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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

Slavery and a Republican Form of Government Not Incongruous

By William Pinkney (1764–1822)

[Born in Annapolis, Md., 1764. Died in Washington, D.C., 1822. From a Speech on the Missouri Slave Bill, delivered in the U. S. Senate, 15 Feb., 1820.]

BUT let us proceed to take a rapid glance at the reasons which have been assigned for this notion that involuntary servitude and a republican form of government are perfect antipathies. The gentleman from New Hampshire has defined a republican government to be that in which all the men participate in its power and privileges: from whence it follows that where there are slaves, it can have no existence. A definition is no proof, however, and even if it be dignified (as I think it was) with the name of a maxim, the matter is not much mended. It is Lord Bacon who says “that nothing is so easily made as a maxim;” and certainly a definition is manufactured with equal facility. A political maxim is the work of induction, and cannot stand against experience, or stand on anything but experience. But this maxim, or definition, or whatever else it may be, sets fact at defiance. If you go back to antiquity, you will obtain no countenance for this hypothesis; and if you look at home you will gain still less. I have read that Sparta, and Rome, and Athens, and many others of the ancient family, were republics. They were so in form undoubtedly—the last approaching nearer to a perfect democracy than any other government which has yet been known in the world. Judging of them also by their fruits, they were of the highest order of republics. Sparta could scarcely be any other than a republic, when a Spartan matron could say to her son just marching to battle, “Return victorious, or return no more.” It was the unconquerable spirit of liberty, nurtured by republican habits and institutions, that illustrated the pass of Thermopylæ. Yet slavery was not only tolerated in Sparta, but was established by one of the fundamental laws of Lycurgus, having for its object the encouragement of that very spirit. Attica was full of slaves—yet the love of liberty was its characteristic. What else was it that foiled the whole power of Persia at Marathon and Salamis? What other soil than that which the genial sun of republican freedom illuminated and warmed, could have produced such men as Leonidas and Miltiades, Themistocles and Epaminondas? Of Rome it would be superfluous to speak at large. It is sufficient to name the mighty mistress of the world, before Sylla gave the first stab to her liberties and the great dictator accomplished their final ruin, to be reminded of the practicability of union between civil slavery and an ardent love of liberty cherished by republican establishments.

If we return home for instruction upon this point, we perceive that same union exemplified in many a State, in which “liberty has a temple in every house, an altar in every heart,” while involuntary servitude is seen in every direction. Is it denied that those States possess a republican form of government? If it is, why does our power of correction sleep? Why is the constitutional guarantee suffered to be inactive? Why am I permitted to fatigue you, as the representative of a slave-holding State, with the discussion of the nugæ canoræ (for so I think them) that have been forced into this debate contrary to all the remonstrances of taste and prudence? Do gentlemen perceive the consequences to which their arguments must lead if they are of any value? Do they reflect that they lead to emancipation in the old United States—or to an exclusion of Delaware, Maryland, and all the South, and a great portion of the West from the Union? My honorable friend from Virginia has no business here, if this disorganizing creed be anything but the production of a heated brain. The State to which I belong must “perform a lustration”—must purge and purify herself from the feculence of civil slavery, and emulate the States of the North in their zeal for throwing down the gloomy idol which we are said to worship, before her senators can have any title to appear in this high assembly. It will be in vain to urge that the old United States are exceptions to the rule—or rather (as the gentlemen express it), that they have no disposition to apply the rule to them. There can be no exceptions by implication only, to such a rule; and expressions which justify the exemption of the old States by inference, will justify the like exemption of Missouri, unless they point exclusively to them, as I have shown they do not. The guarded manner, too, in which some of the gentlemen have occasionally expressed themselves on this subject, is somewhat alarming. They have no disposition to meddle with slavery in the old United States. Perhaps not—but who shall answer for their successors? Who shall furnish a pledge that the principle once ingrafted into the constitution, will not grow, and spread, and fructify, and over shadow the whole land? It is the natural office of such a principle to wrestle with slavery, wheresoever it finds it. New States, colonized by the apostles of this principle, will enable it to set on foot a fanatical crusade against all who still continue to tolerate it, although no practicable means are pointed out by which they can get rid of it consistently with their own safety. At any rate, a present forbearing disposition in a few or in many, is not a security upon which much reliance can be placed upon a subject as to which so many selfish interests and ardent feelings are connected with the cold calculations of policy. Admitting, however, that the old United States are in no danger from this principle—why is it so? There can be no other answer (which these zealous enemies of slavery can use) than that the constitution recognizes slavery as existing or capable of existing in those States. The constitution, then, admits that slavery and a republican form of government are not incongruous. It associates and binds them up together, and repudiates this wild imagination which the gentlemen have pressed upon us with such an air of triumph.