Let Us Act
c. 1840 — Female Anti-Slavery Society, Boston MA
“Never,” said the speaker, “did I more feel the absence of suitable thoughts and words for any occasion in the cause, than I do now. I have no new thoughts, no new principles; and what can I say to the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society, to whom all the principles and the details of the cause are so familiar! While I was yet dead to this inspiring subject, and while I was yet in the ABC of the cause, they were in the field, arousing, animating, and cheering on the assault. They were looked upon with the utmost contempt; they were called ultraists, and fanatics, and every opprobrious name; they were declared to have transcended their proper limits, and to have retarded the progress of the cause. But even when pro-slavery was aroused to the greatest wrath, they were unmoved. Yes, my friends, your faithful entreaties and admonitions, your persevering labors, and your searching rebukes, went out against all opposing influences; and they were blessed in their course. They have done my soul good, and I bless the day I saw and heard them.
But a more perilous time came. A secret foe entered. A disguised wolf was in the fold. The Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society was not deceived by the fleece he assumed. In vain was the disguise. They distinctly recognized his howl; his attempted bleatings were in vain. They were enabled to strip off the wrapper in which he had hidden his claws and fangs. They then proved that the reputation of ‘discerners of spirits,’ which they had acquired, was well founded. I heard your voices at a distance, my dear friends, and
“My heart hath leaped to answer thine
And echo back thy words,
As leaps the warrior’s at the shrine
And flash of kindred swords!”
It is for this I came tonight — to tell you of my union with your labors — to uphold our common principles — to reverberate the watchwords which have cheered us onward.
I have not been accustomed to address meetings of this kind. It is not my vocation to make speeches, or to sting together brilliant sentences, or beautiful words. But my mission has been back among the people, amid the little sources of public sentiment; among the hills and the hamlets — amid the opposed, but the comparatively unsophisticated; and I have had no weapon but the gospel of truth in its simplicity. The friends will not expect any but simple language of me, in the exercise of my office of promulgating first principles — the old familiar principles, which are well-nigh worn out. Worn out! It is always profitable for us to refer to first principles. It is profitable to go back, for, by going back, we detect every deviation.
Where was our country sixty years ago! She sprung upon the arena of nations, armed in the glorious panoply of liberty. The principles we not advocate had omnipotent sway with her. They were quick and living; and when she hurled them across the Atlantic, the thrones of centuries trembled, monarchs blanched with fear.
But look back then years ago only, and where was our country! A hissing — a mockery — a reproach before those very nations whom her first advance had so terrified. I have heard of a traveller in Austria, who saw in the windows of Vienna, a print with the word America inscribed beneath it. It was a white man, scourging a colored woman. He said, too, that certain State criminals there, on being offered their choice of perpetual imprisonment, or transportation to America, preferred to be imprisoned, to the chance of what might befall them here, where men of a dark complexion are in danger of being reduced to domestic slavery — to a living and perpetual death.
That print did not belie our country, nor was the dread of the foreigners unfounded. She had, ten years ago, two and a half millions in the condition shadowed out by that print. She! who had declared as one of her first principles, that NO MAN should be deprived of his liberty without due process of law! She forgot her first principles, — and the world went on its round, and no one seemed aware of the fact that ono-sixth part of her whole population were sitting in the shadow of slavery — groaning in the fetters of the “freest nation on earth.” She was careful of her national honor, she thought — she was scrupulously careful as to money. It was her boast from old times, that fourpence worth of property could not and should not be unjustly taken away from one of her citizens. But who remembered her tow and a half millions — deprived of everything that makes existence valuable or honorable? She had poured out blood like water for liberty sixty years ago; but ten years ago, if there arose a murmur of resistance from her own enslaved children, it was adjudged worthy of death! What were her liberties? She had liberty to plunder! liberty to trample down the weak at will! Her sons were free. Yes! none so free: freebooters they were! Free to snatch the babe from the arms of its father, or mother — free to drag the husband and wife asunder! Free to scatter families to the four winds! Ah, the very mention of her liberties mocked the slave’s anguish, and was the death-knell of his hopes. And with all this, we boasted of our Christianity! We could sit down — could we not? — and weep over the infants whom famine or superstition consigned to the waters of the Ganges. But the 75,000 infants in the United States, annually swept down into the water of darkness and despair — who wept for them? We could shed tears over the East India widows, whose religion it was to ascend the funeral pile; but the widows of the United States — made widows by law — reduced to widowhood by system — and that system sanctioned by our religion — we had no tears for these. And we dared to call our religion Christianity! We dared to justify in religious convocations, the putting asunder of what God had joined! All this was going on. And the land was wrapped in silence. Perhaps, at distant intervals, one might hear a sign half drawn, over the necessity of the existence of such evils, but no one questioned that necessity; and the por afflicted people of color suffered on. We looked on them with contempt on account of the ignorance and degradation to which we ourselves had condemned them. We had blinded their mental eye; we had stopped up their mental ear; and we despised them for being deaf and blind. Oh! heathenism is preferable to such religion, for it is not so black with hypocrisy. Our poor neighbor was robbed in the highway, and did the robber leave him half-dead? No! he placed one iron heel upon his head and the other on his heart, and no one protested in the name of humanity against the deed. Did the priest and the Levite pass by on the other side? No: they came nigh unto the robber, and gave him the right hand of fellowship! and who was he — the robber of the unoffending traveller? He was the minister of Him who came to bind up the wounds of the broken-hearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and to open the prison-doors! One would have thought the whole country would have been filled with horror. But, no.
Why were we so indifferent? Why, as a lady once said to me, five-eighths of us were so busy glorifying in our own freedom — . . . and we thought we were indeed free. But when, under the authority of Jehovah, the Moses of America said, “Let the people go!” — when the sound reverberated from the Atlantic to the Rocky Mountains, and from Maine to Mexico, “let the people go, that they may serve him!” Then, those whose hearts beat with answering sympathy, those whose hearts were poured forth in unison with his who raised that cry — they found to what they freedom amounted. I need not tell this society what was its amount. You were free to be mobbed — free to be slandered and misrepresented to any amount — free to be driven from your own place of meeting by five thousand of the most respectable and gentlemanly of your friends, called together by public advertisement for the express purpose. Our country saw then, what their liberty amounted to: liberty to speak what slavery should dictate. Men were awakened, then, to a realizing sense of their freedom. Free were they? Yes, free to the tar-cauldron and the feather-bag! Free to have a bonfire made of their furniture before their own doors in the open street! Free to be whipped and imprisoned! Free to be shot down! A great freedom, indeed, was this! Who could have believed it? Ten years ago, I would have spurned the man who should have predicted it.
But it is well we figured it out. Well will it be if we have not found it out too late! The serpent slept in the same cradle with our infant liberty; but we thought our liberty was a Hercules, that would strangle the serpent; and suffered them to grow together, till our freedom had well-nigh expired in the tightning coils. Well is it for us to understand that, for our sins, we have suffered. We were not aware that the mere existence of slavery in any section of our land would endanger the liberties of the whole; well is it, then, that we have learned that we have demolished the corner-stone of our freedom, when we consented that man should be enslaved at all. All the great family of mankind are bound up in one bundle. Rights are the same for one and for all; and when we aim a blow at our neighbor’s rights, our own rights are by the same low destroyed. We are not distinct and independent; — one nerve runs through the whole great family of humanity. We cannot injure another, without bringing a curse upon our own souls. This philosophy shows us the surpassing benevolence to man of the divine injunction, “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” Why? He is part of ourselves. In loving him we see the only means of truly regarding ourselves; and if all loved thus, then this world would be all paradise: heaven would be begun on earth. Then the interests of one would be respected of all, and all interests would be united for the benefit of one. If the many refuse thus to feel and act for all, let the few go on; the more the better. At least let us who see the beauty of the injunction, “love our neighbor as ourselves,” press forward in obedience.
How great are the motives to such a course! Mere sympathy with the bondman will move to it. Can we look upon the wrongs of millions — can we see their perpetual flow of tears, and grief, and blood, and not feel our hearts drawn out in sympathy! — unless, indeed, they have become hardened to stone. While an emotion of sympathy is alive within us; ere yet the very spring of feeling becomes parched and dusty — before the sources of our moral being are defiled and dried up — let us act. Our own moral destruction is consequent upon our leaving slavery to go on. Its perfect work will be completed in ourselves. And not our own destruction alone. Our country, too, is ruined — our God is dethroned, and we become an idolatrous nation, bowing down to Mamon and to Moloch.
I would have every soul filled with sympathy, for its own sake; but I have no confidence in mere sympathy, or in numbers, for the final success of the anti-slavery cause. One might have expected that the atrocities of slavery, as already shown, would have aroused the whole land. They have done so. But many who acted from impulse, thought they at first did somewhat, at length grew weary and ceased to labor. Others, not knowing what the warfare would lead to, or what obstacles they were to encounter, have found in themselves more sympathy for the enemies than for the friends of the anti-slavery principles; and they, too, are gone. Why did ye pause I your march, — it is said to the abolitionists; and why are your faces turned back! It is because Achan is in the camp. The Babylonisn garment of hypocrisy covers him; he has hidden in our tents the shackles of sectarianism, and with the wedge of oppression he is driving us asunder; and if we rebuke him not, the Lord will strengthen our hands in the day of battle. The fire of truth must be kindled against him, and he must be consumed. Do not mistake me. Do not understand me as saying that all who are new organizationists must be consumed. It is the system that must be entirely annihilated. Some who are int its toil are dear to me. They will be saved as if by fire — but let the fire be kindled, and the chaff consumed. Truth shall do the work.
Let none complain because the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society is true to the commands of Jehovah. Your standard is just and high; I entreat you never to suffer it to be borne backward. Do not rely on temporal means, or an array of numbers It is Achan, who has the gold, and the silver, and the goodly vest. Not many rich, not many mighty, are called to such a conflict as ours. If they were with us, we should know that God was against us. God makes the things that in the eyes of man are but of small account. His most effectual instrumentalities; he works through means of such, that no flesh may glory I his presence. Many have said, “See how great we are, and how numerous — how abundant in resources, and how well spoken of!” But let us not despise the ram’s horn. Let us keep ourselves unspotted from the world. There is less need of discussion than we sometimes imagine, and more of action. We must aim to dislodge slavery from every place we visitn, till we see it driven from all its accustomed haunts in despair. Then, even in its last struggle, its convulsive throes will intimidate all but those who walk by faith, and not by sight; all but those who are willing to with stand the wild waters of opposition, and the oppressed — who choose to be reckoned with the Hebrews of America, and will have no lot or part with the Egyptians. For one, I feel it an honor to be so identified. I abhor the policy which shrinks from that course. I rejoice to bbe fully identified with the despised people of color. If they are despised, wo ought we their advocates to be. I tis a poor policy, for it is a wicked policy which would make two bands of us. We hear about retaining our influence by not being identified with them. But what was the example of our Saviour! The publicans and sinners were his associates — the poor and the despised.
Source: The National Anti-Slavery Standard, 19 November, 1840, p. 1.
Also: We Shall Be Heard: Women Speakers in America, eds. Patricia Scileppi Kennedy and Gloria Hartmann O’Shields (Dubuque: Kendall/Hunt), 1983, pp. 35-41.