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VIII

THE ANTISLAVERY MOVEMENT.

ENTHUSIASM for reform was obviously involved in the conception of human nature which underlay the world-wide revolutionary movement whose New England manifestation took the forms of Unitarianism and Transcendentalism. If human nature is essentially good, if evil is merely the consequence of what modern evolutionists might call artificial environment, it follows that relaxation of environment, releasing men from temporary bondage, must change things for the better. The heyday of Transcendentalism, then, had a humourous superficial aspect, which was admirably described in the opening passage of Lowell's essay on Thoreau, published in 1865:

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“What contemporary, if he was in the fighting period of his life, (since Nature sets limits about her conscription for spiritual fields, as the State does in physical warfare,) will ever forget what was somewhat vaguely called the • Transcendental Movement of thirty years ago? Apparently set astir by Carlyle’s essays on the 'Signs of the Times,' and on · History,' the final and more immediate impulse seemed to be given by 'Sartor Resartus.' At least a republication in Boston of that wonderful Abraham à Sancta Clara sermon on Falstaff's text of the miserable forked radish gave the signal for a sudden mental and moral mutiny. Ecce nunc tempus acceptabile ! was shouted on all hands with every variety of emphasis, and by voices of every conceivable pitch, representing the three sexes of men, women and Lady Mary Wortley Montagues. The nameless eagle of the tree Ygdrasil was about to sit at last, and wild-eyed enthusiasts rushed from all sides, each eager to thrust under the mystic bird that chalk egg from which the new and fairer Creation was to be hatched in due time. Redeunt Saturnia regna, — so much was certain, though in what shape, or by what methods, was still a matter of debate. Every possible form of intellectual and physical dyspepsia brought forth its gospel. Bran had its prophets, and the presartorial simplicity of Adam its martyrs, tailored impromptu from the tar-pot by incensed neighbours, and sent forth to illustrate the feathered Mercury,' as defined by Webster and Worcester. Plainness of speech was carried to a pitch that would have taken away the breath of George Fox; and even swearing had its evangelists, who answered a simple inquiry after their health with an elaborate ingenuity of imprecation that might have been honourably mentioned by Marlborough in general orders. Everybody had a mission (with a capital M) to attend to everybody else's business. No brain but had its private maggot, which must have found pitiably short commons sometimes. Not a few impecunious zealots abjured the use of money (unless earned by other people), professing to live on the internal revenues of the spirit. Some had an assurance of instant millennium so soon as hooks and eyes should be substituted for buttons. Communities were established where everything was to be common but common sense. Men renounced their old Gods, and hesitated only whether to bestow their furloughed allegiance on Thor or Budh. Conventions were held for every hitherto inconceivable purpose. The belated gift of tongues, as among the Fifth Monarchy men, spread like a contagion, rendering its victims incomprehensible to all Christian men ; whether equally so to the most distant possible heathen or not was unexperimented, though many would have subscribed liberally that a fair trial might be made. It was the pentecost of Shinar. The day of utterances reproduced the day of rebuses and anagrams, and there was nothing so simple that uncial letters and the style of Diphilus the Labyrinth could not turn it into a riddle. Many foreign revolutionists out of work added to the general misunderstanding their contribution of broken English in every most ingenious form of fracture. All stood ready at a moment's notice to reform everything but themselves. The general motto was:

And we'll talk with them, too,
And take upon 's the mystery of things
As if we were God's spies.'”

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So long as reform remains in this stage, it can hardly impress people of common-sense worse than ridiculous. When reform becomes militant, however, trouble heaves in sight; and the militant shape which New England reform took in the '40's clearly involved not only a social revolution, but an unprecedented attack on that general right of property which the Common Law had always defended.

Negro slavery, at one time common to all the Englishspeaking colonies, had died out in the Northern States. During the first quarter of the nineteenth century, meanwhile, the condition of industry in the South had tended to stimulate the institution in that region until it assumed unforeseen social and economic importance. Throughout colonial history there had been considerable theoretical objection to it, a line of American thought which may be adequately traced by consulting the index of Stedman and Hutchinson's “Library of American Literature.” Samuel Sewall opposed slavery ; so from the beginning did the Quakers; and even in the South itself there were plenty of people who saw its evils and hoped for its disappearance; but no thoroughly organised movement against it took place until the air of New England freshened with the spirit of its Renaissance.

Channing, who passed the years from 1798 to 1800 in Richmond, wrote from thence a letter which strikingly expresses the feeling excited by slavery in earnest Unitarians :

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“ There is one object here which always depresses me. It is slavery. This alone would prevent me from ever settling in Virginia. Language cannot express my detestation of it. Master and slave! Nature never made such a distinction, or established such a relation. Man, when forced to substitute the will of another for his own, ceases to be a moral agent; his title to the name of man is extinguished, he becomes a mere machine in the hands of his oppressor. No empire is so valuable as the empire of one's self. No right is so inseparable from humanity, and so necessary to the improvement of our species, as the right of exerting the powers which nature has given us in the pursuit of any and of every good which we can obtain without doing injury to others. Should you desire it, I will give you some idea of the situation and character of the negroes in Virginia. It is a subject so degrading to humanity that I cannot dwell on it with pleasure. I should be obliged to show you every vice, heightened by every meanness and added to every misery. The influence of slavery on the whites is almost as fatal as on the blacks themselves.”

To Channing, the conclusion here stated was unavoidable. If human beings are essentially good, they have a natural right to free development. No form of environment could more impede such development than lifelong slavery. When any honest Unitarian was brought face to face with slavery, then, he was confronted with a dilemma. Either this thing was a monstrous denial of fundamental truth, or else the negroes were not human. Something like the latter view was certainly held by many good people. In the South, indeed, it became almost axiomatic. In Mark Twain's “ Huckleberry Finn ” there is an admirably compact expression of this temper. A boy, drawing the long bow, tells a simple-hearted and charitable woman that the boiler of a steamer has just exploded.

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Good gracious!' she exclaims, ' anybody hurt?'

No, 'm. Killed a nigger.' “ • Well, it's lucky; because sometimes people do get hurt.'”

With which sigh of relief the good creature goes on to relate some melancholy experiences of the boy's Uncle Silas.

It is hardly extreme to say, however, that this opinion is more consonant with New England temper to-day than it was seventy years ago. Modern ethnology seems to recognise a pretty marked distinction between human beings in the Stone Age and human beings as developed into the civilisation of the nineteenth century; and though native Africans are not literally neolithic, they certainly linger far behind the social stage which has been reached by modern Europe or America. To philanthropic people in 1830, on the other hand, the distinction between Caucasians and Africans seemed literally a question of complexion. Men they believed to be incarnate souls; and the colour which a soul happened to assume they held a mere accident.

Accordingly, a full nine years before the foundation of the Dial,” there was unflinchingly established in Boston a newspaper, which until the close of the Civil War remained the official organ of the New England antislavery men. This was the “Liberator,” founded in 1831 by William Lloyd Garrison, then only twenty-six years old. Born of the poorer classes

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at Newburyport in 1805, by trade a printer, by temperament an uncompromising reformer, he was stirred from youth by a deep conviction that slavery must be uprooted. When he founded the “Liberator," he had already made himself conspicuous; but the educated classes thought him insignificant. In 1833 he was a principal founder of the Antislavery Society in Philadelphia. From that time, the movement strengthened. Garrison died in 1879. For the last fifteen years of his life he was held, as he is held by tradition, a great national hero, a man who stood for positive right, who won his cause, who deserves unquestioning admiration, and whose opponents merit equally unquestioning contempt.

So complete a victory has rarely been the lot of any earthly reformer, and there are aspects in which Garrison deserves all the admiration accorded to his memory. Fanatical, of course, he was absolutely sincere in his fanaticism, absolutely devoted and absolutely brave. What is more, he is to be distinguished from most Americans who in his earlier days had attained eminence and influence by the fact that he never had the advantage or limit, as you will, of such educational training as should enable him to see more than one side of a question. The greatest strength of an honest, uneducated reformer lies in his unquestioning singleness of view. He really believes those who oppose him to be as wicked as he believes himself to be good. What moral strength is inherent in congenitally blind conviction is surely and honourably his.

But because Garrison was honest, brave, and strenuous, and because long before his life closed, the movement to which he unreservedly gave his energy proved triumphant, it does not follow that the men who opposed him were wicked. To understand the temper of the conservative people of New England we must stop for a moment, and see how slavery presented itself to them during the years of the antislavery struggle.

In the first place, the institution of slavery was honestly

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