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By Samuel Seabury
[Grandson of the first American Episcopal bishop]
The evil of sectional agitation, foreshadowed by the Father of this country, is upon us; and the North and the South are arrayed the one against the other.
One of the sources of our dissensions (in my judgment the original and chief source) is the opinion that has been extensively propagated, that slavery is a moral and social evil; that is (though the words are not generally used in their full significance), that it is wrong in morals and disgraceful in Christian and civilized society.
The fact that the Constitution of the United States covers Slave States as well as Free, is reason enough, in my opinion, why every man that lives under it should assume slavery to be neither morally wrong nor socially disreputable. Slavery is no more forbidden by Scripture than by the Constitution, but is permitted by both; and I can not but think that modesty and good sense should have taught all citizens and all Christians who could not see the reason of the permission, to take it on the authority of the Constitution of their country and the Rule of their Faith, without an appeal to a higher law.
It is clearly repugnant to the genius of our government to mix up questions of morality, religion, and social life. with our national politics; and, as slavery, in some of its bearings, is a legitimate and often necessary object of municipal legislation, it is the more to be regretted that it should be complicated with questions of morality, religion, and social reputation. Nevertheless, this has been done; and the natural consequences have followed;—rancor, and hatred, and deeply rooted alienations, such as no merely political discussions could engender.
My aim is to help to withdraw from this vexed controversy, if it be possible, its moral, religious, and social element; that thus slavery, when it is made an object of national legislation, may he discussed and disposed of on merely economical and political grounds.
But to do any thing effectively in this way, it is necessary to take decided ground. The political differences on this subject may be accommodated by mutual concession and compromise, consistently with self-respect. But it is not so with the moral and social question. No bridge of compromise can be thrown over the chasm that separates truth, justice, and honor, from falsehood, injustice, and shame. The relation of master and slave, and the claim of property involved in it, are either just and honorable, or unjust and base; and hence I see no other way to adjust the differences that exist in reference to this phase of the subject than to induce men to examine and decide, on rational grounds, the right or wrong of the question, before they attempt to heal the exacerbations that grow out of it.
In this country we have come very naturally to appropriate the word slavery to that form of servitude which exists among ourselves. To know what the word slavery means in our use of it we must first inquire what this form of servitude is; not what it is vaguely and in its accidents and abuses. but what it is precisely and in its essence. And the definition must be in accordance with facts; that is, it must express, not what slavery has been in other times and places, nor what it may be or might have been, but what it actually is in our own country and at the present time.
I have defined a slave to be a person who is related to society through another person--a master--to whom he owes reasonable service for life and from whom he is entitled to receive support and protection. This definition I believe to be in accordance with facts; in other words, I believe that those persons called slaves in our Southern States are persons born on the soil and under such circumstances (circumstances not of our choosing but of God's ordering) that a debt of service is the very condition of their life. For we are not a nation of pirates and freebooters; we do not fit out vessels against an ignorant and unoffending people to seize them and import them into our country, and reduce them to bondage. We have never done this; our mother country has never done it; no nation in modern Europe has done it. The work has been done by combinations of lawless men. And although Great Britain may have been remiss and tardy in restraining such violence, yet we. in this respect, have no ground of self-reproach. For, from the very beginning of our Confederacy, we took means to arrest this evil, and. as soon as practicable, enacted stringent laws, with a view to its suppression. More than fifty years—nearly two generations—have passed since these laws were in force. However much, therefore, we may lament and condemn the way in which slavery originated in our country, or the accessions (comparatively very small) which have since been made to it in the same way, yet we are not responsible for either; we gave no sanction to the former, and have done all that we could do to prevent the latter. We are, therefore, entitled to throw out of the account both the origin of slavery, and the few and accidental accessions it may receive from acts of violence which our laws prohibit; and to declare the slaves of our country to be, what in truth and fact they are, a class of persons born and grown on our soil, under an obligation of service which the laws of God and man require them to fulfill.
In bringing the question to the arbitrament of Scripture, it is proper to distinguish that form of slavery for which we hold ourselves responsible, as, from all other forms, so, particularly, from that unjust deprivation of liberty which is effected by lawless violence.
When St. Paul enjoins servants to obey their masters in all things, he uses a word for servants (doulos), which comprises several sorts of persons restrained of liberty, and his precept is, consequently, to be taken in a sense suited to the condition of that class of servants to which it may be applied. On prisoners and captives held by lawless violence. or subject to absolute power, he enjoins obedience as an alleviation of their unhappy lot, which would be aggravated by resistance, and rendered more tolerable by patience and submission. On those who are bound to service, either for a term of time or for life, the precept must be understood to enjoin obedience according to the nature and condition of the service to which they are bound. To slaves of the former class, i. e. to prisoners or captives who have been forcibly and unjustly seized and compelled to labor, at the oar for example, or in the mines. he would say: Obey your masters in all things, as becomes your sad condition, and make your chains as easy as you can, by your compliance and submission. To slaves of the latter class, i. e., to persons who are justly bound to service, either for a term of time or for life, he would be understood to say: Obey your masters in all things according to the contract, express or implied, by which you are bound: or to use Bishop Fleetwood's paraphrase: "Behave yourselves to your masters as diligently and faithfully as you have promised them to do; or by the custom of the place (in which you live) are presumed to have promised them."*
Now, if the slavery which exists in our country were upheld in violation of right and justice, although we might, after the example of the Apostles, inculcate on the slave the duty of patience and submission, yet we should be constrained to confess that the relation in which he stood was unnatural, and that the authority to which he was subjected was a usurpation. But, as I offer no apology for this kind of slavery, and have no need to press into my support those precepts which require of the slave what, indeed, is required of every man, patience and submission to the hardships of his lot, so I am not solicitous to repel the inferences which may be drawn from these precepts, in this sense of them, to show the injustice and impiety of slavery and slaveholders.
In appealing to the Scriptures, therefore, the question on which I would insist is, whether that form of slavery which I have defined. and which is known to exist in our country, be, or be not forbidden in the Scriptures? If it be, then all our reasonings in its defense are delusive, and must go for nothing: if it be not, then we are at liberty to uphold it; to regard the relation of master and slave, as it exists among us, as a lawful relation; and to consider it as fairly coming under those apostolical precepts which enjoin masters to be gentle and forbearing, and which enjoin servants to "obey their masters in all things," not in that sense which requires of them patience and submission under usurped authority, but in the other sense, which requires them to be diligent and faithful in a service which they are bound to perform.
Now, it is readily admitted that the form of slavery for which the American people are (a large portion of them directly) responsible, contains some features that are exceedingly repulsive to those who are accustomed to no other restraints of personal liberty than such as are imposed by the municipal law of the country in which they live. It gives the master, not indeed an absolute, but a large discretionary power over his servants; vests him with a right to their labor for life, and allows him to transfer this right to others; to invest any purchaser he may please with the same power over the bodies of his servants which he possesses himself. This certainly is a power liable to fearful abuses. It may seem to us antecedently probable that our blessed Lord, who came to reform the world, would never allow His followers to be clothed with such power: would forbid them, under all circumstances, to hold, or claim to hold a right to the service or labor of other men for life, and to the use of their natural liberty; or at least, if He suffered them to claim and hold this right, that He would not permit them to transfer it to a stranger for money. But we are in no sort judges beforehand of what it was fit for our Lord to do. It may, for aught we know, have seemed good to Him that some of His followers should be entrusted with this large power for their more effectual probation; for the development, possibly, of virtues which could not otherwise be manifested, and for a demonstration to the world of the efficacy of His gospel in restraining and regulating an authority which, before His time, had been abused beyond measure, and almost beyond belief. We are totally incompetent to judge beforehand what regulations it was proper for Him to make on this subject. Our inquiry is, or ought to be, simply into the facts of the case. Has our Lord in fact interdicted this sort of power and authority to His followers? Have His apostles done so? Did His Church do so in the age succeeding the apostles, when their infractions were remembered, and best understood?
Now, the fact is, that we have no prohibition of this sort, either from our Lord, or from His apostles, or from the ancient Church. Certainly there was no want of occasion or opportunity for such prohibition. The purchase and sale of the right to the use of men's labor and liberty, or property in men, as it is commonly, though vaguely called, had been permitted among the Hebrews, and was a matter of every day practice among the Greeks and Romans; it could not possibly have escaped the observation of our Lord and his apostles, nor could its fearful abuses have been unknown to them. And yet the fact is, that there is nothing in the Scriptures of the New Testament which either expressly, or by implication, forbids it.
But the prohibition, though neither expressed or implied in the letter of the New Testament, is found by some in its spirit. There were evils, it is said, which Christ, for wise reasons, did not specifically and directly forbid, but left to be gradually restrained, and finally abolished by the silent and indirect influence of His gospel, or of those general principles which He has enunciated in His gospel. Such evils were polygamy, war, and slavery.
I shall not stop to question the legitimacy of the theory here implied. I shall admit, for argument's sake, that our Blessed Lord, while proclaiming all needful truth of a general nature, reserved some doctrine, of a more specific kind, which the world was not then in a temper to receive, and entrusted it to His apostles and their successors to be afterwards unfolded and applied, in the shape of positive or negative precept, as men would be able to bear it. To be sure, this is commonly thought to be a very Papistical tenet; but the odium attached to the avowal of it will be considerably lightened when it is shared in common with Protestants of the Independent persuasion. But I must be permitted to question the applicability of the theory to the case in hand. I do not believe that our Lord reserved any doctrine to be authoritatively developed by Protestants in Women"s Rights, Moral Reform, Temperance, or Anti-Slavery Societies. Whatever I may think of the developments of Rome and Trent (and they are not here in question), I must be allowed to distrust those that come from Providence, Rhode Island, or from Oberlin, in whatever State or Territory Oberlin may be.
The upshot of the matter is, as it seems to me, that Christianity neither enjoins nor forbids slavery, but leaves men entirely free, so that they restrain themselves within the bounds of justice and rectitude, either to discourage and abolish it, or to establish and uphold it as the public good may require.
The plan of my work does not require me to do more than establish this negative conclusion. A strong affirmative argument, indeed, might easily be made to show that the Scriptures, both of the Old and New Testament, expressly recognize and sanction slavery: but this argument has been so often and so luminously stated, and, indeed, the fact is so apparent on the very face of the Scriptures, that I deem it quite superfluous to swell my pages with references and quotations designed to establish it.** Besides, the aim of my argument has been to show that that form of servitude which exists under the laws of some of our States, and under the Constitution of the United States, is consistent with natural justice; and if the argument is sound, slavery must stand unless the Scriptures forbid it. That "the New Testament contains no precept prohibitory of slavery" is expressly affirmed by the ablest of the New England abolitionists; and what they insist on is that the prohibition, though not given in any precept, is yet contained in the principles of the New Testament, of course as developed and applied by themselves. Their arguments are misty and confused, and it is about as hard to seize and explain them, as it would be to bottle and analyze the dense fog that sometimes hangs over their coast. But, as far as I could catch their meaning, I have given and answered it; and the result is, I think, that the gospel, neither directly nor indirectly, neither by its precepts nor principles, makes slavery a sin; in short, that it contains not a seed or germ to serve them for their new Protestant "development of Christian doctrine."
The Rev. Samuel Seabury, D.D. of New York was appointed to the faculty of General Theological Seminary in 1862. This essay is an abridgment of his book American Slavery, Distinguished from the Slavery of English Theorists, and Justified by the Law of Nature (New York, 1861).
Abridged by John B. Chilton. Chilton is a member of the Race Relations Committee of the Diocese of Virginia.
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