In Their Own Words: John Henry Hopkins, The American Citizen (Part 2)

In the first excerpt from The American Citizen (1857) by John Henry Hopkins (1792-1868), the Bishop of Vermont dispensed with the antislavery argument that slavery was “a sin against God, and a crime against humanity.” The Bible, he contended, was mostly silent on the subject of slavery and provided no basis for arguments for the immorality of its practice in the United States.

The following four chapters in his book (VII through X) continued his case for the essential benevolence of slavery and yet the need for its abolition as follows:

Chapter VII. That slavery directly benefited the enslaved and was in actuality an act of Christian philanthropy on the part of Southern slaveholders;

Chapter VIII. That slavery was lawful and protected under the U.S. Constitution, thus obliging all American citizens to withhold their protests against it and respect the property rights of slaveholders;

Chapter IX. That the true victims of slavery were not the enslaved but the enslavers, and that slavery should be abolished to preserve “the lasting union of this glorious nation” and the “prosperity of the Southern States themselves”;

Chapter X. And, finally, that the only legal, moral, and effective way to end slavery was “to get rid of the slaves, and send them to Africa, as fast as possible” and after compensating their owners for their financial loss. In “the land of their fathers,” the former slaves would spread the blessings bestowed on them by Southern bondage and fulfill the underlying Christian purpose of slavery: to “raise up poor degraded Africa from heathen darkness and barbarity, and open that golden continent to the blessings of Christianity, civilization, and commerce.”

Today we publish excerpts from chapters VII and VIII on the “good” of slavery and the lawfulness of slavery. In Part 3, we will publish chapters XI and X on the “why” and “how” of Hopkins’s argument for bringing about the end of slavery.

John Henry Hopkins, The American Citizen: His Rights and Duties, According to the Spirit of the Constitution of the United States (1857).

CHAPTER VII: On Slavery, Considered in the Aspect of Philanthropy

Let us next, therefore, examine the practical system of African slavery, as it exists at the South, under the aspect of philanthropy. And in order to do this fairly, we are bound to look at the subject, not in the narrow light of a few cases of individual hardship, but in the broad relation which it bears to the welfare of the slaves themselves, and to the future results upon the vast continent of Africa …

It is the testimony of all candid observers that the free negro, other things being equal, is in a worse condition than the slave, physically and morally – less happy, less healthy, less contented, less secure, less religious.

John Henry Hopkins

Here, then, we take African slavery as a fact. We may compare the condition of the slaves with our own condition as freemen, and mourn, to our hearts’ content, over the restraints, the hardships, the ignorance, the immorality of their bondage, and imagine how much happier they would be, if they were all emancipated, and placed in our own circumstances. But is this a fair or just process of comparison? Suppose them to be emancipated, would that enable them to ascend to our level? The answer is obvious when we look at those who are already free. And it is the testimony of all candid observers that the free negro, other things being equal, is in a worse condition than the slave, physically and morally –less happy, less healthy, less contented, less secure, less religious. It is notorious that many of those who had escaped have returned to their masters of their own accord, glad to escape from the wretchedness of their freedom. It is notorious that in the Southern States the slaves look down upon the free negroes with pity, and often with disdain, as being altogether in a position inferior to their own. For they feel themselves to be connected for life with the family of their master, sure of protection, sure of a comfortable home, sure of a plentiful subsistence, sure of kind attendance in sickness and old age, and sure of affection and confidence, unless they forfeit them by unfaithfulness or rebellion. These advantages are lost to the free negro, and the slaves have no difficulty in understanding that he has nothing to replace them. True, they must work. But so must the free negro; so must the laboring class in every civilized community. And when we compare their condition with that of our own hirelings, there are many points which seem to be greatly in their favor. For their work is light and regular, as a general rule. They have abundant time allowed for recreation and for holidays. They are not, like the free laborer, liable to be dismissed at a moment’s warning, and forced to beg or suffer for want of work to do. They are not tempted to strike for higher wages, when the ordinary rates are too low for the necessaries of life. They are not exposed to the melancholy refuge of the poorhouse, and turned out to die in poverty and neglect, after their strength has been exhausted in a long struggle with hardship and with toil. They are not sent adrift amongst the dens of infamy and pollution which contaminate all our free cities, bidding defiance to the hands of the police and the hearts of the benevolent. And if it be indeed a disadvantage that they cannot change their masters, it is in most cases more than a counterbalance for this that they could gain nothing by the change; since every laborer must have some master in order to live, and the slave possesses the only security of always having a master who is bound to keep him from destitution, for years after the decays of nature have taken the power of earning his livelihood away.

When philanthropy, therefore, gets rid of prejudice, and surveys the comparative advantages of the two systems with impartial candor, and casts aside the odium which attaches to the name of slave, it will not appear so easy to determine that slavery is a calamity to the race of Africa. On the contrary, it exhibits the nearest approach to the patriarchal times, when Abraham had three hundred and eighteen servants born in his own house, over whom he ruled with absolute power, but with far more substantial comfort and advantage to them than if they had been a band of ordinary hirelings. For however we may talk about the blessings of individual liberty, the true interest of the laboring class demands a large amount of mutual dependence and association. The master feels for his slaves, because they are his own. The slaves are attached to him in turn, because they make a part of his household, bred up under his care from childhood, and directly concerned in all that belongs to him, as their ruler and protector. The hearts and sympathies of both, therefore, are brought into constant play by this long and close affinity of interest. And there, after all, is the surest element of human welfare and security, if it were rightly governed by the laws of religious responsibility.

But how does this element exist in the free system of the hireling and his wages? Where is the heart or sympathy between the moneyed capitalist and his operatives? The whole essence of the business is resolved into dollars and cents …

[T]he fact remains undeniable that the slaves at the South are, on the whole, the happiest class of laborers in the world, and the most perfectly contented with their own condition. And this fact is of more value than all the reasonings of abolitionism. That a portion of the slaves will always be found worthy to be emancipated, as being possessed of more industry and talent than the average, is doubtless true; and such cases may safely be trusted to their master’s liberality, or to the interest which they rarely fail to excite amongst others. That there is another portion likely to be dissatisfied and refractory is also true, and the number of slaves who run away afford the evidence. But these are exceptions to the general rule …

And for that portion [of slaves] who desire and are qualified for freedom, our Southern philanthropists have provided, of their own accord, the noble colony of Liberia…We know that it was originated and carried forward by slaveholders, who, as a class, are far better acquainted with the characteristics, and much more occupied with the welfare of the negro race, than we of the North can be.

John Henry Hopkins

And for that portion [of slaves] who desire and are qualified for freedom, our Southern philanthropists have provided, of their own accord, the noble colony of Liberia, now advanced so far as to be an object of great interest amongst the nations, and likely, under God, to accomplish a glorious work for the whole continent of Africa, in due time. We know the history of that enlightened and truly admirable enterprise. We know that it was originated and carried forward by slaveholders, who, as a class, are far better acquainted with the characteristics, and much more occupied with the welfare of the negro race, than we of the North can be. For with them, these matters form a constant element of practical life; while with us they are rather the subjects of uncertain speculation. And we know, further, that the disposition to emancipate their more deserving slaves is common amongst our Southern brethren, and that Liberia is constantly receiving accessions from the same generous spirit to which it owes its origin.

Grievously warped by prejudice must that judgment be, in my humble opinion, which fails to see the vast superiority of this plan for the disposal of the small minority of the negro race who desire and are qualified for freedom. For experience has abundantly proved that they can never rise to the average level of the white population, amongst the free States. Their color forms an insuperable barrier, which no art or management can remove. But in the land of their fathers, the true field of upward destiny is thrown open to them. The providence of God has fitted the climate to them, and fitted them to the climate. And I doubt not that our Southern slavery has been ordained, in His wisdom and mercy, to prepare them, under the training of their Christian masters, for the grand consummation which shall yet regenerate the vast tribes of heathen and Mahometan barbarians, throughout the whole of poor benighted Africa, and display, in the eyes of the world, a splendid proof of the mercy and goodness, which direct the mysterious dispensations of the Almighty.

But the philanthropy of our abolitionists can see nothing in the slavery of the African race except evil, and only evil. If their views had governed the counsels of Providence, the negroes imported into these United States would all have remained on their native soil. And what would have been the consequence? They must have lived and died in the darkness of the grossest paganism, accustomed to the very lowest depths of savage degradation …

Southern slavery, therefore, has been the very means of raising them and their posterity, amounting to many millions, from this debased and wretched state, to a far higher place on the scale of humanity; and thus we may readily perceive that the reasons which were assigned to justify the divine law, in allowing the ancient Israelites to buy slaves of the Canaanites, applied, with all their force, to the heathen savages of Africa. What sort of philanthropy is that, which would rather plunge them back into their original condition? What sort of religion is that, which brands with the name of villainy and sin the only plan which the mercy of Providence permitted, in order to rescue those millions from heathen misery and ruin? What sort of benevolence is that, which would prefer that the noble colony of Liberia had never existed, and that the negro race should have lived and died in all the cruel and bloody despotism of Dahomey, rather than become fitted, in the hands of their Southern masters, to dispense the knowledge of God, of liberty, and of civilization throughout the darkest regions of barbarism?

For myself, I can truly say that I have no sympathy with those who depreciate the negro race below the true standard of humanity. I repudiate with all my heart the infidel hypothesis which denies that God hath made of one blood all the nations of the earth. I believe that the negro is capable of all the improvement of mind and moral principle which education can bestow, and am ready to welcome every proof which individual cases have afforded of his genius and his powers. But I do not admit that slavery is the cause, in itself, of either moral or intellectual degradation, if the master be not morally and intellectually degraded … And assuredly there is nothing in the mere bond compelling one to labor for another, which opposes the love of virtue and of truth. On the contrary, if the master be a good man, the effect of such a bond must be to elevate the character of its subject; and the hardship on the one side, in the obligation to serve, is more than equalled on the other, in being obliged to maintain the servant, through every change of circumstances.

But men may differ as they please upon the point of abstract speculation. The fact is, that Southern slavery has raised the African far above his original condition, and enabled him to plant the noble colony of Liberia. And in this, all true philanthropy rejoices, and will rejoice, notwithstanding the hostility of ultra-abolitionism.

CHAPTER VIII: On Slavery, as a Question of Politics

Now slavery, such as then existed (and still exists, in nearly one half of the States), is expressly recognized in the Constitution. The word, indeed, is not there, but the thing is. No lawyer ever doubted that “persons held to service” (Art. iv. Sec. 3), were the slaves. Such has been the invariable construction of the Supreme Court …

The same section distinctly guards the rights of the master from any interference. “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.” …

From this it results, plainly, that no politician can attack the lawfulness of slavery, without attacking the Constitution and laws of his country. And equally manifest it is that no man can swear to support the Constitution in good faith, and at the same time oppose himself to its provisions, without violating his oath of office. While those prominent leaders of Abolitionism who openly avow that they trample on the Constitution, and seek to plunge the nation into the horrors of civil war, in their insane zeal for what they suppose to be the rights of the negro, are indeed more honest and frank than the rest, but certainly are engaged in nothing more nor less than the instigation to treason.

The South has not sought to disturb the North, or to force slavery upon them. It is the North which disturbs the South, and seeks to excite the slaves against their owners.

John Henry Hopkins

For this systematic opposition to the slave States, there is not the slightest really political pretext. Whatever the evil of slavery may be, it cannot be pretended that it is relatively greater than it was at the time when the Constitution was established. Then, the slaves amounted to 600,000, in a population of three millions, which was one-fifth of the whole. Now they have reached about three and a quarter millions in a population of nearly twenty-four millions, which is less than one-seventh. It cannot be said that their treatment is more severe, that their personal comforts are less secure, or that their masters are enabled to exercise any larger share of power, by their means, over the other States in the Union. The spirit of encroachment is all on the other side. The South has not sought to disturb the North, or to force slavery upon them. It is the North which disturbs the South, and seeks to excite the slaves against their owners. On the one side, there is only a firm adherence to the rights guarantied by the Constitution. On the other, there is a constant effort to tear those rights away, at whatever risk of blood and anarchy. The contest is between the supreme legislature of the land, the laws, and the judges; opposed by popular societies, by loud denunciation, and bitter fanaticism. The appeal made by our inflammatory orators is to a “higher law” which exists nowhere, since it is perfectly idle to say that it can be found in the word of God, and equally idle to assert that it may be discovered in the principles of enlightened philanthropy. And the object which has thus concentrated the energy of Abolitionism is such, that it would put arms in the hands of millions of the African race against their masters, and plunge the nation into civil war, without the possibility of foreseeing an end to the horrors of the conflict.

The true politician is bound to love his country, to defend its government, and promote its unity and peace. He may not believe that slavery is expedient or advantageous, although he cannot consistently deny that it is lawful, so long as it is allowed by the laws of God and man. He may think it better for the African race, and better for their Southern masters, that the institution should be abolished, as fast as it can be, with a just regard to the rights of the owners, to the future welfare of the slaves, and to the general interests of the Union. And thinking thus, he may temperately and kindly seek to impress his arguments on the intelligence and virtue of his brethren; and do his utmost, in friendly cooperation with those who are immediately concerned, to bring about some judicious plan of gradual abolition. In a course like this, I should be able to feel a cordial sympathy; and I doubt not that efforts so directed by a just and patriotic spirit, would meet a generous welcome from many of the most influential and noblehearted men in the Southern States. But to deny their rights, to calumniate their principles, to menace their persons when they presume to seek their own under the authority of law, to upbraid them with atrocious sin against heaven and humanity, to preach insurrection to their slaves, to goad them with bitter reproach and insult, to refuse them a place in the Church of Christ, and brand them as if they were destitute of morality, justice, and religion — all this is the work of an incendiary, rather than of a politician. Its necessary result must be, and has been, to increase the evil which it designs to cure. It exasperates and alienates, instead of convincing. And if the mistaken men who have adopted this unhappy course desired to rivet the bondage of the slaves, and thoroughly disgust their owners with every notion of emancipation, they could not possibly have taken a more likely mode of effecting the purpose …

I have used the phrase of a true politician … in the broad and lofty sense of the Constitution, which embraces the United States — the South and the North — the East and the West, in the comprehensive and generous scope of genuine nationality. And in that sense, I regard no man as a true politician, who seeks to gain victory for a part, at the cost of the whole. The statesman worthy of the name may desire, with all earnestness, to relieve the land from the reproach and the ultimate dangers of slavery. But he will approach the subject with a just appreciation of the arguments upon the other side. He will make all fair allowance for the difficulties which surround the question. He will do due honor to the motives and the principles of his Southern brethren. He will remember that the institution is maintained by sovereign States, who alone have the right and the power to determine how it may be safely and gradually done away. He will seek to work with and for those interests which are directly complicated with the desired change, and prove his friendliness and his sincerity by that kindly feeling which belongs to all real philanthropy. And he will be patient and willing to wait, until it pleases Providence to give a lawful impulse to the cause in the right quarter; never willing to do evil, that good may come, nor trampling upon the Constitution and the oath of office, in his intemperate haste to accomplish a change, which must come slowly, wisely, and prudently, if it come at all. That it will come, sooner or later, in the right way, by the favor of God towards our Southern States and towards the race of Africa, is my own strong conviction …

Read the introduction to Bishop John Henry Hopkins here.

2 Replies to “In Their Own Words: John Henry Hopkins, The American Citizen (Part 2)”

  1. I will concede only one point in Hopkins’ arguments. In pre-Civil War days, the lot of a “free Negro” living in the South, if without benefit of a trade or a way of making a living, might be hard. But if “Negroes” were indeed incapable of rising to the level of the white population, as Hopkins states, it was because the white population, North and South, was determined to keep them in their “inferior” condition, with little chance of advancement. One wonders whether Hopkins had any actual exposure to Southern slavery, other than his carefully curated experiences gained through his Southern Episcopal Bishop keepers.

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