Abolition Reasons for Disunion

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Wendell Phillips. "Abolition Reasons for Disunion." Young American’s Magazine of Self-Improvement. March 1847, 113-120.


By Wendell Phillips.

[A Reply to appear in our next Number.]

THE youngest of us can remember the time when it was thought an offence next door to treason, to calculate the value of the Union. Of late years, there are many who not only calculate its value, but openly declare that they would rather part with it than sanction the evil it upholds. Foremost among these are the Abolitionists. Disunion has been by no means a rare word in our history. Disappointed ambition has often, for a moment, longed for separate confederacies, in which there would be more Presidential chairs than one. Parties, in the hour of defeat, have talked of revolution, when revolution was their only chance of success. And sometimes even a State, thwarted in a favorite purpose, has seemed ready to shoot madly from its sphere. But the Abolitionists are the only men who have ever, calmly, soberly and from mature conviction, proclaimed at the outset their purpose to seek the Dissolution of this American Union: and this from no bitterness of personal or party disappointment, but solely at the bidding of principle, and from a sense of duty.

Their opponents, unable to deny the purity and disinterestedness of their motives, have sought to make the people insensible to the weight of their arguments, by representing them as opposed to all government. "These men," say they, "hate the Union, because they would do away with all law. They are no-government men, and non-resistants."

The logic which infers that because a man thinks the Federal Government bad, he must necessarily think all governments so, has at least the merit and the charm of novelty. There is a spice of arrogance perceptible in concluding the Constitution of these United States to be so perfect, that any one who dislikes it could never be satisfied with any form of government whatever!

The Abolitionist is not opposed to government, but to this government, based upon and acting for slavery. We proceed to point out some of the reasons which compel him to oppose it.

"Instinct is a great matter," says Shakspeare: and it is remarkable how instinctively every anti-slavery movement, for the last fifty years, has found itself arrayed against the Union; and how instinctively, also, every such movement has been branded by the South as treasonable. Both tendencies were right. The Abolitionist finds no readier foe, no greater obstacle, than the Union: and the lover of the Constitution of 1789 knows that Slavery and the Constitution will die together. All anti-slavery men have felt this—most of them without being fully conscious of it. But the merit and glory of the American Anti-Slavery Society have been, that they have plainly seen, and as frankly confessed, that their warfare is with the AMERICAN UNION, and that they expect success only in its downfall.

We seek the dissolution of the Union, because the inhabitants of a country must either support or oppose the Government. They cannot be neutral. Their silence is sanction. But this Government we cannot support, because it requires of its citizens things which no honest man can do; and because its chief result has been, to give greater stability, strength and extension to the slave system.

Every legislative, executive and judicial officer, both of the state and national Governments, before entering on the performance of his duties, takes an oath or affirmation to support the Constitution of the United States. Every voter, who sends his fellow citizen into office as his representative, knowing beforehand that the taking of this oath is the first duty his agent will have to perform, does, by his vote, request and authorize him so to do. He, therefore, by voting, impliedly engages to support the Constitution. What one does by another, he does himself. Now the Constitution contains the following clauses :

ART. I, SECT. 2. " Representatives and direct taxes shall be apportioned among the several States, which may be included within this Union, according to their respective numbers ; which shall be determined by adding to the whole number of free persons, including those bound to service for a term of years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other persons."

ART. 1, SECT. 8. Congress shall have power * * * to suppress insurrections."

ART. 4, SECT. 2. " No person, held to service or labor in one State, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labor; but shall be delivered up on claim of the party to whom such service or labor may be due."

ART. 4, SECT. 4. "The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a republican form of government; and shall protect each of them against invasion; and, on application of the legislature, or of the executive, (when the legislature cannot be convened,) against domestic violence."

The first of these clauses, relating to representation, gives to every inhabitant of Carolina, provided he is rich enough to hold five slaves, equal weight in the government with four inhabitants of Massachusetts—and accordingly confers on a slave-holding community additional political power for every slave held among them; thus tempting them to continue to uphold the system.

Its results have been, in the language of John Quincy Adams, to enable "a knot of slaveholders to give the law and prescribe the policy of the country;" so that " since 1830, slavery, slave-holding, slave-breeding and slave-trading, have formed the whole foundation of the policy of the Federal Government." The second and the last articles, relating to insurrection and domestic violence—perfectly innocent themselves, yet, being made with the fact directly in view that slavery exists among us—do deliberately pledge the whole national force against the unhappy slave, if he imitate our fathers and resist oppression ; thus making us partners in the guilt of sustaining slavery. The third is a promise, on the part of the whole North, to return fugitive slaves to their masters; a deed which God's law expressly condemns, and which every noble feeling of our nature repudiates with loathing and contempt.

These are the clauses which the abolitionist who votes or takes office, engages to uphold. While he considers slave-holding to be sin, he still rewards the master with additional political power for every additional slave that he can purchase. Thinking slave-holding to be sin, he pledges to the master the aid of the whole army and navy of the nation to reduce his slave again to chains, should he at any time succeed a moment, in throwing them off. Thinking slave-holding to be sin, he goes on, year after year, appointing by his vote judges and marshals to aid in hunting up the fugitives, and seeing that they are delivered back to those who claim them ! How beautifully consistent are his principles and his promises! Surely he ought not to lift a finger in support of the Constitution of the United States.

But for the fear of Northern bayonets, pledged for the master's protection, the slaves would long since have wrung a peaceful emancipation from the fears of their oppressors, or sealed their own redemption in blood. But for the countenance of the Northern church, the Southern conscience would long since have awakened to its guilt; and the impious sight of a church made up of slave-holders, and called the church of Christ, been scouted from the world.

But for the weight of Northern influence, Louisiana had never been bought, and then there never would have been a domestic slave trade; Texas had never been stolen, nor the Floridas usurped; nor any means of ease found for the serpent which, girdled with the fire of the world's scorn, was dying by its own sting.

The North supplies the ranks of the army. Witness the muster-rolls of the Revolution, when Massachusetts furnished more troops than the six Southern states together: witness Randolph's taunt, that all the South meant to do was to furnish officers: witness South Carolina's excuse in 1779, that her sons dared not quit home for the war, and leave their slaves behind: witness the South-Western press just now, dissuading from too free volunteering for the Texan war, for fear the slaves should seize the opportunity, and rise. Yet it was National troops, thus drafted, which put down the insurrection of Nat. Turner: National troops secured the Floridas, thus snatching from the over-stung sufferers of Alabama, Georgia and the Carolinas, their only refuge from our Vulture's talons: National troops cover Texas, without which, Mr. Secretary Upshur told the world, the institution of Slavery would not live there ten years.

To our shame, the South confesses that to us she "is indebted for a permanent safeguard against insurrection: that the dissolution of the Union is the dissolution of Slavery: that a million of slaves are ready to rise at the first tap of the drum—and, but for us, where is she to look for protection?" We are no advocates for supporting the slave in insurrection; but we loathe still more the supporting of the master in his tyranny. "Hands off," is the Anglo-Saxon motto. Let both parties have fair play; and then if the master, in his fear of blood, grants the slave his freedom, go home and blush to think how many years your guilty partnership has encouraged him to refuse this justice.

We seek the dissolution of the Union, because the temptation of Southern support is too much for Northern virtue, either in church or state. Hence the ambition of the great sects hastens to strike hands with the slave- trader, and trims its creed to suit the market : while Northern statesmanship is but a competition in baseness—a bidding for the town's poor—a trial of which party will be content with least for betraying their constituents.

We curse the Constitution of 1789, because it is a cunning device to evade the laws of God; a policy of insurance which the North gave her Southern sisters when they started on this mutual slave voyage. For Nature compels to freedom by making slavery burn up the soil on which she rests; and the slave grows burdensome as free labor presses on his heels. But the Union says to Virginia, "Not so; when your virgin soil is exhausted, raise men instead of tobacco, and we will protect the domestic market by that highest of all tariffs—the penalty of death against the foreign trader." But for this compromise, the whole Atlantic border would now be free.

God and Nature have made the master tremble lest his property in man take feet and vanish. The Union gives him her marshals and courts, her judges and laws, her army and navy, to quiet his fears, and bring back the fugitive, if found where the National Vulture flaps his wings.

Of this Constitution it is enough for us to know that, beneath it, the slaves have trebled in numbers, and slave-holders have monopolized the offices and dictated the policy of the Government; prostituting the strength of the nation to the support of Slavery here and elsewhere; trampling on the rights of the Free States, and making the courts of the country their tools. We have the highest authority for "judging a tree by its fruits." "The preservation, propagation, and perpetuation of Slavery," says Adams, "is the VITAL and ANIMATING SPIRIT of the National Government." Our connection with the Slave States has kept the colored race among us under the ban of a cruel and wasting prejudice.

Beneath the Stars and Stripes, the slave pirate finds shelter from the vengeance of Christendom. And this very hour, the Slave Power, trampling under foot the spirit of the age and the remonstrances of the. Free States, and scorning to observe even the forms of the Constitution, is using the whole force of the Nation for the acquisition of more territory, in order to blast it anew with the curse of Slavery, from which the higher civilization of another race and another faith had just redeemed it. Let no one say, these things need not have been, and we may reasonably hope for better times to come. Not so. We shall never launch on another era with a more glowing love of liberty and justice than that which pervaded the Nation's mind at the close of the Revolution. We shall never try the experiment of letting Freedom, with fettered feet, run a race with Slavery, furnished with wings, under better auspices than while the spirit of Wythe and Jefferson made Virginia tremble for her right to crush and kill; while Jay covered New York with his angel wings, and Samuel Adams thundered in Faneuil Hall. All that political man could do, chained to the compromises of 1789, has been done: and where is the statesman vain enough to ask our confidence in trying over again the experiment, in which Jay and King, Ellsworth and Strong, Martin and Wythe, Adams and Ames, have failed?

No matter what we may think of the character or of the provisions of the Constitution; there are always beneath the parchment, elements of political strength and activity which overrule statutes; and these elements have been found such, in a trial of fifty years, that if you run your eye over the list of Northern statesmen, you will find them all either members of a defeated party or traitors;—men who won success only by submitting to a baptism of treason—treason to their lineage, to their own principles, and to their birth-place ; who have lived only by speaking at Washington what they feared to say at home, and by whispering at home what they dared not meet at Washington—and whose political death has dated from the day when they were equally well known in both places. Witness Shaw of Lanesboro', Webster of Marshfield, Van Buren of Kinderhook, and Everett of Cambridge.

We abjure the Union, because we will not sail with Slavery at the helm;—because our bayonets shall never shield the hearth, wife, or child, of any man, in order that he may safely trade in human flesh;—because our hands shall never thrust back into hell the trembling fugitive, whom our example and the sight of our happiness has tempted to run from it;—and finally, because we believe that if the old men of 1776 could now lift up their heads and see the ruin they have wrought, they would curse us as bastards, if we did not do them the justice to believe they would have hated such a result, and if we did not do our utmost, in mere justice to them, to blot from history the memory of this, their only, but, alas! their momentous folly or crime.

  • Wendell Phillips, “Abolition Reasons for Disunion,” Young American’s Magazine of Self-Improvement 1, no. 2 (March 1847): 113-120.