The American Tract Society by James Russell Lowell

Story type: Essay


There was no apologue more popular in the Middle Ages than that of the hermit, who, musing on the wickedness and tyranny of those whom the inscrutable wisdom of Providence had intrusted with the government of the world, fell asleep, and awoke to find himself the very monarch whose abject life and capricious violence had furnished the subject of his moralizing. Endowed with irresponsible power, tempted by passions whose existence in himself he had never suspected, and betrayed by the political necessities of his position, he became gradually guilty of all the crimes and the luxury which had seemed so hideous to him in his hermitage over a dish of water-cresses.

The American Tract Society from small beginnings has risen to be the dispenser of a yearly revenue of nearly half a million. It has become a great establishment, with a traditional policy, with the distrust of change and the dislike of disturbing questions (especially of such as would lessen its revenues) natural to great establishments. It had been poor and weak; it has become rich and powerful. The hermit has become king.

If the pious men who founded the American Tract Society had been told that within forty years they would be watchful of their publications, lest, by inadvertence, anything disrespectful might be spoken of the African Slave-trade,–that they would consider it an ample equivalent for compulsory dumbness on the vices of Slavery, that their colporteurs could awaken the minds of Southern brethren to the horrors of St. Bartholomew,–that they would hold their peace about the body of Cuffee dancing to the music of the cart-whip, provided only they could save the soul of Sambo alive by presenting him a pamphlet, which he could not read, on the depravity of the double shuffle,–that they would consent to be fellow members in the Tract Society with him who sold their fellow members in Christ on the auction block, if he agreed with them in condemning Transubstantiation (and it would not be difficult for a gentleman who ignored the real presence of God in his brother man to deny it in the sacramental wafer),–if those excellent men had been told this, they would have shrunk in horror, and exclaimed, “Are thy servants dogs, that they should do these things?”

Yet this is precisely the present position of the Society.

There are two ways of evading the responsibility of such inconsistency. The first is by an appeal to the Society’s Constitution, and by claiming to interpret it strictly in accordance with the rules of law as applied to contracts, whether between individuals or States. The second is by denying that Slavery is opposed to the genius of Christianity, and that any moral wrongs are the necessary results of it. We will not be so unjust to the Society as to suppose that any of its members would rely on this latter plea, and shall therefore confine ourselves to a brief consideration of the other.

In order that the same rules of interpretation should be considered applicable to the Constitution of the Society and to that of the United States, we must attribute to the former a solemnity and importance which involve a palpable absurdity. To claim for it the verbal accuracy and the legal wariness of a mere contract is equally at war with common sense and the facts of the case; and even were it not so, the party to a bond who should attempt to escape its ethical obligation by a legal quibble of construction would be put in coventry by all honest men. In point of fact, the Constitution was simply the minutes of an agreement among certain gentlemen, to define the limits within which they would accept trust funds, and the objects for which they should expend them.

But if we accept the alternative offered by the advocates of strict construction, we shall not find that their case is strengthened. Claiming that where the meaning of an instrument is doubtful, it should be interpreted according to the contemporary understanding of its framers, they argue that it would be absurd to suppose that gentlemen from the Southern States would have united to form a society that included in its objects any discussion of the moral duties arising from the institution of Slavery. Admitting the first part of their proposition, we deny the conclusion they seek to draw from it. They are guilty of a glaring anachronism in assuming the same opinions and prejudices to have existed in 1825 which are undoubtedly influential in 1858. The Anti-slavery agitation did not begin until 1831, and the debates in the Virginia Convention prove conclusively that six years after the foundation of the Tract Society, the leading men in that State, men whose minds had been trained and whose characters had been tempered in that school of action and experience which was open to all during the heroic period of our history, had not yet suffered such distortion of the intellect through passion and such deadening of the conscience through interest, as would have prevented their discussing either the moral or the political aspects of Slavery, and precluded them from uniting in any effort to make the relation between master and slave less demoralizing to the one and less imbruting to the other.

Again, it is claimed that the words of the Constitution are conclusive, and that the declaration that the publications of the Society shall be such as are “satisfactory to all Evangelical Christians” forbids by implication the issuing of any tract which could possibly offend the brethren in Slave States. The Society, it is argued, can publish only on topics about which all Evangelical Christians are agreed, and must, therefore, avoid everything in which the question of politics is involved. But what are the facts about matters other than Slavery? Tracts have been issued and circulated in which Dancing is condemned as sinful; are all Evangelical Christians agreed about this? On the Temperance question, against Catholicism,–have these topics never entered into our politics? The simple truth is that Slavery is the only subject about which the Publishing Committee have felt Constitutional scruples. Till this question arose, they were like men in perfect health, never suspecting that they had any constitution at all; but now, like hypochondriacs, they feel it in every pore, at the least breath from the eastward.

If a strict construction of the words “all Evangelical Christians” be insisted on, we are at a loss to see where the committee could draw the dividing line between what might be offensive and what allowable. The Society publish tracts in which the study of the Scriptures is enforced and their denial to the laity by Romanists assailed. But throughout the South it is criminal to teach a slave to read; throughout the South no book could be distributed among the servile population more incendiary than the Bible, if they could only read it. Will not our Southern brethren take alarm? The Society is reduced to the dilemma of either denying that the African has a soul to be saved, or of consenting to the terrible mockery of assuring him that the way of life is to be found only by searching a book which he is forbidden to open.

If we carry out this doctrine of strict construction to its legitimate results, we shall find that it involves a logical absurdity. What is the number of men whose outraged sensibilities may claim the suppression of a tract? Is the taboo of a thousand valid? Of a hundred? Of ten? Or are tracts to be distributed only to those who will find their doctrine agreeable, and are the Society’s colporteurs to be instructed that a Temperance essay is the proper thing for a total-abstinent infidel, and a sermon on the Atonement for a distilling deacon? If the aim of the Society be only to convert men from sins they have no mind to, and to convince them of errors to which they have no temptation, they might as well be spending their money to persuade schoolmasters that two and two make four, or geometricians that there cannot be two obtuse angles in a triangle. If this be their notion of the way in which the gospel is to be preached, we do not wonder that they have found it necessary to print a tract upon the impropriety of sleeping in church.

But the Society are concluded by their own action; for in 1857 they unanimously adopted the following resolution: “That those moral duties which grow out of the existence of Slavery, as well as those moral evils and vices which it is known to promote and which are condemned in Scripture, and so much deplored by Evangelical Christians, undoubtedly do fall within the province of this Society, and can and ought to be discussed in a fraternal and Christian spirit.” The Society saw clearly that it was impossible to draw a Mason and Dixon’s line in the world of ethics, to divide Duty by a parallel of latitude. The only line which Christ drew is that which parts the sheep from the goats, that great horizon-line of the moral nature of man, which is the boundary between light and darkness. The Society, by yielding (as they have done in 1858) to what are pleasantly called the “objections” of the South (objections of so forcible a nature that we are told the colporteurs were “forced to flee”) virtually exclude the black man, if born to the southward of a certain arbitrary line, from the operation of God’s providence, and thereby do as great a wrong to the Creator as the Episcopal Church did to the artist when without public protest they allowed Ary Scheffer’s Christus Consolator, with the figure of the slave left out, to be published in a Prayer-Book.

The Society is not asked to disseminate Anti-slavery doctrines, but simply to be even-handed between master and slave, and, since they have recommended Sambo and Toney to be obedient to Mr. Legree, to remind him in turn that he also has duties toward the bodies and souls of his bondmen. But we are told that the time has not yet arrived, that at present the ears of our Southern brethren are closed against all appeals, that God in his good time will turn their hearts, and that then, and not till then, will be the fitting occasion to do something in the premises. But if the Society is to await this golden opportunity with such exemplary patience in one case, why not in all? If it is to decline any attempt at converting the sinner till after God has converted him, will there be any special necessity for a tract society at all? Will it not be a little presumptuous, as well as superfluous, to undertake the doing over again of what He has already done? We fear that the studies of Blackstone, upon which the gentlemen who argue thus have entered in order to fit themselves for the legal and constitutional argument of the question, have confused their minds, and that they are misled by some fancied analogy between a tract and an action of trover, and conceive that the one, like the other, cannot be employed till after an actual conversion has taken place.

The resolutions reported by the Special Committee at the annual meeting of 1857, drawn up with great caution and with a sincere desire to make whole the breach in the Society, have had the usual fate of all attempts to reconcile incompatibilities by compromise. They express confidence in the Publishing Committee, and at the same time impliedly condemn them by recommending them to do precisely what they had all along scrupulously avoided doing. The result was just what might have been expected. Both parties among the Northern members of the Society, those who approved the former action of the Publishing Committee and those who approved the new policy recommended in the resolutions, those who favored silence and those who favored speech on the subject of Slavery, claimed the victory, while the Southern brethren, as usual, refused to be satisfied with anything short of unconditional submission. The word Compromise, as far as Slavery is concerned, has always been of fatal augury. The concessions of the South have been like the “With all my worldly goods I thee endow” of a bankrupt bridegroom, who thereby generously bestows all his debts upon his wife, and as a small return for his magnanimity consents to accept all her personal and a life estate in all her real property. The South is willing that the Tract Society should expend its money to convince the slave that he has a soul to be saved so far as he is obedient to his master, but not to persuade the master that he has a soul to undergo a very different process so far as he is unmerciful to his slave.

We Americans are very fond of this glue of compromise. Like so many quack cements, it is advertised to make the mended parts of the vessel stronger than those which have never been broken, but, like them, it will not stand hot water,–and as the question of slavery is sure to plunge all who approach it, even with the best intentions, into that fatal element, the patched-up brotherhood, which but yesterday was warranted to be better than new, falls once more into a heap of incoherent fragments. The last trial of the virtues of the Patent Redintegrator by the Special Committee of the Tract Society has ended like all the rest, and as all attempts to buy peace at too dear a rate must end. Peace is an excellent thing, but principle and pluck are better; and the man who sacrifices them to gain it finds at last that he has crouched under the Caudine yoke to purchase only a contemptuous toleration, that leaves him at war with his own self-respect and the invincible forces of his higher nature.

But the peace which Christ promised to his followers was not of this world; the good gift he brought them was not peace, but a sword. It was no sword of territorial conquest, but that flaming blade of conscience and self-conviction which lightened between our first parents and their lost Eden,–that sword of the Spirit that searcheth all things,–which severs one by one the ties of passion, of interest, of self-pride, that bind the soul to earth,–whose implacable edge may divide a man from family, from friends, from whatever is nearest and dearest,–and which hovers before him like the air-drawn dagger of Macbeth, beckoning him, not to crime, but to the legitimate royalties of self-denial and self-sacrifice, to the freedom which is won only by surrender of the will. Christianity has never been concession, never peace; it is continual aggression; one province of wrong conquered, its pioneers are already in the heart of another. The mile-stones of its onward march down the ages have not been monuments of material power, but the blackened stakes of martyrs, trophies of individual fidelity to conviction. For it is the only religion which is superior to all endowment, to all authority,–which has a bishopric and a cathedral wherever a single human soul has surrendered itself to God. That very spirit of doubt, inquiry, and fanaticism for private judgment, with which Romanists reproach Protestantism, is its stamp and token of authenticity,–the seal of Christ, and not of the Fisherman.

We do not wonder at the division which has taken place in the Tract Society, nor do we regret it. The ideal life of a Christian is possible to very few, but we naturally look for a nearer approach to it in those who associate together to disseminate the doctrines which they believe to be its formative essentials, and there is nothing which the enemies of religion seize on so gladly as any inconsistency between the conduct and the professions of such persons. Though utterly indifferent to the wrongs of the slave, the scoffer would not fail to remark upon the hollowness of a Christianity which was horror-stricken at a dance or a Sunday drive, while it was blandly silent about the separation of families, the putting asunder whom God had joined, the selling Christian girls for Christian harems, and the thousand horrors of a system which can lessen the agonies it inflicts only by debasing the minds and souls of the race on which it inflicts them. Is your Christianity, then, he would say, a respecter of persons, and does it condone the sin because the sinner can contribute to your coffers? Was there ever a simony like this,–that does not sell, but withholds, the gift of God for a price?

The world naturally holds the Society to a stricter accountability than it would insist upon in ordinary cases. Were they only a club of gentlemen associated for their own amusement, it would be very natural and proper that they should exclude all questions which would introduce controversy, and that, however individually interested in certain reforms, they should not force them upon others who would consider them a bore. But a society of professing Christians, united for the express purpose of carrying both the theory and the practice of the New Testament into every household in the land, has voluntarily subjected itself to a graver responsibility, and renounced all title to fall back upon any reserved right of personal comfort or convenience.

We say, then, that we are glad to see this division in the Tract Society; not glad because of the division, but because it has sprung from an earnest effort to relieve the Society of a reproach which was not only impairing its usefulness, but doing an injury to the cause of truth and sincerity everywhere. We have no desire to impugn the motives of those who consider themselves conservative members of the Society; we believe them to be honest in their convictions, or their want of them; but we think they have mistaken notions as to what conservatism is, and that they are wrong in supposing it to consist in refusing to wipe away the film on their spectacle-glasses which prevents their seeing the handwriting on the wall, or in conserving reverently the barnacles on their ship’s bottom and the dry-rot in its knees. We yield to none of them in reverence for the Past; it is there only that the imagination can find repose and seclusion; there dwells that silent majority whose experience guides our action and whose wisdom shapes our thought in spite of ourselves;–but it is not length of days that can make evil reverend, nor persistence in inconsistency that can give it the power or the claim of orderly precedent. Wrong, though its title-deeds go back to the days of Sodom, is by nature a thing of yesterday,–while the right, of which we became conscious but an hour ago, is more ancient than the stars, and of the essence of Heaven. If it were proposed to establish Slavery to-morrow, should we have more patience with its patriarchal argument than with the parallel claim of Mormonism? That Slavery is old is but its greater condemnation; that we have tolerated it so long, the strongest plea for our doing so no longer. There is one institution to which we owe our first allegiance, one that is more sacred and venerable than any other,–the soul and conscience of Man.

What claim has Slavery to immunity from discussion? We are told that discussion is dangerous. Dangerous to what? Truth invites it, courts the point of the Ithuriel-spear, whose touch can but reveal more clearly the grace and grandeur of her angelic proportions. The advocates of Slavery have taken refuge in the last covert of desperate sophism, and affirm that their institution is of Divine ordination, that its bases are laid in the nature of man. Is anything, then, of God’s contriving endangered by inquiry? Was it the system of the universe, or the monks, that trembled at the telescope of Galileo? Did the circulation of the firmament stop in terror because Newton laid his daring finger on its pulse? But it is idle to discuss a proposition so monstrous. There is no right of sanctuary for a crime against humanity, and they who drag an unclean thing to the horns of the altar bring it to vengeance, and not to safety.

Even granting that Slavery were all that its apologists assume it to be, and that the relation of master and slave were of God’s appointing, would not its abuses be just the thing which it was the duty of Christian men to protest against, and, as far as might be, to root out? Would our courts feel themselves debarred from interfering to rescue a daughter from a parent who wished to make merchandise of her purity, or a wife from a husband who was brutal to her, by the plea that parental authority and marriage were of Divine ordinance? Would a police-justice discharge a drunkard who pleaded the patriarchal precedent of Noah? or would he not rather give him another month in the House of Correction for his impudence?

The Anti-slavery question is not one which the Tract Society can exclude by triumphant majorities, nor put to shame by a comparison of respectabilities. Mixed though it has been with politics, it is in no sense political, and springing naturally from the principles of that religion which traces its human pedigree to a manger, and whose first apostles were twelve poor men against the whole world, it can dispense with numbers and earthly respect. The clergyman may ignore it in the pulpit, but it confronts him in his study; the church-member, who has suppressed it in parish-meeting, opens it with the pages of his Testament; the merchant, who has shut it out of his house and his heart, finds it lying in wait for him, a gaunt fugitive, in the hold of his ship; the lawyer, who has declared that it is no concern of his, finds it thrust upon him in the brief of the slave-hunter; the historian, who had cautiously evaded it, stumbles over it at Bunker Hill. And why? Because it is not political, but moral,–because it is not local, but national,–because it is not a test of party, but of individual honesty and honor. The wrong which we allow our nation to perpetrate we cannot localize, if we would; we cannot hem it within the limits of Washington or Kansas; sooner or later, it will force itself into the conscience and sit by the hearthstone of every citizen.

It is not partisanship, it is not fanaticism, that has forced this matter of Anti-slavery upon the American people; it is the spirit of Christianity, which appeals from prejudices and predilections to the moral consciousness of the individual man; that spirit elastic as air, penetrative as heat, invulnerable as sunshine, against which creed after creed and institution after institution have measured their strength and been confounded; that restless spirit which refuses to crystallize in any sect or form, but persists, a Divinely commissioned radical and reconstructor, in trying every generation with a new dilemma between ease and interest on the one hand, and duty on the other. Shall it be said that its kingdom is not of this world? In one sense, and that the highest, it certainly is not; but just as certainly Christ never intended those words to be used as a subterfuge by which to escape our responsibilities in the life of business and politics. Let the cross, the sword, and the arena answer, whether the world, that then was, so understood its first preachers and apostles. Caesar and Flamen both instinctively dreaded it, not because it aimed at riches or power, but because it strove to conquer that other world in the moral nature of mankind, where it could establish a throne against which wealth and force would be weak and contemptible. No human device has ever prevailed against it, no array of majorities or respectabilities; but neither Caesar nor Flamen ever conceived a scheme so cunningly adapted to neutralize its power as that graceful compromise which accepts it with the lip and denies it in the life, which marries it at the altar and divorces it at the church-door.

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