efforts of its members. They can never rise in the scale of civilization‐never become artizans‐scholars‐useful and practical men by any‐save their own individual endeavors. The abolitionists can be of but little help to them in the struggle for the highest emancipation. They can at most but open the door and it is at the option of the colored man to cross its threshold.
Even, now, the slave himself need no longer be a slave. Has he the heroism to prefer death to slavery and the system is at an end.
Let the terrible determination go forth through all Slavedom, that the slave, will not work‐ will not eat‐ will not rise up or lie down at the bidding of an owner and will be free or die, and it is done. Tomorrow’s sun beholds a nation of freemen indeed.
What can the south do against three millions of determinations to die, rather than move another finger as a slave? Would the lash‐would the bayonet avail? Powerless all. Terrible‐terrible indeed would be that negation of Slavery, uttered by three millions of victims.
Already do we see indications of this spirit in the attempts of large numbers of “property” to walk quietly away from their assumed ownership. And soon may we hope, that the slaves throughout the land will assert their claims to humanity with the omnipotent might of non‐resistance and on the very spot of their oppression.