Diary of Charles Francis Adams, volume 6

Saturday. 6th.

Monday. 8th.

Sunday. 7th. CFA Sunday. 7th. CFA
Sunday. 7th.

Weather moderating a little and preparing for snow. We have Winter in very good earnest. I finished this morning Dr. Channing’s Pamphlet upon Slavery. It is certainly a very powerful production, and worthy of deeper consideration than it has yet been in the way of receiving.1 Our fashion here is to vote a man down at once without hearing his reasons. This saves much trouble and dispenses with all necessity for argument. Dr. Channing may not be wise to encroach upon a political field, but what he says may have much weight without considering the Author.

I attended divine service and heard Mr. Frothingham from Matthew 5. 16 and 23. 5. “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works” and “All their works they do for to be seen of men.” He contrasted these passages for the sake of explaining what is an apparent inconsistency in the advice given. He went on to show that the recommendation in the first passage was the establishment of example, while the censure in the second related to motives. Many in the world desire to seem worse than they are which is in fact to the public eye a perversion of moral sentiment, while others who desire to appear better than they are for the sake of their own benefit, are guilty of a sin of hypocrisy not lightly to be condemned. Men should take the exact medium and appear exactly what they are and then the effect of their good example will be felt.

Afternoon, Dr. Lowell preached one of his brief and pithy bits of instructive morality—Genesis 48. 12. “And Joseph bowed himself with his face to the earth.” He descanted upon the change which had taken place in the relation between parent and child. Formerly it had been stiff, severe and formal, but it had given way to more confidence and kindness. The thing rather verged now to the other extreme and he finished with an exhortation to respect old age. Dr. Lowell is a very worthy divine. I think I have heard this discourse before.

Read a Sermon of Dr. Barrow’s, very brief and merely introductory to the subject of self love as displayed in its various forms. 2. Timothy 3. 2. “For men shall be lovers of themselves.” He begins by distin-326guishing the nature of self love and the extent to which it ought properly to be carried. And then lays down the various shapes in which its excess appears, to be discussed in future Sermons. Evening, we went down to see Mr. Brooks. There were Mr. and Mrs. Ign. Sargent, and Mr. P. R. Dalton. Supper and home.


Channing’s publication was provoked by the 21 Oct. riot directed against William Lloyd Garrison and participated in by a number of Boston’s prominent citizens (entries for 23 Oct. and 16 Dec. 1835, above). Channing in it denounced both slavery and those who would abolish it immediately; in turn, the article had been denounced in Boston from a variety of vantage points (see Arthur W. Brown’s biography, Always Young for Liberty, Syracuse, N.Y., 1956, p. 226–231; entry for 4 Feb., above.)

Channing preceded his argument with an analysis of the public state of mind that required his intervention: “Of late our country has been convulsed by the question of slavery.... The consequence is, that not a few dread all discussion of the subject, and ... believe that they have no duty to perform, no testimony to bear ... in relation to this evil.... Opinions either favoring or extenuating it are heard with little or no disapprobation.... There was never such an obligation to discuss slavery as at this moment, when recent events have done much to unsettle and obscure men’s minds in regard to it” (p. 3–4).

He entered upon his discussion with a rejection of slavery that was absolute. Slavery was a violation of “what is Right,” in seeking and adhering to which “we secure our true and only happiness” (p. 1). Recognition of it as an unmitigated evil could bring its end: “The deliberate, solemn conviction of good men through the world, that slavery is a grievous wrong to human nature, will make itself felt” (p. 7).

His treatment of slavery as an outrage to morals, however, he followed with a caveat: “I do not intend to pass sentence on the character of the slaveholder.... Men are not always to be interpreted by their acts or institutions. The same acts in different circumstances admit and even require very different constructions” (p. 11–12). “Sympathy with the slave has often degenerated into injustice towards the master. I wish it, then, to be understood, that, in ranking slavery among the greatest wrongs, I speak of the injury endured by the slave, and not of the character of the master.... The former does not determine the latter.... The practice, which strikes one man with horror, may seem to another, who was born and brought up in the midst of it, not only innocent, but meritorious. We must judge others, not by our light, but by their own” (p. 54–55).

Having thus removed the argument from the realm of absolutes, Channing committed himself to the position that the issue was to be resolved only after the elimination of the excesses by the extremists of both sides. His first charge was to the South: “If the slave-holding States expect us to admit their views of this institution, they must allow it to be freely discussed among themselves. Of what avail is their testimony in favor of slavery, when not a tongue is allowed to say a word in its condemnation? Of what use is the press, when it can publish only on one side? ... Thus slavery avenges itself. It brings the masters under despotism” (p. 105–106).

In turn, though with many reservations and with pleas for recognition of their purity of motives and their legal rights, he chastened and rejected the abolitionists with equal force: “The abolitionists have done wrong, I believe; nor is their wrong to be winked at, because done fanatically or with good intention.... They have fallen into the common error of enthusiasts.... The tone of their newspapers ... has often been fierce, bitter, and abusive.... The abolitionists sent forth their orators ... to gather together young and old, pupils from schools, females hardly arrived at years of discretion, the ignorant, the excitable, the impetuous.... Very un-327happily they preached their doctrine to the colored people.... To this mixed and excitable multitude ... slaveholders were held up as monsters of cruelty and crime” (p. 130–136).

Channing’s final position rested upon a confidence that conscience, once alerted, would assert itself among the slaveholding states if they were left free to resolve the problem without interference: “How slavery shall be removed, is a question for the slaveholder, and one which he alone can fully answer.... To the slaveholder belongs the duty of settling and employing the best methods of liberation, and to no other.... We cannot but fear much from the experiment now in progress in the West Indies, on account of its being the work of a foreign hand” (p. 116–117). He advocated therefore, “no precipitate measures, no violent changes.... Only that the slaveholding States would resolve conscientiously and in good faith to remove this greatest of moral evils and wrongs, and would bring immediately to the work all their intelligence, virtue, and power” (p. 127).

This view of the slavery issue and the proper means to eliminate it was clearly close to that which CFA subscribed and which he would himself express in a few months when he weighed the issue in the context of the approaching presidential election (see below, entry for 9 June). For JQA the subtleties of the Channing position were less satisfying: “He treats the subject so smoothly that some of the Southern Slave-holders have quoted it with approbation, as favouring their side of the question; but it is in fact an inflammatory, if not an incendiary publication.... The wrong or crime of Slavery is set forth in all its most odious colours, and then the explanations disclaim all imputation of criminality upon the Slaveholders. There are some remarks certainly just, upon the relaxation of the moral principle in its application to individual obligation necessarily resulting from antient and established institutions. But this is an exceedingly nice and difficult line to draw, and belongs at least as much to the Science of casuistry as to that of Ethics” (Diary, 8 Jan.).