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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

The Abolitionists

By William Ellery Channing (1780–1842)

[Remarks on the Slavery Question. Letter to J. Phillips. 1839.—From The Works of William E. Channing, D.D. 1841.]

THE ABOLITIONISTS deserve rebuke; but let it be proportioned to the offence. They do wrong in their angry denunciation of slave-holders. But is calling the slave-holder hard names a crime of unparalleled aggravation? Is it not, at least, as great a crime to spoil a man of his rights and liberty, to make him a chattel, and trample him in the dust? And why shall the latter offender escape with so much gentler rebuke? I know, as well as the slave-holder, what it is to bear the burden of hard names. The South has not been sparing of its invectives in return for my poor efforts against slavery. I understand the evil of reproach; and I am compelled to pronounce it a very slight one, and not to be named in comparison with bondage; and why is it, that he who inflicts the former should be called to drink the cup of wrath to the very dregs, whilst he who inflicts the latter receives hardly a mild rebuke?

I say these things not as a partisan of the Abolitionists, but from a love of justice. They seem to me greatly wronged by the unparalleled persecution to which they have been exposed; and the wronged should never want a defender. But I am not of them. In the spirit of many of them I see much to condemn. I utterly disapprove their sweeping denunciations. I fear that their scorn of expediency may degenerate into recklessness. I fear, that, as a natural if not necessary consequence of their multiplied meetings held chiefly for excitement, their zeal must often be forced, got up for effect, a product of calculation, not a swell of the heart. I confide in them the less, the more they increase. I fear, that their resort to political action will impair their singleness of purpose and their moral power. I distrust the system of association and agitation in a cause like this. But, because I see among them somewhat to fear and blame, must I shut my eyes on more which I ought to commend? Must not men of pure and lofty aims be honored, because, like everything human, they are not free from fault? I respect the Abolitionists for maintaining great principles with courage and fervor, amidst scorn and violence. Can men have a higher claim to respect? In their body, amidst prejudiced, narrow-minded, conceited, self-seeking members, such as are found in all associations, there is a large proportion of uncompromising, single-hearted friends of truth, right and freedom; and such men are securities against the adoption of criminal ends or criminal means. In their front rank, perhaps at their head, is Gerrit Smith; a man worthy of all honor for his overflowing munificence, for his calm yet invincible moral courage, for his Christian liberality embracing men of every sect and name, and for his deep, active, inexhaustible sympathy with the sinful, suffering, and oppressed. In their ranks may also be found our common friend, Charles Follen, that genuine man, that heroic spirit, whose love of freedom unites, in rare harmony, the old Roman force with Christian love, in whom we see the generous, rash enthusiasm of his youth, tempered by time and trial into a most sweet and winning virtue. I could name others, honored and dear. I do not, for the sake of such, shut my eyes on the defects of the association; but that it should be selected for outrage and persecution, is a monstrous wrong, against which solemn testimony ought to be borne.

There is one consolation attending persecution. It often exalts the spirit of the sufferer, and often covers with honor those whom it had destined to shame. Who made Socrates the most venerable name of antiquity? The men who mixed for him the cup of hemlock, and drove him as a criminal from the world which he had enlightened. Providence teaches us the doctrine of retribution very touchingly in the fact, that future ages guard with peculiar reverence the memories of men, who, in their own times, were contemned, abhorred, hunted like wild beasts, and destroyed by fire or sword, for their fidelity to truth. That the Abolitionists have grown strong under outrage, we know; and in this I should rejoice, were their cause ever so bad; because persecution must be worse, and its defeat must be a good. I wish that persecution, if not checked by principle, may be stayed, by seeing that it fights against itself, and builds up those whom it toils to destroy. How long the Abolitionists will be remembered, I know not; but, as long as they live in history, they will wear as a crown the sufferings which they have so firmly borne. Posterity will be just to them; nor can I doubt, what doom posterity will pronounce on the mobs or single men, who have labored to silence them by brutal force. I should be glad to see them exchanging their array of affiliated societies for less conspicuous and artificial means of action. But let them not do this from subserviency to opinion, or in opposition to their sense of right. Let them yield nothing to fear. Let them never be false to that great cause, which they have fought for so manfully, Freedom of Speech. Let them never give countenance to the doctrine, which all tyrants hold, that material power, physical pain, is mightier than the convictions of Reason, than the principle of Duty, than the Love of God and mankind. Sooner may they pine and perish in prisons, sooner bleed or be strangled by the executioner, than surrender their deliberate principles to lawless violence.