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I've used several excerpts from this book already, but this one has particular interest. In it, Abdy presses William Ellery Channing for his views on racism in the U.S., and it appears that he had hardly thought about it at all, thought of abolitionists as wild fanatics, and was woefully misinformed.
There is good reason to believe that this uncomfortable conversation led directly to Channing's first sermon on slavery, which was discussed throughout the nation, and was followed with a book. Abdy says that some mutual friends told that that was exactly what happened. Abdy says he doesn't think so, since he almost exclusively spoke of northern racism, not of slavery. But it seems quite possible that the conversation started Channing thinking about the abuses of "Africo Americans" (the phrase Abdy consistently uses), and he just could not bring himself to go so far as to say they should be treated like everyone else (a statement that could have led to physical violence in the streets of Boston). But he felt the need to say something, so he protested the worst abuse, namely slavery.
When Harriet Martineau speaks of Channing in her Retrospect of Western Travel (vol 2, pages 117-128 of Haskell House (NY) reprint of 1969), much of what she has to say is in reaction to the very piece of text presented here. For one thing, she says "Immediately after Mr. Abdy's departure, Dr. Channing took measures to inform himself of the real state of the case of the blacks; and, within the next month, preached a thorough-going abolition sermon. He laid so firm a grasp on the fundamental principles of the case as to satisfy the far-sighted and practised abolitionists themselves who were among his audience. The subject was never again out of his mind...".
Martineau had enough contact with Channing to think of him as an "intimate friend" (p117), and she knew him around this period, so it seems as safe a conclusion as most historical statements can be, that this was a very important conversation in the life of W.E. Channing.
An article has been written on it: Harwood, Thomas F. "Prejudice and Antislavery: The Colloquy between William Ellery Channing and Edward Strutt Abdy, 1834." American Quarterly 18 (1966): 697-700, though I haven't yet read it.
The reason for Abdy's singling out Channing was probably that, as Harriet Martineau said "Dr. Channing is, of all the public characters of the United States, the one in whom the English feel the most interests". If this is an exaggeration (from an intellectual English Unitarian), I expect it has some resemblance to the truth.
I am working on an edition of this work, along the lines of Donald Smalley's 1949 edition of Frances Trollope's Domestic Manners of the Americans; that is, with an extensive introduction to put it in context, notes, and an index. I would appreciate any expressions of interest in this project, and particularly any leads to relevant facts, letters, archives, people with whom Abdy is known to have surviving correspondence, etc. It has been difficult, so far, to find out much about Mr. Abdy. The fact that he had mutual friends with Channing (including the abolitionist Unitarian minister, Samuel J. May) suggests possibilities.
The passage comes from volume 3 of Abdy's Journal..., pages 117-140.
After some common-place observations, which the ceremony of introduction drew on, I stated, in allusion to something in the letter I had bought with me, that I had, during my residence in America, felt deeply interested in the condition of a large portion of the community, who appeared to be condemned, from no fault or crime on their part, to a state of degradation, of which no one who has never been out of Europe, could form an adequate concept.
I referred, among other instances, to the separation at meals between the two races. The Doctor asserted, in reply, that the feeling, which induced the white man to reject his colored brother from his table, was the same with that which excluded the servant from his master's society; and that the prejudice, which the feudal lord entertained against his self, was analogous to the antipathy of which 1 had given an example. To this I objected, that the distinction, of which I spoke, was that of color not of rank: that the qualification, required for admittance to equality, might be obtained by the domestic, or his descendants, but was out of the reach of the Africo-American, till the Ethiopian was enabled to change his skin; and that I could not admit the analogy, without admitting that the persons, to whom it was applied, were to remain and be treated as servants, the very thing against which I was contending:-the end I had in view being to classify men according to their character and condition, and not to confound the learned with the illiterate, or the wealthy with the indigent;--an arrangement that would be sure to mortify one party and embarrass the other. As for the serf, he had none of those political rights which the free black possessed:-he had the advantages neither of property nor of education. He was not excluded from social intercourse with freemen of the same class, and was subject to no further disabilities than were to be found in most communities during their progress to refinement. He was not marked as an object of insult and contempt, wherever he went-he was as much a man as his lord--he was not an outcast--a Pariah.
There were other prejudices in the world, I was told, equally painful to their objects, and equally deserving of our attention. The answer was that they were neither permanent nor general--that they were neither so odious to those who suffered from them, nor so disgraceful to those who cherished them that few would defend, and none were afraid to condemn them, and that little improvement of the human mind could be looked for, while a superstition so degrading was permitted to weaken its powers and sully its attainments.
I was assured, that all those colored persons, who had come under the notice of the Doctor, were men of indifferent character; that the whole race were remarkable for want of sympathy with one another's misfortunes: and that, according to the evidence of a correspondent in Philadelphia, the generality of those of African descent in that city, were degraded to the lowest state.
To the first assertion I could merely object, that the experience of one man ought not to settle a question, involving the character and condition of millions; and that a comprehensive conclusion could not be drawn from a few limited cases. To the second, I replied, that all I had ever heard upon the subject from men who differed widely upon other points, concurred in ascribing qualities directly the reverse of those imputed by him, and that a contrary opinion was so prevalent as to throw suspicion on the free blacks, as assistants or accessaries in almost every case of escape from slavery. As for the testimony of the Philadelphian, little credit is due to a man, who deposes to facts that may be proved to be false by official documents, to be ignorant of which, is to be guilty of injustice towards those he condemns.
The Doctor stated, that he entertained no prejudice himself, being willing to sit at the same table with any one, and having remonstrated with the driver of a stage for not admitting his colored servant into his coach.
I was at a loss how to express myself upon a general subject before a person, who thus, as he had frequently done before, applied my observations to his own conduct. I contented myself with assuring him, that I should not have entered so fully into the subject, if he had not said that he was exempt from the prejudice in question*; though I could not
but think, that a circumstance he had previously, mentioned, would have afforded the driver a recriminatory plea, if not a justification. The Doctor had acknowledged to me that his black and his white servants were in the habit of eating at separate tables. The driver might have fairly answered" I do no more in my coach, than you do in your kitchen. I wish to please my passengers, you your servants. I cannot live without white passengers you can live just as well as you now do with black servants."* The Doctor must have deceived himself here, or forgotten what he said to Mrs. Child, when he pronounced his judgment of her work on the Africo-Americans. He agreed, he told her, with her sentiments on slavery, but he disapproved of what she had written about equal rights. Such a concession, he thought, would lead to amalgamation-an event which he was surprised she should view with no abhorrence. Dr. Beecher, of Cincinnati, made a similar observation to me. "Would you," said he, "have us sully the pure blood we have received from our English ancestors, by such alliances as a closer intimacy with the other race would produce?"
A hint was then given that there were different races of men, with various degrees of intellect, according to the discoveries of phrenology *. I ob-
served that this circumstance, if correctly stated, entitled the inferior race to greater indulgence, and called for increased efforts to supply the deficiency; that the correspondence between the material structure, and the mental operations, was ascribed to the influence of the latter over the former; and would, consequently, lead to an inference directly the reverse of that implied ;-that no one's reception in general society depended on the quantity or the quality of his brain;--and that the proscription, against which I protested, was directed exclusively against the complexion. To an observation that none but the uneducated classes were infected with this antipathy, I replied by quoting the literary productions of the country, the sermons and speeches publicly delivered by its most eminent men, and what I had myself witnessed.* "We undoubtedly feel ourselves to be all of one race; and this is well: we trace ourselves up to one pair, and feel the same blood flowing in our veins. But do we understand our spiritual brotherhood? Do we feel ourselves to be derived from one Heavenly Parent, in whose image we are all made, and whose perfection we may constantly approach? Do we feel that there is one divine life in our own and in all souls? This seems to me the only true bond of man to man. Here is a tie more sacred, more enduring, than all the ties of this earth. Is it felt? and do we in consequence truly honour one another?"-Dr. Channing's Discourses.
My remarks were declared to be erroneous or irrelevant. There was no reason, it was added, to suppose that any pain or humiliation was inflicted by these national customs *. He had never seen any
indication of the kind in his own house. He denied that antipathy was the cause, and asserted that it was the effect of slavery. I qualified what I had said upon this subject by referring to that well-known operation of the mind by which a reciprocal action takes place between two ideas, and that which was prior in time becomes posterior in influence. I may perhaps be excused for offering further explanation of my meaning, that the opinion, if false, may be corrected. We all know that habits are continued and extended by the feelings they have created, and how much difficulty is experienced in subduing affections long after the motives that induced them have ceased. The negro intellect stands lower in the estimation of a Virginian, than it did in that of Las Casas, or whoever it was that first recommended the employment of African labor. This, in one sense, is the result of slavery, while in another and in a much stronger sense, it upholds it*. The Mahometans enslave the Christians, because they* "We have spoken of the inferiority and worthlessness of that dominion over others which has been coveted so greedily in all ages. We should rejoice could we convey some just idea of its moral turpitude . . . . . . No outrage, no injury can equal that which is perpetrated by him who would break down and subjugate the human mind; who would rob men of self-reverence; who would bring them to stand more in awe of outward authority, than of reason and conscience in their own souls; who would make himself a standard and law for his race; and shape, by force or terror, the free spirits of others after his own judgement and will."
-Dr. Channing on Napoleon Bonaparte.
despise them; and the debasement to which they reduce them, confirms their contempt. When the people of the same nation, as the Africans, make slaves of one another, the latter are better treated, and no season against their enfranchisement and elevation exists in any disdain that is felt for their minds, or in any apprehension of an intermixture with their masters. I insisted upon this distinction, because I feel convinced that if there were no prejudice in the northern States, there could be no slavery in the southern, while their union continues. Hence I observed to the Doctor, that the Indians, who had never, or very rarely, been treated as slaves, were suffering under the same sort of contempt as the blacks; that in those States where slavery, had been abolished, the prejudice was so much more intense than where it still existed, that the planters themselves complain of it when they bring their slaves with them to the north.* Negroes were once not only thought inferior to us, but excluded from the rights of humanity. Fuller, in his "Holy State," while drawing a picture of a religious sailor, says: "In the taking of a prize he most prizeth the men's lives whom he takes; though some of them may chance to be negroes or savages; and it is the custom of some to throw them overboard. But our captain counts the image of God nevertheless his image, cut in ebony as if done in ivory."
If, said I, a man is despised not for his crimes, but for his own or his father's misfortunes, such injustice ought not to go unpunished or unexposed. The Doctor thought the best way to combat the prejudice was to elevate its object. This method conceived was impracticable, as the rejection of moral distinctions was the very evil complained of. No impression, I was told, could be made by entreaty or remonstrance on habits so long formed; and that, therefore, it must be left to time and the better conduct of the aggrieved, to convert contumely into respect, and obtain those rights which are now denied.
I could not see how the white man's mind was to be enlightened from without, when no corrective was applied within*, I thought it neither just nor judicious to wait till jealousy was subdued by the presence of the very attentions and accomplishments it dreaded. I alluded to a statement just made, that the poorer classes of whites had been much offended with the abolitionists for their civility to the colored people, and the pains they took to educate their children. A few minutes after, the conversation turned on the difficulty that was felt in
procuring work for the blacks, with whom the whites refused to labor. This was a fact, that the Doctor, with all his knowledge of the race, had never heard of before. "why," he asked, "should we not encourage them by dealing with them for what we want?" "That," I replied, "would be adding fuel to the flame. It has just been said that the whites are much displeased with the kindness shewn them -how will they feel when their bread is thus taken from them by the very people they are jealous of? They want no favor or preference. All they claim is a fair trial; and that the evidence of color may not be suffered to outweigh those testimonies from character and conduct, which decide the merits of other men. Society owes them respect in proportion to the services they render it."* "The energy which is to carry forward the intellect of a people, belongs to private individuals, who devote themselves to lonely thought, who worship truth, who originate the view demanded by their age, who help us to throw off the yoke of established prejudices," &c.
-Dr. Channing on Napoleon.
"Among these will be ranked, perhaps on the highest throne, the moral and religious reformer, who truly merits that name; who rises above his times; who is moved by a holy impulse to assail vicious establishments sustained by fierce passions and inveterate prejudices."
-Dr. Channing on Milton.
I mentioned that I should probably publish an account of what I had seen of the colored race in America, as, now that our colonial system had been changed, the subject would be interesting to many in England. The Doctor observed, that he, for one, had not the slightest objection that Europe should be minutely acquainted with the condition of the United States, if the account were just and fair. He had just before remarked, that it would be as well if the zealous friends of the African race would bestow some of their care upon those whom difference of rank subjects to exclusion and mortification. I made no answer: I could not apply the charge to myself without being guilty of discourtesy by imputing it. A suggestion was then made that rather surprised me. The Doctor thought that if some great genius were to appear among the colored people, the reputation he would obtain might be extended to his brethren, and their lot be ameliorated through the admiration and sympathy he would excite for himself and his race. It seemed hard indeed that the destiny of nearly three millions of human beings should be contingent on the appearance of a miracle; and the redemption of a whole nation be made to wait for the Avatar of "a faultless monster."
The Doctor informed me he had just heard that what he had predicted had occurred in our colonies --that the transition from forced to free labor was likely to throw many persons out of employment, and that freedom would thus be an injury instead of a benefit to a large portion of its objects. I replied, that the event alluded to, if it should take place, would confirm what the abolitionists had asserted, and the planters denied; since it would shew that the labor of slaves was more costly than that of free men, and that the same quantity of work could be done with fewer hands under the stimulus of wages; that the evil, if it was one, would find its own remedy, as the surplus number would soon be provided for out of that increase of capital which the compensation money, as well as a more profitable mode of agriculture, will create. The difficulty, however, that was anticipated has no existence; for the planters complain that the apprentices demand too high wages-a proof that labor is not redundant;---and are absolutely importing European workmen,--a proof that they wish it were so.
In the course of our discussion, the Doctor declared it, as the result of all his reflections on the matter, to be his firm conviction, that the best, and only way to assist the colored people, (I am obliged to repeat this odious expression,) would be to educate them in separate schools--in other words, to destroy the distinction by continuing it; and that the abolitionists had injured their cause by their imprudence. It was hardly worth while to answer, that no reform, religious or political, had ever been carried on by the "meek and gentle": that the violence complained of was the result, and not the occasion, of the opposition the cause had met with ; and that it would be unjust to punish the client for the faults of his advocate*. This view of the subject, indeed,
is hardly reconcileable with the natural order of events; which, in questions that concern national changes, usually run in the following train: violent attack on existing practices-persecution--sympathy with the sufferer--reaction in public opinion--reformation. As error never gains firm footing in the human mind, unconnected with the imagination or the affections, it is hardly fair to expect that truth shall prevail without borrowing the weapons of her enemy. To treat men as philosophers, in order to teach them philosophy, is to be no philosopher one's self.* "Men of natural softness and timidity, of a sincere but effeminate virtue, will be apt to look on these bolder, hardier spirits as violent, perturbed, and uncharitable; and the charge will not be wholly groundless. But that deep feeling of evils, which is necessary to effectual conflict with them, and which marks God's most powerful messengers to mankind, cannot breathe itself in soft and tender accents. The deeply moved soul will speak strongly, and ought to speak strongly, so as to move and shake nations."-Dr. Channing on Milton.
When I was told that the prejudice was invincible, and that no effort, therefore, should be made to subdue it, I could not admit either the premises or the conclusion, unless it were demonstrated that truth and reason had lost their influence on the national mind; and that it was the result, not the motive, of human actions, that ought to determine the line of our conduct, and regulate the conscience*. If Luther and Calvin, I argued, had thus reasoned, the world might still have been groaning under the yoke of spiritual oppression. The Doctor said it was a hardship to be deprived of work by the refusal of mechanics to associate with men of a different complexion. This reluctance, I begged leave to say, was encouraged and supported by a similar refusal, on the part of the wealthier portions of society, to admit, under any circumstances whatever, the
class excluded to a participation of the courtesies and refinements they enjoyed themselves. The carpenter, or blacksmith, was not more aggrieved than the clergyman, or the physician; while the former might see in the ignorance of his brother workman an excuse, which might be supposed to be wanting in the other case. It was not the mere privation of a privilege, but the utter hopelessness of ever attaining it, that was felt as a grievance. It was the condemnation to a state of inferiority and contumely that was so galling; it was the unnatural association in the white man's mind between an indelible mark that Divine wisdom had impressed on the skin, and the character of the wearer, that constituted the wrong complained of;-- a wrong that nothing could ever compensate or soften, an injustice that must necessarily expose the son of Africa to oppression and opprobrium, and shut him out from the enjoyment of those rights, which the declaration of his country's independence had solemnly promised to assure to all within its bosom.* "It is an important branch of the minister's duty, to bring home the general principles of duty to the individual mind; to turn it upon itself; to rouse it to a resolute impartial survey of its own responsibilities and ill-deserts. And is not energy needed to break through the barriers of pride and self love, and to place the individual before a tribunal in his own breast, as solemn and as searching as that which awaits him at the last day?"
-Dr. Channing's Discourses.
The Doctor alleged as a proof of his regard for the swarthy part of his fellow-citizens, that the "African schools" of Boston had originated with him-a manifestation of kindness little in accordance with a wish to abolish distinctions which it is calculated to perpetuate*. As contributors to the common prosperity,
these people have a right to share in the common fund; to be partakers of the national justice, not recipients of the national charity; to be treated as citizens, not as aliens. Why should the schoolmaster make a distinction unknown to the tax-gatherer? Why should there be common duties and separate privileges for the great mass of the population, living under the same government, speaking the same language, and professing the same religion? In every other case, and in every other country, moral qualities, or their presumed signs, are the land-marks between the various ranks,--while from the cradle to the grave, the class in question find their physical peculiarities operating against them as a presumptive proof of demerit, and a verdict of guilty to the good and the bad alike. "How can they be our friends," they ask, "why select the most susceptible periods of life, to impress on the minds of both races, a feeling of hostility, and estrangement, incompatible with benevolent and Christian affections? What cordiality could there ever be between orthodoxy and heresy, if their respective adherents were studiously separated in the cradle--the college-the convivial assembly-the council room ---and the cemetery? " This line of argument I could not of course take up in the presence of Dr. Channing, though, perhaps, it would be as well for him to remember that the Unitarians were persecuted because they would not change their creed while the negro is persecuted because he cannot change his complexion.* A large majority of citizens, at a public meeting at Salem, (Massachusetts,) lately resolved, "that the school committee be instructed to provide a school in some convenient place for the instruction of colored children, belonging to the town; and to remove said children, now in the public schools, to said school." In the cities, where this class of people are more numerous, the schools they attend, are distinct from the rest. Where, from reasons of economy, a different arrangement prevails, it seems that additional expense is to be incurred, with the view of gratifying the abominable jealousies of the white people. It is easy to see both the motives and the effects of this public announcement. It encourages the evil-disposed by the example it gives; and points out the intended victim of their brutality, by driving deeper in the brand that marks him. The "higher orders" are guiltless of the slaughter;--they merely put up the game.
The most striking feature in what passed, during this interview, was the attempt of a philosopher, to find in the extent and intensity of a prejudice a reason for its continuance,--to confound the subject of superstition with its victim, (as if the best way to cure Cotton Mather of witch-finding would have been to teach the old women of Salem divinity, or as if a monomaniac could be restored to reason by placing the object of his illusion in a new position,) and to leave the task of correction not to the conscience of the proud man, but the conduct of him whom he scorns for not having the "wedding garment " he wears himself. " I should be sorry," said the reverend Doctor, " to say any thing that may lessen the sympathy you feel for the blacks." I assured him that I did not feel for them, because they differed from me in complexion, but because they resembled me in mind. As one branch of the human family, they are entitled to my sympathy, as much as any other. The humblest of them is one of those "little ones," to offend whom, is to offend the great Father of all. The conversation concluded with an observation, from the other side, that prejudices and follies existed in every country, and that this was one of the consequences of the existing state of society :-a truism I was so little inclined to controvert, that it had formed the ground-work of all that I had been saying.
As for the inequalities which prevail in the world, whatever grievances may attend them fall indiscriminately on all, as the wealth, and rank, and vanity, and ambition, in which they originate, change hands. One evil can never sanction another; nor is it a valid objection to the reformation of an abuse, that it cannot embrace all. I had spoken with considerable warmth and earnestness; but, I trust, without forgetting what was due from a stranger to a distinguished man in his own house. I thought it right, however, to apologize for the excess which had appeared on my part, both of zeal and of loquacity. I should probably have exhibited less of the former, if there had been more of the latter on the other side. But the Doctor throughout was extremely cold and reserved, and seemed to weigh every word before he gave it utterance ;--urging me to continue, as if to take time for reflection. Having declined to partake of the refreshment which was politely offered me, I took my leave of this celebrated writer.
I have related the details of what passed on this occasion with the same object that would lead an Eastern traveller to record the opinions of a high-caste Brahmin. What an humiliating contrast does the acknowledged cradle of civilization present with its boasted asylum! How great is the difference between the convert to Unitarianism in the east, and its champion in the west! --between Rammohun Roy and Dr. Channing ! The Shaster could not take away moral courage from the one, nor the Bible give it to the other. In the darkest ages of cruelty and ignorance, the cause of truth and justice has found its friends and martyrs. But who, in the whole compass of American literature, has stood up against the brutal superstition of his country? What will posterity say, when they see, among the most distinguished of her writers, not one solitary instance of a man who was willing to sacrifice the paltry ambition of the hour to principle ;-not one who could rise above the infected atmosphere around him ;--not one who had mind enough to perceive the gross idolatry of his contemporaries, or heart enough to denounce it?--while the few who are destined to take the lead as moral teachers, have been reproved for their boldness by those who have usurped the throne, and are repelled from a nearer approach by the very persons, who ought to have honored them with their applause, and aided them with their co-operation.
A few days after my visit to Dr. Channing, I was informed by one of his friends, who had just seen him, that he had called me an "enthusiast ":- an appellation that implies the same difference between his feelings and mine, that the word "heretic" does between his opinions and those of his orthodox opponents.
Before I left America, the Doctor preached a sermon against slavery,--in consequence, I was told, of what had passed between us. But that could not be the case, as I had said nothing to him on the subject; having purposely separated the question as it bears on the South and on the North and confining my observations to the prejudice that prevails in the latter,--a point, I think, of greater importance, because I believe the other hangs upon it. The distinction was well drawn by a Haytian, while conversing with an American, from whom I had the anecdote. " If I were a white," said he, "I would submit to treatment from the Algerines or Tripolitans, from which neither William of England, not Louis Philip of France, would be exempted: but I would rather die than suffer the infliction of chains on account of my skin." The first case he viewed as a chance of war-a right of conquest: the other an outrage to humanity--a personal insult.
An incident that occurred some years back in Kentucky, shews how completely the very existence of American slavery depends upon the prejudice against color,-diverting the sense of justice, and the sympathy due to human suffering, from their natural channels. "A laudable indignation", says the Emporium of Louisville, "was universally manifested among our citizens, and even among our blacks, on Saturday last, by the exposure of a woman and two children for sale by public auction, at the front of our principal tavern. This woman and children were as white as any of our citizens: indeed, we scarcely ever saw a child with a fairer or clearer complexion than the younger one. That they were not slaves, we do not pretend to say; but there was something so revolting to the feelings at the sight of this woman and children exposed to sale by their young master,--it excited such an association of ideas in the mind of every one,-it brought to recollection so forcibly the morality of slave-holding States,.--that not a person was found to make an offer for them."
The account of this interview, which I had read from my journal to some of the Doctor's friends, I was particularly requested not to publish; as they thought it might injure our cause, by exciting a feeling of hostility to it among those who are attached to him. This consideration, if it be valid, affords an additional reason why I should publish it; as it shews what are the chief obstacles that obstruct a fair and impartial inquiry into this momentous subject. If friendship is to stand in the way of justice, and humanity wait upon personal feeling,--let it be known, that we may not over-rate our forces. I replied, that I never would admit such a principle: we must look to Truth, and not to Socrates. The greater part of my manuscript was seen by several of my American friends, and they approved of it. Any alterations it may have undergone, were made with a view to soften what might be thought harsh. I mention this to prove honesty of intention. I insist on it no further. If I am to lose their respect, be it so. I shall at least retain my own. If I have done any man injustice, the same motive which led to an unintentional wrong, will prompt a free and an open reparation. You can support this site at no cost if you make an Amazon purchase using this link to get to Amazon: Thanks