In Honor of Asa S. Wing: An Address Delivered in Mexico, New York, on September 11, 1855
IN HONOR OF ASA S. WING: AN ADDRESS DELIVERED IN MEXICO, NEW YORK, ON 11 SEPTEMBER 1855
Frederick Douglass' Paper, 21 September 1855. Other texts in Address by Frederick Douglass, and Poem by A. C. Hills, Delivered at the Erection of the Wing Monument at Mexico, Oswego County, N.Y., Sept. 11th, 1855 (Syracuse, 1855); Speech File, reel 14, frames 154—66, FD Papers, DLC.
On I I September 1855, “friends of Freedom” erected a monument of shaded Italian marble, inscribed with the words “HE TRUSTED IN GOD AND LOVED HIS NEIGHBOR,” to the memory of Asa S. Wing. A popular local abolitionist and follower of Gerrit Smith, Wing had died of tuberculosis in March 1854 at the age of thirty-eight. The memorial services took place in Mexico, New York, in a grove adjacent to the burial grounds. Between two thousand and three thousand people assembled to pay tribute to Wing, a gathering that, according to town residents, “had never more than once been equalled in that place.” Charles Gardener Case of Fulton, New York, Wing’s “friend and benefactor,” opened the proceedings, and Luther Lee, a Wesleyan Methodist minister, offered a prayer. A choir then sang a hymn written for the occasion by John Pierpont of Boston. Douglass delivered the eulogy, a speech that the Syracuse Chronicle called “a most beautiful and appropriate address, referring in terms of high praise and touching eloquence, to the noble and self-sacrificing life of Mr. Wing." After A. C. Hills, a reporter for the Syracuse Chronicle, recited a poem in Wing’s honor. the audience again called for Douglass, who spoke briefly of the situation in Kansas and of his opposition to President Franklin Pierce. After taking a collection, Wing’s friends and admirers moved to the cemetery, “where the cap-stone was placed upon the monument, a few remarks were made by Mr. Douglass, and an appropriate hymn was sung.” Douglass’s eulogy and Hills’s poem appeared soon after in pamphlet form. New York Daily Tribune, 14 September 1855.
Fellow-Citizens, and Friends of Liberty: A sacred and grateful purpose brings us here to—day. A sentiment of no common character, and one altogether creditable to the human heart, has assembled this eager, listening multitude. The love of pomp and vainglorious display, comes not hither for its empty gratification. Higher considerations, nobler purposes, holier associations, attract us here.
We have met around the sleeping dust of our beloved brother, ASA S. WING,1Asa S. Wing (1816—54), a popular orator in New York state political abolitionist circles, resided in or near Mexico, Oswego County, New York, and was educated at the Mexico Military Academy. An active abolitionist for most of his adult life, he served as a lecturer and agent of the moribund New York State Anti-Slavery Society from 1843 to 1848. Despite a close association with the Liberty party faction led by Gerrit Smith, Wing campaigned for the Free Soil presidential candidates in 1848 and 1852. Wing himself was elected a justice of the peace in Oswego County on a Democratic—Free Soil coalition slate in 1850. He also was an active religious reformer and was expelled from his Baptist congregation for advocating that all Christians unite in a single church. Beyond the information in the present speech, little is known about the relationship between Wing and Douglass except that they both attended many of the same antislavery gatherings in upstate New York in the early 1850s. Wing‘s name appears as a paid subscriber to Frederick Douglass' Paper for the first and only time in August 1853. Elizabeth Simpson, “Two Famous Abolitionists of Oswego County," Publications of the Oswego Historical Society, 4: 87-91 (1940); John C. Churchill, ed., Landmarks of Oswego County, New York (Syracuse, 1895), 589; Henderson, “New York State Anti—Slavery Society," 372, 382; FDP, 16 January 1851, 10 September, 15 October 1852, 12 August 1853, 26 May 1854. whose pure spirit has been gathered to the bosom of the Eternal
Father, to erect in meekness. and gratitude, a monument to his memory, and to commemorate the virtues, so nobly illustrated in his life.
The occasion is not one for swelling ostentation, in speech. or ceremony. Hollow forms have no place here. The occasion is simple, and yet sublime. The sudden burst of grief which overwhelmed us at the tidings of his departure from us. has subsided, we trust, into a calm resignation to the allotments of the All-Wise, and the All-Good. We can now, in the stillness of our spirits, hover around the dust of our departed brother, and, by cherishing the principles of eternal goodness, which made his name dear to us, be brought into blissful communion with him. By linking himself to these principles, our departed brother has allied himself to the good and true on earth, and in heaven, for time, and for eternity. The immortal bard has told us,
“The evil that men do, lives after them;
The good is often interred with their bones.”2Douglass paraphrases lines from Julius Caesar, act 3, sc. 2, lines 75—76.
Higher authority hath said, “the righteous die, and no man layeth it to heart.”3Douglass paraphrases Isa. 57: l: “The righteous perisheth, and no man layeth it to heart." It is a sad thought, and would it had fewer illustrations! Wealth, power, and worldly greatness, birth, rank, and station, dazzle the world, and attract the wonder and admiration of the multitude. Simple and unadorned goodness, precious. and pure, too often passes unobserved, and unappreciated.
The pages of History teem with lofty praises of the dead. Marble columns, of snowy whiteness, polished and beautified by the hand of the cunning artificer, adorned with endless devices, expressive of ideas, and covered from base to summit, with deeds esteemed noble, stud the cemeteries
of the civilized world. It is not an alien sentiment which erects these monuments. It is native to the human heart, and among the holiest of all. It is composed of two elements. pious gratitude on the one hand, and an earnest desire to perpetuate illustrious examples of “whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest. whatsoever things are just. whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are of good report,”4Douglass quotes most of Phil. 4: 8. omitting the phrase “whatsoever things are lovely." and to make them the property of posterity.
Sad, indeed, will be the condition of the living, when they fall so low as to cease to venerate the lives and deeds of the noble dead. The virtues brilliantly illustrated by those who go before us, are given as lamps to the feet of aftercoming generations. They light us through the dark, and much entangled wilderness of life. By their hallowed illumination, we may walk, with firmer tread, and more courageous faith, through the perils that await us in time.
We do well to cultivate this sentiment. [t is a distinguishing attribute of our Nature. It separates us from all other creatures of earth, and attests that man is, indeed, but “made a little lower than the Angels.”5Douglass quotes Ps. 8: 5. It imparts dignity to human nature, and makes the lives of the great and good, of all ages, contemporary with our own, and co-workers with us.
This sentiment is not always wise, not always discriminating, and intelligent. The world is full of proofs of its blindness. Like the sentiment of religion, to which it is closely united, it has erected its idols, in uncounted numbers, and filled the world with innumerable idol worshippers. Tyrants and oppressors, usurpers of authority, men who have drenched the earth with blood, and rode to high places upon the necks of fallen millions, have their monuments. Men go [on] pilgrimages to see them. The just, pure, and good, the noble, and self-sacrificing, have seldom been made the subjects of the operation of this grateful and sublime sentiment of our nature. Hitherto, it has spent itself upon mighty men, men of great renown, paying little attention to the question whether its object were a benefactor, or a destroyer of the human race, a martyr to Freedom, or a murderer of Liberty. Nevertheless, we honor the sentiment, and will not discard it, though its abuses swell the whole volume of History, and glare upon us in every street of the great City.
It is ominous of better days for the world, when posterity rears monuments to the benefactors of mankind, when the philanthropic reformer, confined to the humble walks of life, unknown to civil, or military honors,
undistinguished for letters, or wealth, is so clasped to the hearts of men by the bonds of simple goodness, that, with one accord, they flock to the place of his burial, to pay the homage of their grateful respect, and to hand down his virtues to posterity, engraven in solid marble.
It is consoling to know, that, amid the gorgeous columns of Westminster, where monuments are erected to kings and princes, lords and dukes, and mighty men of war, in endless profusion, the eye of the philanthropist may, even there, find some memorial of Philanthropy, a CLARKSON, a WILBERFORCE,6Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce. Of whom it hath been said ‘ ‘they went up to heaven, with a million of broken fetters in their arms, as evidence of life well-spent.”
It was the privilege of your speaker, two weeks before the death of THOMAS CLARKSON, to see the face, to feel the hand of that venerable man. Nearly eighty-seven years had passed over him, and shed their silvery dust upon his brow. Sixty years of his long life had been given to the Cause of the enslaved. The sight of such a man was compensation for a voyage across the sea. I shall never forget the impression which the voice, and words, and manner, which this venerable servant of the Cause of Liberty, made upon my mind and heart. There was no abatement in his pity for the slave, or in his zeal for Emancipation. Taking my right hand into his, trembling with age, though he was, he said to me in a firm voice, and, as if with lungs even now invigorated, by the pure airs of Paradise, “GO ON, GO ON; I THANK GOD THAT YOU HAVE BEEN RAISED UP TO PLEAD THE CAUSE OF YOUR DOWN-TRODDEN BRETHREN. TO THAT CAUSE, I HAVE GIVEN MORE THAN SIXTY YEARS OF MY LIFE; AND IF I HAD ANOTHER LIFE To LIVE, IT SHOULD BE SACREDLY DEVOTED TO THE SAME HOLY CAUSE.”7Douglass visited Thomas Clarkson on 20 August 1846 in company with William Lloyd Garrison and George Thompson. Clarkson died slightly more than one month later. Douglass presented a detailed description of the meeting, similar to the account given here. in Life and Times, 269—70. Garrison to Clarkson, 19, 26 August 1846, in Walter M. Merrill and Louis Ruchames, eds., The Letters of William Lloyd Garrison, 6 vols. (Cambridge, Mass, 1971—81), 3: 380—81; 385—86 (hereafter cited as Garrison Letters).
Clarkson is gone to his rest. His name and his works are full of hope, comfort and admonition. His life was a long one, full of peril. It was given unto him, to behold both the seedtime and the harvest of the Cause to which his great life was devoted. ln Liverpool and in Bristol, his life was sought by the enemies of Freedom. He, however, lived to see the desire of his soul, and could lay down life with the feeling expressed by Simeon, “Now, Lord lettest thou, thy servant, depart in peace, for mine eyes have seen thy Salvation.”8Douglass paraphrases portions of Luke 2: 29—30.
Very different is the history of our beloved brother, over whom we meet to—day. Cut down in the midst of his days, in the midst of his plans and purposes, with the great battle for Freedom for which he struggled, increasing in vastness, grandeur. and majesty. a noble martyr.
My friends; reluctant as l was to occupy this place to-day, and many as there are better fitted to do justice to the memory of our friend, I was not slow to perceive a fitness in your selection, in one respect. I knew ASA S. WING. I loved ASA S. WING. Our acquaintance was short; but a nature so transparent as his, required less of time than opportunity to understand it. Such opportunity I had; and I think men seldom reach a better understanding of each other’s qualities, than I possessed of his. I think I never met a man, in whom the fountains of benevolence and sympathy with the injured, were deeper and purer. Certainly, I never met with a zeal more noble, untiring, and invincible, than his. To him it was allotted to possess a spirit greatly beyond the strength of his physical constitution. The earnestness of his sympathy, the warmth of his temperament, his natural abhorrence of oppression, and the coldness and indifference manifested on all sides to the overshadowing and stupendous crime of Slavery, deeply disturbed him, and swept him on, to labors far too arduous for his slender frame. Night after night, and day after day, in wet, and in dry, in heat and in cold, and in all weathers, he poured out his life for the perishing slave, pleading for him with an earnestness and an eloquence which could scarcely have been more direct. pathetic, and touching, had his own wife and children been on the auction block.
This self-denying and self-forgetful toil to which you, my friends, can all bear witness, finally destroyed his health, and brought on that fatal disease, which, at last, has numbered him with the dead. He died a martyr, a glorious martyr, to the cause of Emancipation, the cause of the poor, the suffering, and the dumb, and he was true to those dumb millions, while he could raise a single whisper from his shattered frame.
ASA S. WING, while making no pretensions, (for he was, eminently, a modest man,) held no second rank among the powerful minds which early espoused the cause of the slave in this State. His education was limited, and very deﬁcient. He was a self-made man, a self-taught genius, cradled among the humble, without any of the adventitious helps to which most men owe their distinction. Obscurity, and poverty, like huge giants, confronted him at the very beginning of his career. He bravely met both. He conquered the one, and was not overwhelmed by the other. A peculiarity of his mind, was its power to grapple with the abstract, the purely intellectual, without at all losing sight of the concrete, or the practical. Few could
surpass him in disentangling the simple truth from the web of sophistry; and few could call to their aid, a mightier cloud of sublime Ideas, than he, when pressing a great truth home upon the hearts of men.
I knew our friend, mostly, since he was shorn of his physical strength, and while the fatal disease which removed him from us was asserting its mastery over his frame. There is something very disheartening, and dispiriting, about that disorder; I know of nothing more depressing to the mind than the pain attending the utterance of one’s thoughts, while afflicted with bronchitis. Yet, while our friend spoke but in whispers, his whispers were often far more weighty than other men’s thunders.
I have said that ASA S. WING was a modest man. This was a marked peculiarity in his character. Eminently fitted to teach, and possessing fine powers of expression, a memory which held with relentless grasp every important fact and idea, which fell in its way, yet he was often silent and retiring, where men less gifted than himself were vocal and prominent. He has often surprised me by consulting my opinion on matters about which I would have far more readily relied upon his judgment than my own. He seldom came to Rochester, during his latter days without visiting me, at my office, and exchanging thoughts with me on subjects connected with the great cause of Emancipation. His mind and heart were absorbed with it, and although struggling against disease, disappointments, and poverty, his sympathy for the slave did not spend itself in mere words. His scantily ﬁlled purse was as open as his heart to the cause. I have often begged him to receive my paper free, but he would never consent to do so. He insisted that I could not print my paper for nothing.
The character of our friend has no more brilliant aspect, than in the illustration which it presents of a modest, yet self-relying independence. If he received assistance from any during his long afﬂiction, it was only because it was generously offered from those to whom it was a privilege to give, and to whom it would have been an afﬂiction not to give.
Among the first conversations I had with him concerning his worldly circumstances, he spoke of the assistance rendered him by Mr. Charles G. Case, and Mr. Chesboro of the town of Trelton,9Charles Gardener Case (?—1875) and Thomas W. Chesbro (?—1885) were business partners in the village of Fulton (not “Trelton”), Oswego County, New York. The firm of Case and Chesbro operated the Genesee Mills in Fulton and undertook several construction projects on nearby canals. Case also was a member of the Wesleyan Methodist Connection, a small antislavery sect, and contributed generously to its institutions. Matthew Simpson. ed, Cyclopedia of Methodism, 5th ed. rev. (Philadelphia, 1882), 170; Churchill, Landmarks of Oswego County, 787, 799-800; FDP, 2 October 1851, 21 September 1855. and by Gerrit Smith, of
Peterboro, in terms, and in a manner which shewed his heart to be all alive with sincere gratitude. Those words of his, dropped in confidence. revealed to me the man. Though a living martyr. beholding the speedy approach of death, he was calm. cheerful. uncomplaining. I do not remember, in all our conversations. (and we had many,) to have heard a single word of complaint from his lips.
I stand in the midst of the friends and relatives of ASA S. WING. You know his character. and appreciate his virtues. There is little necessity for elaborate description of the one, or enumeration of the other. Endeared to you as a friend, and neighbor, he was chiefly endeared to me by his devotion to the cause of Liberty. and Humanity. It is his connection with this cause, espoused as it was by him, when it had few friends. and many enemies. and when it required the sacrifice of reputation and all worldly prospects. that makes his name worthy to be handed down to posterity with those of LOVEJOY, TORREY,10 Elijah Parish Lovejoy and Charles Turner Torrey. and MYRON HOLLEY.11Myron Holley (1779-1841), one of the founders of the Liberty party, was born in Salisbury, Connecticut, and educated at Williams College. After practicing law briefly in his native state, he moved to Canandaigua, New York, where he operated a bookstore, served as county clerk, and won election to the New York General Assembly. An early supporter of the Erie Canal. Holley was appointed a member and treasurer of the canal commission in I8I6 and successfully supervised the project until 1824, when he resigned after the discovery of a deficiency in his accounts. Although later found blameless of any crime, he reimbursed the state from his own funds. A leading Anti-Mason, Holley attended that party's 1830 national convention in Philadelphia and authored its Address. . . to the People of the United States. Between 1831 and 1835 be edited two party organs, the Lyons (N.Y.) Countryman and the Hartford (Conn.) Free Elector. Relocating in Rochester, New York, Holley delivered his first antislavery speech in February 1838 and the following winter served as an antislavery lecturer. In June 1839 he began publication of the Rochester Freeman. Disenchanted with both the Whigs and the Democrats, Holley urged the organization of a separate antislavery party, winning support for that position at various county and state abolitionist conventions in 1839. At the national antislavery convention held in Albany in April 1840 he successfully introduced the resolution calling for the nomination of a slate of antislavery candidates for national office. Holley actively campaigned for James G. Birney, the presidential nominee of the new Liberty party. [Elizur Wright, Jr.], Myron
Holley; And What He Did for Liberty and True Religion (Boston, 1882), 29—35, 152— 201, 22--75; Henderson, “New York State Anti-Slavery Society," 234-43, 296—301; Sewell, Ballots For Freedom, 54-58, 61, 66-71; ACAB, 3: 236; DAB, 9: 150—51.
Mr. Wing was a young man; and it is some consolation that, young as he was, it was his privilege to give nearly twenty years of his life to the cause of Philanthropy. Many, during his useful career, have risen and fallen. The history of this cause, like most others, is strewn all along with wrecks. To him is the high honor due. which results from faithful endurance to the end.
He did not shrink from the perils and hardships of the cause, in the day
of small things. He dared to be called an Abolitionist, when the demon Slavery made inquisition for blood, and mob-violence howled from one end of the State, to the other.
He clung to the cause in its martyr age, and had the satisfaction of seeing it rise to power and respectability. Any man can espouse a popular truth; the few, only, espouse unpopular truths. When a cause is hated, persecuted, reviled, despised and helpless,
“Then to side with truth is noble, when we share her wretched
Ere her cause bring fame and profit, and ’tis prosperous to be just;
Then it is the brave man chooses, while the coward stands aside,
Doubting in his abject spirit, till his Lord is crucified;
And the multitude make virtue of the faith they had denied.12Douglass quotes the eleventh verse of “The Present Crisis." Writings of James Russell Lowell, 7: 182.