Letter on the 1859 Celebration of
the Rescue of Jerry
PETERBORO, August 27, 1859.
John Thomas, Esq., Syracuse,
Chairman of Jerry Rescue Committee,
MY DEAR SIR,
I have this day received your letter inviting me to preside at the
approaching Anniversary of the Rescue of Jerry, and to prepare the papers for
it. Thankful for this honor as I truly am, nevertheless I am constrained to
decline it. I have presided at all the Anniversaries of this important event,
and written the Address adopted at each of them. But my interest in them has
declined greatly for the last two or three years : and I am now decidedly of the
opinion that it is unwise to continue to repeat the farce any longer.
The Rescue of Jerry was a great and glorious event. Would God it bad been
duly improved ! But those who achieved it, and I include in this number all who
cheered it on and rejoiced in every step of its progress, have, with few
exceptions, proved themselves unworthy of the work of their own hands. We
delivered Jerry in the face of the authority of Congress and Courts; and, as
most of us believed, in contempt also of a provision of the Constitution itself.
We delivered him, believing that there was no law and could be no law for
slavery. On that occasion our humanity was up; and in vain would all the
authorities on earth, even the bible itself included, have bid it down. Our
humanity owned Jerry for its brother : and so did it cling to him, that all the
wealth of the world would not have sufficed to buy it off, or tempt it to ignore
and betray him.
Oh had the thousands, who on that memorable night crowded the streets of
Syracuse, but maintained the sublime elevation to which the spirit of that night
exalted them. what a force for the overthrow of slavery would they not have
accumulated by this time ! But they soon fell from it. They soon sunk down to
the low level of their political and church parties. Jerry was forgotten.
Their humanity was dead :-for these parties are the grave of humanity. In
proportion as a man becomes a partisan is his manhood lost:-for in that
proportion is he untrue to himself, to his brother, and to God. That day, alas
how distant! when every one shall be held, and be willing, to be held, to his
individuality, shall witness an unspeakably better condition of things thin does
this in which men act in parties, and stand in the strength of parties; and in
which the vaguely and feebly felt responsibilities of party take the place of
the definite and deeply conscious responsibilities of the individual. When our
countrymen shall have risen to this higher plane of character there will be
Christians instead of Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians; and patriots
instead of Republicans, Democrats, and Native Americans.
Of the thousands, who, on the glorious night to which we have referred, were
actuated by justice and mercy, probably not less than nineteen twentieths fell
immediately after under those ecclesiastical or political party influences which
had previously swayed and shrivelled them. Of the thousands whose motto that
glorious night was: "No law for slavery," perhaps not a dozen have
called on their churches to adopt it, and not fifty have perseveringly refused
to vote for men who recognize a law for slavery. At each of our Anniversaries
the Resolutions and Address and the discussions upon them have been in harmony
with the high and holy principles on which Jerry was rescued. Nevertheless the
vast majority of those who enjoyed the Anniversaries returned home to act with
their proslavery parties in Church and State.
"Jerry Rescuers" voting for men who acknowledge a law for slavery!
I see not but that they are as basely inconsistent as are our Temperance
Societies, forty nine fiftieths of the members of which, whilst prating for "Prohibition",
vote for candidates who oppose it. Indeed, always excepting an Anniversary of
the New York State Temperance Society, I do not know a greater or more shameless
or more pernicious hypocrisy than an Anniversary of the Rescue of Jerry.
By the way I see that a gentleman of fine talents and high culture and
marked ability as a writer, is called on to write the history of the Temperance
Reformation. For my own part I had far rather that this history were hidden
than published. For, if truthfully written, what is the great fact it will
perpetuate ?-what but the infinitely disgraceful one that the Temperance men,
though ever ready to talk up and write up their cause, were as ever ready to
vote it down ? The cause of Temperance in this country is dead. In vain all the
efforts of Temperance Societies and Temperance Newspapers and Temperance
Lecturers to galvanize it into life, Never was the use of tobacco and
intoxicating drinks increasing so rapidly. All who have any discernment must
see that it is this boundless inconsistency and unprincipledness at the ballot
box, which has killed this dear cause; and that it can never be revived by
Temperance Societies and Temperance Newspapers and Temperance Lecturers that go
for the election of rum drinkers. Such stupendous and shameless hypocrisies
must give place to agencies characterized by sincerity and self-denial before
Temperance can come to life.
Oh no, let not the history of either the Temperance cause or the
Anti-Slavery cause be written with the view of honoring their professed friends.
They have both been killed at the ballot box by those friends. If written at
all, let it be with the purpose of warning the world against hypocrisies.
To return from this digression, let me, my friend, again say that we bad
better give up the celebration of the Rescue of Jerry. The thing is quite too
great and good for us. Earnest and honest men are alone suited to it. We Jerry
Rescuers are mean men and sham men. Dear Jerry's sainted spirit can take no
pleasure in this our grand annual hypocrisy. The Savior, whom he so heartily
chose and so faithfully followed in his last years, can have no sympathy with
it. The cause of freedom is disgraced and hindered, instead of being honored
and promoted by it.
Let us stand aside:-and then perhaps consistent men and honest men and
high-souled men will ere long come up to take our place. One of the most
beautiful scenes that could bless my sight would be a Jerry Rescue Anniversary
conducted by men who would as soon stay in a brothel as in a church that
recognizes a law for slavery; and who would as soon vote for men who recognize
a law for sheep stealing, as for men who acknowledge that a judicial decree or a
statute or even a Constitution can create any obligation to protect and honor
In short let us who talk well against slavery stand aside for those who will
vote well against it. Let our professions make way for their practice, and our
hypocrisy for their sincerity.
Men make light of the crime of voting wrong:- and yet there is no crime so
full of the heaviest oppression. Quite bad enough is it when, in my private or
individual dealings with my fellow man, I oppress him. But when I vote against
his rights, as I do when I vote for candidates, who hold that there may be a
valid and obligatory and real law for his slavery, or who hold that there can be
such a law for dramselling, such a law for making and keeping him a
drunkard-then I vote to array the Government and the collective people against
him - then I vote not that I may wrong him, not that I, with such comparatively
insignificant powers as an individual can summon, may oppress him - but that a
whole State, a whole nation, may fall upon him and crush him. Churches and
parties may be stone-blind to it - nevertheless Heaven sees that this voting
against human rights and this voting temptations in the way of the weak,
constitute the mightiest wrong that men are capable of perpetrating
Much is said and written against the breaking of human laws. But they are
entitled to obedience only to far as they are one with those Divine laws which
cannot be broken. " The law of his God" was Daniel's only law. No
friend of God knows any other law. Apostles answered and said: "we ought
to obey God rather than men :"- so too: "whether it be right in the
sight of God to hearken unto you more than unto God, judge ye." How
senseless and wicked is this declaration against trampling under foot these
human laws, that are no laws. To such trampling are the nations indebted for
the instances of their greatest progress. Often indeed have the nations found
it their only salvation. How shameless the hypocrisy of our country men !
Whilst glorying in the historical fact that our fathers were ready to take up
arms against laws imposing petty taxes on tea, and paper, they nevertheless roll
up the whites of their eyes in holy horror at refusals to obey laws, if laws
they can be called, which sink innocent men women and children in the hell of
The rescuers of Jerry were called rebels. But the rebellion in the case was
chargeable not on them, but on the Government. It was the Government, and not
the rescuers, who were guilty of resisting law. The law in the case was the
right of every innocent man to his personal liberty. That law the rescuers
upheld : and against it did the Government rebel. What if its rebellion was
carried on under the forms of law ?- none the less was it rebellion.
People are wont to regard every enactment as law. But many an enactment is
not law. Squatter Sovereignty is much extolled; and now and then there are
signs that even the Republican party is fast coming to acquiesce in it.
Nevertheless Squatter Sovereignty is not law. The liberty given by the Nebraska
Bill to enslave men was not liberty to set up law, but to put down law - quite
as emphatically such as if it had been liberty to murder men. The invasion of
human rights by Government can, no more than such invasion by an individual, be
law. The invaders be they Governments or individuals are the rebels; and they
who resist them are the law-abiding. The passage of the Nebraska Bill afforded
ample justification to the people to enter the halls of Congress, and hurl the
rebels from their seats. A poor chance of any other them a hempen elevation
would such rebels stand, were the religion of this country christianity and its
politics democracy. As things are, it is the man here and there, who dares to
live the Christian life on whom the American Church pounces; and it is the
little handful of real democrats toward whom American politicians - American
democrats - show no mercy.
It is perhaps vain as respects its effect on slavery for me, or for any one
else, to remonstrate against voting for those who believe in a law for slavery,
or in other words against proslavery voting. It is perhaps too late to bring
slavery to an end by peaceable means - too late to vote it down. For many years
I have feared and published my fears that it must go out in blood. My Speech in
Congress on the Nebraska Bill was strongly marked with such fears. These fears
have grown into belief. So debauched are the white people by slavery, that
there is not virtue enough left in them to put it down. If I do not misinterpret
the words and the looks of the most intelligent and noble of the black men who
fall in my way, they have come to despair of the accomplishment of this work by
the white people. The feeling among the blacks that they must deliver
themselves gains strength with fearful rapidity. They are sensible how cruelly
they have been deceived by the Liberty Party, the Free Soil Party, the
Republican Party, and the great mass of even the most loudmouthed abolitionists.
They see that all these, instead of voting slavery down, have voted it up.
True, the Republican Party did not promise them much. But they did not expect
it would insult and exasperate them by taking the name of " The white man's
party." They did hope for some help from this Party. But they get none.
It lifts not a finger to repeal the Fugitive Slave Act; nor to abolish slavery
in the District of Columbia ; nor to abolish the inter-State traffic in human
flesh. Nay, it goes so far as to admit that the slavery of black men (it would
not dare admit it in the case of but one white man) can be legalized in every
State of the Union. The Dred Scott Decision and the reopening of the African
slave trade are proofs that slavery has never strengthened itself so rapidly as
during the existence of this new and misnamed Republican Party.
The Republican writers and orators declaim much against the obvious purpose
of the Slave Power to overspread the Free States with slavery by the help of its
"natural ally" the Northern Democracy. But do not these writers and
orators admit the right to do this when they admit the legality of slavery in
the Slave States? What is property in Virginia is by a law above human
enactments property in Vermont also. He who is a slave or property in
Mississippi is a slave or property in Massachusetts also. What is property any
where is property everywhere. Moreover, it will in the end be found to be as
vain as it is inconsistent, to oppose the extension of slavery into the Free
States, whilst upholding it in the Slave States. Gov. Seward was right in
saying that the States must ultimately be all secured to freedom or given up to
slavery. But he did not see that his standing by slavery in the Slave States
renders unavailing his opposition to its extension into the Free States. Gov.
Seward can do nothing to prevent slavery's going where it is not, unless he
holds it to be a piracy and an outlaw where it is.
No wonder then is it that in this state of facts which I have sketched,
intelligent black men in the States and Canada should see no hope for their race
in the practice and policy of white men. No wonder they are brought to the
conclusion that no resource is left to them but in God and insurrections. For
insurrections then we may look any year, any month, any day. A terrible remedy
for a terrible wrong! But come it must unless anticipated by repentance and the
putting away of the terrible wrong.
It will be said that these insurrections will be failures - that they will
be put down. Yes, but will not slavery nevertheless be put down by them? For
what portions are there of the South that will cling to slavery after two or
three considerable insurrections shall have filled the whole South with horror?
And is it entirely certain that these insurrections will be put down promptly,
and before they can have spread far? Will telegraphs and railroads be too swift
for even the swiftest insurrections ? Remember that telegraphs and railroads can
be rendered useless in an hour. Remember too that many, who would be glad to
face the insurgents, would be busy in transporting their wives and daughters to
places where they would be safe from that worst fate which husbands and fathers
can imagine for their wives and daughters. I admit that but for this
embarrassment Southern men would laugh at the idea of an insurrection, and would
quickly dispose of one. But trembling as they would for their beloved ones, I
know of no part of the world where, so much as in the South, men would be like,
in a formidable insurrection, to lose the most important time, and be distracted
When the day of her calamity shall have come to the South, and fire and rape
and slaughter shall be filling up the measure of her affliction, then will the
North have two reasons for remorse -
First, That she was not willing (whatever the attitude of the South at this
point) to share with her in the expense and loss of an immediate and universal
Second, That she was not willing to vote slavery out of existence.
Then too when, alas, it will be to late, will be seen in the vivid light of
the sufferings of our Southern brethren both black and white, how shameful and
of what evil influence was the apostacy of those "Jerry Rescuers," who
were guilty of falling from the "Jerry Level," and casting proslavery
But why should I have spoken of the sorrows that await the South? Whoever
he may be that foretells the horrible end of American Slavery is held at both
the North and the South to be a lying prophet - another Cassandra. The South
would not respect her own Jefferson's prediction of servile insurrection. How
then can it be hoped that she will respect another's? If the South will not
with her own Jefferson "tremble" when reflecting that "God is
just": - if she will not see with her own Jefferson that "the Almighty
has no attribute which can take side with" her in "a contest"
with her slaves - then who is there either North or South that is capable of
moving her fears and helping her to safety?
Respectfully your friend