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Covenanters and Slavery - Part Six: 'The inferiority of the blacks to the whites has been greatly exaggerated.'

By Angela Wittman

In our study of Alexander McLeod's booklet Negro Slavery Unjustified, we now come to the section where he refutes objections which had been raised. In order to not overwhelm the reader or miss any important point raised, I'll go through the objections raised and responses given a few at a time. Once again, please note that the text in bold is my emphasis on that particular point.
I have now finished what I designed to say in confirmation of the doctrine of the proposition, and shall proceed,

II. To refute objections offered to the principle I have been defending.

It is not to be expected that every objection shall now occur. Some that are made probably I never heard; and some which I have heard may have escaped my recollection. I shall not, however, designedly evade any that has the appearance of argument. I shall examine each in order to ascertain its full value.

OBJECTION I. "Nature has made a distinction between man and man. One has stronger intellectual powers than another. As physical strength prevails in the subordinate ranks of creation, let superiority of intellect preside among intelligent creatures. The Europeans and their descendants are superior in this respect to the Africans. These latter are, moreover, in their own country, miserable. Their state is not rendered worse by being enslaved. It is just for the more intelligent to rule over the more ignorant, and to make use of their services."

ANSWER. The distinctions which nature makes between man and man are probably not so great as those which owe their existence to adventitious circumstances.

The inferiority of the blacks to the whites has been greatly exaggerated.[11] Let the fact, however, be granted, and yet the inference which is the principle of the objection will not follow. It is the essence of tyranny. It is founded in false notions concerning the nature of man. You say, "a greater proportion of intellect gives a right to rule over the less intelligent." But you are to observe that man is not only a creature capable of intellectual exertion, but also one who possesses moral sentiments, and a free agent. He has a right, from the constitution given him by the Author of Nature, to dispose of himself, and be his own master in all respects, except in violating the will of Heaven. He naturally acts agreeably to the motives presented to him, with a liberty of choice respecting them. He who argues a right to rule from natural endowments must have more than a superior understanding to show. He must evidence a superiority of moral excellence, and an investiture with authority; otherwise he can have no right to set aside the principle of self-government, and act in opposition to that freedom which is necessarily implied in personal responsibility to the Supreme Moral Governor. Consider the consequences which the objection, if granted, would involve. He who could, by cunning contrivance, reduce his innocent and more simple neighbour under his power, would be justifiable in enslaving him and, his offspring for ever. All the usurpation of men of genius without virtue, from the days of Pharaoh to those of Bonaparte, would be justifiable on this principle.

As for the circumstance of the Africans being wretched while at their own disposal, you are not accountable for it. Friendship for them is not well shown in the slave-trade. Your wicked traffic has already rendered them more wicked and wretched even in Africa. If you have ameliorated the condition of one, you have rendered more painful the condition of thousands.[12]

Now let us examine the second and third objections raised concerning different races of human beings and the response of Pastor McLeod:
OBJECTION II. "The negroes are a different race of people from us. Their capacities, their shape, their colour, and their smell, indicate their procedure originally from a different pair. They are inferior to the white people in all these respects. This gives a right to the superior race to rule over them as really as nature gives a right to the use of the other subordinate ranks of animated being."

ANSWER. This goes upon the footing of discrediting scripture authority. In a discourse to professed Christians I might reject it without consideration. There may, however, be in my hearing a slave-holder who is an unbeliever of revelation. I would reason even with him, that, if possible, I may serve the cause of justice, of liberty, and of man. The use of sound reason and philosophy Christianity by no means discards.

The principle of your argument is inadmissible; and, if it were not, it would not serve your purpose.

1. It is inadmissible. Among the individuals of every species there is a difference. No more causes than are sufficient to account for any phenomenon are required by the rules of philosophising. The action of the elements on the human body, the diet and the manners of men, are causes sufficient to account for that change in the organization of bodies which gives them a tendency to absorb the rays of light, to perspire more freely, and to put on that shape which is peculiar to the inhabitants of Guinea and their descendants. A single century will make a forcible distinction between the inhabitants of a northern and a southern climate, when the diet and manners are similar. A difference in these can make a distinction in the same latitude. It is impossible to prove that twenty or thirty centuries, during which successive generations did not mingle with a foreign race, could not give to the African negro that peculiarity of bodily appearance which so stubbornly adheres to him when translated into another clime. A few years of a hot sun may produce a swarthiness of complexion which the mildest climate cannot, for years, exchange for a rosy cheek. According to the laws for propagating the species, the offspring resembles, the parent. It is not to be expected that a very apparent change should be wrought on the complexion of the offspring of negroes already in this country. Ten times the number of years which have passed over the heads of the successive generations on the coast of Guinea, may be necessary, before the negroes can retrace the steps by which they have proceeded from a fair countenance to their present shining black. The causes of bodily variety in the human species which I have stated are known to exist.[13] It is highly unphilosophical to have recourse to others which are only conjectural. Enmity to revelation makes many one drink himself a philosopher. But,

2. If the principle were just it would be invalid: it would not answer your purpose. If you adopt the hypothesis of several original and distinct pairs, by whom the earth was peopled, you cannot determine where to stop. The different nations of Europe and of Asia, and the different tribes of America, may have had different original parents, all upon the footing of subordination one to the other.[14] If the principle of your objection were admissible, it would prove too much, lead to absurdity, and is therefore capable of proving nothing. Each nation might claim a superiority of rank over the other. Right would be opposed to right, and cunning and violence would be the only umpires. Involve not yourself in such inextricable difficulties in advocating a practice truly indefensible.

OBJECTION III. "I firmly believe the scriptures. All the families of the earth are brethren. They are originally descended from Adam, and secondarily from Noah. But the blacks are the descendants of Ham. They are trader a curse, and a right is given to their brethren to rule over them. We have a divine grant, in Gen. 9:25-27, to enslave the negroes."

ANSWER. This threatening may have extended to all the descendants of Ham. It is, however, to be noticed, that it is directed to Canaan, the son of Ham. In order to justify negro slavery from this prophecy, it will be necessary to prove four things. 1. That all the posterity of Canaan were devoted to suffer slavery. 2. That African negroes are really descended of Canaan. 3. That each of the descendants of Shem and Japheth has a moral right to reduce any of them to servitude. 4. That every slave-holder is really descended from Shem or Japheth. Want of proof in any one of these particulars will invalidate the whole objection. In a practice so contrary to the general principles of the divine law, a very express grant from the supreme authority is the only sanction to us. But not one of the four facts specified as necessary can be supported with unquestionable documents. On each of them, however, we may spend a thought.

1. The threatening is general. It does not imply particular personal servitude as much as political inferiority and national degradation. It does not imply that every individual of that race should of right be kept in a state of slavery.

2. It is possible the negroes are descended from Ham. It is even probable. But it is almost certain that they are not the offspring of Canaan. The boundaries of their habitation are defined. Gen. 9:19. The Canaanitish territory is generally known from subsequent history.

3. The supposition, however, that the curse fell on the negroes, may be granted with safety to the cause of those who are opposed to the system by which they are enslaved. It will not serve as a warrant for this practice. It is not to be considered as a rule of duty, but as the prediction of a future event. God has, in his providence, given many men over to slavery, to hardships, and to death. But this does not justify the tyrant and the murderer. Had it been predicted, in so many words, that the Americans should, in the beginning of the nineteenth century, be in possession of African slaves, we might argue from the fact the truth of the prophecy, but not the propriety of the slave-holder’s conduct. It was foretold that Israel should be in bondage in Egypt. Gen. 15:13. This did not justify the cruelty of Pharaoh. He was a vessel of wrath. Jesus, our God and Redeemer, was the subject of many predictions. According to ancient prophecy, and to satisfy divine justice, he was put to death. The characters who fulfilled this prediction were wicked to an extreme. Acts 2:23.

4. Slave-holders are probably the descendants of Japheth, although it cannot be legally ascertained. And they may be fulfilling the threatening on Canaan, although they are not innocent. Be not afraid, my friends; prophecy shall be fulfilled, although you should liberate your slaves. This prediction has had its accomplishment three thousand years ago. The descendants of Shem did, by divine direction, under the conduct of Joshua, subjugate the offspring of Canaan, when they took possession of the promised land.

This naturally leads us to consider another objection—the most plausible argument that can possibly he offered in defence of the unhallowed practice of holding our fellow men in perpetual bondage.

[11] There is no reason to suppose the blacks destitute of mental powers. In some settlements in this State, particularly along the Mohawk, and in Scoharie, the negroes, although slaves, are admitted to the privilege of consultation with their masters about the manner of conducting their labour. They live, comparatively, at ease and in plenty. They consult about the management of the farm, and frequently convey the produce to the markets. The negroes, in these places, are as intelligent and active as their masters, unless the latter have had signal advantages from education, and associating with superior company.

The courage and skill of the negroes in war will no longer be disputed, after their transactions in St. Domingo and Guadaloupe are known. And great must be his prejudice who can deny to the black Toussaint the qualifications of a warrior and a statesman.

The writings of Phillis Wheatly evince that negroes are not destitute of poetic genius; and the letters of Ignatius Sancho discover their possession of talents for prose composition. The observations of the Rev. Samuel Miller, of New-York, on the negro school of that city, and those of Anthony Benezet on the school in Philadelphia, confirm this truth. But if any person desires more documents to corroborate the position that the talents of the negroes are not inferior to those of the whites. I refer him to Clarkson’s Essay, and to Dr. Beattie’s refutation of Hume’s assertions with respect to African capacity. There he will find satisfaction.

[12] The nations called civilized, upon accurate calculation, are found to export annually from Africa one hundred thousand slaves. Fifty thousand of these are obtained by kidnapping. In order to supply the other half, whole villages are at once depopulated, by order of the Princes under European influence, and wars entered into expressly for the purpose of making slaves of the prisoners. These causes produce constant quarrels, and render the country miserable. It is supposed that 60,000 lives perish annually in these wars. Of the number shipped from Africa, 25,000 perish on the passage, by pestilence, insurrection, Shipwreck, despair, &c. 25,000 more perish in seasoning to the climate of the West-Indies. The remaining 50,000 linger out a life of wretched existence. Another fact will ascertain the havoc which famine, fatigue and cruelty make among those who are seasoned to the climate. Ten thousand people, under fair advantages, should produce, in a century, 160,000. In one of the colonies 650,000 slaves were imported in one century. The offspring of these, at the expiration of a hundred years, amounted to 140,000. According to this estimate, population was impeded in the proportion of seventy-four to one. In their own country they would have produced ten millions in that time. Thus it appears that upwards of 100,000 lives are annually sacrificed. This estimate is founded upon the testimony of witnesses by no means partial to the Africans—the testimonies of Smyth, Bosman, and Moore, agents to the factories established in Africa—and the records of Jamaica and St. Domingo. In Part 3 of Clarkson’s Essay, a history of the slave-trade is given, and many tales of woe related. If the accuracy of this estimate is doubted, that excellent work maybe consulted.

[13] The author embraces this opportunity of recommending "An Inquiry into the Causes of Variety in the Human Complexions," by Dr. Smith, President of the College of New-Jersey. His admirable criticisms on Lord Kaimes, by far the most able advocate of the doctrine of a plurality of distinct original pairs, deserve the perusal of the philosophic inquirer.

[14] Mr. Miller eloquently expresses himself on this subject:—"Pride, indeed, may contend that these unhappy subjects of our oppression are an inferior race of beings; and are, therefore, assigned, by the strictest justice, to a depressed and servile station in society. But in what does this inferiority consist? In a difference of complexion and figure? Let the narrow and illiberal mind, who can advance such an argument, recollect whither it will carry him. In traversing the various regions of the earth, from the equator to the pole, we find an infinite diversity of shades in the complexion of men, from the darkest to the fairest hues. If, then, the proper station of the African is that of servitude and depression, we must also contend that every Portuguese and Spaniard is, though in a less degree, inferior to us, and should be subject to a measure of the same degradation. Nay, if the tints of colour be considered the test of human dignity, we may justly assume a haughty superiority over our southern brethren of this continent, and devise their subjugation. In short, upon this principle, where shall liberty end? or where shall slavery begin? at what grade is it that the ties of blood are to cease? and how many shades must we descend still lower in the scale, before mercy is to vanish with them?" Discourse to the Manumission Society of New York. p. 12,13.

May the reader also take note that these responses by Pastor McLeod to objections raised express timeless Biblical truths that can also be used today when refuting the arguments of those in reformed circles who advocate and believe the heresy of "kinism."

To be continued.


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