Sunday, June 18, 2023

“Let Slavery Die”

Henry Highland Garnet (1815–1882)
From The Civil War: The Final Year Told by Those Who Lived It

“Emancipation,” illustration by German-born American artist Thomas Nast for the January 24, 1863, issue of Harper’s Weekly. This color version was subsequently produced by Philadelphia printer King & Baird, which added the title “The Past and the Future” outside the frame. In the center, a Black family enjoys a quiet evening together; below, a baby, representing the New Year, frees an enslaved man. To the left are horrors associated with slavery; to the right are promises for a better future: education, wages, and a home. (Library Company of Philadelphia)
In April 1864, the Thirteenth Amendment, which would abolish slavery and involuntary servitude, passed the Senate, but in June it stalled in the House after falling thirteen votes short of the required two-thirds for approval. During the following year, attitudes toward the amendment shifted after Union Army victories in the South and Abraham Lincoln’s resounding victory over Democratic candidate General George McClellan in the presidential election. Although initially ambivalent about the amendment, Lincoln and members of his Cabinet eventually became concerned that the Emancipation Proclamation might not survive judicial challenges or a subsequent administration and ultimately pushed for its passage. Lincoln told one crowd that future authorities might argue that the proclamation “only aided those who came into our lines, and that it was inoperative as to those who did not give themselves up; or that it would have no effect upon the children of the slaves born hereafter; in fact, it would be urged that it did not meet the evil. But this amendment is a king’s cure for all evils. It winds the whole thing up.”

By mid-January 1865, Republicans were worried they still did not have enough votes. Tensions were high in the packed House chamber on January 31, when the amendment was again considered. After the vote was tallied, House Speaker Schuyler Colfax “in a trembling voice” announced the final count as 119 in favor, 56 opposed: “The constitutional majority of two thirds having voted in the affirmative, the Joint Resolution has passed.” Noah Brooks, a journalist from Sacramento, described what happened next:
For a moment there was a pause of utter silence, as if the voices of the dense mass of spectators were choked by strong emotion. Then there was an explosion, a storm of cheers, the like of which probably no Congress of the United States ever heard before. Strong men embraced each other with tears. The galleries and aisles were bristling with standing, cheering crowds. The air was stirred with a cloud of women's handkerchiefs waving and floating; hands were shaking; men threw their arms about each other's necks, and cheer after cheer, and burst after burst followed.
In the gallery, Henry Highland Garnet cheered and celebrated along with friends and strangers alike. “Oh what a pepper and salt mixture it was,” he later recalled. During his quarter century in abolitionist circles, he often despaired that this day would never come—and he certainly didn’t anticipate that less than two weeks later he would be back in the House chamber as the first African American to speak before Congress.

Garnet had escaped from slavery when he was nine years old. Under the pretense of going to a funeral, his mother and father fled with Henry, his sister, and seven relatives from his uncle’s family into the woods and swamps of Maryland. When they reached Wilmington, Delaware, they secured safe passage via the underground railroad to New York City. Garnet enrolled at the African Free School in Manhattan, an education interrupted by two years at sea as a cabin boy and cook. When he returned at the age of 14, he learned that his family had relocated after slave catchers found them; his sister had even been captured and arrested but was released when supporters fabricated proof she had been in New York at the time she was allegedly enslaved.

Friends found employment for Garnet as a servant on Long Island, away from the dangers of discovery, but he was incapacitated by an accident that resulted in a serious injury to his leg. He resumed his education and graduated from the Oneida Institute in Whitesboro, New York, in 1839. His leg, which had caused him considerable pain and increasing hardship, was amputated sometime during the following year, around the time he became pastor of the Liberty Street Presbyterian Church in Troy, New York.

Garnet first came to widespread prominence in August 1843 at the National Convention of Colored Citizens in Buffalo, New York. He delivered a speech entitled “An Address to the Slaves of the United States of America,” a passionate call for open and, if necessary, violent resistance:
However much you and all of us may desire it, there is not much hope of Redemption without the shedding of blood. If you must bleed, let it all come at once—rather, die freemen, than live to be slaves. . . . and by all that life is worth, let it no longer be a debateable question, whether it is better to choose LIBERTY or DEATH! . . . Let your motto be RESISTANCE! RESISTANCE! RESISTANCE!—No oppressed people have ever secured their liberty without resistance.
Frederick Douglass and other Black abolitionists, wary of provoking Southern fears of a slave insurrection, defeated Garnet’s attempt to persuade the convention to underwrite the publication of the address. Nevertheless, Garnet made an impression, and William Wells Brown, who sided with Douglass that day, diplomatically wrote in a later biographical essay, “None but those who heard that speech have the slightest idea of the tremendous influence which he exercised over the assembly.”

After an extraordinary two-decade career as a teacher, activist, speaker (in England), missionary (in Jamaica), and religious leader, Garnet became the pastor of the Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., which is where William Henry Channing, the chaplain of the House of Representatives, found him in early February 1865. In commemoration of the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, Channing, with the support of several Congress members, asked Garnet to deliver a sermon to the House on Sunday, February 12. The choir from Garnet’s church was also invited.

When Garnet delivered his sermon at noon on that Sunday, the floor and galleries were filled to capacity. William J. Wilson, a local resident who had recently moved from Brooklyn and who was a congregant of Garnet’s church, recorded that “it was a strange sight, I say, to see this little band of vocalists, stand up in places where but one year ago only white persons were allowed to stand, and there chant up hymns of praise to God for his goodness and his wonderful works to the children of men; and it was a sight stranger still to see this colored divine stand up in the dignity of his high office as a priest of the Most High in that Speaker's desk.”

Garnet opened his hour-long sermon with the scriptural text he had selected, Matthew 23:4, in which Jesus censures the Scribes and Pharisees for their hypocrisy: “For they bind heavy burdens, and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men's shoulders, but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers.” Garnet then proceeded to a rebuke of the hypocrisy of leaders who defended or permitted slavery, a recapitulation of the barbarity of the Middle Passage and the inhumanity of the American plantation, and a sequence of antislavery quotes by great thinkers from biblical times to the modern era. The final portion of his sermon, which we present below, celebrates the end of slavery and looks to the future.

Notes: Although Delaware, Kentucky, New Jersey, and Mississippi will vote against ratification, the Thirteenth Amendment will be approved by twenty-seven states, included eight former members of the Confederacy, by December 6, 1865, and on December 18 Secretary of State William H. Seward will declare its ratification complete.

The eight lines of poetry are from John Greenleaf Whittier’s “Expostulation” (1834); the two lines of poetry later in the address are from William Cowper’s “Human Frailty” (1782).

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For this week’s selection, we depart from the usual format and reproduce the excerpt from Garnet’s sermon below. You may also download it as a PDF or view it in Google Docs.

“Let Slavery Die”
(from) A Memorial Discourse

With all the moral attributes of God on our side, cheered as we are by the voices of universal human nature,—in view of the best interests of the present and future generations—animated with the noble desire to furnish the nations of the earth with a worthy example, let the verdict of death which has been brought in against slavery, by the Thirty-Eighth Congress, be affirmed and executed by the people. Let the gigantic monster perish. Yes, perish now, and perish forever!

      “Down let the shrine of Moloch sink,
            And leave no traces where it stood;
      No longer let its idol drink,
            His daily cup of human blood.
      But rear another altar there,
            To truth, and love, and mercy given,
      And freedom’s gift and freedom’s prayer,
            Shall call an answer down from heaven.”

It is often asked when and where will the demands of the reformers of this and coming ages end? It is a fair question, and I will answer.

When all unjust and heavy burdens shall be removed from every man in the land. When all invidious and proscriptive distinctions shall be blotted out from our laws, whether they be constitutional, statute, or municipal laws. When emancipation shall be followed by enfranchisement, and all men holding allegiance to the government shall enjoy every right of American citizenship. When our brave and gallant soldiers shall have justice done unto them. When the men who endure the sufferings and perils of the battle-field in the defence of their country, and in order to keep our rulers in their places, shall enjoy the well-earned privilege of voting for them. When in the army and navy, and in every legitimate and honorable occupation, promotion shall smile upon merit without the slightest regard to the complexion of a man’s face. When there shall be no more class-legislation, and no more trouble concerning the black man and his rights, than there is in regard to other American citizens. When, in every respect, he shall be equal before the law, and shall be left to make his own way in the social walks of life.

We ask, and only ask, that when our poor frail barks are launched on life’s ocean—

      “Bound on a voyage of awful length
            And dangers little known,”

that, in common with others, we may be furnished with rudder, helm, and sails, and charts, and compass. Give us good pilots to conduct us to the open seas; lift no false lights along the dangerous coasts, and if it shall please God to send us propitious winds, or fearful gales, we shall survive or perish as our energies or neglect shall determine. We ask no special favors, but we plead for justice. While we scorn unmanly dependence; in the name of God, the universal Father, we demand the right to live, and labor, and to enjoy the fruits of our toil. The good work which God has assigned for the ages to come, will be finished, when our national literature shall be so purified as to reflect a faithful and a just light upon the character and social habits of our race, and the brush, and pencil, and chisel, and Lyre of Art, shall refuse to lend their aid to scoff at the afflictions of the poor, or to caricature, or ridicule a long-suffering people. When caste and prejudice in Christian churches shall be utterly destroyed, and shall be regarded as totally unworthy of Christians, and at variance with the principles of the gospel. When the blessings of the Christian religion, and of sound, religious education, shall be freely offered to all, then, and not till then, shall the effectual labors of God’s people and God’s instruments cease.

If slavery has been destroyed merely from necessity, let every class be enfranchised at the dictation of justice. Then we shall have a Constitution that shall be reverenced by all: rulers who shall be honored, and revered, and a Union that shall be sincerely loved by a brave and patriotic people, and which can never be severed.

Great sacrifices have been made by the people; yet, greater still are demanded ere atonement can be made for our national sins. Eternal justice holds heavy mortgages against us, and will require the payment of the last farthing. We have involved ourselves in the sin of unrighteous gain, stimulated by luxury, and pride, and the love of power and oppression; and prosperity and peace can be purchased only by blood, and with tears of repentance. We have paid some of the fearful installments, but there are other heavy obligations to be met.

The great day of the nation’s judgment has come, and who shall be able to stand? Even we, whose ancestors have suffered the afflictions which are inseparable from a condition of slavery, for the period of two centuries and a half, now pity our land and weep with those who weep.

Upon the total and complete destruction of this accursed sin depends the safety and perpetuity of our Republic and its excellent institutions.

Let slavery die. It has had a long and fair trial. God himself has pleaded against it. The enlightened nations of the earth have condemned it. Its death warrant is signed by God and man. Do not commute its sentence. Give it no respite, but let it be ignominiously executed.

Honorable Senators and Representatives! illustrious rulers of this great nation! I cannot refrain this day from invoking upon you, in God’s name, the blessings of millions who were ready to perish, but to whom a new and better life has been opened by your humanity, justice, and patriotism. You have said, “Let the Constitution of the country be so amended that slavery and involuntary servitude shall no longer exist in the United States, except in punishment for crime.” Surely, an act so sublime could not escape Divine notice; and doubtless the deed has been recorded in the archives of heaven. Volumes may be appropriated to your praise and renown in the history of the world. Genius and art may perpetuate the glorious act on canvass and in marble, but certain and more lasting monuments in commemoration of your decision are already erected in the hearts and memories of a grateful people.

The nation has begun its exodus from worse than Egyptian bondage; and I beseech you that you say to the people, “that they go forward.” With the assurance of God’s favor in all things done in obedience to his righteous will, and guided by day and by night by the pillars of cloud and fire, let us not pause until we have reached the other and safe side of the stormy and crimson sea. Let freemen and patriots mete out complete and equal justice to all men, and thus prove to mankind the superiority of our Democratic, Republican Government.

Favored men, and honored of God as his instruments, speedily finish the work which he has given you to do. Emancipate, Enfranchise, Educate, and give the blessings of the gospel to every American citizen.

From A Memorial Discourse (1865).