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SPEECH AGAINST THE KNOWNOTH
PROPOSAL TO EMANCIPATE THE SLAVES BY PURCHASE.
JAN. 25, 1855
GENTLEMEN AND LADIES: —I am oppressed at opening this topic with the difficulties of the subject. An honest man is soon weary of crying “ thief." Endless negation is a flat affair. One must write with a red hot iron to make any impression on this subject. I have thought, therefore, the policy of the gentleman who directed the course wise to invite the most distinguished patrons and natural fathers of the institution of slavery here to speak for it; nay, I do not think it would have been ill advised had they asked only such, to have put the whole duty of advocating slavery upon the slaveholders. I am sure it would have surprised the Northerner to see how little was to be said on its behalf. But a difficulty existed in inducing them to come. The committee were very courteous and very willing, but most unfortunately all the persons were, with two grave exceptions, absolutely engaged. No persuasions were of any avail, and it is left for us to do our part, such as we can, in stating this subject before you.
Gentlemen and Ladies: — We sit here, the third generation in humiliation of our forefathers when they made an evil contract with the slaveholders at the formation of the government. We have added to that the new stringencies of the fugitive law of 1850.
The last year has added the ponderous Nebraska and Kansas legislation; and we have now to consider that however strongly the tides of public sentiment have set or are setting towards freedom, the code of slavery in this country is at this hour unrepealed, and is at this hour more malignant, in present and in prospect, than ever before. Recent action has brought it home to New England, and made it impossible to us to avoid. This is the grave topic for us; and it is for us not to treat it as a thing by itself that quickly tires and cloys, but as it stands in our system — how it can consist with the advantages and superiorities we fondly ascribe to ourselves.
A high state of general health cannot long co-exist with a mortal disease in any part. If one member suffers, the whole suffers.
The crying facts are these. That in a nation which professes to base its laws on liberty, or the securing the greatest good of the greatest number, and in conformity with doctrines of Christianity, — in a part of this country the practice of slavery is allowed to subsist, and when those poor people its victims, disliking this stripping and peeling process, run away into States where this practice is not permitted, law has been passed requiring us who sit here to seize these poor people, tell them they have not been plundered enough, but must go back to be stripped and peeled again, and as long as they live. Well, this was not the grief. It was shocking to hear of the sufferings of these men; but the country was 500 or 1000 miles off, and however leagued with ourselves, was at lease independent; and for the national law that enacted this complicity, and threw us into conspiracy with the thief, it was an old dead law, made in the hour of weakness and fear, and which we had guarded ourselves from executing. It is now revived
or made stringent; but there was no fear, or so we persuaded ourselves, that it would be valid. But the dissatisfaction was here. We found well-born, wellbred, well-grown men among ourselves, not outcasts, not foreigners, not beggars, not convicts; but baptised, vaccinated, schooled, high placed official men, who abetted the evil law, who by all means catch the slave, and force him back; and when we went to the courts, to the interpreters of God's law between man and man, said “for God's sake catch the slave and send him back.” This was a most extraordinary fact - a most extraordinary symptom. Slavery is an evil, as cholera is, that will be purged out by the health of the system; being unnatural and violent, I know it will yield at last, and go with cannibalism, seakings, duellism, burking; and as we cannot refuse to ride in the same planet with the New Zealander, so we must be content to go to the Southern planter, and say You are You, and I am I, and God send you an early conversion.'
But to find it here, in our sunlight --- here in the heart of the Puritan traditions — in an intellectual country — in the land of schools, of Sabbaths, and of sermons, under the shadow of the white hills of Kitardin or the Hoosac — in the eyes of the most ingenious, industrious, and self-helping men in the world, staggers our faith in human progress.
Gentlemen -- Ladies:- I must yet consider it as an accident of a larger calamity. It rests on Scepticism, which is not local, but universal. The tone of our public sentiment, the tone of our press on slavery, is only an index of the moral pulse; and I call slavery, and the tolerance it finds here, worst in this, the stupendous frivolity it betrays in the heart and head of our society — a society without faith, a society without aims, a society dying of inanition.
I find this scepticism very widespread. Young men want object, want foundation, want ideal object. They would gladly, - warm, generous, noble, have something to do adequate to the powers they feel; something that calls them with a trumpet-note to be heroes — some foeman worthy of his steel — some love which would make them greater than they are — which not finding, they take second best, finding no first best. They slip into some niche or crevice of society, some counting-house or railroad, or whatever creditable employment, not the least of whose use is the covert it affords. They are not supported by any sense of greatness, and this respectable employment or office screens them from criticism.
Ah! we are led to cast a shrewd glance into our society.
Among intellectual men you will find a waiting for, an impatient inquiry, and looking round for more satisfying knowledge. It is believed that ordinarily the body grows with the mind; I should say that ordinarily the mind grows with the body — that the moment of thought comes with the power of action, and that in Nations it is in the time of great external growth that their best minds have appeared.
But in America a great imaginative soul, a broad cosmopolitan mind, has not accompanied the immense industrial energy. Among men of thought, among readers of books, the unbelief is found as among wisest laymen. We say intellectual men, but are there such? If we see to what base uses the intellect is applied, I think it Atheism — as much known in the absence of intellection as in the absence of pro- i found morals. Go into the festooned and tempered brilliancy of the drawing-rooms, and see the fortunate Youth, of both sexes, the flower of our society, for
whom every favor, every accomplishment, every faculty has been secured — will you find genius and courage expanding those forms? Or is their beauty only a mask for aged cunning? have they grown worldy-wise? No illusions for them! A few cherished their early dreams, aspired and resisted the contumacy, the soft appliances of fashion; but they tired of resistance, and, ridiculed, fell into refinement, to the great gratification of their refined companions; those self-willed Protestants have settled down into settled practices. Time was an heroic soul disdained the trifles of an easy lot, endeared of right. The same career invites the young men and women of this day, aye, any day, but they can see nothing in all this — they believe nothing of it, their opera glasses do not report it. The method of Nature is not changed. God still instructs through the imagination. A God is still there, sitting in his sphere. The young mortal comes in at the gates of life, and on the instant and incessantly a whole snow-storm of illusions. Among other things he fancies himself nobody, and lost in a crowd. There is he with them alone they pouring their grand persuasions professing to lead him to Olympus - he baffled, misled, distracted by the snowy illusions; and when for an instant the cloud clears off and day appears, there they are still sitting around their thrones. This baleful ebb of thought brings down the law, religion, and education of the land. We send our boys to Universities, but do these institutions inspire the hope and gratitude which at great moments have filled them with enthusiastic crowds? - Men eager to impart the light which has kindled themselves, and set the whole land on flame? The boy looks at the professor and the text book with frightful penetration, and says has not the professor read his own books; I