Home  »  A Library of American Literature  »  To the Rev. Mr. Furness, Explaining His Attitude in Regard to the Slavery Question

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

To the Rev. Mr. Furness, Explaining His Attitude in Regard to the Slavery Question

By Daniel Webster (1782–1852)

[From The Private Correspondence of Daniel Webster. Edited by Fletcher Webster. 1856.]

FROM my earliest youth, I have regarded slavery as a great moral and political evil. I think it unjust, repugnant to the natural equality of mankind, founded only in superior power; a standing and permanent conquest by the stronger over the weaker. All pretence of defending it on the ground of different races, I have ever condemned. I have even said that if the black race is weaker, that is a reason against, not for, its subjection and oppression. In a religious point of view, I have ever regarded it, and ever spoken of it, not as subject to any express denunciation, either in the Old Testament or the New, but as opposed to the whole spirit of the Gospel and to the teaching of Jesus Christ.

The religion of Jesus Christ is a religion of kindness, justice, and brotherly love.

But slavery is not kindly affectionate; it does not seek another’s, and not its own; it does not let the oppressed go free. It is, as I have said, but a continual act of oppression. But then, such is the influence of a habit of thinking among men, and such is the influence of what has been long established, that even minds, religious and tenderly conscientious, such as would be shocked by any single act of oppression, in any single exercise of violence and unjust power, are not always moved by the reflection that slavery is a continual and permanent violation of human rights.

But now, my dear sir, what can be done by me, who act only a part in political life, and who have no power over the subject of slavery, as it exists in the States of the Union? I do what I can to restrain it; to prevent its spread and diffusion. But I cannot disregard the oracles which instruct me not to do evil that good may come. I cannot coöperate in breaking up social and political systems, on the warmth, rather than the strength, of a hope that, in such convulsions, the cause of emancipation may be promoted. And even if the end would justify the means, I confess I do not see the relevancy of such means to such an end. I confess, my dear sir, that in my judgment confusion, conflict, embittered controversy, violence, bloodshed, and civil war, would only rivet the chains of slavery the more strongly.

In my opinion, it is the mild influences of Christianity, the softening and melting power of the Sun of righteousness, and not the storms and tempests of heated controversy, that are, in the course of those events which an all-wise Providence overrules, to dissolve the iron fetters by which man is made the slave of man. The effect of moral causes, though sure, is slow. In two thousand years, the doctrines and the miracles of Jesus Christ have converted but a very small part of the human race; and among Christian nations, even, many gross and obvious errors, like that of the lawfulness of slavery, have still held their ground.

But what are two thousand years in the great work of the progress of the regeneration and redemption of mankind? If we see that the course is onward and forward, as it certainly is, in regard to the final abolition of human slavery; while we give to it our fervent prayers, and aid it by all the justifiable influences which we can exercise, it seems to me, we must leave both the progress and the result in His hands who sees the end from the beginning, and in whose sight a thousand years are but as a single day.

WASHINGTON, 15 February, 1850.