(1838) James McCune Smith, “The Abolition Of Slavery And The Slave Trade In The French And British Colonies”

Dr. James McCune Smith
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James McCune Smith (1813-1865) was a prominent physician and abolitionist. Smith was educated in the African Free School in New York City. When failing to be admitted to any American college, he enrolled in Glasgow University in Scotland in 1832 and earned three degrees including his medical degree. Smith also joined the Glasgow Emancipation Society. In 1837, following a brief internship in Paris, he returned to New York City where he established a medical practice and opened a pharmacy. Smith is believed to be the first African American physician to hold a medical degree. Smith also continued his abolitionist activities as evidenced by the speech below which he gave in New York in 1838.

Mr. President, Ladies and Gentlemen: I rise to offer a resolution expressive of our high satisfaction in the noble efforts of the abolitionists of Great Britain and France, who, although they are separated from us by the width of an ocean, and by distinct political institutions, are nevertheless united with us in sentiment and exertion in the sacred cause of immediate and universal emancipation.

With these two nations we are connected by ties of the closest amity, and enjoy greater reciprocal influence than with any others upon the globe. To these nations our struggle for independence gave the first impulse to the path of liberty, which, if they have trod with slower, they have trod with more consistent steps than we: for every step they have advanced, each measure they have gained, has been an advantage not only to themselves, but to all who are dependent on them. And whenever the people of Great Britain or of France have obtained and portion of civil liberty, their first exercise of it has been to extend the precious boon to their fellow subjects, held in the galling chains of West Indian slavery.

In the last century, the first Convention elected by the French people immediately abolished slavery in two French colonies: and in the present, the passing of the British Reform Bill has rapidly been followed by the abolition of British West Indian slavery. France, indeed, set the first, the most glorious example, because liberty was conferred without stint or restriction, without any lengthened delay to sicken hope, or purgatorial state to blast expectation; it was sudden and entire; the man who until yesterday had toiled in the field, and had known no other incentive to labor than the cart-whip, was to-day raised to the dignity and privileges of a citizen of the republic; the woman who until yesterday had sobbed over her youngling and besought the grave to snatch it from the horror of existence, to-day held it towards the skies and shrieked, “He is free!”

This example has proved most instructive, for when France again bent her neck to the iron yoke of a ruthless tyrant, and suffered her sons to be slaughtered at the altar of ambitious despotism, the men whom she had so suddenly liberated showed themselves worthy of their freedom; for, against the veterans of Europe’s conqueror, against an armament sent out by the empire which overwhelmed Napoleon, amidst the loathing and scorn of a neighboring republic, and the cold and bitter neglect of all nations, they have maintained their freedom until now, when generous and consistent France, inspired with the genius of modern abolitionism, by acknowledging the independence of Hayti, completes the triumph which revolutionary France began. France, then, has been the first to grant immediate and entire emancipation, and the first to acknowledge the right and capacity of a community of freedmen to rank among the nations of the earth. And although she (France) still holds 260,000 slaves in some of her dependencies, yet recent movements nearly akin to her pristine efforts promise these a speedy liberation.

Sir, this transaction is one of the most cheering that has occurred in the history of abolitionism. For we here find a legislative body, without any recurrence to the primary assemblies of the people, without being urged by petitions or bound by pledges, without being incited by the tales of horror that always accompany slavery—for it is a remarkable fact that the slaves of Catholics are betted fed and better treated than those of Protestants: I say we find a legislative body without any of the ordinary inducements, at the first discussion of the subject, not only adopting the measure proposed by the most sanguine of the abolitionists, but actually desirous of advancing still further. This was a manifestation of principle at which we may blush as Americans, but rejoice as men: and unwilling as I am to utter any remark, or draw any comparison reflecting even the slightest discredit on

“My own, my native land,”

Yet there is something in the facts which, however humbling, may yet prove instructive. The very year that witnessed in our Hall of Representatives the appalling spectacle of a venerable man hooted and howled at when he sought even the right to petition in behalf of the slave, the same year beheld the legislature of king-ridden, priest ridden, and as some say, infidel France, cheering ¬on an abolitionist in his measures for emancipation.

Mr. President, if we next turn our eyes toward Great Britain, on whose dominions the sun never sets, whilst they extend through every clime, we find her the neighbor of almost every nation, and therefore capable of influencing all: and this influence is regulated by those sound principles for which she is so justly distinguished, which are her shelter in the hour of danger and her glory in the day of prosperity. Sound as these principles are on all other questions, they are preeminently so on that question which we are this day met to forward. For if, unwittingly, the British people, became deeply imbued in the blood guiltiness of slavery and the slave trade, yet as soon as they became aware of the enormity the of crime and possessed the power to remove it, they made signal and instantaneous atonement by the immediate emancipation of their 800,000 slaves. And this great movement was distinguished by none of the bitterness of a political contest, none of the selfish¬ness of a political victory. And when the battle was over and the victory won, the men who had gained it—the dissenters of England and Scotland—still heard the clank of chains, the groans of men and the wails of women held in slavery by other nations. They heard these sounds and they felt the principles by which they had recently been stirred still glow within them and expand their benevolence beyond the limits of a single empire: they felt the force of that sentiment uttered nearly a thousand years ago by an African slave, “Homo sum hacmani ni’l alletium ama puto.” They felt that their country was the world, their countrymen mankind, and were urged by motives that they could not resist to make the attempt to disenthrall all their countrymen: and the bound themselves by solemn compact to begin a moral agitation; that shall not cease until the last fetter shall fall from the last slave upon our earth. They formed the British Society for the immediate and universal emancipation of slaves, and the consequent destruction of the slave trade throughout the world.

Sir, what are the means by which they hope to obtain so glorious a result? The means are simple, but with God’s blessing they will prove efficient. With the Bible in their hands, and its precepts for their guide, they are determined calmly, but earnestly and incessantly, to remonstrate with all slaveholders, and to beseech them to liberate their slaves.

Although at the present time their efforts are devoted to another and more appropriate object, the entire abolition of slavery, which yet lingers in their colonies under the name of apprenticeship, yet as soon as they have abolished the apprenticeship system—and they will do so, even if it be but one hour sooner than its appointed expiration, yet they will obtain that hour, in order that the prin¬ciples of immediate emancipation may, in their colonies, vanquish the chicanery of slavery in its very metamorphosis—then, sir, with the renewed zeal, the additional experience, and the force of the complete example which this victory will give them, they will bring all their energies to bear upon slavery as it exists in these States.

We may rejoice then, sir, in the present efforts of the British abolitionists on account of the principle for which they are made. It is a struggle for immediate instead of gradual emancipation.

Should the apprenticeship, which works so badly, be permitted to continue until 1840, the evils which have resulted, and the insur¬rections which might arise from it, would be, to the slaveholder, an argument against emancipation in any form, and to many friends of liberty an argument for very gradual emancipation. The posi¬tion in which the British abolitionists are now placed must convince slaveholders that they must grant, and abolitionists that they must obtain immediate emancipation, else they will be forced to “fight their battles o’er again.”

We may rejoice in these efforts on account of the renewed zeal which they will infuse into the abolition party of Great Britain.

One moral victory gained raises the mind to an eminence whence perceives others that must be achieved, and inspires it with new energies for the struggle. Each step advanced has increased their zeal and enlarged their views.

The flame of abolitionism is no longer confined to the dissenters of Great Britain; it has even penetrated within the walls of the church established by law; and bishops of the Church of England have at length discovered that the advocacy of the cause of God’s suffering poor is not inconsistent with apostolic order. Men of every rank and of every sect are gathering around the standard of abolition, the great principle from which the anxiety grows—that of loving all men—is, imperceptibly to themselves, diffusing its healing influence over the hostile parties for once united; dissenter and churchman, Protestant and Papist, standing on the broad platform of humanity and covered with the mantle of charity, are beginning love one another whilst united to manifest their common love towards the crushed and bleeding slave.

And when the apprenticeship is abolished, this mass of mind, animated by the principle which now unites it, and in the exercise of the same, will devote its entire energies to the emancipation of our slaves. And the Christians of Great Britain will call upon those of these states, in one long and loud and incessant series of remonstrances, entreating them to follow the British example.

Sir, I admire this method of remonstrance. Judging from those we have already received, they seem to be of the right tone, and calculated to effect much good. I deem the method of remonstrance right because it is warranted by the usages of nations in the past and at the present time. In our own time one government has freely remonstrated with another on the destruction of the African slave trade: why, then, may not one people—who are the source of all governmental power—remonstrate with another for the abolition of slavery ! The people of these United States, at least that very large and respectable portion of them which constitutes the American Temperance Society, have remonstrated with the British people on the sin of intemperance; have not the people of Great Britain an equal right to remonstrate with us on the equally heinous sin of slavery? But, sir, not only had remonstrance—in other words, moral interference—been sanctioned by common usage and our own practice, but British interference in our slave question has actually been solicited, too, by all the good and the great of our land, who are at this moment receiving pecuniary assistance from a few of the British people for the abolition of American slavery by means of colonization. Can the good and the great complain then if other British subjects, once solicited by the same agent, see fit to strive for the self same object by remonstrating with the slaveholder on the justice, safety and expediency of immediate emancipation?

But, sir, common usage may be wrong, the Temperance and even the Colonization Society may be wrong in sanctioning national interference in national sins. I still plead for the right of remon¬strance on higher grounds than common usage, or the sanction of moral reforming associations. Christians are governed by the laws peculiar to the commonwealth of Christ, and which are independent of mere human laws imposed by human communities; the citizens of the Church Catholic of the Redeemer may be spread through many climes and subject to various forms of political government, but no difference in clime, no diversity in form of political creed can break the links which makes them fellow citizens in Christ, or free them from obedience to the precepts of the Saviour. One of these precepts is, that they may rebuke one another in love: and another is, that they may exhort each other to “good works.” Reposing on these precepts and obedient to them, the Christians of Britain have a right to call upon the Christians of these United States to desist from the sin of slaveholding.