Liberty Chimes: Free Speech, the Tyrant-Slayer
As a peace offering for the two sides of Rhode Island’s bitter antislavery divide, Frances Whipple offers this ringing call for abolitionist union.
In 1845, the abolition movement was both at its height and experiencing some of its most trying difficulties and depressing setbacks.
First, to the stars: A decade earlier and for all practical purposes, there were no abolitionists. What few did operate were largely on their own or within very small communities of maybe a few hundred supporters. They were scattered around the country with little sense of intellectual or political cohesion. Abolitionists in 1835 had no political party, no public men, no formal organizations, very few leaders, fewer financial backers, and literally no chance of success. But in 1840, and after a series of somewhat tense exchanges between political abolitionists and anarchist Garrisonians, activists and leaders founded the Liberty Party. Their presidential candidate, James G. Birney, polled under 7,000 votes nationally in 1840, but in 1844 that total leapt nearly ten-fold to about 62,000. Still, they had no elected officials; but the Liberty Party’s strategy was different and focused on the impossible long-term. For the moment, it was quite enough for them to continue offering a real alternative to the two-party, Slave Power system (and every now and then they would “scatter” enough votes in New England states to deny representation to Congress or delay elections in perpetuity). After many decades of struggling alone in the wilderness, American abolitionists were finally starting to feel like they might actually live to see the last chains struck from the last slave in America.
Now, back to earth: The abolitionist movement was a mess in 1845. For one thing, the Liberty Party’s vote totals were still far too low to make any impact on national politics and, if anything, the situation was getting worse. The Slave Power was always on the march, constantly ramping up its aggressions at home and abroad. With the help of prominent Whigs like former president John Quincy Adams and even most northern Democrats, Liberty activists did succeed in repealing the hated “Gag Rule” that immediately tabled abolitionist petitions. But right on the heels of the repeal (December 3, 1844), outgoing President Tyler signed the bill annexing Texas to the Union as a slaveholding state (March 1, 1845). Texas formally joined the United States on either December 29, 1845 (when Polk signed the act accepting the new state into the Union) or February 19, 1846 (when the state legislature officially turned sovereignty over to the United States). Texas, of course, came into the Union along with a war on Mexico—and virtually all abolitionists expected this was the goal from the beginning of the Texas Revolution. Polk’s war was a slaveholding landgrab, a positively aggressive expansion of planter power across the continent and to the exclusion of free society. If abolitionism was stronger than ever, it was also totally powerless when set against the new slave empire.
And even at the state and local level, abolitionists were often bitterly divided—none more so, perhaps, than in Frances Whipple’s Rhode Island. We have covered Whipple’s life and deeds from end-to-end at this point, and in the course of our current series, we will have filled in many of the gaps that remain to her story. For now, though, we begin her edited volume Liberty Chimes, a “gift book” written for the Providence Ladies Anti-Slavery Society (founded in 1832 and re-founded in 1835). Her goal was to gather together an excellent and representative sample of the very best antislavery writers to heal the wounds dividing the state’s abolition movement. We will continue the story in our next number, but for now we turn to chapters from the by-now familiar pen of Nathaniel Peabody Rogers, the better-known Wendell Phillips, and the pacifist-socialist reformer Adin Ballou.
Ed. Frances Whipple
Providence: Providence Ladies Anti-Slavery Society. 1845.
By N. P. Rogers
How can we ask freedom for the plantation slave, if the abolitionist himself may not be trusted with liberty of speech! If the advocates of humanity are not competent to meet together, and talk about freedom, without first being fettered, how can wild-passioned men hope to live free amid the stern excitements of conflicting life!
It seems to me, abolitionists had better first ascertain, whether any degree of freedom is possible to themselves. Whether any liberty—the liberty of thought—is practicable to any of the race. Whether unfortunate humanity be not, in fact, here on the earth, incapable of self-regulation, and only to be kept in a state of endurable servitude, by fear of the aggregated brute force of Community. We have gone manacled from our birth, and have got to thinking chains are natural to us—and that they were born with us. —They were born with us, —or we with them—but we better not have any more born so. —We inherited fetters from our “fathers,” —but we better not transmit them.
The right of speech—it is the right of rights—the paramount and paragon attribute of our kind. It is glorious among the brutes, when it is free. The roar of the lion—it is majestic and sublime in his native desert. —Not so, when he grunts under the stir of the poker, in the menagerie. The scream of the eagle, in the sky—or on the crag, where he lives and has his home—how unlike his most base croak, when they withhold his allowance in the cage that you may hear him make a noise. The one is free speech, in “free meeting.” The other, speech-making, under chairs, boards and business committees. —How different the wild note of the life-bird, in the top of the high pine, when the setting sun awakens her throat after the shower, —how different, from the chitter of the poor caged canary, in the pent up street of the city. But illustration fails. —The glory and beauty of freedom cannot be illustrated. It must be witnessed—experienced, and felt.
Speech is the only terror of tyrants. It is the thing they cannot control or encounter. —Brute force has no tendency to match it. “Four hostile presses,” said Bonaparte—the most formidable brute the modern world has seen—“are more to be dreaded, than a hundred thousand bayonets.” So, he might have said, is one hostile press—if it is free. And if it is free, it will be hostile to tyranny. It is as hostile to boards, as it is to bayonets, and as formidable. It is “the king of terrors” to both. The board has nothing to oppose to it, but the bayonet. The bayonet is the board’s argument, —and only argument. A board without a bayonet, is a hornet without a sting—or a toothless hound. But it will try to worry and bark down free speech if it cannot bite. And as the bayonet is the board’s only argument, so only boards ever wield that ugly and hateful implement. Individuality never can hold or maintain it. —The individual can resort only to the truth.
“Stop his mouth!” cries alarmed and exasperated tyranny. Stifle his outcry! mankind will hear him! Shut him up, where he cannot be heard! Let his dungeon be deep and his walls thick, —not so much to keep him, as to keep him from being heard! I must not hear him myself. “It disturbs my tranquility.” Keep him alone!
It is the uttered word, that awakens the tread that moves mankind. Words are the storm that “awakens its deep.” Words revolutionize society and nations, and change human condition. They bring those “changes,” the “fear” of which “perplexes monarchs.” Monarchy builds its bastiles to imprison them. It erects them amid the silence of the people, and it is only speech that can throw them down. The bastile of France, that fell at the outbreak of her dread revolution, —it was not artillery that prostrated its walls, but they were shaken down by the thunder and earthquake of the voice of the people, and had France known the power of that voice, she would have shaken down with it every throne in Europe. But she took the bayonet and it failed. It failed even in the hand of Bonaparte, the strongest that ever grasped it to conquer the world. It failed, and France is again in chains. Kings build their bastiles again in her borders, for the imprisonment of the people, but they have to build them in a later style of architecture than the old Gothic, for fear the sight of that would awaken again the people’s voice.
And Bonaparte himself, with a wall around him of half a million of bayonets, trembled at the slightest breath of free speech. The creature sued men for libel in the English Courts. At a time he was at war with her—when the proud island stood dismayed at his threatened descent upon her, —when he hovered with his dreadful marshals on the edge of the British Channel, the English Common Pleas was resounding with the call of the Crier, to “John Smith to come into Court and answer to the complaint of Napoleon Bonaparte, or his default would be recorded.” —The Emperor had no confidence at all in his terrible Marshals, —or the armies of Italy and of Egypt, so long as free speech could libel him with impunity in the coffee houses of London. And did it strike any body as ludicrous, that Bonaparte should be scared at a libel? not at all. His folly was, that he sought to defeat it by a law-suit. Had he been a man, he would have sent an article against the libeler, to the British press. He did not dare to. He was a tyrant—the truth was against him, —free speech was uttering it. —It scared him, and he stupidly went to law. I forget whether he got the case!
To come nearer home, and to the fields of moral strife. Corporation is the same cowards and tyrant-foe of free speech, in the chair—the board—the business committee, as in the camps and courts of kings: and free speech, the bane and terror of corporation in all its forms. Its motto and banner words, —No Committees—nor commitment. No Boards, on which to lay humanity out, for a living burial. —Association—but of associate individuals—unabated and undiluted. Concert of action—but of individual, personal action—where no combination can bring upon individual freedom, the wizard spell of the majority—where that monstrosity is not known—where unfelt and unacknowledged, is the influence of numbers and the authority of names—where are not great men—no leaders; —that sends out its great truths, backed up by no external or extrinsic force, to make their own way to the free and unawed heart of the people. —This is the “anti-slavery society.” —The New Hampshire Anti-Slavery Society is such. The humblest and poorest of anti-slavery bodies. —Poor in every thing but its principles, its love of liberty, and its fidelity to the cause of Humanity. In these it is rich. —It proffers its hard right hand of working fellow-ship to the anti-slavery of the land, and especially to the field-tried and service-worn handful in little Rhode Island. —It is “auxiliary” to all anti-slavery society, —subsidiary to none, as indeed no real anti-slavery body would claim of its subordination or homage.
By Wendell Phillips
Let no one who looks for fame join us. Let him wait rather, and be one of that crowd which will flock like doves to our windows, the moment the first gleam of success shall gild them. Our work is only to throw up, ourselves unseen, the pathway over which unheeding, the triumphant majority are to pass, shouting the names of later and gaudier leaders as their watch words.
How few have ever heard of Zachary Macauley, the counsellor to whom Wilberforce looked up,-one who rose before the sun to give every hour to the slave, and died at last that glorious poor man, which the creditor of humanity always is. But thousands echo the easier earned fame of his son!
How few know anything of that little committee of Quakers, who labored unseen, in Lombard street, that Wilberforce and Clarkson might be strong in the eyes of the great British people, grappled uncheered with the great British heart, and enlisted it finally in the cause of Africa; but went down, most of them, to their graves forgotten, while the gallant ship which they had launched so painfully,- baptized with a new name, and bannered with a new flag, anchored in the safe harbor of a nations welcome.
“We may regret,” says the Edinburg Review, “that those who sowed should not be allowed to reap, but such is the ordinary course of events. By separating success from merit, by imposing on one set of men the sacrifice and the labor, and giving to another the credit of the result, Providence seems to tell us that higher motives than any man can offer, ought to actuate those who assume the responsibility of government.”
In the place of ‘Government’ put “Reform” and the sentiment is still more applicable to a cause like ours.
“And grant,” says old Fuller, “That God honors thee not to build his temple in thy parish, yet thou mayest, with David, provide metal and materials for Solomon thy successor, to build it with.”
Some reluct at the long time requisite to change the institutions of a nation, or regenerate its public sentiment. But here too, a moment’s thought shows us, how wise in this respect is the order of Providence. The progress of a great reform is a nation’s school. It creates as it advances, the moral principle, the individual independence, the habit of private judgement, the enlightened public opinion, which are necessary for its own success; and thus by new moulding the national character and elevating its tone of morals, it confers far other and greater benefits that its originators at first proposed. And further, it naturally opens the eye to kindred abuses, or growing itself out of a wrong principle, which has other results beside this immediate one, it insensibly prepares the way for wider and more radical reform. Having once gathered under its banner army of disinterested and enthusiastic hearts, its slow advance keeps them in the field long enough to form them veteran and willing laborers in every good cause. Forty years in the wilderness were necessary to make the Egyptian slave a fit soldier for Joshua to lead, and a fit subject for David and Solomon to govern.
An acute observer has well remarked, speaking of the slow step of the English movement for a repeal of the corn laws:
“The change will be delayed so long, that when it comes, the people will have been instructed in the necessity for something more than a mere repeal of an act of Parliament, important as that repeal unquestionably is. They will see the necessity for an organic change-that the cause of evil is in selfish legislation, and that again springs from the exclusive possession by one small class of legislative power; and thus Chartism under the name of Complete Suffrage, will become the adopted measure of the middle classes.”
Welcome then the thought that careless History, will probably drop from her tablets the names of those, who were first to stem the current of corrupt popular opinion. It tends to keep our ranks pure.
Welcome the long years of struggle which show us that we are enlisted no for a single campaign, but for life. The discipline will make us wiser, and imprint deeper in our hearts the conviction, that it is from us the ranks of the future reforms are to be recruited; and that to shut our eyes to the light of other reformations is to be traitor to the past.
The American Union
By Adin Ballou
O MIGHTY confederacy, nation of nations, great republic, boasted Land of Liberty (!) Who shall declare thy resources, thy enterprise, thy attainments, thy destiny? Thy children multiply by millions, and shout thy praise with universal exultation. Thy glory is the theme of poets and orators, and thy chieftains delight to magnify the excellence of thine institutions. Ancient nations honor and envy thy rising greatness. Distant barbarians talk of thee in their tents. The earth is filled with thy fame.
Has all this inspired thee with zeal to prove thyself worthy—to realize the best hopes of an expecting world? Has it determined thee to renounce and forsake all that disgraces thee? To remove from thy countenance the hateful blotches which threaten to turn thy beauty into ugliness? Dost thou feel thine infirmities, and seek the strength of righteousness? Wouldst thou be great in goodness as in numbers, wealth and power? Wouldst thou be indeed “the home of the brave and the land of the free?” Wouldst thou lead off the nations of the earth in the grand march of reform, to welcome the dawn of that long predicted era when universal Love and Peace shall reign? Does this sublime ambition throb in thy raighty heart? Does it rule thy counsels, direct thy policy, and breathe through thy powerful influences? Does it animate thy statesman, thy legislators, thy philosophers, thy literati, thy scribes, thy religious and moral teachers? Are all thy efforts and energies and interests unitedly directed to the attainment of such a destiny?
Alas! My country, I blush, I tremble for thee. Thou art indeed capable of all that constitutes true greatness. Heaven and earth have lavished their gifts upon thee in boundless profusion. Nothing wanting in thee but a right spirit—a pure heart. These thou lackest. Thou hast made fair professions. Thou hast solemnly acknowledged the noblest principles of action. Thy career opened with promises of unparalleled usefulness to the human race. Liberty, equality, justice, mercy, progress, happiness, were thy watchwords. But where now is liberty? Where is equality? Where is justice? Where is mercy? Where are the pillars of greatness? Where is thy moral excellency? Where is that true majesty which exalts a nation-the majesty of righteousness? Nearly three millions of human beings, whose birth right was freedom, clank the chains of slavery, and send up to heaven unavailing groans for liberty, for justice, for mercy. Thy vast cotton harvest is annually moistened by their sweat and tears. Thy sugar cane and rice fields flourish by their unrequited toil. Thy wealth, rolling in golden streams across the land, is tainted with their lash-extorted blood. They would fly from thy tyranny, but thou pursuest them with blood-hounds. All thy citizens are in league to keep them in bondage. They would rise up and fight for liberty, after the example of thy revolutionary worthies, but thou terrifies them with thine armies—with threats of swift and terrible destruction. They would kneel in humble petition before thy Congress, and sue for the crumbs of liberty which fall from their masters’ tables: but slaves are not permitted even to petition. They would learn letters and acquire knowledge; but it is made a high misdemeanor to teach them. They would enjoy their wives, their husbands, their children, the endearments of family and home, to slake themselves amid the sadness and dreariness of their servitude; but these are all rudely trampled underfoot by their oppressors. Every ligament of tender affection is torn asunder. Degradation, ignorance, toil and unnumbered miseries-immeasurable wrongs crush them as between the upper and nether milestone. Who is horror-struck at all this oppression? Who burns with shame? Who weeps bitter tears of repentance? Who rises up to put away these abominations? Who are they that propose to break every yoke, and let the oppressed go free? Are thy presidents, judges, statesmen, legislators, editors, politicians, divines and pastors, putting forth all their influence to accomplish this indispensable reform? Alas! See them, hear them, mark their proceedings! They grasp new slave regions; they threaten to extend the area of oppression over all Mexico; and yet they call it the area of Freedom. They feel no shame, they experience no compunction; they dash forward like the war-horse rough-shod over their fallen victims; proclaiming to the world with matchless insolence of the rightfulness of all their robberies! The mercy of all their cruelty; and the increasing happiness of their down trodden fellow men! Every where ascends the loud “amen” of a deluded people. They shout to the onward progress of the most intolerable wrong and outrage. And the highest places of religion, a spurious and adulterated religion, blasphemously pronounce benedictions on these heaven-daring iniquities.
But though hand join in hand, wickedness like this shall not go unpunished. Hear, O people, the word of Jehovah: “This rebellious people, lying children, children that will not hear the law of the Lord: which say to the Seers, See not, and to the prophets, Prophesy, not unto us right things, speak unto us smooth things, prophesy deceits. Wherefore thus saith the Holy One of Israel, Because ye despise this word, and trust in oppression and perverseness, and stay thereon: Therefore this iniquity shall be to you as a breach ready to fall, swelling out in a high wall, whose breaking cometh suddenly at an instant” ISA. 30:9-13 “He that heareth let him hear and he forbeareth, let him forbear.” Ezek, 3:27
Hope Dale, Mass
The Genius of American Liberty, Part One, written by Frances Whipple