Rhode Island’s “Dorr War” opened sharp wounds in the antislavery community. Whipple wanted to heal her community, and attack the real enemy.
Anthony Comegna, PhD
Assistant Editor for Intellectual History
In 1845, Rhode Island abolitionists had been bitterly divided for at least three years. Oddly enough, the source of their antagonism was that little state’s recent stab at domestic rebellion and revolution. In 1841, Rhode Islanders decided that nearly two hundred years, one earth‐shaking revolution, and decades of membership in a new national government was quite enough precedent already—the state should probably update its 1663 Charter from King Charles II (which became the state constitution after the Revolution). When it was issued, it helped make Rhode Island the freest government on earth, perhaps the freest society which had ever existed up to that point in world history. In some towns during the colonial era, as much as 90% of white males could vote; but by 1841 the property‐holding requirement for suffrage excluded most of even the while male population. Since the state no longer represented a majority even of this privileged minority group, radicals like New York’s Levi Slamm and Rhode Island legislator Thomas W. Dorr began arguing that the state must be revolutionized. Slamm’s plan—published in his New York Democratic Republican New Era—proposed to bypass all existing state institutions by calling a popular convention to draft a Constitution, submit the draft to a popular vote, and hold elections for officers under the new document. If all went well, at the end of it the new government would swear itself in to office and the old government would quietly and gently slip awayinto history.
And for a while, at least, all did go well. State suffragists (called “Dorrites” in the press after their de facto leader), held their People’s Convention in October, 1841. Desperate to gather a winning reform coalition right here, right now, the Dorrites added a “whites only” clause which absolutely and unequivocally excluded black voters. The clause passed with a large majority supporting it, but true abolitionists like Dorr spoke out against it. The ban on black votes was in so many ways a betrayal of Dorrite ideals, which were themselves built directly out of William Leggett’s radical early libertarianism (called “locofocoism”). If universal, equal rights for all people was the goal, then this People’s Constitution could at best be a temporary advance. Despite his deep depression over the “whites only” clause, Dorr vigorously supported the new document and lobbied his antislavery friends to rally behind him once more. In December, almost 14,000 Rhode Island voters approved the Constitution and in April they elected a new government under its terms. A month later, the Dorrites tried to take office in Providence but met with stiff resistance from the existing state government.
But before we launch ourselves into the Dorr War—a subject we have covered at great length elsewhere—we return ourselves to Frances Whipple and her Liberty Chimes. This book was an offering to all those Rhode Island abolitionists who split up over the “whites only” clause and its implications for the Dorr movement. Because abolitionists were generally also in favor of full and equal civil rights for African Americans, the People’s Convention and its Dorrite coalition appeared little different from the Whigs or Democrats. The most radical of radicals refused to join the Dorr movement and after it failed, they rejoiced at the Charter regime’s own new state constitution that extended suffrage to blacks as well as poor whites. Dorr argued that the People’s Constitution was an unalterable step in the direction of abolition and if only antislavery voters would hold on they would see their work finally accomplished; but once his movement dissolved it was the Whig Party that actually did offer greater liberty to African Americans. So far as abolitionists were concerned, it was not a good look, and the state’s antislavery movement remained divided over the issue for years. Finally, Whipple and the Providence Ladies Anti‐Slavery Society decided that enough was enough, times were changing too rapidly to stay mired in factional muck—the Slave Power was on the march, poised to steal half of Mexico and extend itself across the continent from East to West and North to South. She offered this “gift book,” then, as a means to reunite what the People’s Convention and the disappointing Dorr War had destroyed. For our current selection, we have chapters from several little‐known reformers and one strong blast of early feminism from the familiar pen of Richard Hildreth.
Her doom is sealed, and on the lurid air Come shrieks of wo, of terror and despair; Columbia proudly fill’d her cup of crime, And dar’d destruction on her guilty clime She said “I am not rich, and strong, and young? Are not fair words of Freedom on my tongue? I’ve twin’d my temples with a wreath of fame And other nations envy my name.” Proud land! The wealth, oppression made to grow Is but the price you’ll pay for floods of wo! The strength you boast, and trusted in to save, Has dug beneath your feet a fearful grace. Your fame alas! A mocking now is made, Your temples built by labor, all unpaid, And fill’d by wrongs, shall crumble to the ground, And not a vestige of their pride be found; You sow’d the wind, the whirlwind you shall reap‐ The harvest‐feast in sorrow you shall keep. Mourn for Columbia now! The arm of God For the crushed poor takes the avenging rod; The nation trembles as it bears the word, While gathered vials of His wrath are pour’d Mercy has moved her starry wing away, And grieved‐no longer seeks his wrath to stay: Mourn for Columbia now‐restraining grace Is all withheld–and utter darkness shrouds, While o’er the sky rise fast portentous clouds; From east to west, from north to south; no ray To gild the darkness of that dreadful day. Dire scenes of old, when nations drunk with blood, Crumbled to dust, at high Jehovah’s nod, Shall now transpire in thee; when thou shalt feel Worse tortures than thy despot’s branding steel; The heaven above be brass, and plagues shall rise From thy soil, rife with human victims’ cries.- And, left alone, thy suicidal race Will slay each other in a fell embrace
Perchance, when ages more shall roll around, When the mock temple crumbles to the ground, A glorious dome shall rise–a home of love, That shall a refuge to the earth‐worn prove; The hist’ry of the past–perchance may save The new born nation from that dreadful grave; Then let them build on Righteousness alone, And peace unending shall be all their own.
What Can A Woman Do?
By Richard Hildreth
The female heart is soft; the affections of woman are warm; her sensibilities are easily excited. Her first impulse is, to give her aid to every effort for the benefit of suffering humanity. Yet what can a woman do?–This question presents itself at the outset, and smothers the desires of many a benevolent heart. What can a woman do?
There is inherent in each individual man and woman, a certain portion of moral power. It is this which makes them human; for of mere physical power, many animals possess more. It is this moral power, which has gradually softened and humanized the more favored portions of the race; it is by means of this moral power, that revolutions and all advancements have been made. Women share it equally with men. In all changes of opinion, in all great struggles attendant upon such changes, they have always borne a conspicuous part. The Grand Rebellion in Great Britain, which transferred the government of that country into the hands of property holders, and gave England such freedom as she has owed much, at its starting point, to those women who overwhelmed the long parliament with petitions, and who commenced the rebellion in Scotland, by an energetic and even tumultuous resistance to the introduction of the liturgy.
The French revolution, which in its results, has wrought such changes throughout Europe and the world, was cradled and nursed in the saloons of Paris, where female influence had reached a higher point than anywhere else before.
It is true, that taking the past history of the world together, the influence of woman appears, on the whole to have been small. This however is more apparent than real. We have the history of battles, and sieges, and political intrigues, and revolutions of governments; but the true history of the human race, the history of progress of opinion, of the development of intellectual and moral power, remains to be written. Christendom for twelve centuries, had its opinions controlled by the Catholic church; and the Catholic church knows well the power of female influence. The several orders of female devotees, were and are, a great pillar of its power; and female saints abound in its calender. It has been the same with the Protestant churches. It is not notorious that at this moment, every Protestant sect in America, is mainly upheld, its churches built, its ministers paid, its associations and charities sustained, by the efforts and influence of women? In every church the female members far out‐number the men; and the men who are there, seven times out of ten, are carried there and kept there, by the women. In all this, it is true, the women have played and play, but a secondary part; they are led on, marshalled, ruled and used by male leaders. They are treated as the British treat the Hindoos who compose the bulk of their Indian armies. They are welcome to serve as common soldiers, but are not permitted to rise above the rank of corporal; or sergeant at the best. And the reason is the same in both cases. The intellect of the men has been far more developed than that of the women. It has been held, a sin and a crime for a woman to dare to think for herself. Even here in New England, a woman who adopts that course, is looked upon with suspicion and distrust, as an ambiguous character. Yet the thing becomes more and more common; and is fast losing its strangeness. Having admitted women to equality in education; having opened to them the doors of the school‐room and the lecture‐room; having allowed them to read not sermons and books of devotion only, but novels, and histories, and newspapers, and everything else, it is impossible to keep them from thinking; and women who think, will presently feel and act, not as their mothers and grandmothers did, but in accordance with those new ideas to which they have attained.
But how can they act? They cannot vote; the cannot preach,–at least not many of them;–they cannot legislate;–what can they do? More than voter, preacher or legislator. Each and all of those, is but the instrument to promulgate, or carry into effect, some pre‐established opinion. No man can preach except as the expounder and defender of opinions already espoused by his hearers, or a part of them. If he preaches his own opinions in contradiction to theirs, he must be content to lack salary and a pulpit, and seek audience as Paul did, in the market‐place, or corners of the streets, at the risk not only of brick bats and rotten eggs, but of the police and the house correction. How many men are equal to that? No an can legislate except in conformity to the opinions of those who make him a legislator; and the voter does only signify by his vote, his adherence to a certain principle or opinion which he thereby proclaims and vindicates. Behind all these is the opinion preached, voted for, made into law,–and whence comes that? It is first conceived in the depths of some few contemplative souls; thence, as circumstances oppose or favor, it is more or less gradually communicated to others; and this little leaven, worked in and diffused imperceptibly almost, through the mass, presently leavens the whole lump. The mass ferments, rises and becomes something which it was not before. All kneading, rolling, baking and fussing in the world will not make bread, without the leaven to begin with.
For instilling into the public mind, and diffusing through society those new opinions, in which all social changes must have their origin, women possess peculiar advantages. They have an access to the hearts of men, which no man has. They have an access to the hearts of children, peculiar to themselves, those children who are soon to become men and women, and to influence, for good or evil, the destinies of the race.
There is no woman whose soul is possessed by any great idea, and who longs for its diffusion, who may not become, if she has patience and perseverance, a very apostle among the children of some little village school which she teaches, or who may be otherwise within the circle of her influence, may perhaps be, sporting and prattling, the political and social leaders of the next generation. Who knows? Let her scatter the seed then hopefully. Some no doubt will fall upon ‘stony places, and some among thorns,’ and much the fowls of the air will devour. But some too, will fall upon good ground and will produce fruit twenty, and fifty, and an hundred fold.
The Reception of Slave Holders At The North
By Geo. W Stacy
To discharge the duty of faithful rebuke to those who are violating the plain commands of the Most High God, requires an amount of moral courage which few possess. Naturally we are inclined to covet the good will of our fellow pilgrims. A smile accompanies with the voice of friendship, is more acceptable and comforting than a frown, indicating feelings of bitterness. Especially is the duty of rebuke, uttered to the wrong‐doer, a great trial to our Christian integrity, when by ties of kindred and long familiar acquaintance we are influenced to forbear. The peerless example of Jesus, and the truthfulness of the Apostles and early Christians, present a profitable theme upon which to expatiate. But sad is our deficiency of imitation in respect to a consistent practice.
I apprehend one of the strong holds of the dark and terrible system of American slavery is to be found in the reception of slave‐holders at the North. The southerner finds it pleasant and profitable often, for a season, to turn his back upon the land of “whips and chains,” and mingle with relatives, friends and acquaintances at the north. Inflated with the pride of a tyrant,–wrapped up in a garment of self‐esteem, he deigns to pass himself off as an honest and moral man in community where he chances to make a temporary sojourn. He throws himself back upon his dignity and chivalry, and walks erect as though no foul stain rested upon his garments. Say you, he is an ignorant sinner? It may in a measure be so. I have no time to discuss this point.
But how is the slave‐holder received by those who profess to look upon Man‐stealing as a sin? Does he hear the voice of remonstrance and warning? Is he told of his atrocious crimes of murder, theft and adultery? Does he understand from his intercourse with us, that we view him as a vile and notorious sinner? Does he feel like eluding our presence, and calling upon darkness to hide him from the light of truth and relieve his soul from the pain which consequently follows words of “truth and soberness?” Does he return to his foul work of hate and tyranny goaded and tormented out of season by what his eyes have seen, and his ears heard in the society of northerners? Does the rattle of the chain terrify his ears? Does the streaming blood which follows the scorpion lash harrow his conscience? Does the piercing shriek of sundered hearts around the auction block, cause his knees to smite in anguish? Does the mighty flood of licentiousness, which meets his eye at every turn, pain and sicken his soul? Alas, we must answer, no.
With the comfortable assurance, “I am not a sinner above others,” the slave‐holder returns from his pleasant visit to the north. His hands are strengthened in the dark work of oppression. He has procured an anodyne to his conscience, and hugs his robber‐plunder to his “heart of hearts.” To all about him he proclaims the pleasing tidings of a gracious reception, flattering caresses, and constant marks of attention from those who are supposed to be the enemies of their “peculiar institution.”
Abolitionists, these “things ought not so to be.” We are too faint‐hearted, too taciturn, too tame, in respect to the monster who perpetrates the sin of Man‐stealing. On our part, at least, there should be no compromise–no good natured truce with the man in whose character concentrates all the works of damning darkness. Let us respect and count humanity too sacred to treat a slave‐holder like a gentlemen, and brand the horse‐thief as a villain. The character of the former is as black as the fabled regions of darkness compared with the latter. Mercy shall be our theme to the repentant soul, and “tribulation, anguish and wrath upon every man that doeth evil.” In the meek, mild, yet uncompromising spirit of Him who came to “preach deliverance to the captive,” let us sound the words of rebuke in every slave-holder’s ear who comes within speaking distance. Then shall he know and feel that we are true to our professions,–true to the crushed bondman, and true to God.
Treason! Treason!! Treason!!!
By C.K. Whipple
Very well; be it so! We do not shrink from the name that designates our act, nor do we fear the position into which that act brings us. But, you who clamor so violently against us, are you really so instructed in the affairs of this world as to suppose that treason is always necessarily a crime?
Truly illustrious are the predecessors whose traitorous footsteps we follow. We do not seek protection beneath the shelter of their names; truth, right, justice, the arm of the living God, are a sufficient defence for us; but since you need the authority which their eminence and popularity give to acts like theirs, you shall have it.
Heard you never of the Roman Brutus, of the British Sydney, the Polish Kosciusko, the Greek Bozzarris, the American Washington, Hancock, Adams, Warren, Henry? Rank traitors were these, every one of them! Residents of established authority, violators of law, and each not only exposed, but certain, had he fallen alive into the hands of the existing and established government of his country, to have died a traitor’s death.
These men were defenders of liberty of conscience, freedom of thought, speech and action, the rights of the minority; they recognized in justice something superior to law and rightfully taking precedence of it. Without expressing them–themselves in bible phraseology, their actions plainly said, “Whether it be right in the sight of God to hearken unto you more than unto God, judge ye;” and if those to whom this appeal was made judged blindly and unjustly, these conscientious traitors renounced that decision, judged for themselves, followed up their judgement with action, and cheerfully risked, for the sake of principle, the loss of property, life and present reputation, knowing that the truth which they held fast was more precious than all these combined.
The very men who now cry out so zealously for law and order, as if there were no better things in the universe, are loudest in their praises of Washington for his resistance to law, and his violation of order. Alas! their inconsistency gives us reason to fear that the success of the American Revolution, rather than its justice, gives it glory in their eyes.
But was not Washington’s rebellion against the tyrannical British laws as just and righteous while he bore the obloquy and risked the doom of a traitor, as now that he has become the idol of the world? The justice of a revolutionary movement then is quite independent of success of failure, and may be decided with perfect certainty while the result is yet pending. It is to be settled, not by armies or majorities, alike impotent attempts of might to make right, but by deliberate inquiry into the merits of the case, and an application to it of the plain and immutable rules of right and wrong. If these show distinctly and decidedly (for while a single doubt remains upon a subject of such moment, we should refrain from action,) if these show distinctly and decidedly, that the human law in question is opposed to essential justice and the law of God, it should be to us as if it had never been, and should receive from us no more respect or consideration than any other detected imposture.
Socrates, Jesus, Paul, for vindicating the claims of righteousness against existing laws, were despised and rejected of men, and finally suffered death, stigmatized as enemies of the civil and religious institutions of their country. But the judgement of their contemporaries has been completely reversed by posterity. Their names are now held in high esteem and men say, and no doubt seriously think, if we had lived in those days, we would not have been partakers in the blood of those just men.” But are we uncharitable in suspecting that they deceive themselves, when we see them denouncing and reproaching the men of the present day who, like those illustrious martyrs, make right their standard rather than law?
With such laws of this country as are just and righteous, we have no quarrel; but in so far as they authorize slavery, and enjoin war for its support, we repudiate and renounce them; we cannot respect, and we will not obey them.
Such is the position of abolitionists. Let us see now what those are doing whom abolitionists call pro‐slavery men.
The southern church and state (as represented by Governor Hammond and Rev. Dr. Fuller of South Carolina,) are putting forth an elaborate defence of slavery from the Bible, and declaring the perfect accordance of that “sum of all villainies” with their religious system; and the northern church and state, (as represented by [episcopal] Bishop [William Croswell] Doane and the Honorable Rufus Choate) are coming to the same end by a different course, namely, a defence of the divine right of governments, which if established, would show by necessary implication that whatever crime a governor commands may be perpetrated without guilt by any subject. Thus priests and politicians of the north and the south play into each other’s hands for the support of slavery. The leaders in church and state boldly promulgate these detestable doctrines, (thus giving the lie to the Gospel and Declaration of Independence, both of which they profess at the same time to hold sacred,) and their credulous disciples follow up the movement by throwing every obstruction in their power in the way of the abolitionist.
What is the duty, in this emergency, of faithful followers of him who was at once Prince of Peace and preacher of deliverance to the captives? Are we to forsake the cause of the slave because “Reverends” and “Excellencies” and “Honorables” are binding his chains tighter? Are we to make war against him because these tilted personages present themselves as recruiting sergeants, and offer us their dispensation from the sin of bloodshed”? Nay, verily!
Christianity, while it repudiates carnal weapons, is yet a system of determined aggression against all sin. We are now liable at any moment to be called upon by our profligate government to commit one of the most detestable of crimes in its support. A war in favor of Texas would be a war against the slave! A war in favor of Texas would be the deliberate support of slavery by murder! Let those wage such a war who will; but let them be aware that they are to find in the rapidly increasing band of Anti‐Slavery men and women neither support nor acquiescence, but determined, active opposition. They will find the cry of “treason” as powerless as that of “infidelity” to restrain us. Regardless of both, while we feel ourselves supported by the precepts and example of Christ, we repeat the declaration: We will not countenance or aid the United States Government in any war which may be occasioned by the annexation of Texas, or in any other war, foreign or domestic, designed to strengthen or perpetuate slavery.