Jacksonian Miscellanies, #91;
Nov. 30, 1999

The Princeton Review on Channing's Slavery

Copyright by the editor, Hal Morris, Hopatcong, NJ 2000.
Permission is granted to copy, but not for sale, nor in multiple copies.

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Back issues of Jacksonian Miscellanies are at http://www.EarlyRepublic.net/jmisc.

Re the previous issue, I received a note from Mark Lause, saying
"I just saw a mention of Sarah Whitman as a spiritualist correspondant of   Horace Greeley.  I think it was in J.M.Peebles' Seers of the Ages  (first published 1869 as Pastophora but many subsequent editions).  At the time, the name rang something of a bell   I'd seen her before in some context.
Peebles was interesting as a long-lived (1822-1922) link between the Transcendentalists, spiritualists and later occultists (particularly the Theosophists).  I've spent the last few weeks getting and reading his stuff. Much meaningless filler but some ocassional tidbits.
Actually, Notable American Women has a page and a half on Sarah Helen Power Whitman (1803-1879).  She belonged to a Rhode Island family that had been wealthy, but was ruined by the War of 1812, besides which her father after a brief captivity by the British, "elected to remain away from his family for a period of 19 years". She married a "wellborn Bostonian", a writer who helped he get published and introduced her to Boston intellectual society before dying in 1833 leaving no children.  She returned to Rhode Island and published many essays promoting the whole range of Transcendentalist ideas, and published some rather good poetry (according to Notable American Women.)

She was best known, however, as a literary defender of Edgar Allen Poe, and major source of biographical information about him ("by corresponding laboriously and generously with each aspiring Poe biographner").  She was actually engaged to Poe, after dedicating an "anonymous valentine poem" to him, and a "frantic literary courtship which placed much emphasis on an occult affinity", but Whitman's mother, and "solicitous friends" managed to head off the union.

The following is part of a review essay from the Biblical Reportory (or Princeton Review - see below), April 1836, 268-306.

As noted two issues back, there is good reason to believe that Edward Abdy's interview with William E. Channing provoked him to think long and hard about slavery (though not especially about northern racism), and to write a book criticizing slavery (as well as abolitionists).

This first portion of the review essay gives some sense of the tone of Channing's book, for example:

"[abolitionists] have sought to accomplish their object by a system of agitation; that is, by a system of affiliated societies gathered, and held together, and extended, by passionate eloquence. ...The abolitionists might have formed an association; but it should have been an elective one. Men of strong principles, judiciousness, sobriety, should have been carefully sought as members. ... Instead of this, the abolitionists sent forth their orators, some of them transported with fiery zeal, to sound the alarm against slavery through the land, to gather together young and old, pupils from schools, females hardly arrived at years of discretion, the ignorant, the excitable, the impetuous, and to organize these into associations for the battle against oppression. Very unhappily they preached their doctrine to the coloured people, and collected these into societies. To this mixed and excitable multitude, minute, heart-rending descriptions of slavery were given in the piercing tones of passion; and slaveholders were held up as monsters of cruelty and crime."
Such terribly "rational" preachments give some sense of what both religious enthusiasts like Louis Tappan and Theodore Weld, and Transcendentalists like Thoreau and Theodore Parker, were reacting against; not to mention the sad bit of misinformation, that the abolitionists "collected the 'coloured people' into societies, etc.".  The societies preceded the founding of the Liberator, and the patronage of their members helped keep Garrison out of bankrupcy!

The complete run of the Princeton Review -- at this time called the Biblical Repertory online as part of Making of America Project, which has made hundreds of 19th century books available in page image form.  A description and convenient link to the online Princeton Review is at:


Publication History of the Princeton Review

The magazine began publication in 1825, and ceased in 1888.
During that time it went through a variety of titles:
Biblical Repertory (1825-1829),
The Biblical Repertory and Theological Review (1830-1836),
The Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review (1837-1871),
The Presbyterian Quarterly and Princeton Review (1872-1877),
The Princeton Review (1878-1884),
and finally
The New Princeton Review (1886-1888).
(Publication was suspended during 1885.) Volume numbering restarted at 1 in 1829, 1872, 1878, and 1886. Publication frequency varied from monthly to semiannually.

ART. VI.-Slavery. By William E. Channing. Boston: James Munroe and Company; 1835. pp. 166.

EVERY one must be sensible that a very great change has, within a few years, been produced in the feelings, if not in the opinions of the public in relation to slavery. It is not long since the acknowledgment was frequent at the south, and universal at the north, that it was a great evil. It was spoken of in the slaveholding states, as a sad inheritance fixed upon them by the cupidity of the mother-country in spite of their repeated remonstrances. The known sentiments of Jefferson were reiterated again and again in every part of his native state; and some of the strongest denunciations of this evil, and some of the most ardent aspirations for deliverance from it ever uttered in the country, were pronounced, but a few years since, in the legislature of Virginia. A proposition to call a convention, with the purpose of so amending the constitution of the state as to admit of the general emancipation of the slaves, is said to have failed in the legislature of Kentucky by a single vote.*

* It is probable that many reasons combined to make a convention desirable to those who voted for it. But to get rid of slavery, was said to be one of the most prominent.
The sentiments of the northern states had long since been clearly expressed by the abolition of slavery within their limits. That the same opinions and the same feelings continued to prevail among them, may be inferred, not only from the absence of all evidence to the contrary, but from various decisive indications of a positive character. In the year 1828 a resolution was passed by an almost unanimous vote in the legislature of Pennsylvania, instructing their Senators in Congress to endeavour to procure the passage of a law abolishing slavery in the District of Columbia. In 1829 a similar resolution was adopted by the assembly of New York. In 1828 a petition to this effect was presented to Congress, signed by one thousand inhabitants of the District itself; and the House of Representatives instructed the proper committee, in 1829, to inquire into the expediency of the measure.*

* Jay's Inquiry, p. 157, 161.
How altered is the present state of the country! Instead of lamentations and acknowledgements, we hear from the south the strongest language of justification. And at the north, opposition to the proceedings of the anti-slavery societies, seems to be rapidly producing a public feeling in favour of slavery itself. The freedom of discussion, the liberty of the press, and the right of assembling for consultation, have in some cases been assailed, and in others trampled under foot by popular violence. What has produced this lamentable change? No doubt, many circumstances have combined in its production. We think, however, that all impartial observers must acknowledge, that by far the most prominent cause is the conduct of the abolitionists. They indeed naturally resist this imputation; and endeavour to show its injustice by appealing to the fact that their opinions of slavery have been entertained and expressed by many of the best men of former days. This appeal, however, is by no means satisfactory. The evil in question has been produced by no mere expression of opinion. Had the abolitionists confined themselves to their professed object, and endeavoured to effect their purpose by arguments addressed to the understandings and consciences of their fellow-citizens, no man could have any reason to complain. Under ordinary circumstances, such arguments as those presented on this subject in Dr. Wayland's Elements of Moral Science, and in Dr. Channing's recent publication, would have been received with respect and kindness in every part of the country. We make this assertion, because the same sentiments, more offensively, and less ably urged, have heretofore been thus received.

It is not by argument that the abolitionists have produced the present unhappy excitement. Argument has not been the characteristic of their publications. Denunciations of slaveholding, as man-stealing, robbery, piracy, and worse than murder; consequent vituperation of slaveholders as knowingly guilty of the worst of crimes; passionate appeals to the feelings of the inhabitants of the northern states; gross exaggerations of the moral and physical condition of the slaves, have formed the stapel of their addresses to the public. We do not mean to say that there has been no calm and Christian discussion of the subject. We mean merely to state what has, to the best of our knowledge, been the predominant character of the anti-slavery publications. There is one circumstance which renders the error and guilt of this course of conduct chargeable, in a great measure, on the abolitionists as a body, and even upon those of their number who have pursued a different course. We refer to the fact that they have upheld the most extreme publications, and made common cause with the most reckless declaimers. The wildest ravings of the Liberator have been constantly lauded; agents have been commissioned whose great distinction was a talent for eloquent vituperation; coincidence of opinion as to the single point of immediate emancipation has been sufficient to unite men of the most discordant character. There is in this conduct such a strange want of adaptation between the means and the end which they profess to have in view, as to stagger the faith of most persons in the sincerity of their professions, who do not consider the extremes to which even good men may be carried, when they allow one subject to take exclusive possession of their minds. We do not doubt their sincerity; but we marvel at their delusion. They seem to have been led by the mere impulse of feeling, and a blind imitation of their predecessors in England, to a course of measures, which, though rational under one set of circumstances, is the height of infatuation under another. The English abolitionists addressed themselves to a community, which, though it owned no slaves, had the power to abolish slavery, and was therefore responsible for its continuance. Their object was to rouse that community to immediate action. For this purpose they addressed themselves to the feelings of the people; they portrayed in the strongest colours the misery of the slaves; they dilated on the gratuitous crime of which England was guilty in perpetuating slavery, and did all they could to excite the passions of the public. This was the very course most likely to succeed, and it did succeed. Suppose, however, that the British parliament had no power over the subject; that it rested entirely with the colonial Assemblies to decide whether slavery should be abolished or not. Does any man believe the abolitionists would have gained their object? Did they in fact make converts of the planters? Did they even pretend that such was their design? Every one knows that their conduct produced a state of almost frantic excitement in the West India Islands; that so far from the public feeling in England producing a moral impression upon the planters favourable to the condition of the slaves, its effect was directly the reverse. It excited them to drive away the missionaries, to tear down the chapels, to manifest a determination to rivet still more firmly the chains on their helpless captives, and to resist to the utmost all attempts for their emancipation or even improvement. All this was natural, though it was all, under the circumstances, of no avail, except to rouse the spirit of the mother country, and to endanger the result of the experiment of emancipation, by exasperating the feelings of the slaves. Precisely similar has been the result of the efforts of the American abolitionists as it regards the slaveholders of America. They have produced a state of alarming exasperation at the south, injurious to the slave and dangerous to the country, while they have failed to enlist the feelings of the north. This failure has resulted, not so much from diversity of opinion on the abstract question of slavery; or from want of sympathy among northern men in the cause of human rights, as from the fact, that the common sense of the public has been shocked by the incongruity and folly of hoping to effect the abolition of slavery in one country, by addressing the people of another. We do not expect to abolish despotism in Russia, by getting up indignation meetings in New York. Yet for all the purposes of legislation on this subject, Russia is not more a foreign country to us than South Carolina. The idea of inducing the southern slaveholder to emancipate his slaves by denunciation, is about as rational as to expect the sovereigns of Europe to grant free institutions, by calling them tyrants and robbers. Could we send our denunciations of despotism among the subjects of those monarchs, and rouse the people to a sense of their wrongs and a determination to redress them, there would be some prospect of success. But our northern abolitionists disclaim, with great earnestness, all intention of allowing their appeals to reach the ears of the slaves. It is, therefore, not to be wondered at, that the course pursued by the anti-slavery societies, should produce exasperation at the south, without conciliating sympathy at the north. The impolicy of their conduct is so obvious, that men who agree with them as to all their leading principles, not only stand aloof from their measures, but unhesitatingly condemn their conduct. This is the case with Dr. Channing. Although his book was written rather to repress the feeling of opposition to these societies, than to encourage it, yet he fully admits the justice of the principal charges brought against them. We extract a few passages on this subject. "The abolitionists have done wrong, I believe; nor is their wrong to be winked at, because done fanatically, or with good intentions; for how much mischief may be wrought with good designs! They have fallen into the common error of enthusiasts, that of exaggerating their object, of feeling as if no evil existed but that which they opposed, and as if no guilt could be compared with that of countenancing and upholding it. The tone of their newspapers, as far as I have seen them, has often been fierce, bitter, and abusive." p. 133. "Another objection to their movements is, that they have sought to accomplish their object by a system of agitation; that is, by a system of affiliated societies gathered, and held together, and extended, by passionate eloquence." "The abolitionists might have formed an association; but it should have been an elective one. Men of strong principles, judiciousness, sobriety, should have been carefully sought as members. Much good might have been accomplished by the co-operation of such philanthropists. Instead of this, the abolitionists sent forth their orators, some of them transported with fiery zeal, to sound the alarm against slavery through the land, to gather together young and old, pupils from schools, females hardly arrived at years of discretion, the ignorant, the excitable, the impetuous, and to organize these into associations for the battle against oppression. Very unhappily they preached their doctrine to the coloured people, and collected these into societies. To this mixed and excitable multitude, minute, heart-rending descriptions of slavery were given in the piercing tones of passion; and slaveholders were held up as monsters of cruelty and crime." p. 136. "The abolitionists often speak of Luther's vehemence as a model to future reformers. But who, that has read history, does not know that Luther's reformation was accompanied by tremendous miseries and crimes, and that its progress was soon arrested? and is there not reason to fear, that the fierce, bitter, persecuting spirit, which he breathed into the work, not only tarnished its glory, but limited its power? One great principle which we should lay down as immovably true, is, that if a good work cannot be carried on by the calm, self-controlled, benevolent spirit of Christianity, then the time for doing it has not come. God asks not the aid of our vices. He can overrule them for good, but they are not the chosen instruments of human happiness." p. 138. "The adoption of the common system of agitation by the abolitionists has proved signally unsuccessful. From the beginning it created alarm in the considerate, and strengthened the sympathies of the free states with the slaveholder. It made converts of a few individuals but alienated multitudes. Its influence at the south has been evil without mixture. It has stirred up bitter passions and a fierce fanaticism, which have shut every ear and every heart against its arguments and persuasions. These effects are the more to be deplored, because the hope of freedom to the slaves lies chiefly in the dispositions of his master. The abolitionist indeed proposed to convert the slaveholders; and for this end he approached them with vituperation and exhausted on them the vocabulary of abuse! And he has reaped as he sowed." p. 142.

Unmixed good or evil, however, in such a world as ours, is a very rare thing. Though the course pursued by the abolitionists has produced a great preponderance of mischief, it may incidentally occasion no little good. It has rendered it incumbent on every man to endeavour to obtain, and, as far as he can, to communicate definite opinions and correct principles on the whole subject. The community are very apt to sink down into indifference to a state of things of long continuance, and to content themselves with vague impressions as to right and wrong on important points, when there is no call for immediate action. From this state the abolitionists have effectually roused the public mind. The subject of slavery is no longer one on which men are allowed to be of no mind at all. The question is brought up before all of our public bodies, civil and religious. Almost every ecclesiastical society has in some way been called to express an opinion on the subject; and these calls are constantly repeated. Under these circumstances, it is the duty of all in their appropriate sphere, to seek for truth, and to utter it in love.

"The first question," says Dr. Channing, "to be proposed by a rational being, is not what is profitable, but what is right. Duty must be primary, prominent, most conspicuous, among the objects of human thought and pursuit. If we cast it down from its supremacy, if we inquire first for our interests and then for our duties we shall certainly err. We can never see the right clearly and fully, but by making it our first concern.... Right is the supreme good, and includes all other goods. In seeking and adhering to it, we secure our true and only happiness. All prosperity, not founded on it, is built on sand. If human affairs are controlled, as we believe, by almighty rectitude and impartial goodness, then to hope for happiness from wrong doing is as insane as to seek health and prosperity by rebelling against the laws of nature, by sowing our seed on the ocean, or making poison our common food. There is but one unfailing good; and that is, fidelity to the everlasting law written on the heart, and rewritten and republished in God's word.

"Whoever places this faith in the everlasting law of rectitude must, of course, regard the question of slavery, first, and chiefly, as a moral question. All other considerations will weigh little with him compared with its moral character and moral influences. The following remarks, therefore, are designed to aid the reader in forming a just moral judgment of slavery. Great truths, inalienable rights, everlasting duties, these will form the chief subjects of this discussion. There are times when the assertion of great principles is the best service a man can render society. The present is a moment of bewildering excitement, when men's minds are stormed and darkened by strong passions and fierce conflicts; and also a moment of absorbing worldliness, when the moral-law is made to bow to expediency, and its high and strict requirements are decried or dismissed as metaphysical abstractions, or impracticable theories. At such a season to utter great principles without passion, and in the spirit of unfeigned and universal good will, and to engrave them deeply and durably on men's minds, is to do more for the world, than to open mines of wealth, or to frame the most successful schemes of policy." You can support this site at no cost if you make an Amazon purchase using this link to get to Amazon: Thanks