In the gray twilight of a chill day of late November, forty years ago, a dear friend of mine, residing in Boston, made his appearance at the old farmhouse in East Haverhill. He had been deputed by the Abolitionists of the city, William L. Garrison, Samuel E. Sewall, and others, to inform me of my appointment as a delegate to the convention about to be held in Philadelphia for the formation of an American Anti-slavery Society, and to urge upon me the necessity of my attendance.
Few words of persuasion, however, were needed. I was unused to traveling, my life had been spent on a secluded farm; and the journey, mostly by stage-coach, at that time was really a formidable one. Moreover, the few Abolitionists were everywhere spoken against, their persons threatened, and in some instances a price set on their heads by Southern legislators. Pennsylvania was on the borders of slavery, and it needed small effort of imagination to picture to one's self the breaking up of the convention and maltreatment of its members. This latter consideration I do not think weighed much with me, altho I was better prepared for serious danger than for anything like personal indignity. I had read Governor Trumbull's description of the tarring and feathering of his hero MacFingal, when, after the application of the melted tar, the feather bed was ripped open and shaken over him, until
"Not Maia's son, with wings for ears,
Such plumes about his visage wears,
Nor Milton's six-winged angel gathers
Such superfluity of feathers;"
and I confess, I was quite unwilling to undergo a martyrdom which my best friends could scarcely refrain from laughing at. But a summons like that of Garrison's bugle-blast could scarcely be unheeded by one who, from birth and education, held fast the traditions of that earlier abolitionism which, under the lead of Benezet and Woolman,2 had effaced from the Society of Friends every vestige of slaveholding. I had thrown myself, with a young man's fervid enthusiasm, into a movement which commended itself to my reason and conscience, to my love of country and my sense of duty to God and my fellow-men. My first venture in authorship was the publication at my own expense, in the spring of 1833, of a pamphlet entitled "Justice and Expediency," on the moral and political evils of slavery, and the duty of emancipation. Under such circumstances I could not hesitate, but prepared at once for my journey. It was necessary that I should start on the morrow; and the intervening time, with a small allowance of sleep, was spent in providing for the care of the farm and homestead during my absence.
So the next morning I took the stage for Boston, stopping at the ancient hostelry known as the Eastern Stage Tavern; and on the day following, in company with William Lloyd Garrison, I left for New York. At that city we were joined by other delegates, among them David Thurston, a Congregational minister from Maine. On our way to Philadelphia we took, as a matter of necessary economy, a second-class conveyance, and found ourselves, in consequence, among rough and hilarious companions, whose language was more noteworthy for strength than refinement. . . .
On reaching Philadelphia, we at once betook ourselves to the humble dwelling on Fifth Street occupied by Evan Lewis, a plain, earnest man and lifelong Abolitionist, who had been largely interested in preparing the way for the convention. We found about forty members assembled in the parlors of our friend Lewis, and after some general conversation Lewis Tappan was asked to preside over an informal meeting preparatory to the opening of the convention. A handsome, intellectual-looking man, in the prime of life, responded to the invitation, and in a clear, well-modulated voice, the firm tones of which inspired hope and confidence, stated the objects of our preliminary council, and the purpose which had called us together, in earnest and well-chosen words. . . . Beriah Green, of the Oneida (New York) Institute, was chosen president, a fresh-faced, sandy-haired, rather common-looking man, but who had the reputation of an able and eloquent speaker. He had already made himself known to us as a resolute and self-sacrificing Abolitionist. Lewis Tappan and myself took our places at his side as secretaries, on the elevation at the west end of the hall.
Looking over the assembly, I noticed that it was mainly composed of comparatively young men, some in middle age, and a few beyond that period. They were nearly all plainly drest, with a view to comfort rather than elegance. Many of the faces turned toward me wore a look of expectancy and supprest enthusiasm. All had the earnestness which might be expected of men engaged in an enterprise beset with difficulty and perhaps with peril. The fine, intellectual head of Garrison, prematurely bald, was conspicuous. The sunny-faced young man at his side, in whom all the beatitudes seemed to find expression, was Samuel J. May,3 mingling in his veins the best blood of the Sewalls and Quincysa man so exceptionally pure and large-hearted, so genial, tender, and loving, that he could be faithful to truth and duty without making an enemy.
"The de'il wad look into his face,
And swear he couldna wrang him."
The committee on the declaration of principles, of which I was a member, held a long session discussing the proper scope and tenor of the document. But little progress being made, it was finally decided to entrust the matter to a subcommittee, consisting of William L. Garrison, S. J. May, and myself; and, after a brief consultation and comparison of each other's views' the drafting of the important paper was assigned to the former gentleman. We agreed to meet him at his lodgings in the house of a colored friend early the next morning. It was still dark when we climbed up to his room, and the lamp was still burning by the light of which be was writing the last sentence of the declaration. We read it carefully, made a few verbal changes, and submitted it to the large committee, who unanimously agreed to report it to the convention.
The paper was read to the convention by Dr. Atlee, chairman of the committee, and listened to with the profoundest interest. Commencing with a reference to the time, fifty-seven years before, when, in the same city of Philadelphia, our fathers announced to the world their Declaration of Independencebased on the self-evident truths of human equality and rightsand appealed to arms for its defense, it spoke of the new enterprise as one "without which that of our fathers is incomplete," and as transcending theirs in magnitude, solemnity, and probable results as much "as moral truth does physical force." It spoke of the difference of the two in the means and ends proposed, and of the trifling grievances of our fathers compared with the wrongs and sufferings of the slaves, which it forcibly characterized as unequaled by any others on the face of the earth. It claimed that the nation was bound to repent at once, to let the opprest go free, and to admit them to all the rights and privileges of others; because, it asserted, no man has a right to enslave or imbrute his brother; because liberty is inalienable; because there is no difference in principle between slaveholding and man-stealing, which the law brands as piracy; and because no length of bondage can invalidate man's claim to himself, or render slave laws anything but "an audacious usurpation."
It maintained that no compensation should be given to planters emancipating slaves, because that would be a surrender of fundamental principles. "Slavery is a crime, and is, therefore, not an article to be sold"; because slaveholders are not just proprietors of what they claim; because emancipation would destroy only nominal, not real, property; and because compensation, if given at all, should be given to the slaves.
It declared any "scheme of expatriation" to be "delusive, cruel, and dangerous." It fully recognized the right of each State to legislate exclusively on the subject of slavery within its limits, and conceded that Congress, under the present national compact, had no right to interfere, tho still contending that it had the power, and should exercise it, "to suppress the domestic slave-trade between the several States," and "to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia, and in those portions of our territory which the Constitution has placed under its exclusive jurisdiction."
After clearly and emphatically avowing the principles underlying the enterprise, and guarding with scrupulous care the rights of persons and states under the Constitution, in prosecuting it, the declaration closed with these eloquent words:
"We also maintain that there are at the present time the highest obligations resting upon the people of the free States to remove slavery by moral and political action, as prescribed in the Constitution of the United States. They are now living under a pledge of their tremendous physical force to fasten the galling fetters of tyranny upon the limbs of millions in the Southern States; they are liable to be called at any moment to suppress a general insurrection of the slaves; they authorize the slaveholder to vote on three-fifths of his slaves as property, and thus enable him to perpetuate his oppression; they support a standing army at the South for its protection; and they seize the slave who has escaped into their territories, and send him back to be tortured by an enraged master or a brutal driver. This relation to slavery is criminal and full of danger. It must be broken up.
"These are our views and principlesthese our designs and measures. With entire confidence in the overruling justice of God, we plant ourselves upon the Declaration of Independence and the truths of divine revelation as upon the everlasting rock.
"We shall organize anti-slavery societies, if possible, in every city, town, and village in our land.
"We shall send forth agents to lift up the voice of remonstrance, of warning, of entreaty and rebuke.
"We shall circulate unsparingly and extensively anti-slavery tracts and periodicals.
"We shall enlist the pulpit and the press in the cause of the suffering and the dumb.
"We shall aim at a purification of the churches from all participation in the guilt of slavery.
"We shall encourage the labor of freemen over that of the slaves, by giving a preference to their productions; and
"We shall spare no exertions nor means to bring the whole nation to speedy repentance." . . .
The reading of the paper was followed by a discussion which lasted several hours. During the discussion one of the spectators asked leave to say a few words. A beautiful and graceful woman, in the prime of life, with a face beneath her plain cap as finely intellectual as that of Madame Roland, offered some wise and valuable suggestions, in a clear, sweet voice, the charm of which I have never forgotten. It was Lucretia Mott,4 of Philadelphia. The president courteously thanked her, and encouraged her to take a part in the discussion. On the morning of the last day of our session the declaration, with its few verbal amendments, carefully engrossed on parchment, was brought before the convention. Samuel J. May rose to read it for the last time. His sweet, persuasive voice faltered with the intensity of his emotions as be repeated the solemn pledges of the concluding paragraphs. After a season of silence, David Thurston, of Maine, rose as his name was called by one of the secretaries, and affixt his name to the document. One after another passed up to the platform, signed, and retired in silence. All felt the deep responsibility of the occasion: the shadow and forecast of a lifelong struggle rested upon every countenance.
Our work as a convention was now done.
1 From Whittier's "Prose Works." By permission of, and arrangement with, the authorized publishers, Houghton, Mifflin Company. Copyright.
2 Benezet and Woolman were both Quakers, the former a Frenchman who came to America, wrote pamphlets against the slave trade, and died in Philadelphia in 1784; the latter an American who also wrote against slavery, but is best known for his "Journal," published after his death as edited by Whittier.
3 May was a prominent Abolitionist, born in Boston, a friend of Prudence Crandall, who was persecuted for opening her school in Connecticut to negro girls. May was afterward active in the "underground railway" movement, during which he was arrested, tho never tried.
4A noted Quaker preacher, active for abolition, and woman's suffrage, born in Nantucket in 1798, died in 1880.