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I now finish this long letter. Your patience, my dear Sir, has not, I trust, been exhausted. Whether this communication will answer the public ends which I have proposed, I know not; but it will do one good of a personal nature. It will be a memorial, however brief, of a friendship, which began in our youth, and which has withstood the vicissitudes of so many years, that we may expect it to go down with us to our raves. It pleases me, that our names should be associated in a work, which, though written in haste, and for a temporary exigency, yet reflects something of both our minds. It is fit, that the thoughts, unfolded in this letter, should be addressed to one, with whom I have conversed long and familiarly on the great interests of human nature. I owe you much for the light and strength you have given me, and especially for the faith and hope, which, under much personal suffering and depression, you have cherished and expressed in regard to the destinies of our race. We have given much of our sympathy to the multitude. We have felt more for the many who are forgotten, than for the few who shine; and our great inquiry has been, how the mass of men may be raised from ignorance and sensuality, to a higher social, intellectual, moral, and religious life. We have rejoiced together in the progress already made by individuals and communities; but a voice has come to us from the depths of human suffering, from the abuses of the social state, from the teachings of Jesus Christ, urging the need of new struggle with giant evils, and of new efforts for the diffusion of comforts, refinements, quickening truths, enlightened piety, and disinterested virtue. A few years will bring us to our journey's end. To the last, I trust, we shall speak words of blessing to our race, and words of encouragement to all who toil and suffer for its good. Through God's grace, we hope for another life; but that life, we believe, will, in some respects, be one with this. Our deep sympathies with the great human family, will, we believe, survive the grave. We shall then rejoice in the interpretation of the dark mysteries of the present state, of the woes and oppressions now so rife on earth, May it not be hoped, that, instead of our present poor and broken labours, we shall then render services to our brethren, worthy of that nobler life? But the future will reveal its own secrets. It is enough to know, that this human world, of which we form a portion, lives, suffers, and is moving onward, under the eye and care of the Infinite Father. Before. His pure, omnipotent goodness, all oppressions must fall; and, under His reign, our highest aspirations, prayers, and hopes for suffering humanity, must, sooner or later, receive an accomplishment, beyond the power of prophecy to utter, or of thought to comprehend.
Note A, page 491.
As the page here referred to was passing through the press, I understood, that it was maintained by some, that the treatment, which Abolition petitions had received from Congress, was not so peculiar as I had supposed; and I state this, that the reader may inquire for himself. For one, I feel little disposition to inquire. It is very possible, that in this world of tyranny and usurpation, scattered precedents may be found, which, if used for interpreting and defining our rights, . would reduce them all to insignificance. A man, jealous of his rights, will not yield them to this, or any other kind of logic. We have here the case of a great number of petitions, from all parts of the free States, and from citizens of intelligence and blameless character, which, before being presented, were denied, by a resolution of Congress, the usual notice and consideration. It was not the case of a single petition, coming from a half insane man, from an eccentric schemer, bearing on its face the marks of mental aberration, or asking for something palpably absurd and unconstitutional. The petitions of the Abolitionists greatly exceeded in number all the other petitions to Congress taken together. They represented large masses of citizens, who prayed for what is pronounced constitutional by our wisest men. And Congress resolved, before these petitions were offered, that, on being presented, they should be laid on the table without debate, and that no member should have the privilege of saying a word in their behalf, or of calling them up for consideration, or for any action in relation to them at a future time. Has anything like this ever occurred before? Or if it has, shall we go to such precedents for an interpretation of the right of petition? Is it not plain, that after this measure, party-spirit can never want pretexts for rejecting any and all petitions, be they what they may? To say, that because these petitions passed through the form of being laid on the table, the right was not touched, strikes me as one of those evasions, which will do for a court of law, but which it is an insult to present to a great nation. Suppose that Congress, at the beginning of a session, should ordain, that an aperture of certain dimensions should be made on the clerk's table, and be connected by a tube with the cellar or commonsewer; and should then ordain, that by far the greater number of petitions, to be presented during the session, should be committed to the part of the table occupied by the opening, so as to sink immediately and be never heard of more. What man of common sense, who knows the difference between words and things, or what freeman, who cares a rush for his rights, would not say, that the right of petition had been virtually annulled? Why not openly reject the petitions, without this mockery? Do we not know, that it is from side-blows that liberty has most to fear?. It is very possible, that legal subtilty may find precedents for the course pursued by Congress, just as it may find authorities to prove that we have no right to our own persons, but may be sold as chattels. But such reasonings to a freeman carry their answer on their own front. Human rights are too sacred, too substantial, to be refined and attenuated into shadows by ingenious comparison of precedents and authorities. I take the ground, that the right of petition is something, and of course that there is a fatal fallacy in the reasoning which would reduce it to nothing. I would recommend to my readers a “Letter of the Honourable Caleb Cushing to the people of Massachusetts,” in which this subject is discussed with great clearness and ability. It should be circulated as a tract. The public are also much indebted to the Honourable J. Q. Adams, for his unshrinking energy in maintaining the right of petition. I say this from no particular interest in the present case. I doubt, whether the agitation of slavery in Congress is to do good to the country or to the cause of Emancipation; whether Abolition petitions bring the subject before the people,
either at the North or South, in the manner most likely to produce conviction. I look at the matter without reference to present parties. One of the sacred rights of the people has been touched, and this should never be done without expressions of jealousy and reprobation. The strongest political influence in this country is party-spirit; a selfish, unrighteous, unscrupulous spirit; impatient of restraint, and always ready to sacrifice the provisions of the Constitution to present purposes and immediate triumph. One of the most solemn duties of patriotism, is to guard our rights from the touch of this harpy. No precedents of encroachment must be yielded to party-spirit, for it will push them to extremes. No bulwarks, which our fathers have erected round our liberties, must be surrendered. The dangers of liberty are always great from human passions and selfishness; great under the freest institutions, and sometimes greater from what is called the popular party than from any other; and for this plain reason, that this party has formed the bad habit of calling itself “the people,” and easily deludes itself into the belief, that, being “the people,” it may take great freedoms with the Constitution, and use its power with little restraint. This delusion is what constitutes the danger to liberty from mobs; mobs call themselves “the people.”
Aote to page 496.
I have allowed on this page, that slavery wears a milder aspect at the South than in other countries. I ought to inform my readers, that this is denied by some who have inquired into the matter. A pamphlet or larger volume is announced at New-York, in which the subject of treatment of slaves at the south is to be particularly considered. The work is said to be the result of patient inquiries, and full proofs of its statements are promised. Those at the North, who believe in the mildness of Southern Slavery, will do well to examine the publication.
THE PRESENT AGE.
THE MERCANTILE LIBRARY COMPANY OF PHILADELPHIA,
May 11, 1841
GENTLEMEN OF THE MERCANTILE LIBRARY COMPANY,
I beg you to consider my appearance in this place, as an expression of my interest in this and in kindred institutions. I welcome them as signs of the times, as promises and means of increased intellectual activity. I shall be glad, if a good word or a friendly effort on my part can serve them. I know that the lectures delivered before such societies are called superficial; but this does not discourage me, All human productions, even those of genius, are very superficial, compared with the unfathomable depths of truth. The simple question is, do these lectures rouse the mind to new action? Do they give it new objects of thought, and excite a thirst for knowledge? I am sure that they do, and therefore, though the field is sometimes called humble, I enter it with pleasure.- Will
allow me to observe, that to render lectures useful, one condition is necessary; they must be frank, honest, free. He who speaks, must speak what he thinks; speak courteously, but uncompromisingly, What makes our communications unprofitable in this country, is the dread of giving offence, now to the majority, and now to the fashionable or refined. We speak without force, because not true to our convictions. A lecturer will, of course, desire to wound no man's prejudices or feelings; but his first duty is to truth; his chief power lies in simple, natural, strong utterance of what he believes ; and he should put confidence in his hearers, that the tone of manly sincerity will be responded to by candour and good will.
The subject to which I call your attention, is the Present Age; a vast theme, demanding volumes. An age is needed to expound an age; and, of course, little is to be expected in a brief hour. I profess no great understanding of the subject, though I have given it much thought. In truth, it cannot be grasped, as yet, by the highest intellect. This age is the result, issue, of all former ages. All are pouring themselves into
The struggles, passions, discoveries, revolutions of all former time, survive, in their influences on the present moment. To interpret the present thoroughly, we must understand and unfold all the past. This work I shall not undertake. I am not now to be an historian. Do not
fear that I shall compel you to journey backward to the deluge or to paradise. I shall look only at the present; nor do I think of unfolding all the present. I shall seize on a single characteristic of our age, if not the profoundest, yet the most prominent and best fitted to an address like the present. In performing this task, my aim will be to speak the simple truth. I wish to say what the age is, not to be its advocate ; and yet I hope to lead you to look tenderly and trustfully on it, to love it, and to resolve, with generous, stout hearts, that you will serve it, as far as God may give you ability.
In looking at our age, I am struck, immediately, with one commanding characteristic, and that is, the tendency in all its movements to expansion, to diffusion, to Universality. To this, I ask your attention. This tendency is directly opposed to the spirit of exclusiveness, restriction, narrowness, monoply, which has prevailed in past ages. Human action is now freer, more unconfined. All goods, advantages, helps, are more open to all. The privileged, petted individual, is becoming less, and the human race are becoming more. The multitude is rising from the dust. Once we heard of the few, now of the many; once of the prerogatives of a part, now of the rights of all. We are looking, as never before, through the disguises, envelopements of ranks and classes, to the common nature which lies below them; and are beginning to learn, that every being who partakes of it, has noble powers to cultivate, solemn duties to perform, inalienable rights to assert, a vast destiny to accomplish. The grand idea of humanity, of the importance of man as man, is spreading silently, but surely. Not that the worth of the liuman being is at all understood as it should be; but the truth is glimmering through the darkness. A faint consciousness of it has seized on the public mind. Even the inost abject portions of society are visited by some dreams of a better condition, for which they were designed. The grand doctrine, that every human being should have the means of selfculture, of progress in knowledge and virtue, of health, comfort, and happiness, of exercising the powers and affections of a man; this is slowly taking its place, as the highest social truth. That the world was made for all, and not for a few; that society is to care for all; that no human being shall perish but through his own fault; that the great end of government is to spread a shield over the rights of all; these propositions are growing into axioms, and the spirit of them is coming forth in all the departments of life.
If we look at the various movements of our age, we shall see in them this tendency to universality and diffusion. Look, first, at Science and Literature. Where is Science now? Locked up in a few colleges, or royal societies, or inaccessible volumes? Are its experiments mysteries for a few privileged eyes? Are its portals guarded by a dark phraseology, which, to the multitude, is a foreign tongue? No; Science has now left her retreats, her shades, her selected company of votaries, and with familiar tone, begun the work of instructing the race. Through the press, discoveries and theories, once the monopoly of philosophers, have become the property of the multitude. Its professors, heard, not long ago, in the university or some narrow school, now speak in the Mechanic Institute. The doctrine, that the labourer should understand the principles of his art, should be able to explain the laws and processes which he turns to account; that instead of working as a machine, he