Offering his dismal reflections on the World Anti‐Slavery Convention, Rogers reminds readers that the abolitionist revolution is no bureaucratic body.
The Collected Writings of Nathaniel Peabody Rogers
Anthony Comegna, PhD
Assistant Editor for Intellectual History
In August, 1840, Nathaniel Peabody Rogers was newly‐arrived back home from a long trip to England for the first World Anti‐Slavery Convention in London that June. Back home, it was the height of an election summer–the wildest and most raucously democratic in the country’s history to that point. It was the famous “Log Cabin and Hard Cider” campaign in which the Whig Party, represented by General William Henry Harrison, finally learned to be better democrats than Martin Van Buren’s Democratic Party. In many ways, I believe, it was the most important presidential election in our history. It was the year when both political parties agreed to a new sort of political order, one in which a ruling elite of political party insiders would personally wield power in the name of all the people. No matter which way a particular election turned, so long as the bulk of the population bought into the idea that their elected officials were somehow responsible for the government’s actions, they would not likely do anything worse than turn the rascals out every now and then. The “new men of politics” like Van Buren understood that elections were mere means for gaining power, and the contest between parties was no death battle between civilization and barbarism–it was a game between vote‐wranglers to see who got to be the big boss that year and dole out the most goodies to favored toadies.
Rogers also understood this, and he had little stomach for insincere, amoral politicking. He clearly hoped that the exciting trip to London would recharge his activist batteries, but the World Anti‐Slavery Convention’s proceedings proved as disappointing as England itself. Rogers’ reflections on European life consist mainly of libertarian criticisms for the culture and society. He wrote that “The whole citizenship–or rather subjectship–of the country is besprinkled with red coats, whom hungry labor has to maintain in setting limits to its own freedom.” Anyone peering over their own hedges could catch a glimmer of “ugly bayonets, and British liberty walks perpetually under guard, subject and subjugated.”
English abolition, of course, had long roots in the communities of Quakers who outright refused to be subjugated to the evil of slavery. By 1840, British abolitionists boasted that they had ended not only the slave trade, but slavery itself throughout the Empire. Now, they set their sights on global enterprises. Their first major step was the World Anti‐Slavery Convention, but from the beginning the meeting was deeply divided. Most significantly, the British delegation refused to allow women’s participation, against the expressed wishes of many American delegates, including William Lloyd Garrison’s faction of anarchistic Non‐Resistors. American philanthropist Lewis Tappan sided with the anti‐feminist portion of the delegations, though, and his weight secured exclusion of the Garrisonians. Nonetheless, seven women did address the convention during its course. Rogers concludes his reflection on the Convention with the belief that there was little life left in Old World liberty. Though “Great spirits are at work in Britain for freedom” and even if “They are as expansive as humanity,” Rogers believed that there was “little that they can do for liberty there.” Old Englanders who believe in the whole abolition of slavery “must come here and labor, and they are eager to come. The World’s convention must sit in New England instead of Old. And when it does, they will come over and join it.”
Concord: John R. French. 1847.
A Collection from the Newspapers Writings of Nathaniel Peabody Rogers
“To the Abolitionists of New Hampshire”
Herald of Freedom, 28 August 1840
The foes of our enterprise are at length embodied in the open field. At this I rejoice. I exult to find them coming out and mustering openly, and in our neighborhood. They are gathering about our encampment as if they regarded it the post of importance on the anti‐slavery field. They regard it rightly. I thank them for the estimate they put upon our labors and our success. Let them come–more and more of them. It is what we have all ardently desired. We will meet them under God, and they will perish, though they were of Goliath stature and their spear staves like the weaver’s beam and their Philistine foreheads of triple brass. No front is thick enough to stand proof against the slingstones of the truth of God. I can breathe freely again in the atmosphere of liberty–for, my brethren and friends, with all our pro‐slavery it is an atmosphere of liberty. Here is freedom, compared to the restrictive and suffocating subjection, that broods upon the beauteous face of “merry England,” and haunts even the glens and mountains of gallant Scotland. For Scotland herself is not free. She does not dream of New England liberty. Remote as she stands from tyrant London, up among the northern mists, and prompted perpetually as she is to lfreedom by her glorious scenery and her stirring associations, old Caledonia is not free. She is subject. Her gallant people stand aloof from the head‐quarters of royalty and regal aristocracy, and from that sterner, kindred despotism, the hierarchy of England;–from the Windsor castles and the Westminster Abbeys–the St. Paul’s Cathedrals and the old Towers of London, the common ally and guardian of them all–those palaces, where kings tread by divine right on the necks of their subject brethren, and the priesthood cloaks the despotism with the gorgeous mantle of old superstition–and where the mounted cannon gapes hollow from their high battlements down upon the defenceless people as the grand saction of them all,–for instead of love of God or man, the gunpowder and the bayonet are the grand sanction of British church and state. The “stay and staff” of both is stowed away in that ugly old Tower, in the shape of a hundred thousand glittering muskets and a quarter of a million sabres. O, the beautiful array of their instruments of death!–“Let us writer PEACE ON EARTH AND GOOD WILL TO MEN on ‘the outer wall!’” cried Garrison, as we gazed on the gloomy old receptacle, as we left it. O, the heavenly panoply there arrayed by the religion and government of England, to maintain their wholesome supremacy over a prostrate people! One can’t doubt, as he beholds their countless multitude and horrent display, that church and state are safe in England.
Scotland, though remote from all these, is not free. She is in subject union. The Scottish lion sleeps on Arthur’s seat, and brave old Scotland is part and parcel of Great Britain, and her gallant people are British subjects. >They will not be subjects always. Great and free spirits are there; men and women fit this hour for freedom’s peaceful martyrdom. The Murrays–the Smeales–the Handersons–the Brewsters, and the THOMPSONS–for George Thompson dwells in Scotland. He could not breathe in London. But Thompson, even in Edinburgh, is by position a subject. Daring as the lion, when he ranged our free shores and braved our roused mobocracy to the beard, his spirit is mitigated and subdued on the subject island, like the forest king in the Tower. O, that he were here among us again!–He longs to be here. His heart droops in Britain. He sighs for the free conflict for liberty here. But for his young family, he would have accompanied us back. Church and state both could not now drive him out from us again, as a “felon,” or a “fugitive from justice.” He is waging a conflict for British India. “New Organization” scowls upon him from haughty London, in the form of “The British and Foreign Anti‐Slavery Committee.” London is the fit head‐quarters for that committee. It is the capital of the World’s Despotism. There is not such a tyranny on earth as England’s. Despotism shows darker and grosser perhaps on the continent and in the far East–but in accomplished, regulated and Christendom‐like tyranny–in settled, premeditated hostility to human liberty, England no doubt stands pre‐eminent among the nations,–and London is its capital. Her anti‐slavery, in the great mass of it, partakes of this character. It is more despotic as well as more servile than our republican pro‐slavery. I had greatly misapprehended its character. Its genuineness may be judged of by the fact, that politic statesmen affect to be interested in it, and his royal highness the Duke of Sussex and his serene and mighty highness Prince Albert preside at its great meetings–while its managers look upon George Thompson with jealousy and displeasure. What would Prince Albert say to American anti‐slavery? I would sooner trust our enterprise in the hands of our pro‐slavery mob, than with the committee of the British and Foreign Anti‐Slavery Society. They don’t begin to be abolitionists. They would not think of joining our new organization even. They would be more likely to join the Colonization society–although they have no prejudice against color. And their exemption from this is accidental with them. They despise low condition as much as we do color. They have had no occasion to despise color. British slavery has been carried on in the remote West Indies, and no emancipated colored people have strayed up to the British islands from the South. Common British abolitionism can thrust woman out of the anti‐slavery conference. Even their Quakers did this, in defiance of their own principles and usages. They can deny the competency of woman to think and act among men on then great subject of humanity, while they foist an inexperienced girl on to the throne of England, surrounded there by a crowd of old war bruisers by land and sea, and old hackneyed, heartless statesmen; give her command of the ship of state and the steering of the church, archbishops and all–and to crown her delicate and becoming station, make her commander‐in‐chief of their standing army, and grand admiral of the British navy–all this British anti‐slavery can do gravely and in earnest. They are great sticklers for female delicacy. They won’t allow an opinion or a vote to come between the wind and woman’s nobility. But it will load her shoulder with the brick-layer’s hed [sic]–make her hammer stone by the road side to mend the highways–hoe potatoes, pitch hay, and spread manure among the subject male laborers in the field of the nobility–all this with proper regard to female delicacy, and without violation of “British usage.” I witnessed her in these and many other positions equally lady‐like. They have no freedom in Britain–and how can they have anti‐slavery there? I speak it with glorious exceptions. The very face of the ground there, with all its beauty and fertility, looks subject and shackled. It looks as if serfs had tilled it with involuntary labor. The Briton will talk vehemently for liberty and rights, and he can afford to,–for he means nothing by it, and power knows that he means nothing. He connects no action with his talk. If he is rash enough to talk significantly, he goes into the Tower, or York Castle, to repent of his temerity at his leisure. He is very vehement in his invective–but his impetuosity, like his own watch dog’s, has a chain to limit it. He will pour out copious and violent epithets, so long as he will take it out in epithets. He may go where he pleases, but a uniformed police man constantly dogs his footsteps, or one of their bear‐skin headed,–bare-kneed, hateful military. The whole citizenship–or rather subjectship–of the country is besprinkled with red coats, whom hungry labor has to maintain in setting limits to its own freedom. Over all the sweet hedge‐rows peep the ugly bayonets, and British liberty walks perpetually under guard, subject and subjugated; and it was most mortifying to me that some of our new‐organized republicanism crept over the water the other day, and did it homage. It went over there and conspired with it to raze down “the World’s Convention” to a seven‐by‐nine London conference. Posterity will remember New Organization for that, if for nothing else. But they were defeated. They were completely baffled of their purpose by Garrison’s masterly movement in to the gallery of Free Mason’s Hall. His position there was a perfect discomfiture of their plot. They did not dream of that movement. They could not meet it. Why stands WILLIAM LLOYD GARRISON in the gallery, without that professed anti‐slavery conference,–Garrison, the very incarnation of American abolitionism?–queries at once the philanthropy of Europe. That committee can’t answer in their confusion. But an answer comes from O’Connell, that it was the “cowardly, unworthy, unjust and impolitic” exclusiveness, that, among other things, trampled American abolitionism under foot in the rejection of its delegates! An answer comes from George Thompson, too, condemning their soulless organization, and himself for not more promptly denouncing it in the meetings. Dr. Bowring, and William Ashurst, and William Howitt, and other names, the pride of English and Scottish intellect and philanthropy, join in the condemnatory response. And the colored people of Boston too–let their resolves and their gallant reception of their own beloved champion, last Thursday night, at the Marlborough chapel, utter their answer to the question, why Garrison did not go into that conference.
That quiet position in the gallery defeated the cunningly devised conspiracy of “British and Foreign” “New Organization.” It set all England a thinking. It did more to agitate the grand questions of human rights and human duties, essential to the abolition of slavery, than any convention that could have been tolerated in Britain. A hundred lectures could not have done so much in a twelve‐month. It hit the nail on the head. I am happy to have taken part in it. But I did not think of giving you my reasons for it here. This will be done in due season. The reasons are palpable to the sound anti‐slavery mind, as soon as it learns the facts.
I will only say I should have greatly delighted to mingle in “The World’s Convention.” I was willing to leave home and encounter the ocean for it. I was impatient to reach it as our wind‐bound vessel lingered on the outward passage. But I did not find it. I had no credentials to its lifeless substitute. You would not have sent me to that substitute, and I would not have gone. I had nothing with which to purchase the committee’s ticket of entrance. They laughed at the idea of a World’s Convention.
I ought to acknowledge that the highest respect was paid you every where I went, in my own personal treatment. Even the committee did not wish to hazard their popularity by lying under the imputation of incivility to New Hampshire abolitionism. They urged me to go into the conference by every inducement, and by appeals to all my capacities. When I declined entering on my dishonored credentials, they invited me in as an individual. I was sensible of the civility–but they had dishonored your credentials, and I could not compromise the indignity.
Great spirits are at work in Britain for freedom. They are as expansive as humanity. But I see little that they can do for liberty there. They must come here and labor, and they are eager to come. The World’s convention must sit in New England instead of Old. And when it does, they will come over and join it…
Herald of Freedom, 19 March 1841
Let us not be misunderstood or misapprehended in our estimate of the bearing of these church doings, on the anti‐slavery cause–or in our purpose in assailing sectarian organizations. And because we speak strongly, and at times from the impulse of the moment, let not our friends esteem it rash or extravagant. Our views, we seriously believe, they will by and by see to be sound, and in accordance with the gospel–and necessary to be broached for the advancement and triumph of the anti‐slavery enterprise. Somebody must begin to broach them. Somebody must startle community, torpid and fettered as it lies, under sectarian delusion and despotism. While religion is sectarian, slavery is safe. While the monster has the countenance and support of all the institutions of sect throughout the entire country, she will laugh at the impotent efforts of abolitionists to jostle her in her gory seat. We have seen and felt that all the “influence and power” of sect is against our movements for the slave. We cannot go on while this “power and influence” remains over the people. They won’t dare become abolitionists, to any useful extent. They are not allowed to hear the truth. The public ear is deafened and stopped up against it. And it must be so. Sect cannot have it otherwise, and live. Self‐preservation drives her to smother anti‐slavery, if she can. Look at her pulpits, and her presses, and her literary institutions, and her benevolent institutions, and her whole machinery. It is all of it–every rope, wheel, pulley, cog, dead against our movement, and all its principles. And you may as well propitiate slavery herself, as sect. You can improve and ameliorate the one as well as the other. Seeing this, and feeling it, we assail sect. It is our anti‐slavery duty. We are false to the slave, if we fail to do it. We know it will alarm and offend many of our friends. It will shake our little subscription list–and sift it again, after new organization and bastard philanthropy have thinned it down to a forlorn hope. It will deepen the scowl with which a pro‐slavery community glowers at us in the highway. What of all that? It has got to be done, or the slave perishes for all any interference but the avenging arm of the Almighty.
Three millions of our common humanity welter on the plantation, in the capacity of the brute. Fifteen millions, in mad defiance of God, are reveling around them in professed liberty and Christianity, as dead to their unutterable condition as a yard of grave‐stones. Interspersed over the whole land are the strong holds of religious profession, called churches–leagued together in merciless fellowship from the Gulf of Mexico to Canada line. Their great, overgrown, gloated sects love slavery, as the drunkard does his drink. They pamper it–they frown at him who would disturb it; and if they had the power, they would put him to death. They may come to have that power yet. Slaveholding is no where deemed unchristian among them. They hold that it is altogether christian to enslave. Their members, their ministers, their local organizations, hold slaves, and trade in them, and traffic in the acknowledged disciples of Christ. It is held no fault, in the eye of the American church, that a man sell his own children; ay, that he be a grower of children for sale, and even to carry on ecclesiastical movements.
Can anti‐slavery advance in face of a religion like this? Can we discredit slavery–much less bring it to an end–while the entire religion of the country defends it thus, and maintains that it is of God?