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Cuyler Tanner to Frederick Douglass, April 22, 1848



Dear Douglass:ーIn looking over your paper of the 7th inst., I saw, under the head of "Reminiscences of a Slave," a thing that grieved me much. In a fictitious work (written by an ex-judge of Otsego county,) entitled the "Life and Opinions of Julius Melbourne, a reputed Slave, with sketches of opinions of several eminent gentlemen upon the subject of slavery," the late Rev. John Leland, of Berkshire, Mass., is introduced and made to stand as the representative of all the thin-souled pro-slavery clergy of the free States of this Union.

Having enjoyed religious instructions from Elder Leland during forty years of my life, and, now that he is dead, have a volume of 740 pages of his posthumous works before me. I feel assured that nothing could have been farther from the head or heart of that eminent disciple of Christ, than to be, in any sense, the advocate of slavery. That Elder Leland was acquainted with slavery, is true, having lived in Virginia from 1776 to 1790, a period of 14 years, during which time he travelled over most of the State, and preached with great success to people of all colors and conditions. He baptized during that period 700 persons, including many slaves. In negro quarters, and all other quarters where sin and misery abounded, there he was never ashamed to be found in the active pursuit of his ministerial duties, always depending upon the labor of his own hands and the voluntary contributions of the people for his support.

Although he lived to be 86 years old, and devoted 67 of them to preaching the gospel, he never locked up meeting houses, nor gave encouragement to ruffian mobs with brickbats and rotten eggs, to put down arguments that he might have deemed erroneous, but was always ready to meet every question of public interest openly, in broad day, in free discussion, often repeating a favorite maxim of his, that "error ceases to be dangerous when truth is left free to combat it." If Elder Leland viewed the African people of our country as the weaker class, as it is very probable he did, that circumstance alone was sufficient to enlist his whole soul in their cause, and against their oppressors, believing, as did many patriots of his day, that "resistance to tyrants was obedience to God." On leaving Virginia in 1791, at the close of his labors in that State, he published a valedictory address to the people, in which he says:

"Before I close, I wish to add a word in behalf of the poor negroes, and speak for those who are not suffered to speak for themselves. I am heartily glad that the spirit of masters has greatly abated since I have been in Virginia. It is now confessed by many that negroes can feel injuries, hunger, pain and weariness, and I hope this spark of good fire will be raised to a flame in due time. I confess that I am not as much shocked to see them naked, gaunt and trembling, as I was when I came into the State. The abject subordination, and things relative thereto, do not affect me as they once did, so fatal are bad customs; but I can never be reconciled to the keeping of them; nor can I endure to see one man strip and whip another, as free by nature as himself, without the interference of a magistrate, or any being or thing to check his turbulent will. ー Slavery, in its best appearance, is a violent deprivation of the rights of nature, inconsistent with republican government, destructive of every human and benevolent passion of the soul, and subversive of that liberty absolutely necessary to ennoble the human mind. Let me ask whether heaven has nothing better in store for these poor negroes than those galling chains? If so, ye ministers of Jesus, and saints of the Most High, ye wrestling Jacobs, who have power with God, and can prevail over the angels, let your prayers, your ardent prayers, ascend to the throne of God incessantly, that he may pour the blessing of freedom upon the poor blacks. How would every heart rejoice to see the halcyon day appear, the great jubilee usher in when the poor slaves, with a Moses at their head, should hoist up their standard, and march out of bondage! Or what would be still more elating, to see the power of the gospel so effectual, that the lion and the lamb should be together; all former insults and revenges forgotten; the name of master and slave be buried; every yoke broken, and the oppressed go free but not empty away!"

In a pamphlet entitled the Virginia Chronicle, published in 1790, Elder Leland has given to the world a more extended view of slavery, from which I beg leave to extract a few sentences to show his extreme unlikeness to that portion of the American clergy which the author of the above fiction intended he should represent:

"The whole scene of slavery is pregnant with enormous evils. On the master's side, pride, haughtiness, domination, cruelty, deceit, and indolence; and on the side of the slave, ignorance, servility, fraud, perfidy and despair. If these and many other evils attend it, why not liberate them at once?ーWould to Heaven this were done! The sweets of rural and social life will never be enjoyed until it is the case. The voice of reason (or perhaps the voice of covetousness) says it is not the work of a day; time is necessary to accomplish the important work. A political evil requires political measures to reform."

Again, after speaking of some imaginary obstacles to their emancipation, he says:

"But one thing is pretty certain, that fancy can hardly point out how they could serve the whites worse than the whites now serve them. Something must be done! May Heaven point out that something, and may the people be obedient. If they are not brought out of bondage in mercy, with the consent of their master, I think they will be, by judgment, against their consent."

"The poor slaves, under all their hardships, discover as great inclination for religion as the free-born do. When they engage in the service of God, they spare no pains. It is nothing strange for them to walk twenty miles on Sunday morning to meeting, and back again at night. They are remarkable for learning a tune soon, and have very melodious voices."

In an address delivered at North Adams, Mass., Elder Leland, in speaking of colonization and emancipation, said:

"The negro question, in one view of it, has been quiet ever since the admission of Missouri to the Union: but in another view, it agitates the public mind. Some of the negroes in the United States have been imported from Africa, but most of them are American born. Some have descended from American parents more than ten generations. America is all the country they know, in which the bones and dust of their ancestors lie buried. All their relations and attachments are here.ーWhy then ship them to Liberia? How sacrilegious! Why not liberate them, and let them form into States, and treat them as sister States?

"When the grand emancipation is accomplished, and the black citizens have formed into a State or States, within the existing States, or in the Western Hemisphere, there will be no need to send any among them to teach them how to till the land, raise flocks and herds, or use the tools of mechanism, for these things they understand. As many of them are good readers, they can keep their own schools, and the good gospel preachers among them will supersede the necessity of costly missionaries."

The patriotic and Christian labors of Elder Leland closed on the 13th January, 1841, and to guard against all errors that might rise, and to confirm forever the great doctrines of his whole life, he prepared the following epitaph to be inscribed upon his grave:

of Cheshire,
Who labored 67 years to promote piety,
and vindicate the civil and
religious rights of

We will now see how the above sentiments will compare with what the Ex-Judge and "Late Member of Congress," in his fictitious tale, has put into the mouth of this eminent statesman and Christian.

"And I," said Mr. Leland, "say he ought not to be emancipated. I do not predicate my opinion on the anatomical discoveries of Dr. Mitchell, but I think the negroes are the children of Ham, and according to the Bible, they are doomed to be the servants of servants. Besides, I am convinced from my own observation, and I have had a pretty good opportunity to observe, for I was two years a missionary in the slaveholding States for a Massachusetts Baptist association, that the blacks are altogether inferior to the whites. They are, I assure you, low-minded and beastly in their propensities. They desire nothing but to eat, drink, fiddle, laugh, sleep and dance. For my part, I regard them as a mongrel species, half man and half ape."

As the book above alluded to is put forth under the auspices of a respected citizen, and as many of its readers will regard it as generally accurate in its illustrations of the distinguished characters alluded to, I have deemed the above extracts from the Works of Elder Leland worthy of publication, as a just defence against the foulest of all aspersions that could be cast upon the name of that highly distinguished Christian and patriot.


Richfield, N.Y. April 22.


Tanner, Cuyler




Cuyler Tanner to Frederick Douglass. PLSr: NS, 2 June 1848. Defends the Reverend John Leland.


This document was calendared in the published volume and has not been published in full before.


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