Black Soldiers in the Revolution

Sadly, today we are routinely taught the negatives of American history — we emphasis the bad and the ugly with nearly no mention of the good. Consequently, we hear the many ways that Americans did not always live up to the ideals of our founding, especially that black Americans were despised and enslaved. This is indeed part of the story, but there is much more. For example, on the positive side, did you know that many black Americans played key roles in the War for Independence? Consider just three.

James Armistead1 black-soldiers-in-the-revolution-1from Virginia worked closely with Marquis de Lafayette.2 He was able to infiltrate the camp of the patriot-turned-traitor, Benedict Arnold (then a British general after his defection from the Americans), and later the camp of British General Lord Cornwallis. Armistead obtained vital information about British plans and troop movements that he fed back to Lafayette and George Washington. His information allowed the American forces to initiate the Battle of Yorktown,3 which led to the end of the American Revolution. For his military services, Armistead was granted a retirement pension from Virginia.4

In December 1776, the second-in-command of the American Army, General Charles Lee, was taken prisoner by the British.5 To obtain his release, a prisoner exchange for a British general of the same rank was needed. Lt. Col. William Barton therefore undertook a daring plan to slip into the British stronghold at Newport, Rhode Island, capture British General Richard Prescott, and return him to the American side before the British learned of his capture.6 Cassell's History of the United States Barton hand-selected about forty elite soldiers, who silently slipped past the main British force and overpowered the guards protecting the general. They had only to break down the door to his room and grab Prescott. One of the black commandos on the mission, Prince Sisson – a powerful man – stepped forward and charged the door. Using his own head as a battering ram, the locked door gave way and Prince entered the quarters and seized the surprised general.7 The group safely returned with Prescott, who was subsequently exchanged for General Charles Lee. The daring act of Sisson is still celebrated to this day.

Wentworth Cheswell, black-soldiers-in-the-revolution-3grandson of a slave, had a long career in public office.7 Elected in 1768 as a town constable in New Hampshire, he became one of the first blacks elected to office in America. In 1770, he was a town selectman, considered as one of the “town fathers” in the community. Other public offices he held included that of Auditor, Assessor, Coroner, Moderator (presiding over town meetings), and Justice of the Peace.8 In the latter role, he oversaw trials, settled disputes, and executed legal documents. Altogether, Cheswell held some form of public office for 49 years. During the Revolution, he was a messenger for the Committee of Safety, carrying intelligence and messages back and forth between strategic operational centers. It was in this position that Cheswell made an all-night ride, similar to the one undertaken by Paul Revere, warning citizens of imminent British invasion. In 1777, Cheswell enlisted in a company of Light Horse Volunteers commanded by Colonel John Langdon, who later became a signer of the U.S. Constitution.9 Cheswell has a lasting legacy as a patriot, teacher, church leader, historian, archeologist, educator, judge, and elected official. He is a black patriot worthy of honoring and remembering.

In the WallBuilders library, we are blessed to have some military pay documents that were issued to various black soldiers during the Revolution10 (such as those pictured below) as well as some documents signed by Wentworth Cheswell11 (pictured above).


Let’s put some of the good stories back into Black History Month by acknowledging courageous black patriots in the American Revolution.


1 “Black History Issue 2004,” WallBuilders.
2 “Marquis de Lafayette,” National Park Service, accessed January 31, 2024.
3 “Battle of Yorktown begins,” History, updated September 2020.
4 “James Armistead,” Biography, July 2, 2020.
5 lack History Issue 2004,” WallBuilders; William Nell, The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution (Boston: Robert F. Wallcut, 1855), 127.
6 “Barton, William,” Appletons’ Cyclopaedia of American Biography, eds. James Grant Wilson & John Fiske (New York: D. Appleton & Company, 1888), I:188; Nell, Colored Patriots (1855), 127.
7 “A Black Patrioti: Wentworth Cheswell,” WallBuilders.
8 “Cheswell,” PBS, accessed January 31, 2024; “Wentworth Cheswell,” Britannica Kids, accessed January 31, 2024.
9 “John Langdon: New Hampshire,” Robert K. Wright, Jr. & Morris J. MacGregor, Jr., Solider-Statesmen of the Constitution (Washington, DC: Center of Military History United States Army, 1987), 100-102.
10 “Black Revolutionary War Soldiers Pay,” WallBuilders.
11 “Wentworth Cheswell Documents,” WallBuilders.

The Declaration Racist? Ha!

Louisiana Representative says The American Founding Is Bad

Study after study has demonstrated that rudimentary civic knowledge has plummeted in recent years. Many states have therefore taken specific steps to help ensure that students have a familiarity with our most basic governing documents. In Louisiana, Rep. Valerie Hodges introduced such a bill. Following the lead of states like Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Arkansas, Florida, Michigan, and others, her bill stipulated that Louisiana students recite the famous fifty-six words that form the heart of the Declaration of Independence:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

State Rep. Barbara Norton vehemently objected to this bill. She avowed that those words from the Declaration were not true, and relied heavily on Dr. Martin Luther King as the basis of her argument. She believed that equality did not exist until Dr. King, and that words from the Declaration should not be part of student studies.

Rep. Norton’s response is disappointing on many levels, and it certainly demonstrates that Rep. Norton knows little of American history and even less about black history as it relates to the Declaration of Independence.
the-declaration-racist-ha-3For example, she stressed the importance of Dr. King but apparently did not realize that in his famous “I Have A Dream” speech, as well as many of his sermons, he quoted extensively and favorably from the Declaration of Independence:

“When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” – “I Have A Dream” speech, Washington, 1963

“It wouldn’t take us long to discover the substance of that dream. It is found in those majestic words of the Declaration of Independence – words lifted to cosmic proportions: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by God, Creator, with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.’ This is a dream. It’s a great dream. The first saying we notice in this dream is an amazing universalism. It doesn’t say “some men,” it says “all men.” It doesn’t say “all white men,” it says “all men,” which includes black men. It does not say “all Gentiles,” it says “all men,” which includes Jews. It doesn’t say “all Protestants,” it says “all men,” which includes Catholics. It doesn’t even say “all theists and believers,” it says “all men,” which includes humanists and agnostics. . . I still have a dream this morning that truth will reign supreme and all of God’s children will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. And when this day comes, the morning stars will sing together and the sons of God will shout for joy. “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” – July 4th, 1965, at Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta, Georgia

By Rep. Norton denouncing the famous words from the Declaration, she might as well denounce Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, for it emphasized the same content she opposed.
the-declaration-racist-ha-5But Dr. King wasn’t the first black civil rights activist to praise the Declaration of Independence. Frederick Douglass, who had himself been a slave, stated:

The principles contained in that instrument [the Declaration of Independence] are saving principles. Stand by those principles, be true to them on all occasions, in all places, against all foes, and at whatever cost.

the-declaration-racist-ha-6And Henry Highland Garnet, who like Douglass was born in slavery and also escaped, became the first black man to officially speak at the U. S. Capitol. Following the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to abolish slavery in February 1865, the House asked Garnet to preach a sermon celebrating that momentous event. In his two-hour discourse, Garnet told listeners:

The Declaration [of Independence] was a glorious document. Sages admired it, and the patriotic of every nation reverenced the God-like sentiments which it contained.

Clearly, black civil rights advocates praised the sentiments contained in the Declaration of Independence. (Significantly, the Declaration was heavily relied upon by abolitionists to aid their cause, and the women’s rights movement based their documents directly on the Declaration of Independence.) It’s too bad that Rep. Norton wants to withhold from students a knowledge of the document that black leaders praised for almost two centuries.

George Washington, Thomas Jefferson & Slavery in Virginia

It is ironic that two prominent Founding Fathers who owned slaves (Thomas Jefferson and George Washington) were both early, albeit unsuccessful, pioneers in the movement to end slavery in their State and in the nation. Both Washington and Jefferson were raised in Virginia, a geographic part of the country in which slavery had been an entrenched cultural institution. In fact, at the time of the Founders, the morality of slavery had rarely been questioned; and in the 150 years following the introduction of slavery into Virginia by Dutch traders in 1619, there had been few voices raised in objection. That began to change in 1765, for as a consequence of America’s examination of her own relationship with Great Britain, there arose for the first time a serious contemplation of the propriety of African slavery in America. As Founding Father John Jay explained, this was the period in which America’s attitude towards slavery began to change:

Prior to the great Revolution, the great majority . . . of our people had been so long accustomed to the practice and convenience of having slaves that very few among them even doubted the propriety and rectitude of it. 1

As the Colonists increasingly recognized that they themselves were slaves of the British Empire, and were experiencing the discomforting effects of such power exercised over them, their commiseration with those enslaved in America began to grow. As one early legal authority explained:

The American Revolution. . . . was undertaken for a principle, was fought upon principle, and the success of their arms was deemed by the Colonists as the triumph of the principle. That principle was. . . . an ardent love of personal liberty, and hence, the very declaration of their political liberty announced as a self-evident truth that all men were created free and equal. 2

Notwithstanding this emerging change in attitude, the response across America on how to end slavery differed widely according to geographical regions. As Thomas Jefferson explained:

Where the disease [slavery] is most deeply seated, there it will be slowest in eradication. In the northern States, it was merely superficial and easily corrected. In the southern, it is incorporated with the whole system and requires time, patience, and perseverance in the curative process. 3

As a middle colony, Virginia experienced the stress from the divergent pull of both northern and southern beliefs meeting in conflict in that State. Several northern States were moving rapidly toward ending slavery, while the deepest southern States of North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia largely refused even to consider such a possibility. 4Virginia contained strong proponents of both attitudes. While many Virginia leaders sought to end slavery in that State (George Mason, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Richard Henry Lee, etc.), they found a very cool reception toward their ideas from many of their fellow citizens as well as from the State Legislature. As explained by a southern abolitionist, part of the reason for the unfriendly reception to their proposals proceeded from the fact that:

Virginia alone in 1790 contained 293,427 slaves, more than seven times as many as [Vermont, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey] combined. Her productions were almost exclusively the result of slave labor. . . . The problem was one of no easy solution, how this “great evil,” as it was then called, was to be removed with safety to the master and benefit to the slave. 5

As Jefferson and Washington sought to liberalize the State’s slavery laws to make it easier to free slaves, the State Legislature went in exactly the opposite direction, passing laws making it more difficult to free slaves. (As one example, Washington was able to circumvent State laws by freeing his slaves in his will at his death in 1799; by the time of Jefferson’s death in 1826, State laws had so stiffened that it had become virtually impossible for Jefferson to use the same means.) What today have become the almost unknown views and forgotten efforts of both Washington and Jefferson to end slavery in their State and in the nation should be reviewed. Consider first the views of George Washington. Born in 1732, his life demonstrates how culturally entrenched slavery was in that day. Not only was Washington born into a world in which slavery was accepted, but he himself became a slave owner at the tender age of 11 when his father died, leaving him slaves as an inheritance. As other family members deceased, Washington inherited even more slaves. Growing up, then, from his earliest youth as a slave owner, it represented a radical change for Washington to try to overthrow the very system in which he had been raised. Washington astutely recognized that the same singular force would be either the great champion or the great obstacle to freeing Virginia’s slaves, and that force was the laws of his own State. Concerning the path Washington desired to see the State choose, he emphatically declared:

I can only say that there is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do to see a plan adopted for the abolition of it [slavery]; but there is only one proper and effectual mode by which it can be accomplished, and that is by Legislative authority; and this, as far as my suffrage [vote and support] will go, shall never be wanting [lacking]. 6

As Washington had pledged, he did provide his support and leadership in efforts to end the slave trade. For example, on July 18, 1774, the committee which Washington chaired in his own Fairfax County passed the following act:

Resolved, that it is the opinion of this meeting that during our present difficulties and distress, no slaves ought to be imported into any of the British colonies on this continent; and we take this opportunity of declaring our most earnest wishes to see an entire stop for ever put to such a wicked, cruel, and unnatural trade. 7

Having developed this position, Washington maintained it throughout his life and reaffirmed it often. For example, when General Marquis de Lafayette decided to buy a plantation in French Guiana for the purpose of freeing its slaves and placing them on the estate as tenants, Washington wrote Lafayette:

Your late purchase of an estate in the colony of Cayenne, with a view of emancipating the slaves on it, is a generous and noble proof of your humanity. Would to God a like spirit would diffuse itself generally into the minds of the people of this country, but I despair of seeing it. Some petitions were presented to the [Virginia] Assembly at its last session for the abolition of slavery, but they could scarcely obtain a reading. 8

And to his nephew and private secretary, Lawrence Lewis, Washington wrote:

I wish from my soul that the legislature of this State could see the policy of a gradual abolition of slavery. 9

In addition to the slaves he inherited, Washington also bought some fifty slaves prior to the Revolution, although he apparently purchased none afterward, 10 for he had reached the decision that he would no longer participate in the slave trade, and would never again buy or sell a slave. As he explained:

I never mean . . . to possess another slave by purchase; it being among my first wishes to see some plan adopted by which slavery in this country may be abolished by slow, sure, and imperceptible degrees. 11

As the laws of Virginia did not permit him to emancipate his slaved (those laws will be reviewed later in this work), the only other means for him to dispose of the slaves he held was to sell them. And had Washington not become so opposed to selling slaves, he gladly would have used that means to end his ownership of all slaves. As he explained:

Were it not that I am principled against selling Negroes . . . I would not in twelve months from this date be possessed of one as a slave. 12

Interestingly, the personal circumstances faced by Washington provide decisive proof that his convictions were indeed genuine and not merely rhetorical. The quantity of slaves which he held was economically unprofitable for Mount Vernon †and caused a genuine hardship on the estate. As Washington explained:

It is demonstratively clear that on this Estate (Mount Vernon) I have more working Negroes by a full [half] than can be employed to any advantage in the farming system. 13

What, then, could Washington do to reduce his expenses and to increase profits? An obvious solution was to sell his “surplus” slaves. Washington could thereby readily accrue immediate and substantial income. As prize-winning historian James Truslow Adams correctly observed:

One good field hand was worth as much as a small city lot. By selling a single slave, Washington could have paid for two years all the taxes he so complained about. 14

Washington acknowledged the profit he could make by reducing the number of his slaves, declaring:

[H]alf the workers I keep on this estate would render me greater net profit than I now derive from the whole. 15

Yet, despite the vast economic benefits he could have reaped, Washington nevertheless adamantly refused to sell any slaves. As he explained:

To sell the overplus I cannot, because I am principled against this kind of traffic in the human species. To hire them out is almost as bad because they could not be disposed of in families to any advantage, and to disperse [break up] the families I have an aversion. 16

This stand by Washington was remarkable. In fact, refusing not only to sell slaves but also refusing to break up their families distinctly differentiates Washington from the culture around him and particularly from his State legislature. Virginia law, contrary to Washington’s personal policy, recognized neither slave marriages nor slave families. 17

Yet, not only did Washington refuse to sell slaves or to break up their families but he also felt a genuine responsibility to take care of the slaves he held until there was, according to his own words, a “plan adopted by which slavery in this country may be abolished.” One proof of his commitment to care for his slaves regardless of the cost to himself was his order that:

Negroes must be clothed and fed . . . whether anything is made or not. 18

Not only did George Washington commit himself to caring for his slaves and to seeking a legal remedy by which they might be freed in his State but he also took the leadership in doing so on the national level. In fact, the first federal racial civil rights law in America was passed on August 7, 1789, with the endorsing signature of President George Washington. That law, entitled “An Ordinance of the Territory of the United States Northwest of the River Ohio,” prohibited slavery in any new State that might seek to enter the Union. Consequently, slavery was prohibited in all the American territories held at the time; and it was because of this law, signed by President George Washington, that Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin all prohibited slavery. Despite the slow but steady progress made in many parts of the nation, especially in the North, the laws in Virginia were designed to discourage and prevent the emancipation of slaves. The loophole which finally allowed Washington to circumvent Virginia law was by emancipating his slaves on his death, which he did. Notice the following provisions from his will which embodied the two policies he had pursued during his life,the care and well-being of his slaves and their personal emancipation:

Upon the decease of my wife, it is my will and desire that all the slaves which I hold in my own right shall receive their freedom. -To emancipate them during her life would, though earnestly wished by me, be attended with such insuperable difficulties on account of their intermixture by marriages with the Dower [inherited] Negroes as to excite the most painful sensations, if not disagreeable consequences from the latter, while both descriptions are in the occupancy of the same proprietor; it not being in my power, under the tenure by which the Dower Negroes are held, to manumit [free] them. -And whereas among those who will receive freedom according to this devise, there may be some who from old age or bodily infirmities, and others who on account of their infancy, that will be unable to support themselves; it is my will and desire that all who come under the first and second description shall be comfortably clothed and fed by my heirs while they live; -and that such of the latter description as have no parents living, or if living are unable or unwilling to provide for them, shall be bound by the court until they shall arrive at the age of twenty five years; -and in cases where no record can be produced whereby their ages can be ascertained, the judgment of the court upon its own view of the subject, shall be adequate and final. -The Negroes thus bound are (by their masters or mistresses) to be taught to read and write and to be brought up to some useful occupation agreeably to the laws of the Commonwealth of Virginia providing for the support of orphan and other poor children. -And I do hereby expressly forbid the sale or transportation out of the said Commonwealth of any slave I may die possessed of, under any pretense whatsoever. -And I do moreover most pointedly and most solemnly enjoin it upon my executors hereafter named, or the survivors of them, to see that this clause respecting slaves and every part thereof be religiously fulfilled at the epoch at which it is directed to take place without evasion, neglect or delay, after the crops which may then be on the ground are harvested, particularly as it respects the aged and infirm; -Seeing that a regular and permanent fund be established for their support so long as there are subjects requiring it, not trusting to the uncertain provision to be made by individuals. -And to my mulatto man, William (calling himself William Lee), I give immediate freedom; or if he should prefer it (on account of the accidents which have rendered him incapable of walking or of any active employment) to remain in the situation he now is, it shall be optional to him to do so: In either case, however, I allow him an annuity of thirty dollars during his natural life, which shall be independent of the victuals and clothes he has been accustomed to receive, if he chooses the last alternative; but in full, with his freedom, if he prefers the first; -and this I give him as a testimony of my sense of his attachment to me, and for his faithful services during the Revolutionary War. 19

Significantly, numerous incidents in George Washington’s life provide ample proof that he suffered from no racial bigotry. Those incidents include his approving a free black, Benjamin Banneker, as a surveyor to lay out the city of Washington, D. C., and his patronage of black poet Phillis Wheatley. In fact, after Phillis wrote a poem in 1775 praising General Washington, Washington made plans to publish the piece but then feared that the public would misunderstand his publication of a poem praising himself, believing it was a sign of his own vanity rather than as an intended tribute to Phillis. As Washington told her:

I thank you most sincerely for your polite notice of me in the elegant lines you enclosed; and however undeserving I may be of such encomium and panegyric [lofty praise], the style and manner exhibit a striking proof of your great poetical talents. In honor of which, and as a tribute justly due to you, I would have published the poem had I not been apprehensive that, while I only meant to give the world this new instance of your genius, I might have incurred the imputation of vanity. This, and nothing else, determined me not to give it place in the public prints. If you should ever come to Cambridge, or near Head Quarters, I shall be happy to see a person so favored by the muses and to whom nature has been so liberal and beneficent in her dispensations. 20

Additional proof of Washington’s lack of personal bigotry is provided by numerous black authors. One, for example, was Edward Johnson, a former slave and an abolitionist who was an author of textbooks for school children, particularly for young African-American students following the Civil War. Johnson provided the following anecdote:

Washington [was] out walking one day in company with some distinguished gentlemen, and during the walk he met an old colored man, who very politely tipped his hat and spoke to the General. Washington, in turn, took off his hat to the colored man; on seeing this, one of the company, in a jesting manner, inquired of the General if he usually took off his hat to Negroes. Whereupon Washington replied: “Politeness is cheap, and I never allow any one to be more polite to me than I to him.”21

Other anecdotes were provided by William C. Nell, a former slave who became an ardent abolitionist. Nell wrote numerous works on black history and against slavery preceding the Civil War, and in one of those works, he provided the following anecdote of Washington and Primus Hall:

Primus Hall. -Throughout the Revolutionary war, he [Primus Hall] was the body servant of Col. Pickering, of Massachusetts. He [Hall] was free and communicative, and delighted to sit down with an interested listener and pour out those stores of absorbing and exciting anecdotes with which his memory was stored.

It well known that there was no officer in the whole American army whose friendship was dearer to Washington, and whose counsel was more esteemed by him, than that of the honest and patriotic Col. Pickering. He was on intimate terms with him, and unbosomed himself to him with as little reserve as, perhaps, to any confidant in the army. Whenever he was stationed within such a distance as to admit of it, he [Washington] passed many hours with the Colonel, consulting him upon anticipated measures and delighting in his reciprocated friendship.

Washington was, therefore, often brought into contact with the servant of Col. Pickering, the departed Primus. An opportunity was afforded to the Negro to note him [Washington] under circumstances very different from those in which he is usually brought before the public and which possess, therefore, a striking charm. I remember [one] anecdote from the mouth of Primus. . . . so peculiar as to be replete with interest. The authenticity of . . . may be fully relied upon. . . .

[T]he great General was engaged in earnest consultation with Col. Pickering in his tent until after the night had fairly set in. Head-quarters were at a considerable distance, and Washington signified his preference to staying with the Colonel over night, provided he had a spare blanket and straw.

“Oh, yes,” said Primus, who was appealed to; “plenty of straw and blankets-plenty.” Upon this assurance, Washington continued his conference with the Colonel until it was time to retire to rest. Two humble beds were spread, side by side, in the tent, and the officers laid themselves down, while Primus seemed to be busy with duties that required his attention before he himself could sleep. He worked, or appeared to work, until the breathing of the prostrate gentlemen satisfied him that they were sleeping; and then, seating himself on a box or stool, he leaned his head on his hands to obtain such repose as so inconvenient a position would allow. In the middle of the night Washington awoke. He looked about and descried the Negro as he sat. He gazed at him awhile and then spoke.

“Primus!” said he, calling; “Primus!”

Primus started up and rubbed his eyes. “What, General?” said he.

Washington rose up in his bed. “Primus,” said he, “what did you mean by saying that you had blankets and straw enough? Here you have given up your blanket and straw to me that I may sleep comfortably while you are obliged to sit through the night.”

“It’s nothing, General,” said Primus. “It’s nothing. I’m well enough. Don’t trouble yourself about me, General, but go to sleep again. No matter about me. I sleep very good.”

“But it is matter-it is matter,” said Washington, earnestly. “I cannot do it, Primus. If either is to sit up, I will. But I think there is no need of either sitting up. The blanket is wide enough for two. Come and lie down here with me.”

“Oh, no, General!” said Primus, starting, and protesting against the proposition. “No; let me sit here. I’ll do very well on the stool.”

“I say, come and lie down here!” said Washington, authoritatively. “There is room for both, and I insist upon it!”

He threw open the blanket as he spoke and moved to one side of the straw. Primus professes to have been exceedingly shocked at the idea of lying under the same covering with the commander-in-chief, but his tone was so resolute and determined that he could not hesitate. He prepared himself, therefore, and laid himself down by Washington; and on the same straw, and under the same blanket, the General and the Negro servant slept until morning. 22

Nell also provided the following story entitled “A Tribute from the Emancipated, by Washington’s Freed Men” from the Alexandria, D.C. Gazette to illustrate the respect that Washington’s former slaves had for him:

Upon a recent visit to the tomb of Washington [at Mount Vernon], I was much gratified by the alterations and improvements around it. Eleven colored men were industriously employed in leveling the earth and turfing around the sepulcher. There was an earnest expression of feeling about them that induced me to inquire if they belonged to the respected lady of the mansion. They stated they were a few of the many slaves freed by George Washington, and they had offered their services upon this last melancholy occasion as the only return in their power to make to the remains of the man who had been more than a father to them; and they should continue their labors as long as anything should be pointed out for them to do. I was so interested in this conduct that I inquired their several names, and the following were given me: -Joseph Smith, Sambo Anderson, William Anderson his son, Berldey Clark, George Lear, Dick Jasper, Morris Jasper, Levi Richardson, Joe Richardson, Wm. Moss, Win. Hays, and Nancy Squander, cooking for the men. -Fairfax County, Va., Nov. 14, 1835. 23

Washington was truly one of the leaders in Virginia who sought to end slavery in that State (and the nation) and who worked to bring civil rights to all Americans, regardless of color. Jefferson, too, sought similar goals, but by living twenty-seven years longer than Washington, Jefferson faced additional hostile State laws which Washington had not. But before reviewing Jefferson’s words and actions regarding slavery, a brief review of the overall trend of the laws of Virginia on the subject are in order. In 1692, Virginia passed a law that placed an economic burden on any slave owner who released his slaves, thus discouraging owners from freeing their slaves. That law declared:

[N]o Negro or mulatto slave shall be set free, unless the emancipator pays for his transportation out of the country within six months. 24

(Subsequent laws imposed additional provisions that a slave could not be freed unless the slave owner guaranteed a security bond for the education, livelihood, and support of the freed slave in order to ensure that the former slave would not become a burden to the community or to the society. 25 Not only did such laws place extreme economic hardships on any slave owner who tried to free his slaves but they also provided stiff penalties for any slave owner who attempted to free slaves without abiding by these laws.) In 1723, a law was passed which forbid the emancipation of slaves under any circumstance-even by a last will and testament. The only exceptions were for cases of “meritorious service” by a slave, a determination to be made only by the State Governor and his Council on a case by case basis. 26 Needless to say, this law made the occasions for freeing slaves even more rare. In 1782, however, Virginia began to move in a new direction (for a short time) by passing a very liberal manumission law. As a result, “this restraint on the power of the master to emancipate his slave was removed, and since that time the master may emancipate by his last will or deed.” 27 (It was because of this law that George Washington was able to free his slaves in his last will and testament in 1799.) In 1806, unfortunately, the Virginia Legislature repealed much of that law, 28 and it became more difficult to emancipate slaves in a last will and testament:

It shall be lawful for any person, by his or her last will and testament, or by any other instrument in writing under his or her hand and seal . . . to emancipate and set free his or her slaves . . . Provided, also, that all slaves so emancipated, not being . . . of sound mind and body, or being above the age of forty-five years, or being males under the age of twenty one, or females under the age of eighteen years, shall respectively be supported and maintained by the person so liberating them, or by his or her estate. 29 (emphasis added)

That law even made it possible for a wife to reverse a portion of an emancipation made by her husband in his will:

And . . . a widow who shall, within one year from the death of her husband, declare in the manner prescribed by law that she will not take or accept the provision made for her . . . [is] entitled to one third part of the slaves whereof her husband died possessed, notwithstanding they may be emancipated by his will. 30

Furthermore, recall that Virginia law did not recognize slave families. Therefore, if a slave was freed, the law made it almost impossible for him to remain near his spouse, children, or his family members who had not been freed, for the law required that a freed slave promptly depart the State or else reenter slavery:

If any slave hereafter emancipated shall remain within this Commonwealth more than twelve months after his or her right to freedom shall have accrued, he or she shall forfeit all such right and may be apprehended and sold. 31

It was under difficult laws like these-under laws even more restrictive than those Washington had faced-that Jefferson was required to operate. Nevertheless, as a slave owner (he, like Washington, had inherited slaves), Jefferson maintained a consistent public opposition to slavery and assiduously labored to end slavery both in his State and in the nation. Jefferson’s efforts to end slavery were manifested years before the American Revolution. As he explained:

In 1769, I became a member of the legislature by the choice of the county in which I live [Albemarle County, Virginia], and so continued until it was closed by the Revolution. I made one effort in that body for the permission of the emancipation of slaves, which was rejected: and indeed, during the regal [crown] government, nothing [like this] could expect success. 32

Jefferson’s reference to the role of the British Crown in the continuance of slavery in Virginia is significant. Virginia, as a British colony, was subject to the laws of Great Britain, and those laws, executed by order of King George III, prevented every attempt to end slavery in America-or in any British colony. The specific law which the Crown invoked to strike down the attempts of the Colonies to free slaves had been passed in 1766 (three years before Jefferson’s election to office and his first efforts to end slavery), and declared:

[B]e it declared by the King’s most Excellent Majesty . . . that the said Colonies and plantations in America have been, are, and of right ought to be, subordinate unto and dependent upon the Imperial Crown and Parliament of Great Britain; and that the King’s Majesty . . . had, hath, and of right ought to have, full power and authority to make laws and statutes of sufficient force and validity to bind the Colonies and people of America, subjects of the crown of Great Britain, in all cases whatsoever. And be it further declared and enacted by the authority aforesaid that all resolution, votes, orders, and proceedings whereby the power and authority of the Parliament of Great Britain to make laws and statutes . . . is denied, or drawn into question, are, and are hereby declared to be, utterly null and void to all intents and purposes whatsoever. 33

This law gave to the Crown the unilateral and unambiguous power to strike down any and all American laws on any subject whatsoever. Significantly, prior to the American Revolution some of the Colonies had voted to end slavery in their State, but those State laws had been struck down by the King. 34 This inability of individual Colonies to abolish slavery, even when they wished to do so, had caused Thomas Jefferson to include in the Declaration of Independence a listing of this grievance as one of the reasons propelling America to separate from Great Britain:

He [King George III] has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people which never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium [disgrace] of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian King of Great Britain. He has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain an execrable commerce [that is, he has opposed efforts to prohibit the slave trade], determined to keep open a market where men should be bought and sold. 35

Following America’s separation from Great Britain in 1776, individual States, for the first time in America’s history, were finally able to begin abolishing slavery. For example, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts abolished slavery in 1780, Connecticut and Rhode Island did so in 1784, Vermont in 1786, New Hampshire in 1792, New York in 1799, New Jersey in 1804, etc. Significantly, Thomas Jefferson helped end slavery in several States by his leadership on the Declaration of Independence, and he was also behind the first attempt to ban slavery in new territories. In 1784, as part of a committee of three, they introduced a law in the Continental Congress to ban slavery from the “western territory.” That proposal stated:

That after the year 1800 of the Christian era, there shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in any of the said States, otherwise than in punishment of crimes, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted to have been personally guilty. 36

Unfortunately, that proposal fell one vote short of passage. Three years prior to that proposal, Jefferson had made known his feelings against slavery in his book, Notes on the State of Virginia (1781). That work, circulated widely across the nation, declared:

The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other. Our children see this and learn to imitate it; for man is an imitative animal. This quality is the germ of all education in him. From his cradle to his grave he is learning to do what he sees others do. If a parent could find no motive either in his philanthropy or his self-love for restraining the intemperance of passion towards his slave, it should always be a sufficient one that his child is present. But generally it is not sufficient. . . . The man must be a prodigy who can retain his manners and morals undepraved by such circumstances. And with what execration should the statesman be loaded who permits one half the citizens thus to trample on the rights of the other. . . . And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath? Indeed, I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that His justice cannot sleep for ever. . . . The Almighty has no attribute which can take side with us in such a contest. . . . [T]he way, I hone [is] preparing under the auspices of Heaven for a total emancipation. 37

Nearly twenty-five years later, Jefferson bemoaned that ending slavery had been a task even more difficult than he had imagined. In 1805, he lamented:

I have long since given up the expectation of any early provision for the extinguishment of slavery among us. [While] there are many virtuous men who would make any sacrifices to affect it, many equally virtuous persuade themselves either that the thing is not wrong or that it cannot be remedied. 38

Jefferson eventually recognized that slavery probably would never be ended during his lifetime. However, this did not keep him from continually encouraging others in their efforts to end slavery. For example, in 1814, he wrote Edward Coles:

Dear Sir, -Your favor of July 31 [a treatise opposing slavery] was duly received and was read with peculiar pleasure. The sentiments breathed through the whole do honor to both the head and heart of the writer. Mine on the subject of slavery of Negroes have long since been in possession of the public and time has only served to give them stronger root. The love of justice and the love of country plead equally the cause of these people, and it is a moral reproach to us that they should have pleaded it so long in vain. . . . From those of the former generation who were in the fullness of age when I came into public life, which was while our controversy with England was on paper only, I soon saw that nothing was to be hoped. Nursed and educated in the daily habit of seeing the degraded condition, both bodily and mental, of those unfortunate beings, not reflecting that that degradation was very much the work of themselves and their fathers, few minds have yet doubted but that they were as legitimate subjects of property as their horses and cattle. . . . In the first or second session of the Legislature after I became a member, I drew to this subject the attention of Col. Bland, one of the oldest, ablest, and most respected members, and he undertook to move for certain moderate extensions of the protection of the laws to these people. I seconded his motion, and, as a younger member, was more spared in the debate; but he was denounced as an enemy of his country and was treated with the grossest indecorum. From an early stage of our revolution, other and more distant duties were assigned to me so that from that time till my return from Europe in 1789, and I may say till I returned to reside at home in 1809, I had little opportunity of knowing the progress of public sentiment here on this subject. I had always hoped that the younger generation, receiving their early impressions after the flame of liberty had been kindled in every breast and had become as it were the vital spirit of every American, that the generous temperament of youth, analogous to the motion of their blood and above the suggestions of avarice, would have sympathized with oppression wherever found and proved their love of liberty beyond their own share of it. But my intercourse with them since my return has not been sufficient to ascertain that they had made towards this point the progress I had hoped. . . . Yet the hour of emancipation is advancing in the march of time. It will come, whether brought on by the generous energy of our own minds or by the bloody process. . . . This enterprise is for the young; for those who can follow it up and bear it through to its consummation. It shall have all my prayers, and these are the only weapons of an old man. . . . The laws do not permit us to turn them [the slaves] loose. . . . I hope then, my dear sir. . . . you will come forward in the public councils, become the missionary of this doctrine truly Christian; insinuate and inculcate it softly but steadily through the medium of writing and conversation; associate others in your labors, and when the phalanx [brigade or regiment] is formed, bring on and press the proposition perseveringly until its accomplishment. It is an encouraging observation that no good measure was ever proposed which, if duly pursued, failed to prevail in the end. . . . And you will be supported by the religious precept, “be not weary in well-doing” [Galatians 6:9]. That your success may be as speedy and complete, as it will be of honorable and immortal consolation to yourself, I shall as fervently and sincerely pray. 39

The next year, 1815, Jefferson wrote David Barrow:

The particular subject of the pamphlet [against slavery] you enclosed me was one of early and tender consideration with me, and had I continued in the councils [legislatures] of my own State, it should never have been out of sight. The only practicable plan I could ever devise is stated under the 14th Query of my Notes on Virginia, and it is still the one most sound in my judgment. . . . Some progress is sensibly made in it; yet not so much as I had hoped and expected. But it will yield in time to temperate and steady pursuit, to the enlargement of the human mind, and its advancement in science. We are not in a world ungoverned by the laws and the power of a superior agent. Our efforts are in His hand and directed by it; and He will give them their effect in His own time. Where the disease is most deeply seated, there it will be slowest in eradication. In the northern States, it was merely superficial and easily corrected. In the southern, it is incorporated with the whole system and requires time, patience, and perseverance in the curative process. That it may finally be effected and its progress hastened will be the last and fondest prayer of him who now salutes you with respect and consideration. 40

In 1820, Jefferson again reaffirmed his continuing opposition to slavery, declaring:

I can say, with conscious truth, that there is not a man on earth who would sacrifice more than I would to relieve us from this heavy reproach in any practicable way. The cession of that kind of property-for so it is misnamed is a bagatelle [possession] which would not cost me a second thought if, in that way, a general emancipation and expatriation could be effected; and gradually, and with due sacrifices, I think it might be. But as it is, we have the wolf by the ears, and we can neither hold him nor safely let him go. 41

Then less than a year before his death, Jefferson responded to a young enthusiast:

At the age of eighty-two, with one foot in the grave and the other uplifted to follow it, I do not permit myself to take part in any new enterprises, even for bettering the condition of man, no even in the great one which is the subject of your letter and which has been through life that of my greatest anxieties. The march of events has not been such as to render its completion practicable with the limits of time allotted to me; and I leave its accomplishment as the work of another generation. And I am cheered when I see that on which it is devolved, taking it up with so much good will and such minds engaged in its encouragement. The abolition of the evil is not impossible; it ought never therefore to be despaired of. Every plan should be adopted, every experiment tried, which may do something towards the ultimate object. 42

And just weeks before his death, Jefferson reiterated:

On the question of the lawfulness of slavery, that is of the right of one man to appropriate to himself the faculties of another without his consent, I certainly retain my early opinions. 43

Since the State laws on slavery had significantly stiffened between the death of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson twenty-seven years later (as Jefferson had observed in 1814, “the laws do not permit us to turn them loose” 44), Jefferson was unable to do what Washington had done in freeing his slaves. However, Jefferson had gone well above and beyond other slave owners in that era in that he actually paid his slaves for the vegetables they raised and for the meat they obtained while hunting and fishing. Additionally, he paid them for extra tasks they performed outside their normal working hours and even offered a revolutionary profit sharing plan for the products that his enslaved artisans produced in their shops. 45

As a final note on Jefferson’s personal views and actions, Jefferson had occasionally offered the view that blacks were an inferior race to whites. For example, in his Notes on the State of Virginia in which he had expressed his ardent desire for the emancipation of blacks, he also offered his opinion that:

Comparing them by their faculties of memory, reason, and imagination, it appears to me that in memory they are equal to the whites; in reason much inferior. 46 [T]he blacks . . . are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind. 47

Notwithstanding such opinions, Jefferson was willing to be proved wrong. In fact, when Henri Gregoire in Paris read Jefferson’s views on the intellectual capacity of blacks, he sent to Jefferson several examples of blacks for the purpose of disproving Jefferson’s thesis. Jefferson responded to him:

Be assured that no person living wishes more sincerely than I do to see a complete refutation of the doubts I have myself entertained and expressed on the grade of understanding allotted to them by nature and to find that in this respect they are on a par with ourselves. My doubts were the result of personal observation on the limited sphere of my own State, where the opportunities for the development of their genius were not favorable, and those of exercising it still less so. I expressed them therefore with great hesitation; but whatever be their degree of talent it is no measure of their rights. Because Sir Isaac Newton was superior to others in understanding, he was not therefore lord of the person or property of others. On this subject they are gaining daily in the opinions of nations, and hopeful advances are making towards their reestablishment on an equal footing with the other colors of the human family. I pray you therefore to accept my thanks for the many instances you have enabled me to observe of respectable intelligence in that race of men, which cannot fail to have effect in hastening the day of their relief. 48 (emphasis added)

And to Benjamin Banneker (a former slave distinguished for his scientific and mathematical talents, the publisher of an almanac, and one of the surveyors who laid out the city of Washington, D. C.), Jefferson wrote:

I thank you sincerely for your letter . . . and for the almanac it contained. Nobody wishes more than I do to see such proofs as you exhibit, that nature has given to our black brethren talents equal to those of the other colors of men. . . . I have taken the liberty of sending your almanac to Monsieur de Condorcet, Secretary of the Academy of Sciences at Paris, and member of the Philanthropic Society, because I considered it as a document to which your color had a right for their justification against the doubts which have been entertained of them. 49

When considering Jefferson’s views on the capacity of blacks (views apparently not stridently held), Jefferson’s actions to end slavery must be seen as even more remarkable. His efforts to achieve full freedom for a race he perhaps considered inferior indicate not only the sincerity of his belief that all men were indeed created equal but also his abiding conviction-expressed at the age of 77, only five years before his death-that “Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free.” 50

While today both Washington and Jefferson are roundly condemned for owning slaves, it is nevertheless true that they both laid the first seeds for the abolition of slavery in the United States. One historian summarized their pioneer efforts in these words:

With the minds of thoughtful men thoroughly wakened on the subject of human rights [shortly before the American Revolution], it was impossible not to reflect on the wrongs of the slaves, incomparably worse than those against which their masters had taken up arms. As the political institutions of the young Federation were remolded, so grave a matter as slavery could not be ignored. Virginia in 1772 voted an address to the King remonstrating against the continuance of the African slave trade. The address was ignored, and Jefferson in the first draft of the Declaration alleged this as one of the wrongs suffered at the hands of the British government, but his colleagues suppressed the clause. In 1778, Virginia forbade the importation of slaves into her ports. The next year Jefferson proposed to the Legislature an elaborate plan for gradual emancipation, but it failed of consideration. Maryland followed Virginia in forbidding the importation of slaves from Africa. Virginia in 1782 passed a law by which manumission of slaves, which before had required special legislative permission, might be given at the will of the master. For the next ten years manumission went on at the rate of 8000 a year. . . . Jefferson planned nobly for the exclusion of slavery from the whole as yet unorganized domain of the nation a measure which would have belted the slave States with free territory, and so worked toward universal freedom. The sentiment of the time gave success to half his plan. His proposal in the ordinance of 1784 missed success in the Continental Congress by the vote of a single State. The principle was embodied in the ordinance of 1787. 51

Significantly it was the efforts of both Washington and Jefferson, and especially the documents which Jefferson had written, that were so heavily relied on by later abolitionists such as John Quincy Adams, Daniel Webster, and Abraham Lincoln in their efforts to end slavery. For example, John Quincy Adams, called the “Hell Hound of Abolition” for his extensive endeavors against that institution, regularly invoked the efforts of the Virginia patriots, particularly Jefferson, to justify his own crusade against slavery. In fact, in a speech in 1837, John Quincy Adams declared:

The inconsistency of the institution of domestic slavery with the principles of the Declaration of Independence was seen and lamented by all the southern patriots of the Revolution; by no one with deeper and more unalterable conviction than by the author of the Declaration himself [Jefferson]. No charge of insincerity or hypocrisy can be fairly laid to their charge. Never from their lips was heard one syllable of attempt to justify the institution of slavery. They universally considered it as a reproach fastened upon them by the unnatural step-mother country [Great Britain] and they saw that before the principles of the Declaration of Independence, slavery, in common with every other mode of oppression, was destined sooner or later to be banished from the earth. Such was the undoubting conviction of Jefferson to his dying day. In the Memoir of His Life, written at the age of seventy-seven, he gave to his countrymen the solemn and emphatic warning that the day was not distant when they must hear and adopt the general emancipation of their slaves. 52

And Daniel Webster, whose efforts in the U. S. Senate to end slavery paralleled those of John Quincy Adams in the U. S. House, also invoked the efforts of Washington and Jefferson to bolster his own position that slavery must be ended. In fact, on January 29, 1845, Webster was one of three individuals who helped frame an “Address to the People of the United States’ promulgated by the Anti-Texas Convention. . . . [to] lift our public sentiment to a new platform of anti-slavery.” 53 Part of that address declared:

Soon after the adoption of the Constitution, it was declared by George Washington to be “among his first wishes to see some plan adopted by which slavery might be abolished by law;” and in various forms in public and private communications, he avowed his anxious desire that “a spirit of humanity,” prompting to “the emancipation of the slaves,” “might diffuse itself generally into the minds of the people;” and he gave the assurance, that “so far as his own suffrage would go,” his influence should not be wanting to accomplish this result. By his last will and testament he provided that “all his slaves should receive their freedom,” and, in terms significant of the deep solicitude he felt upon the subject, he “most pointedly and most solemnly enjoined” it upon his executors “to see that the clause respecting slaves, and every part thereof, be religiously fulfilled, without evasion, neglect, or delay.” No language can be more explicit, more emphatic, or more solemn, than that in which Thomas Jefferson, from the beginning to the end of his life, uniformly declared his opposition to slavery. “I tremble for my country,” said he, “when I reflect that God is just-that His justice cannot sleep forever.” * * “The Almighty has no attribute which can take side with us in such a contest.” In reference to the state of public feeling as influenced by the Revolution, he said, “I think a change already perceptible since the origin of the Revolution;” and to show his own view of the proper influence of the spirit of the Revolution upon slavery, he proposed the searching question: “Who can endure toil, famine, stripes, imprisonment, and death itself, in vindication of his own liberty, and the next moment be deaf to all those motives whose power supported him through his trial, and inflict on his fellow men a bondage, one hour of which is fraught with more misery than ages of that which he rose in rebellion to oppose?” “We must wait,” he added, “with patience, the workings of an overruling Providence, and hope that that is preparing the deliverance of these our suffering brethren. When the measure of their tears shall be full-when their tears shall have involved Heaven itself in darkness, doubtless a God of justice will awaken to their distress, and by diffusing light and liberality among their oppressors, or at length, by his exterminating thunder, manifest his attention to things of this world, and that they be not left to the guidance of blind fatality!” Towards the close of his life, Mr. Jefferson made a renewed and final declaration of his opinion by writing thus to a friend: “My sentiments on the subject of the slavery of Negroes have long since been in possession of the public, and time has only served to give them stronger root. The love of justice and the love of country plead equally the cause of these people; and it is a moral reproach to us that they should have pleaded it so long in vain and should have produced not a single effort-nay, I fear, not much serious willingness to relieve them and ourselves from our present condition of moral and political reprobation.” 54

And Abraham Lincoln specifically invoked the words and efforts of Thomas Jefferson to justify his own crusade to end slavery and achieve civil rights and equality for blacks. For example, Lincoln invoked Jefferson to condemn the Kansas-Nebraska Act permitting territories that allowed slavery to become States in the Union:

Mr. Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, and otherwise a chief actor in the Revolution; then a delegate in Congress; afterwards twice President; who was, is, and perhaps will continue to be, the most distinguished politician of our history; a Virginian by birth and continued residence, and withal, a slave-holder; conceived the idea of taking that occasion to prevent slavery ever going into the northwestern territory. . . . and in the first Ordinance (which the acts of Congress were then called) for the government of the territory, provided that slavery should never be permitted therein. This is the famed ordinance of ‘87 so often spoken of. . . . Thus, with the author of the Declaration of Independence, the policy of prohibiting slavery in new territory originated. Thus, away back of the Constitution, in the pure, fresh, free breath of the Revolution, the State of Virginia and the national Congress put that policy in practice. Thus through sixty odd of the best years of the republic did that policy steadily work to its great and beneficent end. And thus, in those . . . States, and five millions of free, enterprising people, we have before us the rich fruits of this policy. But now new light breaks upon us. Now Congress declares this ought never to have been; and the like of it, must never be again. . . . We even find some men who drew their first breath, and every other breath of their lives, under this very restriction [against slavery], now live in dread of absolute suffocation if they should be restricted in the “sacred right” of taking slaves to Nebraska. That perfect liberty they sigh for-the “liberty” of making slaves of other people-Jefferson never thought of. 55

On other occasions, Lincoln quoted Jefferson’s words from the Declaration of Independence, pointing out that Jefferson had . . .

. . . established these great self-evident truths that when in the distant future some man, some faction, some interest, should set upon the doctrine that none but rich men, or none but white men, were entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, their posterity might look up again to the Declaration of Independence and take courage to renew the battle which their fathers began. . . . Now, my countrymen, if you have been taught doctrines conflicting with the great landmarks of the Declaration of Independence; if you have listened to suggestions which would take away from its grandeur and mutilate the fair symmetry of its proportions; if you have been inclined to believe that all men are not created equal in those inalienable rights enumerated by our chart of liberty; let me entreat you to come back. . . . [C]ome back to the truths that are in the Declaration of Independence. 56

It is undebatable that the early efforts and words both of George Washington and of Thomas Jefferson provided one of the strongest platforms on which later generations of abolitionists, and some of their most notable orators, erected their arguments. While it is difficult for today’s critics of Washington and Jefferson to understand the culture of America two centuries ago, it is nevertheless true that both Washington and Jefferson were influential in slowly turning that culture in a direction which-generations later-eventually secured equal civil rights for all Americans, regardless of their color.


1 John Jay, The Correspondence and Public Papers of John Jay, Henry P. Johnston, editor (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1891), Vol. III, p. 342, to the English Anti-Slavery Society in June 1788.

2 Thomas R. R. Cobb, An Inquiry into the Law of Negro Slavery in the United States of America, to Which is Prefixed an Historical Sketch of Slavery (Philadelphia: T. & J. W. Johnson & Co., 1858), Vol. I, p. 169).

3 Thomas Jefferson, The Works of Thomas Jefferson, Paul Leicester Ford, editor (New York and London: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1905), Vol. XI, pp. 470-471, to David Barrow on May 1, 1815.

4 Jefferson, The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Albert Ellery Bergh, editor (Washington, D. C.: Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association, 1903), Vol. I, p. 28, from his Autobiography; see also James Madison, The Papers of James Madison (Washington: Langtree and O’Sullivan, 1840), Vol. 111, p. 1395, August 22, 1787; see also James Madison, The Writings of James Madison, GaiIlard Hunt, editor, (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1910), Vol. IX, p. 2, to Robert Walsh on November 27, 1819.

5 Cobb, Vol. 1, p. 172.

6 George Washington, The Writings of George Washington, John C. Fitzpatrick, editor (Washington, D. C.: United States Government Printing Office, 1936), Vol. 38, p. 408, to Robert Morris on April 12, 1786.

7 George Washington, The Writings of George Washington, Jared Sparks (Boston: American Stationers’ Company, 1837), Vol. 11, p. 494.

8 Washington, Writings (1936), Vol. 28, p. 424, to Marquis de Lafayette on May 10, 1786.

9 Washington, Writings (1936), Vol. 36, p. 2, to Lawrence Lewis on August 4, 1797.

10 George Washington, The Diaries of George Washington, 1748-1799, John C. Fitzpatrick, editor (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, published for the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, 1925), Vol. I, p. 117 (on January 25, 1760, Washington sought to purchase a joiner, a bricklayer, and a gardener), p. 278 (on July 25, 1768, Washington purchased a bricklayer), and p. 383 (on June 11, 1770, Washington purchased two slaves). Additional information on the total number of slaves Washington urchased, and the dates of those purchases, was provided by research specialist Mary Thompson of Mt. Vernon.

11 Washington, Writings (1939), Vol. 29, p. 5, to John Francis Mercer on September 9, 1786.

12 Washington, Writings (1939), Vol. 34, p. 47, to Alexander Spotswood on November 23, 1794.

13 Washington, Writings (1940), Vol. 37, p. 338, to Robert Lewis on August 18, 1799.

14 James Thomas Flexner, George Washington: Anguish and Farewell, 1793-1799 (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1972), p. 342.

15 Washington, Writings (1940), Vol. 37, p. 338, to Robert Lewis on August 18, 1799.

16 Washington, Writings (1940), Vol. 37, p. 338, to Robert Lewis on August 18, 1799.

17 Mount Vernon, “George Washington and Slavery. Slave Census, 1996,”

18 Washington, Writings (1931), Vol. 111, p. 285, to Edward Montague on April 5, 1775.

19 George Washington, The Last Will and Testament of George Washington and Schedule of his Property to Which is Appended the Last Will and Testament of Martha Washington, John C. Fitzpatrick, editor (Washington, D. C.: The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association of the Union, 1939), pp. 2-4.

20 Washington, Writings (1931), Vol. 4, pp. 360-361, to Phillis Wheatley on February 28, 1776.

21 Edward Johnson, A School History of the Negro Race in America, from 1619 to 1890, with a Short Introduction as to the Origin of the Race; Also a Short Sketch of Liberia (Raleigh: Edwards & Broughton, 1891), p. 68.

22 William C. Nell, Services of Colored Americans in the Wars of 1776 and 1812 (Boston: Robert F. Wallcut, 1852), pp. 39-40, taken from the Appendix, quoting Rev. Henry F. Harrington, “Anecdotes of Washington,” Godeys Ladys Book, June, 1849.

23 Nell, Services, p. 38.

24 W. O. Blake, The History of Slavery and the Slave Trade; Ancient and Modern. The Forms of Slavery that Prevailed in Ancient Nations, Particularly in Greece and Rome. The African Slave Trade and the Political History of Slavery in the United States (Ohio: J. & H. Miller, 1857), pp. 373-374.

25 Blake, The History of Slavery and the Slave Trade, p. 381.

26 George M. Stroud, A Sketch of the Laws Relating to Slavery in the Several States of the United States of America (Philadelphia: Henry Longstreth, 1856), pp. 236-237.

27 Stroud, A Sketch of the Laws Relating to Slavery, pp. 236-237.

28 Dumas Malone, Jefferson and His Time: Volume Six, The Sage of Monticello (Boston: Little Brown and Company, 1981), p. 319.

29 The Revised Code of the Laws of Virginia: Being A Collection of all Such Acts of the General Assembly, of a Public and Permanent Nature, as are Now in Force (Richmond: Printed by Thomas Ritcher, 1819), pp. 433-436.

30 The Revised Code of the Laws of Virginia, pp. 433-436.

31 The Revised Code of the Laws of Virginia, pp. 433-436; see also, Stroud, A Sketch of the Laws Relating to Slavery, pp. 236-237.

32 Jefferson, Writings (1903), Vol. I, p. 4, from his Autobiography.

33 Anno Regni Georgii III. Regis Magne Britanniæ, Franciæ, & Hiberniæ, Sexto (London: Printed by Mark Baskett, Printer to the King’s most Excellent Majesty; and by the assigns of Robert Baskett, 1766).

34 Benjamin Franklin, The Works of Benjamin Franklin, Jared Sparks, editor (Boston: Tappan, Whittemore, and Mason, 1839), Vol. VIII, p. 42, to the Rev. Dean Woodward on April 10, 1773.

35 Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1906), Vol. V, 1776, June 5-October 8, p. 498, Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence.

36 Journals of the Continental Congress, Volume XXVI, pp. 118-119, Monday, March 1, 1784.

37 Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia (New York: M. L. & W. A. Davis, 1794, Second Edition), pp. 240-242, Query XVIII.

38 Jefferson, Works (1905), Vol. X, p. 126, to William A. Burwell on January 28, 1805.

39 Jefferson, Works (1905), Vol. XI, pp. 416-420, to Edward Coles on August 25, 1814.

40 Jefferson, Works (1905), Vol. XI, pp. 470-471, to David Barrow on May 1, 1815.

41 Jefferson, Works (1905), Vol. XII, pp. 158-159, to John Holmes on April 22, 1820.

42 Jefferson, Writings (1904), Vol. XVI, pp. 119-120, to Miss Frances Wright on August 7, 1825.

43 Jefferson, Writings (1904), Vol. XVI, pp. 162-163, to the Hon. Edward Everett on April 8, 1826.

44 The Constitutions of the Sixteen States (Boston: Manning and Loring, 1797), p. 249, Vermont, 1786, Article I, “Declaration of Rights.”

45 Information obtained from Monticello, at

46 Jefferson, Writings (1903), Vol. II, p. 194, from Query XIV of Notes on Virginia.

47 Jefferson, Writings (1903), Vol. II, p. 201, from Query XIV of Notes on Virginia.

48 Jefferson, Writings (1904), Vol. XII, p. 255, to M. Henri Gregoire on February 25, 1809; see also Vol. XII, p. 322, to Joel Barlow on October 8, 1809, wherein, speaking on the same subject, he declares, “It is impossible for doubt to have been more tenderly or hesitatingly expressed than that was in the Notes of Virginia, and nothing was or is farther from my intentions that to enlist myself as the champion of a fixes opinion where I have only expressed a doubt.”

49 Jefferson, Writings (1903), Vol. VIII, pp. 241-242, to Benjamin Banneker on August 30, 1791.

50 Jefferson, Writings (1903), Vol. I, p. 72, from Jefferson’s Autobiography.

51 George S. Merriam, The Negro and the Nation: A History of American Slavery and Enfranchisement (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1906), pp. 8-10.

52 John Quincy Adams, An Oration Delivered Before The Inhabitants Of The Town Of Newburyport at Their Request on the Sixty-First Anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1837 (Newburyport: Charles Whipple, 1837), p. 50

53 Daniel Webster, The Writings and Speeches of Daniel Webster Hitherto Uncollected (Boston: Little, Brown, & Company, 1903), Vol. 111, pp. 192-193, n., “Address on the Annexation of Texas,” January 29, 1845.

54 Daniel Webster, Writings . . . Hitherto Uncollected, Vol. III, pp. 204-205, “Address on the Annexation of Texas,” January 29, 1845.

55 Abraham Lincoln, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Roy P. Basler, editor (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1953), Vol. II, pp. 250-251, from his speech at Peoria, Illinois, on October 16, 1854.

56 Lincoln, Works, Vol. II, p. 546, from his speech on August 17, 1858.

The Bible, Slavery, and America’s Founders

America’s Founding Fathers are seen by some people today as unjust and hypocrites, for while they talked of liberty and equality, they at the same time were enslaving hundreds of thousands of Africans. Some allege that the Founders bear most of the blame for the evils of slavery. Consequently, many today have little respect for the Founders and turn their ear from listening to anything they may have to say. And, in their view, to speak of America as founded as a Christian nation is unthinkable (for how could a Christian nation tolerate slavery?).

It is certainly true that during most of America’s history most blacks have not had the same opportunities and protections as whites. From the time of colonization until the Civil War most Africans in America (especially those living in the South) were enslaved, and the 100 years following emancipation were marked with segregation and racism. Only in the last 30 years has there been closer to equal opportunities, though we still need continued advancement in equality among the races and race relations. But is the charge against the Founders justified? Are they to bear most of the blame for the evils of slavery? Can we speak of America as founded as a Christian nation, while at it’s founding it allowed slavery?

Understanding the answer to these questions is important for the future of liberty in America and advancement of racial equality. The secular view of history taught in government schools today does not provide an adequate answer. We must view these important concerns from a Biblical and providential perspective.

America’s Founders were predominantly Christians and had a Biblical worldview. If that was so, some say, how could they allow slavery, for isn’t slavery sin? As the Bible reveals to man what is sin, we need to examine what it has to say about slavery.

The Bible and Slavery The Bible teaches that slavery, in one form or another (including spiritual, mental, and physical), is always the fruit of disobedience to God and His law/word. (This is not to say that the enslavement of any one person, or group of people, is due to their sin, for many have been enslaved unjustly, like Joseph and numerous Christians throughout history.) Personal and civil liberty is the result of applying the truth of the Scriptures. As a person or nation more fully applies the principles of Christianity, there will be increasing freedom in every realm of life. Sanctification for a person, or nation, is a gradual process. The fruit of changed thinking and action, which comes from rooting sin out of our lives, may take time to see. This certainly applies historically in removing slavery from the Christian world.

Slavery is a product of the fall of man and has existed in the world since that time. Slavery was not a part of God’s original created order, and as God’s created order has gradually been re-established since the time of Christ, slavery has gradually been eliminated. Christian nations (those based upon Biblical principles) have led the way in the abolition of slavery. America was at the forefront of this fight. After independence, great steps were taken down the path of ending slavery – probably more than had been done by any other nation up until that time in history (though certainly more could have been done). Many who had settled in America had already been moving toward these ends. Unfortunately, the generations following the Founders did not continue to move forward in a united fashion. A great conflict was the outcome of this failure.

When God gave the law to Moses, slavery was a part of the world, and so the law of God recognized slavery. But this does not mean that slavery was God’s original intention. The law of Moses was given to fallen man. Some of the ordinances deal with things not intended for the original creation order, such as slavery and divorce. These will be eliminated completely only when sin is eliminated from the earth. God’s laws concerning slavery provided parameters for treatment of slaves, which were for the benefit of all involved. God desires all men and nations to be liberated. This begins internally and will be manifested externally to the extent internal change occurs. The Biblical slave laws reflect God’s redemptive desire, for men and nations.

Types of Slavery Permitted by the Bible

The Mosaic law permitted some types of slavery. These include:

  1. Voluntary servitude by the sons of Israel (indentured servants) Those who needed assistance, could not pay their debts, or needed protection from another were allowed under Biblical law to become indentured servants (see Ex. 21:2-6; Deut. 15:12-18). They were dependent on their master instead of the state. This was a way to aid the poor and give them an opportunity to get back on their feet. It was not to be a permanent subsidy. Many early settlers to America came as indentured servants. These servants were well treated and when released, given generous pay.
  2. Voluntary permanent slaves If indentured servants so chose, they could remain a slave (Ex. 21:2-6; Deut.. 15:16-17). Their ear was pierced to indicate this permanent subjection. The law recognized that some people want the security of enslavement. Today, there are some people who would rather be dependent upon government to provide their needs (and with that provision accepting their commands) than do what is necessary to live free from its provision and direction. Some even act in a manner that puts them in jail, desiring the care and provision they get more than personal freedom.
  3. Thief or criminal making restitution A thief who could not, or did not, make restitution was sold as a slave: “If a man steals . . . he shall surely make restitution; if he owns nothing, then he shall be sold for his theft” (Ex. 22:1,3). The servitude ceased when enough work was done to pay for the amount due in restitution.
  4. Pagans could be permanent slaves Leviticus 25:44-46 states: As for your male and female slaves whom you may have – you may acquire male and female slaves from the pagan nations that are around you. Then, too, it is out of the sons of the sojourners who live as aliens among you that you may gain acquisition, and out of their families who are with you, whom they will have produced in your land; they also may become your possession. You may even bequeath them to your sons after you, to receive as a possession; you can use them as permanent slaves. But in respect to your countrymen [brother], the sons of Israel, you shall not rule with severity over one another. In the Sabbath year all Hebrew debtors/slaves were released from their debts.. This was not so for foreigners (Deut. 15:3). Theologian R.J. Rushdoony writes, “since unbelievers are by nature slaves, they could be held as life-long slaves” 1 without piercing the ear to indicate their voluntary servitude (Lev. 25:44-46). This passage in Leviticus says that pagans could be permanent slaves and could be bequeathed to the children of the Hebrews. However, there are Biblical laws concerning slaves that are given for their protection and eventual redemption. Slaves could become part of the covenant and part of the family, even receiving an inheritance. Under the new covenant, a way was made to set slaves free internally, which should then be following by external preparation enabling those who were slaves to live at liberty, being self-governed under God.

Involuntary Servitude is Not Biblical

Exodus 21:16 says: “He who kidnaps a man, whether he sells him or he is found in his possession, shall surely be put to death.” Deuteronomy 24:7 states: “If a man is caught kidnapping any of his countrymen of the sons of Israel, and he deals with him violently, or sells him, then that thief shall die; so you shall purge the evil from among you.”

Kidnapping and enforced slavery are forbidden and punishable by death. This was true for any man (Ex. 21:16), as well as for the Israelites (Deut. 24:7). This was stealing a man’s freedom. While aspects of slavery are Biblical (for punishment and restitution for theft, or for those who prefer the security of becoming a permanent bondservant), the Bible strictly forbids involuntary servitude.

Any slave that ran away from his master (thus expressing his desire for freedom) was to be welcomed by the Israelites, not mistreated, and not returned. Deuteronomy 23:15-16 states:

You shall not hand over to his master a slave who has escaped from his master to you. He shall live with you in your midst, in the place which he shall choose in one of your towns where it pleases him; you shall not mistreat him. This implied slaves must be treated justly, plus they had a degree of liberty. Other slave laws confirm this. In addition, such action was a fulfillment of the law of love in both the Old and New Testaments. The law of God declares: “. . . you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:17-18). Leviticus 19:33-34 clearly reveals that this applies to strangers and aliens as well: “The stranger, . . . you shall not do him wrong.. . . . you shall love him as yourself.”

It was forbidden to take the life or liberty of any other man. Rushdoony writes:

Thus, the only kind of slavery permitted is voluntary slavery, as Deuteronomy 23:15,16 makes very clear. Biblical law permits voluntary slavery because it recognizes that some people are not able to maintain a position of independence. To attach themselves voluntarily to a capable man and to serve him, protected by law, is thus a legitimate way of life, although a lesser one. The master then assumes the role of the benefactor, the bestower of welfare, rather that the state, and the slave is protected by the law of the state. A runaway slave thus cannot be restored to his master: he is free to go. The exception is the thief or criminal who is working out his restitution. The Code of Hammurabi decreed death for men who harbored a runaway slave; the Biblical law provided for the freedom of the slave. 2 Rushdoony also says that the selling of slaves was forbidden. Since Israelites were voluntary slaves, and since not even a foreign slave could be compelled to return to his master (Deut. 23:15, 16), slavery was on a different basis under the law than in non-Biblical cultures. The slave was a member of the household, with rights therein. A slave-market could not exist in Israel. The slave who was working out a restitution for theft had no incentive to escape, for to do so would make him an incorrigible criminal and liable to death. 3

When slaves (indentured servants) were acquired under the law, it was their labor that was purchased, not their person, and the price took into account the year of freedom (Lev. 25:44-55; Ex. 21:2; Deut. 15:12-13).

Laws related to slaves There are a number of laws in the Bible related to slavery. They include:

  1. Hebrew slaves (indentured servants) were freed after 6 years. If you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall serve for six years; but on the seventh he shall go out as a free man without payment (Ex. 21:2). If your kinsman, a Hebrew man or woman, is sold to you, then he shall serve you six years, but in the seventh year you shall set him free. And when you set him free, you shall not send him away empty-handed (Deut. 15:12-13). Hebrew slaves were to be set free after six years. If the man was married when he came, his wife was to go with him (Ex. 21:3). This law did not apply to non-Hebrew slaves (see point 4 under “Types of slavery permitted by the Bible” above), though, as mentioned, any slave showing a desire for freedom was to be safely harbored if they ran away. In violation of this law, many Christian slaves in America were not given the option of freedom after six years (and many escaped slaves were forcefully returned). To comply with the spirit and law of the Old and New Testament, non-Christian slaves should have been introduced by their master to Christianity, equipped to live in liberty, and then given the opportunity to choose to live free. Christianity would have prepared them to live in freedom.
  2. Freed slaves were released with liberal pay. When these slaves were set free they were not to be sent away empty handed. They were to be furnished liberally from the flocks, threshing floor, and wine vat (Deut. 15:12-15).
  3. Slaves were to be responsible. We have mentioned that some people prefer the security of enslavement to the uncertainty of living free. People who live free have certain responsibilities they must maintain. They cannot have the fruit of freedom without the responsibilities of freedom. It is within this context that the following law can be understood: “If he [a Hebrew slave] comes alone, he shall go out alone; if he is the husband of a wife, then his wife shall go out with him. If his master gives him a wife, and she bears him sons or daughters, the wife and her children shall belong to her master, and he shall go out alone.” (Ex. 21:3-4)
  4. Rushdoony comments: “The bondservant, however, could not have the best of both worlds, the world of freedom and the world of servitude. A wife meant responsibility: to marry, a man had to have a dowry as evidence of his ability to head a household. A man could not gain the benefit of freedom, a wife, and at the same time gain the benefit of security under a master.” 4 Marrying as a slave required no responsibility of provision or need of a dowry. He gained the benefits of marriage without the responsibilities associated with it. Rushdoony continues: “If he married while a bondservant, or a slave, he knew that in so doing he was abandoning either freedom or his family. He either remained permanently a slave with his family and had his ear pierced as a sign of subordination (like a woman), or he left his family. If he walked out and left his family, he could, if he earned enough, redeem his family from bondage. The law here is humane and also unsentimental. It recognizes that some people are by nature slaves and will always be so. It both requires that they be dealt with in a godly manner and also that the slave recognize his position and accept it with grace. Socialism, on the contrary, tries to give the slave all the advantages of his security together with the benefits of freedom, and, in the process, destroys both the free and the enslaved.” 5
  5. Runaway slaves were to go free. As mentioned earlier, Deuteronomy 23:15-16 says that a runaway slave was to go free. He was to be welcomed to live in any of the towns of Israel he chose. The Israelites were not to mistreat him. Rushdoony says that, “Since the slave was, except where debt and theft were concerned, a slave by nature and by choice, a fugitive slave went free, and the return of such fugitives was forbidden (Deut. 23:15,16).” This aspect of Biblical law was violated by American slavery and the United States Constitution (see Art. IV, Sec. 2, Par. 3). “Christians cannot become slaves voluntarily; they are not to become the slaves of men (1 Cor. 7:23), nor ‘entangled again with the yoke of bondage’ (Gal. 5:1).”6 Those who became Christians while slaves were to become free if they could (1 Cor. 7:21). If they could not, they were to exemplify the character of Christ (Eph. 6:5-9; Col. 4:1; 1 Tim. 6:1-2). Eventually, Christianity would overthrow slavery, not so much by denouncing it, but by promoting the equality of man under God, and teaching the principles of liberty and the brotherhood of mankind under Christ. It would be the responsibility of Christians, especially those who found themselves in a place of owning slaves (for example, many Christian Americans in the past inherited slaves) to teach such ideas, and then act accordingly. Many Christians in early America did just this. Phyllis Wheatley was introduced to Christianity by her masters, educated, and given her freedom. Many American Christians, in both North and South, at the time of the Civil War did much to educate slaves Biblically. Stonewall Jackson, who never owned slaves himself and was against slavery, conducted many classes in his church to educate slaves.
  6. Excessive punishment of slaves was forbidden. A slave could be punished by striking with a rod (Ex. 21:20-21), but if the punishment was excessive, the slave was to be given his freedom (Ex. 21:26-27; Lev. 24:17). This included knocking out the tooth or damaging the eye. This applied to indentured servants as well as other slaves. Since the owner would lose his investment in such a situation, there was a financial incentive for just treatment. Just treatment of slaves was required of the masters. Paul writes: “Masters, grant to your slaves justice and fairness, knowing that you too have a Master in heaven.” (Col. 4:1)
  7. Slaves could be brought into the covenant. Slaves could be circumcised (brought into the covenant) and then eat of the Passover meal (Ex. 12:43-44; Gen. 17:12-13). Slaves could also eat of holy things (Lev. 22:10-11).
  8. Slaves had some rights and position in the home and could share in the inheritance. (See Gen. 24:2 and Prov. 17:2.)
  9. Slaves were to rest on the Sabbath like everyone else. The Fourth Commandment applied to all (Ex. 20:8-11).

Female slave laws were for their protection. Exodus 21:4-11 gives some laws about female slaves, which served for their protection. These Hebrew female slaves were without family to assist them in their need or to help to provide security for them. These slaves laws were a way to protect them from abuse not faced by males and to keep them from being turned out into the street, where much harm could come to them.

Examination of the Biblical view of slavery enables us to more effectively address the assertion that slavery was America’s original sin. In light of the Scriptures we cannot say that slavery, in a broad and general sense, is sin. But this brief look at the Biblical slave laws does reveal how fallen man’s example of slavery has violated God’s laws, and America’s form of slavery in particular violated various aspects of the law, as well as the general spirit of liberty instituted by Christ.

The Christian foundation and environment of America caused most people to seek to view life from a Biblical perspective. Concerning slavery, they would ask “Is it Biblical?” While most of the Founders saw it was God’s desire to eliminate the institution, others attempted to justify it. At the time of the Civil War some people justified Southern slavery by appealing to the Bible. However, through this brief review of the Old Testament slave laws we have seen that American slavery violated some of these laws, not to mention the spirit of liberty instituted by the coming of Christ.

Slavery and the New Testament When Paul wrote how slaves and masters were to act (Eph. 6:5-9; Col. 4:1; 1 Tim. 6:1-2; Col. 3:22-25; Titus 2:9-10), he was not endorsing involuntary slavery or the Roman slave system. He was addressing the attitudes, actions, and matters of the heart of those Christians who found themselves in slavery or as slave owners. This encompassed many people, for half the population of Rome and a large proportion of the Roman Empire were slaves. Many people were converted to Christianity while slaves or slave owners, and many Christians were enslaved.

It is in this context that we can better understand the example of Paul, Onesimus, and Philemon. Onesimus, a slave of Philemon who apparently stole some money from his master and ran away, encountered Paul in Rome and became a Christian. Paul sent him back to his master carrying the letter to Philemon. Author of the famous Bible Handbook, Henry Halley writes:

The Bible gives no hint as to how the master received his returning slave. But there is a tradition that says his master did receive him, and took Paul’s veiled hint and gave the slave his liberty. That is the way the Gospel works. Christ in the heart of the slave made the slave recognize the social usages of his day, and go back to his master determined to be a good slave and live out his natural life as a slave. Christ in the heart of the master made the master recognize the slave as a Christian brother and give him his liberty. There is a tradition that Onesimus afterward became a bishop of Berea. 7

The Mosaic slave laws and the writings of Paul benefited and protected the slaves as best as possible in their situation. God’s desire for any who are enslaved is freedom (Luke 4:18; Gal. 5:1). Those who are set free in Christ then need to be prepared to walk in liberty. Pagan nations had a much different outlook toward slaves, believing slaves had no rights or privileges. Because of the restrictions and humane aspect of the Mosaic laws on slavery, it never existed on a large scale in Israel, and did not exhibit the cruelties seen in Egypt, Greece, Rome, Assyria and other nations.

Sinful man will always live in some form of bondage and slavery, as a slave to the state, to a lord or noble, or to other men. As a step in man’s freedom, God’s laws of slavery provided the best situation for those who find themselves in bondage. God’s ultimate desire is that all walk in the liberty of the gospel both internally and externally.

As the gospel principles of liberty have spread throughout history in all the nations, man has put aside the institution of overt slavery. However, since sinful man tends to live in bondage, different forms of slavery have replaced the more obvious system of past centuries. The state has assumed the role of master for many, providing aid and assistance, and with it more and more control, to those unable to provide for themselves. The only solution to slavery is the liberty of the gospel.

Brief History of Slavery Slavery has existed throughout the world since after the fall of man. Egypt and other ancient empires enslaved multitudes. Greece and Rome had many slaves, taken from nations they conquered. Slavery was a part of almost every culture. While some Christian nations had taken steps to end slavery, it was still an established part of most of the world when America began to be settled.

Many of the early settlers came to America as indentured servants, indebted to others for a brief period of time to pay for their passage. England at this time recognized the forced labor of the apprentice, the hired servant, convicts, and indentured servants. Some of these laborers were subject to whippings and other forms of punishment. These forms of servitude were limited in duration and “transmitted no claim to the servant’s children.” 8

According to Hugh Thomas in The Slave Trade, about 11,328,000 Africans were transported to the new world between 1440 and 1870. Of these about 4 million went to Brazil, 2.5 million to Spanish colonies, 2 million to the British West Indies, 1.6 million to the French West Indies, and 500,000 went to what became the United States of America. 9

A Dutch ship, seeking to unload its human cargo, brought the first slaves to Virginia in 1619. Over the next century a small number of slaves were brought to America. In 1700 there were not more than 20 to 30 thousand black slaves in all the colonies. There were some people who spoke against slavery (e.g. the Quakers and Mennonites) 10 and some political efforts to check slavery (as in laws of Massachusetts and Rhode Island), but these had little large scale effect. The colonies’ laws recognized and protected slave property. Efforts were made to restrict the slave trade in several colonies, but the British government overruled such efforts and the trade went on down to the Revolution.

When independence was declared from England, the legal status of slavery was firmly established in the colonies, though there were plenty of voices speaking out against it, and with independence those voices would increase.

America’s Founders and Slavery

Some people suggest today that all early Americans must have been despicable to allow such an evil as slavery. They say early America should be judged as evil and sinful, and anything they have to say should be discounted. But if we were to judge modern America by this same standard, it would be far more wicked – we are not merely enslaving people, but we are murdering tens of millions of innocent unborn children through abortion. These people claim that they would not have allowed slavery if they were alive then. They would speak out and take any measures necessary. But where is their outcry and action to end slavery in the Sudan today? (And slavery there is much worse than that in early America.)

Some say we should not listen to the Founders of America because they owned slaves, or at least allowed slavery to exist in the society. However, if we were to cut ourselves off from the history of nations that had slavery in the past we would have to have nothing to do with any people because almost every society has had slavery, including African Americans, for many African societies sold slaves to the Europeans; and up to ten percent of blacks in America owned slaves.

The Founders Believed Slavery Was Fundamentally Wrong

The overwhelming majority of early Americans and most of America’s leaders did not own slaves. Some did own slaves, which were often inherited (like George Washington at age eleven), but many of these people set them free after independence. Most Founders believed that slavery was wrong and that it should be abolished. William Livingston, signer of the Constitution and Governor of New Jersey, wrote to an anti-slavery society in New York (John Jay, the first Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court and President of the Continental Congress, was President of this society):

I would most ardently wish to become a member of it [the anti-slavery society] and . . . I can safely promise them that neither my tongue, nor my pen, nor purse shall be wanting to promote the abolition of what to me appears so inconsistent with humanity and Christianity. . . . May the great and the equal Father of the human race, who has expressly declared His abhorrence of oppression, and that He is no respecter of persons, succeed a design so laudably calculated to undo the heavy burdens, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke. 11

John Quincy Adams, who worked tirelessly for years to end slavery, spoke of the anti-slavery views of the southern Founders, including Jefferson who owned slaves:

The inconsistency of the institution of domestic slavery with the principles of the Declaration of Independence was seen and lamented by all the southern patriots of the Revolution; by no one with deeper and more unalterable conviction than by the author of the Declaration himself. No charge of insincerity or hypocrisy can be fairly laid to their charge. Never from their lips was heard one syllable of attempt to justify the institution of slavery. They universally considered it as a reproach fastened upon them by the unnatural step-mother country and they saw that before the principles of the Declaration of Independence, slavery, in common with every other mode of oppression, was destined sooner or later to be banished from the earth. Such was the undoubting conviction of Jefferson to his dying day. In the Memoir of His Life, written at the age of seventy-seven, he gave to his countrymen the solemn and emphatic warning that the day was not distant when they must hear and adopt the general emancipation of their slaves. “Nothing is more certainly written,” said he, “in the book of fate, than that these people are to be free.” 12

The Founding Fathers believed that blacks had the same God-given inalienable rights as any other peoples. James Otis of Massachusetts said in 1764 that “The colonists are by the law of nature freeborn, as indeed all men are, white or black.” 13

There had always been free blacks in America who owned property, voted, and had the same rights as other citizens. 14 Most of the men who gave us the Declaration and the Constitution wanted to see slavery abolished. For example, George Washington wrote in a letter to Robert Morris:

I can only say that there is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do to see a plan adopted for the abolition of it [slavery]. 15

Charles Carroll, Signer of Declaration from Maryland, wrote:

Why keep alive the question of slavery? It is admitted by all to be a great evil. 16

Benjamin Rush, Signer from Pennsylvania, stated:

Domestic slavery is repugnant to the principles of Christianity. . . . It is rebellion against the authority of a common Father. It is a practical denial of the extent and efficacy of the death of a common Savior. It is an usurpation of the prerogative of the great Sovereign of the universe who has solemnly claimed an exclusive property in the souls of men. 17

Father of American education, and contributor to the ideas in the Constitution, Noah Webster wrote:

Justice and humanity require it [the end of slavery] – Christianity commands it. Let every benevolent . . . pray for the glorious period when the last slave who fights for freedom shall be restored to the possession of that inestimable right. 18

Quotes from John Adams reveal his strong anti-slavery views:

Every measure of prudence, therefore, ought to be assumed for the eventual total extirpation of slavery from the United States. . . . I have, through my whole life, held the practice of slavery in . . . abhorrence. 19 My opinion against it [slavery] has always been known. . . . [N]ever in my life did I own a slave. 20

When Benjamin Franklin served as President of the Pennsylvania Society of Promoting the Abolition of Slavery he declared:

“Slavery is . . . an atrocious debasement of human nature.” 21

Thomas Jefferson’s original draft of the Declaration included a strong denunciation of slavery, declaring the king’s perpetuation of the slave trade and his vetoing of colonial anti-slavery measures as one reason the colonists were declaring their independence:

He [King George III] has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere. . . . Determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought and sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or restrain this execrable commerce. 22

Prior to independence, anti-slavery measures by the colonists were thwarted by the British government. Franklin wrote in 1773:

A disposition to abolish slavery prevails in North America, that many of Pennsylvanians have set their slaves at liberty, and that even the Virginia Assembly have petitioned the King for permission to make a law for preventing the importation of more into that colony. This request, however, will probably not be granted as their former laws of that kind have always been repealed. 23

The Founders took action against slavery

The founders did not just believe slavery was an evil that needed to be abolished, and they did not just speak against it, but they acted on their beliefs. During the Revolutionary War black slaves who fought won their freedom in every state except South Carolina and Georgia. 24

Many of the founders started and served in anti-slavery societies. Franklin and Rush founded the first such society in America in 1774. John Jay was president of a similar society in New York. Other Founding Fathers serving in anti-slavery societies included: William Livingston (Constitution signer), James Madison, Richard Bassett, James Monroe, Bushrod Washington, Charles Carroll, William Few, John Marshall, Richard Stockton, Zephaniah Swift, and many more. 25

As the Founders worked to free themselves from enslavement to Britain, based upon laws of God and nature, they also spoke against slavery and took steps to stop it. Abolition grew as principled resistance to the tyranny of England grew, since both were based upon the same ideas. This worked itself out on a personal as well as policy level, as seen in the following incident in the life of William Whipple, signer of the Declaration of Independence from New Hampshire. Dwight writes:

When General Whipple set out to join the army, he took with him for his waiting servant, a colored man named Prince, one whom he had imported from Africa many years before. He was a slave whom his master highly valued. As he advanced on his journey, he said to Prince, “If we should be called into an engagement with the enemy, I expect you will behave like a man of courage, and fight like a brave soldier for your country.” Prince feelingly replied, “Sir, I have no inducement to fight, I have no country while I am a slave. If I had my freedom, I would endeavor to defend it to the last drop of my blood.” This reply of Prince produced the effect on his master’s heart which Prince desired. The general declared him free on the spot. 26

The Founders opposed slavery based upon the principle of the equality of all men. Throughout history many slaves have revolted but it was believed (even by those enslaved) that some people had the right to enslave others. The American slave protests were the first in history based on principles of God-endowed liberty for all. It was not the secularists who spoke out against slavery but the ministers and Christian statesmen.

Before independence, some states had tried to restrict slavery in different ways (e.g. Virginia had voted to end the slave trade in 1773), but the English government had not allowed it. Following independence and victory in the war, the rule of the mother country was removed, leaving freedom for each state to deal with the slavery problem. Within about 20 years of the 1783 Treaty of Peace with Britain, the northern states abolished slavery: Pennsylvania and Massachusetts in 1780; Connecticut and Rhode Island in 1784; New Hampshire in 1792; Vermont in 1793; New York in 1799; and New Jersey in 1804.

The Northwest Ordinance (1787, 1789), which governed the admission of new states into the union from the then northwest territories, forbid slavery. Thus, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Iowa all prohibited slavery. This first federal act dealing with slavery was authored by Rufus King (signer of the Constitution) and signed into law by President George Washington.

Although no Southern state abolished slavery, there was much anti-slavery sentiment. Many anti-slavery societies were started, especially in the upper South. Many Southern states considered proposals abolishing slavery, for example, the Virginia legislature in 1778 and 1796. When none passed, many, like Washington, set their slaves free, making provision for their well being. Following independence, “Virginia changed her laws to make it easier for individuals to emancipate slaves,” 27 though over time the laws became more restrictive in Virginia.

While most states were moving toward freedom for slaves, the deep South (Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina) was largely pro-slavery. Yet, even so, the Southern courts before around 1840 generally took the position that slavery violated the natural rights of blacks. For example, the Mississippi Supreme Court ruled in 1818:

Slavery is condemned by reason and the laws of nature. It exists and can only exist, through municipal regulations, and in matters of doubt,…courts must lean in favorem vitae et libertatis [in favor of life and liberty]. 28

The same court ruled in 1820 that the slave “is still a human being, and possesses all those rights, of which he is not deprived by the positive provisions of the law.” 29

Free blacks were citizens and voted in most Northern states and Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina. In Baltimore prior to 1800, more blacks voted than whites; but in 1801 and 1809, Maryland began to restrict black voting and in 1835 North Carolina prohibited it. Other states made similar restrictions, but a number of Northern states allowed blacks to vote and hold office. In Massachusetts this right was given nearly a decade before the American Revolution and was never taken away, either before or after the Civil War.

Slavery and the Constitution

The issue of slavery was considered at the Constitutional Convention. Though most delegates were opposed to slavery, they compromised on the issue when the representatives from Georgia and South Carolina threatened to walk out. The delegates realized slavery would continue in these states with or without the union. They saw a strong union of all the colonies was the best means of securing their liberty (which was by no means guaranteed to survive). They did not agree to abolish slavery as some wanted to do, but they did take the forward step of giving the Congress the power to end the slave trade after 20 years. 30No nation in Europe or elsewhere had agreed to such political action.

Even so, many warned of the dangers of allowing this evil to continue. George Mason of Virginia told the delegates:

Every master of slaves is born a petty tyrant. They bring the judgement of heaven upon a country. As nations cannot be rewarded or punished in the next world, they must be in this. By an inevitable chain of causes and effects, Providence punishes national sins by national calamities. 31

Jefferson had written some time before this:

The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other. . . . And with what execration should the statesman be loaded, who permitting one half the citizens thus to trample on the rights of the other. . . . And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep forever. 32

Constitutional Convention Delegate, Luther Martin, stated:

[I]t ought to be considered that national crimes can only be and frequently are punished in this world by national punishments; and that the continuance of the slave-trade, and thus giving it a national sanction and encouragement, ought to be considered as justly exposing us to the displeasure and vengeance of Him who is equally Lord of all and who views with equal eye the poor African slave and his American master. 33

Some today misinterpret the Constitutional provision of counting the slaves as three-fifths for purposes of representation as pro-slavery or black dehumanization. But it was a political compromise between the north and the south.. The three-fifths provision applied only to slaves and not free blacks, who voted and had the same rights as whites (and in some southern states this meant being able to own slaves). While the Southern states wanted to count the slaves in their population to determine the number of congressmen from their states, slavery opponents pushed to keep the Southern states from having more representatives, and hence more power in congress.

The Constitution did provide that runaway slaves would be returned to their owners (We saw previously that returning runaway slaves is contrary to Biblical slave laws, unless these slaves were making restitution for a crime.) but the words slave and slavery were carefully avoided. “Many of the framers did not want to blemish the Constitution with that shameful term.” The initial language of this clause was “legally held to service or labor,” but this was deleted when it was objected that legally seemed to favor “the idea that slavery was legal in a moral view.” 34

While the Constitution did provide some protection for slavery, this document is not pro-slavery. It embraced the situation of all 13 states at that time, the Founders leaving most of the power to deal with this social evil in the hands of each state. Most saw that the principles of liberty contained in the Declaration could not support slavery and would eventually overthrow it.

As delegate to the Constitutional Convention, Luther Martin put it:

Slavery is inconsistent with the genius of republicanism, and has a tendency to destroy those principles on which it is supported, as it lessens the sense of the equal rights of mankind, and habituates us to tyranny and oppression.35

We have seen that after independence the American Founders actually took steps to end slavery. Some could have done more, but as a whole they probably did more than any group of national leaders up until that time in history to deal with the evil of slavery. They took steps toward liberty for the enslaved and believed that the gradual march of liberty would continue, ultimately resulting in the complete death of slavery. The ideas they infused in the foundational civil documents upon which America was founded – such as Creator endowed rights and the equality of all men before the law – eventually prevailed and slavery was abolished. But not without great difficulty because the generations that followed failed to carry out the gradual abolition of slavery in America.

The View of Slavery Changes

Most of America’s Founders thought slavery would gradually be abolished. Roger Sherman said that “the abolition of slavery seemed to be going on in the U.S. and that the good sense of the several states would probably by degrees complete it.” 36 But it was not. Why?

  1. Succeeding generations did not have the character and worldview necessary to complete the task started by the Founders. Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. Each generation must take up the cause of liberty, which is the cause of God, and fight the battle. While the majority view of the Founders was that American slavery was a social evil that needed to be abolished, many in later generations attempted to justify slavery, often appealing to the Scriptures (though, I believe, in error at many points, as mentioned earlier).
  2. American slavery was not in alignment with Biblical slave laws and God’s desire for liberty for all mankind. This inconsistency produced an institution that proved too difficult to gradually and peacefully abolish. Some Founders (like Henry and Jefferson) could not see how a peaceful resolution was possible and gave the “necessary evil” argument. Henry said: “As much as I deplore slavery, I see that prudence forbids its abolition.” 37 Jefferson was opposed to slavery yet he thought that once the slaves gained freedom, a peaceful coexistence of whites and blacks would be very difficult to maintain. Jefferson predicted that if the slaves were freed and lived in America, “Deep-rooted prejudices entertained by the whites’ ten thousand recollections, by the blacks, of the injuries they have sustained; new provocations; the real distinctions which nature has made and many other circumstances, will divide us into parties, and produce convulsions which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race.” 38 This is why many worked (especially many from Virginia, like James Monroe and James Madison) to set up a country in Africa (Liberia) where the freed slaves could live. Some at this time did not see integration as possible, and apart from the power of God, history has shown it is not possible, as there have been and are many ethnic wars. The church must lead the way in race relations, showing all believers are brothers in Christ, and all men have a common Creator.
  3. The invention of the cotton gin, which revived the economic benefit of slavery, also contributed to a shift in the thinking of many Americans. At the time of independence and the constitutional period most people viewed slavery as an evil that should and would be abolished. But by the 1830s, many people, including some Southern ministers, began to justify it. Some, like Calhoun, even said it was a positive thing. Others justified it by promoting the inequality of the races. Stephen Douglas argued that the Declaration only applied to whites, but Lincoln rejected that argument and sought to bring the nation back to the principles of the Declaration. In the end these principles prevailed.

The Civil War

It is not the intent of this article to examine the War between the States. 39 The causes behind the war were many. Certainly slavery was a part of the cause (and for a small number of wealthy and influential Southern slave owners, it was probably primary), but slavery was not the central issue for all people in the South. Most Southerners did not own slaves and most of those who did had only a small number. 40

States rights and perceived unconstitutional taxes were also motivations for secession. There were many abolitionists in the North, both Christian and non-Christian, who pushed for the war, seeing it as a means to end slavery. Though slavery was not initially the reason Lincoln sent troops into the South, he did come to believe that God wanted him to emancipate the slaves.

In all the complexities and tragedy of the war, God was at work fulfilling His providential purposes. Due to the sin of man, to his inability to deal with slavery in a Christian manner, and to other factors, a war erupted. Both good and bad in the root causes, produced good and bad fruit in the outcome of the war. 41

Though America’s Founders failed to accomplish all of their desires and wishes in dealing with the issue of slavery, the principles of equality and God-given rights they established in the American constitutional republic set into motion events leading to the end of slavery in the United States and throughout the world. That America was founded upon such Biblical principles is what made her a Christian nation, not that there was no sin in the Founders. It is because of the Christian foundations that America has become the most free, just, and prosperous nation in history. The Godly principles infused in her laws, institutions, and families have had immense impact in overthrowing tyranny, oppression, and slavery throughout the world.

Stephen McDowell, Author

Stephen McDowell is president of the Providence Foundation, a Christian educational organization whose mission is to spread liberty, justice, and prosperity among the nations by instructing individuals in a Biblical worldview.


1 R.J. Rushdoony, Institutes of Biblical Law, vol.1, p. 137.
2 Rushdoony, p. 286.
3 Rushdoony, pp. 485-486.
4 Rushdoony, p. 251.
5 Rushdoony, p. 251.
6 Rushdoony, p. 137.
7 Henry H. Halley, Halley’s Bible Handbook (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1965), p. 645.
8 Albert Bushnell Hart, The American Nation: A History (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1906), vol. 16, Slavery and Abolition, 1831-1841, p. 50.
9 “History of slavery is wide-ranging saga”, book review by Gregory Kane of The Slave Trade by Hugh Thomas (Simon and Schuster), in The Daily Progress, Charlottesville, Va., December 7, 1997.
10 The earliest known official protest against slavery in America was the Resolutions of Germantown, Pennsylvania Mennonites, February 18, 1688. See Documents of American History, Henry Steele Commager, editor (New York: F.S. Crofts & Co., 1944), 37-38.
11 William Livingston, The Papers of William Livingston, Carl E. Prince, editor (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1988), Vol. V, p. 255, to the New York Manumission Society on June 26, 1786. In “The Founding Fathers and Slavery” by David Barton, unpublished paper, p. 5.
12 John Quincy Adams, An Oration Delivered Before the Inhabitants of the Town of Newburyport, at Their Request, on the Sixty-First Anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, July 4th, 1837 (Newburyport: Charles Whipple, 1837), p. 50.
13 Rights of the Colonies, in Bernard Bailyn, ed., Pamphlets of the American Revolution (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1965), p. 439. In “Was the American Founding Unjust? The Case of Slavery,” by Thomas G. West, Principles, a quarterly review of The Claremont Institute, Spring/Summer 1992, p. 1.
14 Hart, p. 53.
15 Letter to Robert Morris, April 12, 1786, in George Washington: A Collection, ed. W.B. Allen (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1988), p. 319.
16 Kate Mason Rowland, Life and Correspondence of Charles Carroll of Carrollton (New York & London: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1898), Vol. II, p. 321, to Robert Goodloe Harper, April 23, 1820. In Barton, p. 3.
17 Benjamin Rush, Minutes of the Proceedings of a Convention of Delegates from the Abolition Societies Established in Different Parts of the United States Assembled at Philadelphia (Philadelphia: Zachariah Poulson, 1794), p. 24.. In Barton, p. 4.
18 Noah Webster, Effect of Slavery on Morals and Industry (Hartford: Hudson and Goodwin, 1793), p. 48. In Barton, p. 4.
19 Adams to Robert J. Evans, June 8, 1819, in Adrienne Koch and William Peden, eds., Selected Writings of John and John Quincy Adams (New York: Knopf, 1946), p. 209. In West, p. 2.
20 John Adams, The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States, Charles Francis Adams, ed. (Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1854), Vol. IX, pp. 92-93, to George Churchman and Jacob Lindley on January 24, 1801. In Barton, p. 3.
21 “An Address to the Public from the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery” (1789), in Franklin, Writings (New York: Library of America, 1987), p. 1154. In West, p. 2.
22 The Life and Selected Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Adrienne Koch and William Peden, eds. (New York: Random House, 1944), p. 25.
23 Benjamin Franklin, The Works of Benjamin Franklin, Jared Sparks, ed. (Boston: Tappan, Whittemore, and Mason, 1839), Vol. VIII, p. 42, to the Rev. Dean Woodward on April 10, 1773.
24 Benjamin Quarles, The Negro and the American Revolution (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1961), chaps. 4-6. In West, p. 2.
25 Barton, p. 5.
26 N. Dwight, The Lives of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence (New York: A.S. Barnes & Burr, 1860), p. 11.
27 West, p. 4.
28 Harry v. Decker & Hopkins (1818), in West, p. 4.
29 Mississippi v. Jones (1820), in West, p. 4.
30 Congress banned the exportation of slaves from any state in 1794, and in 1808 banned the importation of slaves. The individual states had passed similar legislation prior to 1808 as well. However, several Southern states continued to actively import and export slaves after their state ban went into effect.
31 Mark Beliles and Stephen McDowell, America’s Providential History (Charlottesville, Va.: Providence Foundation, 1991), p. 227.
32 Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia (Trenton: Wilson & Blackwell, 1803), Query XVIII, pp. 221-222.
33 Luther Martin, The Genuine Information Delivered to the Legislature of the State of Maryland Relative to the Proceedings of the General Convention Lately Held at Philadelphia (Philadelphia: Eleazor Oswald, 1788), p. 57. In Barton, p. 4.
34 West, p. 5. See Max Farrand, ed. The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1937), vol. 2, p. 417 (remarks on August 25), and pp. 601 (report of Committee of Style), 628 (Sept. 15). See also Madison’s Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787, August 25.
35 Luther Martin, Genuine Information (1788), in Herbert J. Storing, ed., The Complete Anti-Federalist (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), vol. 2, p. 62. In West, p. 6..
36 Remarks at the Constitutional Convention, August 22, Farrand, vol. 2, pp.. 369-72. In West, pp. 7-8.
37 Henry to Robert Pleasants, Jan. 18, 1773, in Philip B. Kurland and Ralph Lerner, eds. The Founders’ Constitution (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), vol. 1, p. 517; Elliot, Debates, vol. 3, p. 590. In West, p. 6. Henry also pointed out that convenience contributed to the continuation of slavery. He said: “Is it not surprising that at a time when the rights of humanity are defined with precision in a country above all others fond of liberty ‹ that, in such an age, and in such a country, we find men, professing a religion the most humane and gentle, adopting a principle as repugnant to humanity as it is inconsistent with the Bible and destructive to liberty? Believe me, I honor the Quakers for their noble efforts to abolish slavery. Every thinking, honest man regrets it in speculation, yet how few in practice from conscientious motives. Would any man believe that I am master of slaves of my own purchase? I am drawn along by the general inconvenience of living without them. I will not, I cannot justify it. For however culpable my conduct, I will so far pay my devoir to virtue as to won the excellence and rectitude of her precepts, and to lament my own non-conformity to them.” In John Hancock, Essays on the Elective Franchise; or, Who Has the Right to Vote (Philadelphia: Merrihew & Son, 1865), pp. 31-32.
38 Jefferson’s Notes, Query XIV, p. 188.
39 See America’s Providential History, chapter 16 for more on a providential view of the war.
40 See Hart, pp. 67 ff. Hart records that in 1860 only about 5% of the white population made a substantial profit of slave-keeping (a direct profit; many others benefited from the commerce associated with slavery). About 2% of this number (0.1% of the total white population) were large plantation owners who exerted much political influence. Some people have pointed out that only 3% of Southerners owned slaves. While this is technically true in some measure, it is misleading. The 3% reflects ownership by the head of the household and does not include all its inhabitants. Taking this into account, at the time of the Civil War about 19% of the population lived in households with slaves; and this was 19% of total population which included a large number of slaves. When you consider that in 6 Southern states (Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina), there were almost as many or more slaves than whites, this 19% figure actually represents 35%-45% of the white population (in those states) having a direct relation to a home that had slaves.
41 See America’s Providential History, chapter 16 for some positive and negative effects of the war.

A Black Patriot: Wentworth Cheswell

Wentworth Cheswell
At WallBuilders we strive to “present America’s forgotten history and heroes, with an emphasis on our moral, religious, and constitutional heritage,” so Wentworth Cheswell (sometimes Chiswell or Cheswill) is a perfect subject for our attention.

He was the grandson of black slave Richard Cheswell (who early gained his freedom and in 1717 and became the first black to own property in the colony of New Hampshire); and he was the son of Hopestill Cheswell, a notable homebuilder who built the homes of several patriot leaders, including John Paul Jones and the Rev. Samuel Langdon. Wentworth was named after the famous Wentworth family, from whom came several state governors, including Benning Wentworth – the governor at the time of Wentworth’s birth.

In 1763, Wentworth began attending an academy in Byfield, Massachusetts (30 miles from his home), where for four years he received an extensive education, studying Latin, Greek, swimming, horsemanship, reading, writing, and arithmetic.

In 1767, he returned home and became a schoolteacher, also marrying Mary Davis (they eventually had 13 children – 4 sons and 9 daughters). At the age of 21, he had already become an established and educated property owner and a stalwart in his local church, even holding a church pew.

The following year, Wentworth was elected town constable – the first of many offices he held throughout his life. Two years later in 1770, he was elected town selectman (the selectmen were considered the “town fathers” of a community). Other town offices in which he served included seven years as Auditor, six years as Assessor, two years as Coroner, seven years as town Moderator (presiding over town meetings), and twelve years as Justice of the Peace, overseeing trials, settling disputes, and executing deeds, wills, and legal documents. (View an 1813 document signed by Cheswell as justice of the peace.) For half a century – including every year from 1768 until 1817 – Wentworth held some position in local government.

In addition to his civic service, Wentworth was also a patriot leader. In fact, the town selected him as the messenger for the Committee of Safety – the central nervous system of the American Revolution that carried intelligence and messages back and forth between strategic operational centers. Serving in that position, Wentworth undertook the same task as Paul Revere, making an all-night ride to warn citizens of imminent British invasion.

In April 1776, he signed a document in which he pledged, “at the risk of . . . live and fortune,” to take up arms to resist the British, and in September 1777, he enlisted in a company of Light Horse Volunteers commanded by Colonel John Langdon (Langdon later became one of the 55 Founding Fathers who drafted the U. S. Constitution, then a framer of the Bill of Rights, and later the New Hampshire governor). Langdon’s company made a 250-mile march to Saratoga, New York, to join with the Continental Army under General Horatio Gates to defeat British General Burgoyne at the Battle of Saratoga – the first major American victory in the Revolution.

After returning from Saratoga, in the spring of 1778, Wentworth was elected to the convention to draft the state’s first constitution, but some unknown event prevented his attendance.

Wentworth also served as Newmarket’s unofficial historian, copying town records from 1727 (including the records of various church meetings) and chronicling old stories of the town as well as its current events. Additionally, having investigated and made extensive notes on numerous artifacts and relics he discovered in the region around Newmarket, he is considered the state’s first archeologist. Therefore, when the Rev. Jeremy Belknap published his famous three-volume History of New Hampshire (1784-1792), he relied on (and openly acknowledged) much information he gleaned from Wentworth.

In 1801, Wentworth helped start the town library to preserve and disseminate useful knowledge and virtue. His commitment to providing helpful information is not surprising, for not only had he become a school teacher in 1767 but in 1776 he was elected as one of five men to regulate and oversee the schools of Newmarket.

In 1817, in his 71st year of age, Wentworth succumbed to typhus fever and was buried on the family farm, where other members of his family were later buried. In fact, when his daughter Martha died (his last surviving heir), her will provided that any members or descendants of the family could forever forward be buried on the farm. Unfortunately, that family graveyard long lay in disrepair, but in recent years friends and family have managed to restore it.

The legacy of Wentworth Cheswell is a lasting one: a patriot, teacher, and church leader; an historian, archeologist, and educator; a judge and official elected to numerous offices (he is considered the first black American elected to office in America). He is truly one of our forgotten patriots but he is a laudable example for all Americans – a hero worth remembering and honoring.

William C. Nell, The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution, With Sketches of Several Distinguished Colored Persons: To Which is Added a Brief Survey of the Conditions and Prospects of Colored Americans (Boston: Robert F. Wallcut, 1855), pp. 120-121.

Sidney and Emma Nogrady Kaplan, The Black Presence in the Era of the American Revolution, Revised Edition (Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1989), pp. 200-202.

Thomas Truxtun Moebs, Black Soldiers-Black Sailors-Black Ink: Research Guide on African-Americans in U.S. Military History, 1526-1900 (Chesapeake Bay: Moebs Publishing Company, 1994), pp. 226, 259, 280.


The Founding Fathers and Slavery

Even though the issue of slavery is often raised as a discrediting charge against the Founding Fathers, the historical fact is that slavery was not the product of, nor was it an evil introduced by, the Founding Fathers; slavery had been introduced to America nearly two centuries before the Founders. As President of Congress Henry Laurens explained:

I abhor slavery. I was born in a country where slavery had been established by British Kings and Parliaments as well as by the laws of the country ages before my existence. . . . In former days there was no combating the prejudices of men supported by interest; the day, I hope, is approaching when, from principles of gratitude as well as justice, every man will strive to be foremost in showing his readiness to comply with the Golden Rule [“do unto others as you would have them do unto you” Matthew 7:12].1

Prior to the time of the Founding Fathers, there had been few serious efforts to dismantle the institution of slavery. John Jay identified the point at which the change in attitude toward slavery began:

Prior to the great Revolution, the great majority . . . of our people had been so long accustomed to the practice and convenience of having slaves that very few among them even doubted the propriety and rectitude of it.2

The War for Independence was the turning point in the national attitude–and it was the Founding Fathers who contributed greatly to that change. In fact, many of the Founders vigorously complained against the fact that Great Britain had forcefully imposed upon the Colonies the evil of slavery. For example, Thomas Jefferson heavily criticized that British policy:

He [King George III] has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. . . . Determined to keep open a market where men should be bought and sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce [that is, he has opposed efforts to prohibit the slave trade].3

Benjamin Franklin, in a 1773 letter to Dean Woodward, confirmed that whenever the Americans had attempted to end slavery, the British government had indeed thwarted those attempts. Franklin explained that . . .

. . . a disposition to abolish slavery prevails in North America, that many of Pennsylvanians have set their slaves at liberty, and that even the Virginia Assembly have petitioned the King for permission to make a law for preventing the importation of more into that colony. This request, however, will probably not be granted as their former laws of that kind have always been repealed.4

Further confirmation that even the Virginia Founders were not responsible for slavery, but actually tried to dismantle the institution, was provided by John Quincy Adams (known as the “hell-hound of abolition” for his extensive efforts against that evil). Adams explained:

The inconsistency of the institution of domestic slavery with the principles of the Declaration of Independence was seen and lamented by all the southern patriots of the Revolution; by no one with deeper and more unalterable conviction than by the author of the Declaration himself [Jefferson]. No charge of insincerity or hypocrisy can be fairly laid to their charge. Never from their lips was heard one syllable of attempt to justify the institution of slavery. They universally considered it as a reproach fastened upon them by the unnatural step-mother country [Great Britain] and they saw that before the principles of the Declaration of Independence, slavery, in common with every other mode of oppression, was destined sooner or later to be banished from the earth. Such was the undoubting conviction of Jefferson to his dying day. In the Memoir of His Life, written at the age of seventy-seven, he gave to his countrymen the solemn and emphatic warning that the day was not distant when they must hear and adopt the general emancipation of their slaves.5

While Jefferson himself had introduced a bill designed to end slavery,6 not all of the southern Founders were opposed to slavery. According to the testimony of Virginians James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, it was the Founders from North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia who most strongly favored slavery.7

Yet, despite the support for slavery in those States, the clear majority of the Founders opposed this evil. For instance, when some of the southern pro-slavery advocates invoked the Bible in support of slavery, Elias Boudinot, President of the Continental Congress, responded:

[E]ven the sacred Scriptures had been quoted to justify this iniquitous traffic. It is true that the Egyptians held the Israelites in bondage for four hundred years, . . . but . . . gentlemen cannot forget the consequences that followed: they were delivered by a strong hand and stretched-out arm and it ought to be remembered that the Almighty Power that accomplished their deliverance is the same yesterday, today, and for ever.8

Many of the Founding Fathers who had owned slaves as British citizens released them in the years following America’s separation from Great Britain (e.g., George Washington, John Dickinson, Caesar Rodney, William Livingston, George Wythe, John Randolph of Roanoke, and others). Furthermore, many of the Founders had never owned any slaves. For example, John Adams proclaimed, “[M]y opinion against it [slavery] has always been known . . . [N]ever in my life did I own a slave.”9

Notice a few additional examples of the strong anti-slavery sentiments held by great numbers of the Founders:

[N]ever in my life did I own a slave.10 John Adams, Signer of the Declaration, one of only two signers of the Bill of Rights, U. S. President

But to the eye of reason, what can be more clear than that all men have an equal right to happiness? Nature made no other distinction than that of higher or lower degrees of power of mind and body. . . . Were the talents and virtues which Heaven has bestowed on men given merely to make them more obedient drudges? . . . No! In the judgment of heaven there is no other superiority among men than a superiority of wisdom and virtue.11 Samuel Adams, Signer of the Declaration, “Father of the American Revolution”

[W]hy keep alive the question of slavery? It is admitted by all to be a great evil.12 Charles Carroll, Signer of the Declaration

As Congress is now to legislate for our extensive territory lately acquired, I pray to Heaven that they may build up the system of the government on the broad, strong, and sound principles of freedom. Curse not the inhabitants of those regions, and of the United States in general, with a permission to introduce bondage [slavery].13 John Dickinson, Signer of the Constitution; Governor of Pennsylvania

I am glad to hear that the disposition against keeping negroes grows more general in North America. Several pieces have been lately printed here against the practice, and I hope in time it will be taken into consideration and suppressed by the legislature.14 Benjamin Franklin, Signer of the Declaration, Signer of the Constitution, President of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society

That mankind are all formed by the same Almighty Being, alike objects of his care, and equally designed for the enjoyment of happiness, the Christian religion teaches us to believe, and the political creed of Americans fully coincides with the position. . . . [We] earnestly entreat your serious attention to the subject of slavery – that you will be pleased to countenance the restoration of liberty to those unhappy men who alone in this land of freedom are degraded into perpetual bondage and who . . . are groaning in servile subjection.15 Benjamin Franklin, Signer of the Declaration, Signer of the Constitution, President of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society

That men should pray and fight for their own freedom and yet keep others in slavery is certainly acting a very inconsistent, as well as unjust and perhaps impious, part.16 John Jay, President of Continental Congress, Original Chief Justice U. S. Supreme Court

The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other. . . . And with what execration [curse] should the statesman be loaded, who permitting one half the citizens thus to trample on the rights of the other. . . . And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with His wrath? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever.17 Thomas Jefferson

Christianity, by introducing into Europe the truest principles of humanity, universal benevolence, and brotherly love, had happily abolished civil slavery. Let us who profess the same religion practice its precepts . . . by agreeing to this duty.18 Richard Henry Lee, President of Continental Congress; Signer of the Declaration

I have seen it observed by a great writer that Christianity, by introducing into Europe the truest principles of humanity, universal benevolence, and brotherly love, had happily abolished civil slavery. Let us, who profess the same religion practice its precepts, and by agreeing to this duty convince the world that we know and practice our truest interests, and that we pay a proper regard to the dictates of justice and humanity!19 Richard Henry Lee, Signer of the Declaration, Framer of the Bill of Rights

I hope we shall at last, and if it so please God I hope it may be during my life time, see this cursed thing [slavery] taken out. . . . For my part, whether in a public station or a private capacity, I shall always be prompt to contribute my assistance towards effecting so desirable an event.20 William Livingston, Signer of the Constitution; Governor of New Jersey

[I]t ought to be considered that national crimes can only be and frequently are punished in this world by national punishments; and that the continuance of the slave-trade, and thus giving it a national sanction and encouragement, ought to be considered as justly exposing us to the displeasure and vengeance of Him who is equally Lord of all and who views with equal eye the poor African slave and his American master.21 Luther Martin, Delegate at Constitution Convention

As much as I value a union of all the States, I would not admit the Southern States into the Union unless they agree to the discontinuance of this disgraceful trade [slavery].22 George Mason, Delegate at Constitutional Convention

Honored will that State be in the annals of history which shall first abolish this violation of the rights of mankind.23 Joseph Reed, Revolutionary Officer; Governor of Pennsylvania

Domestic slavery is repugnant to the principles of Christianity. . . . It is rebellion against the authority of a common Father. It is a practical denial of the extent and efficacy of the death of a common Savior. It is an usurpation of the prerogative of the great Sovereign of the universe who has solemnly claimed an exclusive property in the souls of men.24 Benjamin Rush, Signer of the Declaration

The commerce in African slaves has breathed its last in Pennsylvania. I shall send you a copy of our late law respecting that trade as soon as it is published. I am encouraged by the success that has finally attended the exertions of the friends of universal freedom and justice.25 Benjamin Rush, Signer of the Declaration, Founder of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, President of the National Abolition Movement

Justice and humanity require it [the end of slavery]–Christianity commands it. Let every benevolent . . . pray for the glorious period when the last slave who fights for freedom shall be restored to the possession of that inestimable right.26 Noah Webster, Responsible for Article I, Section 8, of the Constitution

Slavery, or an absolute and unlimited power in the master over the life and fortune of the slave, is unauthorized by the common law. . . . The reasons which we sometimes see assigned for the origin and the continuance of slavery appear, when examined to the bottom, to be built upon a false foundation. In the enjoyment of their persons and of their property, the common law protects all.27 James Wilson, Signer of the Constitution; U. S. Supreme Court Justice

[I]t is certainly unlawful to make inroads upon others . . . and take away their liberty by no better means than superior power.28 John Witherspoon, Signer of the Declaration

For many of the Founders, their feelings against slavery went beyond words. For example, in 1774, Benjamin Franklin and Benjamin Rush founded America’s first anti-slavery society; John Jay was president of a similar society in New York. In fact, when signer of the Constitution William Livingston heard of the New York society, he, as Governor of New Jersey, wrote them, offering:

I would most ardently wish to become a member of it [the society in New York] and . . . I can safely promise them that neither my tongue, nor my pen, nor purse shall be wanting to promote the abolition of what to me appears so inconsistent with humanity and Christianity. . . . May the great and the equal Father of the human race, who has expressly declared His abhorrence of oppression, and that He is no respecter of persons, succeed a design so laudably calculated to undo the heavy burdens, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke.29

Other prominent Founding Fathers who were members of societies for ending slavery included Richard Bassett, James Madison, James Monroe, Bushrod Washington, Charles Carroll, William Few, John Marshall, Richard Stockton, Zephaniah Swift, and many more. In fact, based in part on the efforts of these Founders, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts began abolishing slavery in 1780;30 Connecticut and Rhode Island did so in 1784;31 Vermont in 1786;32 New Hampshire in 1792;33 New York in 1799;34 and New Jersey did so in 1804.35

Additionally, the reason that Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Iowa all prohibited slavery was a Congressional act, authored by Constitution signer Rufus King36 and signed into law by President George Washington,37 which prohibited slavery in those territories.38 It is not surprising that Washington would sign such a law, for it was he who had declared:

I can only say that there is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do to see a plan adopted for the abolition of it [slavery].39

The truth is that it was the Founding Fathers who were responsible for planting and nurturing the first seeds for the recognition of black equality and for the eventual end of slavery. This was a fact made clear by Richard Allen.

Allen had been a slave in Pennsylvania but was freed after he converted his master to Christianity. Allen, a close friend of Benjamin Rush and several other Founding Fathers, went on to become the founder of the A.M.E. Church in America. In an early address “To the People of Color,” he explained:

Many of the white people have been instruments in the hands of God for our good, even such as have held us in captivity, [and] are now pleading our cause with earnestness and zeal.40

While much progress was made by the Founders to end the institution of slavery, unfortunately what they began was not fully achieved until generations later. Yet, despite the strenuous effort of many Founders to recognize in practice that “all men are created equal,” charges persist to the opposite. In fact, revisionists even claim that the Constitution demonstrates that the Founders considered one who was black to be only three-fifths of a person.41 This charge is yet another falsehood. The three-fifths clause was not a measurement of human worth; rather, it was an anti-slavery provision to limit the political power of slavery’s proponents. By including only three-fifths of the total number of slaves in the congressional calculations, Southern States were actually being denied additional pro-slavery representatives in Congress.

Based on the clear records of the Constitutional Convention, two prominent professors explain the meaning of the three-fifths clause:

While much progress was made by the Founders to end the institution of slavery, unfortunately what they began was not fully achieved until generations later. Yet, despite the strenuous effort of many Founders to recognize in practice that “all men are created equal,” charges persist to the opposite. In fact, revisionists even claim that the Constitution demonstrates that the Founders considered one who was black to be only three-fifths of a person. This charge is yet another falsehood. The three-fifths clause was not a measurement of human worth; rather, it was an anti-slavery provision to limit the political power of slavery’s proponents. By including only three-fifths of the total number of slaves in the congressional calculations, Southern States were actually being denied additional pro-slavery representatives in Congress.

It was slavery’s opponents who succeeded in restricting the political power of the South by allowing them to count only three-fifths of their slave population in determining the number of congressional representatives. The three-fifths of a vote provision applied only to slaves, not to free blacks in either the North or South.42 Walter Williams

Why do revisionists so often abuse and misportray the three-fifths clause? Professor Walter Williams (himself an African-American) suggested:

Politicians, news media, college professors and leftists of other stripes are selling us lies and propaganda. To lay the groundwork for their increasingly successful attack on our Constitution, they must demean and criticize its authors. As Senator Joe Biden demonstrated during the Clarence Thomas hearings, the framers’ ideas about natural law must be trivialized or they must be seen as racists.43

While this has been only a cursory examination of the Founders and slavery, it is nonetheless sufficient to demonstrate the absurdity of the insinuation that the Founders were a collective group of racists.


1 Henry Laurens to John Laurens on August 14, 1776, Frank Moore, Materials for History Printed From Original Manuscripts, the Correspondence of Henry Laurens of South Carolina (New York: Zenger Club, 1861), 20.

2 John Jay to the English Anti-Slavery Society, June 1788, The Correspondence and Public Papers of John Jay, ed. Henry P. Johnston (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1891), III:342.

3 Thomas Jefferson, The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, ed. Albert Ellery Bergh (Washington, D. C.: Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association, 1903), I:34.

4 Benjamin Franklin to Rev. Dean Woodward, April 10, 1773, The Works of Benjamin Franklin, ed. Jared Sparks (Boston: Tappan, Whittemore, and Mason, 1839), VIII:42.

5 John Quincy Adams, An Oration Delivered Before the Inhabitants of the Town of Newburyport at Their Request on the Sixty-First Anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1837 (Newburyport: Charles Whipple, 1837), 50.

6 Jefferson, Writings of Thomas Jefferson, ed. Bergh (1903), I:4.

7 Jefferson, “Autobiography,” Writings of Thomas Jefferson, ed. Bergh (1903), I:28. See also James Madison, The Papers of James Madison (Washington: Langtree and O’Sullivan, 1840), III:1395; James Madison to Robert Walsh, November 27, 1819, The Writings of James Madison, ed. Gaillard Hunt (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1910), IX:2.

8 The Debates and Proceedings in the Congress of the United States (Washington, D. C.: Gales and Seaton, 1834), 1st Congress, 2nd Session, 1518. See also George Adams Boyd, Elias Boudinot, Patriot and Statesman (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1952), 182.

9 John Adams to George Churchman and Jacob Lindley, January 24, 1801, The Works of John Adams, ed. Charles Francis Adams (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1854), IX:92-93.

10 John Adams to George Churchman and Jacob Lindley, January 24, 1801, Works of John Adams, ed. Adams (1854) IX:92.

11 Samuel Adams, An Oration Delivered at the State House, in Philadelphia, to a Very Numerous audience; on Thursday the 1st of August, 1776 (London: E. Johnson, 1776), 4-6.

12 Charles Carroll to Robert Goodloe Harper, April 23, 1820, Kate Mason Rowland, Life and Correspondence of Charles Carroll of Carrollton (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1898), II:321.

13 John Dickinson to George Logan, January 30, 1804, Charles J. Stille, The Life and Times of John Dickinson(Philadelphia: J. P. Lippincott Company, 1891), 324.

14 Franklin to Mr. Anthony Benezet, August 22, 1772, Works of Benjamin Franklin, ed. Bigelow (1904), 5:356.

15 Memorial from the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, February 3, 1790, Annals of Congress, ed. Joseph Gales, Sr. (Washington: Gales and Seaton, 1834), 1:1239-1240.

16 John Jay to the Rev. Dr. Richard Price, September 27, 1785, The Life and Times of John Jay, ed. William Jay (New York: J. & S. Harper, 1833), II:174.

17 Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia(Philadelphia: Matthew Carey, 1794), 236-237.

18 Richard Henry Lee (Grandson), Memoir of the Life of Richard Henry Lee (Philadelphia: H. C. Carey and I. Lea, 1825), I:19.

19 Richard H. Lee (Grandson), Memoir of Richard Henry Lee (1825), 1:17-19.

20 William Livingston to James Pemberton, October 20, 1788, The Papers of William Livingston, ed. Carl E. Prince (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1988), V:358.

21 Luther Martin, The Genuine Information Delivered to the Legislature of the State of Maryland Relative to the Proceedings of the General Convention Lately Held at Philadelphia (Philadelphia: Eleazor Oswald, 1788), 57; Debates in the Several State Conventions on the Adoption of the Federal Constitution, ed. Jonathan Elliot (Washington, D. C.: 1836), I:374.

22 George Mason, June 15, 1788, Debates in the Several State Conventions on the Adoption of the Federal Constitution, ed. Jonathan Elliot (Washington, D. C.: 1836), III:452-454.

23 William Armor, Lives of the Governors of Pennsylvania (Norwich, CT: T. H. Davis & Co., 1874), 223.

24 Benjamin Rush, Minutes of the Proceedings of a Convention of Delegates from the Abolition Societies Established in Different Parts of the United States Assembled at Philadelphia (Philadelphia: Zachariah Poulson, 1794), 24.

25 Benjamin Rush to Richard Price, October 15, 1785, Letters of Benjamin Rush, ed. L. H. Butterfield (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1951), 1:371.

26 Noah Webster, Effect of Slavery on Morals and Industry (Hartford: Hudson and Goodwin, 1793), 48.

27 James Wilson, The Works of the Honorable James Wilson, ed. Bird Wilson (Philadelphia: Lorenzo Press, 1804), II:488.

28 John Witherspoon, The Works of John Witherspoon (Edinburgh: J. Ogle, 1815), VII:81.

29 William Livingston to the New York Manumission Society, June 26, 1786, The Papers of William Livingston, ed. Carl E. Prince (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1988), V:255.

30 A Constitution or Frame of Government Agreed Upon by the Delegates of the People of the State of Massachusetts-Bay (Boston: Benjamin Edes and Sons, 1780), 7; An Abridgement of the Laws of Pennsylvania, ed. Collinson Read (Philadelphia: 1801), 264-266.

31 The Public Statue Laws of the State of Connecticut (Hartford: Hudson and Goodwin, 1808), I:623-625; Rhode Island Session Laws (Providence: Wheeler, 1784), 7-8.

32 The Constitutions of the Sixteen States (Boston: Manning and Loring, 1797), 249, Vermont, 1786.

33 Constitutions of the Sixteen State (1797), 50, New Hampshire, 1792.

34 Laws of the State of New York, Passed at the Twenty-Second Session, Second Meeting of the Legislature (Albany: Loring Andrew, 1798), 721-723.

35 Laws of the State of New Jersey, Compiled and Published Under the Authority of the Legislature, ed. Joseph Bloomfield (Trenton: James J. Wilson, 1811), 103-105.

36 Rufus King, The Life and Correspondence of Rufus King, ed. Charles King (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1894), I:288-289.

37 August 7, 1789, Acts Passed at a Congress of the United States of America (Hartford: Hudson and Goodwin, 1791), 104.

38 “An Ordinance for the Government of the Territory of the United States Northwest of the River Ohio,” Article VI, The Constitutions of the United States (Trenton: Moore and Lake, 1813), 366.

39 George Washington to Robert Morris, April 12, 1786, The Writings of George Washington, ed. John C. Fitzpatrick (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1932), XXVIII:407-408.

40 Richard Allen, “Address to the People of Color in the United States,” The Life Experience and Gospel Labors of the Right Rev. Richard Allen (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1983), 73.

41 Thomas G. West, “Was the American Founding Unjust? The Case of Slavery,” Principles: A Quarterly Review for Teachers of History and Social Science (Claremont, CA: The Claremont Institute Spring/Summer, 1992), 5.

42 Walter E. Williams, “Some Fathers Fought Slavery,” Creators Syndicate, Inc. (May 26, 1993).

43 Walter E. Williams, “Some Fathers Fought Slavery,” Creators Syndicate, Inc. (May 26, 1993).

Sermon – Slavery – 1791

Jonathan Edwards (1745-1801) was a son of the First Great Awakening preacher, the senior Jonathan Edwards. When the Revolutionary War began and after the death of his father, Edwards and his family relocated to Princeton, NJ. He graduated from the College of New Jersey (1765), and was a tutor at Princeton (1767-1769). Edwards was pastor of: the society at White Haven, CT (1769=1795), and a Church at Colebrook, CT (1796-1799). The following sermon was preached by Edwards in opposition to the slave trade and slavery.







Slavery of the Africans:





SETEMBER 15, 1791.

Pastor of a Church in New-Haven.


At a meeting of the Connecticut Society for the Promotion of Freedom, and for the Relief of Persons unlawfully holden in Bondage, at New-Haven, September 15, 1791,

Voted, That the President return the Thanks of this Society to the Rev. Doctor Edwards, for his Sermon this Day delivered before the Society, and that he request a Copy thereof, that it may be printed.

Test. Simeon Baldwin, Sec’y.


The injustice and impolicy of the slave-trade, and of the slavery of the Africans.


This precept of our divine Lord hath always been admired as most excellent; and doubtless with the greatest reason. Yet it needs some explanation. It is not surely to be understood in the most unlimited sense, employing that because a prince expects and wishes for obedience from his subjects, he is obliged to obey them: that because parents wish their children to submit to their government, therefore they are to submit to the government of their children: or that because some men wish that others would concur and assist them to the gratification of their unlawful desires, therefore they also are to gratify the unlawful desires, of others. But whatever we are conscious, that we should, in an exchange of circumstances, wish, and are persuaded that we might reasonably wish, that others would do to us; that we are bound to do to them. This is the general rule given us in the text; and a very extensive rule it is, reaching to the whole of our conduct: and is particularly useful to direct our conduct toward inferiors, and those whom we have in our power. I have therefore thought it a proper foundation for the discourse which by the Society for the Promotion of Freedom, and for the Relief of Persons unlawfully holden in Bondage, I have the honour to be appointed to deliver, on the present occasion.

This divine maxim is most properly applicable to the slave-trade, and to the slavery of the Africans. Let us then make the application.

Should we be willing, that the Africans or any other nation should purchase us, our wives and children, transport us into Africa and there sell us into perpetual and absolute slavery? Should we be willing, that they by large bribes and offers of a gainful traffic should entice our neighbours to kidnap and sell us to them, and that they should hold in perpetual and cruel bondage, not only ourselves, but our posterity through all generations? Yet why is it not as right for them to treat us in this manner, as it is for us to treat them in the same manner? Their colour indeed is different from our’s. But does this give us a right to enslave them? The nations from Germany to Guinea have complexions of every shade from the fairest white, to a jetty black: and if a black complexion subject a nation or an individual to slavery; where shall slavery begin? Or where shall it end?

I propose to mention a few reasons against the right of the slave-trade—and then to consider the principal arguments, which I have ever heard urged in favour of it,—What will be said against the slave-trade will generally be equally applicable to slavery itself; and if conclusive against the former, will be equally conclusive against the latter.

As to the slave-trade, I conceive it to be unjust in itself—abominable on account of the cruel manner in which it is conducted—and totally wrong on account of the impolicy of it, or its destructive tendency to the moral and political interests of any country.

I. It is unjust in itself.—It is unjust in the same sense, and for the same reason, as it is, to steal, to rob, or to murder. It is a principle, the truth of which hath in this country been generally, if not universally acknowledged, ever since the commencement of the late war, that all men are born equally free. If this be true, the Africans are by nature equally entitled to freedom as we are; and therefore we have no more right to enslave, or to afford aid to enslave them, than they have to do the same to us. They have the same right to their freedom, which they have to their property or to their lives. Therefore to enslave them is as really and in the same sense wrong, as to steal from them, to rob or to murder them.

There are indeed cases in which men may justly be deprived of their liberty and reduced to slavery; as there are cases in which they may be justly deprived of their lives. But they can justly be deprived of neither unless they have by their own voluntary conduct forfeited it. Therefore still the right to liberty stands on the same basis with the right to life. And that the Africans have done something whereby they have forfeited their liberty must appear, before we can justly deprive them of it; as it must appear, that they have done something whereby they have forfeited their lives, before we may justly deprive them of these.

II. The slave-trade is wicked and abominable on account of the cruel manner in which it is carried on.

Beside the stealing or kidnapping of men, women and children, in the first instance, and the instigation of others to this abominable practice; the inhuman manner in which they are transported to America, and in which they are treated on their passage and in their subsequent slavery, is such as ought forever to deter every man from acting any part in this business, who has any regard to justice or humanity. They are crowded so closely into the holds and between the decks of vessels, that they have scarcely room to lie down, and sometimes not room to sit up in an erect posture; the men at the same time fastened together with irons by two and two; and all this in the most sultry climate. The consequence of the whole is, that the most dangerous and fatal diseases are soon bred among them, whereby vast numbers of those exported from Africa perish in the voyage: other in dread of that slavery which is before them, and in distress and despair from the loss of their parents, their children, their husbands, their wives, all their dear connections, and their dear native country itself, starve themselves to death or plunge themselves into the ocean. Those who attempt in the former of those ways to escape from their persecutors, are tortured by live coals applied to their mouths. Those who attempt an escape in the latter and fail, are equally tortured by the most cruel beating, or otherwise as their persecutors please. If any of them make an attempt, as they sometimes do, to recover their liberty, some, and as the circumstances may be, many, are put to immediate death. Others beaten, bruised, cut and mangled in a most inhuman and shocking manner, are in this situation exhibited to the rest, to terrify them from the like attempt in future: and some are delivered up to every species of torment, whether by the application of the whip, or of any other instrument, even of fire itself, as the ingenuity of the ship-master and of his crew is able to suggest or their situation will admit; and these torments are purposely continued for several days, before death is permitted to afford relief to these objects of vengeance.

By these means, according to the common computation, twenty[five thousand, which is a fourth part of those who are exported from Africa, and by the concession of all, twenty thousand, annually perish, before they arrive at the places of their destination in America.

But this is by no means the end of the sufferings of this unhappy people. Bred up in a country spontaneously yielding the necessaries and conveniences of savage life, they have never been accustomed to labour: of course they are but ill prepared to go through the fatigue and drudgery to which they are doomed in their state of slavery. Therefore partly by this cause, partly by the scantiness and badness of their food, and partly from dejection of spirits, mortification and despair, another twenty-five thousand die in the seasoning, as it is called, i.e. within two years of their arrival in America. This I say is the common computation. Or if we will in this particular be as favourable to the trade as in the estimate of the number which perishes on the passage, we may reckon the number which dies in the seasoning to be twenty thousand. So that of the hundred thousand annually exported from Africa to America, fifty thousand, as it is commonly computed, or on the most favourable estimate, forty thousand, die before they are seasoned to the country.

Nor is this all. The cruel sufferings of these pitiable beings are not yet at an end. Thenceforward they have to drag out a miserable life in absolute slavery, entirely at the disposal of their masters, by whom not only every venial fault, every mere inadvertence or mistake, but even real virtues, are liable to be construed into the most atrocious crimes, and punished as such, according to their caprice or rage, while they are intoxicated sometimes with liquor, sometimes with passion.

By these masters they are supplied with barely enough to keep them from starving, as the whole expense laid out on a slave for food, clothing and medicine is commonly computed on an average at thirty shillings sterling annually. At the same time they are kept at hard labour from five o’clock in the morning, till nine at night, excepting time to eat twice during the day. And they are constantly under the watchful eye of overseers and Negro-drivers more tyrannical and cruel than even their masters themselves. From these drivers for every imagined, as well as real neglect or want of exertion, they receive the lash, the smack of which is all day long in the ears of those who are on the plantation or in the vicinity; and it is used with such dexterity and severity, as not only to lacerate the skin, but to tear our small portions of the flesh at almost every stroke.

This is the general treatment of the slaves. But many individuals suffer still more severely. Many, many are knocked down; some have their eyes beaten out; some have an arm or a leg broken, or chopt off; and many for a very small or for no crime at all, have been beaten to death merely to gratify the fury of an enraged master or overseer.

Nor ought we on this occasion to overlook the wars among the nations of Africa excited by the trade, or the destruction attendant on those wars. Not to mention the destruction of property, the burning of towns and villages, &c. it hath been determined by reasonable computation, that there are annually exported from Africa to the various parts of America, one hundred thousand slaves, as was before observed; that of these six thousand are captives of war; that in the wars in which these are taken, ten persons of the victors and vanquished are killed, to one taken; that therefore the taking of the six thousand captives is attended with the slaughter of sixty thousand of their countrymen. Now does not justice? Does not humanity shrink from the idea, that in order to procure one slave to gratify our avarice, we should put to death ten human beings? Or that in order to increase our property, and that only in some small degree, we should carry on a trade, or even connive at it, to support which sixty thousand of our own species are slain in war?

These sixty thousand, added to the forty thousand who perish on the passage and in the seasoning, give us an hundred thousand who are annually destroyed by the trade; and the whole advantage gained by this amazing destruction of human lives is sixty thousand slaves. For you will recollect, that the whole number exported from Africa is an hundred thousand; that of these forty thousand die on the passage and in the seasoning, and sixty thousand are destroyed in the wars. Therefore while one hundred and sixty thousand are killed in the wars and are exported from Africa, but sixty thousand are added to the stock of slaves.

Now when we consider all this; when we consider the miseries which this unhappy people suffer in their wars, in their captivity, in their voyage to America, and during a wretched life of cruel slavery: and especially when we consider the annual destruction of an hundred thousand lives in the manner before mentioned; who can hesitate to declare this trade and the consequent slavery to be contrary to every principle of justice and humanity, of the law of nature and of the law of God?

III. This trade and this slavery are utterly wrong on the ground of impolicy. In a variety of respects they are exceedingly hurtful to the state which tolerates them.

1. They are hurtful, as they deprave the morals of the people.—The incessant and inhuman cruelties practiced in the trade and in the subsequent slavery necessarily tend to harden the human heart against the tender feelings of humanity in the masters of vessels, in the sailors, in the factors, in the proprietors of the slaves, in their children, in the overseers, in the slaves themselves, and in all who habitually see those cruelties. Now the eradication or even the diminution of compassion, tenderness and humanity, is certainly a great depravation of heart, and must be followed with correspondent depravity of manners. And measures which lead to such depravity of heart and manners, cannot but be extremely hurtful to the state, and consequently are extremely impolitic.

2. The trade is impolitic as it is so destructive of the lives of seamen. The ingenious Mr. Clarkson hath in a very satisfactory manner made it appear, that in the slave-trade alone Great-Britain loses annually about nineteen hundred seamen; and that this loss is more than double to the loss annually sustained by Great-Britain in all her other trade taken together. And doubtless we lose as many as Great-Britain in proportion to the number of seamen whom we employ in this trade.—Now can it be politic to carry on a trade which is so destructive of that useful part of our citizens, our seamen?

3. African slavery is exceedingly impolitic, as it discourages industry. Nothing is more essential to the political prosperity of any state, than industry in the citizens. But in proportion as slaves are multiplied, every kind of labour becomes ignominious: and in fact in those of the United States, in which slaves are the most numerous, gentlemen and ladies of any fashion disdain to employ themselves in business, which in other states is consistent with the dignity of the first families and first offices. In a country filled with Negro slaves, labour belongs to them only, and a white man is despised in proportion as he applies to it.—Now how destructive to industry in all of the lowest and middle class of citizens, such a situation and the prevalence of such ideas will be, you can easily conceive. The consequence is, that some will nearly starve, others will betake themselves to the most dishonest practices, to obtain the means of living.

As slavery produces indolence in the white people, so it produces all those vices which are naturally connected with it; such as intemperance, lewdness and prodigality. These vices enfeeble both the body and the mind, and unfit men for any vigorous exertions and employments either external or mental. And those who are unfit for such exertions, are already a very degenerate race; degenerate, not only in a moral, but a natural sense. They are contemptible too, and will soon be despised even by their Negroes themselves.

Slavery tends to lewdness not only as it produces indolence, but as it affords abundant opportunity for that wickedness without either the danger and difficulty of an attack on the virtue of a woman of chastity, or the danger of a connection with one of ill fame. A planter with his hundred wenches about him is in some respects at least like the Sultan in his seraglio, and we learn the too frequent influence and effect of such a situation, not only from common fame, but from the multitude of mulattoes in countries where slaves are very numerous.

Slavery has a most direct tendency to haughtiness also, and a domineering spirit and conduct in the proprietors of the slaves, in their children, and in all who have the control of them. A man who has been bred up in domineering over Negroes, can scarcely avoid contracting such a habit of haughtiness and domination, as will express itself in his general treatment of mankind, whether in his private capacity, or in any office civil or military with which he may be vested. Despotism in economics, naturally leads to despotism in politics, and domestic slavery in a free government is a perfect solecism in human affairs.

How baneful all these tendencies and effects of slavery must be to the public good, and especially to the public good of such a free country as ours, I need not inform you.

4. In the same proportion as industry and labour are discouraged, is population discouraged and prevented. This is another respect in which slavery is exceedingly impolitic. That population is prevented in proportion as industry is discouraged, is, I conceive, so plain that nothing needs to be said to illustrate it. Mankind in general will enter into matrimony as soon as they possess the means of supporting a family. But the great body of any people have no other way of supporting themselves or a family, than by their own labour. Of course as labour is discouraged, matrimony is discouraged and population is prevented.—But the impolicy of whatever produces these effects will be acknowledged by all. The wealth, strength and glory of a state depend on the number of its virtuous citizens: and a state without citizens is at least as great an absurdity, as a king without subjects.

5. The impolicy of slavery still further appears from this, that it weakens the state, and in proportion to the degree in which it exists, exposes it to become an easy conquest.—The increase of free citizens is an increase of the strength of the state. But not so with regard to the increase of slaves. They not only add nothing to the strength of the state, but actually diminish it in proportion to their number. Every slave is naturally an enemy to the state in which he is holden in slavery, and wants nothing but an opportunity to assist in its overthrow. And an enemy within a state, is much more dangerous than one without it.

These observations concerning the prevention of population and weakening the state, are supported by facts which have fallen within our own observation. That the southern states, in which slaves are so numerous, are in no measure so populous, according to the extent of territory, as the northern, is a fact of universal notoriety: and that during the late war, the southern states found themselves greatly weakened by their slaves, and therefore were so easily overrun by the British army, is equally notorious.

From the view we have now taken of this subject we scruple not to infer, that to carry on the slave-trade and to introduce slaves into our country, is not only to be guilty of injustice, robbery and cruelty toward our fellow-men; but it is to injure ourselves and our country; and therefore it is altogether unjustifiable, wicked and abominable.

Having thus considered the injustice and ruinous tendency of the slave-trade, I proceed to attend to the principal arguments urged in favour of it.

1. It is said, that the Africans are the posterity of Ham, the son of Noah; that Canaan one of Ham’s sons, was cursed by Noah to be a servant of servants; that by Canaan we are to understand Ham’s posterity in general; that as his posterity are devoted by God to slavery, we have a right to enslave them.—This is the argument: to which I answer:

It is indeed generally thought that Ham peopled Africa; but that the curse on Canaan extended to all the posterity of Ham is a mere imagination. The only reason given for it is, that Canaan was only one of Ham’s sons; and that it seems reasonable, that the curse of Ham’s conduct should fall on all his posterity, if on any. But this argument is insufficient. We might as clearly argue, that the judgments denounced on the house of David, on account of his sin in the matter of Uriah, must equally fall on all his posterity. Yet we know, that many of them lived and died in great prosperity. So in every case in which judgments are predicted concerning any nation or family.

It is allowed in this argument, that the curse was to fall on the posterity of Ham, and not immediately on Ham himself; If otherwise, it is nothing to the purpose of the slave-trade, or of any slaves now in existence. It being allowed then, that this curse was to fall on Ham’s posterity, he who had a right to curse the whole of that posterity, had the same right to curse a part of it only, and the posterity of Canaan equally as any other part; and a curse on Ham’s posterity in the line of Canaan was as real a curse on Ham himself, as a curse on all his posterity would have been.

Therefore we have no ground to believe, that this curse respected any others, than the posterity of Canaan, who lived in the land of Canaan, which is well known to be remote from Africa. We have a particular account, that all the sons of Canaan settled in the land of Canaan; as may be seen in Gen. x. 15-20. “And Canaan begat Sidon his first born, and Heth, and the Jebusite, and the Emorite, and the Girgasite, and the Hivite, and the Arkite, and the Sinite, and the Arvadite, and the Zemorite, and the Hamathite; and afterward were the families of the Canaanites spread abroad. And the border of the Canaanites was from Sidon, as thou goest to Gerar, unto Gaza; as thou goest unto Sodom and Gomorrah, Admah, and Zeboim, even unto Lashah.”—Nor have we account that any of their posterity except the Carthaginians afterward removed to any part of Africa: and none will pretend that these peopled Africa in general; especially considering, that they were subdued, destroyed and so far extirpated by the Romans.

This curse then of the posterity of Canaan, had no reference to the inhabitants of Guinea, or of Africa in general; but was fulfilled partly in Joshua’s time, in the reduction and servitude of the Canaanites, and especially of the Gibeonites; partly by what the Phenicians suffered from the Chaldeans, Persians and Greeks; and finally by what the Carthaginians suffered from the Romans.

Therefore this curse gives us no right to enslave the Africans, as we do by the slave-trade, because it has no respect to the Africans whom we enslave. Nor if it had respected them, would it have given any such right; because it was not an institution of slavery, but a mere prophecy of it. And from this prophecy we have no more ground to infer the right of slavery, than we have from the prophecy of the destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar, or by the Romans, to infer their right respectively to destroy it in the manner they did; or from other prophecies to infer the right of Judas to betray his master, or of the Jews to crucify him.

2. The right of slavery is inferred from the instance of Abraham, who had servants born in his house and bought with his money.—But it is by no means certain, that these were slaves, as our Negroes are. If they were, it is unaccountable, that he went out at the head of an army of them to fight his enemies. No West-India planter would easily be induced to venture himself in such a situation. It is far more probable, that similar to some of the vassals under the feudal constitution, the servants of Abraham were only in a good measure dependant on him, and protected by him. But if they were to all intents and purposes slaves, Abraham’s holding of them will no more prove the right of slavery, than his going in to Hagar, will prove it right for any man to cohabit with his wench.

3. From the divine permission given the Israelites to buy servants of the nations round about them, it is argued, that we have a right to buy the Africans and hold them in slavery. See Lev. Xxv. 44-47. “Both thy bondmen and thy bondmaids, which thou shalt have, shall be of the heathen that are round about you; of them shall ye buy bondmen and bondmaids. Moreover, of the children of the strangers that do sojourn among you, of them shall ye buy, and of their families, that are with you, which they begat in your land; and they shall be your possession. And ye shall take them as an inheritance for your children after you, to inherit them for a possession; they shall be your bondmen for ever: but over your brethren the children of Israel ye shall not rule one over another with rigour.” But if this be at all to the purpose, it is a permission to every nation under heaven to buy slaves of the nations round about them; to us, to buy of our Indian neighbours; to them, to buy of us; to the French, to buy of the English, and to the English to buy of the French; and so through the world. If then this argument be valid, every man has an entire right to engage in this trade, and to buy and sell any other man of another nation, and any other man of another nation has an entire right to buy and sell him. Thus according to this construction; we have in Lev. Xxv. 43, &c. an institution of an universal slave-trade, by which every man may not only become a merchant, but may rightfully become the merchandize itself of this trade, and may be bought and sold like a beast.—Now this consequence will be given up as absurd, and therefore also the construction of scripture from which it follows, must be given up. Yet it is presumed, that there is no avoiding that construction of the absurdity flowing from it, but by admitting, that this permission to the Israelites to buy saves has no respect to us, but was in the same manner peculiar to them, as the permission and command to subdue, destroy and extirpate the whole Canaanitish nation; and therefore no more gives countenance to African slavery, than the command to extirpate the Canaanites, gives countenance to the extirpation of any nation in these days, by an universal slaughter of men and women, young men and maidens, infants and sucklings.

4. It is further pleaded, that there were slaves in the time of the apostles; that they did not forbid the holding of those slaves, but gave directions to servants, doubtless referring to the servants of that day, to obey their masters, and count them worthy of all honour.

To this the answer is, that the apostles teach the general duties of servants who are righteously in the state of servitude, as many are or may be, by hire, by indenture, and by judgment of a civil court. But they do not say, whether the servants in general of that day were justly holden in slavery or not. In like manner they lay down the general rules of obedience to civil magistrates, without deciding concerning the characters of the magistrates of the roman empire in the reign of Nero. And as the apostle Paul requires masters to give their servants that which is just and equal, (Col. iv. I.) so if any were enslaved unjustly, of course he in this text requires of the masters of such, to give them their freedom.—Thus the apostles treat the slavery of that day in the same manner that they treat the civil government; and say nothing more in favour of the former, than they say in favour of the latter.

Besides, this argument from the slavery prevailing in the days of the apostles, if it prove anything, proves too much, and so confutes itself. It proves, that we may enslave all captives taken in war, of any nation, and in any the most unjust war, such as the wars of the Romans, which were generally undertaken from the motives of ambition or avarice. On the ground of this argument we had a right to enslave the prisoners, whom we, during the late war, took from the British army; and they had the same right to enslave those whom they took from us; and so with respect to all other nations.

5. It is strongly urged, that the Negroes brought from Africa are all captives of war, and therefore are justly bought and holden in slavery.—This is a principal argument always urged by the advocates for slavery; and in a solemn debate on this subject, it hath been strongly insisted on, very lately in the British parliament. Therefore it requires our particular attention.

Captives in a war just on their part, cannot be justly enslaved; nor is this pretended. Therefore the captives who may be justly enslaved, must be taken in a war unjust on their part. But even on the supposition, that captives in such a war may be justly enslaved, it will not follow, that we can justly carry on the slave-trade, as it is commonly carried on from the African coast. In this trade any slaves are purchased, who are offered for sale, whether justly or unjustly enslaved. No enquiry is made whether they were captives in any war; much less, whether they were captivated in a war unjust on their part.

By the most authentic accounts, it appears, that the wars in general in Africa are excited by the prospect of gain from the sale of the captives of the war. Therefore those taken by the assailants in such wars, cannot be justly enslaved. Beside these, many are kidnapped by those of neighbouring nations; some by their own neighbours; and some by their kings or his agents; others for debt or some trifling crime are condemned to perpetual slavery—But none of these are justly enslaved. And the traders make no enquiry concerning the mode or occasion of their first enslavement. They buy all that are offered, provided they like them and the price.—So that the plea, that the African slaves are captives in war, is entirely insufficient to justify the slave-trade as now carried on.

But this is not all; if it were ever so true, that all the Negroes exported from Africa were captives in war, and that they were taken in a war unjust on their part; still they could not be justly enslaved.—We have no right to enslave a private foe in a state of nature, after he is conquered. Suppose in a state of nature one man rises against another and endeavours to kill him; in this case the person assaulted has no right to kill the assailant, unless it be necessary to preserve his own life. But in wars between nations, one nation may no doubt secure itself against another, by other means than the slavery of its captives. If a nation be victorious in the war, it may exact some towns or a district of country, by way of caution; or it may impose a fine to deter from future injuries. If the nation be not victorious, it will do no good to enslave the captives whom it has taken. It will provoke the victors, and foolishly excite vengeance which cannot be repelled.

Or if neither nation be decidedly victorious, to enslave the captives on either side can answer no good purpose, but must at least occasion the enslaving of the citizens of the other nation, who are now, or in future may be in a state of captivity. Such a practice therefore necessarily tends to evil and not good.

Besides; captives in war are generally common soldiers or common citizens; and they are generally ignorant of the true cause or causes of the war, and are by their superiours made to believe, that the war is entirely just on their part. Or if this be not the case, they may by force be compelled to serve in a war which they know to be unjust. In either of these cases they do not deserve to be condemned to perpetual slavery. To inflict perpetual slavery on these private soldiers and citizens is manifestly not to do, as we would wish that men should do to us. If we were taken in a war unjust on our part, we should not think it right to be condemned to perpetual slavery. No more right is it for us to condemn and hold in perpetual slavery others, who are in the same situation.

6. It is argued, that as the Africans in their own country, previously to the purchase of them by the African traders, are captives in war; if they were not bought up by those traders, they would be put to death: that therefore to purchase them and to subject them to slavery instead of death, is an act of mercy not only lawful, but meritorious.

If the case were indeed so as is now represented, the purchase of the Negroes would be no more meritorious, than the act of a man, who, if we were taken by the Algerians, should purchase us out of that slavery. This would indeed be an act of benevolence, if the purchaser should set us at liberty. But it is no act of benevolence to buy a man out of one state into another no better. Nay, the act of ransoming a man from death gives no right to the ransomer to commit a crime or an act of injustice to the person ransomed. The person ransomed is doubtless obligated according to his ability to satisfy the ransomer for his expense and trouble. Yet the ransomer has no more right to enslave the other, than the man who saves the life of another who was about to be killed by a robber or an assassin, has a right to enslave him.—The liberty of a man for life is far greater good, than the property paid for a Negro on the African coast. And to deprive a man of an immensely greater good, in order to recover one immensely less, is an immense injury and crime.

7. As to the pretence, that to prohibit or lay aside this trade, would be hurtful to our commerce; it is sufficient to ask, whether on the supposition, that it were advantageous to the commerce of Great-Britain to send her ships to these states, and transport us into perpetual slavery in the West-Indies, it would be right that she should go into that trade.

8. That to prohibit the slave trade would infringe on the property of those, who have expended large sums to carry on that trade, or of those who wish to purchase the slaves for their plantations, hath also been urged as an argument in favour of the trade.—But the same argument would prove, that if the skins and teeth of the Negroes were as valuable articles of commerce as furs and elephant’s teeth, and a merchant were to lay out his property in this commerce, he ought by no means to be obstructed therein.

9. But others will carry on the trade, if we do not.—So others will rob, steal and murder, if we do not.

10. It is said, that some men are intended by nature to be slaves.—If this mean, that the author of nature has given some men a license, to enslave others; this is denied and proof is demanded. If it mean, that God hath made some of capacities inferior to others, and that the last have a right to enslave the first; this argument will prove, that some of the citizens of every country, have a right to enslave other citizens of the same country; nay, that some have a right to enslave their own brothers and sisters.—But if this argument mean, that God in his providence suffers some men to be enslaved, and that this proves, that from the beginning he intended they should be enslaved, and made them with this intention; the answer is, that in like manner he suffers some men to be murdered, and in this sense, he intended and made them to be murdered. Yet no man in his senses will hence argue the lawfulness of murder.

11. It is further pretended, that no other men, than Negroes, can endure labour in the hot climates of the West-Indies and the southern states.—But does this appear to be fact? In all other climates, the laboring people are the most healthy. And I confess I have not yet seen evidence, but that those who have been accustomed to labour and are inured to those climates, can bear labour there also.—However, taking for granted the fact asserted in this objection, does it follow, that the inhabitants of those countries have a right to enslave the Africans to labour for them? No more surely than from the circumstance, that you are feeble and cannot labour, it follows, that you have a right to enslave your robust neighbor. As in all other cases, the feeble and those who choose not to labour, and yet wish to have their lands cultivated, are necessitated to hire the robust to labour for them; so no reason can be given, why the inhabitants of hot climates should not either perform their own labour, or hire those who can perform it, whether Negroes or others.

If our traders went to the coast of Africa to murder the inhabitants, or to rob them of their property, all would own that such murderous or piratical practices are wicked and abominable. Now it is as really wicked to rob a man of his liberty, as to rob him of his life; and it is much more wicked, than to rob him of his property. All men agree to condemn highway robbery. And the slave-trade is as much a greater wickedness than highway robbery, as liberty is more valuable than property. How strange is it then, that in the same nation highway robbery should be punished with death, and the slave-trade be encouraged by national authority.

We all dread political slavery, or subjection to the arbitrary power of a king or of any man or men not deriving their authority from the people. Yet such a state is inconceivably preferable to the slavery of the Negroes. Suppose that in the late war we had been subdued by Great-Britain; we should have been taxed without our consent. But these taxes would have amounted to but a small part of our property. Whereas the Negroes are deprived of all their property; no part of their earnings is their own; the whole is their masters.—In a conquered state we should have been at liberty to dispose of ourselves and of our property in most cases, as we should choose. We should have been free to live in this or that town or place; in any part of the country, or to remove out of the country; to apply to this or that business; to labour or not; and excepting sufficiency for the taxes, to dispose of the fruit of our labour to our own benefit, or that of our children, or of any other person. But the unhappy Negroes in slavery can do none of these things. They must do what they are commanded and as much as they are commanded, on pain of the lash. They must live where they are placed, and must confine themselves to that spot, on pain of death.

So that Great-Britain in her late attempt to enslave America, committed a very small crime indeed in comparison with the crime of those who enslave Africans.

The arguments which have been urged against the slave-trade, are with little variation applicable to the holding of slaves. He who holds a slave, continues to deprive him of that liberty, which was taken from him on the coast of Africa. And if it were wrong to deprive him of it in the first instance, why not in the second? If this be true, no man hath a better right to retain his Negro in slavery, than he had to take him from his native African shores. And every man who cannot show, that his Negro hath by his voluntary conduct forfeited his liberty, is obligated immediately to manumit him. Undoubtedly we should think so, were we holden in the same slavery in which the Negroes are: And our text requires us to do to others, as we would that they should do to us.

To hold a slave, who has a right to his liberty, is not only a real crime, but a very great one. Many good Christians have wondered how Abraham, the father of the faithful, could take Hagar to his bed; and how Sarah, celebrated as an holy woman, could consent to this transaction: Also, how David and Solomon could have so many wives and concubines, and yet be real saints. Let such inquire how it is possible, that our fathers and men now alive, universally reputed pious, should hold Negro slaves, and yet be the subjects of real piety? And whether to reduce a man, who hath the same right to liberty as any other man, to a state of absolute slaery6, or to hold him in that state, be not as great a crime as concubinage or fornication. I presume it will not be denied, that to commit theft or robbery every day of a man’s life, is as great a sin as to commit fornication in one instance. But to steal a man or to rob him of his liberty is a greater sin, than to steal his property, or to take it by violence. And to hold a man in a state of slavery, who has a right to his liberty, is to be every day guilty of robbing him of his liberty, or of man-stealing. The consequence is inevitable, that other things being the same, to hold a Negro slave, unless he have forfeited his liberty, is a greater sin in the sight of God, than concubinage or fornication.

Does this conclusion seem strange to any of you? Let me entreat you to weigh it candidly before you reject it. You will not deny, that liberty is more valuable than property; and that it is a greater sin to deprive a man of his whole liberty during life, than to deprive him of his whole property; or that man-stealing is a greater crime than robbery. Nor will you deny, that to hold in slavery a man who was stolen, is substantially the same crime as to steal him. These principles being undeniable, I leave it to yourselves to draw the plain and necessary consequence. And if your consciences shall, in spite of all opposition, tell you, that while you hold your Negroes in slavery, you do wrong, exceedingly wrong; that you do not, as you would that men should do to you; that you commit sin in the sight of God; that you daily violate the plain rights of mankind, and that in a higher degree, than if you committed theft or robbery; let me beseech you not to stifle this conviction, but attend to it and act accordingly; lest you add to your former guilt, that of sinning against the light of truth, and of your own consciences.

To convince yourselves, that your information being the same, to hold a Negro slave is a greater sin than fornication, theft or robbery, you need only bring the matter home to yourselves. I am willing to appeal to your own consciences, whether you would not judge it to be a greater sin for a man to hold you or your child during life in such slavery, as that of the Negroes, than for him to spend one night in a brothel, or in one instance to steal or rob. Let conscience speak, and I will submit to it’s decision.

This question seems to be clearly decided by revelation. Exod. xxi. 16. “He that stealeth a man and selleth him, or if he be found in his hand, he shall surely be put to death.” Thus death is, by the divine express declaration, the punishment due to the crime of man-stealing. But death is not the pu7nishment declared by God to be due to fornication, theft or robbery in common cases. Therefore we have the divine authority to assert, that man-stealing is a greater crime than fornication, theft or robbery. Now to hold in slavery a man who has a right to liberty, is substantially the same crime as to deprive him of his liberty. And to deprive of liberty and reduce to slavery, a man who has a right to liberty, is man-stealing. For it is immaterial whether he be taken and reduced to slavery clandestinely or by open violence. Therefore if the Negroes have a right to liberty, to hold them in slavery is man-stealing, which we have seen is, by God himself, declared to be a greater crime than fornication, theft or robbery.

Perhaps, though this truth be clearly demonstrable both from reason and revelation, you scarcely dare receive it, because it seems to bear hardly on the characters of our pious fathers, who held slaves. But they did it ignorantly and in unbelief of the truth; as Abraham, Jacob, David and Solomon were ignorant, that polygamy or concubinage was wrong. As to domestic slavery our fathers lived in a time of ignorance which God winked at; but now he commandeth all men every where to repent of this wickedness, and to break off this sin by righteousness, and this iniquity by shewing mercy to the poor, if it may be a lengthening out of their tranquility. You therefore to whom the present blaze of light as to this subject has reached, cannot sin at so cheap a rate as our fathers.

But methinks I hear some say, I have bought my Negro; I have paid a large sum for him; I cannot lose this sum, and therefore I cannot manumit him.—Alas! This is hitting the nail on the head. This brings into view the true cause which makes it so difficult to convince men of what is right in this case.—You recollect the story of Amaziah’s hiring an hundred thousand men of Israel, for an hundred talents, to assist him against the Edomites; and that when by the word of the Lord, he was forbidden to take those hired men with him to the war, he cried out, “But what shall we do for the hundred talents, which I have given to the army of Israel?” In this case, the answer of God was, “The Lord is able to give thee much more than this.”—To apply this to the subject before us, God is able to give thee much more than thou shalt lose my manumitting thy slave.

You may plead, that you use your slave well; you are not cruel to him, but feed and clothe him comfortably, &c. Still every day you rob him of a most valuable and important right. And a highwayman, who robs a man of his money in the most easy and compliant manner, is still a robber; and murder may be effected in a manner the least cruel and tormenting; still it is murder.

Having now taken that view of our subject, which was proposed, we may in reflection see abundant reason to acquiesce in the institution of this society. If the slave-trade be unjust, and as gross a violation of the rights of mankind, as would be, if the Africans should transport us into perpetual slavery in Africa; to unite our influence against it, is a duty which we owe to mankind, to ourselves and to God too. It is but doing as we would that men should do to us.—Nor is it enough that we have formed the society; we must do the duties of it. The first of these is to put an end to the slave-trade. The second is to relieve those who, contrary to the laws of the country, are holden in bondage. Another is to defend those in their remaining legal and natural rights, who are by law holden in bondage. Another and not the least important object of this society, I conceive to be, to increase and disperse the light of truth with respect to the subject of African slavery, and so prepare the way for its total abolition. For until men in general are convinced of the injustice of the trade and of the slavery itself, comparatively little can be done to effect the most important purposes of the institution.

It is not to be doubted, that the trade is even now carried on from this state. Vessels are from time to time fitted out for the coast of Africa, to transport the Negroes to the West-Indies and other parts. Nor will an end be put to this trade, without vigilance and strenuous exertion on the part of this society, or other friends of humanity, nor without a patient enduring of the opposition and odium of all who are concerned in it, of their friends and of all who are of the opinion that it is justifiable. Among these we are doubtless to reckon some of large property and considerable influence. And if the laws and customs of the country equally allowed of it, many, and perhaps as many as now plead for the right of the African slave-trade, would plead for the right of kidnapping us, the citizens of the United States, and of selling us into perpetual slavery.—If then we dare not incur the displeasure of such men, we may as well dissolve the society, and leave the slave-trade to be carried on, and the Negroes to be kidnapped, and though free in this state, to be sold into perpetual slavery in distant parts, at the pleasure of any man, who wishes to make gain by such abominable practices.

Though we must expect opposition, yet if we be steady and persevering, we need not fear, that we shall fail of success. The advantages, which the cause has already gained, are many and great. Thirty years ago scarcely a man in this country thought either the slave-trade or the slavery of Negroes to be wrong. But now how many and able advocates in private life, in our legislatures, in Congress, have appeared and have openly and irrefragably pleaded the rights of humanity in this as well as other instances? Nay, the great body of the people from New Hampshire to Virginia inclusively, have obtained such light, that in all those states the further importation of slaves is prohibited by law. And in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, slavery is totally abolished.

Nor is the light concerning this subject confined to America. It hath appeared with great clearness in France, and produced remarkable effects in the National Assembly. It hath also shone in bright beams in Great-Britain. It flashes with splendor in the writings of Clarkson and in the proceedings of several societies formed to abolish the slave-trade. Nor hath it been possible to shut it out of the British parliament. This light is still increasing, and in time will effect a total revolution. And if we judge of the future by the past, within fifty years from this time, it will be as shameful for a man to hold a Negro slave, as to be guilty of common robbery or theft. But it is our duty to remove the obstacles which intercept the rays of this light, that it may reach not only public bodies, but every individual. And when it shall have obtained a general spread, shall have dispelled all darkness, and slavery shall be no more; it will be an honour to be recorded in history, as a society which was formed, and which exerted itself with vigour and fidelity, to bring about an event so necessary and conducive to the interests of humanity and virtue, to the support of the rights and to the advancement of the happiness of mankind.

A P P E N D I X.

Some objections to the doctrine of the preceding sermon, have been mentioned to the author, since the delivery of it. Of these it may be proper to take some notice.

1. The slaves are in a better situation than that in which they were in their own country; especially as they have opportunity to know the Christian religion and to secure the saving blessings of it. Therefore it is not an injury, but a benefit to bring them into this country, even though their importation be accompanied and followed with slavery. It is also said, that the situation of many Negroes under their masters is much better, than it would be, were they free in this country; that they are much better fed and clothed, and are much more happy; that therefore to hold them in slavery is so far from a crime, that it is a meritorious act.

With regard to these pleas, it is to be observed, that every man hath a right to judge concerning his own happiness, and to choose the means of obtaining or promoting it; and to deprive him of this right is the very injury of which we complain; it is to enslave him. Because we judge, that the Negroes are more happy in this country, in a state of slavery, than in the enjoyment of liberty in Africa, we have no more right to enslave them and bring them into this country, than we have to enslave any of our neighbours, who we judge would be more happy under our control, than they are at present under their own. Let us make the case our own. Should we believe, that we were justly treated, if the Africans should carry us into perpetual slavery in Africa, on the round that they judged, that we should be more happy in that state, than in our present situation?

As to the opportunity which the Negroes in this country are said to have, to become acquainted with Christianity; this with respect to many is granted: But what follows from it? It would be ridiculous to pretend, that this is the motive on which they act who import them, or they who buy and hold them in slavery. Or if this were the motive, it would not sanctify either the trade or the slavery. We are not at liberty to do evil, that good may come; to commit a crime more aggravated than theft or robbery, that we may make a proselyte to Christianity. Neither our Lord Jesus Christ, nor any one of his apostles has taught us this mode of propagating the faith.

2. It is said, that the doctrine of the preceding sermon imputes that as a crime to individuals, which is owing to the state of society. This is granted; and what follows? It is owing to the state of society, that our neighbours, the Indians roast their captives: and does it hence follow, that such conduct is not to be imputed to the individual agents as a crime? It is owing to the state of society in Popish countries, that thousands worship the beast and his image: and is that worship therefore not to be imputed as a crime to those, who render it? Read the Revelation of St. John. The state of society is such, that drunkenness and adultery are very common in some countries; but will it follow, that those vices are innocent in those countries?

3. If I be ever so willing to manumit my slave, I cannot do it without being holden to maintain him, when he shall be sick or shall be old and decrepit. Therefore I have a right to hold him as a slave.—The same argument will prove, that you have a right to enslave your children or your parents; as you are equally holden to maintain them in sickness and in decrepit old age.—The argument implies, that in order to secure the money, which you are afraid the laws of your country will some time or other oblige you to pay; it is right for you to rob a free man of his liberty or be guilty of man-stealing. On the ground of this argument every town or parish obligated by law, to maintain its helpless poor, has a right to sell into perpetual slavery all the people, who may probably or even possibly occasion a public expense.

4. After all, it is not safe to manumit the Negroes: they would cut our throats; they would endanger the peace and government of the state. Or at least they would be so idle, that they would not provide themselves with necessaries: of course they must live by thievery and plundering.

This objection requires a different answer, as it respects the northern, and as it respects the southern states. As it respects the northern, in which slaves are so few, there is not the least foundation to imagine, that they would combine or make insurrection against the government; or that they would attempt to murder their masters. They are much more likely to kill their masters, in order to obtain their liberty, or to revenge the abuse they receive, while it is still continued, than to do it after the abuse hath ceased, and they are restored to their liberty. In this case, they would from a sense of gratitude, or at least from a conviction of the justice of their masters, feel a strong attachment, instead of a murderous disposition.

Nor is there the least danger, but that by a proper vigilance of the select-men, and by a strict execution of the laws now existing, the Negroes might in a tolerable degree be kept from idleness and pilfering.

All this hath been verified by experiment. In Massachusetts, all the Negroes in the commonwealth were by their new constitution liberated in a day: and none of the ill consequences objected followed either to the commonwealth or to individuals.

With regard to the southern states, the case is different. The Negroes in some parts of those states are a great majority of the whole, and therefore the evils objected would, in case of a general manumission at once, be more likely to take place. But in the first place there is no prospect, that the conviction of the truth exhibited in the preceding discourse, will at once, take place in the minds of all the holders of slaves. The utmost that can be expected, is that it will take place gradually in one after another, and that of course the slaves will be gradually manumitted. Therefore the evils of a general manumission at once, are dreaded without reason.

If in any state the slaves should be manumitted in considerable numbers at once, or so that the number of free Negroes should become large; various measures might be concerted to prevent the evils feared. One I beg leave to propose: That overseers of the free Negroes be appointed from among themselves, who shall be empowered to inspect the morals and management of the rest, and report to proper authority, those who are vicious, idle or incapable of managing their own affairs, and that such authority dispose of them under proper masters for a year or other term, as is done, perhaps in all the states, with regard to the poor white people in like manner vicious, idle or incapable of management. Such black overseers would naturally be ambitious to discharge the duties of their office; they would in many respects have much more influence than white men with their country men: and other Negroes looking forward to the same honourable distinction, would endeavour to deserve it by their improvement and good conduct.

But after all, this whole objection, if it were ever so entirely founded on truth; if the freed Negroes would probably rise against their masters, or combine against government; rests on the same ground, as the apology of the robber, who murders the man whom he has robbed. Says the robber to himself, I have robbed this man, and now if I let him go he will kill me, or he will complain to authority and I shall be apprehended and hung. I must therefore kill him. There is no other way of safety for me.—The coincidence between this reasoning and that of the objection under consideration, must be manifest to all. And if this reasoning of the robber be inconclusive; if the robber have no right on that ground to kill the man whom he hath robbed; neither have the slave-holders any more right to continue to hold their slaves. If the robber ought to spare the life of the man robbed, take his own chance and esteem himself happy, if he can escape justice; so the slave-holders ought immediately to let their slaves go free, treat them with the utmost kindness, by such treatment endeavour to pacify them with respect to past injuries, and esteem themselves happy, if they can compromise the matter in this manner.

In all countries in which the slaves are a majority of the inhabitants, the masters lie in a great measure at the mercy of the slaves, and may most rationally expect sooner or later, to be cut off, or driven out by the slaves, or to be reduced to the same level and to be mingled with them into one common mass. This I think is by ancient and modern vents demonstrated to be the natural and necessary course of human affairs. The hewers of wood and drawers of water among the Israelites, the Helots among the Lacedemonians, the slaves among the Romans, the villains and vassals in most of the kingdoms of Europe under the feudal system, have long since mixed with the common mass of the people, and shared the common privileges and honours of their respective countries. And in the French West-Indies the Mulattoes and free Negroes are already become so numerous and power a body, as to be allowed by the National Assembly to enjoy the common rights and honours of free men. These facts plainly show, what the whites in the West-Indies and the Southern States are to expect concerning their posterity, that it will infallibly be a mongrel breed, or else they must quit the country to the Negroes whom they have hitherto holden in bondage.

Thus it seems, that they will be necessitated by Providence to make in one way or another compensation to the Negroes for the injury which they have done to them. In the first case, by taking them into affinity with themselves, giving them their own sons and daughters in marriage, and making them and their posterity the heirs of all their property and all their honours, and by raising their colour to a partial whiteness, whereby a part at least of that mark which brings on them so much contempt, will be wiped off. In the other case, by leaving to them all their real estates. It is manifest by the bare stating of the two cases, that the compensation in the latter case is by much the least. In the former cause, the compensation will include all that is included in the latter and much more. If therefore our southern brethren and the inhabitants of the West-Indies would balance their accounts with their Negro slaves, at the cheapest possible rate, they will doubtless judge it prudent, to leave the country with all their houses, lands and improvements to their quiet possession and dominion; as otherwise Providence will compel them to much dearer settlement, and one attended with a circumstance inconceivably more mortifying, than the loss of all their real estates, I mean the mixture of their blood with that of the Negroes into one common posterity.

At least it is to be hoped, that these considerations will induce them to forbear any further importation of slaves, as the more numerous the slaves are, the more dangerous they will be, and the more deeply tinged will be the colour of their mulatto posterity.

It is not to be doubted, but that the Negroes in these northern states also will, in time, mix with the common mass of the people. But we have this consolation, that as they are so small a proportion of the inhabitants, when mixed with the rest, they will not produce any very sensible diversity of colour.

Sermon – Fugitive Slave Bill – 1850

Samuel Thayer Spear (1812-1891) graduated from the College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1833. He was pastor of the 2nd Presbyterian Church of Lansingburg, NY (1836-1843) and the South Presbyterian Church of Brooklyn, NY (1843-1871). The following sermon was preached on the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 by Spear.







Remarks on the Fugitive Slave Question.



DEC. 12, 1850,



“Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers, for there is no power but of God; the powers that be are ordained of God. * * * Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake.”—Rom. xiii, 1, 5.

“Then Peter and the other Apostles answered and said, We ought to obey God rather than men.”—Acts v, 29.

Using these Scriptures as a basis, I design to examine a great moral question, that is now agitating and somewhat distracting the American people. My object is not denunciation, or to promote unhealthy excitement here or elsewhere. I believe in the supremacy of truth, and in the safety as well as wisdom of temperate and Christian discussion. If I did not, I should not enter upon the task now proposed. I ask no man to accept the views I shall offer, except as they conform to his sense of truth. They will represent my sense.

One of our Senators in Congress employed the phrase “Higher Law,” in such connections as to call forth much rebuke at the time, and expose him to the censure of a portion of his constituents. Let us hear the passage as it originally fell from his lips:

“The Constitution regulates our stewardship; the Constitution devotes the domain to union, to justice, to defense, to welfare, and to liberty. But there is a higher law than the Constitution, which regulates our authority over the domain, and devotes it to the same noble purposes. The territory is a part—no inconsiderable part—of the common heritage of mankind, bestowed upon them by the Creator of the universe. We are his stewards, and must so discharge our trust as to secure, in the highest attainable degree, their happiness.”

This is the passage; and I confess that I see in it no heresy, political or moral, no repudiation of man or God. The honorable Senator affirms a coincidence, and not a discrepancy, between the Constitution and the Higher Law; and surely no man in his senses ought to complain of such an opinion.

Innocent and harmless as is this passage, still, in connection with other causes, it has had the effect of setting before the American people a great politico-moral question, in respect to which I deem it a duty to express an opinion. I am a lover of my country, without being an approver of its wrongs. I believe it, on the whole, the best country on the earth, made such mainly by its civil and religious institutions. Nothing which concerns its welfare is indifferent to my heart. Hence, I ask the privilege of speaking with freedom and honesty; the one, a chartered right, and the other, a solemn duty. To me it seems proper that the pulpit should be heard. The crisis demands it.

No one who has listened attentively to the conversation of others, or watched the public press for some months past, can fail to have perceived the existence of at least two classes of consciences: the one, a LAW-ABIDING conscience—the other, a HIGHER LAW conscience; in some hands, each repudiating and violently denouncing the other. I respect both, without relishing the extravagance, and much less the passions of either. I belong to both parties, with such qualifications of my adherence as will be unfolded in this Sermon. In each I see some truth—not the whole in either. The truth I see, I hold, and mean on this occasion to assert, as plainly and as kindly as I may be able. I do this as a matter of duty to you, being related to you as a pastor. I do it as an humble tribute of honest service to my country. Let me invoke your attention and candor.

Our present work will be to set before you the two consciences—the law abiding and the higher law conscience; each qualifying the other, and both moving in their proper sphere. In this it will be my earnest desire to guard your minds and hearts, and not less my own, against two fanaticisms: one, the fanaticism that repudiates civil government; the other, the fanaticism that virtually repudiates God, and the eternal distinction between right and wrong. I wish to get at the simple truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. How far I succeed in this, will be for you to judge, after hearing me.


Civil law undertakes to prescribe and enforce some of the social duties of men. This is made necessary mainly by our depravity. Law is the creature of some organized government, addressing its commands to the subject, and threatening its penalty in case of disobedience. It is not mere advice; it is clothed with authority, and is properly accompanied with the right of self-vindication in coercion and punishment. The supremacy of law consists in its maintenance—in the due and faithful administration of its principles by its authorized agents, and in its power to control and govern the practice of the subject. This supremacy is the grand doctrine asserted by the law-abiding conscience. This conscience affirms the sanctity and authority of law, and by consequence, the obligation of obedience. It sets forth a moral rule, namely, that obedience to civil law is a religious duty. It spends its whole strength in affirming this duty. Let the simple question be, shall a law enacted by the existing civil authority, or in process of execution, be respected and observed, treated as a law by all parties whom it involves? I say, let this be the question; and a law-abiding conscience always answers in the affirmative.

Such is the general doctrine of this conscience; and as a single particular to be placed in the great temple of truth, it is unquestionably correct. Perhaps I need not argue so plain a point. Lest, however, I might seem to undervalue it in another stage of this discussion, I will pause a moment on the question of its truth.

It is manifestly a Scripture doctrine. This you see in one portion of our text. The “higher powers” spoken of by Paul, were the civil authorities of the Roman empire. He declares civil government to be of Divine appointment, for the proper regulation of human conduct, for the protection of society by the punishment of crime. He exhorts Christians to be subject to the “higher powers,” not only on account of the penalty, but also as a matter of duty. It was not his purpose to assert the Divine right of Kings, but of civil government, as such, and the duty of the subject. There was special pertinence as well as wisdom in this instruction. The “higher powers” referred to were Heathen powers; and there was no little danger that the disciples of Christ, mistaking the proper sphere of their Christian liberty, might come in conflict with them—might take up the idea that, being Christians, they owed no allegiance to a Heathen magistracy. Paul, as a judicious counselor and faithful apostle, endeavors to guard them against so fatal a mistake. Peter took the same course. “Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake; whether it be to the King, as supreme; or unto governors, as unto them that are sent by him for the punishment of evil-doers, and for the praise of them that do well.” The doctrine of sedition, treason, rebellion, and tumultuous resistance, in civil society, is not inculcated in the teaching or the example of the apostles, or in those of Christ himself. This is a perfectly clear point. Hence, we say, the Scriptures give their sanction to the great principle affirmed by the law-abiding conscience.

Common sense and good citizenship must take the same ground-Society in the country or the town, and especially the latter, cannot exist a moment, with any safety, if this principle is practically discarded. Destroy the restraints and retributions of civil government, and leave every man to do as he pleases, and you have so much liberty that you have none at all;–you are out at sea in a tremendous gale, without a rudder or chart. No man would stay in such a community any longer than it would take him to get out of it. Men cannot live together without the agency of government. Nothing is worse than pure anarchy. It is the most cruel and dangerous of all tyrants. Governments, as the agent in creating and executing law, must have somewhere a sustaining power, else it is no government: it can do nothing, discharge none of the duties of government—neither protect the innocent nor punish the guilty. This sustaining power lies in the strong arms, the bones and muscles of men, whose services may be legally brought into action, to enforce the civil mandate. Without this, government rests on nothing—has no practicable character—is a mere idea. If every law it enacts is to be resisted and put down by popular violence—if every effort to execute the law is to be treated in the same way—if this is the state of things in the community, then there is no government of law in that community; society is in the state of chaos. Hence, if men wish to live under law, they must support the supremacy of law. This doctrine must have some practical and efficient shape, or they cannot live together as a civil community. Somebody must have a law-abiding conscience, or government has no sustaining power. Whatever may be the inconveniences of this doctrine, at times, or even its incidental injustice, still the consequences of its practical repudiation would be far more serious. It is a wholesome principle, pre-eminently useful, blessing a vast many more than it harms, averting incalculable evils. I am conscientiously its advocate. It commends itself to my common sense, as I have no doubt it does to that of the hearer.

This doctrine ought to be peculiarly welcome and sacred to the American bosom. Our Government, both State and Federal, is based on the representative principle. We have no law-makers or law-agents, that are born such. We make them after they are born, not as kings, but men. The powers they possess the people bestow in a legal way; and if they do not faithfully perform their duty so as correctly to represent the public will, there is always at hand a peaceful and law-abiding remedy. We can discuss and even denounce a law in this country. It is not treason to call in question its equity. We can peaceably meet in large or small assemblies, and by resolutions express an opinion. We can petition Government for a redress of grievances. Through the ballot-box the people have a perfect control over the laws under which they live. No law can stand any length of time that is opposed to the public will. This fact seals its doom. Now, a people possessing such privileges clearly have no occasion for attacking legal injustice, except in the legal way—no occasion for anything like popular violence. They can correct the abuses of Government without a mob. Politicians and office-seekers are very fond of being where the people are; they generally true to think with the majority. Hence, it is far better to wait till the public mind can be enlightened, than to attempt the cure of an evil by producing a greater one. Cry out against it as long and as loud as you please; write against it; speak against it; pray against it; vote against it; but be sure to stop here; never lend your sanction to tumultuous or illegal resistance. This must be the doctrine of the American citizen; since our civil institutions are not only wholly drawn from the people, but have no sustaining power except in their law-abiding spirit. I can think of no occasion likely to occur, in which I would be the advocate of any other course. If by popular tumults you may repudiate law on one subject, you may on another. The principle is full of its dangers, especially so in a Republic. It unsettles the very foundation of civil society. It can have no place in the convictions or sympathies of the virtuous and enlightened citizen. This great community of freemen must go according to law, or they must go to ruin. I speak strongly on this point; for I have always felt strongly; and I do not feel less so now. The civil authorities must put down mobs, immaterial what the issue be; and the people must sustain them.

So much I offer for your consideration in favor of the law-abiding conscience. The grand principle it affirms, I hold to be a sacred truth.

The charm of this idea, however, does not lie in its application to an unjust and cruel law, but in the fact that it is vital to the stability and safety of civil society. Here is its excellence—here the reasons which commend it to the good sense and patriotic feelings of men. The man who silences his moral sense in respect to injustice and wrong by pleading the supremacy of law, who not only abstains from all illegal resistance, but also declines the use of lawful measures to correct unjust enactments, whose whole conscience is summed up in the single sentence, “I believe in the supremacy of the laws,” with whom this is the while idea, who refuses to apply his conscience to the moral nature of the law, and his energies, if need be, to a constitutional remedy; that man, in my judgment, does no justice to himself or his legal privileges, and perhaps not to his moral duties. He shuts up his eyes as a moral being, and parrot-like shouts the supremacy of the law, and shouts nothing else. He misapplies the doctrine, forgetting his duties. His example need only be imitated to make a bad law a permanent fixture. Between him and me there is no debate as to the supremacy of law while it exists; but neither of us should cancel our obligation to seek the correction of legal injustice by a mere glorification on the ground of our common faith. He says to me, “I am a law-abiding man.” Very well; I am glad he is; so am I. I am also a law-correcting man by such measures as are lawful. I do not go for the perpetuity of unjust laws any longer than is necessary to procure their modification or repeal. My duty to seek this is perfectly consistent with all due respect for law while it exists.

There is another perversion of this doctrine, against which the citizen ought carefully to guard his mind. He should never associate with it the practical assumption that law is beyond the reach of moral inquiry, that law is the end of the chapter, as infallible as it is authoritative. This is a very dangerous, and it may be a very immoral course. Law proceeds from imperfect, and sometimes very wicked men. It has often legalized the greatest wrongs, legislated the grossest crime into civil virtue, and the purest virtue into crime. Hence it will not do in maintaining its supremacy, also to maintain its moral infallibility. The latter doctrine is properly no part of the former, and in the bosom of the citizen should be kept distinct from it. The king can do no wrong—can require no wrong; law is always right in morals. What is this? Political popery—the doctrine of despotism, unworthy of a home in the breast of a freeman. In the American theory of civil society, law claims no such attribute. It confesses its own fallibility in the provision for amendment or repeal. Hence the question whether it is right or wrong, whether it ought to be continued or not, is not to be ignored or repudiated by declaring its supremacy. I hold to the supremacy of no human laws in the sense of their infallibility. They may contradict God’s law; they may violate the plainest dictates of natural justice; and whether they do or not, it is my privilege and duty, and equally yours, to have an opinion. If I think they do, the voice of my reason and conscience is not answered by my faith in the supremacy of law. I then believe that the laws are bad, in themselves morally vicious, though not less really laws, and that all proper means should be used for their speedy amendment. We must hold on to this doctrine, else our law-makers will become Popes, and the people lose all the rights of private conscience. If there is danger in taking too much from Government, there is also danger in conceding too much to it. One thing I never can concede; I never can say that a Government is doing right, when I think it is doing wrong.

There is another circumstance that ought always to be taken into account, when we speak of the supremacy of law, especially in a Republic. Law upon its merits, and not simply its authority, ought to be addressed to the good sense and moral feelings of the community where it is to be executed. It has no power to change the convictions of men in respect to the subjects to which it refers. It cannot make a freeman think that black is white, or white is black. I cannot subvert the Christian ethics of a community, even by its supremacy. Hence, it must not assume that the subject is a brute, and that he will blindly swallow anything and call it sweet that comes to him with a legislative endorsement. Law, in a free country, has no such charm. You must go to the scenes of despotism and popular ignorance, in order to realize this result. In this land a law against the sense of the people, be that sense a prejudice or a just sense, is always the lawgiver’s folly. It comes into existence with the sentence of death upon it; and though it is a law, still on its merits it is not welcome to the subject, and must ultimately be repealed or modified. This is the fate of all laws that upon their trial are found to misrepresent the public will. They are born to die. They must run a short race. Their supremacy cannot save them from the ordeal and the doom of the press and the ballot-box. It is well that it is so; for in this way we rectify legal mistakes in the peaceful and orderly method, without insurrections or mobs.


The cardinal propositions affirmed by this conscience, are these:–First, that there is a God: Secondly, that this God is the moral governor of the universe: Thirdly, that every rational creature is directly a subject of his government: Fourthly, that God’s will, when ascertained, is in all possible circumstances the supreme rule of duty: and, finally, that every moral creature is by himself and for himself bound to know the Divine will, and, when knowing it, never to deviate from it. These are the great doctrines of this conscience. To the vision of piety their statement is their proof. Deny them, and you overturn or make morally impractible the government of God; you release man from his allegiance to his Maker, and upset all religious systems, that of the Bible not excepted. They are not to be denied, but admitted, be the consequences what they may. They are true, or nothing is true. If they are not true, duty is a fiction—moral conscientiousness, a whim—responsibility to our Maker, a delusion; and even God himself is nothing in respect to the duties of men. I hold these truths; hence I hold the elements of the Higher Law Conscience. I confess myself to be the subject of such a conscience.

In order to advance to a just application of these principles, we must pause a moment on a question of fact. God does not administer his moral government over men simply and wholly through the agency of civil government. If he did, the sum of all his commands would be obedience to “the powers that be;” they would be taken as the authoritative exponents of all the statutes of the Eternal Throne; and the subject would be referred to them in all cases, to know the will of God. Were this the fact, there could be no conflict between Divine and human authority; the former would always be identified with the latter; God’s WHOLE will being always found in man’s law. This is not the case. It is our duty to pray, to clothe the naked and feed the hungry, to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God. Indeed, a great many duties besides subjection to the civil magistracy, are taught by the light of nature, and equally in the Bible. Hence, there may be a conflict between the requirements of the civil authorities and those of God. He is not so identified with them, neither does he so guide their action, as to make the result impossible. The event has often occurred; that is, man has commanded one thing, and God, the opposite, making obedience to both a natural impossibility. This fact is not to be put out of sight by the clamors of a mere law-mania. It is a fact. While it is true that there is no higher law than the law of God, which requires obedience to civil government, it is equally true that this is not the whole of God’s law. He has given other laws as well as this; and with these civil government may come in direct conflict. Does God require the subject to obey man, when the latter requires him to disobey God? This is a point not fairly and properly met by some, who have recently published their views on this subject. Bear these observations in mind. We shall have occasion for their use in another stage of this inquiry.

There are two distinct applications of the great principles set forth by the Higher Law Conscience, in regard to each of which I will express an opinion with its reasons.

1. The first refers to the powers that be, considered as the creators or executors of law. Are there any rules of morality for governments, for nations, as such; or do they create their own morality at option? Are law-agents responsible to God for what they do, and equally with the citizen subject bound by the principles of the Higher Law? We hold that they are. Our President, in his recent message, has uttered this sentiment. He says, “The great law of morality ought to have a national, as well as a personal and individual application.” Whatever has a moral nature as right or wrong, consonant or otherwise with the will of God, as disclosed in his Word or in the sacred rights of humanity, before legislation and compacts touch it, retains that nature. Morality is a fixture in God’s universe, neither made nor unmade by government, alike the legitimate sovereign of nations, kings and subjects. It is antecedent to all constitutions and laws—is the rule by which we try their equity. Were it otherwise, there could be no retribution for national crimes; government might become a conspiracy of unpunished assassins; and the agents of enormous wickedness might, by their official character, flee from the moral jurisdiction of the Divine law. God holds all men responsible to his rule of right, whether they are associated as a nation or exist in the state of nature, whether they are citizens and subjects, or are trusted with the duties and powers of the civil magistracy. They cannot innocently act in conflict with the Higher Law.

Assuming your assent to this view, let me remark that there are two practical questions which claim an answer.

Suppose that a people are adopting a Constitution for government, or that law-makers are giving birth to legal enactments, what in this stage of affairs is the relation of the Higher Law? Plainly, it requires them to establish justice, protect right, and provide for the punishment of wrong, to legislate not against God, but in coincidence with his authority. They ought to produce just and impartial laws. This is the mission and proper aim of civil government. It is not to be the instrument of despotism and oppression, but of justice and safety. The preamble of our national Constitution sets forth the true doctrine on this subject. “We, the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” This is a sound creed.

Suppose, again, government to be established, and that the execution of its will has passed into the hands of the duly authorized agents of law, what are they to do? I answer; execute that will as it lies on the statute-book, or in the fundamental law of the land. Suppose, however, that the laws themselves, one or more, are so morally vicious, that the agents cannot execute them without sinning against the Higher Law; what then? I answer, this being their view, they must either execute the laws or resign their trust. They must either fulfill the oath of office, or vacate it. There is no other alternative. On any other principle, civil society would sink to ruin in the hands of its executive agents. A man who holds office contrary to his conscience, must not please conscience against its duties. Which shall they do? Shall they keep their oath and do wrong, or vacate the office and do right? I answer, without one moment’s hesitation—the latter. They are wanting in moral honesty unless they take this course. A military officer, for example, who is commanded to fight, but who believes fighting to be sinful, must either fight or send in his protest and resignation. The view he takes of war in general, or of a particular war, makes the latter his only possible course. He must not hold the fighting commission, and yet refuse to fight at the legal call of his country. Neither must he fight against the mandate of God. Hence he must resign.

These are my views in respect to the application of the Higher Law to the powers that be, whether you consider them as a nation establishing the principles and rules of government, or as the personal agents of that government. Both are amenable to the God of truth; and the Higher Law ought to be the ultimate standard of both. Neither has a right by any legal process to trespass upon the supreme rule of right. It will be sin in either.

2. Let us now, secondly, look at the application of the Higher Law to the citizen-subject. Of course it presents no difficulties, where Divine and human laws are in harmony—where morality and legislation wear the same features. It is their conflict, and this only, that makes an occasion to test the authority of each. This conflict may come up in one or the other of the following practical shapes:

The first is where government, in the judgment of the people, has become so unjust and oppressive, as to be utterly destructive of its legitimate and proper ends. In such a crisis, the people have the inherent right of revolution, by which I mean the total subversion of the government that exists, and the erection of a new one. Tyranny and despotism have not an eternal license. The duty of obedience has a limit somewhere; when a suffering people may say to legal tyrants, “Be gone!—We can dispense with your services. We cannot tolerate you any longer.” The undertaking is always an awful one. It is open rebellion. It is to be the last resort of an oppressed people. It is never expedient except when there is a fair hope of success; yet, when the crisis comes for it, then the act is not treason, but a legitimate revolution. Government is not such an ordinance of God, that it may not write its own doom. The right, however, of actual revolution never belongs to a minority, but always to the majority. While the many say, let government stand as it is, the few must acquiesce, and bear its grievances. They have no other alternative.

This assertion of the revolutionary right will not, I trust, sound strangely in American ears. It is the doctrine of the Declaration of Independence. This government is founded upon the inherent right of revolution. Great Britain drove our fathers to its exercise; and had she triumphed, would have hung them as traitors, though we believe they were patriots—lovers of their country and their kind. No American surely, will repudiate this fundamental right of the people. The rights of government are the gift of God to the PEOPLE, and by the people to the king. His powers exist by their consent, and terminate with their dissent. Who doubts whether the collected people of Europe have a right to dethrone every monarch, and sweep away the whole system of aristocracy, that of the Pope not excepted, and establish free government? Austria thought Hungary to be guilty of treason, and butchered her heroes to satiate her vengeance. We think her to have been glorious in her struggle—not less so in her fall. The name of Kossuth has a charm, as the embodiment of the revolutionary right. The Pope thought the Italians seditious. We honor them, and despise the infamous course of the French nation. Charles I. thought Cromwell and the Roundheads to be a pack of traitors. Posterity regards them as the apostles of civil liberty. Forget not, that nearly all the liberty of the world has been procured by the revolutionary right; its exercise being actually put forth, or so menaced as to make kings tremble. Generally, despotism cannot be reasoned into justice. For a rule, the people have been compelled to frighten it or destroy it.

Thus, on this point, my doctrine, in a word, is this:–In all those cases where revolution is really a necessary expedient, being the only resource of an outraged people, resistance to tyrants is obedience to God. Here the Higher Law of right intervenes, and justly sweeps away the powers that be, in order to make better ones. I grant you that it is open rebellion against the existing government; and that it must be crushed, or government must be overturned by it. The ground on which I defend it, is this:–Passive subjection to legal tyranny has a limit; and at this limit “The Higher Powers” lose all their moral authority, giving place to those that shall be the product of a revolution. This doctrine I hold as a question of morality, and not merely of strength. Hence, I qualify the doctrine which asserts the supremacy of law, by the revolutionary right. I do not believe, that revolution upon a just and sufficient occasion is a crime. I hold it to be the virtue and right of the people. I must, however, add that the experiment is always a terrible one—the last resort; and that it should be well considered before undertaken. In a Republic such as ours, I do not see how such a crisis can ever arrive. It cannot, unless our civil officers should enter upon a career of despotism, of which there is not the faintest prospect. A people living under a government of chartered rights and limited powers, whose action they control, surely have no occasion to resort to the Higher Law of revolution.

The other form of conflict with government on the part of the citizen, is where not revolution, but obedience to God with non-resistance to man, is both his right and duty. Let me carefully state my ground on this point, and ask you to receive it as I state it.

Here are three parties. God is one; the subject is the second; and the civil authorities, the third. Between the first and the third there is a conflict, the last forbidding what the first requires, or requiring what the first forbids—man by law setting aside the imperative duties or prohibitions of God’s Word—man, for example, legally requiring me to abjure Christianity, or forbidding me to pray, or commanding me to worship an idol—man, in short, rendering illegal and criminal the duties that God imposes. This is the case supposed; and it is not merely a hypothetical case. It has often occurred, and it may again. Now what shall the subject do in the premises? I answer: first, he must be clear that the supposed case is a real one—a point in regard to which so far as he himself is concerned, he is the sole judge, and yet a point where he may not innocently be mistaken and act the part of a fool; and secondly, if in his view the conflict be real, then he must obey God rather than men, and as a martyr meekly suffer the consequences. I do not see how there can be any question as to the correctness of this answer. God’s law is certainly higher than man’s. The apostles acted upon this principle: Daniel did; so did the three men that were cast into the fiery furnace; and so have all the Christian martyrs, nearly everyone of them being slain not by mobs, but by legal enactment. They had not the seditious spirit; they were pious, willing to do right and suffer for it. The most eminent examples of Christian virtue have been produced on this theatre. Obedience to God even though it conflict with the laws of man, is as distinctly a doctrine of the Bible as any other found in that book. Some are disposed to overlook this point, to shove it out of sight. They seem to be afraid of it. I am not afraid of it; to me it is a part of the great system of truth. Every man believes it, whether he asserts it or not. I can suppose forty cases, in which every one of you would affirm its truth; and you will mark, if it is true anywhere, then the principle is yielded, and the only question that remains, is its application, in regard to which we might differ though perfectly agreeing as to the principle.

But I must not stop here, for I am anxious to give you an impartial view of the whole truth. What shall the civil authorities do, when the subject disobeys the law of the land on the ground of the Higher Law? I answer; inflict upon him its penalty. They have no other course. They can never assume what he alleges, that there is any conflict between the law of the land and the law of God. They can never make his conscience the rule of penal retribution at the hands of government. They must always assume that the law is right, and that he is wrong, and is therefore to be treated as a criminal. Without this moral consciousness in fact, government is a gross and detestable hypocrite. It can never surrender its ideas of what is right, and yet possess authority. This would be a confession of judgment against itself, and disarm it of all its power. It would leave every man to decide for himself not simply the question of his personal duty, but also in what cases law should punish him; that is, his conscience would be the law of the land, and the criminal would be his own judge. This would be giving him the rights of the subject, and at the same time the prerogatives of the sovereign. Now civil society can never concede this to the conscience of the private citizen. It would be tantamount to the destruction of all law. The subject violates the law for the sake of obeying God, knowing when he does so that government will deem him mistaken and punish him accordingly. He makes his choice between the precept and the penalty; and chooses the latter—that is, he chooses suffering in his view for righteousness sake. This is a fair transaction on the part of the subject towards the sovereign; and it may be a very virtuous one.

But which, it may be asked, is right? The subject says, “I am, I correctly expound the Higher Law.” The powers that be, say, “We are, we understand justice and right.” In respect to their action they are both right; each must follow their respective sense of duty. But which is right really—that is, has the right sense of duty? Who is to decide this question? This must be left to posterity and to God. Every professed martyr virtually appeals to posterity and to God, to review his case, and settle the question whether he was a martyr or a fool, a good man or a bad one. A great many who have died as criminals, are on the records of glorious fame. The judgment of posterity has reversed that of the age, in which they suffered. And then God has instituted a tribunal based wholly on the principles of the Higher Law, for the trial of all these affecting cases. At this tribunal God Himself will give a final and impartial decision, canvassing the responsibilities, beliefs and motives of both parties.

Thus, my brethren, without passion or prejudice, I have endeavored to give you my sober and earnest views in respect to the question, that was started in the outset. In this I have consulted the creed of no party, the preferences of no class of men, but the best light of my own reason, guided by the word of God. Both consciences, the law-abiding and the Higher Law conscience, have a place in a correct system of Christian Ethics. The first is supreme except where qualified by the second. To repudiate this, is treason to God for the sake of loyalty to man. I advocate both principles, assigning to each its proper sphere. I want to be a good citizen in the land that gave me birth, and whose laws are my protection. I want more to be a good citizen under the government of God. In respect to both I have a conscience. What that conscience is, has been explained.

Many of the views recently expressed on this general subject, have failed to satisfy my mind. They lack what Locke the philosopher, used to call “the round-about view.” Some of them are greatly wanting in prudence; others, exceedingly doubtful in morality; others, positively immoral. Some have so urged the Higher Law doctrine, as virtually to throw off all the obligations due to civil government, and advance very near if not quite, to open treason. They would almost dissolve civil society, or at least stop its operations, by the force of their own conscience. Others have rushed into the extreme, pressing the duty of obedience to the civil authorities as if it had no limit, except in the rare cases of revolution.” We confess no little surprise, that even ministers of Christ should preach this as the morality of the Bible. What will they do with the case of Daniel, of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, of Peter and John, of Paul himself, and the long line of Christian martyrs? Do they mean to repudiate the allegiance to God evinced by these men, though in conflict with the laws of man? This is really a new doctrine, and as dangerous as it is new. Let it be proved that human government is such an ordinance of God, that all its decrees are to be taken as the infallible expression of His will; and then, we shall have the “Divine right of kings. The citizen will then have little else to do but seek God’s whole will in the laws of the land. This is the very worst kind of Toryism—better suited to the dark ages than to the 19th Century. It makes civil government to be what God and truth never made it. And still others have failed to distinguish between the declinature to obey an immoral mandate of civil government, and a positive forcible resistance to the execution of its laws—things morally as wide apart as the poles. Men, even great men, when excited or unduly captivated with one idea, run into extremes. They shout a single thought, true in its proper sphere, in a way to make practically a false impression, and inculcate heresy. I have sought to shun all these extremes, and speak to you as nearly as possible, in the language of simple truth.

This question at the present time is exciting much interest in all parts of our country. As I doubt not, you have supposed that I would make some reference to it in this sermon. The capture of fugitive slaves on Northern ground, and their return to Southern bondage, present a very grave matter for a Christian. I have an opinion on this subject, not hastily adopted—one which I prefer to state, rather than leave it as a matter of inference. I know of no good reason why you should not know what that opinion is; and if you will hear me patiently for a few moments, you shall be thus informed.

My first opinion is, that it is best for all men to keep cool, to separate between their passions and their moral convictions. Men of equal respectability do not see alike. The Northern mind is confessedly in an unsettled state; and I can see nothing to be gained by a crusade of denunciation. Some, in their zeal to stop “agitation,” almost repudiate the right of free discussion, except for themselves. This is as bad in policy, as it is questionable in principle. In a free country it always costs more to gag a man than it does to hear him. Violent and passionate denunciation frightens nobody in this land. Hence, I think it best to keep cool. I mean for one to have my own opinions, and yet I mean to know what I say, and what I do. I think this becomes every man.

In the next place, there are some facts to be looked at as facts. It is a fact, that the Constitution of the United States is the fundamental civil law of this land. It is also a fact, that this Constitution does provide for the capture of fugitive slaves, and their return to Southern bondage. Let me give you the words:–“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.” 1 The term slave is not used, but the thing was meant. The circumstances, too, in which the agreement was made, were not those of the present time; yet the agreement has not, by any legal process, been canceled. It still remains on the national charter—the contradiction of all its other principles. It is also a fact, that a very large number of slaves have fled from their masters, and taken refuge in the free States. Some of them have become members of Northern churches. Many of them have entered into the sacred relations of domestic life—have become fathers and mothers; and probably some of them are even citizens. Every one of them is legally liable to be captured and returned to slavery. They will be so, till they die, or the Constitution is altered, or they flee to another land. I pity them with all my heart. Their condition is a sad one. It is an awful spectacle in a free country.

These, my brethren, are facts. It does no good to deny them, or to reason as if they were not facts. What then shall be done in view of such facts? I can answer this question only for myself, as an individual.

If I were a Southern man, and a friend of the Union—as I am not the former, but am most cordially the latter—I should, with my present views, say some things to my fellow-citizens at the South. This would be the substance of my speech:–As a matter of prudence, patriotism, and wisdom, I would advise them not to insist on the constitutional right secured by this provision. The argument I would use in support of this advice, is various. I would tell South Carolina, that she has on her own statute-book, laws in respect to colored citizens of other States, that expressly nullify the national Constitution; and that the wise way for her would be to keep quiet. I would remind the entire South, that in three instances, namely, in the purchase of Louisiana, of Florida, and the annexation of Texas, the national government exceeded its constitutional powers for the benefit of slavery: that although the nation has acquiesced in these acts, still there is not one syllable to show their constitutionality. I would also exhort the South to remember, that when this provision was admitted, it was not understood to be permanent, slavery, then, being supposed to be on its death-bed. I would point them to the fact, that they have never been able to recover a sufficient number of these fugitives, and in the nature of things never will be, to make the experiment one of any great practical value to them. The slave, once at the North, has facilities for escape that not the most stringent laws can ever supersede. And finally, I would ask them to turn philosophers upon human nature, and as such to remember, that the capture of slaves on Northern ground, by any process, with law or without it, must necessarily be a sore and exciting offense to the mass of the people. It brings directly before their eyes one of the very worst scenes of slavery—a scene for which they are not prepared, and with which nothing can make them sympathize. Northern civilization has entirely outgrown the thing. There is a strong element of religious feeling adverse to it; and this feeling takes hold of the better classes—men who have stern convictions, and form no inconsiderable portion of the bone and sinew of the Northern mind.

Now, in view of all these circumstances, the dictate of prudence for the South is, not to excite either themselves or the North with the effort to capture slaves in the free States. This would be the greatest “peace measure” that can be adopted. The thing cannot be done without excitement on both sides; and all the “Union meetings” in creation will not be able to avert the result. The sympathies of nine men in ten at the North are, and must be, on the side of the fugitive slave. The fact is a credit to their humanity. It is not fanaticism and wildfire, but the natural and necessary effect of existing causes. Hence, I would say to the South:–If you wish quietude, let the runaway slave go; you will not catch one in a hundred by all the laws that can be put into action, and this will never pay for the evils produced. I would say this if I were a slaveholder, and at the same time a friend to the peace of the Union.

Suppose, however, the South do not choose to act upon this advice; suppose they insist upon the execution of the provision, as they have a constitutional right to do—what then? This is the pinching question. I will endeavor to meet it with candor. It has two sides, both of which deserve our attention.

On the side of the Southern claim is the argument drawn from the compact in the national charter; and as a constitutional question, it is a complete and perfect argument. Of this there can be no doubt. The States cannot constitutionally legislate against this provision; they cannot repudiate it without invading the terms of the national charter. I am not aware that any State has ever attempted this. No State has the power to do it, except in violation of the Federal Constitution. Those who have lectured the Northern conscience on this subject, use this argument, and this only. That it is a strong argument, no candid man will deny.

On the other side of the question, is the argument drawn from the Higher Law—a law much older than the Constitution. This argument contemplates the moral nature of the thing to be done, and affirms its essential iniquity. To my conscience, as an individual, this too is a complete and perfect argument. I am not able to view the act in any other light than as a gross moral wrong against the victim. I put the matter directly to the conscience of the hearer. If it is not morally wrong before God to capture a man who has committed no crime, and forcibly drag him back to a bondage he loathes, and has a right to loathe, and which he has done his best to shun—if this be not morally wrong, then what is there in the distinction between the right and wrong, then what is there in the distinction between the right and wrong, that is of any moment? Answer my question. What would you think of the act, if made its victim? Is it any better for another than it would be for you? Possibly, my judgment on this point is incorrect. Whether it is or not, depends on two questions; first, whether the slave is a MAN; and secondly, whether the principles on which this government is founded, are true—whether there is any truth, reality, or sacredness in the natural and inherent rights of man, as a moral and immortal being, made in the image of his God’ whether the Divine law of love and equal justice to our neighbor has any claim upon human regard. I have no secrets on this subject. I will not shout one thing in the public ear, and profess another privately. My view of man is such, that I could neither agree to do the thing, nor do it to fulfill the agreement of others. I would sooner die than be its agent. The Higher Law of Eternal Right would be in my way; and by its decision I must abide.

If, however, the civil community of which I am but a member, and in which I have the rights and responsibilities of but a single man, looking at this subject in all its relations, judge differently: if the good people of the State of New York, for example, have either less or a better conscience than I have; then, let them execute the provision in the most equitable legal way; and all I will do, is in these two sentences: As a moral being I will, whenever it is my duty so to do, put on record my expression of the wrong: As a good citizen I will submit. Here I stand in moral conviction; and here I must, or be a traitor to the God who made me. Those who urge the argument of the compact which we have honored in its place, and even some of God’s ministers who have spoken on this subject, are very careful to keep clear of the moral question. Forgetting this point, they make a very easy matter of it. Let them tell us distinctly, in plain Saxon English, what they believe in respect to the righteousness or unrighteousness of capturing men and sending them back to the bondage of Slavery. Let them not shun this question, but fairly meet it; and then both the South and the North will understand them. If the thing is morally right, then say so; if not, then say this. We concede that it is constitutional, while we believe it to be morally wrong.

Here it may be asked—Do you suppose the North wish to repudiate the Constitution as a whole, and dissolve the Union on account of this provision? This may be the feeling of some; but there is no evidence that it is so with the great mass of the people. It is not my feeling, when I look at all sides of this embarrassing and difficult question. I have no idea that now such a compact could be formed; but being formed, there is no evidence to show that the civil authorities, if called upon, would not execute it, and that, on the whole, the mass of the people would not sustain them. The ground would be solely the argument drawn from the compact, and not at all the merits of the thing to be done. While my moral convictions are and must be against it, still, I see no other course that is consistent with the terms of the Union, so long as the States remain together under the provisions of the national charter. The people feel the obligation of constitutional law; and so do I as much as they; yet, being a subject of God’s government as well as man’s, I feel the obligation of the Higher Law more. “Not that I loved Caesar less, but Rome more.” No compact, no law man ever made, shall restrain me from the declinature of what I believe to be a sin. The obligation of an oath even has its limitation; for no man is morally bound before God by his oath to the performance of a wicked and immoral act. Yet, he must not profess to keep it, and at the same time mean to repudiate it. This is insincere—a virtual perjury. So the Northern States must not profess a compliance with all the terms of the Constitution, unless they mean to be faithful to its injunctions. From this there is no escape, without destroying the legal sanctity of the instrument.

It may be asked—How will you reconcile these declarations of conscience with the legal duties of good citizenship under the Constitution of the United States? I answer: My citizenship in its relations to earth must never be so interpreted, as to annihilate all the rights and responsibilities of a personal conscience. My citizenship is no obligation to execute the will of this nation, or any part of it, unless I am its officer and chosen to remain such. The Quakers believe it to be wrong to fight. Hence, they refuse to bear arms; yet, they do not resist the civil authorities when collecting the militia fine. They suffer this penalty for conscience sake. Are they traitors? Are they bad citizens? Now in respect to the capture of the fugitive slaves, I stand on the Quaker principle. I will neither do it myself, nor say that I think it right when done by the civil authorities. But does not this imply some reflection upon the Constitution? It expresses myhonest conviction in respect to one of its features. I have never been taught to worship that instrument, or highly as I appreciate it, to assume its perfection as a standard in morals, especially in those clauses which refer to slavery. Let it not be forgotten, that this very Constitution contains the toleration of the foreign slave trade for twenty years—a trade now declared piracy punishable with death; that is, the people made a bargain to tolerate for twenty years what the nation now visits with its highest penalty. Was the thing any better for the bargain? Did it cease to be a crime for this reason? Forget not that morality and God are older and more infallible than the Constitution, and that a compromise with wrong for the sake of union does not convert it into right. Those who choose to give up their moral sense to the decisions of the Constitution, let them do so; I will not. I acknowledge no such citizenship under any government man ever made, as destroys the present obligation invariable and irrepealable of the Supreme Rule. What then will you do in respect to the wrongs of your country? Just what I am doing to-day: give you my opinions; state what I believe to be the truth; do my best to have those wrongs rectified. Anything else? Nothing else. Here I stop, where good citizenship and God equally bid me to pause. This is my creed as a Christian, being a citizen.

In respect to the recent Fugitive Slave Law, professedly built on this provision of the Constitution, I will say a word. The conflicting opinions in regard to it abundantly show, that it is not adapted to meet the public sentiment of the North. To me it seems questionable, whether Congress has any legislative power in the premises. The provision in the Constitution for the delivery of fugitive slaves is not a grant of power to Congress, but the imposition of an obligation upon the States. Such is the published opinion of Daniel Webster. In his speech in the Senate, March 7th, 1850, he says: “I have always thought that the Constitution addressed itself to the legislatures of the States themselves. It is said that a person escaping into another State, and becoming therefore, within the jurisdiction of that State, shall be delivered up. It seems to me that the plain import of the passage is, that the State itself, in obedience to the injunction of the Constitution, shall cause him to be delivered up. This is my judgment; I have always entertained it; and I entertain it now.” Such is the opinion of Daniel Webster. Whoever examines the Constitution, will fail to find any grant of power to Congress express or implied, to pass a fugitive slave law. He will find a compact addressing itself to the States, and making the delivery of fugitive slaves a matter of State obligation, and therefore of State legislation. 2 And here I frankly confess that if it were left to the State, I see no way, in which she could constitutionally avoid the obligation, when the claim for the slave is established by “due process of law,” without repudiating so much of the national charter. The Constitution does in plain words impose this duty upon the States. I am sorry that it is so; but my sorrow does not change the fact. This is the sad consequence of an agreement to do wrong.

The main ground, however, upon which the North have most strongly objected to the recent law of Congress, is to be sought in its features. It is to be remembered, that at the North we have no slaves and no slave-laws. Hence every man, black or white, is legally presumed to be a freeman, until he is proved to be a slave. It is also to be remembered, that the provision of the Constitution does not point out the process, by which the fact of slavery as against a person claimed, shall be judicially ascertained. It simply says that the slave shall be delivered up. What! Any person whom another may choose to claim as a slave? Surely not this; but the person who is proved to be such as the Constitution describes, namely, a fugitive slave. Here then is manifestly a trial on a question of fact. Is the man a slave? The mere fact, that he is claimed as such, is no proof. There is a fact to be proved before a competent tribunal, before the Constitution in the remotest sense puts his liberty in peril. How shall this question be tried? We answer; it ought to be by the ordinary method of judicial procedure—by what is known in the Constitutions and usage of the country as a “due process of law”—that is to say, a regular, open trial by a JURY of freemen, hearing the evidence and pleading on both sides, and then giving a verdict accordingly. The burden of proof, by the rule of justice, falls wholly upon the claimant. He must show all the facts supposed in the Constitution, in relation to the particular man he claims; namely, that the man is a slave under the laws of one of the States—that he the claimant is the owner, or his authorized agent—and that the person has made his escape from his legal master. These facts ought to be proved to the satisfaction of a jury, before the legal presumption of freedom is surrendered in the Free States. If, in any instance under the sun, a jury trial should be had, it is when a man is tried on the question, whether he is a freeman or a slave. This question ought to be thus settled before the act of delivery takes place. Let it not be said that it can be tried at the South, after the delivery is effected. The North ought never to surrender colored men to be transported to the South, and there tried under the presumptions and disadvantages of the slave code. This would be injustice. It is practically equivalent to consigning them to slavery. The act of delivery is in effect a verdict of slavery against the man. Suppose, that he is a freeman; how is he to show it, where a black skin presumes slavery, and possession presumes title? How is he to procure witnesses, and provide himself with a competent defense? The delivery of a person claimed as a slave, is essentially unlike that of a fugitive from justice. The latter is delivered up that he may be tried by an impartial jury, with all the legal securities of a freeman. Such is not the fact in regard to the person alleged to be a slave. Hence, the legal ascertainment of slavery, by a “due process of law” as recognized where the claim is prosecuted, ought to precede the delivery. So it strikes a large portion of the Northern mind; and I confess, this is my judgment, as a Christian and a citizen.

What, then, are the objections to the recent Fugitive Slave Law? I answer; it does not conform to these principles. It disposes of the whole question in a “summary manner.” Without the form of so doing, it in effect nullifies the right to the writ of Habeas Corpus. It precludes a trial of the questions of fact by a jury. It contains the anomaly of judicial tribunals created by other tribunals—a principle wholly unknown in the legislation of this country. In respect to the rule of testimony to be had in the case, it throws all the advantages on the side of the claimant, and against the person claimed. It makes acts of hospitality, and gospel mercy to the unhappy fugitive, a crime for which the agent may be severely punished. It authorizes the officers of the law, to compel the services of the people in capturing the slave, and returning him to bondage. In a word, it is an effort to carry out, upon the soil of freedom, the legal principles and practice of the slave-code. Such a law would be very much in harmony with Southern institutions and ideas; but is not so with those of the FREE STATES.

I might sustain this general estimate of the law by a long list of very respectable authorities. I will give you two opinions.

The Hon. Josiah Quincy, Sen., remarks:–“Could it have been anticipated by the people that a law would be passed superseding that great principle of human freedom, and that in this State, (Massachusetts) in which the claimant of ownership for a cow, an ox, or a horse, or an acre of land, could not be divested of his right without a trial by jury, yet that by the operation of such a law, a citizen might be seized, perhaps secretly carried before a single magistrate, without the right of proving before a jury his title to himself, and be sent out of the State, on the certificate of such single magistrate, into hopeless and perpetual bondage; it is impossible, in my judgment, that the Constitution of the United States could have received the sanction of one-tenth part of the people of Massachusetts.” Again he says:–“The people of Massachusetts understood that such claim should be enforced, in conformity to, and coincidence with, the known and established principles of the Constitution of Massachusetts.” Again he remarks: “Let the laws upon this subject be so modified as to give to every person, whose service is thus claimed, the right of trial by jury before being sent out of the land, and the universal dissatisfaction would be almost wholly allayed.”—New York Tribune, Oct. 17th, 1850.

The other opinion proceeds from the Governor of Ohio, in his recent message to the Legislature of that State. He objects to the law on the following grounds:–“Because it makes slavery a national, instead of a State institution, by requiring the costs of reclaiming the slave in some instances to be paid out of the United States Treasury: because it attempts to make ex parte testimony, taken in another jurisdiction, final and conclusive, in cases where its effects may be to enslave a man and his posterity for all time, and commits the decision of this question of civil liberty to officers not selected for their judicial wisdom or experience: because it attempts to compel the citizens of free States to aid in arresting and returning to slavery the man who is only fleeing for liberty, in the same manner as they would rightfully be bound to aid in arresting a man fleeing from justice, charged with the commission of a high crime and misdemeanor: finally, in relation to the manner of trial, and other particulars, the law is contrary to the genius and spirit of our free institutions, and therefore dangerous to both free and slave States, and consequently ought to be amended or repealed.”—New York Tribune, Dec. 10th, 1850.

Now, I suppose, these opinions represent the general sentiments held by a very large portion of the Northern people. They deem the features of the law to be an infringement upon chartered rights, not required by the provision of the Constitution, and in express conflict with other provisions of the same instrument. No one will deny that it has awakened a very strong excitement among the Northern people; and this is enough to prove that it is not well adapted as a “peace measure,” to settle the vexed questions that have been agitating this Union. In my judgment, it has made things worse rather than better. The legislature of Vermont, for example, has recently passed an act, securing to the person claimed as a slave, a right to the writ of habeas corpus, and directing the judge issuing the writ, to order a trial by jury on all the questions of fact involved in the issue. This takes the person claimed from the jurisdiction of the Commissioner, and places him under State law. It is not done for the protection of the slave against the demand of the Constitution, but for the due protection of her own citizens. Vermont virtually says by this act, that no man on her soil shall be deemed a slave, until so adjudged by a jury. It is her legal protest against not the end, but the features of the fugitive Slave Law.

I think it a great misfortune to both sections of the Union, that Congress should have passed the law in question. It does not, and in its present form never can, answer the mission of a “peace measure.” If it is to be practically a dead letter on the part of the South, this will be one thing; but if it is to be executed with stringency and rigor, then I mistake public sentiment, especially in the interior of the country, if the petitions are not long and loud for its modification or repeal. I do not see how, in view of all the facts, we can reasonably expect anything else. It is well to look at facts as they are on all sides, as well as one side.

After having heard this expression of my views in regard to the law itself, you may ask me, what shall be done, the law having been passed? I deem it a privilege to have the opportunity of answering this question.

In the first place, let every citizen remember that our system of government provides a competent tribunal to test its constitutionality. While it is to be lamented that legislation should ever be so extraordinary, as to make its constitutionality even doubtful, still, no private citizen can authoritatively settle this point. This must be done by a tribunal having jurisdiction. I have an opinion, and so have you, and both of us have a right to an opinion; but neither your opinion nor mine is clothed with any legal authority. This fact should be remembered by those who warmly condemn the law. They may express their opinions; yet they are not the legal judges in the case.

In the second place, let no citizen, be his opinions what they may in regard to this law, think himself entitled to resist the civil authorities in its execution. The moment he does this, he makes a new issue—one in which he ought to be crushed. He has no right to an opinion that shall be made the basis of rebellion. If, in his judgment, any or all of the requirements of this law are in conflict with the Higher Law, then let him obey God, always remembering that God does not require him to fight the civil authorities; and if there is any penalty incurred by this course, then let him meekly suffer it. This is orthodox for both worlds. While I could not force one of my fellow-creatures into bondage under any law it is possible for man to create; yet, if I were a civil officer, required to do it by the legal duties of my office, I would either do it or resign my trust; and I should certainly take the latter course. This is good morality also for both worlds. I would not hold the office, and violate my oath. I would not hold it, and violate the Higher Law. Hence, I would not hold it at all.

In the third place, let no citizen feel himself authorized to advise the fugitive slave to arm himself, and prepare for a deadly conflict with the civil authorities, in case of an effort to arrest him under this law. I regard such advice as positively immoral. I regard it as wanting in every element of good sense. Whatever may be the motive, the man who gives it is not, in fact, the friend of the slave, or of the community in which he lives. He has not well considered his own words; and, in my judgment, is justly obnoxious to public censure. If he were himself to do what he advises others to do, he would be guilty of open treason. He patronizes a war upon civil society in an illegal way. Much as I hate slavery and slave-catching, I have no sympathy with this doctrine. The natural and inherent right of self-defense is not the natural and inherent right of slaughter for no purpose, for no attainable end. I would not fight for freedom even, when I should be sure to involve both myself and others in greater calamities by it. If I said anything to the fugitive slave, I would exhort him to quietude, to good behavior amid his griefs and dangers; and if he could not feel safe in this land, then with shame and sorrow of soul I would point him to the north star, and tell him, if possible, to quit a country of so much peril to himself. I pity him, though I cannot unmake the fact that he is legally a slave in this land, go where he will. He cannot destroy this government, and I do not wish to do so. Hence, I cannot tell him to fight. He never will at my instigation. I reprobate the advice. This advice has been severely and deservedly rebuked. Yet, we cannot withhold the expression of our regret, that some who have ministered this rebuke, had not applied their conscience with equal intensity to another moral question. As Christians, what do they think of capturing and returning men to slavery?

In the fourth place, this law like every other, is amenable to the power of public sentiment. It has no sanctity that places it above the judgment of the people. If it misrepresent their will, nothing can save it from repeal or modification. It is one of the glories of our system, that when the people are displeased with a law, they can freely discuss it, and then vote it into its grave. It takes a little time to do this; but the event is always certain. In respect to this law, I wish for it no other doom than the legally ascertained judgment of the people. Those who think it right as it is, let them advocate it and vote for it. This is their right—as much so as it is mine not to do so, dissenting as I do from their opinion. If the majority think as they do, the law will stand; if not, it will not stand. For one taking into view all the circumstances of the nation, I doubt the practical wisdom of any attempt to alter it by the present Congress; yet, I greatly misinterpret the signs of the times, as well as the character of the Northern heart, if this law is not ultimately modified, especially if the South seek to use it with rigor. And in the meantime, I protest against any effort to silence or frighten Northern sense on this subject. I do honestly suppose, that Northern people have a right to think, and freely to express their thoughts. I am a Unionist, and so is the great body of the Northern mind; yet, I doubt whether this Union is to be preserved by getting up a panic. Congress enacted this law; and it has as much power to change it as it had to make it. To say that its modification or repeal will dissolve the Union, is a confession that some people are ready for treason. Much as I dislike the features of the law, I am willing to wait till an ascertained public will can do its work; and in the meantime, let no man think himself acting the part of wisdom or duty, in denouncing his neighbor for a difference of opinion. Let us have light and love, always remembering that no one is justly required to put out his own eyes, or repudiate either his common or moral sense, for the sake of love.

In the fifth place, as I doubt not, the President of these United States will do his official duty, as the Chief Magistrate of this nation—“take care (I am quoting his recent Message) that the laws be faithfully executed.” As a citizen, I honor the doctrine, and the man for its utterance. As a public officer, acting under the solemnity of an oath, he has no other course; we the people, no other safety. He is the sworn executive of the will of this nation, legally ascertained. The will of this nation is not that there should be rebellion anywhere, North or South. Hence, if necessary, as I hope it never may be, he must crush it by the last resort of government—the power of the sword. He is to show no favor to the accursed spirit of treason. I mean this equally for both sections of the Union. Whoever tries this, I trust, will have an ample opportunity to judge whether this is a practicable government, whether it has any power, and can execute its own laws. If government must coax and pet every man who chooses to whine, then it is no government. Both the North and South are in this Union; and if we have a faithful President, as I trust we have, they will stay there. Let it be well understood, that this government is to go forward and do its proper work, making laws or altering them at the command of the public voice; let it be known that traitors are to be hung as high as Haman, that the first man who is guilty of treason within the meaning of the Constitution, forfeits his life, and so of the second, and the third, and so on; let not a threat be followed by a panic, but met with that calm and dignified firmness that becomes government; and there will be no civil tumult anywhere; the party of disunionists will lose all their thunder, and run down to nothing. There is no occasion for a resort to the revolutionary right. There are no grievances that call for it. Neither section has so invaded the chartered rights of the other, as to justify in either a rebellion against the Federal Government.

It is a species of incipient treason to be constantly threatening the dissolution of the Union, in case of certain contingencies. He who open resists this Government, who attempts to revolutionize it, let him be treated according to law. He starts a new question, very different from the one whether slavery and slave-catching are right or wrong. With him on this point I have no sympathy. If the Government, State or Federal, pass a law which, in his judgment, imposes duties in direct conflict with the Higher Law of his God, then let him obey God, and quietly suffer the legal consequences, if there be any, leaving the final judgment to decide whether he was a martyr or a fool.

And, finally, let us commend our country to the God of nations, invoking the care and direction of his Providence. Nations as such, are amenable under His government. In His sight “righteousness exalteth a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people.” Of the nation that will not serve God, it is written, that it shall perish, that it shall be utterly wasted. There is no principle truer, none of more thrilling interest to this Republic, than that God holds organized communities responsible for their conduct. The American people must do right, and thus please God; or in due season the day of vengeance will come. His favor is more important than a vast navy, or strong ramparts, or the skill of politicians. Let us invoke that favor. Let us beseech the great God to dispose events for his own glory, and the nation’s good. There are great dangers in our path. There are serious evils that call for redress. There is an awful incongruity in our practice, evidenced in the melancholy fact that on this soil of freedom, blest with the purest civil system man ever formed, millions of our fellow-creatures are doomed to the toil and bondage of slavery. The sigh of the bondman has entered into the ears of the Lord of Sabbath. Say what we will, conceal it as we may, slavery is our great danger—the most stupendous form of wrong found in the bosom of this people. It always has been, and always will be, the curse of a people who practice it. It is the source of our present difficulties. It has outlived its day. It ought long since to have gone to rest. It is the fretting sore of our institutions. It ever will be a difficulty, until a rectified public sentiment shall demand and secure its removal. Neither by a divine, nor by a human right, does it exist on this soil. That sober, and honest, and earnest, and moderate counsels—not the less determined for their modification—free, on the one hand, from the spirit of reckless passion and wild denunciation, and on the other, from that dishonorable policy which is ever ready to sacrifice the truth;–counsels neither palsied by a panic, nor driven by a storm of fury—counsels commending themselves to God for the equity of their purpose, and the wisdom of their mode – counsels that embody the honest and manly sense of enlightened Christian men, exercising their rights, and doing their duty in the fear of God: – that all this is needed, greatly needed, in all parts of this Union, is very apparent.

I see not what benefit is to arise from the sundering of the political ties that make us one nation. I thank God that there is very little desire for this at the North. Most of the menaces proceed from the South. Let them well consider before they act. The attempt would be to themselves the most perilous experiment, a misguided people ever undertook. The weakness is with themselves. The power of this nation is not in their hands, if brought into effective and vigorous action. This power is in the free States; and there it must remain, by the inevitable necessity of a natural cause. May God preserve the South from committing themselves to the dreadful issue. I can conscientiously and piously pray for the peaceful perpetuity of this Union, and not less so for the removal of the evils that constitute its danger, and so most expose us to the displeasure of God. This is my prayer. I trust it is yours, while to day we thank our common Father for blessings past, and implore others yet to come.

In closing let me say that you now have my whole soul on this great subject. God is my witness that I have not made a speech for Northern or southern ears, to manufacture capital with either. I despise the infamous trick on a theme of so much importance. I have not sought to magnify one truth at the expense of another. These are my sentiments. So I believe. Not a sentence has fallen from my lips, which, so far as I can now perceive, I should wish to recall. I came here not to please or offend any body, but to speak the truth according to the best light of my own understanding. Whether these opinions suit you, is for you to settle. I have, under a solemn sense of duty, assumed the responsibility of their utterance; and I do not expect to disclaim it. Thanking you for having attentively listened to these observation, I now commend you and my country, and the slave, to the guidance and mercy of that God, whose government is always just, whose grace is equal to our wants, whose providence is our personal and national shield, whose law is the HIGHEST in the universe, and at whose bar both speaker and hearer will soon appear. May He be merciful t us all!



1. The legal reason for this provision is very plain. Slavery is not recognized by the law of nations. Hence, as a general doctrine, the moment the slave leaves the local law of bondage, he becomes free;–he does not carry his legal chain from one civil community to another. The States in this Republic are distinct and separate communities, existing in the bosom of one nation. If, therefore, there were no provision in respect to fugitive slaves, each State might determine for itself, whether the local law of slavery shall follow the victim, when coming within its jurisdiction. The people, in adopting the Constitution, agreed that it should—that the question should not be left to the option of the States. They made an exception to a general rule of justice. They agreed that a slave, by the laws of one of the States, escaping into another State, should not in the latter become a freeman, but should be delivered up on claim of his legal owner. They limited the powers of the State in this respect, and by the Constitution created a State obligation. The manner of legally ascertaining the facts supposed, is not specified.

2. The Federal Government is, in the strictest sense, a Government of chartered powers. The Constitution is its charter. Upon Congress it confers all the legislative powers of this Government. These are granted by clauses referring to specific subjects, and by the Eighth Section of the First Article, which after enumerating seventeen particulars of Federal Legislation, makes a grant of implied powers, namely, “To make all laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into execution the foregoing powers, and all other powers vested by this Constitution in the government of the United States, or any department or officer thereof.” This is not a grant of implied powers, to carry into execution all the provisions of the Constitution, but to execute all the powers expressly vested by the Constitution in the Federal Government. Where then is the grant of power to this Government, to legislate in respect to fugitive slaves? Nowhere, unless in the provision bearing on this subject. Is this such a grant of power? Read it; see, if upon its face any such idea appears. It is a clause of compact between the people of the respective States, restricting the States from passing any laws discharging the fugitive from the legal condition of slavery, and imposing on them the duty of delivering him up on claim of his owner. It is a capital mistake to assume, that all the provisions of the Constitution are grants of power to the Federal Government. Many of them are provisions of compact, limiting state powers, or defining State duties. The provision securing to citizens of each State the privileges and immunities of citizens in the respective States, and also the provision for the recovery of fugitives from justice, are of this character. The same is true of the one in respect to fugitive slaves. It creates a State obligation; and clearly a State obligation is not a grant of Federal power. The common complaint of the South, that the Northern States have not done their duty on this subject, confesses that the delivery of fugitive slaves is the work of the States; for if not, then they have no duty to perform. If it is, then it is not properly the work of the Federal Government.

Sermon – Fugitive Slave Bill – 1851

John C. Lord preached this sermon on the fugitive slave bill in 1851.











(Pastor of said Church)



Tell us therefore, What thinkest thou? Is it lawful to give tribute unto Caesar or not? But Jesus perceived their wickedness, and said, Why tempt ye me, ye hypocrites? Show me the tribute money. And they brought unto Him a penny. And He saith unto them, Whose image and superscription? They say unto Him, Caesar’s. Then saith He unto them, Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God, the things that are God’s. — Matt. xxii. 17-21.

We are summoned today by the proclamation of the Chief Magistrate of this State, to consider and acknowledge the mercies of God during the year that is past. As individuals, for ourselves, and our households, it becomes us to acknowledge our personal deliverances, and the varied proofs of the Divine goodness which we have experienced since we last assembled to render our annual tribute of praise, prayer, and thanksgiving to Him — “who causeth the outgoings of the morning and the evening to rejoice; who giveth the early and the latter rain’ who appointeth fruitful seasons and abundant harvests; who openeth his hand and satisfieth the desire of every living thing.” As citizens, it concerns us to consider the general prosperity of the State and the Nation, to notice the various tokens of the Divine mercy in regard to the preservation of the free government under which we live, founded by the sacrifices of our pious ancestry and perpetuated, as we may well believe, for this reason, among others, that their “prayers are yet had in remembrance before God, and their tears preserved in his bottle.” As individuals, our presence in this house today is a proof of the personal mercies which should lead us to offer the acceptable sacrifice of praise. Some who once sat with us in this sanctuary have gon to the congregation of the dead; deaf to the requiem which the winds of winter are now mournfully murmuring over their graves insensible to all sounds, until the palsied ear shall hear the “voice of the archangel and the trump of God;” others are upon beds of sickness, pain, and sorrow, and know not whether they shall enter again the house of prayer, to mingle their praises with yours or pass from the couch of suffering to the life to come, to hold the mysteries of the unseen world, and worship with that august thong, that “innumerable company of angels and spirits of just men made perfect,” who fill the arches of Heaven with the voices of praise and thanksgiving ascribing “blessing and honor and dominion and power to Him that setteth upon the throne, and to the Lamb for ever and ever.” Some are full of affliction oppressed with poverty or overwhelmed with reverses, which prevent them from mingling with us in the worship of the sanctuary on this day of thanksgiving : and alas! that it should be so — there are others who are full of prosperity, “whose eyes stick out with fatness, who are not in trouble as other men,” who are so unmindful of their dependence upon Him in “whom they live and move and have their being,” so regardless of all the goodness and mercy of God, tha they never darken the doors of the house of prayer, and never unite in the worship and praise of the Father of mercies. But by our presence in this place today, we are seen to be the witnesses of the Divine goodness, we acknowledge our selves the recipients of unnumbered favors, we propose to offer the sacrifice of thanksgiving, and call upon our souls and all within us to magnify the name of our Father, Preserver, Benefactor, and Redeemer.

But not alone for private and personal mercies should we render thanks today. As citizens of this State, and of the great Republic of which it is the chief member, we are called to consider the preservation of public tranquility the adjustment of sectional difficulties, and the continuance of the bonds of our union, amid excitements which threatened its integrity; amid a storm, the original violence of which is manifest in the clouds which yet muttering in the distance. It is not necessary to adopt the opinions of the extreme alarmists in either section of the country to conclude that great dangers have threatened, if they do not still, threaten, the union of these States. It does not require very great discernment to see that the continued agitation of the vexed question of Slavery, producing alienation and distrust between the North and the South must, in the end, either sever the bonds between the free and the salve states, or render them not worth preserving. A unity maintained by force, if this were possible, would not pay the cost of its keeping. If, in the heat of the existing controversies, these two great sections of the Union come at last to forget their common ancestry, and the mutual perils shared by them in the revolutionary struggle; if South Carolina and Massachusetts, who stood shoulder to shoulder in the doubtful contest for American freedom, come to disregard the voices of their illustrious dead, who lie side by side in every battle-field of the Revolution; if Virginia and New York refuse, in the heats engendered by this unhappy strife, to listen longer to the voice of Washington, warning them in his farewell address of this very rock of sectional jealousy and alienation; if the words of the Father of this country are no longer regarded with reverence in the ancient commonwealth of his birth, or in the great State whose deliverance from a foreign enemy was the crowning achievement of his military career; and if the compromises upon which the Union was consummated, continue to be denied or disregarded there is an end of the confederacy. If the stronger should crush the weaker, and hold on to an apparent union with the grasp of military power, it would no longer be a confederacy but a conquest. When there is no longer mutual respect; no more fraternal forbearance; no more regard for each other’s local interests; no more obedience in one section to the laws which protect the guaranteed rights of the other; the basis of union is wanting, and nothing but a military despotism, with a grasp of iron, and a wall of fire, can hold the discordant elements together.

In the discussions which the recent agitations of the country have originated, grave questions have arisen in regard to the obligation of the citizen to obey the laws which he may disapprove; appeals have been made to a HIGHER LAW, as a justification, not merely of a neglect to aid in enforcing a particular statute, but of an open and forcible resistance by arms. Those subject to the operations of the recent enactment of Congress in regard to fugitive slaves have been counselled from the pulpit, and by men who profess a higher Christianity than others, to carry deadly weapons and shoot down any who should attempt to execute its provisions. The whole community at the North have been excited by passionate appeals to a violent and revolutionary resistance to laws, passed by their own representatives to sustain an express provision of the constitution of the United States, which if defective in their details, are yet clearly within the delegated powers and jurisdiction of our national Legislature. The acknowledged principle that the law of God is supreme, and when in direct conflict with any mere human enactment renders in nugatory, has been used to justify an abandonment of the compromises of the Constitution; an armed resistance to the civil authorities, and a dissolution of that Union with which are inseparably connected our national peace and prosperity. The consideration of the duties which men owe to God, as subjects of his moral government, and which, as citizens, they owe the commonwealth, is at all times of importance, but now of especial interest in view of the agitations of the day. It is high time to determine whether one of the highest duties enforced by the Gospel, obedience to the law of God as supreme, can be made to justify a violent resistance to the late enactment of Congress; whether or Christianity enjoins the dissolution of our Union; whether the advocates of a higher law stand really upon this lofty vantage ground of conscience, or are scattering “firebrands, arrows, and death,” either under a mistaken view of duty, or the impulses of passion and fanaticism, or inflamed by the demagogueism, which, if it cannot rule, would ruin; which, like Milton’s fallen angel, would rather “reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.”

That this subject is not out of place in the pulpit, is manifest from the fact that it is strictly a question of morals. Our duties to God constitute the subject matter of revealed religion, and their enforcement is the great business of the Gospel minister; our duties to government FLOW OUT OUR RELATION TO THE SUPREME GOVERNOR, as well as our relations to each other, and are clearly pointed out and forcibly enjoined in the Gospel. “Put them in mind.” Says an Apostle, “to be subject to principalities and powers; to obey magistrates; to be ready to ever good work:” “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers; the powers that be are ordained of God.” In the text, we are informed of an attempt made by the Jewish casuists to ensnare our Lord to Caesar; it being supposed by them, that any reply he could make would lead him into difficulty; for the Jews were perpetually galled by the Roman yoke, and any response favoring their oppressors would have aroused their indignation; while, if the lawfulness of tribute were denied by the reply of our Lord, it would have given his enemies ground to accuse him before the authorities, of sowing sedition. If our savior, in response to the question of the lawfulness of tribute, should answer in the affirmative, the Jews would stone him; if in the negative, the Romans would arraign him as a violator of law. He who knows all hearts perceived their wickedness, and said, “Why tempt ye me, ye hypocrites? Show me the tribute money. And they brought unto him a penny. And he said unto them, Whose is this image and superscription? They say unto him Caesar’s. then said he unto them, Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God, the things that are God’s.” Well might “they marvel and go their way,” baffled by the answer of divine wisdom. Our Lord escaped their malice by stating the true principle on which the obedience of the citizen is demanded by government, in the legitimate exercise of its powers. The coining of money is an act of sovereignty; the impress of Caesar upon the penny was proof that the Romans possessed the government of Judea, de facto, and were therefore, to be obeyed as the supreme authority in all civil enactments; while any attempt to interfere with the religious principles or practices of the Jews might be conscientiously resisted.

We take the ground, that the action of civil governments within their appropriate jurisdiction is final and conclusive upon the citizen; and that, to plead a higher law to justify disobedience to a human law, the subject matter of which is within the congnizance of the State, is to reject eh authority of God himself; who has committed to governments the power and authority which they exercise in civil affairs. This is expressly declared by the Apostle in the Epistle to the Romans: “Let every soul be subject to the higher powers, for there is no power but of God; the powers that be are ordained of God; whosoever therefore, resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God. For he (that is the civil magistrate) beareth not the sword in vain, for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil. Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath but also for conscience’ sake; render therefore all their dues, tribute to whom tribute is due, custom to whom custom, fear to whom fear, honor to whom honor.”

The language here cannot be misunderstood. Obedience to governments, in the exercise of their legitimate powers, is a religious duty, positively enjoined by God himself. The same authority which commands us to render to God the things which are God’s enjoins us, by the same high sanctions to render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s.

The following general principles may be deducted from the sacred Scriptures, and from the example as well as the teachings, of our Lord and his Apostles.

First — Government is a divine constitution, established at the beginning by the Creator, which exists of necessity, and is of perpetual obligation. Men are born under law, both as it respects the Law of God and the enactments of States. By the ordination of the supreme law, they owe allegiance to the country of their birth, and are naturally and unavoidably the subjects of its government; their consent to this is neither asked nor given; their choice can only respect the mode, never the fact of Government. The mutual compact without warrant from the word of God, and contradicted by all the facts in the case. We might as well affirm that men agree to be born, and to be subject to their parents, by a mutual compact, in which the child surrenders certain rights for the sake of parental protection, and the parent covenants to provide and govern on the promise of obedience. The statement in the last case is no more absurd than in the first. In the family is found the rudimental government, and the fifth commandment has always been understood by Christians as ordaining subjection to magistrates as well as parents.

Second — Governments have jurisdiction over men in all affairs which belong peculiarly to the present life; in all the temporal relations which bind societies, communities and families together in respect to all rights of person and property, and their enforcement by penalties. General rules are, indeed, laid down in the Scriptures for the regulation of human conduct, but God has ordained the “powers that be” to appoint their own municipal laws, to regulate and enforce existing relations, and to execute judgment upon offenders, under such form of administration as shall be suitable to the circumstances of the people and chosen by themselves. Governments as to their mode, do not form but follow the character and moral condition of a people, and are an indication of their real condition, intellectually and morally. The idea that the mere change of the form of a despotic government will necessarily elevate a nation, is a mistaken one. A people must be elevated before they can receive free institutions. The mode of government is the index and not the cause of the condition of the different nations of the earth, which may be demonstrated by the history of empires and states, and by the fain efforts, recently made in Europe, to adopt our institutions without the moral training and preparation which can alone make them either possible or valuable. France, today is a despotism under the forms of a free government, and maintains her internal tranquility by a hundred thousand bayonets.

Third — In regard to his own worship, and the manner in which we are to approach Him, the Supreme Governor has given full and minute directions. He has revealed himself, his attributes, and the great principles of his government, which constitute the doctrines of Christianity; and has conferred upon no human authority the right to interfere by adding to or taking from them. IN THE THINGS THAT BELONG TO HIMSELF, God exercises sole and absolute jurisdiction, and has, in regard to them, appointed no inferior or delegated authority.

Fourth — The decisions of governments upon matters within their jurisdiction though they may be erroneous, are yet, from the necessity of the case, absolute. Every man has a right to test the constitutionality of any law by an appeal to the judiciary, but he cannot interpose his private judgment as justification of his resistance to an act of the government. Freedom of opinion by no means involves the right to refuse obedience to law; for, if this were so, the power to declare war and make peace; to regulate commerce and levy taxes; in short, to perform the most essential acts of government, would be a mere nullity. No statue could be executed on this principle, which would leave every man to do what seemed right in his own eyes, under the plea of higher law and a delicate conscience. Even courts of justice, which are the constituted tribunals for ascertaining and determining the validity of all legislative enactment, by bringing them to the test of constitutional law and first principles, as well as for the decision of causes arising under the law in relation to persons and property, may form an erroneous conclusion; for no mere human wisdom is infallible; yet their final decisions are binding, from the same necessity. The fact that an innocent man may be condemned and suffer the penalty of law which he has never broken, might as well be urged to impeach the authority of a judicial decision as that the fallibility which is manifest in hasty and unwise legislation, should be alleged as an excuse for resistance to a particular statute.

The private judgments of individuals, for insurance, that all wars are unlawful, even those which are defensive; or that the existence of slavery is per se, sinful, is no just ground of resistance to the government which declares war, or the legislation which recognizes domestic servitude, and regulates it. Both these subjects are properly within the jurisdiction of civil government. The State may engage in an unjust war, but does this discharge the subject from his allegiance? No sane man will affirm it. the government may recognize an oppressive form of domestic servitude, or enact laws in relation to which are deemed by many oppressive. Is this a just ground of forcible resistance on Christian principles? No intelligent man who regards the authority of the Bible can consistently maintain such a position. Many at the North who assert such opinions have long since rejected the authority of the Word of God and have in their conventions publicly scoffed at divine as well as human authority.

But the position we have taken, that the decisions of governments are final in cases where they have jurisdiction, even when mistaken or oppressive, is not only sustained by the passages which have been cited from the Scriptures, but also by the example and practice of the primitive Christians. The words of our Saviour in the text, and of the Apostle, in his Epistle to the Romans, while they have a general application to all times and all governments, had a particular reference to the existing authorities or Rome, which were not only despotic in their general administration but peculiarly oppressive in their treatment of the infant church. The government under which our Saviour and the Apostles lived, and of which they spake, was habitually engaged in aggressive wars, aiming at the conquest of the world. Slavery was universal throughout the Roman Empire, and the laws gave the master the power of life and death over his servant. Did the Saviour and his Apostles, on this account, reject their authority, or incite their disciples to disobedience and resistance? Did they interfere with existing civil institutions, urging the slave to escape from his master, the citizen to rebel against the magistrate? Their conduct was the exact reverse of this; they preached to the master forbearance and kindness — to the observant submission and obedience — to both, the Gospel. Paul sent Onesimus back to his maser, on the very principles which he enjoined upon the Romans — subjection to existing civil authority. The inspired teachers of Christianity instructed both masters and slaves in regard to the duties which grow out of the institution of Slavery, without either approving or condemning the relation itself. They exhorted Soldiers on the same principle, to be content with their wages, and to forbear from mutiny and cruelty; without offering any opinion concerning the justice or injustice of the Roman wars. They spake indeed of a promised and predicted day, when wars, tumults and oppressions should cease, when at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, and there should be none, any more, to hurt or molest in the Mountain of the lord. The early Christians were, beyond controversy, obedient to the injunction of the Apostle. They obeyed law even when it was onerous or unjust. They had civil and military appointments under the Roman government in which they refused not to serve; they were obedient to the existing civil powers, in all matters within the jurisdiction of the State; they were no abettors of sedition and strife. Whole legions in the armies that were sent out for conquest by Rome, where composed of Christians, who were, doubtless, drawn in the general conscription for this service, and who felt it to be their duty to “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s;” however much they might dislike the business of war. Not until Caesar intermeddled with the things of God; not until, passing the legitimate jurisdiction of civil government the Roman magistrate commanded them to adore the image of the Emperor, and to offer incense to false gods; did the Christian refuse obedience. But here he was immovable; no flattery could subdue, no terrors appall him. Every engine of torture, which the barbarous ingenuity of Rome could invent failed of its purpose. They were tortured by fire; they were cast out to wild beasts; they were exposed in the amphitheater to the gaze of thousands, who mocked their dying agonies. Like the ancient prophets, “they were stoned; they were sawn asunder; they were tempted; they were slain with the sword; they wandered in deserts and mountains, in dens and caves of the earth.” It was enough that the Master had said, “render to God the things which are God’s.” Nor was their resistance that of armed and violent men; they assassinated no officers, and excited no seditious, but, after the example of their Lord, suffered with that passive firmness, which is the highest form of courage. But it may be replied to this, Your argument proves too much. You reaffirm the old doctrine of tyrants of passive obedience and non resistance; your position would render all revolutions unlawful; all changes of government impossible. To this it may be said, that it does not belong to the Church in her organized capacity, nor Christians, considered solely as such, and with reference to their religious duties, to revolutionize governments; for this reason, the Gospel is silent on this subject, while enforcing the general duties of the citizens under all governments de facto, whether revolutionary or otherwise; whether despotic or democratic. That, under certain circumstances, the people, by which is meant the large majority, have a right to revolutionize a government, is conceded. Presbyterians have ever resisted the High Church and tory doctrine of the divine right of Kings, in the State; and Prelates, in the Church. They stood, to a man, with the Patriots who achieved under God the independence of our beloved country; they have maintained the principles of civil and religious liberty, at the hazard of life and fortune, in both hemispheres. The Presbyterians of Scotland, and the Puritans of England, were the founders of English liberty, by the admission Hume himself, who hated them with infidel and tory extravagance. The right of a people to select their own form of government, a question entirely distinct from the fact of government, which is of necessity by a Divine Constitution, has ever been maintained by us as existing, not only in the nature of the case, but as warranted by the Word of God; of which, the choice by the Hebrews of a King, and the rejection of their ancient democratic mode of government, which they received from the Supreme Lawgiver himself, is an example. This change was expressly allowed them at their desire, though with a plain intimation that their choice was a bad one. So the revolt of the ten tribes upon the declaration of Rehoboam, that he would govern them in a despotic and arbitrary sway, that “his little finger should be thicker that his father’s loins,” appears afterwards to have been sanctioned by the Most High; who gave them Jeroboam for a King, and rent Israel for every from the house of David and Solomon.

The right of revolution is a civil right, which can be properly exercised only, by a decided majority, under circumstance of aggravated oppression and upon a reasonable assurance of success. It is not for the Church, as such, to determine when a just ground for revolution exists, it belongs to the body of the people in their civil capacity. If, in the judgment, for example, of a great majority of the citizens of the United States, it would be better to abandon our Union; if the South in her exasperation against the North, for interference with her domestic relations, and in the vain hope to secure an increase of wealth and population corresponding with that of the free States, desire disunion; if we of the North are unwilling to observe the guarantees of the Constitution, and think it worth while to abandon the advantages of the confederacy for the sake of making our territory a place of refuge for runaway slaves; the Union will be dissolved by a revolution, the most disastrous the world ever saw. But while the Constitution remains, while the Government, continues let us observe the laws; let us not justify murder and sedition; and least of all, let us not talk of a higher law, which absolves men from obedience to a Constitution which they have sworn to maintain. If there be any higher law, it is the law of resistance and revolution; and the sooner this is understood and openly avowed, by the ultraists and fanatics both North and South, the better for the country. The people of these United States are not likely, with their eyes open, to plunge into the gulf which disunionists are opening up beneath their feet; and when the real designs of these men are seen, when they openly avow that a revolution is the end of their movement, we believe that they will be crushed under the weight of public indignation.

But, in regard to the question of a higher law, which we think we have demonstrated cannot be urged to annul the legislation of a state, in relation to any matter properly with its jurisdiction, it may be further replied, that it is not yet proved that the enactment or recognition of Slavery is within the powers divinely delegated to Governments; that it is against the Supreme Law, and therefore all human legislation on the subject is inoperative and void. To this we reply, in the first place, that there are many evils incident to the fallen condition of our race, such as War and Slavery, the existence of which is to be regretted, but which are necessarily in the actual condition of mankind, the appropriate subjects of municipal regulation. A state involves not only the authority of the Magistrate to punish criminals, but of the expression “he beareth not the sword in vain.” But the state having this right may and do often abuse it by aggressive wars, the injustice of which, we have already seen is no ground of forcible resistance to the civil authority. So the right of legislation in regard to servitude as a punishment for crime, or as a method for disposing of prisoners taken in war, has been exercised any intelligent and fair-minded man. The state having jurisdiction of the subject may, as in the waging of an aggressive war, abuse their power, by enacting unjust and oppressive laws of servitude; but is such legislation therefore inoperative and void? To affirm this, is to contradict the decision of the Apostle in his Epistle to the Romans, and to subvert every established principle, whether human or divine, on which rests the authority of civil government. In certain conditions of society Slavery is universal; it was recognized and regulated by law in all the free states of antiquity; it is the first movement towards civilization by savage and barbarous nations to reduce their captives taken in war, to slavery, instead of subjecting them to torture and death. A recent traveler in the vast Empire of China, Mr. Lay, affirms that in that country the institution of Slavery is a positive blessing, as it prevents infanticide by the poorer classes, and provides for multitudes who must otherwise perish of want. That it exists in a mild form in China is admitted; but the question does not depend upon a comparison of the laws of different countries on this subject, but whether it is a condition of society which can in any case be allowed; whether civil governments have any authority or jurisdiction to enact laws upon the subject, or in any way to recognize or regulate it.

But there is higher authority for the determination of this question, than any thing we have yet suggested. The existence of domestic Slavery was expressly allowed sanctioned and regulated by the Supreme Lawgiver, in that divine economy which He gave the Hebrew state. The fact is open and undisputed; the record and proof of it are in the hands of every man who has in his possession a copy of the Bible. All the ingenuity and art of all the Abolitionists in the United States Can never destroy the necessary conclusion of this admitted divine sanction of Slavery, that it is an institution which may lawfully exist, and concerning which Governments may pass laws, and execute penalties for their evasion or resistance.

To allege that there is a higher law, which makes slavery, per se, sinful, and that all legislation that protects the rights of masters and enjoins the redelivery of the slave, is necessarily void and without authority, and may be conscientiously resisted by arms and violence, is an infidel position which is contradicted by both Testaments; — which may be taught in the gospel of Jean Jacques Rousseau, and in the revelation of the Skeptics and Jacobins, who promised France, half a century ago, universal equality and fraternity; a gospel whose baptism was blood, a revelation whose sacrament was crime; but it cannot be found in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, or in the revelation of God’s will to men. We do not mean to affirm that sincere and conscientious persons may not be found who have persuaded themselves that forcible resistance to slavery is obedience to God; and that in the increased light of the nineteenth century, the example of the Jewish economy, and the teachings and practice of our Lord and the Apostles, are antiquated and of no binding force upon the consciences of men. Such honest but mistaken persons should remember, that if the institution of slavery is necessarily and from it’s nature sinful now, it must always have been so; as universal principles admit of no change, and their argument is, therefore, an impeachment of the benevolence of God, and a denial of the supreme authority of the Gospel, as a system of ethics. They must, to sustain their position, assume that we are wiser and better men than the Saviour and the Apostles, and that the government of God and the Gospel need revision and emendation. Such a conclusion is inevitable from the premises, and I would affectionately warn all who have named the name of Christ, and who have been betrayed by passion or sympathy into such a position to see to it before they take the inevitable plunge, with the Garrison school, into the gulf of infidelity. I would respectfully entreat them to remember that this is not the first proclamation, “Lo, here is Christ, or there,” which has proved a device of the adversary; that Jacobins, Fourierites, Communists, and Levellers of all sorts, reject the Gospel on the ground that it does not come up to their standard of liberty, equality and fraternity, and has no sufficiently comprehensive views of the rights of man. Those who preach the Gospel ought specially to remember that our race are apostate, and live under a remedial government; and that is our mission to deal with the world as it is, and men as we find them, just as did the Saviour and the Apostles — remembering that here we have no continuing city,” and that the Gospel does not propose to us an equalization of human conditions in time; that “there remaineth a rest for the people of God,” and to this, the Master of life and his Apostles pointed the rich and the poor, the high and the low, the bond and the free. They made it no part of their work to array the prejudices of one class against another; to discontent the slave with his position; or the citizen with the government; but treated all these things as of inferior consideration, compared with the hope of another and a better life, through the blood of atonement.

The comparative mildness of Hebrew slavery which is alleged, if it were true, is of no moment in the decision of the question before us; for it is not, whether American legislation on this subject be unwise and unjust, but whether the institution of slavery is necessarily sinful, and all legislation on the subject void for want of jurisdiction, and because of a higher law that prohibits its existence.

Domestic slavery, in this country, is older than the Constitution; it had existed for several generations before the Revolution. The people of the North, in their union with the slave States under a General Government upon the adoption of a common Constitution, bound themselves to respect the institution of slavery as it then existed, so far as to deliver up fugitives to their masters. What has been said proves, we think, that such an arrangement was not void as being against a higher law, and consequently any legislation, by Congress, which fairly carries out this provision, and enforces this guarantee, is constitutional and lawful, and cannot be resisted upon any moral grounds. Whether the law is the best or the worst that could have been devised, is not the question here, nor is it really the question with the country; for it is the recognition of Slavery by the Constitution, and the right of recapture which it confers, which lies at the bottom of this agitation; all the rest is merely for effect, vox et preterea nihil [voice and nothing more], and those who recommend the violation of this law, would undoubtedly advise resistance to any enactment of Congress which would carry out the provision of the Constitution for the restoration of fugitive slaves.

It is somewhat singular that those whose consciences have been so much aroused in regard to a higher law that the constitution, should have forgotten in their contemplation of moral and religious questions, that the observance of the compact between the North and the South falls within the moral rule which enjoins good faith, honesty, and integrity among men. Until this compact is rescinded by the power that made it, and by the parties who assented to it, its fulfilment is required by every principle of common honesty. With what pretence of right can the North say to the South, we will hold you to your part of the bargain; you must remain in the Union, but we have conscientious scruples in regard to performing our part of the agreement. Is this language of good faith and integrity? Would it be thought honest in any private transaction or compact? Is it for those who threaten the South with force in case of their resistance of Constitutional enactments — who are themselves advocating the violation of the laws which protect the rights secured to the slave States by the Constitution — to talk about higher laws and sensitive consciences? Does the assertion, so often made, that there is no danger of disunion if the law of recapture if violated; that the south are not strong enough to set up for themselves; that they need the protection of the North to prevent a servile insurrection, add any thing to the moral beauty of this position What is this but the divine right of lawless force, the higher law of the strongest? What is this but a disavowal of all regard for the claims of the weak? In the words of a Highland song of the olden time,

“For why? because the good old rule
Sufficeth them; the simple plan,
That they must get who have the power,
And they must keep who can.”

May Vermont be permitted to pass laws to evade and prevent the execution of the legislation of Congress, and south Carolina threatened with investment by sea and land, by the army and navy of the United States, for doing the same thing? Is this good faith between sovereign States? Nay, is it common honesty among men? “I speak to wise men, judge ye!”

If we are comparatively so much stronger than the South, as is alleged, is it magnanimous, is it just, for us to take advantage of their weakness to violate their constitutional rights? If they look upon the greater prosperity of the North with a degree of jealousy, and are the more sensitive on that account upon any appearance of a disregard, on our part, of the guarantees of the constitution, there is the more reason for our forbearance; especially when it is considered that in the very formation of the Union, there was an implied understanding that good will and forbearance should characterize the intercourse of the parties; “that “Ephraim should not vex Judah; or Judah, Ephraim” Why should the Saxon obstinacy of the North and the Norman pride of the South be forever excited by these unhappy disputes in regard to slavery; a question which time, and patience, and God’s providence can alone resolve? The South are not so dependent upon us as we imagine; in the case of a servile insurrection they would hardly look for aid, in the present state of things, from the North, and our constant allegations of their weakness constitute one ground of their dissatisfaction; and one temptation to a separation, that they may prove to the North and the World that they can take care of themselves. They have the old Norman temper; the blood o the Cavalier predominates over that of the Puritan in the southern States, and they would rather see their territory desolated with fire and sword than yield a single point of honor — than to feel, much less to acknowledge, that they are dependent upon then North for protection against their own slaves. It is evident that the great body of the people at the South are attached to the Union, and will not readily yield it; but it is equally manifest that they have demagogues and traitors there, who desire to exercise dominion and lordship in a Southern Confederacy that shall extend from Virginia to Cuba; who, like some at the North would rather be Presidents and Secretaries by a division of the country, than to be out of office by its continued union.

If such men would boldly announce their design if they would form an anti-union party, and present this question of a revolution in our government and abandonment of our Constitution before the people, it would go far to dissipate the danger which threatens the Republic, and to quiet the perpetual agitations that are wearing out the strong bands that hold us together. For whatever allegations may be made that there is no danger of disunion; whatever cries of “peace, peace” may be reiterated by men who are doing what they can to nullify their own predictions; we may be assured there is treachery and danger all around us. The separation of large communions of Christians into Northern and Southern Churches was one of the first signs of evil omen to the country. But two of the leading Protestant denomination remained united. 1 I thank God that one of them is the Presbyterian Church, who are still one in form and fact, in heart and spirit from New York to New Orleans from the Atlantic to the Pacific, having long since met this question and settled it, finally and peacefully, upon Gospel principles. The constant agitation of the slavery question at the North, the untenable positions assumed, the fierce denunciations, the bitter revilings, the contumelious epithets which have been heaped upon our Southern brethren and all who would not consent to unite in a crusade against them, are producing their legitimate fruits of alienation, distrust, and hatred. If no positive proof exists of a conspiracy among certain hot-headed and ambitious demagogues at the South, to dismember the Union; that a Southern Confederacy may be formed which will make them all great men; yet, it is manifest that such a design has been formed, either with or without concert, among a class of abstractionists there, who are cooperating with the abolitionists, at the North to agitate and inflame the public mind, until a revolution is inevitable. The recent settlement of the vexed sectional questions, which was hailed by the country with confidence and hope, is sought to be disturbed not only by denunciation, but by a violent resistance of the laws enacted, and this, too, before sufficient time has elapsed to test them. Every kind of phantom is conjured up; visions of free men forcibly hurried into slavery; appalling pictures of cruelty and injustice are continually exciting the public mind; though but six captures are said to have been made under the fugitive slave law since its passage, and with two exceptions it is believed the alleged fugitives have been discharged or redeemed. If those who harrow up the sensibilities of innocent and ignorant persons by these dreadful imaginations, are sincere in the fears which they express that free persons of color are likely to be enslaved by the existing law, it shows how utterly fanaticism disregards fact; if they are opposed to the redelivery of fugitive slaves under the provision of the Constitution, the only honest position they can take is to declare at once and openly for a dissolution of the Union, or the subjugation of the South, by force of arms, to the North.

Before we leave this subject, we ought to notice the probable results of a dissolution of the Union. What its advantages have been, are matters of history and experience. Under God, the Union has made us a great and prosperous people. We have maintained peace at home and commanded respect abroad; our country has been the asylum of the oppressed of every land, the permanency of our institutions has been hailed as the last hope of freedom for the world. Every State has preserved its local sovereignty, while obedient to the general law. Every citizen has enjoyed the largest liberty consistent with the preservation of order, and dwelt under his “own vine and fig tree, with none to molest him or make him afraid.” We may say with the Psalmist, “the lines have fallen unto us in pleasant places, and God has given us a goodly heritage.”

On the other hand, all the disastrous consequences which must flow from disunion, are known only to Him who sees the end from the beginning. One thing is certain, no benefit can flow from a separation of the States, to that unhappy race about whom this whole controversy exists. No possible or conceivable advantage can arise to them if the Union were sundered tomorrow. Their condition at the North would not be improved, their state at the South would be rendered so far worse, as an increased severity of legislation might be required to prevent their escape to an enemy’s frontier. If a small increase of the number of those who escape to the North should be secured, which is doubtful, the question arises, and it is a grave and unsettled one, whether their residence with us is a substantial improvement of their condition. The forms of freedom are of little consequence to him who is made by color and caste a “hewer of wood and a drawer of water.” That the colored race are capable of elevation I have always maintained — just as capable as the white, if they can be made to possess the same advantage; but I am fully persuaded that colonization can alone secure those advantages and give to the African that which alone makes personal freedom and free institutions valuable. In any view of the subject, the agitations and divisions of a country on the question of slavery, and the revolution which may result from them, are of no conceivable consequence to those about whose interest the controversy exists. A more unprofitable and inconsequential abstraction was never before made to disturb the peace, and hazard the existence of a great Empire.

With reference to the positive evils of a revolution, it is the opinion of the most profound statesmen in the country, that a division of the Union must result in a perpetual war between the two sections. This agrees with all the facts of History, and the conclusions of the most profound observation upon human nature. Peace would be impossible under these circumstances. A line of fire would mark the boundary between the free and slave States, from the Atlantic to the Mississippi to the Pacific. The blackened roof trees of all human habitations, for miles on either side of this accursed line, would demonstrate the bitterness of a conflict between men of the same blood, and verify the declaration of Scripture that “the contentions of brethren are like the bars of a castle.” Across the entire continent the boundaries of the two governments would be marked by conflagration, rapine and violence. Armed plunderers, with whom war would be the excuse for murder and robbery, would make a desert of the country adjacent on either side, which would soon be known over the whole world by two names. ACELDAMA and GOLGOTHA, a field of blood — a place of skulls. There are no visionaries so wild as those who dream that this vast Empire can be disunited peacefully, or that peace can ever be maintained between the North and the South, under separate governments, with all the old memories, the bitter prejudices, the unavoidable rivalries, the unceasing disputes of jurisdiction, with the mouth of the Mississippi in one territory and its sources in the other, and with the ominous slave question embittered a thousand-fold by the dismemberment of the country. If, in this unnatural contest, the North should prevail over the South, it would be making a desert of the territory from the Potomac to the Gulf of Mexico, and by the destruction of both the races who now occupy it; a victory barren of glory — the jest of tyrants, and the scorn of the world.

But the spirit of disunion, once evoked, may extend its malign influences until, the supposition, having accomplished the ruin of the South, the states at the North should divide and set up for itself, and like the petty governments, or rather anarchies, of South America, command neither respect abroad nor obedience at home.

The beginnings of strife are like the letting out of waters, and to this miserable conclusion at last, these unhappy divisions may bring us. It is an old adage, that those whom God would destroy he first makes mad; and it would seem that nothing short of judicial blindness can lead into the further agitation of a question fraught with ruin to our beloved country, and to the hopes of political freedom over the entire globe. The dismemberment of this country will be the death-blow of its prosperity. Our rights will be no more regarded abroad or our laws at home, for our strength will be exhausted in our domestic wars; property both at the North and South, will immediately and decidedly depreciate in value; all confidence in the stability of grave of the American Constitution. Worst of all , this disastrous event will have been brought about by no foreign war, by no struggle with the civil or religious despotisms of the world; by no honorable resistance to foreign interference; but by the madness of men ready to sacrifice to one idea, and that an impracticable one, to one principle, and that a false one the legacy of Freedom and Union which we hold from our fathers, and which we are bound to transmit to our children every consideration of patriotism by every obligation of religion; and failing to do which, both earth and Heaven will cry out against us, as false to the trust committed to us by our noble ancestry; false to our allegiance and our oaths; false to our children and posterity ; false to our religion and to God, who has committed to our keeping the ark of civil and religious liberty, for the benefit of our race, to be held as a sacred deposit for the world. The plea of sympathy with the colored race, in view of their degraded condition, however suitable such sympathy may be, and demanded by Him who hath made of one blood all nations and races, to dwell together on the face of the earth, will never avail to justify an agitation which is useless to them and ruinous to us. A man who should expose a whole community to destruction, under the plea of delivering one of its members from servitude, or who should fire his neighbor’s dwelling for the same purpose, at the risk of a conflagration which must consume both master and slave, and even expose his own house and his own children to a miserable death, could hardly be counted a philanthropist, or find a justification of his conduct in any abstract question of human rights. I would that I had a voice to penetrate every habitation in this great Empire, to reach every ear from ocean to ocean, from Maine to Florida — to entreat my countrymen to pause from a controversy from which there will soon be no retreat, and of which, if protracted, there can be but one issue — the dissolution of the Union and the ruin of the Republic. By their duty to God and the Government, I would implore them to the obedient to the laws; by their regard for their children, by their respect for the interests of our common humanity, I would beseech them to take care of the Commonwealth, than which there is no higher law for the Christian citizen. I would appeal to the North and the South, by their common ancestry, by the august memories of the revolutionary struggle, by the bones of their fathers which lie mingled together at Yorktown and Saratoga, at Trenton and Charlestown, by the farewell counsels of the immortal Washington, to lay aside their animosities and to remember that they are brethren. I would remind them that the Union has given us the blessings which we enjoy — that under its Flag our victories have been won; our borders extended; our wealth and population increased; our ships respected in every port of every sea, until our national progress has excited the admiration or aroused the envy, of all the Nations and Potentates of the earth. I would warn them of that abyss of ruin which fanaticism and treason are opening beneath them; into which they would plunge our present fortunes and our future hopes,. I would beseech them to stand by the Union to obey the laws, to frown upon agitation, in this crisis of our beloved country. I would admonish them that failing to do this, failing to sustain the free institutions, and to regard the mutual compacts which we received from our fathers, we may expect as a consequence the curses of posterity, the contempt of the world, and the judgments of God. May the Ruler of nations avert from us these impending calamities. May the Holy Trinity, in whom our fathers trusted, gibe us, a s a people, the spirit of wisdom and understanding and of sound mine. May we hereafter on occasions like the present have a new motive of thanksgiving and praise in the proofs of the peaceful settlement of all sectional controversies — in the fact that the Ship of State, long tossed by tempests and threatened with destruction by conflicting and angry elements, is at last sailing in a calms sea, with a law-abiding crew. AND THE FLAG OF THE UNION NAILED TO HER MASTS.



1 The Protestant Episcopal and the Presbyterian.

Wentworth Cheswell Documents

Wentworth Cheswell (sometimes Chiswell or Cheswill), from New Hampshire, held some position in local government for half a century, holding a position every year from 1768 until 1817. Below are documents from the WallBuilders library signed by Cheswell during the twelve years he served as Justice of the Peace.

Wentworth Cheswell Document from 1812

Wentworth Cheswell Document from 1813

Wentworth Cheswell Document from 1814

Wentworth Cheswell Document from 1815

Wentworth Cheswell Document from 1816