F. Jay Deacon, D.Min.
Originally presented at Collegium, October 1999, Chicago
© 2000 F. Jay Deacon. All rights reserved.
IntroductionSince the publication in 1995 of the corpus of his antislavery essays and lectures by Len Gougeon and Joel Myerson, we are no longer entitled to the view that Ralph Waldo Emerson was disengaged from or uninterested in the commanding human issues of his times, particularly slavery. It is time now to acknowledge that, in these matters, Emerson and the bulk of his fellow Transcendentalists were not, in Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.'s assessment, "failure," but fulcrum, carrying far more than has been recognized of the spiritual, intellectual, and moral freight of that struggle.Unitarians and the challenge of the times
It is fair to say that he was, like Channing, a reluctant radical. He did not enter the fray predisposed toward controversial public engagement. Nor were the visible early figures in Abolition agreeable to him as personalities. But by the mid-1840s, he had willingly surrendered much of his public esteem to be counted among the "fanatics, madmen, incendiaries, traitors, and infidels."
The role was both natural and inevitable. Octavius Brooks Frothingham, prominent among the Transcendentalists, explainsThe Transcendentalist was by nature a reformer. . . . Was he an anti-slavery man and he was certain to be one at heart the Transcendentalists were glowing friends of that reform he was so because his philosophy compelled him to see in the slave the same humanity that appeared in the master; in the African the same possibilities that were confessed in the Frank, the Anglo-Saxon, and the Celt. Did he take up the cause of education, it was as a believer in the latent capacity of every child, boy or girl . . . 1Why, then, do we find assessments like this by Schlesinger in The Age of Jackson2?From their book-lined studies or their shady walks in cool Concord woods, the hullabaloo of party politics [appeared] unedifying and vulgar. . . [He suggests that] for the typical Transcendentalist the flinching from politics perhaps expressed a failure they were seeking to erect into a virtue. The exigencies of responsibility were exhausting: much better to demand perfection and indignantly rejects the half loaf than wear out body and spirit in vain grapplings with overmastering reality. . . . the headlong escape into perfection left responsibility far behind for a magic domain where the mystic sentiment and gnomic utterance exorcised the rude intrusions of the world.Until the work of Len Gougeon and Joel Myerson, scholars had little to work with besides Emerson's early writings "Man the Reformer" (1841), "Lecture on the Times (1841), and "New England Reformers" (1844) all of which you can find in the standard editions of Emerson's works. The resulting impression has been tragically unfair and misleading.In 1825 Dr. Charles Follen, a gentle but uncompromising advocate of human rights, emigrated to the United States after being run out of several European universities because of his progressive views. He quickly responded to the Abolitionist cry and associated with William Lloyd Garrison, becoming an officer of the American Antislavery Society. He was called to New York as minister of First Unitarian Church, which fired him within two years for his outspokenness on slavery. Thence he was called to East Lexington, Mass., to the liberal Unitarian congregation, and he laid out the new building. A few days before its dedication, with a sermon by Dr. Channing, Follen went to New York to deliver a series of lectures. His return, Jan. 13, 1840, on the steamship Lexington, ended in fire.Emerson's awakening
The Antislavery Society of Massachusetts called on Rev. Sam May to deliver a eulogy at a memorial service, but no site could be found for it. May reported that the event plannershad applied for the use of every one of the Unitarian and for several of the Orthodox churches in Boston, and all had been refused them. It was said that Dr. Channing did obtain from the trustees of Federal Street Church consent that the eulogy on Dr. Follen, whom he esteemed so highly, might be pronounced from his pulpit. But another meeting of the trustees, or of the proprietors, was called, and that permission was revoked. More sad still the meeting-house at East Lexington, which had been built under his direction, which he was coming from New York to dedicate, and in which he was to have preached as the pastor of the church if his life had been spared, even that meeting-house was refused for a eulogy and other appropriate exercises in commemoration of the early and eminent services of Dr. Follen to the cause of freedom and humanity in Europe, and more especially in our country. Such was the temper of that time, such the opposition of the people in and about the metropolis of New England to Mr. Garrison and his associates.3The service was finally held on Good Friday, 1840, at Marlborough. Among the participants were Dr. Channing and John Pierpont, and Henry Ware Jr., head of the Divinity School. The great churches of Boston were not offered.
Nor had they been offered five years earlier when the Boston Female Antislavery Society tried to hold its annual meeting October 1835. They tried to get Congress Hall, but there were many threats and so the owner of the hall rejected them out fear. The doors of Unitarian churches were not opened to them. So a Mr. Francis Jackson offered his house in Hollis Street. But the women decided to hold the meeting in their own small hall, unwilling to believe they couldn't, or that they would be molested in their own hall. The rioters patrolled the city and prevented the meeting.
Jackson renewed the invitation and they accepted, for a Nov. 19 date. The threats were renewed, although the press cooled its own anti-abolitionist rhetoric. The meeting went off, with Harriet Martineau, of England, in attendance. She made a strong statement afterwards, and went from being a celebrity among the elite to being slighted and rejected for having given great offense to "the best society in that metropolis."
Here is what Sam May said, and felt, at that time:
Mr. Jackson has by this act done all that one man can do to redeem the character of Boston. And were there not nine other men in the metropolis of New England, where dwelt descendants of Samuel Adams and Josiah Quincy, and relatives of Joseph Warren and James Otis and John Hancock, and other men of Revolutionary fame; were there not nine other men there to spring to the rescue of the ark of civil liberty? Alas! they did not appear. The abettors of slavery were in the ascendant. "The gentlemen of property and standing" thought it good policy, both politically and pecuniarily considered, to trample the Declaration of Independence under foot.4Adin Ballou's Universalist community at Hopedale was sworn to a "nonresistant" stance, opposed to violent means, opposed even to voting. Others found the Colonization movement alluring at least, until it was seen to be a propaganda effort by southerners whose real aim was to rid the South of black freedmen who could hold before the slaves a glimmer of freedom and actively work to attain it for them (not to speak of the injustice and impracticality of it). Some simply advocated disunion serious heresy in a nation so recently forged and, as it seemed, still so fragile. Or were the regions really in a collision course for war? There was something disturbing about all options; and, for many, much financial profit to be had in maintaining the status quo.For the Unitarian Association, it was a perplexing time. Recently come from being viewed with alarm as profoundly heretical and dangerous, they were now quite comfortable in Zion. When the revivalist Lyman Beecher arrived in Boston in 1823 to counter the Unitarian heresy, he complained, "All the literary men of Massachusetts were Unitarian; all the trustees and professors of Harvard College were Unitarian; all the elite of wealth and fashion crowded Unitarian churches; and the judges on the bench were Unitarian."5
Alongside the elite of wealth and fashion many of them merchants were their politicians. In the elder Gannett's Federal Street pews in the 1850s there sat the slave commissioner George Ticknor Curtis, of Anthony Burns' trial infamy.6
His Transcendentalist son characterized Ezra Stiles Gannett:By constitution he belonged to the class who calculate practical effects . . . Moreover . . . he was too good a Peace-man to be an Abolitionist; for he saw . . . that disunion almost certainly meant war. . . . And finally . . . the whole strength of his nature, conscious and unconscious, was reverent to organic order and visible law. The same predispositions that in religious thought kept him so firmly planted on the authority of an outward revelation, that in all loyalties made him so strenuously true, also made him one who only in the very last extreme could have ventured on immediate anarchy to compass a higher future peace.7Dr. Gannett was a few steps from the former Calvinism of New England, but not many. He was prone to the feeling that he had a sinful nature and could feel waves of guilt when he rode on Sunday, and regarding this, Rev. John Parkman told him "that he had his ancestors' Calvinism in his bones."8
The younger Gannett notes thatMany at the North, who stood quiet through the Texan annexation, burst out in protest when the Fugitive Slave Bill, in 1850, decreed that their own court-houses, lawyers, and militia should be the instruments of slave-hunting,and when they saw black neighbors actually caught back from their consenting streets to doom. Others, who gnashed their teeth, but kept lips shut at that, remembering the old compact on which the Republic had been built, felt patience suddenly desert them when the Missouri Compromise was broken and new territory was thrown open to the encroaching curse. There had been a day of mobs against Emancipation lecturers in the North: now came a day of mobs to rescue fugitives for freedom. Among others who changed ground were the Unitarian ministers. A few of them had long been leading Abolitionists: many now enlisted in the ranks. In their meetings, anti-slavery resolutions had at first been put aside as irrelevant, then mild votes were passed, and finally majorities grew earnest.But Dr. Gannett held fast his first belief that the subject was irrelevant to the purpose of those meetings, and he uniformly opposed the introduction of such resolutions. Certain expressions that probably fell from his lips on these occasions in some excited moment of debate are still held in stern remembrance by the old champions, then fighting against such heavy social odds. It is said he only believed it himself because men like the Mays were willing to take oath the words were truly reported that he called the Abolitionist temper "the hellish spirit alive and active here in our very midst, even in New England, which left little comparative need for us to go South to rebuke an evil;" and he is charged with having said, after the Fugitive Slave Bill had been passed, that "the perpetuity of the Union depended on the support of that law," and that "he should feel it to be his duty to turn away from his door a fugitive slave, unfed, unaided in any way, rather than set at naught the law of the land." If he ever said that last, he had unsaid it before as he unsaid it afterwards, by intimating in published sermons what he really would do in the case. At one of these Unitarian meetings, it was in 1851, just after Mr. Sims had been restored to slavery, he rose, after a denunciation [by another speaker] of the commissioner who had ordered the return, to urge that the officer had acted "from convictions of his constitutional obligations as an upholder of law and as a good citizen, and that a wrong was done by the resolutions in stigmatizing him as a 'cruel' man because of that return." The word was canceled.9
At First Church, N. L. Frothingham held forth. His son Octavius Brooks Frothingham characterized him asHigh-minded . . . rather than deep-souled . . . For the dignity, decency, purity, propriety of the clerical profession he had great regard, but as much on account of its social position as on account of its sanctity. . . . It was in his view a descent to enter the arena of strife even for the purpose of removing an evil. Thence his dislike of Channing; his disapproval of Pierpont, otherwise a particular favorite of his; his disagreement with Parker, of whom he was fond. . . . The well-known sentiment, ascribed to Wendell Phillips, "peace if possible, Truth at any rate," he would in all probability have reversed so as to read, "Truth if possible, Peace at any rate . . ."10Samuel K. Lothrop was, with Norton, chiefest among the "Unitarian orthodox," speaking11 of the "heathen nations" with "their false religions, their idolatry and superstition" which "will pass away before the light of truth and holiness which will . . . radiate from Christian lands." He was also minister, since 1834, of probably the richest church in Boston, the Church in Brattle-Square. It had a box for the Negroes above the organ. He, Gannett and a Rev. Parkinson comprised the Executive Committee, or "Committee of the Association."
Of these three stalwarts, Theodore Parker ran afoul early with his South Boston sermon. It was complicated when, in 1840, Rev. John Pierpont was hauled before an ecclesiastical trial in which all participated. Pierpont had served Hollis-Street Meeting-House for two decades without incident, but now, a host of charges were being brought against him. The affair was really over his preaching and involvements that touched the three hot-buttons of slavery, imprisonment for debt, and especially the commerce in ardent spirits rum-running (non-worshipping distillers and dealers had been buying up pews at Hollis in order to attain a voting block capable of ousting Mr. Pierpont). The trial is described in an official published record by Samuel Lothrop, who, as head of the Executive Committee of the American Unitarian Association, dropped Mr. Parker's name from the directory of ministers.
But Lothrop's official version wasn't the only account available to the public. Another appeared in the October 1841 Dial. It was the work of Theodore Parker, and the enraged patriarchs found it impudent. It was in this context that Mr. Parker's turn came round to deliver the address at the "great and Thursday Lecture" at First Church, a now-tired institution whose attendance O.B. Frothingham describes: "A score or two of venerable women glided silently in at the hour of eleven, and took their seats, well provided with bottles of sal-volatile against the probable effect of the discourse." But to the horror of the Fathers, Parker filled the house. Further enraged, the Unitarian clergy of Boston cut Mr. Parker off from the Association in every way short of actual expulsion, and in response, the Twenty-Eighth Society was formed within months, following the famous Jan. 22, 1845 resolution, "That the Rev. Theodore Parker shall have a chance to be heard in Boston."
Others, too, ran afoul:
James Freeman Clarke, too much of a Channing devotee to be a theological Transcendentalist, found his alliances with them sealed when he was made to pay a high price for subsequently exchanging pulpits with Parker. All these events drove other Transcendentalist-Abolitionists farther from the Unitarian establishment.
The brilliant Samuel Johnson served the Unitarian Church in Harrison Square, Boston for one year, but his anti-slavery activity gave offense and the church declined renewal of his ministry.12 In 1853 he founded the Free Church of Lynn, Massachusetts, which he served until 1870.
Samuel Longfellow served, and fought with, his Unitarian congregation in Brooklyn, and, with his intimate friend Johnson, produced a hymnal.
John Weiss, minister in Watertown and New Bedford, whose formidable scholarship, cutting-edge writing, and (to some) startling humor made a durable impress on those who noticed, published a biography of Parker that, with its 1865 appearance, did much to turn the tide of Unitarian sentiment about him.
Convers Francis, like Weiss, minister in Watertown, and then Parkman Professor of Pulpit Eloquence at the Divinity School, who was as inconspicuous as John Weiss was "a flame of fire" (Higginson's words), but not less effective.
Cyrus Bartol was minister of West Church until 1889; his radicalism grew with age. And there were Charles T. Brooks, academic; David Wasson, who argued the progressive case within Unitarianism and then succeeded the fallen Parker at the Twenty-Eighth; and Caleb Stetson, minister in Medford.
Elizabeth Palmer Peabody was an unwavering Transcendentalist whose abhorrence of all racisms seemed as natural as her more famous passion for early childhood education.
Thomas Wentworth Higginson (about whom more later) preferred to serve the Worcester Free Church, which he described asthe first of several such organizations that sprang up about the time under the influence of Theodore Parker's Boston society, which was their prototype. These organizations were all more or less of the "Jerusalem wildcat" description this being the phrase by which a Lynn shoemaker described one of them with no church membership or communion service, not calling themselves specifically Christian, but resembling the ethical societies of the present day, with a shade more of specifically religious aspect.13Octavius Brooks Frothingham, who was drawn into Abolition and lifelong Transcendentalism by an accidental encounter with Theodore Parker while he was Unitarian minister in Salem, was disillusioned when Henry Whitney Bellows refused to attend the dedication of his later Unitarian congregation's new mid-Manhattan church building because of Frothingham's heresy: "there was no 'church'; there had never been any sacrament; the allegiance to fundamental doctrines of the sect had been slack."14 Frothingham maintained his congregation as independent until he retired in 1879.
William Henry Channing, nephew of Dr. Channing, was, as a divinity student in the early 1830s, bitterly prejudiced against Abolitionists and their methods, but he thought carefully and comprehensively about slavery, and a year after graduation, joined the Cambridge Antislavery Society in 1834 members of which included both Henry Wares, Charles Follen, and Frederick Hedge. He'd heard Emerson's 1838 address and thought him a seer.
He nearly became one of a knot of Cambridge divinity graduates to head West in pursuit of fresh theological air free of the brackish pond that was, in their view, New England, but self-doubt prevented him. He "preached around" but received no call and fell into depression, sure he was unfit for ministry. Passing some time in Washington in political activism, he was shocked by the meanness and lack of vision that pervaded the Washington scene and experienced, in face of this, a spiritual renewal and recommitment to his call. He traveled westward, settling for awhile in Meadville, where he preached and wrote for the Western Messenger, until the publication was passed to James Freeman Clarke, then in Louisville. Travelling in Europe, he met Carlyle, then settled in New York to do a ministry-at-large, opening a small chapel on the Bowery, a project doomed by a financial depression. Back in Boston, a visit in the Emerson home reassured him, and he headed for Cincinnati, called to the Unitarian congregation, which he found to be liberal and energetic, and sympathetic to abolition, and which included a black lawyer who had fled South Carolina. The work thrived. In 1840 he attended the Chardon Street Convention with Dr. Channing, Emerson, Ripley, Parker, and Lowell. "Parkerism" was in the air, and Channing read it all, and pondered. Accepting the conclusion that Jesus was not who he'd been reputed to be and that the Bible is unreliable as history and no revelation from heaven, he resigned his pastorate in 1842, addressing to his adoring congregation a long Transcendentalist credo and to Margaret Fuller a kind of declaration of new life.
He entered a period of reflection in Cambridge, with visits to Miss Peabody's bookstore and the inevitable, stimulating, conversations, and engaged Parker and Clarke, via letters, in dialogue. He took his new message for awhile not under Unitarian auspices to Brooklyn and New York, where he was heard by Horace Greeley and Henry James, and where he enjoyed the company of Greeley and his tenant-employee Fuller.
Leaving New York, he spent the summer of 1846 at Brook Farm, but dissention there ended that. He preached in Parker's abandoned West Roxbury pulpit. Now a socialist, he spoke at a Fourier convention with Adin Ballou, whose own movement held to the "nonresistance" stance toward slavery. He organized a "congregation" around Fourierian principles. In 1847 he delivered the sermon at the ordination of his cousin, T.W. Higginson, at Newburyport and worked on the memoir of his uncle; then, on the death in 1850 of Margaret Fuller, occupied himself with her memoir, and with opposition to the Fugitive Slave Bill.
He was planning to join a Fourierian "phalanstery" in New Jersey but, while waiting for its construction, he took the Unitarian Society in Rochester, where he was apparently successful, and where his involvements in abolition, women's rights, and temperance were welcomed. He stayed until 1854.
The "phalanstery" never got off the ground; the Renshaw Street Unitarian Society in Liverpool beckoned. From there he maintained contact with Conway and Sumner in Washington over the antislavery struggle and nearly left to take the Washington church when Conway was driven out, and considered founding an independent society there.
Instead, when in 1857 James Martineau left Hope Street Chapel in Liverpool to teach at the Unitarian College in London, Channing succeeded him there, drawing ever-larger crowds and revitalizing the British Unitarian movement while doing what he could to enlist British support for the Northern side in the American Civil War.
He took a leave in his native land to consult about the conduct of the war, the Sanitary Commission, and an emergency hospital in the Unitarian Church, to advocate for the rights of black Americans, and to preach at the Washington church, visit the battlefields, and serve as chaplain to the Senate; he was present in Washington for the Emancipation Proclamation and the assassination of President Lincoln.
The war was over, and wanting to stay in America, he visited New England, but found himself unwelcome among Unitarians there, who thought him mystical and visionary. Ironically, in a kind of reverse-pilgrim crossing, he preached his last American sermon at Plymouth and returned to England in August 1865, where he was beloved, but where all positions were filled. Still, he was in constant demand in British pulpits. His last settlement was a new society in Kensington and Notting Hill; and though its inaugural ceremony in the latter location was attended by Martineau, Conway, and Bellows, it did not succeed, dwindling and dying within two years. He spent his last years preaching about Britain, seeking to "spiritualize" Unitarianism in the land he had grown to love, dying there in December 1884.15
First Unitarian Society in Chicago had been organized in 1836 when the Transcendentalist-Abolitionist Dr. Karl Follen, recently dismissed from Harvard, was persuaded to preach and remain as minister. The Western Unitarian Conference was organized in Cincinnati in 1852 and particularly under the leadership of Jenkin Lloyd Jones, maintained a progressive stance (dominated by Jones' "Unity Men") that made it inviting to Transcendentalist and Abolitionist clergy refugees from New England. William Channing Gannett was among them, and became one of its leaders.
Eventually after most of this story had played out, W. C. Gannett appeared in the Western Conference in 1877, an impressive young Brahmin sent to St. Paul to candidate for one of the congregations Jones had worked hard to develop. The two became close friends; the seven-year ministry flourished, followed by ministry in Hinsdale, Illinois.
Moncure Daniel Conway emigrated to London to serve the South Place Society, once the flagship of British Unitarianism, but now independent.
Others remained with the Association William Henry Channing, Samuel Longfellow, John Pierpont, Convers Francis, C.A. Bartol and John Weiss among them.
Those who did not remain within the Unitarian fold became, in 1867, the core of the Free Religious Association. Its journals and annual conventions persisted into the 1890s. Prominent in the FRA were Higginson and Frothingham, who served as Presidents; Emerson, Conway, Alcott, Twenty-Eight Society minister David Wasson, Lucretia Mott, Lydia Maria Child, Francis Abbot, non-joiner Samuel Johnson, Samuel Longfellow, Frederick Douglass, Wendell Phillips, a handful of rabbis, and until organizational paralysis fed by excessive individualism so frustrated him that he quit the FRA presidency and founded the Ethical Culture Society in New York Felix Adler.
So dramatic had been the impact of the Transcendentalist movement and the FRA that, by 1890, the Unitarian Association had undergone a transformation. A reconciliation seems to have occurred at the October 1889 Unitarian convention in Philadelphia where the FRA and the AUA found a new degree of mutual respect, and one of FRA's leaders was invited to address the assembly. The Western Conference's involvement in the watershed Parliament of the World's Religions in Chicago in 1893 led to another reconciliation, between the Western Conference and the American Unitarian Association, in 1894, in Saratoga, N.Y.
A half century earlier, the influence could be seen, but it had not reached into the halls of Unitarian power. In 1845, at a meeting of Unitarian ministers in Boston, "A Protest against American Slavery," the work of James Freeman Clarke, was adopted and sent out to be circulated for signatures. One hundred and seventy-three ministers signed; about eighty, comprising a block of the most influential ministers of the denomination, refused. Drs. E. S. Gannett, N. L. Frothingham, and Lothrop were among those who wouldn't sign.16
O.B. Frothingham reflects that "the Abolitionists were poor, humble, despised people, of no influence; men one could not ask to dine, who were not respected 'on change,' who had no place in the halls of legislation . . . It is quite possible that, if the situation had been reversed, the Unitarian ministers would have been more anti-slavery than they were . . . As it was, they were staunch Whigs . . ."17
The effect of social class was enhanced by the behavior of some reformers, as told by Higginson:It must be remembered that two rather different elements combined to make up the so-called Transcendentalist body. There were the more refined votaries, who were indeed the most cultivated people of that time and place; but there was also a less educated contingent, known popularly as "Come-Outers," . . . They were developed largely by the anti-slavery movement, which was not . . . strongest in the more educated classes, but was . . . far stronger for a time in the factories and shoe-shops than in the pulpits or colleges. . . . Some of them, as Emerson says, "devoted themselves to the worrying of clergymen;" proclaiming a gospel of freedom, I have heard them boast of having ascended into pulpits and trampled across their cushions before horrified ministers. This was not a protest against religion, for they were rarely professed atheists, but against its perversions alone.18So Higginson describes Cambridge in approximately 1844:Returning to Cambridge, I found the whole feeling of the college strongly opposed to the abolition movement, as had also been that among my Brookline friends and kindred. My uncle, Mr. Samuel Perkins . . . thought, and most men of his class firmly believed, that any step toward emancipation would lead to instant and formidable insurrection. It was in this sincere but deluded belief that such men mobbed Garrison.19In Concord, Emerson had yet to distinguishhimself as a prophetic voice on slavery or anyother vital social issue. His message was muddled. From the beginning, Emerson's opposition to slavery was genuine. When Channing published his Slavery in 1835 enraging the conservative Unitarian establishment Emerson was one of his earliest defenders, finding the book one of the "perfectly genuine works of the times."20From philosophical antislavery
While a teenage undergraduate at Harvard College in 1822, he recorded in his "Wide World" journal a dream where he witnesses African men, women, and children being captured and enslaved by "men dressed in foreign garb." As Gougeon and Myerson summarize the entry,The pitiful scene evokes both his sympathy and concern and he states, "I launched my skiff to follow the boats and redeem the captives." Unfortunately, the would-be deliverer cannot reach them, but he comes "near enough to hear the piercing cry of the chained victims" who "were sold for a price and compelled to labour all the day long and scourged with whips until they fell dead in the fields, and found rest in the grave." Emerson follows this description of his dream with a rumination on "why Providence suffers the land of its richest productions to be thus defiled" by the crime of slavery. After completing his theological training at Harvard and receiving his approbation to preach in 1826, Emerson often touched on the horror of slavery in his sermons, especially, as Ralph Rusk puts it, "when he needed examples of man's inhumanity to man."21Later, as minister of Second Church in 1827, Emerson is in St. Augustine, Florida to recover from poor health, and commits this to his journal for Feb 25, 1827:A fortnight since I attended a meeting of the Bible Society. The Treasurer of this institution is Marshall of the district & by a somewhat unfortunate arrangement had appointed a special meeting of the Society & a Slave Auction at the same hour & place, one being in the Government house & the other in the adjoining yard. One ear therefore heard the glad tidings of great joy whilst the other was regaled with "Going gentlemen, Going!" And almost without changing our position we might aid in sending scriptures into Africa or bid for "four children without the mother who had been kidnapped therefrom."22Garrison's Liberator was regular reading in Emerson household, but until 1844 he held to his sole reliance on moral suasion a course his mentor Channing approved. He was sickened by slavery.
But. A reliance on laws and coercion, he thought, got individuals off the moral hook, and the passage of laws, restrictions, or prohibitions inevitably leave the heart untouched and unconverted.
Further, he had met not a few reformers and found them hard to abide: they were too narrow in their view, often hypocritical and boorish, generally humorless and sometimes entirely crazy.23
The years from 1834 through 1837 were intense with anti-abolitionist mob violence in the north. John Quincy Adams was lifting the consciousness of many in Massachusetts but, in the Congress, he was being shouted down and outvoted. The gag rule passed in 1836. Back home, a Charlestown postmaster impounded a boatload of abolitionist tracts from New York and a mob seized and burned it, in 1835. President Andrew Jackson declared such stuff incendiary and wanted a law to suppress its passage via mails.
The dramatic murder of Elijah P. Lovejoy in Alton, Illinois came Nov. 7, 1837. Quiet abolitionists were shocked. And then Boston officials denied Channing & others the use of Faneuil Hall "in order that there might be an expression of public sentiment in regard to the late ferocious assault on the liberty of the press at Alton"!24
Emerson hadn't been comfortable with his silence, and he was stunned by Alton. In his journal he called Lovejoy an authentic hero willing "to die for humanity & the rights of free speech & opinion."25 He ventured an address, but it seems to have dwelt upon the preservation of free speech, coupled with a warning about self-righteousness. Abolitionists and friends were disappointed.
Six months later President Martin Van Buren got a letter from Emerson, encouraged by Lidian, about the forcible removal of the Cherokee Indians from their lands in the South. He arranged for a member of the Massachusetts Congressional delegation to have it printed in the Washington Daily National Intelligencer, on May 14, 1838. Emerson read the "Appeal of the Cherokees" at a Concord town meeting, stating his own views very clearly.
Still, he was dissatisfied with his contribution. He hadn't found his muse in this public arena and was disturbed. Lidian wrote to Ellen: "Your father is not combative. . . . Yet he exercised great moral combativeness in writing to the Pres. of the U.S. in defense of the Cherokee Indians. It was against the grain he did it; and he said it was hardly fit for him to suspend his true vocation to become their champion."26
Emerson's conflict had to do with his sense of vocation as a "scholar poet," not a stump orator. It was an agony for him to re-conceive his work to include this public policy dimension. He tried writing a poem on the plight of the Indians; it was poignant, but he never finished it. Other efforts weren't very compelling: a series of lectures on "Reforms" in the Boston Lyceum, an address in Boston January 25, 1841, printed in The Dial praising reform, with reservations. His early thinking shows up clearly in "New England Reformers," delivered at Amory Hall in Boston on March 3, 1844. "When we see an eager assailant of one of these wrongs, a special reformer, we feel like asking him, What right have you, sir, to your one virtue? Is virtue piecemeal?" Ellis Gray Loring, his friend and a prominent abolitionist attorney, responded to these early Emerson statements by warning that Emerson was "some times thought to teach, that in the great struggles between right and wrong going on in society, we may safely & innocently stand neuter, altogether, gratifying mere . . . intellectual tastes, this is merely a misconstruction of your words."27
But Emerson's views were about to change. Lidian and the Thoreau women were active in a Concord women's antislavery society since its beginning in 1835. Aunt Mary Moody Emerson was an abolitionist and, during the 1830s and 40s, his mother, Ruth, sometimes joined Lidian in signing petitions. Emerson's brother Charles called for immediate emancipation in an 1835 lecture in Concord. His step-grandfather Rev. Ezra Ripley, whom he much admired, used his church for quarterly meetings of the Middlesex Anti-Slavery Society.28
He himself was one of 491 signers of a Concord petition to the U.S. Congress declaring "that the treaty under color of which the [the Cherokees] are to be removed beyond Mississippi . . . [is] an atrocious fraud, [and] we most solemnly remonstrate against its execution."29
Because of its devastating effect on the delicate balance achieved by the Missouri Compromise of 1820, he was shaken when Texas, upon declaring its independence of Mexico, petitioned on August 4, 1837 for annexation to the United States, proposing thereby greatly to augment the power of the slaveholders. So two months later he joined Ezra Ripley and other Concord citizens to sign a petition:While we do not claim for Congress, the power to abolish slavery in the several States, we are opposed to its further extension by that body, hence, are decidedly hostile to the annexation of Texas to the Union, with a Constitution which expressly sanctions slavery, and encourages the slave trade between that country and the United States.He signed another one in January 1838 and in 1839 the women of Concord put forward another one, signed by Lidian and Ruth.
In the second number of the Dial in October 1840, Emerson reviewed Two Sermons on the Kind Treatment and on the Emancipation of Slaves. Preached at Mobile, on Sunday, the 10th and Sunday the 17th of May, 1840 by George F. Simmons. He praises the young minister who had been "nurtured in the enervating atmosphere of a dainty literature, connected with a religious sect, which reckons a cautious prudence among the cardinal virtues, and tempted by the counsels and customs of society to overlook a vice, that was so prevalent as to be feared." The morning after the second sermon, the minister was indicted; though the complaint was dismissed, Simmons had allowed himself to be run out of town. Emerson expresses his wish that Simmons had "remained on the post of danger, and submitted to the worst. . . . The man, who dies for the freedom of the soul, for the meek defence of a brother's rights, for the rebuke of sin in high places, for sympathy with the down-trodden and forsaken, is happier than he, whom death finds in the carnage of the battle-field, or on the softest couch of selfish luxury. . . . We need men who love their duty better than their lives . . ."30
It was August 1, 1844 before Emerson returned to the public protest forum. But by then he had gotten a baptism of fire in the public debate over his Divinity School Address.
to active abolitionismBy Spring 1844 President Tyler was urging Congress to annex Texas, and Emerson could see that his previous approach that emphasized universal reform and individual action was useless. He saw, too, that slavery threatened to poison the entire nation. He put aside his reservations.31Conversion of a
Invited by Concord women to speak at their annual celebration of the emancipation of the British West Indies, he accepted. The Aug. 1, 1844 speech thrilled the abolitionist movement.
This time he attacked the institution of slavery itself and directly. He prepared thoroughly, reading works by Thomas Clarkson, James Thome, and J. Horace Kimball, and borrowed legal studies, records, and reports from Ellis Gray Loring. He assembled firsthand accounts of the horrors of slavery: the dungeons attached to every plantation house, pregnant women punished on the treadmill if they did not work, a 12-year-old boy made to strip his own mother and publicly beat her. He assembled accounts about the atrocities from sailors and slavers on the Liverpool waterfront. He developed a grasp of the moral courage and the faith of those who finally triumphed over the slave power in the West Indies.
If he'd had any doubts about the equality of blacks, they were gone now. He referred to "the annihilation of the old indecent nonsense about the nature of the negro" and affirmed their ability to compete successfully in a free society. He signed a petition calling on Massachusetts to abolish all state laws and constitutional provisions "making any distinctions among citizens on account of color." He declared:The black man carries in his bosom an indispensable element of a new and coming civilization. There have been moments . . . when men might be forgiven who doubted. Those moments are past.There was opposition in Concord, and conservative officials blocked him from using any of the local churches for his address. Nathaniel Hawthorne offered the use of his spacious lawn at the Old Manse, but it rained. Finally the group settled on the courthouse, but now the same officials forbade the ringing of the church bell to call townspeople to the meeting. Henry Thoreau rang it anyway, in defiance.
The address glowed with respect for Abolitionists. Of course, by now "Abolitionist" meant for him William Henry Furness, Theodore Parker, and Sam May, among others.
Tears flowed. The speech was ardent and full-souled. It was praised in The Liberator, Herald of Freedom, Emancipator, and elsewhere; and Whittier wrote to him, "That you join with us in supporting the great idea which underlies our machinery of conventions and organizations, I have little doubt after reading the Address." Finally Emerson was pleased with his effort and allowed its publication on both sides of the Atlantic.
Now he became increasingly visible on the reform lecture circuit. He demanded that Massachusetts provide protection for freeborn black citizens who, as crew members on Massachusetts ships, had been illegally arrested and detained under the slave laws of southern states; and his demand was not without effect: the legislature sent Emerson's neighbor and friend Samuel Hoar to look after the interests of such people in South Carolina where a mob drove him, with his daughter Elizabeth, from Charleston with the tacit approval of local authorities.32
Outraged, Emerson wrote to Horace Greeley's New-York Daily Tribune in praise of Hoar's courage and describing the incident, and then attended a protest meeting in Concord. There were more speeches and signing of petitions. He increased the range of his arguments and demands. He seemed to resent the distraction from his calling as a poet-philosopher, but recognized it as his inescapable duty. He was not doing this for fun.
The first of August 1845 brought a second major antislavery address in Waltham, Massachusetts. He shared the podium with William Henry Channing, Rep. Henry Wilson (who would become a senator and vice president of the United States), James Russell Lowell who offered poetry for the occasion and others. And now he attacked racism in the north.
Both of these speeches were reported in detail in the New York Daily Tribune, as well as the National Anti-Slavery Standard and Liberator. Then he was off to a convention in Concord to oppose the annexation of Texas. In November 1845 he refused to address the New Bedford Lyceum because it would not allow blacks into full membership. He and Charles Sumner spoke to the public about the incident via the Liberator (June 16, 1846).
Texas formally entered the Union on Dec. 29, 1845, and now war with Mexico was certain. Many Abolitionists were now calling for separation to avoid contagion: "no union with slaveholders." Emerson took strong exception to his friends on this one, calling the sentiment evidence of a pernicious pessimism about the possibilities of reform. It was out of this Transcendentalist hope that he spoke on the Fourth of July 1846 in Dedham, at an event sponsored by the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. He was joined on the platform by William Lloyd Garrison, James Freeman Clarke, and Wendell Phillips. He urged his listeners not to descend into despair. He disliked Thoreau's overnight jailing for refusing to pay his poll tax as a personal protest against slavery and the Mexican War because he thought the act too negative.
Another anniversary of the West Indies emancipation brought another address, on Aug. 1, 1846, when he urged hope, not despair. But within weeks a runaway slave on the ship Ottoman was seized in Boston Harbor, and returned to his master in Louisiana because the ship owners didn't care to face reprisals and loss of commerce. A protest meeting was held at Faneuil Hall, and the speakers were Charles Sumner, Wendell Phillips, and Theodore Parker. Emerson was invited by couldn't be present, so he sent a letter expressing very clearly his shock and disgust.
Here began a period of depression, to cure which he sailed to England in October 1847, for his first foreign lecture tour. He returned in July 1848 renewed by the inspiring resolve of Chartists to achieve social reform in England.33
He returned feeling keenly the appropriateness of his role in the movement. Ellery Channing noticed: "It was after his English visit that he became so much happier and more joyous . . . & also assumed a more public life & habit . .".34
Now Garrison asked Emerson again to speak at the next annual celebration of West Indies emancipation, on Aug. 3, 1849 in Worcester, before 5,000 people one of the biggest abolitionist gatherings ever held in Massachusetts, said the Liberator on Aug. 17. Not everybody in Worcester was happy about this because they considered the Mass Anti-Slavery Society as incendiary fanatics and traitors, and surely infidels. Emerson now gladly established himself as one of the fanatics, madmen, incendiaries, traitors, and infidels. His doubts about Abolitionists dissolved as he came to admire Lucretia Mott, Garrison, Phillips, and drew inspiration from his friend Parker. Phillips kept copies of the 1844 address for years for distribution.
But never was Emerson more eloquent than in response to the shock administered to the citizens of Massachusetts by Daniel Webster when on March 7, 1850 he threw his considerable weight behind a package of legislation known collectively as the Compromise of 1850. Webster's influence carried the bill into law on September 18, 1850. Emerson wondered how this "filthy enactment" could have been "made in the 19th Century, by people who could read & write."35
Webster cherished his splended vision of a growing nation, prosperous, bound in perpetual constitutional union; defended it against views of state supremacy and weak central government As early as 1830 that year's best-selling publication had been the pamphlet edition of his reply to South Carolina's Senator Hayne, in which Webster had declared that Southerners ought to stop suspecting that their brethren at the North would use federal powers to mount an attack the on what was surely a local matter. His memorable peroration "Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable" became a generation's mantra.
And now Webster, with Clay and Douglas, had shepherded Clay's compromises including the Fugitive Slave Bill through the Congress. The original 1793 fugitive slave statute depended upon of state courts and officers, and states like Massachusetts were now disinclined to cooperate; were instead passing personal liberty laws. Webster considered that the great work of building a strong national economy had come to a standstill as the regions fought over slavery, and wanted a quick resolution. Skillfully, it seemed, he had balanced regional interests
Inexplicably left out of his calculations were the interests of four million Africans held in bondage in America. His calculus was as faulty as that of the Taney Supreme Court, whose 1857 Dred Scott decision is anticipated in Daniel Webster's mentality. The rights and welfare of negroes were not factored into his equation. Webster now seemed to agree with Dred Scott that negroes were "so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery. . . ." So much for Webster the Abolitionist; the Quaker Whittier wrote
All else is gone; from those great eyes
The soul has fled:
When faith is lost, when honor dies,
The man is dead!
Emerson's response to the Fugitive Slave Act was simply: "I will not obey it, by God."36
Attempts to enforce the law in Boston, first against William and Ellen Craft, and then against "Shadrach" (Fredric Jenkins, or Wilkins) failed. The second, Feb. 1851, involved a daring raid on the federal courthouse. But they were enough to convince Emerson that Boston authorities meant to enforce it. He couldn't attend the Middlesex Anti-Slavery Society in Concord April 3, 1851 so he provides letter: Break the law at every opportunity and register a constant protest "against the detestable statute of the last congress."
As the meeting was proceeding, Thomas Sims was captured in Boston. This time federal government deployed troops and had the help of Boston cohorts, and Sims was returned to bondage. Abolitionists were astounded. In Emerson's journals appears a vow to "make no secret of my intention to keep [the citizens of Massachusetts] informed of the baseness of their accustomed leaders."37 His first address on the Fugitive Slave Law came in response to a plea from thirty-five Concordians.
Charles Sumner, soon to replace Webster in the Senate, rejoiced. He asked Emerson to repeat the speech throughout Middlesex County in support of Unitarian minister John Gorham Palfrey's run for Congress on the Free Soil Ticket assuming the previously-unthinkable persona of stump-speaker and Emerson agreed.
So the Liberator reported that when he delivered it in Cambridge, "a considerable body of students from Harvard College did what they could to disturb the audience and insult the speaker, by hisses and groans, interspersed with cheers for Webster, Clay, Fillmore, Everett, and 'Old Harvard!'"
The completeness of Emerson's embrace of the cause is illustrated by a Boston Semi-Weekly Advertiser report of May 23, 1851 on Emerson's attacks on Webster and the Fugitive Slave Law, in which the newspaper defends Webster and warns against the extremes of Emerson's views. It charges that what he is really attacking is the Constitution, which allows for return of fugitives.
Palfrey narrowly lost the election. When the national parties held their conventions, Emerson found the contenders "low conspirators" compared with the leaders of an earlier era, such as Washington.
He was deeply disturbed again when the Kansas-Nebraska bill was passed in the Spring of 1854, nullifying the Missouri Compromise of 1820 which specifically excluded slavery from the territories of the Louisiana Purchase north of the line 36º 30'.
Emerson brooded until the fourth anniversary of Webster's perfidy: March 7, 1854, when, in New York, he delivered himself of another condemnation of the Fugitive Slave Law, Webster's betrayal, and popular notions of black inferiority.
The Boston Bee reacted by saying that Emerson had "long been the center of a system, composed of a few hundred ridiculous fools and lazy fellows, who deserve, each a sound scourging for their impudence in daring to stay in a world where they are just so many nuisances, and of no earthly use whatever, a parcel of selfish flunkies." And he "has been made the idol of this collection of human vermin."
Emerson's place among the most uncompromising opponents of the twisted logic of the southern slave power and of northern accommodation to it was now irreversibly established, but his abolitionist "muses" were not finished, for it was now that he began keeping his "WO Liberty" notebook, entirely devoted to abolition, slavery, and liberty (JMN 14:373-430).
slave-holding preacherIn Stafford Country, Virginia, a Methodist preacher named Moncure Daniel Conway was preaching the customary line that abolitionism was the sin, because it disturbed the divine order as laid out in Scripture. For awhile he believed a new idea worked out between some theologians and scientists that proposed separate divine acts of creation for the separate races. Only the white folks were actually humans with souls, they said.Heroic Tales
Abolitionism was experienced in Stafford County as a disruption of divine order, and so the Methodist conference there made it known that it would withhold financial support from churches that failed to tow the line. Now the Conway family was involved in all of this. Conway's father John Moncure Conway, who owned sixty slaves as well as much of the county was also a leader in Methodism. The elder Conway was an "old-school" slaveholder who professed to dislike slavery "in the abstract" but found it suited to his religious sense of human depravity.
Something was troubling the younger Conway. He set out on a solitary walk, picking up, as he went, the December 1847 issue of the British magazine Blackwoods. It carried an article about someone he'd never heard of, an R. W. Emerson, and it included excerpts of an essay of his.
It took a year for him to get to this, but eventually he wrote a letter that made its way through the censorious postal clerks to Concord, Massachusetts. It read, in part:I will here take the liberty of saying what nothing but a concern as deep as Eternity should make me say. I am a minister of the Christian Religion, the only way for the world to reenter Paradise, in my earnest belief. I have just commenced that office at the call of the Holy Ghost, now in my twentieth year. About a year ago I commenced reading your writings. I have read them all and studied them sentence by sentence. I have shed many burning tears over them; because you gain my assent to Laws which, when I see how they would act on the affairs of life, I have not courage to practise. . . . I sometimes feel as if you made for me a second Fall from which there is no redemption by any atonement.38Three years later, two neighbors of Rev. Conway showed up in Boston. He knew both of them. One was a Captain Suttle, a well-respected politician and slaveholder. The other was Anthony Burns. Anthony Burns, the escaped slave, captured under the Fugitive Slave Law and held at the Suffolk County Courthouse in Boston, which had been taken over for the purpose by the federal government. Charles Suttle, his owner, come to demand his return in a kind of mockery of American justice called a hearing rather than a trial because the accused was not permitted to speak and was automatically guilty, an affair that was presided over by a United States Fugitive Slave Bill Commissioner.
By and large the people of Boston were enraged that their Court House, the court house of a free people in a free state, should be used as a prison for a man who, under Massachusetts law, should be a free man, and who, here, in the cradle of liberty, was being held as property.
Five thousand people gathered at Faneuil Hall, where Theodore Parker challenged his hearers to go to the court house and rescue Anthony Burns. Among them was a young divinity student at Harvard, Moncure Conway of Stafford County, Virginia. He had left home and inheritance behind.
In his autobiography, he writes:The Southern students at Cambridge assembled to offer their sympathy to the owner of Burns. I was notified, but replied that my sympathies were with the fugitive.39But his mind wasn't settled yet. He went to an abolitionist rally in Framingham and heard Henry Thoreau. He heard the Unitarian minister of an independent Parker-affiliated church in Worcester, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who displayed a facial injury he had received in the failed attempt to rescue Anthony Burns from the slave power. And then he watched as, in his words:A very aged negro woman named "Sojourner Truth," lank, shrivelled, but picturesque, slowly mounted to the platform, amid general applause, and sat silently listening to the speeches.And he heard when the William Lloyd Garrison, who presided at the rally, invite a young Southern heckler to the stage to speak his mind. Conway describes it this way:The young man complied, and in the course of his defence of slavery and affirming his sincerity, twice exclaimed, "As God is my witness!" "Young man," cried Sojourner Truth, "I don't believe God Almighty ever hearn tell of you!" Her shrill voice sounded through the grove like a bugle . . .40Moncure Conway turns up in the record again later. In Concord, a regular visitor and trusted friend of the Emersons. In Boston, with Theodore Parker. And then in Washington, D.C. chosen as minister at the First Unitarian Church when William Henry Channing was rejected over his abolitionism the congregation thinking that an aristocratic former slaveholder must surely be "safe" but his preaching drove the conservative Whig and Unitarian Millard Fillmore, signer of the Fugitive Slave Law, to abandon his specially-cushioned pew; and then as minister of the Unitarian Church in tense, border-territory Cincinnati. I found him with Senate Chaplain William H. Channing and, sometimes, Senator Sumner, arguing with President Lincoln, who did not want the abolition of slavery to be the up-front point of the Civil War. In 1862 he appears in Detroit at the Western Unitarian Conference to offer a resolution, unanimously passed, declaring "That in this conflict the watchword of our nation and our church and our government should be, Mercy to the South; death to slavery!"
The same year he learns that Union forces have taken Stafford County, and he undertakes a rather thrilling mission to find his father's sixty slaves and bring them north, through Baltimore. (He mentions that the family home became the very Union hospital where Walt Whitman served under Clara Barton's supervision!41)
And then I found him in London, where his name appears on the plaque bearing the names of ministers of South Place Chapel, now name Conway Hall, his last work, lasting 33 years. His departure from the American scene had partly to do with his disagreement with comrades about the means to emancipation: he remained a nonresistant, long after May and the great majority of abolitionists had come to support the war as better than, and necessary for the ending of, slavery. In London, where he had gone simply to discourage British support for the South the British economy suffering for want of Southern cotton now stopped by Northern blockades he had been invited to replace William Johnson Fox at South Place. It was a matter of some agony for him:I did not preach as a candidate for the pulpit. I was still receiving letters from America, where my best friends Phillips, Sanborn, Stearns, Bird were consulting as to whether they should demand my return. I therefore gave no definite replies to suggestions of a permanent settlement at South Place. As the weeks went on, however, it became plain that I could not enter with zeal into the struggle in America. The presidential campaign had divided the anti-slavery people one part following Phillips in his effort to elect Fremont, the other following Garrison in his adherence to Lincoln, and the situation was embroiled. As Phillips had written in my defence, and as I had expressed my distrust of Lincoln, my return to America would be a signal for a revival of denunciations of my Mason correspondence for the purpose of attacking Fremont. And it would have damaged him, because I could not again have apologized for my proposal to concede secession in exchange for emancipation by the South. Although the only hope for even a distant benefit to the slave had seemed to travel with the Northern arms, the war became increasingly abhorrent to me. It was monstrous that the Southern negro should be forced into a conflict wherein he was the only innocent party. To this both wings of the abolitionist group were consenting, and even held it an advance towards freedom instead of to a new slavery, that the Southern negroes should be organized separately from whites to fight their former masters, into whose hands they must fall whatever the result of the war. In America I should stand almost alone. Even Emerson had come to respect war, and accepted from the President appointment as a Visitor to West Point (1863). My friend Judge Conway had lost his seat in Congress on account of his pleadings for peace: he had met my wife, and sent word to me that the rage for war had become universal and that I was well out of it.42
By contrast, Emerson, with whom he sustained a lifelong friendship, would declare in an 1865 speech at Harvard, ""the war gave back integrity to this erring and immoral nation."In 1843, both the Irish and the British Unitarians petitioned their American counterparts to speak out against slavery; their entreaties were rejected bitterly. Fifty liberal ministers met at Berry Street to discuss the matter, and to draft their response, chose Samuel J. May who, like his cousin Samuel May Jr., was an exception to the American pattern a non-Transcendentalist abolitionist in Unitarian ministry. At the 1844 Unitarian Association business meeting May moved that the executive committee take a stand, and three days' debate issued in a diluted statement that at least affirmed that slavery "conflicts with the natural rights of human beings." In 1847 the English learned that a vice president of the American Unitarian Association was a slaveholder, and sixty-two ministers and sixteen hundred laypersons signed a protest. The Association remained silent. At the annual meeting that autumn, radicals nominated, and almost elected, May as general secretary; then nominated John Pierpont. Henry W. Bellows denounced the reformers.43How the Unitarian Association responded
To this point, May had been, like Conway and Ballou, a Garrisonian "nonresistant," viewing the Union as a "covenant with Death" and the Constitution as hopelessly flawed by the Fathers' compromise with slavery, while rejecting all forms of violence and all trust in the political process.
On March 7, 1850, Sen. Daniel Webster, now seeking the Presidency, delivered a fateful speech in which he seemed to reverse his position and embraced the Fugitive Slave Bill, enabling it to pass into law. At the Spring 1851 AUA convention in Boston, May tried to introduce a resolution condemning Webster, President Fillmore, and several other prominent Unitarians Gannett among them as accomplices. Already shocked, the ministers listened as Theodore Parker seconded the motion. Immediately they passed another resolution refusing to acknowledge May's. So the next day May re-introduced his motion at the Conference in Berry-Street..44
Gannett argued that the law could not be disobeyed without disobeying all law, and that the Union must be preserved at all costs. Parker rose amid a discontented silence, asking if the Union were as precious as conscience, freedom, and duty. Then he spoke of Thomas Sims, and of Unitarian kidnappers of those who are members of his congregation and "the crown of my apostleship," whom to save he has been obliged to keep a loaded pistol at his desk, in Boston, in the middle of the nineteenth century. Then he addressed the nonresistants by declaring that when the slave commissioner Curtis Gannett's member came to his house to capture a slave, he would find no meek nonresistant. He spoke of his grandfather, who "slew the first man in the Revolution," and he spoke of obedience to a higher law. It was the last of open discussion of the subject in the Unitarian Association for years: conservatives strengthened their control and warned ministers to stay clear of reference to the Fugitive Slave Law or Webster.
But the Fugitive Slave Law stunned the North. Blacks, who had been living peacefully, were now the quarry of hired slave-hunters prowling northern cities for prey. Theodore Parker's committee of Vigilance43 (his was the first name on the executive committee) now formed branch committees and worked, night and day, to protect friends, neighbors, and congregants from the folly of Webster and Fillmore. White abolitionists fought to overcome the stupefying fact of Webster's deed and imagine a next step. A special committee was appointed to act in sudden emergencies and Parker was made its chair. Frothingham: "His whole soul, at this time, was on fire."45
Mr. Parker's contributions to the anti-slavery struggle fill volumes. Thomas Wentworth Higginson remembers a passion behind the deed:As he sat in his library, in Boston, he was not only the awakener of a thousand intellects, but the centre of a thousand hearts; he furnished the natural home for every foreign refugee, every hunted slave, every stray thinker, every vexed and sorrowing woman.46During the controversies of the 1850s Abraham Lincoln's friend and law partner Herndon supplied him with the speeches of Charles Sumner, and the sermons of Theodore Parker. Later, at Gettysburg, his phrase "government of the people, by the people, for the people" was derived from a Parker sermon to which Herndon (who carried on a correspondence with Parker) had specifically called his attention.
The first direct victims of the law were Parker's own congregants William and Ellen Craft, whose dramatic escape from slavery in Macon, Georgia was known to many in Boston. A slave-hunter had declared "It's not the niggers I care about; but it's the principle of the thing." The judge demanded ten thousand dollars' bail. Parker issued a poster describing the hunters and went, armed, to visit his parishioners-in-hiding. The next morning the Committee went en masse to call on the slave-hunters at the United-States Hotel, where they refused to leave until the two appeared. Parker spoke for the Committee, warning them of the extreme personal danger they faced if they proceeded with the kidnapping and counseling them to leave town; the two were on the evening train for New York. Parker married the Crafts, counselled them that they had a right to resist any attacker "unto death," and dispatched them on a ship for Liverpool with a long introductory letter to James Martineau.47 There followed another long letter, to Millard Fillmore.
Next came the Thomas Sims case.
He never saw a jury; but once a judge. The commissioner, George Ticknor Curtis (a Gannett congregant), after a summary examination, gave him up to his pursuers. The poor boy, knowing that his fate was sealed, begged of his counsel one favor: "Give me a knife; and, when the commissioner declares me a slave, I will stab myself to the heart, and die before his eyes. I will not be a slave!" . . . At the dead of night, the mayor of Boston, with his marshal, attended by two or three hundred policemen, armed with horse-pistols, swords, or bludgeons, at convenience, took the victim from his cell, chained, weeping; marched him over the spot which the blood of Attucks had stained; put him on board "The Acorn;" and sent him off to endless bondage. . . . A Boston delegation saw him duly delivered to his owner, who had him whipped in the town jail within an inch of his life.48
But not all news was bad. Charles Sumner, friend to Parker, Emerson, Higginson, and most clearly the slave, had been elected to the United States Senate (by the state legislature, as was the process then), taking Mr. Webster's old seat. No sooner had the Fugitive Slave Bill passed then President Tyler died suddenly, leaving Millard Fillmore in the White House. Fillmore signed the bill into law, and then appointed Webster Secretary of State, leaving the Whigs, Free Soilers, and Democrats to scramble toward the 1852 election. A coalition of Free Soilers and Democrats elected Sumner by one vote in 1851; Webster retired to Marshfield and died in October 1852.
Parker and Emerson each spoke of his life and failure. Nowhere is there, in either of them, more soaring eloquence or heart-rending pathos. First, Emerson, two years after Webster's death, on the fourth anniversary of his betrayal:49I have lived all my life without suffering any known inconvenience from American Slavery. I never saw it; I never heard the whip; I never felt the check on my free speech and action, until, the other day, when Mr. Webster, by his personal influence, brought the Fugitive Slave Law on the country. I say Mr. Webster, for though the Bill was not his, it is yet notorious that he was the life and soul of it, that . . . under the shadow of his great name inferior men sheltered themselves, threw their ballots for it and made the law. I say inferior men. There were all sorts of what are called brilliant men, accomplished men, men of high station, a President of the United States, Senators, men of eloquent speech, but men without self-respect, without character, and it was strange to see that office, age, fame, talent, even a repute for honesty, all count for nothing. They had no opinions, they had no memory for what they had been saying like the Lord's Prayer all their lifetime: they were only looking to what their great Captain did: if he jumped, they jumped, if he stood on his head, they did. . . .And Parker's speech, which, according to Samuel Johnson,50 "many honest men thought heartless and malignant." But, in his estimate,
In what I have to say of Mr. Webster I do not confound him with vulgar politicians before or since. There is always base ambition enough, men who calculate on the immense ignorance of the masses . . . Mr. Webster had a natural ascendancy of aspect and carriage which distinguished him over all his contemporaries. . . .
The history of this country has given a disastrous importance to the defects of this great man's mind. . . . It is a law of our nature that great thoughts come from the heart. If his moral sensibility had been proportioned to the force of his understanding, what limits could have been set to his genius and beneficent power? But he wanted that deep source of inspiration. . . .
Four years ago to-night, on one of those high critical moments in history when great issues are determined, when the powers of right and wrong are mustered for conflict, and it lies with one man to give a casting vote Mr. Webster, most unexpectedly, threw his whole weight on the side of Slavery, and caused by his personal and official authority the passage of the Fugitive Slave Bill. . . .
Mr. Webster decided for Slavery, . . . a ghastly result of all those years of experience in affairs, this, that there was nothing better for the foremost American man to tell his countrymen than that Slavery was not at that strength that they must beat down their conscience and become kidnappers for it. . . .
The way in which the country was dragged to consent to this, and the disastrous defection (on the miserable cry of Union) of the men of letters, of the colleges, of educated men, nay, of some preachers of religion was the darkest passage in the history. It showed that our prosperity had hurt us, and that we could not be shocked by crime. It showed that . . . while we reckoned ourselves a highly cultivated nation, our bellies had run away with our brains, and the principles of culture and progress did not exist.
For I suppose that liberty is an accurate index, in men and nations, of general progress. . . .
Now, Gentlemen, I think we have in this hour instruction again in the simplest lesson. Events roll, millions of men are engaged, and the result is the enforcing of some of those first commandments which we heard in the nursery. We never get beyond our first lesson, for really, the world exists, as I understand it, to teach the science of liberty, which begins with liberty from fear.That wonderful oration, eulogy, litany, arraignment, verdict was written at a heat. The preparation for it covered weeks, nay, occupied years. . . . A few hours of solitary meditation in the country, after the statesman's death, fused the mass of material so completely that it ran like molten metal into the literary mould."And from Frothingham we have this:They who would know Mr. Parker should read that oration. It was, as has been said, written literally with prayers and tears, in clearest memory of every step in Webster's career . . . There is an awful pathos in some of its sentences.51This, in part, is what Mr. Parker said the following Sunday at Boston Music Hall:52I come now to speak of his relation to slavery. Up to 1850, with occasional fluctuation, much of his conduct had been just and honorable. As a private citizen, in 1819, he opposed the Missouri Compromise. At the meeting of the citizens of Boston to prevent that iniquity, he said, "We are acting for unborn millions, who lie along before us in the track of time." . . .In the Senate, Sumner carried on the brave fight, quite alone: in 1852 Sen. Sumner introduced a bill to repeal the Fugitive Slave Law and got four votes (Hale, Chase, and Ben Wade joined him).
A few months after the deed was done, on Forefathers' Day in 1820, standing on Plymouth Rock, he could say:
I deem it my duty, on this occasion, to suggest that the land is not yet wholly free from the contamination of a traffic at which every feeling of humanity must for ever revolt, I mean the African slave-trade. . . . If there be, within the extent of our knowledge or influence,any participation in this traffic, let us pledge ourselves here, upon the Rock of Plymouth, to extirpate and destroy it. It is not fit that the land of the Pilgrims should bear the shame longer.
At first he opposed the annexation of Texas; he warned men against it in 1837. . . . but alas! all this was to pass away. Was he sincere in his opposition to the extension of slavery? I always thought so. I think so still.
Yet, after all, on the 7th of March, 1850, he could make that speech you know it too well. He refused to exclude slavery by law form California and New Mexico. It would "irritate" the South, would ""re-enact the law of God." He declared Congress was bound to make four new slave states out of Texas; to allow all the territory below the 36º 30' to become slave states . . . ; he would support the Fugitive Slave Bill, with all its amendment, "with all its provisions," "to the fullest extent." . . .
My friends, you all know the speech of the 7th of March: you remember how men felt when the telegraph brought the first news, they thought there must be some mistake! They could not believe the lightning. . . . But such was the power . . . that, eighteen days after his speech, nine hundred and eighty-seven men of Boston sent him a letter, telling him that he had pointed out "the path of duty, convinced the understanding and touched the conscience of a nation;" and they expressed to him their "entire concurrence in the sentiments of that speech," and their "heartfelt thanks for the inestimable aid it afforded to the preservation" of the Union.
You remember the return of Mr. Webster to Boston; the speech at the Revere House; his word that "discussion" on the subject of slavery must "in some way be suppressed" . . .
You all know what followed. The Fugitive Slave Bill passed. It was enforced. You remember the consternation of the colored people in Boston, New York, Buffalo, Philadelphia, all over the land. . . . You remember the sermons of doctors of divinity, proving that slavery was Christian, good Old Testament Christian at the very least. You do not forget the offer of a man to deliver up his own mother. Andover went for kidnapping. The loftiest pulpits, I mean those highest bottomed on the dollar they went also for kidnapping. . . . And when we said, mildly remonstrating, "Why, what evil has the poor black man done?" the answer was, "We have a law, and by that law he ought to be a slave!"
You have not forgotten the speech at Capon Springs, on the 26th of June, 1851. "When nothing else will answer," he said, "they," the abolitionists, "invoke 'religion,' and speak of the 'higher law!'" He of the granite hills of New Hampshire, looking on the mountains of Virginia, blue with loftiness and distance, said, "Gentlemen, this North Mountain is high, the Blue Ridge higher still, the Alleghanies higher than either, and yet this 'higher law' ranges further than an eagle's flight above the highest peaks of the Alleghanies! No common vision can discern it; no common and unsophisticated conscience can feel it . . . It is the code, however, of the abolitionists of the North."
This speech was made at dinner. The next "sentiment" given after his was this:
The Fugitive Slave Law. Upon its faithful execution depends the perpetuity of the Union.
Mr. Webster made a speech in reply, and distinctly declared,
You of the South have as much right to secure your fugitive slaves, as the North has to any of its rights and privileges of navigation and commerce.
Do you think he believed that? Daniel Webster knew better. In 1844, only seven years before, he had said,
What! when all the civilized world is opposed to slavery; when morality denounces it; when Christianity denounces it; when every thing respected, everything good, bears one united witness against it, is it for America America, the land of Washington, the model republic of the world is it for America to come to its assistance, and to insist that the maintenance of slavery is necessary to the support of her institutions?"
. . . . To accomplish a bad purpose, he resorted to mean artifice, to the low tricks of vulgar adventurers in politics. He used the same weapons once wielded against him, misrepresentation, denunciation, invective. . . . In this New Hampshire Stafford, "despotism had at length obtained an instrument with mind to comprehend and resolution to act upon, its principles in their length and breadth; and enough of his purposes were effected by him to enable mankind to see as from a tower the end of all."
What was the design of all this? It was to "save the Union." Such was the cry. Was the Union in danger? Here were a few non-resistants at the North, who said, We will have "no union with slaveholders." There was a party of seceders at the South, who periodically blustered about disunion. Could these men bring the Union into peril? Did Daniel Webster even think so? I shall never insult that giant intellect by the thought. He knew South Carolina, he knew Georgia, very well. . . . I think Mr. Webster knew there was no danger of a dissolution of the Union. . . .
Here is the reason. He wanted to be President. That was all of it. Before this he had intrigued, always in a clumsy sort, for he was organized for honesty, and cunning never throve in his keeping, had stormed and blustered and bullied. "Gen. Taylor the second choice of Massachusetts for the President," quoth he: "I tell you I am to be the first, and Massachusetts has no second choice." . . .
What flattery was there from Mr. Webster! What flattery to the South! what respect for Southern nullifiers! "The secessionists of the South . . . are learned and eloquent; they are animated and full of spirit; they are high-minded and chivalrous . . ."
He scorn against he "fanatics" of the North, against the higher law, and the God thereof! . . .
Slavery, the most hideous snake which southern regions breed, with fifteen unequal feet, came crawling north; fold on fold, and ring on ring, and coil on coil, the venomed monster came: then avarice, the foulest worm which northern cities gender in their heat, went crawling south; with many a wriggling curl, it wound along its way. At length they met, and, twisting up in their obscene embrace, the twain became one monster hunkerism . . . The dragon wormed its way along, crawled into the church of commerce, wherein the minister baptized the beast, "Salvation." . . .
But in spite of this, in every city, in every town, in every college, and in each capsizing church, there were found faithful men, who feared not the monster, heeded not the stamping; nay, some doctors of divinity were found living. In all their houses there was light, and the destroying angel shook them not. The word of the Lord came in open vision to their eye; they had their lamps trimmed and burning, their loins gift; they stood road-ready. Liberty and religion turned in thither, and the slave found read and wings. "When my father and my mother forsake me, then the Lord will take me up!"
After the 7th of March, Mr. Webster became the ally of the worst of men, the forefront of kidnapping. The orator of Plymouth Rock was the advocate of slavery; the hero of Bunker Hill put chains around Boston court-house; the applauder of Adams and Jefferson was a tool of the slaveholder, and a keeper of slavery's dogs, the associate of the kidnapper, and the mocker of men who loved the right. Two years he lived with that rabble-rout for company, his name the boast of every vilest thing. . . .
But what was the recompense? Let the Baltimore Convention tell. He was the greatest candidate before it. . . . The two hundred and ninety-three delegates came together and voted. They gave him thirty-two votes! Where were the men of the "lower law," who made a denial of God the first principle of their politics? . . .
Where was the South? Fifty-three times did the Convention ballot, and the South never gave him a vote, not a vote; no, not one! . . . the cruel South, treacherous to him whom she beguiled to treason against God, she answered, "Not a vote!" It was the old fate of men who betray. . . . Mr. Calhoun had said, "The furthest Southerner is nearer to us than the nearest Northern man." They could trust him with their work, not with its covenanted pay! . . .
The telegraph which brought him tidings of his fate was a thunder-stroke out of the clear sky. No wonder that he wept, and said, "I am a disgraced man, a ruined man!" His early, his last, his fondest dream of ambition broke, and only ruin filled his hand! What a spectacle! to move pity in the stones of the street!
Daniel Webster went down to Marshfield to die! He died of his 7th of March speech! That word indorsed on Mason's Bill drove thousands of fugitives from America to Canada. It put chains round our court-house; it led men to violate the majesty of law all over the North. I violated it, and so did you. It sent Thomas Sims in fetters to his jail and his scourging at Savannah; it caused practical atheism to be preached in many churches in New York, Philadelphia, Washington; and, worst of all, in Boston itself! And then, with its own recoil, it sent Daniel Webster to his grave, giving him such a reputation as a man would not wish for his utterest foe. . . .
My friends, it is hard for me to say those things. My mother's love is warm in my own bosom still, and I hate to say such words. But God is just; and, in the presence of God, I stand here to tell the truth. . . .
Do men mourn for him? See how they mourn! The streets are hung with black. . . . The Mayor and Aldermen wear crape. Wherever his death is made known, the public business stops, the flags drop half-mast down. The courts adjourn. The courts of Massachusetts at Boston, at Dedham, at Lowell, all adjourn; the courts of New Hampshire, of Maine, of New York; even at Baltimore and Washington, the courts adjourn; for the great lawyer is dead, and justice must wait another day. Only the United States Court, in Boston, trying a man for helping Shadrach out of the furnace of the kidnappers, the court which executes the Fugitive Slave Bill, that does not adjourn; that keeps on; the worm dies not, and the fire of its persecution is not quenched, when death puts out the lamp of life! . . .
Do men mourn for him, the great man eloquent? I put on sackcloth long ago; . . . I mourned when he spoke the speech of the 7th of March. . . . I mourned for him when the kidnappers first came to Boston, hated then, now "respectable men" . . .
He knew the cause of his defeat, and in the last weeks of his life confessed that he was deceived; that, before his fatal speech, he had assurance from the North and South, that, if he supported slavery, it would lead him into place and power; but now he saw the mistake, and that a few of the "fanatics" had more influence in America than he and all the South! He sinned against his own conscience, and so he fell!
He made him wings of slavery to gain a lofty eminence. Those wings unfeathered in his flight. For one and thirty months he fell, until at last he reached the tomb. There, on the sullen shore, a mighty wreck, great Webster lies. . . .
No man can resist infinite temptation. There came a peril greater than he could bear. Condemn the sin pity the offending man. The tone of political morality is pitiably low. It lowered him, and then he debased the morals of politics.
Part of the blame belongs to the New England church, which honors "devoutness," and sneers at every noble, manly life, calling men saints who only pray, all careless of the dead men's bones which glut the whited sepulcher. . . . The disgrace is not his alone. But we must blame Mr. Webster as we blame few men. . . .
Boston now mourns for him. She is too late in her weeping. She should have wept her warning when her capitalists filled his right hand with bribes. She ought to have put on sackcloth when the speech of March 7th first came here. She should have hung her flags at half-mast when the Fugitive Slave Bill became law; then she only fired cannons, and thanked her representative. Webster fell prostrate, but was Boston more innocent than he? . . . It was she that ruined him. . . .
It was partly by Boston's sin that the great man fell. I pity his victims; you pity them too. But I pity him more, oh, far more! Pity the oppressed, will you? Will you not also pity the oppressor in his sin? Look there! . . .
Last time he was in the Senate it was to hear his successor speak. He stayed an hour, and heard Charles Sumner demonstrate that the Fugitive Slave Law was not good religion, nor good constitution, nor good law. The old and new stood face to face, the Fugitive Slave Bill and Justice. What an hour! What a sight! What thoughts ran through the great man's mind, mingled with what regrets! . . . Had Mr. Webster been true to his history, true to his heart, true to his intention and his promises, he would himself have occupied that ground two years before. . . . He came home to Boston, and went down to Marshfield to die. An old man, broken with the storms of State, went home to die! . . .
Just four years after his great speech, on the 24th of October, all that was mortal of Daniel Webster went down to the dust, and the soul to the motherly bosom of God! Men mourn for him: he heeds it not. The great man has gone where the servant is free from his master, where the weary are at rest, where the wicked cease from troubling. . . .
Massachusetts, the dear old mother of us all! Let her warn her children to fling away ambition, and let her charge them, every one, that there is a God who must indeed be worshiped, and a higher law which must be kept, though gold and union fail! . . .
Then let her lift her eyes to heaven, and pray:
"Sweet Mercy! to the gates of heaven
This statesman lead, his sins forgiven;
The rueful conflict, the heart riven
With vain endeavor,
And memory of earth's bitter leaven,
Effaced for ever!
why to him confine the prayer,
While kindred thoughts and yearnings bear,
On the frail heart, the purest share
With all that live?
The best of what we do and are,
Great God, forgive!
In Boston, Anthony Burns was seized. The story is told in compelling detail in a recent book by Albert J. Von Frank.53 Parker's role in the resistance is well known, but we ought also to remember that of Thomas Wentworth Higginson of Worcester, and of Bronson Alcott, at the door of the besieged Court House:A few pistol-shots were fired, a deputy marshal was killed . . . They were unsupported, had no reserves, and were not organized for a work of magnitude. The marshal's men fell back also within the building, apparently as much frightened as anybody, and stood on the stairway leading up to the floor where Burns was confined, impotently flourishing their cutlasses in space. The door was regarded by both sides as a gate of death. The battered door alone occupied the empty space. At this moment Mr. A. Bronson Alcott walked deliberately up the steps, stood there a moment with habitual serenity, quietly descended, and remarked to a friend, his voice preserving its even tone, and pausing, as its wont was, between the words, "Do you not think that we are wanted there?" The invitation was not accepted; for the police were on the ground. Higginson was badly bruised by clubs, his forehead laid open by a cutlass; others were beaten or arrested; the rest scattered.54Conway offers many eyewitness views of the principal players. Henry Thoreau has been characterized as interested in little but an anarchistic defiance of government, with no real interest in slaves, slavery, or abolition, but Conway's view is different:[Thoreau] invited me to come next day for a walk, but in the morning I found the Thoreaus agitated by the arrival of a coloured fugitive from Virginia, who had come to their door at daybreak. Thoreau took me to a room where his excellent sister, Sophia, was ministering to the fugitive, who recognized me as one he had seen. He was alarmed, but his fears passed into delight when after talking with him about our county I certified his genuineness. I observed the tender and lowly devotion of Thoreau to the African. He now and then drew near to the trembling man, and with a cheerful voice bade him feel at home, and have no fear that any power should again wrong him. That whole day he mounted guard over the fugitive, for it was a slave-hunting time. But the guard had no weapon, and probably there was no such thing in the house.
The next day the fugitive was got off to Canada, and I enjoyed my first walk with Thoreau.55
Conway befriended the Senator Sumner, and the duo would make periodic visits to Lincoln to try to convince him that he faced an hour like that described by Jim Lowell:Once to ev'ry man and nationThe poets of the movement were essential and they were abundant. Besides James Russell Lowell, there were Sam Longfellow and Sam Johnson, who published the first Hymns of the Spirit, also known as Sams' book (50 cents the copy); and contributions to the hymnody came from Emerson, Jones Very, T.W. Higginson, John Weiss, Parker, Pierpont, J.F. Clarke, Julia Ward Howe, and the Quaker Whittier. Many of these still are the anchors of our hymnal.
Comes the moment to decide
In the strife of truth with falsehood
For the good or evil side
. . . .
Then to side with truth is noble
When we share her wretched crust
Ere her cause bring fame and profit
And 'tis prosperous to be just.
Both when Civil War seemed imminent and while the blood and hatred flowed Conway and Sumner tried to persuade the President that at this "golden hour" (as he titled his book on the theme) he had the power no one had ever had to cleanse the nation of its greatest stain: under the provisions of his presidential war powers he could declare emancipation.
Parker instructed Sumner, by his lights, on matters of State, and advised him on affairs back home. The Kansas War drew Higginson from Worcester to lead hundreds of men in fighting near the border, appointed as "brigadier-general" of the "Free State Forces of Kansas,"56 then into extensive collaboration with John Brown (planning something rather different than what Brown, in desperation, eventually attempted). He took part in Republican politics, calling for disunion, and commanded a black regiment in the Civil War. Mobs broke up anti-slavery meetings in Boston, and, with apparent cooperation from Boston officials, prevented Emerson from finishing a speech at Tremont Temple.
The matter of Kansas came before the Senate in March 1856, and Sumner claimed the Senate floor on May 19 with "The Crime Against Kansas," and drew an unusually large audience, which listened with unusual attentiveness. The long speech, spanning two days, argued for immediate admission of Kansas as a free state, and declared that Sumner would never "consent to wad the National artillery with fresh appropriation bills, when its murderous hail is to be directed against the constitutional rights of my fellow-citizens." Not given to delicacy, he characterized Senator Butler of South Carolina with overheated rhetoric, as the Don Quixote of slavery, who "has chosen a mistress to whom he has made his vows, and who, though ugly to others, is always lovely to him; though polluted in the sight of the world, is chaste in his sight . . . the harlot, Slavery," and called Sen. Stephen Douglas "the squire of Slavery . . . ready to do all its humiliating offices." Then he aimed his rhetoric at Sen. James Mason, "who represents that other Virginia, from which Washington and Jefferson now avert their faces, where human beings are bred as cattle for the shambles."
All this was too much for Congressman Preston Brooks of South Carolina and cousin of Sen. Butler. He entered the Senate chamber, found Sumner at his desk, and beat him severely with a cane. It was three years before Sumner could return to his Senate seat, but the Massachusetts kept his seat vacant as a silent witness. Brooks and Sumner became regional folk heroes.
But Sumner's day for real power would come with the Republican victory of 1860. From here on out he was the most consistent of the new president's trusted advisers. In the Senate because of his wide knowledge of international law and history he ascended to chair the Foreign Relations Committee, a post he held until his death. But with the end of the war, his greatest energies flowed into the fight for a serious civil rights law for the newly-emancipated black citizens, and a radical Reconstruction of the South. It was Sumner who rushed to the Ford's theater and remained at Lincoln's side until death came the following noon. He sought to rouse abolitionists against the program of reconstruction pursued by Andrew Johnson, the Tennessean, who consistently blocked Sumner's civil rights bill; Sumner who sought Johnson's impeachment.
But what can we say of Mr. Emerson's place in this time? The assessment of Octavius Brooks Frothingham is no doubt correct:In this country Ralph Waldo Emerson was the great teacher. He gave an atmosphere rather than a dogma. He was air and light. He is best described, not as a philosopher, a man of letters, a poet, but as a seer. His gift was that of insight. . . . There was no varnish, no studied grace of motion or demeanor, no manifest desire to please, but a kind of wistfulness as of one who took you at your best and wanted to draw it out. . . . There was a certain shyness which indicated the modesty which is born of the spirit. . . . But a commanding doer he certainly was not; that is, he was no man of expedients, of practical resources, of merely executive will. He appreciated this kind of ability . . . The moral courage belonged to him, the earnestness, the faith, but his ethereal qualities lacked driving force. His principles made him interested in every movement of reform, for he had a boundless hope which led him sometimes into extravagant anticipations of truth and benefit. Every sign of life, intellectual, moral, spiritual, caught his eye, and so long as it promised new developments of power his eager sympathy went with it, but when the creative period ceased he turned away. He early enlisted in the anti-slavery cause . . . but he was not prominent among the workers of that reform. His name stood foremost in the list of those who claimed the emancipation of woman from social or political disability,not that he was a worker in the woman's-rights phalanx, not that he looked for any immediate benefit from that agitation, or felt any particular interest in the leaders or in the success of that individual crusade, but that he was in favor of the largest opportunity for all human beings, and wished every particle of power to be used. . . . There was something theoretical, speculative, in his attitude as a reformer. His philosophy . . . called for the utmost liberty, that each might receive all he could of the divine fulness and be as much as his nature required. Hence . . . his enthusiasm in behalf of individuals like Walt Whitman, John Brown, Henry Thoreau; hence the light that came into his eyes when he sat in some reform convention where high thoughts were spoken. His word was given, and it was always inspiring, emancipating, uplifting, heard in the valleys from the dizziest heights of vision; but force was not his to give. Such words were more than "half battles," to be sure, so invigorating were they to all the champions of good causes, but they were words still, and seemed to proceed from some upper region of impersonal mind. They expressed convictions, feelings, desires, but there was lack of blood in them. They seemed made of air; there was soul behind them, but not as much body as many wished.57I will here offer four assessments of the denomination's response to the national crisis. The first is that of James Freeman Clarke, interpreted in his memoirs by Edward Everett Hale.58Mr. Clarke had learned his anti-slavery lesson at Louisville . . . He intimates that it was easier to take advanced anti-slavery views in Louisville than in the Boston of those days. Boston could say, in a sense in which Louisville could not say it, that slavery was none of her business. In point of fact, the Boston manufacturers who used Southern cotton, and the Boston merchants who directed the coasting trade with the South, did not want to irritate their Southern correspondents. In political combinations, also, the Whig party of that day was still posing as a national party. Its leaders were very eager to keep in alliance the one or two Southern States which still voted with the. Such eagerness gave great coldness to their anti-slavery expressions.The next comes from Parker, in an 1845 letter to Samuel May.59The Unitarians are getting shockingly bigoted and little. Their late meetings were windy. . . . Anniversary-week had painfully little of the Channing; much of the Norton, bating his scholarship; . . . specious, superficial, and worldly. The Universalists are more humane than we: they declare the Fatherhood of God, and do not stick at the consequences, everlasting happiness for all men. I think they are the most humane sect in the land. They had an address on temperance, one on slavery, one on war, delivered before their ministers on anniversary-week. Think of that, we whose 'mission it is to be silent about slavery,' and I suppose about war, intemperance, and all other sins that everybody has a mind to! Do tell the youngsters to be men, not merely dawdling ministers . . ."Samuel May describes an incident at a Unitarian church in Boston. With Alcott, he had, on Oct. 15, 1830 gone to Abner Kneeland's Universalist Society at Julien Hall to hear Garrison, and has been electrified. (May and Garrison would up talking till midnight; Alcott invited Garrison to dinner.) May was so stirred that he arranged for Garrison to speak at a far more prestigious venue: the Athanaeum. Subsequently he had gone to preach at Rev. Alexander Young's Unitarian society on Summer Street, New Old South.60I was engaged to preach on the following Sunday for Brother Young, in Summer Street Church. Of course I could not again speak to a congregation, as a Christian minister, and be silent respecting the great iniquity of our nation. The only sermon I had brought from my home in Connecticut, that could be made to bear on the subject, was one on Prejudice, the sermon about to be published as one of the tracts of the American Unitarian Association. So I touched it up as well as I could, interlining here and there words and sentences which pointed in the new direction to which my thoughts and feelings so strongly tended, and writing at its close what used to be called an improvement. Thus: "The subject of my discourse bears most pertinently upon a matter of the greatest national as well as personal importance. There are more than two millions of our fellow-beings, children of the Heavenly Father, who are held in our country in the most abject slavery, regarded and treated like domesticated animals, their rights as men trampled under foot, their conjugal, parental, fraternal relations and affections utterly set at naught. It is our prejudice against the color of these poor people that makes us consent to the tremendous wrongs they are suffering. If they are white, ay, if only two thousand or two hundred white men, women, and children in the Southern States were treated as these millions of colored ones are, we of the North should make such a stir of indignation, we should so agitate the country, with our appeals and remonstrances, that the oppressors would be compelled to set their bondmen free. But will our prejudice be accepted by the Almighty, the impartial Judge of all, as a valid excuse for our indifference to the wrongs and outrages inflicted upon these millions of our countrymen? O no! O no! He will say, "Inasmuch as ye did not what ye could for the relief of these, the least of the brethren, ye did it not to me." Tell me not that we are forbidden by the Constitution of our country to interfere in behalf of the enslaved. No compact our fathers may have made for us, no agreement we could ourselves make, would annul our obligations to suffering fellow-men. "Yes, yes," I said, with an emphasis that seemed to startle everybody it he house, "if need be, the very foundations of our Republic must be broken up; and if this stone of stumbling, this rock of offence, cannot be removed from under it, the proud superstructure must fall. It cannot stand, it ought not to stand, it will not stand, on the necks of millions of men." . . .He reports that the next day, his father came home from work on State Street disturbed by reports he'd heard of the sermon via some of the "gentlemen of property and standing" who'd been present. They'd found it fanatical, incendiary, treasonable. His father, who would require ten more years to be convinced of his son's position, wants him to cool it: slavery must be left gradually to be removed by the progress of civilization.
When I rose to pronounce the benediction I said: "Every one present must be conscious that the closing remarks of my sermon have caused an unusual emotion throughout the church. I am glad. Would to God that a deeper emotion could be sent throughout our land, until all the people thereof shall be roused from their wicked insensibility to the most tremendous sin of which any nation was ever guilty, and be impelled to do that righteousness which alone can avert the just displeasure of God. I have been prompted to speak thus by the words I have heard during the past week from a young man hitherto unknown, but who is, I believe, called of God to do a greater work for the good of our country than has been done by any one since the Revolution. I mean William Lloyd Garrison. He is going to repeat his lectures the coming week. I advise, I exhort, I entreat would that I could compel! you to go and hear him."
On turning to Brother Young after the benediction I found that he was very much displeased. He sharply reproved me, and gave me to understand that I should never have an opportunity so to violate the propriety of his pulpit again. And never since then have I lifted up my voice within that beautiful church, which has lately been taken down.
Then he delivered the sermon to hismost excellent friend, Rev. Henry Ware, Jr., who was then the purveyor of tracts for the American Unitarian Association. He accepted the discourse as originally written, but insisted that the interlineations and the additions respecting slavery should be omitted. He would not have done this, nor should I have consented to it, a few years after. But we were all in bondage then. Unconsciously to ourselves, the hand of the slaveholding power lay heavily upon the mind and heart of the people in our Northern as well as Southern states. What a pity that my words in that sermon, respecting slavery, were not published in the tract! They might have helped a little to commit our Unitarian denomination much earlier to the cause of impartial liberty, in earnest protest against the great oppression . . . Of whom should opposition to slavery of every kind have been expected so soon as from Unitarian Christians?William Ellery Channing watched the Unitarian cowardice with sorrow, as William C. Gannett reports in this passage:61Channing, now about sixty years old, greeted the Transcendental movement with interest, but with some natural distrust. He, too, ardently prophesied a purer form of Christianity, but never, like Parker, lost faith in the revelation and miracles; and he sadly deplored any attempt to sever Christianity from its teacher. But "Give Mr. Parker my love!" was his message, when other Unitarian ministers were leaving him severely alone. . . . Channing was greatly disappointed with their general attitude. He regarded himself "as belonging not to a sect, but to the community of free minds, of lovers of truth, of followers of Christ both on earth and in heaven." "I am little of a Unitarian," he wrote more than once in the last year or two of his life. "I have felt for years that old Unitarianism must undergo important developments. Though an advance on previous systems and bearing some better fruits, it does not work deeply, it does not strike living springs in the soul. It cannot quicken and regenerate the world. Its history is singular. It began as a protest against the rejection of reason. It pledged itself to progress as its life and end; but it has gradually grown stationary, and now we have a Unitarian Orthodoxy."Notwithstanding all this, there were surprises and signs of painful change. Among these was a personal experience of t'shuv on the part of the elder Gannett, described by his son. He begins by citing an extraordinary letter from Rev. John Parkman, whose membership in the Boston Vigilance Committee seemed not to be suspected by his host:62I stayed at your father's house during Anniversary Week, in the spring of 1854. During that week Burns was arrested, tried, and sent back to the South. While the trial was going on, Dr. Gannett never lost an opportunity to having a fling at the Abolitionists. I was accustomed to hear him denounce their violence and fanaticism, with a due degree of patience; but sharing in the excitement of this particular juncture, being in fact a member of the Vigilance Committee, I did not listen to him as patiently as I was accustomed to do. I was especially annoyed by the as it seemed to me indifferent and unfeeling way in which he spoke of the poor fugitive slave. 'What an ado about a mere single incident of slavery?' 'What good is going to come of all this excitement?' 'What is one man set against the continuance and safety of the Union?' he said, among other things. I finally proposed to him that we should not discuss the matter further. This state of things lasted two or three days. On the day when Burns was given up, the first person whom I met on entering his house was Dr. Gannett. 'Is it true that he has been surrendered?' he asked, in those plaintive tones which all who knew him well remember. On my replying, 'Yes,' he threw himself into a chair, buried his face in his hands, and then, in a voice broken by sobbing, burst out, 'O God, forgive this guilty nation! What will become of us? what dreadful judgments are in store for us?' He said more, that I do not remember exactly, but these particular words I am sure he used. He recovered himself in a few minutes, but was miserably depressed through the whole day. I met no one during that week who seemed to take so much to heart the event which made it so sad and memorable.The turmoil had barely settled when Gannett's daughter asked him what he would do if a fugitive should come to his door. "I have thought of that," he said. "I should shelter him and aid him to go further on to Canada, and then I should go and give myself up to prison, and insist on being made a prisoner, [and] accept of no release. For I have decided what to do as an individual against the government, and therefore I should abide the result."
But what would he say as a minister? For the next two Sundays he said nothing. Then, on June 11, he delivered his Relation of the North to Slavery, described by Von Frank as "a statement in which one can see all the psychic violence by which a bold new conviction is wrenched from a history of compromise."63 He still credits some Southern slaveholders with believing slavery "a logical deduction from sure premises, and a fair inference from Christian truths." He says some masters treat their slaves well. He says Uncle Tom's Cabin offers extreme examples. But slavery is "ineradicably wrong and bad" because ownership of one human being by another is categorically wrong. In fact, he declares, "an immediate adoption of measures for the final liberation of every man, woman, and child, now regarded as transferable property, is what a correct view of duty would obtain from the Southern master." It would "be fatal to integrity and purity of character," Gannett said, to allow obedience to human law to supplant "our respect for what we believe to be the requisition of God." There was something painfully contorted about the sermon; there were sections meant to placate old shibboleths not easily let go. But the thrust of it was clear, as were his suggestions as to what was to be done: first, make no further compromises with the South; second, use the political process to repeal whatever in the law is repugnant to the conscience; third, oppose the westward extension of slavery; and fourth (and most significantly), "rescue our own soil from being trampled by those whose attempts to reclaim their fugitive servants are conducted in a manner to wound our sensibilities and provoke our passions."
"This last point," remarks Von Frank, "was the one that most drew the attention of Slave Commissioner Curtis as he sat glowering and sour-faced that Sunday morning in his pew." Gannett wanted a rigorous Personal Liberty Law that would compel the South to treat the law of 1850 the way they had once treated the law of 1793 a law with no practical utility. Then, continued slave-catching forays by the South might convince the North that such a Union was not worth preserving.
Stung by the surprising public declaration of a friend, Curtis published a three-part rebuttal, both in the Courier, a Hunker Whig sheet, and as a pamphlet.64 Gannett had, in his way, crossed to the other side. Now Curtis devoted himself to Webster, helping to manage the futile Webster campaign for the Whig Presidential nomination a campaign premised on enthusiastic Southern support and then, quite alone, conducted a more futile campaign, which Webster would neither support nor renounce, for an independent Webster candidacy.65
Years later, looking back on this period, even Lothrop will speak as though the great meaning of the era had had to do with the abolition of slavery and even the defiance of the Fugitive Slave Law.
Because of their (understandable) denominational independence, many of the figures in this drama have too little place in our pantheon of heroes. Yet it seems to me that it is they who created a future for Unitarian Universalism, and they did so precisely by stepping (or being pushed) outside the institution. It is a venerable misconception that the most effective institutional change comes from inside the institution; but no institution is, after all, however much it may try to be, a closed system. If we do not remember Samuel Johnson, O. B. Frothingham, or T. W. Higginson because they were not, in the end, Unitarians, and if we dismiss Emerson because he was no institutionalist, then we may as well dismiss Channing, who spent his later life "as belonging not to a sect, but to the community of free minds, of lovers of truth," who remarked more than once "I am little of a Unitarian," and saidI have felt for years that old Unitarianism must undergo important developments. Though an advance on previous systems and bearing some better fruits, it does not work deeply, it does not strike living springs in the soul. It cannot quicken and regenerate the world. Its history is singular. It began as a protest against the rejection of reason. It pledged itself to progress as its life and end; but it has gradually grown stationary, and now we have a Unitarian Orthodoxy.Has not a mistaken notion of denominational loyalty together with a blurred memory of what the institution was then fueled a desire to diminish the debt we owe to the Transcendentalist movement?
Their engagement with the antislavery movement is a period of singular importance for Unitarianism and, indirectly, Universalism. It was Samuel Johnson who put it succinctly:Everything in this crisis of American growth centres in the great conflict about this gigantic sin of slavery. That is the battle-field on which the questions are all to be fought out, of moral and spiritual and intellectual Freedom against the Absolutism of sect and party; of Love against Mammon; of Conscience against the State; of Man against Majorities; of Truth against Policy; of God against the Devil. It is really astonishing how everything that happens with us works directly into this fermenting conflict.In March of 1874, Charles Sumner lay dying in his Boston home. His next-to-last words were spoken in great pain. Frederick Douglass dropped in to see him, and he managed to say, "You must take care of the civil-rights bill, my bill, the civil-rights bill, don't let it fail." And then, exclaiming with something of the old ring in his voice: "Don't let the bill fail."
As forty thousand people passed by his coffin in the State House, they saw the banner laid across it with those words: "Don't let my bill fail."
Those were his next-to-last words. At the end, there was no one left with the Senator but his friend Judge Rockwood Hoar, and Charles Sumner knew it was the end and knew these words would be his last. With complete lucidity he spoke them: "Judge, tell Emerson how much I love and revere him.66
It is the testimony of those who won the contest against slavery for freedom that ought to frame our assessment.
1 Octavius Brooks Frothingham. Transcendentalism in New England; A History. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1886, 153-6. Back.
2 Boston: Little, Brown, 1945, 382, 384. Back.
3 Samuel J. May. Some Recollections of the Antislavery Conflict. Boston: Fields, Osgood, & Co., 1869. p. 256. Back.
4 Samuel May, Reflections, 157ff. Back.
5 W. C. Gannett. A Hundred Years of the Unitarian Movement in America, 1815-1915: The Story, the Difficulties, the Outlook. Privately printed, 1915, 18. Back.
6 Albert J. Von Frank. The Trials of Anthony Burns: Freedom and Slavery in Emerson's Boston. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998. Back.
7 William C. Gannett. Ezra Stiles Gannett: Unitarian Minister in Boston,1824-1871. Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1875, 286f. Back.
8 W.C. Gannett, Gannett, 1875, 289. Back.
9 W.C. Gannett, Gannett, 287f. Back.
10 Octavius Brooks Frothingham. Reflections and Impressions, 1822-1890. New York & London: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1891, 5-6. Back.
11 S. K. Lothrop. Missionary EffortsandTheological Education,aReportMade to a Meeting Held at the Hall in Temple Avenue, April 12, 1842, pp. 5-7. Back.
12 Samuel Johnson, A Memorial. Cambridge: Riverside, 1882, p. vi. Back.
13 Cheerful Yesterdays. The Writings of Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Vol. I. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company/Riverside Press, 1898, 130f. Back.
14 O.B. Frothingham, Recollections and Impressions, p. 119. Back.
15 I rely for this summary of W.H. Channing's life on O. B. Frothingham, Memoir of William Henry Channing. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1885. Back.
16 Samuel J. May. Some Recollections of the Antislavery Conflict. Boston: Fields, Osgood, & Co., 1869, 344. Back.
17 Boston Unitarianism 1820-1850, A Study of the Life and Work of Nathaniel Langdon Frothinham. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1890, p. 197. Back.
18 Cheerful Yesterdays. The Writings of Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Vol. I. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company/Riverside Press, 1898, p. 116. Back.
19 Higginson, Cheerful Yesterdays, pp. 124f. Back.
20 The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Ed. William H. GIlman et al. 16 vols. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univeristy Press, 1960-82), 5:150. Back.
21 The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Ed. William H. GIlman et al. 16 vols. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univeristy Press, 1960-82), 5:150. Cited in Emerson's Antislavery Writings.Len Gougeon and Joel Myerson, ed. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995, xii-xiii. Back.
22 R. W. Emerson. Journal entry for Feb. 25, 1827. Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks. Belknap. III, 117. Back.
23 Gougeon and Myerson, xi. Back.
24 Gougeon and Myerson, xvi. Back.
25 The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson 5:437. Back.
26 Lydian Emerson. Letters. 74, 308, cited in Gougeon and Myerson, xix. Back.
27 To RWE, March 16, 1838, in the Houghton Library and cited by Gougeon & Myerson on xxv. Back.
28 Len Gougeon. Virtue's Hero: Emerson, Antislavery, and Reform. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1990, pp. 24-40. GET IT. Back.
29 It continues: "Believing that to deprive them of their lands without their consent is an outrage upon justice and humanity, a violation of all the principles of free government, and of the solemn obligation of the U. States to this dependent people, we most earnestly protest against it." [These things are in the Massachusetts State Archives and are cited in G-M xxvii]Back.
30 Pp. 248-251. Back.
31 Gougeon and Meyerson, xxvii. Back.
32 Gougeon and Myerson, xxxi. Back.
33 Gougeon and Myerson, xxxv. Back.
34 Ralph L. Rusk. The Life of Ralph Waldo Emerson. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1949, p. 360. Back.
35 Gougeon and Myerson, xxxviii. Back.
36 The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson 11:412, xxxix. Back.
37 The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson 11:354. Back.
38 Moncure Daniel Conway. Autobiography: Memories and Experiences. Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Company/Riverside, 1904, Vol. I, pp. 109f. Back.
39 Conway, Autobiography, I:175. Back.
40 Conway, Autobiography, I:184. Back.
41 Conway, Autobiography,. I:354ff. Back.
42 Conway, Autobiography, I:434-436. Back.
43 Donald Yacovone. Samuel Joseph May and the Dilemmas of the Liberal Persuasion, 1797-1871. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991, pp. 82fBack.
44 Yacovone, Samuel Joseph May, pp. 138f. Back.
45 The first Vigilance Commitee had been formed long before in response to the kidnapping of a slave in Boston Harbor. John Quincy Adams presided over the founding meeting, at Faneuil Hall, and Parker was a founding member. Back.
46 Thomas Wentworth Higginson. Contemporaries. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin/Riverside, 1899, 35. Back.
47 Octavious Brooks Frothingham. Theodore Parker: A Biography. Boston: James R. Osgood and Company (Late Ticknor & Fields, and Feilds, Osgood, & Co., if one cares), 1874, p. 401. Back.
48 Frothingham, Theodore Parker, 404-407, 415. Back.
49 "The Fugitive Slave Law," delivered March 7, 1854, the fourth anniversary of Webster's betrayal, at an antislavery gathering int he Tabernacle in New York. Back.
50 Johnson, Samuel. Theodore Parker, a Lecture. Ed. John H. Clifford and Horace L. Traubel. Chicago: Charles H. Kerr & Co., 1890, 51f. Back.
51 Frothingham, Theodore Parker, 420f. Back.
52 Found in a re-publication by the American Unitarian Association (!) of Parker's postumous 1870 Historic Americans: Theodore Parker, Historic Americans (Boston: American Unitarian Association, 1908), pp. 266ff. The volume is part of an AUA-published works of Parker. Back.
53 Albert J. Von Frank. The Trials of Anthony Burns: Freedom and Slavery in Emerson's Boston. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998. Back.
54 Frothingham, Theodore Parker, 425. Back.
55 Conway, Autobiography, I:140ff. Back.
56 Higginson, Cheerful Yesterdays, 204. Back.
57 O.B. Frothingham. Reflections and Impressions, pp. 166-168. Back.
58 James Freeman Clarke. Autobiography, Diary and Correspondence. Ed. Edward Everett Hale. Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin/Riverside Cambridge, 1891. Back.
59 Cited by Frothingham, Parker, 217-18. Back.
60 Samuel J. May. Some Recollections of the Antislavery Conflict. Boston: Fields, Osgood, & Co., 1869, pp. 22f. May summarizes (335-337):
But before I proceed further with the disagreeable narrative, let me state, to the honor of the sect, that though a very small one in comparison with those called Orthodox (having at this day not more than three hundred and sixty ministers, and in 1853 only two hundred and seven), we Unitarians have given to the antislavery cause more preachers, writers, lecturers, agents, poets, than any other denomination in proportion to our numbers, if not more without that comparison. Of those Unitarian ministers no longer on earth, we hold in most grateful remembrance Dr. N. Worcester, Dr. Follen, Dr. Channing, Dr. S. Willard, Theodore Parker, John Pierpont, Dr. H. Ware, Jr., and A. H. Conant. Others, though less outspoken, were always explicitly on the side of the oppressed, Dr. Lowell, Dr. C. Francis, Dr. E. B. Hall, G. . Simmons, E. Q. Sewall, B. Whitman, N. A. Staples, S. Judd, B. Frost. Of those who are still in the body, we gratefully claim as fellow-laborers in the antislavery cause Drs. J. G. Palfrey, W. H. Furness, J. F. Clarke, T. T. Stone, J. Allen, G. W. Briggs, R. P. Stebbins, O. Stearns, and Rev. Messrs. S. May, Jr., C. Stetson, W. H. Channing, M. D. Conway, O. B. Frothingham, J. Parkman, Jr., J. T. Sargent, N. Hall., A. A. Livermore, J. L. Russell, J. H. Heywood, T. W. Higginson, R. W. Emerson, S. Longfellow, S. Johnson, F. Frothingham, W. H. Knapp, R. F. Wallcut, R. Collyer, E. B. Willlson, W. P. Tilden, W. H. Fish, C. G. Ames, John Weiss, R. C. Waterston, T. J. Mumford, C. C. Shackford, FD. W. Holland, E. Buckingham, C. C. Sewall, F. Tiffany, R. R. Shippen. All these are or were Unitarian preachers, and did service in the conflict. Many of them suffered obloquy, persecution, loss, because of their fidelity to the principles of impartial liberty.
The Unitarians as a body dealt with the question of slavery in any but an impartial, courageous, and Christian way. Continually in their public meetings the question was staved off and driven out, because of technical, formal, verbal difficulties which were of no real importance, and ought not to have caused a moment's hesitation. . . . [I]t does seem to me that they were pre-eminently guilty in reference to the enslavement of the millions in our land with its attendant wrongs, cruelties, horrors. They, of all other sects, ought to have spoken boldly, as one man . . . But they did not. They refused to speak as a body, and censured, condemned, execrated their members who did speak faithfully for the down-trodden . . . Let no honor be withheld from the individuals who were so prominent and noble exceptions to the general policy of the denomination, -- the ministers whom I have named above, together with those faithful laymen, Samuel E. Sewall, Francis Jackson, David L. Child, Ellis Gray Loring, Edmund Quincy, A. Bronson Alcott, Dr. H. I. Bowditch, William I. Bowditch, with others; and these excellent women, Mrs. L. M. Child, Mrs. Maria W. Chapman, Mrs. Follen, Miss Cabot, Mrs. Mary May, Misses Weston, Misses Chapman, Miss Sargent, and more who should be named . . . But let the sad truth be plainly told, as a solemn warning to all coming generations, that even the Unitarians, as a body, were corrupted and morally paralyzed by our national consenting with slaveholders, even the Unitarians to whose avowed faith in the paternity of God, the brotherhood of all mankind, and the divinity of human nature, the enslavement of men should have been especially abhorrent. . . . Back.
61 William C. Gannett. A Hundred Years of the Unitarian Movement in America. 1815-1915. Privately printed. Philadelphia, 1915, pp. 24ff. Back.
62 W.C. Gannett, Gannett, pp. 288f. Back.
63 Von Frank, Trials, 271. Back.
64 Von Frank, Trials, 270ff. Back.
65 Merrill D. Peterson, The Great Triumvirate: Webster, Clay, and Calhoun. Oxford University Press, 1987, 483-490. Back.
66 David Herbert Donald. Charles Sumner and the Rights of Man, p. 573f. Published together with Donald's Charles Sumner and the Coming of the Civil War as Charles Sumner. New York: Da Capo Press, 1996. Back.
Formatted for the web by Rev. F. Jay Deacon and Kasey Melski.
General Assembly 2000 · Time Grid
GA Office UUA Main Page Search Our Site Contact Us
Unitarian Universalist Association
25 Beacon Street, Boston, MA 02108 · Telephone (617) 742-2100 · Fax (617) 725-4979
This page created with Netscape Navigator Gold