Against ‘The Miserable Sons of Avarice’: Benjamin Lundy – Early Southern Abolitionist and Publisher

Meeting Mr. Lundy

Benjamin Lundy, while born in 1789 New Jersey, lived throughout the upper South for much of his adult life. He moved to Wheeling, Virginia, where he saw his first glimpse of slavery’s brutality; St. Louis, Missouri, just as it was trying to enter the Union as a slave state; Greenville, Tennessee, where he continued to publish The Genius of Universal Emancipation; Baltimore, Maryland, his last Southern home, which he kept for several years.

Portrait appearing in The Life, Travels, and Opinions of Benjamin Lundy.
Portrait appearing in The Life, Travels, and Opinions of Benjamin Lundy.

It was from Baltimore in the late 1820s where he influenced William Lloyd Garrison to the cause of abolitionism. It was also in Baltimore where he was nearly beaten to death by pro-slavery advocates. During this span, he also traveled extensively, seeing Haiti, Canada and even Texas. From Baltimore, he moved to Philadelphia and finally Illinois.

But it is his time in Tennessee that is of interest to us. Following the untimely death of Elihu Embree, Lundy moved from Mount Pleasant, Ohio, where he had begun his paper, to Greenville, Tennessee, where he continued it.

During this time, Lundy favored gradual emancipation and seemed to be against the idea of colonization. 1Though that seemed to change over time, as evidenced by his journals, published as The Life, Travels and Opinions.

When the proceeding article was written for The Genius of Universal Emancipation‘s October 1822 edition, Lundy and fellow abolitionists had come under attack by newspapers in the border states. Lundy selected one in particular, a condemnation of abolitionism published in The Columbian, out of Missouri. 2The original article ran in the Genius of Universal Emancipation, No. 4, Vol. 2, October, 1822. Available here. Page 53.

After an introduction, Lundy printed the entirety of the pro-slavery article, interspersing his opinions where he saw fit. 3In the original article, Lundy added his commentary as footnotes. Along with adding a couple of paragraph breaks in the introduction, this was the only change I’ve made to the text.

Lundy’s Introduction

What follows is Lundy’s entire article:

It appears that some advocates of Slavery in Kentucky and Missouri are getting excessively alarmed at the progress of the liberal principles of freedom and justice in the South western States. They perceive that the friends of genuine republicanism are continually increasing in numbers, and daily gaining strength. They dread the idea of an exposure of their usurpations, and a curtailment of the privileges they have derived therefore; and they tremble in the expectation that the Lion of American despotism will be overcome by those infant Hercules’s the Emancipators.

The principles of Universal Liberty, like the deluge of old, will yet overwhelm the corruptions in the political world, and the miserable sons of avarice will lose their influence as did a greater part of our antediluvian ancestors their existence.

The probability of this is becoming more and more apparent. In most part of Christendom, Public Opinion has long been tainted with the ulcerous gangrene of superstitious folly and feudal wickedness, but yielding to the renovating influence of virtue and apostolic purity, its march will be with power, and tyranny and oppression, whatever shape they may assume, must vanish before it.

Since the removal of this work from Ohio to Tennessee, my editorial conduct has been made the subject of pretty severe criticism; and lest I may be charged with impoliteness, or a neglect of courtesy towards a few gentlemen Editors, I consider it proper to notice some of their remarks, which were designed to have a bearing upon me.

The editor of a paper entitled The Columbian, published at Henderson, Kentucky, has stepped forth in defense of the odious and disgusting principle of Slavery, and altho’ he acknowledges it to be a “national evil,” prostitutes his press to uphold the horrid system. In the early part of the last summer a writer in the paper alluded to, as well as the editor himself, made an attack upon the Abolition Intelligencer.

The editor of the Intelligencer took some notice thereof, but I did not at that time know that I had also been complimented by the gentleman. A copy of the Columbian was directed to me at Mount Pleasant, but in consequence of my removal, as aforesaid, I never saw it until lately. This is the only reason why it has not been noticed sooner. Having but little room in this number, I shall insert the editorial article from the Columbian, and accompany it with a few notes.

A writer in the St. Genevieve “Correspondent,” has also given me a rap over the knuckles, for which I “owe him at least, one.”

From the Columbian

[Note: The text in italics is from the pro-slavery article in The Columbian. The standard text is Lundy’s own words in rebuttal.]

“Several persons in this and the adjoining states seem to have been lately seized with the emancipation mania, among the most prominent may be reckoned a Mr. Benjamin Lundy, and Mr. John Finley Crow, who push their visionary schemes with the ardor of young enthusiasts, and appear to place their hopes of success in a course of proceeding little calculated to ensure it.”

Lundy: Nothing is more common than for those to be charged with enthusiasm who endeavour to expose and eradicate the corruptions and abuses in society, especially if they shew any degree of activity and use proper exertions to effect their object.

From the day of Nimrod down to the present moment, there has existed in the breasts of some, a disposition to trample on the rights of their fellow creatures; in most cases, those who possess the power to “lord it over God’s heritage,” are willing to hold on to it while they can live at their ease, and riot in luxury at the expense of others, regardless of reason, justice, or mercy.

No matter what may be the title by which they are distinguished, or the station they occupy, whether King, Prince, feudal Lord, or Negro Baron, the observation will hold good with all of them.

Slavery is undoubtedly a national evil, but we conceive that the measures necessary to remove it, are very different from those advocated by many who write against it.

Lundy: This acknowledgment comes with a very ill grace from one who volunteers himself as the champion and advocate of slaveholders and slave-dealers; and the sequel of the paragraph plainly shows that he is anxious to find fault without a cause; for he admits that to effect the liberation of the black population, the same measures must be adopted that are recommended by the advocates of emancipation generally.

If it be, (and there can be no doubt of it) a correct maxim, that ignorance is the parent of vice, what would be the consequence of an immediate emancipation of our numerous black population?

Lundy: Why then, in the name of common sense, are the slaves in our country kept in ignorance?

Nobody urges an “immediate” liberation of the slaves. The friends of emancipation recommend the gradual abolition of the system. The frequent repetition of the insinuation serves to show, that some of our opponents are actuated by a kind of polemic roguery that is not very honorable to them.

An influx of every description of crime, a desacralization of society, and the complete destruction of a great portion of the productive industry of our country.

Benjamin Lundy, in color!
Benjamin Lundy, in color!

Lundy: Would it be a means of effecting a “complete destruction” of the “productive industry of our country,” if our ignorant and degraded slaves were converted into intelligent citizens, or if they were removed, and their place filled by such? Would not freemen make as good artisans, and would not our lands produce as well as they now do, if cultivated by patriot hands?

This being the case, the only safe course to be pursued in this exigency, is very obvious. Let them be enlightened first, that they may be fitted for becoming useful members of the community to which they may eventually belong: which in our opinion, ought to be as far removed as possible from their present residence; and then transport them gradually to the coast of Africa, which there is no doubt the most proper place for their future location

Lundy: That is precisely what we wish; but why do you not assist us in it, instead of laying upon us “burdens grievous to be borne, without even touching them with one of your little fingers?” 4Matthew 23:4; Also, Luke 11:46.

As freemen, in the true sense of the word, they could never exist in these states. Although the law might give them the right, custom would withhold it form them, and they could not enjoy the same advantages, nor aspire to the same privileges, with regard to their eligibility to office and standing in society, as the whites.

Lundy: Pardon me, my friend, when I state it as my candid opinion that all this is sheer nonsense. A wicked and silly custom would vanish when they as well as ourselves, should become enlightened.

The Proud Spirit of Man May Be Broken

We have been led thus to give our views on this subject, by some remarks in the ‘Abolition Intelligencer,’ accusing us of approbating a writer destitute of ‘cander and moral honesty;’ we would inform our fellow editor, that the writer of ‘Non Emancipation’ was merely a transient person, and has long since left this place, and therefore may not have the pleasure of perusing his remarks.

Lundy: One of those inhuman villains, a slave trader, no doubt. 5Lundy was here referring to the “transient” writer, calling him a “slave trader.”

We are not prepared to say whether his charges against the Intelligencer are well founded or not, as we have seen only one number of that paper; but in our humble opinion, some of Mr. Crow’s positions are as untenable as any of ‘Non Emancipator’s;’ Mr. Crow says, ‘that the proud spirit of man in them (the slaves) is broken,’ and asks, ‘has he the unblushing assurance to deny the fact.’

Yes, we think he can with propriety deny it, and assert that they never did possess any such spirit, and a little acquaintance with them will convince any unprejudiced person their actions proceed from very base motives, and that they have very little of that just pride which they should possess.

Lundy: I ask pardon again, for expressing my most unqualified dissent from the doctrine thus held forth. “Human nature is all in all.” And moreover, “all men are created equal.” So say our declaration of independence. But there is no necessity for multiplying observations on this head. Any person conversant with history can at once perceive the weakness and futility of such argument.

We, yes, WE, have derived our knowledge of the arts and sciences from the blacks. And altho they make a sorry appearance among us, a majority of slaveholders need not be told how the “proud spirit of man may be broken,” or even how he may be degraded to a level with the brute creation. Touching that point, they could easily furnish us with lessons of instruction.

The Power of Life and Death

[Lundy] triumphantly explains, ‘the benign and heaven born religion of our favored land gives no countenance to such conduct;’ that is, we suppose, to holding slaves. If this modern oracle consults his bible, he will find many passages, which if they do not directly advocate slavery, will abundantly prove it was extensively practiced by the chosen people of God, and that even the writers of the New Testament exhorted ‘servants,’ a word which, when used by them in the sense we have quoted it, always signified slaves “to be obedient to them that are your masters, according to the flesh.”

Lundy: There is nothing which appears more odious and disgusting to the mind of a Christian and a Philanthropist, than an attempt to wrest the Sacred Scriptures to suit the unholy purposes of the advocates of oppression. I boldly assert that neither this writer nor any other can find a single passage in the New Testament that will justify the belief that any who were instrumental in teaching its doctrine ever countenanced the crime of perpetual slavery; and further, I unhesitatingly challenge him to produce facts to substantiate his argument.

These are the words of the pious, learned and eloquent St. Paul, written at a period when the condition of slaves was infinitely worse than it is now, for their owners then possessed the power of life and death

Lundy: Infinitely worse than it is now! This is morally impossible; for in many parts of our country there is nothing to prevent the master from exercising a degree of rigor which extorts every thing but life; and even in case of actual murder, there have been frequent instances of the heaven daring wretches being dismissed on the payment of a paltry fine, the amount of which had previously been wrested from the hard earnings of the victim!!! Is not this “possessing the power of life and death?”

Can any rational man suppose that St. Paul did not possess as much genuine compassion for their deplorable situation, as any of these modern pretenders to superabundant humanity? yet he was contented to make things as he found them, and incited every one to a faithful discharge of the duties of that situation in life in which they had been placed by Divine Providence.

Lundy: If Paul “was contented to take things as he found them,” and did not wish to introduce any change, why did he preach so much? He must, (if this be true) have been a very inconsistent man!

Had he been an emancipator of the stamp of Lundy, Crow and others, his language would have been, “be ye disobedient to them that are your masters, for they have no right to your services.”

Lundy: Thankee. But my friend, thee will get no fee for putting such language as this in our mouths, for it is such as we have never been willing to utter. To say the least of it, the attempt to palm such sentiments upon us, betrays a wanton and malignant disposition, to misrepresent our thoughts and actions, and is best treated by a silent contempt. Some little allowance must however be made for the delicate situation of the advocates of slavery. Owing to the badness of their cause, they are under the necessity of imputing to the friends of emancipation motives which they have ever disclaimed, or they would have no ground for argument.

__________________

Epilogue

Published in October of 1822, slavery in the South was just getting started. All the states north of the Mason-Dixon line and Ohio River were already free states, having passed laws to gradually emancipate their slaves. However, Southern slavery was a fraction of what it would become by the start of the Civil War.

In 1820, 1.5 million slaves made up 34% of the Southern population. By 1860, slavery had expanded, spreading west into Missouri, Arkansas and Texas. This boosted the total to 4 million slaves – all below the Mason-Dixon line and Ohio River. Though four slave states remained loyal to the United States during the Civil War, slavery was still maintained at around 31% of the total southern population. 6See the 1820 and 1860 Census data. 1820 (and decades before). 1860.

The percentage of slave to free in Lundy’s state of Tennessee would increase from 18% to 25% across those same forty years to the Civil War. The Deep South states, 7SC, GA, AL, MS, LA, TX, FL especially would see a rise. In 1820, the Deep South’s was 43%, and by 1860 it had risen to 47% – and that’s with the addition of Florida and Texas, both of which pulled the average down. 8For more information on the rising slave population, see the Smithsonian’s article on the subject.

These steady and rising figures are a sad reminder that slavery was not on its way out. But it was not the slave population that would be the most important change. In 1822, the views in favor of slavery were not as insistent as they would become even two decades later. It was nearly twenty years before John C. Calhoun changed the pro-slavery landscape from one of slavery as a “national evil” to slavery as a “positive good.” 9See this fine article on Calhoun’s effects upon the South and abolitionism.

There was almost an innocence between the two publications above. There was, it seems, room for compromise. Even the pro-slavery paper understood that slavery was evil, that it should be eliminated. True, he argued for colonization, but so did Abraham Lincoln for a time. After Calhoun recast slavery as a “positive good,” it became almost impossible to defeat. In fact, it would take a long and bloody war, combined with Constitutional amendments to finally topple the institution that even enslavers of the 1820s believed would soon be extinct.

References   [ + ]

Eric
Eric has always had a love for history and the Civil War. During the 150th anniversary of the war, he wrote the Civil War Daily Gazette blog, which published daily for nearly five years. Wishing to continue the exploration, following the Charleston murders in 2015, and the activism around removing the Confederate Battle Flag, he decided to dig a little deeper into the causes and repercussions of the War.
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