Horace Greeley to Anti-Slavery
Reprinted in A Documentary History of American
New York, June 3d, 1845.
I received, weeks since, your letter inviting me to be present at a General Convention of opponents of Human Slavery, irrespective of past differences and party organizations. I have delayed till the last moment my answer, hoping I might this season indulge a long-cherished desire and purpose by visiting your section and city, in which case I should certainly have attended your Convention. Being now reluctantly compelled to forego or indefinitely postpone that visit, I have no recourse but to acknowledge your courtesy in a letter.
In saying that I should have attended your Convention had I been able to visit Cincinnati this month, I would by no means be understood as implying that I would have claimed to share in its deliberations; still less that I should have been likely to unite in the course of action to which these deliberations will probably tend. Whether there "can true reconcilement grow" between those opponents of Slavery whom the late Presidential Election arrayed against each other in desperate conflict, I do not venture to predict. Most surely, that large portion of them with whom I acted and still act, have been confirmed in our previous convictions of duty by the result of that election, and by the momentous consequences which it has drawn after it. Not merely with regard to this question of Slavery, but to all questions, I have by that result been warned against pledging myself to any special and isolated Reform in such manner as to interfere with and fetter my freedom and ability to act decisively and effectively upon more general and immediately practical considerations of National interest and Human well-being. You and yours, I understand, have been confirmed in an opposite conviction. Time must decide on which side is the right.
But while I cannot hope that I should have been able to unite with you upon any definitive course of action to be henceforth pursued by all opponents of Slavery, irrespective of past or present differences, I should have gladly met you, conferred with you, compared opinions, and agreed to act together so far as joint action is not forbidden by conflicting opinions. Animated by this spirit, I shall venture to set before you, and ask the Convention to consider, some views which I deem essential as bearing on the present condition and ultimate success of the Anti-Slavery movement.
What is Slavery? You will probably answer: "The legal subjection of one human being to the will and power of another." But this definition appears to me inaccurate on both sides - too broad, and at the same time, too narrow. It is too broad, in that it includes the subjection founded in the parental and similar relations; too narrow, in that it excludes the subjection founded in other necessities not less stringent than those imposed by statute. We must seek some truer definition.
I understand by Slavery, that condition in which one human being exists mainly as a convenience for other human beings - in which the time, the exertions, the faculties of a part of the Human Family are made to subserve, not their own development physical, intellectual and moral, but the comfort, advantage or caprices of others. In short, wherever service is rendered from one human being to another, on a footing of one-sided and not of mutual obligation - when the relation between the servant and the served is one not of affection and reciprocal good offices, but of authority, social ascendency and power over subsistence on the one hand, and of necessity, servility and degradation on the other - there, in my view, is Slavery.
You will readily understand, therefore, that, if I regard your enterprise with less absorbing interest than you do, it is not that I deem Slavery a less but a greater evil. If I am less troubled concerning the Slavery prevalent in Charleston or New-Orleans, it is because I see so much Slavery in New York, which appears to claim my first efforts. I rejoice in believing that there is less of it in your several communities and neighborhoods; but that it does exist there I am compelled to believe. In esteeming it my duty to preach Reform first to my own neighbors and kindred, I would by no means attempt to censure those whose consciences prescribe a different course. Still less would I undertake to say that the Slavery of the South is not more hideous in kind and degree than that which prevails at the North. The fact that it is more flagrant and palpable renders opposition to it comparatively easy and its speedy downfall certain. But how can I devote myself to a crusade against distant servitude, when I discern its essence pervading my immediate community and neighborhood? nay, when I have not yet succeeded in banishing it even from my own humble household? Wherever may lie the sphere of duty of others, is not mine obviously here?
1. Wherever certain human beings devote their time and thoughts mainly to obeying and serving other human beings, and this not because they choose to do so but because they must, there (I think) is Slavery.
2. Wherever human beings exist in such relations that a part, because of the position they occupy and the functions they perform, are generally considered an inferior class to those who perform other functions, or none, there (I think) is Slavery.
3. Wherever the ownership of the soil is so engrossed by a small part of the community, that the far larger number are compelled to pay whatever the few may see fit to exact for the privilege of occupying and cultivating the earth, there is something very like Slavery. (I rejoice that this state of things does not, as yet, exist in our country.)
4. Wherever opportunity to Labor is obtained with difficulty, and is so deficient that the employing class may virtually prescribe their own terms and pay the Laborer only such share as they choose of the product, there is a very strong tendency to Slavery.
5. Wherever it is deemed more reputable to live without Labor than by Labor, so that a gentleman would be rather ashamed of his descent from a blacksmith than from an idler or mere pleasure-seeker, there is a community not very far from Slavery. And
6. Wherever one human being deems it honorable and right to have other human beings mainly devoted to his or her convenience or comfort, and thus to live, diverting the labor of these persons from all productive or general usefulness to his or her own special uses, while he or she is rendering or has rendered no corresponding service to the cause of human well-being, there exists the spirit which originated and still sustains Human Slavery.
I might multiply these illustrations indefinitely, but I dare not so to trespass on your patience. Rather allow me to apply the principles here evolved in illustration of what I deem the duties and policy of Abolitionists in reference to their cause. And here I would advise:
1. Oppose Slavery in all its forms. Be at least as careful not to be a slaveholder as not to vote for one. Be as tenacious that your own wives, children, hired men and women, tenants, &c., enjoy the blessings of rational Liberty, as the slaves of South Carolina.
2. Be at least as ardent in opposing the near as the distant forms of Oppression. It was by beginning at home that Charity was enabled to perform such long journeys, even before the construction of railroads. And it does seem clear to my mind that if the advocates of Emancipation would unite in well-directed, persistent efforts to improve the condition of the blacks in their own States and neighborhoods respectively, they could hardly fail to advance their cause more rapidly and surely than by any other course. Suppose, for example, they were to resolve in each State to devote their political energies in the first place to a removal of the shameful, atrocious civil disabilities and degradations under which the African race now generally labor, and to this end were to vote systematically for such candidates, whom their votes could probably elect, (if such there were) as were known to favor the removal of those disabilities: would not their success be sure and speedy? But,
3. Look well to the Moral and Social condition of the Blacks in the Free States. Here is the refuge of the conscientious slaveholder. He declines emancipating, because he cannot perceive that emancipation has thus far conduced to the benefit of the liberated. If the mass of the blacks are to remain ignorant, destitute, unprincipled, degraded, (as he is told the Free Blacks are) he thinks it better that his should remain Slaves.
I know that the degradation of the Blacks is exaggerated. I know that so much of it as exists is mainly owing to their past and present wrongs. But I feel also that the process of overcoming this debasement must be slow and dubious, while its causes continue to exist. I entreat, therefore, that those who have the ear of these children of Africa and of their philanthropic friends, shall consider the propriety of providing for them cities of refuge, townships - communities, I would say - wherein they may dwell apart from the mass of our people, in a social atmosphere of their own, not poisoned by the universal conviction of their inferiority, at least until they shall have had a chance to show whether they are or are not necessarily idle, thriftless, vicious, and content with degradation. I most earnestly believe the popular assumptions on these points erroneous; I ask that the Blacks have a fair chance to prove them so. A single township in each Free State mainly peopled by them, with churches, schools, seminaries for scientific and classical education, and all social influences untainted by the sense of African humiliation, would do more (if successful, as I doubt not) to pave the way for Universal Freedom, than reams of angry vituperation against slaveholders. These are in good part men of integrity and conscience; they see the wrong almost as clearly as you do: it is the right which they should see and cannot: will you enable them to see it?
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