essays

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Sep 20, 1774

Slavery, Sin, and Satan

Levi Hart's "Liberty Described and Recommended," Part Two

Having defined and described liberty, Hart exposes the sin of slavery, and the slaveholder’s own bondage to Satan.

Editor’s Note

Having first established and described religious, ecclesiastical, and spiritual liberty—and their counterparts, comprising various schemes of ‘spiritual bondage’—Levi Hart then presented his audience with three significant inferences:

  1. A genuinely free, voluntary government operating under good faith for the public good is entitled to support from the people.
  2. A government operating in bad faith and contrary to the public good is instituting “civil bondage and slavery,” and,
  3. Liberty is an essential tool for humans to fulfill their covenant with God; preserving spiritual liberty is of the utmost importance.

Hart preached this particular sermon when African Americans represented a higher proportion of the American population than ever before or since. Even from Connecticut, Hart would have been familiar with slavery, the slave trade, and those myriad white people throughout the British Empire who benefited from the institution. Because he takes civil liberty to consist of “acting freely, and without constraint, or fear of punishment,” the immediate example of African American slaves served especially well. Slavery inverted the natural state in which God created mankind—it transmuted autonomous, spiritual individuals into soulless cattle. Hart attacks the British Empire and slave trade, both. Northerners do not escape his critique and condemnation—he was no doubt well aware of the slaves who picked tobacco on the coastal plantations, or the house slaves and skilled slaves in Hartford; or perhaps he had several slave trade profiteers, insurance brokers, or venture capitalists among his congregations.

Whatever the specific source of his knowledge about slavery’s horrors, Hart did not believe the canard that slaves were prisoners of war, condemned criminals, and the like. He knew that the European trade inspired violence among Africans, the trade created the wars of conquest, the terrifying slave raids, and subsequent lifetimes of bondage. The slave trade was one of the more evil and destructive institutions human beings have ever created, and because Hart believed Satan was the master of tyrants, perhaps we may join him in saying slavery was positively satanic.

Despite Hart’s passionate and spiritual appeal, abolition proceeded much more slowly in conservative Connecticut than in other New England states. In 1784, the legislature passed a gradual emancipation act which granted all slave children born thereafter their freedom at age twenty-five. The act was amended in 1797, changing the age of emancipation to twenty-one. Connecticut abolished the international slave trade to the state in 1788 and a 1792 law restricted transporting slaves to other states with the intent to trade them. The enslaved population steadily dwindled, but still the state refused to heed Hart’s revolutionary message: when we exercise power over our fellow beings, we give ourselves over to evil and turn from God. We draw ourselves closer to satanic social forces (compulsion, control, hopelessness, terror) and away from humane impulses. Levi Hart died in 1808, long enough to see the United States abolish the international slave trade, but a full forty years before his own state finally abolished slavery. It was the last New England state to do so. 

Anthony Comegna, PhD
Assistant Editor for Intellectual History

Liberty described and recommended; in a sermon, preached to the Corporation of Freemen in Farmington, at their meeting on Tuesday, September 20, 1774, and published at their desire.

By Levi Hart

INFERENCE first.

IF civil liberty consisteth in acting freely, and without constraint, or fear of punishment, for the public good, and tyranny and slavery are the reverse of this,—it followeth, that every one who acts for the general good of society, is entitled to the approbation and assistance of the body. None can justly fall under the frowns of society, but those who prefer some private benefit to the public welfare: And every society which suffers, or even connives at the practice, in any of its members, of taking away the liberty or property of those who have done nothing against the public interest, connives at injustice, and is so far guilty of tyranny and oppression.

OF all the enjoyments of the present life that of liberty is the most precious and valuable, and a state of slavery the most gloomy to a generous mind—to enslave men, therefore, who have not forfeited their liberty, is a most attrocious violation of one of the first laws of nature, it is utterly inconsistant with the fundamental principle and chief bond of union by which society originally was, and all free societies ever ought to be formed. I mean that of a general union for the common good, by which every individual is secure of public approbation so long as he acts for the public welfare.

COULD it be thought then that such a palpable violation of the law of nature, and of the fundamental principles of society, would be practised by individuals & connived at, & tolerated by the public in British America! this land of liberty where the spirit of freedom glows with such ardour.—Did not obstinate incontestable facts compel me, I could never believe that British Americans would be guilty of such a crime—I mean that of the horrible slave-trade, carried on by numbers and tolerated by authority in this country. It is not my design to enter largely into the arguments on this subject; all who agree to the general principles already laid down, will join in pronouncing the African slave-trade a flagrant violation of the law of nature, of the natural rights of mankind. What have the unhappy Africans committed against the inhabitants of the British colonies and islands in the West-Indies; to authorize us to seize them, or bribe them to seize one another, and transport them a thousand leagues into a strange land, and enslave them for life? For life did I say? From generation to generation to the end of time! However the cruel bondage is somewhat lightened in these northern colonies, through the kindness and lenity of the masters—kindness and lenity, I mean as far as these terms are applicable in the present case; I say, however the cruel bondage of the poor Africans is somewhat lightened among us; if we would for a just estimate of the nature of the slave trade we must be acquainted with the method of procuring the slaves—transporting them, and their treatment in the West-Indies, to which, and the southern colonies a great part of them are transported, and where the nature of the slave trade is consistently displayed.

WHEN the Guinea traders arrive on that coast if the trading natives are not already supplied with a proper number of slaves, they go into the back settlements and either by secret ambush, or open force, seize a sufficient number for their purpose; in accomplishing which great numbers, many times are slain, and whole towns laid in ashes. When taken they are driven like cattle to the slaughter, to the sea shore, and sold to our Guinea traders, often for a small quantity of that soul and body destroying liquor, rum, qualified however with a large proportion of water, by which the ignorant natives are imposed upon, cheated, and disappointed.—The poor slaves are bound and thrust into the filthy holds of the ships— men, women, fathers, daughters, mothers, sons, without distinction; where they are obliged to rot together thro’ a long sea passage, which happily relieves numbers from more intolerable sufferings on the shore.—

WHEN they are arrived at the West-Indies they are again exposed in the markets, and sold like beasts of burden to the inhuman planters, by whose cruelty many more of them perish. It is supposed that out of near an hundred thousand which are computed to be transported from Africa annually, almost one third perish on the passage and in seasoning; and those unhappy numbers whose hard lot it is to be doomed to longer slavery, wear out their wretched lives in misery which wants a name. The Egyptian bondage was a state of liberty and ease compared with the condition of these unhappy sufferers; and for a trifling offence their barbarous masters will seize and butcher them, with as little, and in many instances, perhaps less ceremony or regret than you would take away the life of one of your domestic animals. It would be an affront to your understandings to enter on a long course of reasoning to prove the injustice and cruelty of such a trade as this. Let us for once put ourselves in the place of the unhappy Negroes. Suppose a number of ships arrived from Africa at a neighbouring sea port to purchase slaves, and transport them to that distant and to us inhospitable climate and those burning sands—put the case that a prevailing party in the neighbouring towns were so lost to all sense of public welfare and to the feelings of humanity as to accept their bribes and join with them to effect the ruin of their fellow men. Let this be the devoted town—and even now while you are met to assert and exercise that invaluable liberty which is the distinguished glory of Englishmen, the honour and safety of Connecticut; in this distined hour while your hearts glow with the love of liberty and exult in her possession; behold this house surrounded, whole armies from the neighbouring towns rush on you, those who resist are at once overpowered by numbers and butchered, the survivors, husbands, wives, parents, children, brethren, sisters, the ardent lover and his darling fair one, all seized, bound and driven away to the neighbouring sea-port, where all ranged on the shore promiscuously, in a manner that pity and modesty relent to name: you are sold for a trifling sum, and see your inhuman purchasers rejoicing in their success. But the time is come for a last farewell, you are destined to differnt ships bound to different and far distant coasts, go husbands and wives, give and receive the last embrace; parents bid a lasting adieu to your tender offspring. What can you say? What do to comfort or advise them? Their case and yours admit not of consolation—go, mothers, weep out your sorrows on the necks of your beloved daughters whom you have nursed with so much care, and educated with such delicacy; now they must go to a distant clime, to attend the nod of an imperious mistress, covered with rags and filth (if covered at all) they must descend to the most servile and intolerable drudgery, and every the least symptom of uneasiness at their hard usuage, meet the frowns and suffer the merciless lash of a cruel master.—But why ruminate on this; behold the inhuman monsters tear you from your last embrace, bound in chains you are hurried to different vessels, crowded in their holds and transported away forever from the sight of all you love, to distant cruel lands, to live and die in slavery and bondage, without the smallest hope of ever enjoying the sweets of liberty, or revisiting your dear native country, with this only consolation, that your sons and daughters are suffering the same cruel bondage, and that from you a race of abject slaves will, probably, be propagated down for hundreds of years! Such are the sweets of this beloved slave trade! It is the same to the unhappy sufferers now, that it would be to us if it was our own case; and the reasons against it are as strong and powerful as they would be then—in short the man that can deliberately attend to this subject and not feel the emotions of pity, or indignation, or both, appears to be sunk quite below the feelings of humanity! Is it not high time for this colony to wake up and put an effectual stop to the cruel business of stealing and selling our fellow men, so far as it can be stopped by one province?

WITH what a very ill grace can we plead for slavery when we are the tyrants, when we are engaged in one united struggle for the enjoyment of liberty; what inconsistence and self-contradiction is this! Who can count us the true friends of liberty as long as we deal in, or publicly connive at slavery.—

THE general assembly of a neighbouring colony have prohibited the importation of Negro slaves under a large penalty, and have enacted that such slaves shall be free as soon as they set foot on the shore within the colony. Can this Colony want motives from reason, justice, religion, or public spirit, to follow the example? When, O when shall the happy day come, that Americans shall be consistently engaged in the cause of liberty, and a final end be put to the cruel slavery of our fellow men? Then may we not expect that our liberties will be established on a lasting foundation and that British America and English liberty will flourish to the latest posterity!

INFERENCE 2. IF civil liberty consisteth in acting freely and without constraint or fear of punishment for the public good, and so, agreeable to the laws framed to promote and secure it, and civil bondage or slavery is the reverse of this. We learn the importance of intrusting those, and none but those, with the guardianship of our civil liberties who are themselves free, who are not under the dominion of that sordid selfishness and narrowness of soul by which they will betray their country, our dear Country for a little private profit or honor to themselves.

MEN who know the worth of public liberty, and are able and willing defenders of it, be the consequences what they may to their private interest, are the only proper persons to be rulers or representatives of this free and happy colony. In such the votes of the freemen should unite, without the least regard to party, interest, or any private views, agreeable to the nature and solemnity of their oath, and as they value their inestimable liberties, and would dread to fall a helpless prey to tyranny and oppression.

INFERENCE 3. IF it is of such importence that we enjoy and secure civil liberty, which respects only a comparatively small circle of society which must disband, at the latest, with the close of fleeting time; of what moment is it to us all, that we are the subjects of that spiritual liberty, which unites us to, and interests us in the good of the whole kingdom of God our Saviour, and which shall last forever!

IT is a just way of reasoning in the present case, from the less to the greater, let me say then, with what astonishment and abhorrence should we look on a person who chuses slavery and bondage under the most cruel tyrant, with the certain prospect of a shameful, painful death, by the hand of the executioner, rather than all the sweets of English liberty!

BUT with what an unspeakable greater madness is be chargable who prefers the guilty slavery of sin and satan, to the glorious, perfect liberty of the children of God! Yet how many make this fatal choice! How many too, who are at great expence and trouble in the cause of civil liberty and zealous assertors of it! What self-contradiction and inconsistence is here! Is not this to strain out a gnat and swallow a cammel? What is English liberty? What is American freedom? When compared with the glorious liberty of the sons of God? And what is slavery under the gauling yoke of oppression, to the hard bondage of sin and satan! Let the hitherto, willing slaves of sin and satan then rouse up, there is now an opportunity to escape from bondage; there is one come to preach deliverance to the captives, and the opening the prison to them who are bound. Jesus Christ the mighty king and Saviour, the scourge of tyrants, and destroyer of sin and satan, the assertor, the giver and supporter of original, perfect freedom; he sets open your prison doors, knocks off your chains, and calls you to come forth. Oh! What prisoner who will not leap for joy at the sound of this jubilee trumpet, accept the offered pardon, embrace the given freedom,—bid adieu to slavery and bondage, and stand fast in the liberty wherewith Christ makes his subjects free. Here the most perfect liberty may be enjoyed. The exalted king seeks and secures the public interest; to this all the branches of his good government and wise administration tend, and in this they centre, for this joy which was set before him, he came into our nature and world, and even endured the cross and dispised the shame.—All the subjects in this happy kingdom are united in the same honourable cause, to them their is neither Barbarian, Scythian, Greek, or Jew, bond or free, they are all one, in one cause, and pursue it animated by one spirit; they feel how good and pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity.—In vain shall the tyrant satan vent his impotent rage against these happy sons of liberty: be wise in season then, bid adieu to the kingdom of darkness, the cause of tyranny and oppression, inlist under the Captain of the Lords host, fight under his banner, you may be sure of victory, and liberty shall be your lasting reward, for whom the son maketh free shall be free indeed.

FINIS.

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