Jacksonian Miscellanies, #63

June 30, 1998

Abdy: 'A More Thorough Humbug Never Existed' (African Colonization and other Observations)

Copyright by the editor, Hal Morris, Secaucus, NJ 1997. Permission is granted to copy, but not for sale, nor in multiple copies, except by permission.

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The following is the 6th extract from Abdy, Edward S., Journal of a Residence and Tour in the United States (3 vols, London, 1835).

This issue's title comes from Abdy's comments on the efforts to colonize African-Americans "back" to Africa, drawing on a conversation on the subject with the black New York minister, Peter Williams, who showed him letters about the hardships and many deaths due to the "unhealthy climate" there.

Mr. Abdy comments on American touchiness about manners, and never calling a woman a woman, but always a lady, about the foolishness, as he sees it, of labor strikes against mechanism (or strikes for any reason). He actually praises the behavior of Americans on July 4 as not too riotous.

At the end, he describes a pleasant excursion on the Morris Canal, starting in Newark, a town of "less than two thousand inhabitants", and five churches.

to the political forms, that prevail in the two countries, and were adopted to soften equality in the one, and restore it in the other. An American has a way of pronouncing some of our common words, that is not to be met with in England, except among those, who have not had the advantage of a good education. Should he, when in London, find himself thus classified, be ought not to complain of the injustice. Does he not himself apply a much more inequitable test to his fellow-citizens in matters of infinitely greater importance? Surely pronunciation affords a much better criterion of refinement, than color of moral worth. I was often reminded that allowance should be made for a new country that has not yet acquired the graces and elegances of older communities; but never did I hear any thing like regret expressed (except by the abolitionists, who are stigmatised as unworthy citizens for lamenting it,) that European morality was not as much aimed at as European fashions. It was amusing to see the same persons tremblingly alive to any imputation of wanting that nice polish, which is supposed to distinguish the best society in England, yet totally insensible to the charge of as vile a narrow-mindedness as ever disgraced the lowest. The "Patricians" will readily listen to you when you describe the usages of our fashionables: but, if you state that a man's complexion is no bar to admittance anywhere, your remark is received with a sneer of indifference or a smile of scornful incredulity. To be quizzed and caracatured for vulgarity, is intolerable to the same people, who seem not to know, or not to care, that you despise them for their prejudices. Hint to them that they eat pease with a knife, and they are highly enraged: tell them that their conduct to the "niggers" is inhuman and unmanly, and they laugh in your face. They look to Europe for "mint and cummin," and leave her "the weightier matters of the law." Purity of language is more valued than generosity of sentiment or nobleness of behavior. --To speak with more grammatical accuracy than an Englishman, is matter of general boasting; but to be his inferior in the kind and benevolent feelings he exhibits to every member of the human family, neither excites reflection nor inspires shame.

Concession to the journeymen carpenters soon produced its natural fruits. The rope-makers at Brooklyn followed their example and "struck," because an improved method had been introduced into the trade for saving time and labor. If there be one spot on the globe more than another where this hostility to machinery is mischievous and foolish, it is a new country, which is obliged to borrow foreign funds for many of its undertakings; and which is sacrificing its resources and risking its tranquillity by forcing the production of dear goods. Yet these men have the same claim to protection as the sugar grower and the iron-master. They have as strong a perception of their real interests, and their arguments are equally valid. Machinery is not less injurious as a competitor, whether at Brooklyn or at Birmingham; and the laborer, who would dictate to the capitalist, is as reasonable as the capitalist who would dictate to the community.

The manner in which these misguided men proceeded was highly creditable to their sense of order and probity. Having committed to the flames the products of the hated machine, after they had paraded it through the town, they agreed to pay the full cost of the hemp, from which the yarn had been manufactured, and to spin a like quantity, in time to enable Mr. Lewis (the owner of the machine) to fulfil his engagement for its delivery. They accordingly paid 260 dollars and eighty-two cents, and spun an equal quantity within the time agreed upon, of a quality, as they stated in an advertisement, far superior to any that could be manufactured by machinery, "as is well-known," they say, "to any practical rope-maker and seaman." If so, why object to a machine that cannot work so well as themselves?*

The 4th of July, the great anniversary of the national independence, passed off in the most orderly and peaceable manner. Though the city was crowded from an early hour, and the streets were thronged with all sorts of people from every quarter till midnight and still later, there was no disturbance or confusion. I saw neither quarrelling nor drunkenness, nor anything offensive to public decorum. The different processions of the trades and various associations were well arranged, and contributed to the liveliness of the scene. The festivities were said to be less joyous and imposing than usual; and each successive anniversary to be attended with diminished marks of triumph and congratulation. Many families are accustomed to go out of town to avoid the bustle and noise; and the return of the day-seems likely in time to sink, like our "glorious revolution" into a mere ceremony, to be observed as an occasion for relaxation or an excuse for conviviality. I had the honor of dining with the corporation. There were between three and four hundred persons at table. The usual number of toasts (thirteen) was given, and most of them received with applause and acclamation. Nothing transpired that the most sensitive Englishman could have taken umbrage at. There were few speeches, and those very short and pithy. What was said was appropriate and well-timed- with sufficient heartiness to satisfy the claims of patriotism, and not a particle of rancor or exultation to offend the jealousies or prejudices of other nations. The company were requested by the Mayor, who presided, to sit down to table without grace, as no clergyman was present to officiate.

Ministers of the gospel are seldom seen at public places in America, and are little anxious to put themselves forward on festive and convivial occasions. Like the fair sex, they are the more respected as they are less conspicuous, and obtain by reserve and retirement the esteem, which would be refused to ostentation and obtrusiveness.

While the daily and weekly papers, the magazines and reviews, were insulting the colored people and chaunting the praises of Liberia, I called again upon Mr. P. Williams, in search of information about this extraordinary settlement. He had just received a letter, which be read to me, from one of the colonists, formerly a member of his church, and had, not long before, had some conversation with one of the emigrants about to return to Africa. The account given by both of the colony was anything but favorable; the former had lost his wife and one child, and had another in a dangerous state of illness; the latter owned that not one convert to Christianity had been made among the native tribes. The climate, it seems, is very unhealthy, and particularly fatal to those who go to that country from the Northern States of the Union. The Governor exercises the despotic power, with which he is entrusted. in such a manner as to produce a general feeling, of discontent and division among his subjects; many of whom are in a very destitute and deplorable condition. Such was the purport of what had been communicated to Mr. Williams. Both his informants expressed themselves in terms of great caution and circumspection; the one, lest his letter should be intercepted; the other, under an excusable apprehension lest any thing he might say against the colony should be recorded against him on his return. Upon the whole, the board of managers were now placed in an awkward dilemma; if they were acquainted with these facts, they had been guilty of the grossest deception in concealing them; if they were ignorant of their existence, they were not fit to be entrusted with the management of an institution, to the care of which the lives and fortunes of thousands were entrusted. Not contented, however, with thus suppressing what it was their duty to make known, they had pompously announced to the "reading public" that the Lieutenant-Governor and the High Sheriff of Liberia had arrived at New York; that they had left the people of that prosperous colony "contented and happy"; and that they were on their way to Washington, "to confer with the Board of Managers on the propriety of allowing the colonists to choose all their officers, and to make such alterations in their constitution as are considered necessary." This wish for change in a "contented and happy" people reminds one of the Italian, who was well and wanted to be better: Liberia may borrow his epitaph.

Of all the "wonderful wonders that the world ever wondered at," this African colonization-scheme is certainly the most astonishing. A more thorough humbug never existed. It is fortunate that many of those, who would most suffer by becoming its dupes, detected its malignant designs from the commencement of its operations; and the planters of the south will not much longer be permitted to gull the philanthropists of the north. "This society," (says the Convention of the free people of color, in their address to their brethren of the United States, 1833,) "has most grossly vilified our character as a people: it has taken much pains to make us abhorrent to the public, and then pleads the necessity of sending us into banishment. A greater outrage could not be committed against an unoffending people ; and the hypocrisy, that has marked its movements, deserves our universal censure. We have been cajoled into measures by the most false representations of the advantages to be derived from our emigration to Africa. No argument has been adduced other than that based on prejudice; --and that prejudice founded on our difference of color. If shades of difference in complexion are to operate to make men the sport of powerful caprice, the colonists, may again compelled to migrate to the land of their fathers in America." Appended to this address is a report from the committee on African colonization. It commences thus: "The committee, consisting of one delegate from each State, for the purpose of reporting the views and sentiments of the people of color in their respective States, relative to the principles and operations of the American Colonization Society, respectfully beg leave to report, that all the people of the States they represent (eight in number) feel themselves aggrieved by its very existence, and speak their sentiments of disapprobation in language not to be misunderstood. The only exception to the rule is of those who are receiving an education, or preparing themselves for some profession, at the expense of the society."

Every friend of humanity will rejoice to hear that this proscribed race have shewn that they are undeserving of ill-treatment, by resolving to submit to it no longer, and, in the words of one of their bitterest enemies, are "disposed to assert the prerogatives of human nature, without distinction of rank or Color." American Quarterly Review, Sept. 1828.

The patience of these people, under a series of provocations and injuries, compared with which our Catholic disabilities and our Jewish disqualifications were mere trifles, is above all praise. What, indeed, must be the rancorous hostility--the contemptuous suspicion, --the scorn and hatred that are universally felt against those, who, though differing in complexion from us, are equally formed in God's own image, when a minister of the gospel of love and humility could dare to express himself before a crowded congregation in such terms as the following! "No station of honor or authority is accessible. These disabilities are the result of complexion; and, till the Ethiopian can change his skin, they admit of no remedy. Who would employ a black to minister at the bed of sickness? Who would entrust to him the maintenance of his rights, and the protection of his interests in a court of justice? --or what congregation would consent to receive him as a herald of salvation, whose lips should announce to them the will of heaven, and whose bands should break to them the bread of life? Whose feelings would not revolt, not only at seeing an individual of this class seated in the chair of state, presiding in our courts of Justice, or occupying the hall of legislation, but even at seeing him elevated to the lowest and most trivial office in the community? In all these respects the blacks, if not by the provisions of our constitution and laws, at least by public sentiment and feeling, and by sentiment and feeling too, which if groundless and reprehensible, admit of no correction are a proscribed and hopeless race But not only are none of the fields of generous enterprise and honorable ambition open to them, they are made to see and feel their debasement in all the every-day intercourse of life. No matter what their characters may be, however amiable and excellent their spirit, and however blameless and exemplary their conduct, they are treated as an inferior and despised portion of the species. No one, unless himself sunk so low as to be an outcast from those of his own colur, ever associates with them on terms of equality." Extract from a sermon preached by Professor Hough, before the Vermont Colonization Society.

As this discourse was published at their request, it is to be supposed that they agree with him in his declaration, that this "proscribed" people are "a degraded unenlightened, unprincipled, and abandoned race;" and that they are "equally worthless and noxious in themselves, and a nuisance to the public." The arrogance of this language is lost in its impiety; the preacher has insulted his Maker in insulting the work of his hands. Whatever he may assert to the contrary, the diabolical prejudice which he thus, to the disgrace of his religion and his country, encourages and endeavours to justify, does admit of correction ; and will be corrected, if there be justice in Heaven or shame on earth ; if there be such a thing as public opinion in Europe or public conscience in America. A fire has been kindled in the hearts of the good and the generous that will never be extinguished till the wickedness, which feeds it is utterly consumed.

July 8th. I went with two English friends, early in the morning, to Jersey city, on the opposite bank of the North river, and thence to Newark, where we joined Mr. Colden, on his visit to inspect the Morris canal. We had previously spent two or three very agreeable evenings with Mr. Colden, who was living at Jersey city with his wife, a remarkably lady-like and amiable woman. This place, though it contains much less than two thousand inhabitants, has five places of worship; two Episcopal, two Methodist, and one Catholic--all, with their respective ministers, supported by voluntary contributions. As the law neither protects nor prohibits opinions, profession and conviction are more closely allied than where it is less impartial. Not but what there is room for a closer approximation. The nature of religious freedom. will be better understood, when every man is allowed to choose for himself, without incurring the censure of those who mistake uncharitableness for zeal, and confound the gratification of spiritual pride with a regard for their neighbor's spiritual welfare.

The scenery along the banks of the canal was very picturesque and beautiful, and the inclined plane, one of twenty-three to be found along its whole course of 101 miles, delighted us with the simplicity and ease with which the cradle, that received our boat, was hauled up its declivity. Our little excursion was cut short, as my companions were obliged to return, at Paterson, where the beauty of the country is said to increase. We got back to New York by another road to Hoboken, in the dusk of the evening. The boy, who drove us, seemed unwilling to change the route, and be was declared to be insolent and unaccommodating. I had sat on the box with him, and had found him neither the one nor the other. One charge against him was, that he had driven too slowly: --the truth is, I had requested he would not distress his horses, as the weather was hot, and the poor creatures seemed to suffer very much. So little indeed had I found him disobliging, that when he went, of his own accord, in search of Mr. Colden's servant, at Newark, I could not help telling him I was sorry to give him so much trouble. I should not, however, have undertaken his defence, if his alleged misconduct had not been imputed to my indiscretion in encouraging his familiarity--a charge which the accused party best shews to be undeserved by his silence. I had found the lad both chatty and communicative; and was pleased with the questions he asked me about the inclined plane, and the rail-road we had come by on our way back. I was anxious to see the extent of knowledge and intelligence to be met with in American boys of his class ; and I felt unwilling to hurt his feelings by checking his loquacity, or assuming a degree of reserve which might remind him of the difference between our conditions in life. I should have acted on the same principle in England, and in any other country, as the best security against disrespect or incivility. It is a great mistake in many who visit the United States, to confound republican tendencies with the infant state of society, which prevails in many parts of the Union; and to ascribe to political equality what, in fact, arises from the peculiar relation in which labor stands to capital. The master is often more indebted to the servant, than the servant to the master; --a corresponding state of manners is the result; and the same adaptation to circumstances which makes an European master expect submission from his servant, makes the American help expect indulgence from his employer. After all, servitude carries with it everywhere something humiliating. It is surely no great crime to smooth its asperities with a little courtesy and kindness*.

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