Letter from Wendell Phillips
FROM WENDELL PHILLIPS, ESQ.
BOSTON, April 22, 1845.
My Dear Friend:
You remember the old fable of "The Man and the Lion," where the lion complained that he should not be so misrepresented "when the lions wrote history."
I am glad the time has come when the "lions write history." We have been left long enough to gather the character of slavery from the involuntary evidence of the masters. One might, indeed, rest sufficiently satisfied with what, it is evident, must be, in general, the results of such a relation, without seeking farther to find whether they have followed in every instance. Indeed, those who stare at the half-peck of corn a week, and love to count the lashes on the slave's back, are seldom the "stuff" out of which reformers and abolitionists are to be made. I remember that, in 1838, many were waiting for the results of the West India experiment, before they could come into our ranks. Those "results" have come long ago; but, alas! few of that number have come with them, as converts. A man must be disposed to judge of emancipation by other tests than whether it has increased the produce of sugar,—and to hate slavery for other reasons than because it starves men and whips women,—before he is ready to lay the first stone of his anti-slavery life.
I was glad to learn, in your story, how early the most neglected of God's children waken to a sense of their rights, and of the injustice done them. Experience is a keen teacher; and long before you had mastered your ABC, or knew where the "white sails" of the Chesapeake were bound, you began, I see, to gauge the wretchedness of the slave, not by his hunger and want, not by his lashes and toil, but by the cruel and blighting death which gathers over his soul.
In connection with this, there is one circumstance which makes your recollections peculiarly valuable, and renders your early insight the more remarkable. You come from that part of the country where we are told slavery appears with its fairest features. Let us hear, then, what it is at its best estate—gaze on its bright side, if it has one; and then imagination may task her powers to add dark lines to the picture, as she travels southward to that (for the colored man) Valley of the Shadow of Death, where the Mississippi sweeps along.
Again, we have known you long, and can put the most entire confidence
in your truth, candor, and sincerity. Every one who has heard you
speak has felt, and, I am confident, every one who reads your book will feel,
persuaded that you give them a fair specimen of the whole truth. No one-sided
portrait, — no wholesale complaints, — but strict justice done, whenever
individual kindliness has neutralized, for a moment, the deadly system
with which it was strangely allied. You have been with us, too, some years,
and can fairly compare the twilight of rights, which your race enjoy at the
North, with that "noon of night" under which they labor south of Mason and
Dixon's line. Tell us whether, after all, the half-free colored man of Massachusetts
is worse off than the pampered slave of the rice swamps!
In reading your life, no one can say that we have unfairly picked out
some rare specimens of cruelty. We know that the bitter drops, which even
you have drained from the cup, are no incidental aggravations, no individual
ills, but such as must mingle always and necessarily in the lot of every
slave. They are the essential ingredients, not the occasional results, of the
After all, I shall read your book with trembling for you. Some years
ago, when you were beginning to tell me your real name and birthplace, you
may remember I stopped you, and preferred to remain ignorant of all. With
the exception of a vague description, so I continued, till the other day, when
you read me your memoirs. I hardly knew, at the time, whether to thank you
or not for the sight of them, when I reflected that it was still dangerous, in
Massachusetts, for honest men to tell their names! They say the fathers, in
1776, signed the Declaration of Independence with the halter about their
necks. You, too, publish your declaration of freedom with danger compassing
you around. In all the broad lands which the Constitution of the United
States overshadows, there is no single spot, — however narrow or desolate,
— where a fugitive slave can plant himself and say, "I am safe." The
whole armory of Northern Law has no shield for you. I am free to say that,
in your place, I should throw the MS. into the fire.
You, perhaps, may tell your story in safety, endeared as you are to so
many warm hearts by rare gifts, and a still rarer devotion of them to the
service of others. But it will be owing only to your labors, and the fearless
efforts of those who, trampling the laws and Constitution of the country
under their feet, are determined that they will "hide the outcast," and that
their hearths shall be, spite of the law, an asylum for the oppressed, if, some
time or other, the humblest may stand in our streets, and bear witness in
safety against the cruelties of which he has been the victim.
Yet it is sad to think, that these very throbbing hearts which welcome
your story, and form your best safeguard in telling it, are all beating contrary
to the "statute in such case made and provided." Go on, my dear
friend, till you, and those who, like you, have been saved, so as by fire, from
the dark prison-house, shall stereotype these free, illegal pulses into statutes;
and New England, cutting loose from a blood-stained Union, shall
glory in being the house of refuge for the oppressed; — till we no longer
merely "hide the outcast," or make a merit of standing idly by while he is
hunted in our midst; but, consecrating anew the soil of the Pilgrims as an
asylum for the oppressed, proclaim our welcome to the slave so loudly, that
the tones shall reach every hut in the Carolinas, and make the broken-hearted
bondman leap up at the thought of old Massachusetts.
God speed the day!
Till then, and ever.