Debate on Abolition and Disunion (1847)

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[Here is a slightly “pre-anarchist” Stephen Pearl Andrews and a Wendell Phillips eager not to be taken as a “no-government man, debating the question of disunion in the context of abolitionism.]


By Wendell Phillips.

[A Reply to appear in our next Number.]

THE youngest of us can remember the time when it was thought an offence next door to treason, to calculate the value of the Union. Of late years, there are many who not only calculate its value, but openly declare that they would rather part with it than sanction the evil it upholds. Foremost among these are the Abolitionists. Disunion has been by no means a rare word in our history. Disappointed ambition has often, for a moment, longed for separate confederacies, in which there would be more Presidential chairs than one. Parties, in the hour of defeat, have talked of revolution, when revolution was their only chance of success. And sometimes even a State, thwarted in a favorite purpose, has seemed ready to shoot madly from its sphere. But the Abolitionists are the only men who have ever, calmly, soberly and from mature conviction, proclaimed at the outset their purpose to seek the Dissolution of this American Union: and this from no bitterness of personal or party disappointment, but solely at the bidding of principle, and from a sense of duty.

Their opponents, unable to deny the purity and disinterestedness of their motives, have sought to make the people insensible .to the weight of their arguments, by representing them as opposed to all government. “These men,” say they, “hate the Union, because they would do away with all law. They are no-government men, and non-resistants.”

The logic which infers that because a man thinks the Federal Government bad, he must necessarily think all governments so, has at least the merit and the charm of novelty. There is a spice of arrogance perceptible in concluding the Constitution of these United States to be so perfect, that any one who dislikes it could never be satisfied with any form of government whatever!

The Abolitionist is not opposed to government, but to this government, based upon and acting for slavery. We proceed to point out some of the reasons which compel him to oppose it.
“Instinct is a great matter,” says Shakspeare: and it is remarkable how instinctively every anti-slavery movement, for the last fifty years, has found itself arrayed against the Union; and how instinctively, also, every such movement has been branded by the South as treasonable. Both tendencies were right. The Abolitionist finds no readier foe, no greater obstacle, than the Union: and the lover of the Constitution of 1789 knows that Slavery and the Constitution will die together. All anti-slavery men have felt this—most of them without being fully conscious of it. But the merit and glory of the American Anti-Slavery Society have been, that they have plainly seen, and as frankly confessed, that their warfare is with the AMERICAN UNION, and that they expect success only in its downfall.

We seek the dissolution of the Union, because the inhabitants of a country must either support or oppose the Government. They cannot be neutral. Their silence is sanction. But this Government we cannot support, because it requires of its citizens things which no honest man can do; and because its chief result has been, to give greater stability, strength and extension to the slave system.

Every legislative, executive and judicial officer, both of the state and national Governments, before entering on the performance of his duties, takes an oath or affirmation to support the Constitution of the United States. Every voter, who sends his fellow citizen into office as his representative, knowing beforehand that the taking of this oath is the first duty his agent will have to perform, does, by his vote, request and authorize him so to do. He, therefore, by voting, impliedly engages to support the Constitution. What one does by another, he does himself. Now the Constitution contains the following clauses :

ART. I, SECT. 2. ” Representatives and direct taxes shall be apportioned among the several States, which may be included within this Union, according to their respective numbers ; which shall be determined by adding to the whole number of free persons, including those bound to service for a term of years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other persons.”

ART. 1, SECT. 8. Congress shall have power * * * to suppress insurrections.”

ART. 4, SECT. 2. ” 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.”

ART. 4, SECT. 4. “The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a republican form of government; and shall protect each of them against invasion; and, on application of the legislature, or of the executive, (when the legislature cannot be convened,) against domestic violence.”

The first of these clauses, relating to representation, gives to every inhabitant of Carolina, provided he is rich enough to hold five slaves, equal weight in the government with four inhabitants of Massachusetts—and accordingly confers on a slave-holding community additional political power for every slave held among them; thus tempting them to continue to uphold the system.

Its results have been, in the language of John Quincy Adams, to enable “a knot of slaveholders to give the law and prescribe the policy of the country;” so that ” since 1830, slavery, slave-holding, slave-breeding and slave-trading, have formed the whole foundation of the policy of the Federal Government.” The second and the last articles, relating to insurrection and domestic violence—perfectly innocent themselves, yet, being made with the fact directly in view that slavery exists among us—do deliberately pledge the whole national force against the unhappy slave, if he imitate our fathers and resist oppression ; thus making us partners in the guilt of sustaining slavery. The third is a promise, on the part of the whole North, to return fugitive slaves to their masters; a deed which God’s law expressly condemns, and which every noble feeling of our nature repudiates with loathing and contempt.

These are the clauses which the abolitionist who votes or takes office, engages to uphold. While he considers slave-holding to be sin, he still rewards the master with additional political power for every additional slave that he can purchase. Thinking slave-holding to be sin, he pledges to the master the aid of the whole army and navy of the nation to reduce his slave again to chains, should he at any time succeed a moment, in throwing them off. Thinking slave-holding to be sin, he goes on, year after year, appointing by his vote judges and marshals to aid in hunting up the fugitives, and seeing that they are delivered back to those who claim them ! How beautifully consistent are his principles and his promises! Surely he ought not to lift a finger in support of the Constitution of the United States.

But for the fear of Northern bayonets, pledged for the master’s protection, the slaves would long since have wrung a peaceful emancipation from the fears of their oppressors, or sealed their own redemption in blood. But for the countenance of the Northern church, the Southern conscience would long since have awakened to its guilt; and the impious sight of a church made up of slave-holders, and called the church of Christ, been scouted from the world.

But for the weight of Northern influence, Louisiana had never been bought, and then there never would have been a domestic slave trade; Texas had never been stolen, nor the Floridas usurped; nor any means of ease found for the serpent which, girdled with the fire of the world’s scorn, was dying by its own sting.

The North supplies the ranks of the army. Witness the muster-rolls of the Revolution, when Massachusetts furnished more troops than the six Southern states together: witness Randolph’s taunt, that all the South meant to do was to furnish officers: witness South Carolina’s excuse in 1779, that her sons dared not quit home for the war, and leave their slaves behind: witness the South-Western press just now, dissuading from too free volunteering for the Texan war, for fear the slaves should seize the opportunity, and rise. Yet it was National troops, thus drafted, which put down the insurrection of Nat. Turner: National troops secured the Floridas, thus snatching from the over-stung sufferers of Alabama, Georgia and the Carolinas, their only refuge from our Vulture’s talons: National troops cover Texas, without which, Mr. Secretary Upshur told the world, the institution of Slavery would not live there ten years.

To our shame, the South confesses that to us she “is indebted for a permanent safeguard against insurrection: that the dissolution of the Union is the dissolution of Slavery: that a million of slaves are ready to rise at the first tap of the drum—and, but for us, where is she to look for protection?” We are no advocates for supporting the slave in insurrection; but we loathe still more the supporting of the master in his tyranny. “Hands off,” is the Anglo-Saxon motto. Let both parties have fair play; and then if the master, in his fear of blood, grants the slave his freedom, go home and blush to think how many years your guilty partnership has encouraged him to refuse this justice.

We seek the dissolution of the Union, because the temptation of Southern support is too much for Northern virtue, either in church or state. Hence the ambition of the great sects hastens to strike hands with the slave- trader, and trims its creed to suit the market : while Northern statesmanship is but a competition in baseness—a bidding for the town’s poor—a trial of which party will be content with least for betraying their constituents.

We curse the Constitution of 1789, because it is a cunning device to evade the laws of God; a policy of insurance which the North gave her Southern sisters when they started on this mutual slave voyage. For Nature compels to freedom by making slavery burn up the soil on which she rests; and the slave grows burdensome as free labor presses on his heels. But the Union says to Virginia, “Not so; when your virgin soil is exhausted, raise men instead of tobacco, and we will protect the domestic market by that highest of all tariffs—the penalty of death against the foreign trader.” But for this compromise, the whole Atlantic border would now be free.
God and Nature have made the master tremble lest his property in man take feet and vanish. The Union gives him her marshals and courts, her judges and laws, her army and navy, to quiet his fears, and bring back the fugitive, if found where the National Vulture flaps his wings.
Of this Constitution it is enough for us to know that, beneath it, the slaves have trebled in numbers, and slave-holders have monopolized the offices and dictated the policy of the Government; prostituting the strength of the nation to the support of Slavery here and elsewhere; trampling on the rights of the Free States, and making the courts of the country their tools. We have the highest authority for “judging a tree by its fruits.” “The preservation, propagation, and perpetuation of Slavery,” says Adams, “is the VITAL and ANIMATING SPIRIT of the National Government.” Our connection with the Slave States has kept the colored race among us under the ban of a cruel and wasting prejudice.

Beneath the Stars and Stripes, the slave pirate finds shelter from the vengeance of Christendom. And this very hour, the Slave Power, trampling under foot the spirit of the age and the remonstrances of the. Free States, and scorning to observe even the forms of the Constitution, is using the whole force of the Nation for the acquisition of more territory, in order to blast it anew with the curse of Slavery, from which the higher civilization of another race and another faith had just redeemed it. Let no one say, these things need not have been, and we may reasonably hope for better times to come. Not so. We shall never launch on another era with a more glowing love of liberty and justice than that which pervaded the Nation’s mind at the close of the Revolution. We shall never try the experiment of letting Freedom, with fettered feet, run a race with Slavery, furnished with wings, under better auspices than while the spirit of Wythe and Jefferson made Virginia tremble for her right to crush and kill; while Jay covered New York with his angel wings, and Samuel Adams thundered in Faneuil Hall. All that political man could do, chained to the compromises of 1789, has been done: and where is the statesman vain enough to ask our confidence in trying over again the experiment, in which Jay and King, Ellsworth and Strong, Martin and Wythe, Adams and Ames, have failed?

No matter what we may think of the character or of the provisions of the Constitution ; there are always beneath the parchment, elements of political strength and activity which overrule statutes; and these elements have been found such, in a trial of fifty years, that if you run your eye over the list of Northern statesmen, you will find them all either members of a defeated party or traitors ;—men who won success only by submitting to a baptism of treason—treason to their lineage, to their own principles, and to their birth-place ; who have lived only by speaking at Washington what they feared to say at home, and by whispering at home what they dared not meet at Washington—and whose political death has dated from the day when they were equally well known in both places. Witness Shaw of Lanesboro’, Webster of Marshfield, Van Buren of Kinderhook, and Everett of Cambridge.

We abjure the Union, because we will not sail with Slavery at the helm ;—because our bayonets shall never shield the hearth, wife, or child, of any man, in order that he may safely trade in human flesh ;—because our hands shall never thrust back into hell the trembling fugitive, whom our example and the sight of our happiness has tempted to run from it;—and finally, because we believe that if the old men of 1776 could now lift up their heads and see the ruin they have wrought, they would curse us as bastards, if we did not do them the justice to believe they would have hated such a result, and if we did not do our utmost, in mere justice to them, to blot from history the memory of this, their only, but, alas! their momentous folly or crime.


By S. P. Andrews.

THE relations of the Constitution of the United States to American Slavery, and the duty of American citizens as respects the Union, are daily becoming subjects of more intense interest. The last number of this Magazine has an article from the able pen of Wendell Phillips, displaying the argument, or perhaps, more properly speaking, stating the positions, (as little more could be done in the space occupied,) of the advocates of disunion. Mr. Phillips assumes, indeed, that all Abolitionists are such—which, in view of the facts, might be objected to as in bad taste. This assumption, however, is unimportant. The argument deserves attention.

It may well be doubted whether the dissolution of the Union, if it were effected, would prove adequate, as an instrumentality, to the overthrow of Slavery. This point need not, however, be discussed. Assuming that it would be effective, the writer of this would still object to the dissolution of the Union as an expedient, on the ground that it is more difficult, in his apprehension, to be attained, than the end itself for which the dissolution is demanded. To one holding this position, it is inconclusive to prove that if the Union were dissolved, Slavery would be abolished.

The question, however, still remains open, whether there be not something more cogent than expediency, pressing on the conscience, and demanding of honest men to dissolve their connection with the existing Government. Mr. Phillips, and those who think with him, believe that there is. They think they find it in the four clauses quoted from the Constitution of the United States, in his article.

ART. 1, SECT. 2. “Representatives and direct taxes shall be apportioned among the several States, which may be included within this Union, according to their respective numbers; which shall be determined by adding to the whole number of free persons, including those bound to service for a term of years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other persons.”

ART. 1, SECT. 8. “Congress shall have power * * * to suppress insurrections.

ART. 4, SECT. 2. “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.

ART. 4, SECT. 4. “The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a republican form of government; and shall protect each of them against invasion ; and, on application of the legislature, or of the executive, (when the legislature cannot be convened,) against domestic violence.”

“The first of these clauses,” says Mr. Phillips, “relating to representation, gives to every inhabitant of Carolina, provided he is rich enough to hold five slaves, equal weight in the government with four inhabitants of Massachusetts—and accordingly confers on a slaveholding community additional political power for every slave held among them; thus tempting them to continue to uphold the system.”

This is denied on the following grounds:—The clause gives to the slave-holder nothing. It does not deal with an “inhabitant of South Carolina,” in any form whatsoever. It deals with States, as such, and apportions their representation in the Congress of the United States. If an unequal portion of political power is given to one inhabitant within the State of South Carolina over another inhabitant within the same, it is not the Constitution of the United States which makes the gift, but the laws of the state. If it be said that the Constitution was formed in view of the existence of the fact that the laws of South Carolina were thus unequal, it is replied, So was the American Anti-Slavery Society. It is a great mistake not to distinguish between the recognition of a fact and the approbation or sanction of a principle. It is possible to couple, in the same document, the notice and admission of a fact with the repudiation of the principle to which the fact owes its being, and even with measures devised expressly to invalidate the fact, or to put an end to its existence. The illustration is found equally in the Constitution of the United States and in that of the Anti-Slavery Society. It is admitted, nevertheless, that the Constitution of the United States has been so administered as to foster the growth of Slavery; and it must be admitted that it is within the range of possibility, that the Constitution of the Anti-Slavery Society, even, should have been so administered likewise, and yet that such abuse would not have changed the essential character of the document.

In Massachusetts, the political power is vested, by the laws of the state, in the males, to the exclusion of females. Should this provision be found to work out some great political or social wrong, we should hardly charge such wrong upon the Constitution of the United States, on the ground that the Constitution was adopted in the face of the fact, while the fact owed its existence to a distinct system of laws, over which the Constitution had not, and could not obtain, the control.

The Constitution, so far from “conferring on a slave-holding community additional political power for every, slave held among them,” as affirmed by Mr. Phillips, does precisely the contrary. It withholds a portion of that to which they would be otherwise entitled. Nothing is, clearer than this. The community of South Carolina would immediately obtain an additional representation upon the floor of the House of Representatives, in the Congress of the United States, by abolishing slavery among themselves. This fact settles the question. The individual slave-holder would, it is true, lose power thereby; but it would be power for the possession of which he is indebted to State laws, and not to the Constitution. The aggregate of the Slave States would at once become entitled to nineteen additional representatives, by abolition. The basis of representation, in the Free States, is the whole number of inhabitants of all classes. In the Slave States, it is the whole of one class and three-fifths only of another class; that is, less than the whole. Hence the Constitution imposes a restriction upon the Slave States, and tenders a premium on emancipation. It is contrary to the federative plan of the Constitution, to intermeddle with the internal laws and administration of the several states, or the personal condition of their inhabitants. But in favor of liberty, and against slavery, it has ventured to do so. Can a criminal collusion with slavery be deduced from such a hostile interference? Is the animus of such a transaction for or against the institution of slavery?

The error of reasoning upon this subject consists in confounding the quantity of power vested in a state with the degree of efficiency resulting from the mode of its application. The Constitution assigns the quantity. The state laws determine the mode of its exercise. The Constitution, hostile to slavery, assigns to Carolina less power, in proportion to population, than to Massachusetts. Carolina, friendly to the despotism of the few, vests this smaller quota, thus gained, in the hands of a single class, whose action is swayed by the impulse of a single combined interest; and by this concentration of the power, makes it tenfold more efficient in its operation than the larger quota of Massachusetts, which is distributed among all the conflicting interests of the state. Hence the result is an inequality in the working of the governmental machinery of the Union, not chargeable on the Constitution, but on the vicious laws and internal political order of the state of South Carolina. The argument, so far as it is good at all, bears not against this special compact with the Slave States, but against any compact whatever—against the possibility of any political federation on the part of real republics, with others whose internal political order is that of an oligarchy or a despotism. In this point of view, it has a degree of force, and is entitled to candid consideration in its own place. It is then an argument, however, based upon grounds entirely distinct from those involved in the question we are now considering, namely, the anti-slavery or pro-slavery phase of the Constitution itself. It is an argument likewise which, carried out to its logical conclusions, results in the no-government theory, which Mr. Phillips stops short of reaching.

That provision of the Constitution which curtails the amount of representation of the Slave States on account of slavery, is itself a departure from the democratic principle, which demands that all the population of each state should be equally reckoned. It is excusable only on the ground that the departure is made in favor of freedom, and against slavery; because the action relates to communities which refuse to apply the democratic principle within their own borders. If the Constitution had made no provision at all on the subject, the evils of the federation would have been greater than they are; while the opponents of that compact would have had a difficulty in finding fault with the terms, apparently so equitable, whatever they might have said of the essential evils of any compact or political union whatsoever between the parties. If, on the other hand, the Constitution had based representation exclusively upon free population, the departure from the democratic principle would have been carried still farther, while the recognition of the fact of slavery would have remained the same as now; and it may well be doubted whether much would have been gained to the Free States, in relative influence, since it has never been the want of numbers at the North, but of disposition and of concentration of will, which has prevented them from resisting the action of the slave-holding power.

It is a mistake to suppose that the Constitution gives a specific power to suppress insurrections. This power is inherent in all governments. What it does, is to empower the Congress “to call out the militia (in order) to suppress insurrections; ” i. e. in order to exercise its inherent powers as a government.

The power to protect a state against domestic violence might be made a most valuable one in behalf of liberty. John Q. Adams demonstrated that the war power was adequate to abolish slavery in all the states, even in case of a foreign war. How much more so in case of a domestic war, caused by the oppressions of slavery itself. What more potent means of protecting a state against domestic violence, than a redress of grievances. It is no answer to say that such a measure was not contemplated. Neither was a railroad nor a magnetic telegraph contemplated as a “post-road.” It is a better way of exercising the power given, and of attaining the same end, just as a Congress of Nations may be better than the battle-field for settling national disputes. The Constitution is not an iron shoe, nor a straight jacket, to compress the mind of the country to the growth of the seventeenth century. The Government of the United States cannot interfere with the troubles of a state, until called upon. When thus invoked, she does not act under the control of the state, but under her own control, with plenary powers. She must of necessity be entitled to use the same kind of means to effect the end, that the state government itself might use; and nobody doubts that a state might resort to abolition, to protect herself against domestic violence.

The clause relating to “persons held to labor and service” is only applicable to slaves, so long as a sentiment favorable to slavery guides the interpretation. 1. Because it is not, in strictness, sufficient language to describe a slave, and would not be held to be so in the courts of any slave-holding state, in matters of private contract. It is of the essence of slavery, that the slave be regarded as a thing, and not as a “sentient being.” All language having reference to contract, obligation, or debt, has no application, therefore, as respects slaves. We have had abundant evidence that courts desirous of doing so, may stretch this language over the case of slavery. What is here asserted is, that there is nothing in the words to constrain a court to such an interpretation, if an opposite sentiment prevailed. On the contrary, such an interpretation can only consist with a liberal construction in favor of slavery. 2. Slaves are in law, things. In fact, they are human beings. Hence slavery is a legal fiction—and fictions of law are not to be extended beyond their settled limits. 3. It is a well settled canon of interpretation, that the construction of law shall be rigid against the restrictions of personal liberty, and liberal in favor of freedom. 4. To construe this clause in favor of slavery, makes it counter to the whole tenor of the instrument. To construe it otherwise, harmonizes the instrument with itself. 5. There is no proof that this clause was, as asserted by the Supreme Court in Prigg’s case, “one of the compromises of the Constitution.” It was introduced at the very heel of the session of the Convention, and adopted without debate, without being referred to any committee, without deliberation or contest, and was innocent on its face. 6. There is a strong presumption against its having been understood by the people as a compromise with slavery, at the time when the Constitution was adopted, arising from the fact that in none of the Northern State Conventions was it so much as alluded to, while the most strenuous exertions ‘were made to get the Constitution rejected, under the charge of a pro-slavery character. It was twenty years later, and after the watchful liberty-loving spirit of the people had been lulled to sleep, before a case occurs in the books of any application of this clause to slaves by the courts. Revive the love of liberty, and the construction will be reversed. The law of ’93 has no words applicable to slavery.

The Disunion argument commonly assumes three false postulates:

  1. That the Constitution is whatever the framers of it secretly intended that it should be.
  2. That the Constitution is whatever the Supreme Court of the United States may have decided it to be.
  3. That the Constitution is whatever those who have administered it have represented it to be.

The space to which this statement is confined will not admit an argument upon these points. Strike away these assumptions, and apply the ordinary and rightful canons of legal interpretation, and we hardly need a better aegis under which to rally the people of the whole country for the overthrow of slavery, than the American Constitution. If the writer of this believed otherwise, he, too, would be a disunionist; and he honors the brave men who, true to their convictions, assail the morbid idolatry of the masses for a Constitution which they, in too many cases, neither read nor understand.

Wendell Phillips. “Abolition Reasons for Disunion.” Young American’s Magazine of Self-Improvement. March 1847, 113-120.

Stephen Pearl Andrews. “Abolition Reasons against Disunion.” Young American’s Magazine of Self-Improvement. May 1847, 159-166.


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Independent scholar, translator and archivist.