From: Essays on the Principles of Morality, and on the Private and Political Rights and Obligations of Mankind (1834).
Author: Jonathan Dymond
Published: Harper & Brothers 1834 Philadelphia
AT a future day, it will probably become a subject of wonder, how it could have happened that upon such a subject as slavery, men could have inquired and examined and debated, year after year; and that many years actually passed before the minds of a nation were so fully convinced of its enormity, and of their consequent duty to abolish it, as to suppress it to the utmost of their power. I say this will probably be a subject of wonder; because the question is so simple that he who simply applies the requisitions of the moral law finds no time for reasoning or for doubt. The question, as soon as it is proposed, is decided. How then, it will be asked in future days, could a Christian legislature argue and contend, and contend and argue again; and allow an age to pass wisdom deciding?
The cause is, that men do not agree as to the rule of decision,—as to the test by which the question should be examined. One talks of the rights to property,—one of the interests of merchants,—one of safety,—one of policy: all which are valid and proper considerations; but they are not the primary consideration. The first question is, Is slavery right? Is it consistent with the moral law? This question is in practice postponed to others, even by some who theoretically acknowledge its primary claim; and when to the indistinct principles of there is added the want of principle in others, it is easy to account for the delay and opposition with which the advocate of simple rectitude is met.
To him who examines slavery by the standard to which all questions of human duty should be referred, the task of deciding, we say, is short. Whether it is consistent with the Christian law for one man to keep another in bondage without his consent, and to compel him to labour for that other’s advantage, admits of no more doubt than whether two and two make four. It were humiliating, then, to set about the proof that the slave system is incompatible with Christianity; because no man questions its incompatibility who knows what Christianity is, and what it requires. Unhappily, some who can estimate, with tolerable precision, the duties of morality upon other subjects, contemplate this through a veil,—a veil which habit has suspended before them, and which is dense enough to intercept the view of the moral features of slavery as they are presented to others who examine it without an intervening medium, and with no other light than the light of truth. To these, the best counsel that we can offer is to simplify their reasonings,—to recur to first principles; and first principles are few. Look, then, at the foundation of all the relative duties of man,—Benevolence,—Love:—that love and benevolence which is the fulfilling of the moral law,—that “charity” which prompts to actions of kindness, and tenderness, and fellow—feeling for all men. Does he who seizes a person in Guinea, and drags him shrieking to a vessel, practise this benevolence? When three or four hundreds have been thus seized, does he who chains them together in a suffocating hold practise this benevolence? When they have reached another shore, does he who gives money to the first for his victims,—keeps them as his property,—and compels them to labour for his profit, practise this benevolence! Would either of these persons think, if their relative situations were exchanged with the African’s, that the Africans used them kindly and justly! No. Then the question is decided: Christianity condemns the system; and no further inquiry about rectitude remains. The question is as distinctly settled as when a man commits a burglary it is distinctly certain that he has violated the law.
But of the flagitiousness of the system in the view of Christianity, its defenders are themselves aware,—for they tell us, if not with decency at least with openness, that Christianity must be excluded from the inquiry. What does this exclusion imply? Obviously, that the advocates of slavery are conscious that Christianity condemns it. They take her away from the judgment-seat, because they know she will pronounce a verdict against them.—Does the reader desire more than this? Here is the evidence, both of enemies and of friends, that the moral law of God condemns the slave system. If therefore we are Christians, the question is not merely decided, but confessedly decided: and what more do we ask?
It is, to be sure, a curious thing, that they who affirm they are Christians will not have their conduct examined by the Christian law; and while they baptize their children, and kneel at the communion-table, tell us that with one of the greatest questions of practical morality our religion has no concern.
Two reasons induce the writer to confine himself, upon this subject, to little more than the exhibition of fundamental principles; first, that the details of the slavery question are already laid, in unnumbered publications, before the public; and secondly, that he does not think it will long remain, at least in this country, a subject for discussion. That the system will, so far as the British government is concerned, at no distant period be abolished, appears nearly certain; and he is unwilling to fill the pages of a book of general morality with discussions which, ere many years have passed, may possess no relevance to the affairs of the Christian world.
Yet one remark is offered as to a subordinate means of estimating the goodness or badness of a cause,—that which consists in referring to the principles upon which each party reasons, to the general spirit, to the tone and the temper of the disputants. Now, I am free to confess, that if I had never heard an argument against slavery, I should find, in the writings of its defenders, satisfactory evidence that their cause is bad. So true is this, that if at any time I needed peculiarly to impress myself with the flagitiousness of the system, I should take up the book of a determined advocate. There I find the most unequivocal of all testimony against it,—that which is unwittingly furnished by its advocates. There I find, first, that the fundamental principles of morality are given to the winds; that the proper foundation of the reasoning is rejected and ridiculed. There I find that the temper and dispositions which are wont to influence the advocate of a good cause are scarcely to be found; and that those which usually characterize a bad one continually appear: and therefore, even setting aside inaccurate statements and fallacious reasonings, I am assured, from the general character of the defence, and conduct of the defenders, that the system is radically vicious and bad.
The distinctions which are made between the original robbery in Africa, and the purchase, the inheritance, or the “breeding” of slaves in the colonies, do not at all respect the kind of immorality that attaches to the whole system. They respect nothing but the degree. The man who wounds and robs another on the highway is a more atrocious offender than he who plunders a hen-roost; but he is not more truly an offender, he is not more certainly a violator of the law. And so with the slave system. He who drags a wretched man from his family in Africa is a more flagitious transgressor than he who merely compels the African to labour for his own advantage; but the transgression, the immorality, is as real and certain in one case as in the other. He who had no right to steal the African can have none to sell him. From him who is known to have no right to sell, another can have no right to buy or to possess. Sale, or gift, or legacy imparts no right to me, because the seller, or giver, or bequeather had none himself. The sufferer has just as valid a claim to liberty at my hands as at the hands of the ruffian who first dragged him from his home.—Every hour of every day, the present possessor is guilty of injustice. Nor is the case altered with respect to those who are horn on a man’s estate. The parents were never the landholder’s property, and therefore the child is not. Nay, if the parents had been rightfully slaves, it would not justify me in making slaves of their children. No man has a right to make a child a slave, but himself. What are our sentiments upon kindred subjects! What do we think of the justice of the Persian system, by which when a state offender is put to death his brothers and his children are killed or mutilated toot Or, to come nearer to the point, as well as nearer home, what should we say of a law which enacted that of every criminal who was sentenced to labour for life, all the children should be sentenced so to labour also?—And yet if there is any comparison of reasonableness, it seems to be in one respect in favour of the culprit. He is condemned to slavery for his crimes: the African, for another man’s profit.
That any human being, who has not forfeited his liberty by his crimes, has a right to be free,—and that whosoever forcibly withholds liberty from an innocent man robs him of his right, and violates the moral law, are truths which no man would dispute or doubt, if custom had not obscured our perceptions, or if wickedness did not prompt us to close our eyes.1
The whole system is essentially and radically bad: injustice and oppression are its fundamental principles. Whatever lenity may be requisite in speaking of the agent, none should be shown, none should be expressed for the act. I do not affirm or imagine that every slaveholder is therefore a wicked man; but if he be not, it is only upon the score of ignorance. If he is exempt from the guilt of violating the moral law, it is only because he does not perceive what it requires. Let us leave the deserts of the individual to Him who knoweth the heart: of his actions we may speak; and we should speak in the language of reprobation, disgust, and abhorrence.
Although it could be shown that the slave system is expedient, it would not affect the question whether it ought to be maintained: yet it is remarkable that it is shown to be impolitic as well as bad. We are not violating the moral law because it fills our pockets. We injure ourselves by our own transgressions. The slave system is a costly iniquity, both to the nation and to individual men. It is matter of great satisfaction that this is known and proved: and yet it is just what, antecedently to inquiry, we should have reason to expect. The truth furnishes one addition to the many evidences, that even with respect to temporal affairs, that which is right is commonly politic; and it ought therefore to furnish additional inducements to a fearless conformity of conduct, private and public, to the moral law.
It is quite evident that our slave system will be abolished, and that its supporters will hereafter be regarded with the same public feelings as he who was an advocate of the slave—trade is now. How is it that legislators or that public men are so indifferent to their fame? Who would now be willing that biography should record of him,—This man defended the slave-trade? The time will come when the record,—This man opposed the abolition of slavery,—will occasion a great deduction from the public estimate of worth of character. When both these atrocities are abolished, and but for the page of history forgotten, that page will make a wide difference between those who aided the abolition and those who obstructed it. The one will be ranked among the Howards that are departed, and the other among those who, in ignorance or in guilt, have employed their little day in inflicting misery upon mankind
1 [Every system of conduct which is essentially iniquitous is founded upon some false principle. The false principle in slavery is that which maintains the right of property in man, There is no such right, and no man can innocently hold it. Considered therefore purely as a question of morals, the first, imperative, and immediate duty of the slave-holder is, by a mental act to renounce and disavow this right. And in this act, when performed ex animo, consists the essence of emancipation, for from that moment, if he be sincere, he will cease either to buy or sell his fellow-creatures; and if once the traffic in slaves ceases, the axe is laid at the root of the evil, and it will ere long inevitably be done away, But the duty of immediate manumission by no means follows as a necessary consequence of the immediate abandonment of the above-mentioned principle. The conscientious slave-holder, though he can no longer regard his slaves as his property, will still feel that they are providentially thrown upon his hands as a charge, and that he is morally bound, in the character of trustee and guardian, to make provision for their well-being, and to endeavour, as soon as it can be done consistently with their best interests, and the best interests of the community, to put them in full possession of the privileges and prerogatives of freemen. In the mean time, there is nothing in moral equity that forbids his availing himself of their services, as he has the care of their support, Morality, however, insists upon the immediate discontinuance of the traffic in human beings, which cannot be practised without virtually assuming the reality of a right which is indeed a nullity.
It is doing a manifest violence to every thing that bears the name of liberty or of charity to denounce as dangerous and incendiary the attempts of calm and enlightened philanthropists (who view the subject of slavery entirely in its moral aspects) to disseminate correct opinions respecting it, or to brand sober discussion with the opprobrious title of officious intermeddling. Wisdom and moderation are doubtless needful to the discussion, but slavery is one of the great questions of humanity in which the moralist is not at liberty to be silent.—B.]
All Sub-Works of Essays on the Principles of Morality, and on the Private and Political Rights and Obligations of Mankind (1834).:
PDF Sub-Works open in a new tab. Close the tab when done viewing to return here.
- Preface to the American Edition.
- Introductory Notices.
- Moral Obligations.
- Standard of Right and Wrong.
- Subordinate Standards of Right and Wrong.
- Standard of Right and Wrong Footnotes.
- Collateral Observations.
- Immediate Communication of the Will of God.
- Immediate Communication of the Will of God Footnotes.