Poetry, Mission, and the People’s Convention
Rather than ride the wave of romantic, nationalistic Young Americanism, Rogers wanted to build a culture of abolitionism.
In our next set from abolitionist Nathaniel Peabody Rogers, our author takes a moment to critically reflect on the culture surrounding him. We have often discussed the “Young America” cultural movement, and once again we find ourselves in this interesting position. The Young Americans began in publisher and literary promoter Evert Duyckink’s “Tetractys Group” of readers and critics. The Tetractys Group’s mission was to forge and promote an authentic American national culture by developing the literary arts, especially the short story, the novel, and poetry. They would have Americans cast aside cultural models from Europe, whose literary titans dominated stage, song, and thought across the American continent. Rather than continue to slavishly imitate European ideas, emotions, conceptions, themes, settings, methods, materials, and everything else, Duyckink’s Young Americans determined to use what was authentic and specifically American all around them to craft a decidedly new cultural tradition. The movement began in New York City, Duyckink’s base of operations and the country’s great new center. The city had recently surpassed Boston and Philadelphia both in population and preeminence, and now no matter where else Americans were looking for cultural inspiration in their own personal and political missions, they looked first to New York.
The Young American project was somewhat loosely defined—and success, then, could look like just about anything to different partisans and observers. Many saw their greatest triumphs in politics. The cultural movement inspired especially young republican men to rise from an emerging generation of idealistic young people into the active leadership corps actually running the country. In their romantic, nationalist rush to promote all that was special and good about the United States, the Young Americans invaded Canada to join anti-British rebellions; they flooded into Texas and helped lead public opinion in favor of annexation; and they boosted for Polk, a kindred spirit with both the Young Americans and Jackson, their generation’s Gray Hero. But in their greatest successes, they also found their greatest failures. Two particularly important Young American artists—painter Thomas Cole and writer Walt Whitman—emerged from the Polk administration and the Mexican War both disgusted and disenchanted. As it turned out, all the supposed national feeling captured by the Young America literary movement was fictitious. It may have seemed that the whole American people was at war with Mexico, but they were not. As Henry David Thoreau sat in jail for failure to pay his taxes, abolitionists and others with antislavery leanings constantly thundered about the Planter’s war for the extension of slavery. The cozy feelings of national romance quickly dissolved as policy sharply divided the people.
But enough background!—For our current selections, Rogers begins with a very Young America-like call for authentically and radically abolitionist poetry. Buried in his call is a significant theme: as New York overtook Boston, nationalism overtook regionalism, and regional subcultures (like New England abolitionism) suffered in the process. We saw this recently in Frances’ Whipple’s Liberty Chimes, and here it is again. We can see the immediate effects of this Boston-to-New York transition in the rest of Rogers’ items, which lament both the false versions of Christianity increasingly preached throughout the country and the restrictionist racism that infected Rhode Island’s otherwise revolutionary People’s Convention. His coverage of the Rhode Island affair is extensive, his sorrow for their moral failures is deep, but his persistent hopes are not based in false nationalism—Rogers’ conviction that slavery would end came from within. It was the kind of hopefulness that can only come from someone who has already decided to give their life up for a cause; the kind of feeling few Dorrites ever truly encountered.
A Collection from the Newspapers Writings of Nathaniel Peabody Rogers
Concord: John R. French. 1847.
From the Herald of Freedom of Nov. 5, 1841.
We are troubled to find it to fill our “Corner.” We can find verses enough, but they are not equal to the station of “Poet’s Corner” in an anti-slavery sheet, these days of fiery trial. Anti-slavery poetry should be a stream of living fire. We examine our little exchange list, and we find nothing beside the sentimentalism of pro-slavery brains, or rant about the ballot box, a theme as heartless to us as the billiard table. Anti-slavery poetry goes clad in “words that burn” like lava. It demands the nerve of Pierpont—his brief, palpitating, almost suppressed words. Poetry “rolls her eye” “with a fine frenzy” indeed, when she sees Humanity chained. She is indignant, hard on the borders of frenzy. She loses her self-command. She cannot retain it, and she need not, and ought not. Self-command were treason in the poet when he looks on Human Slavery.
Where is Whittier now, that we no more see his verses streaming up like a “meteor to the troubled air?” Wat has palsied his muse? Why does he no longer furnish anti-slavery with the poetry for her movement? New Organization has touched his glorious genius with her torporific wand—and he soars not above the dunghill of Third Party. He ought to be in the blue sky, or rather the stormy sky, for we have no blue over us. He ought to be abroad in the moral tempest—letting down sheets of fire—for anti-slavery to inflame her press with. We call on him to come to life again. We demand it of him. We summon him to sacrifice even his poet pride, and into the field again, although he had faltered. No matter for admissions. He has the Promethean fire. The cause wants it. It don’t need it. That is—it can live without it. It has lived without it. But it wants it. It has right to it. He cannot innocently withhold it. We claim it at his hands for the slave. The slave will want liberty a little the longer for his withholding it. Anti-slavery marches irregularly for lack of the music of his numbers. She can’t keep step. She listens for the strain of his trumpet—its old clarion blast—that made the land quake in the early years of our Revolution. But she listens in vain. He has hung his bugle on the dog-wood boughs of New Organization, or the limbs of the swamp “Cedar.” He plays, to be sure, at times for 3d Party—but it is on the fife. Anti-slavery can’t march after that. She has no ear for it. She cannot “time” her high “footsteps” to the fife and drum. She wants the moral trumpet. Cannot Whittier again give it breath?
And Pierpont—we have a demand on hi. He sees the irregular footstep of our anti-slavery forlorn hope—for lack of moral, martial music. Our phalanx is on the steady advance—but it loses a step now and then. It is out of line. We want the music. Music is every thing in a battle. We will conquer without it, but then we want it.
O that we could blow the anti-slavery horn! We would find our own music then, and would not be asking these trumpeters to come and play. And if we have to ask them, beore they blow, they can do us no service. Their trumpets would give an uncertain sound, and prepare no one for the battle. Thy must be volunteers. They must give anti-slavery breath to their alchemy, or it will only dispirit our ranks. We want no Swiss Guard music. We care nothing for it. No matter for its glittering brass instruments flashing in the sun. Anti-slavery, self-moved, breathing at the head of the host—though it blows through White Mountain Fabyan’s long tube of tin, the rough Conch shell, or the ruder Ram’s Horn—that is the inspiration we want. Pierpont can discourse, if he will, on his graceful instrument. We point him to the plantation, and then to the entire country—enslaved and enslaving—the very Religion of the land forging fetters and platting whips for the infernal service. Need we more than show him this, to set his fervid soul on fire? If he will not flame at this, his fire is false. “The light” he strays after, is not “from Heaven.” We point him to the plantation and the country, and then to our vacant Cornor—empty and silent for want of an anti-slavery muse in the land. A word to the wise is enough—see if it is to the Genius.
From the Herald of Freedom of Nov. 12, 1841.
We can laugh at “Mahometan delusion,” and popish superstition, as it prostrates itself before its gross and degrading idols, but we are blind as bats to the equally ridiculous and impious mockery of our own “worship.” Anti-slavery must cry out against it—for it is made the Chinese wall in the way of the peaceful abolition of slavery. We sat last Sunday at our window, meditating an effort for our little engine of Humanity, when we were recalled from anxious thought, by the passage through the streets of the broken-up meetings. They went by in counter directions—the Orthodox, the Unitarian, and the Baptist, intermingled with Episcopacy and Methodism from their more distant Rimmon houses of worship. We were mightily struck with their demeanor. It was wholly different from that of free, intelligent, happy Christians. It was the demeanor and aspect of devotees, of implicit followers of some blind guide. They looked no more as they commonly look, than they were dressed like their common dress. They had a Sunday aspect on as well as a Sunday dress. They had a Sunday gait too. They looked Sunday, and walked Sunday. Does Christianity walk and look thus? Do the followers of Christ have two gaits and two faces? Do they go naturally and eagerly through the week days, and as if they were in earnest,—and after the trash of this world, which perishes in the using—and then, when Sunday comes, elongate their faces, and turn solemn in their gait and aspect, and think thus to propitiate God, who looketh on the heart? Is this Chrisianity? No, no. The spirit of Christ works on the every-day life. It shapes the daily transactions. It is safe to meet, and do business with. It is safe to buy of, and sell to, and talk with. It cannot wrong you, for it loves you as it loves itself. It won’t harm you to save its life. It is safe with it—or leave your interests in its hands, or have you not got to look with all your eyes, and take care of yourself, when you deal with it?
Friends, beware how you circumvent yourselves with this meeting-house religion. It will fail you like the spider’s web. Not when you die merely—it will fail before. It fails you now. You feel no support in it—no confidence—no consolation. It is not Christianity—under whatever denominational name you may follow it. Its teachers are “blind leaders” and “of the blind,” if you follow them. We look upon you all, streaming in procession to and from your forbidden temples (forbidden of Christ) as we would on the deluded Hindoos trooping up and down, to and from the sacred Ganges—or going to Juggernaut; or on the poor ensnared Catholic. The American slave can never have his liberty among such a people.
Rhode Island Meeting.
From the Herald of Freedom of Dec. 3, 1841.
We resume our account of the general anniversary of the State Society at Providence. Rhode Island, we should think, from our glance of observation, aside from any information we had obtained otherwise, rather a peculiar people. They are, we should say, a freer—more untrammeled, less regulated folk, than the other New Englanders we have known. They are more like David’s men in the cave of Adullam, as to heterogeneousness of character. They have not formally bowed down their individuality before the Dagons of party and sect, as the masses have in the other States. There is therefore more hope of them. Nothing is so hopeless as orderly subjection to sect. There is sectarianism in the little State—especially in Providence. That Baptist College on the hill, and that steeple that runs up two hundred feet into the sky, at the hill’s foot, the pride of Rhode Island’s “sacred architecture,” are not the only images sectarian idolatry has set up there. The Rev. Dr. Tucker, of the orthodox Congregational order, has got his mosque bedecked with a platoon of pillars in imitation of some heathen temple abroad—and topped out, in smart imitation of the Boston State House, with a real commonwealth dome. The honorable Episcopalians have got an old theatre fitted up into a church. It is a terrible sombre-looking pile. It looks like tragedy, without any comic after-piece to relieve it. Universalism has got a pile as tall as any of them, where they go to persuade themselves out of their superstitions, which nevertheless doubtless continue to haunt them all the while. Their pile looks as sacred and solemn as any of the pagodas. The Unitarians have got an Athenian temple—one of the most beautiful-looking things ever reared to Minerva or Apollo in old Greece. Methodism has got a “where to lay its head” also, though we forget, this moment, whereabouts it thrusts up its steeple—pretty impudently, no doubt, for Methodism does not fear the face of clay, and is determined not to be behind the grandest; and there they all stand, ensnaring what worshippers they severally may. But in no one of them is a single unqualified principle of Christianity ever preached, unless by accident. It would not be tolerated in any of them, unless they differ from all others of their clan. They are consecrated to religious partyism, Christianity new organized, and adulterated, and ruined. Were Christ on earth, and to go into any one of them, as He did into the synagogues of old, they would take Him by His seamless coat collar (unless more unceremoniously) and drag him out, as Reverend brother Bouton’s Swiss guards dragged Christ’s disciple, STEPHEN S. FOSTER, out of the Old North steeple-house in Concord, a few Sundays ago.
While we are upon the architectural department of Providence, we will just tell our readers of a building or two more. The Arcade, an establishment for traders’ and milliners’ shops, is one of the nicest structures in the town. It extends from street to street, about two hundred feet in length—lighted overhead, from the sky. A wide, broad aisle through the centre, from end to end, with a row of shops for traders on each side in the lower story,—where vanity may shop it, and gentility lounge or promenade, in all weathers; the upper story retreats, and contains rows of milliners’ shops, with a gallery-walk in front,—very pretty, and, we should think, convenient and useful. Splendid rows of granite pillars sustain the gables of the roof at each end, forming two very handsome and imposing fronts. Real granite—not sham, like Doctor Wayland’s stone University. We went, by the way, close up to that Baptist school of the prophets. At a distance, we were struck with its commanding, heavy, solid appearance. But we had had some experience of the character of certain institutions, and so went a little nigher. It still looked ponderous, and very like honest granite. But on persevering inspection, we discerned the dogs’ hair and the lime, and it turned out to be genuine imitation—wood, daubed with untampered mortar, read counterfeit,—and behold, up on the sides of the stone edifice, the mask had peeled off, and disclosed the lathing. Pretty illustrative, thought we, of this whole concern. A specious outside—but hollow and sham within. An ostentatious show of learning , with hollow and sham within. An ostentatious show of learning, with shallowness and pretension to back it up. Right off in front of its airy common—(it has a real common, one that will remain there when the trumpery Institutes are all swept off into Providence river, at the foot of the hill,) stands the mansion of its Reverend and limited principal, Doctor Francis Wayland, who has set narrower “limits to human responsibilities,” a good deal, than he has to his princely abode. We met a poor colored man on the Green, and asked him where Dr. Wayland lived. He disfigured his face, and set down his two baskets, and very reverently pointed it out, and said, as solemn as could be, “There’s Doctor Wayland’s.” The poor fellow said it, as it were, within an inch of his life. It was a solemn sight—a real palace for a rabbi nabob. It was in that house, probably,—in his holy study—with his gown and green spectacles on, that the profound Doctor wrote that spider’s web essay, to prove that the people of this country were under no obligation whatever to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia. The way he did it was by curtailing man’s “responsibilities” to do his duty. And just so soon as the Doctor got these responsibilities curtailed—docked, “limited”-like,—why, then he proved, as clear as a mud-hole riled by a sow, that the people had no more to do with abolishing their slave-holding than the man in the moon. He demonstrated, with real, sham, university logic, that they were under no obligation about it, and that the abolitionists were a pack of mad-caps….
We hurry to Franklin Hall. There were Abby Kelley, and Parker Pillsbury, and Frederick Douglass, (the fugitive Othello,) and John A. Collins, and John B. Chandler, and John Pierpont, (a spectator,) and Thomas Davis and George L. Clarke, and William Aplin, and William Lloyd Garrison, and William Adams, and Joseph Sisson, and we don’t know how many more. We wish we had not begun to mention them, for we must leave out “five hundred as good as they,” as King Harry said of Percy at Chevy Chase.
The meeting looked a good deal free. The President looked like any thing but a gag-master general; and more like a little child, than a tyrant.
The subject of Rhode Island’s new constitution draft came up. It seems the little Commonwealth has gone on, ever since the Revolution, without a constitution. She wants on like “the nations round about.” Her power of suffrage is in the hands, under her old royal charter, of the landholders. The Constitution proposes to put it in the hands of all the people, with a small personal property qualification, we don’t know how much,—small enough to extend the right, it was said, to some fourteen thousand voters. To make it go down with the people, the pitiful creatures inserted a color qualification. They must put in “white”—the color of the gulls you see winging their uncouth flight up and down the harbor,—to shut out three or four hundred colored people, who otherwise might,—when they get money enough, go the free and equal polls, to choose their masters. The patrons of the new Constitution had assumed the name of the “Free Suffrage party.” Their freedom showed itself in making a man’s hue the test of his rights. They felt free to enslave a man if he was not as white as a diaper. One or two of their demagogues came into the meeting. One was a Dr. Brown, a steam doctor, whose political morality seemed about as high as that of a railroad engine with a Jim Crow car to it; or a church with a “nigger pew.” A vote was early passed declaring the meeting open to all speakers and voters. The Doctor gave us an expose of his white ethics. It seemed he wanted to get suffrage for the white folks, in order, by and by to extend it to the black….We think the “Free Suffrage” party want to make a stepping stone…of the colored people and abolitionists; and after they get enfranchised, they would shake a fox’s tail in their faces.
But the illustration is wanting in one particular. This lack of suffrage is not like being down in the well; and getting it, would not have any tendency to help the colored people out. It would prove a worthless boon in their hands. The white folks would not acknowledge them as equals if they were nominally voters. They never would consent to their being candidates for any thing—they would treat them as “niggers” still.
The colored people and their friends should never consent to such a constitution, but scout it with utter contempt. Our counsel would be to them to pay it little attention, except as an occasion to push the livelier the grand warfare against the proslavery bulwarks of the country. The abolition of slavery by the power of free principles, is the only consummation that can avail to yield the colored man a single right or privilege.
The “free suffrage” Doctor fell into the merciless hands of Garrison, who tore him limb from limb. We never saw so tremendous a triumph of morals over political profligacy. We again lament the lack of reporters in our meetings. Some of the richest flowers of human speech, the rarest bursts of eloquence, and the noblest sentiments are lost to the world in our anti-slavery meetings. The world is not there to hear them, and abolitionists can’t remember them. They are too common for them to remember. They multiply in every meeting. They abound in almost every anti-slavery speech—for it comes from the depths of the heart, and when the heart speaks, it is eloquent. It is the head that fails when it attempts it. Hearts talk at the anti-slavery meetings.
Friday evening was chiefly occupied by colored speakers. The fugitive Douglass was up when we entered. This is an extraordinary man. He was cut out for a hero. In a rising for Liberty, he would have been a Toussaint or a Hamilton. He has the “heart to conceive, the head to contrive, and the hand to execute.” A commanding person—over six feet, we should say, in height, and of most manly proportions. His head would strike a phrenologist amid a sea of them in Exeter Hall, and his voice would ring like a trumpet in the field. Let the South congratulate herself that he is a fugitive. It would not have been safe for her if he had remained about the plantations a year or two longer. DOUGLASS is his fugitive name. He did not wear it in slavery. We don’t know why he assumed it, or who bestowed it on him—but there seems fitness in it, to his commanding figure and heroic port. As a speaker he has few equals. It is not declamation—but oratory, power of debate. He watches the tide of discussion with the eye of the veteran, and dashes into it at once with all the tact of the forum or the bar. He has wit, argument, sarcasm, pathos—all that first-rate men show in their master efforts. His voice is highly melodious and rich, and his enunciation quite elegant, and yet he has been but two or three years out of the house of bondage. We noticed that he had strikingly improved, since we heard him at Dover in September. We say thus much of him, for he is esteemed by our multitude as of an inferior race. We should like to see him before any New England legislature or bar, and let him feel the freedom of the anti-slavery meeting, and see what would become of his inferiority. Yet he is a thing, in American estimate. He is the chattel of some pale-faced tyrant. How his owner would cower and shiver away, with his infernal whip, from his flaming eye when kindled with anti-slavery emotion! And the brotherhood of thieves, the posse comitatus of divines, we wish a hecatomb or two of the proudest and flintiest of them, were obliged to hear him thunder for human liberty, and lay the enslavement of his people at their Hall, the evening the colored friends spoke. His “limitations” would have abandoned him like the “baseless fabric of a vision.”
Sanderson of New Bedford, Cole of Boston, and Stanley of North Carolina, followed Douglass. They all displayed excellent ability. Sanderson and Stanley’s speaking of a high order. Stanley was a young man, apparently about two and twenty—exceedingly black—an elegant figure, rather daintily dressed. He will dress less, as he frequents free meetings, and experiences the treatment of a man. He announced his name, when called for by the chair, and his place—“not Stanley of Congress,” he added, with unaffected disdain and dignity—which drew him a storm of welcome from the meeting. We had had a “Douglass,” from the names at Flodden Field, and now we were to have a “Stanley;” and as he was mounting the platform, we could hardly refrain from greeting him with an
“On, Stanley, on!”
“He was not the Congress Stanley,” he repeated, “nor would he stoop to rank himself with the Wises or the Bynums of the South;” and if he did not surpass the Virginia debater in “excellency of speech or man’s wisdom,” he was truer far to humanity and to liberty, and he acquitted himself in a speech of some thirty or forty minutes to very great acceptance, and closed with periods that, in a young debutant at Washington, would have won the gratulations of the old hackneyed authorities in politics and debate.
These were the inferior race. These the young black men, who, ten years ago, would have been denied entrance into such an assembly of whites, except as waiters or fiddlers. Their attempts at speaking would have been met with jeers of astonishment. It would have amazed the superior race as the ass’s speech did Balaam. Now they mingle with applause in the debates with Garrison and Foster and Phillips. Southern slavery—“hold thine own!”—when the kindred of your victims are thus kindling northern enthusiasm on the platform of liberty and free debate!
We are summoned away to a discussion meeting at Chichester appointed by Reverend Rufus A. Putnam, new-organized Congregational clergyman of that place—and must break off here, and accompany Parker Pillsbury on a night jaunt thither, with prospect of a return under the midnight moon. But we go for humanity—so “cheerily O, cheerily O.” Anti-slavery will keep us warm and wide awake amid the “nipping and eager” breath of winter and “witching time o’night.”