Rogers explains how northerners, too, were complicit in slavery and cautions that political revolution alone would not create an abolitionist society.
The Collected Writings of Nathaniel Peabody Rogers
Anthony Comegna, PhD
Assistant Editor for Intellectual History
Our next selection of abolitionist screeds from Nathaniel Peabody Rogers begins with a blast against the great mass of politically moderate northerners. In this case, his target was the Unitarian Ezra Gannett’s The Monthly Miscellany of Boston. Gannett’s paper reviewed Theodore Dwight Weld’s recently‐published book, Slavery as It Is. The Monthly Miscellany gave a favorable review including shock at Weld’s discussion of violence against slaves, but was noticeably silent on the actual question of immediate abolition. If only right‐thinking northerners would put their morals into direct action, slavery would not last another decade. In our second article, Rogers argues that if you would find America’s true slaveholder, you must look beyond the obvious planters and petty masters in the South. Rather, “He is in the North–the free North, the anti‐slavery North!” They may not look or act much like planters, but by their political and military union with slaveholding states northerners themselves were the system’s primary enforcers. After all, “The South have not the power to hold the slave. It is the character of the nation, that binds and holds him down in bondage.” Should slaves decide they would have no more of it, and “If nothing but the puny force of the South lay upon him, he would heave it off from his breast with swift and bloody insurrection.”
What was an antislavery northerner to do, then? In the face of such a titanic Slave Power, so thoroughly entrenched in the states and the national capitol, what should someone like Rogers pursue to expand the sphere of individual liberty? “It is not a political revolution, that we have to work out,” he wrote, and Rogers was far more excited at the upcoming World Antislavery Convention in London (12–23 June, 1840) than he was about the Van Buren‐Harrison election several months later. Yet even this monumental, potentially‐revolutionary event proved a disappointing display of bureaucratic and political infighting, but that is a subject for our next number. Our current set of articles concludes on an almost ominously hopeful note: “It may be our phantasy–but to our vision wondrous results are to flow directly and suddenly from this unostentatious meeting.”
Concord: John R. French. 1847.
A Collection from the Newspapers Writings of Nathaniel Peabody Rogers
“The Monthly Miscellany,” Herald of Freedom 14 December, 1839.
The following article we take from “The Monthly Miscellany,” &c.–a highly respectable periodical, published at Boston. Its contributors are among the most accomplished writers of the country. We publish the article and mention the source of it, as a mark of great change in public opinion in the community; such periodicals not having deigned, until recently, to admit such vulgar and fanatical topics to their graceful pages. The able reviewer is shocked at the atrocities developed by “Slavery as it is.” But why shocked? Was he not aware of the existence of SLAVERY in the land, and is he surprised that it should bring forth such fruits? To be sure the details, in this terrible book, are shocking. They are enough to chill humanity’s blood and stop its pulse–to make its eyes start from their spheres, and its combined locks to rear themselves on end–separate and rigid with horror. But is it surprising? Was it not to be expected of such a relation, between men, as that of master and slave,–owner and chattel! Is any one so utterly unaware of human nature, as to think human treatment–not to say humane–could be bestowed upon a brute!–Terrible developments, forsooth. Well, the abolitionists have been holding up to community, these eight years, the creature itself–in its essential, vital monstrosity. They dragged it forth on to the public arena, and stretched it out under gaze of the nation in all its scaly deformity, its hydra hideousness. The nation were excited–but it was at the abolitionists, not at the dragon. They were mad at the sight–but not mad at slavery. They were mad with the abolitionists, and fell upon them with mobocratic fury. And the genteel writers of the day were among those who instigated the mob. They were annoyed, offended, disgusted. They tossed their scholastic noses on high, and gave vent, in the ears of “popular sentiment,” to their dainty and lettered indignation. Well, such is human nature, and such has been human history. Let it all pass for the present. If repented of, all is pardonable–and “late” repentance is “better than never.”
But Mr. Weld’s book, terrible and faithful though it be, is wrongly titled. It is not slavery as it is. SLAVERY as it is, cannot be written in an earthly book. The demon relation is indescribable, unutterable, inconceivable. There are no words formed for it. Words are for human occasion, and for the use of human nature; and nature hath no occasion for a slavery vocabulary. The delineator of SLAVERY must consult the lexicography of hell. He must learn the dialect of the bottomless pit. Weld can talk the strongest human language. But he has attempted a work that transcends his and human power. He has examined a “thousand witnesses.” They tell all they know relative to the cause for which they are summoned. But interrogate them as to SLAVERY AS IT IS, and they must utter only their non mi ricordo, or stand mute. They may tell of some of its external incidents. They can testify of the whippings and starvings–the driving and the lacerations–the maimings, and the “deaths by moderate correction”–the huntings with dog and gun–the separations–the snapping asunder of the strong heart‐strings and all the gentle et ceteras of the domestic institution. But are these SLAVERY? Do these begin to disclose it? Do they give a hint at it? Do they disclose its title‐page, or even its outside lettering? No–no–no. They don’t. They can’t. Milton was a bold man. He ventured on things “unattempted in prose or rhyme.” He descended in imagination to the nether hell. But he did not essay the more daring conception to bring hell up, and translate it to the earth and the air. Hell above ground is slavery as it is. This is our description of slavery. We leave it at this. No slave, escape from it, will say we have exaggerated, or will ask us to attempt details.
Weld’s testimony may scare away some from their anti‐abolitionism; but it makes no genuine anti‐slavery men. It makes no such abolitionists as the mighty author. He become one before he saw his book. So did all abolitionists. What made Garrison an anti‐slavery man? SLAVERY. The word–the idea, the relation–the abstraction. Not “slavery in the abstract”–had it continued abstract. Had slavery existed only in the abstract, he had remained an abolitionist in the abstract. But slavery existed in the application, and he therefore became an abolitionist in the application. He shouted his war cry at first idea of the dreadful wrong. Weld heard it and answered amid the depths of Ohio. The Liberator uttered his voice on the wild margin of the Atlantic. They heard him on the western rivers and the utmost lakes.
“The testimony of a thousand witnesses” is important to our cause. It will affect minds that higher considerations cannot reach. It helps overthrow slavery–though it may make no genuine abolitionists. It is that sort of testimony that men seek to help them in their unbelief. It is the kind of evidence the rich man in hell wanted Abraham to send to the earth to convince his five brethren, and keep them from that place of torment. It is the preaching of unbelief. It is not Moses and the prophets. Those the land has heard and disregarded. Neither will they believe, though a thousand witnesses come up and tell their ghastly story from the church‐yard of the South.
That our brother man was enslaved, was enough for us to hear. We did not care whether he was overworked or under–full fed or scantily–clad or naked–whipped or unwhipped. He was a SLAVE. He was imbruted, and we cared not whether he was a hungry dog or a surfeited one–as an ox, whether his neck was worn with the yoke or his hide perforated with the goad,–or whether, as a horse or an ass, his sides were waled with the cart whip or cut up with the spur. Finding him a brute, we took it for granted he had brute treatment, aggravated by the circumstance that he could provoke and be hated, as quadruped brutality could not.
The remarks of the reviewer on public opinion are able and just. Will he join the anti‐slavery ranks, and help revolutionize that opinion? Or will he content himself with writing a handsome article on our enterprise, and leave it to struggle on as it has done? We like his opinion that “excision” is the only remedy for slavery; but we marvel that he could have supposed it a tolerable evil, before he read of the lightest of its inflictions, in “Slavery as it is.”
“Anti‐Slavery,” Herald of Freedom 18 January, 1840.
This is our magnificent enterprise–our grand and glorious purpose of philanthropy. We labor to effect it by the power of truth, by admonition, by warning, by solemn appeal to the heart and conscience of this nation.
We have nothing to say, in this enterprise, to the slave. He is no party to his own enslavement–he is to be none to his disenthralment. We have nothing to say to the South. The real holder of the slave is not there. He is in the North–the free North, the anti‐slavery North! The South have not the power to hold the slave. It is the character of the nation, that binds and holds him down in bondage. If nothing but the puny force of the South lay upon him, he would heave it off from his breast with swift and bloody insurrection. It is not the driver’s whip that rules the hundred sturdy and sullen slaves of the cotton field, and humbles them to his single control. It is not the mastery, at whose beck that whip is wielded, for that is feeble, enervated and impotent. It is not the indolent and vicious population of the South, who claim to own these people, that has strength of power to keep them in their chains. But it is the whole country. It is the republic, at whose behest the enchained millions of the land lie fettered. And the efficient force of that republic is north of slavery’s Dixon line. Slavery is then a northern institution, and not a southern. The North continues to tolerate it at the national capital. The North refuses to interdict the inter‐state home trade in slaves. The North, by its representative majority, cherishes the system in the territory of Florida. The South could neither maintain nor suppress slavery, or the trade in either of these. She has not the power, and the North has not the will. We remind the anti‐slavery North that by a northern majority does slavery live at the District of Columbia–a majority of votes, and by a majority of northern hearts and voices, does it live throughout the South.
It is not a political revolution, that we have to work out. This is not the revolution needed. No such would abolish slavery. The country would not be prepared by it for the slave’s liberty. The best and utmost that political movement–that constitutions, enactments and decisions could effect for the slave, is to transmute him into that anomaly in a Christian republic, called a “free nigger.” New Hampshire has thus transmuted him by the magic force of its politics. What is the liberty of a New Hampshire emancipated colored man? It barely qualifies him to pass muster as a candidate for the mercy of the Colonization society. All that constitution and law have done for him is to fit him for examination for the high school at Liberia. They have fitted him for re‐transportation–as representative of his kidnapped ancestry,–by a sort of return slave‐trade, and back‐track “middle passage,” to the forlorn and melancholy coast of Africa.
Law and constitution have elevated him to the “impossibility of ever rising in this country” to the water level of humanity, to such a high pitch of–infinite debasement, that Christianity (so says colonization) can never reach him–only to fish him up for market on the desolate Slave coast.
Ohio has abolished slavery by law and constitution. Yet Ohio is the land of the black law, and her anti‐slavery executive casts her Mahan bound hand and foot into the fiery furnace of Kentucky. Connecticut has undergone a legal abolition–for proof, behold her blackact and her demolished Canterbury academy. New York has abolished slaver by law; yet it is as much as a colored man’s life is worth to live in her cities, and an abolitionist has fared there little better than he. Philadelphia is the capital city of a constitutional anti‐slavery state. The skeleton of Pennsylvania hall, “fire‐stained” and mob‐scathed, looms up in its might, a monument of the omnipotency of her idol slavery. Illinois is a legally free state. But slavery boldly shot down, before her face and eyes, freedom of speech and liberty of the press. Slavery murdered both with wanton impunity and exultation in the streets of Alton. New Hampshire is a tremendously free state. Slavery has been abolished by the very genius and spirit of our institutions. Yet they burnt LIBERTY OF SPEECH in effigy, in her state‐house yard, on a September night, inà1835! And a school, erected to liberty, in the northern county of Grafton, was brutally hauled off from its foundations by the public sentiment of the county. But we will not enlarge. Slavery has been legally abolished in half the states of the Union, and the best they can do for the fugitive slaves is to give him race ground to Canada before the southern bloodhound, and for the freed man of color is to let in upon him the gray hounds of Colonization. Surely, if “slavery be the creature of law,” that emancipation which is its creature, is but a sorry conclusion to the subject of it.
“The World’s Convention,” Herald of Freedom 4 April, 1840.
It is impossible for us to tell–or conceive–the immeasurable importance of this contemplated meeting at London. We fear American abolitionists are not sufficiently interested in our country’s being represented there. The philanthropists of England are expecting us in great force. John Scoble said the other day, at Glasgow, there would be one hundred delegates from the United States. There ought to be five hundred! We fear there will not be fifty. We are apprehensive New Hampshire will not be represented there at all. We have not heard from all the appointed delegates; but those whose pecuniary means would enable them to go, will have concerns at home, we fear, that will render their going inconvenient. Money is scarce, and some of us cannot obtain it or afford to spare it from the support of numerous and helpless families. But that would not hinder the republic of the world being fully represented there. There is money enough, but not interest enough felt by the Christian profession of the land. Missionaries can be fitted out and sustained, to carry religion’s rush‐light to make pagan “darkness visible” on the other side of the globe. But the World’s Convention, which if followed, (as it will be,) will soon open the way to evangelizing the remotest corners of the earth, and superseding all necessity of missionary effort, such as now is made, scarcely attracts the sneering notice of church or state among us.
The meeting will be the most important the earth has known. The world never before thought of holding a meeting for such an object. It has never before entertained the idea of a friendly meeting. There was a Holy Alliance once marched through London after fife and drum, under an escort of Cossacks from the banks of the Don. They met then not to abolish human slavery, but to crush mankind under the iron hoof of military despotism–to fix, as Daniel Webster said, a horizontal line between the upper and under strata of human society. The World’s Convention is not like that. It meets together, under flag of truce, preliminary to universal and everlasting peace and brotherhood. It is the meeting of the World’s committee of arrangements,–preparatory to the congregation of the whole human family–to be gathered again before long, it is hoped, under the old family roof, after thousands of years of estrangement and wide‐dispersed separation. How sublime will be the greeting of these brethren! The ends of the earth meet and shake hands with each other–yea, embrace and kiss each other. It will not be a national meeting–nationality will not be represented or recognized. It will be a meeting of MANKIND, and they will discover in each other convincing tokens of their long‐lost fraternity and kindred. It will be Humanity’s first conference. All the members of the human family will be inquired after and hunted up,–however remote,–and measures instituted for their relief and salvation. None will be forgotten, in whatever longitude or wherever strayed or lost between the utmost poles and “earth’s central line”–of whatever language, complexion or clime. It will be a landmark, this “World’s Convention,” for the admiring retrospection of all future history,–the earth’s first meeting–but not its last. Mankind will again meet–and again. Ere long they will hold their annual meetings–and when some swifter agency than the steam–(for God will smile on human invention and multiply in infinitely, when it shall labor to ends like this)–shall circumambulate the globe, in briefer space than the ocean’s steamer now performs the semi‐monthly trips of the Atlantic–who knows but they will come together from its utmost parts, many times oftener than the shadowy little planet itself can measure its circuit about the sun! It may be so. It will be so–Stranger things happen every year.
Shall New England be represented from all her states? Do the people appreciate the mighty importance of the meeting? It will teach men that there is no such thing as FOREIGNER on the earth, and that there need be no such thing as ENEMY or STRANGER. “The World’s Anti‐Slavery Society” will be formed–at “The World’s Convention.” Nor “The British and Foreign”–not “The American”–not the Old World or the New–the Eastern Hemisphere or the Western–but the WORLD. And the eradication of war from the earth–the restoration of universal peace–the abolition of human slavery–are events no more improbable as its results, than West India emancipation was seven years ago, or two thousand anti‐slavery societies in the United States were eight years ago, when twelve anti‐slavery disciples constituted the entire abolitionism of America. It may be our phantasy–but to our vision wondrous results are to flow directly and suddenly from this unostentatious meeting.