In a speech before the New England Anti-Slavery Society at its convention on May 7, 1844, Charles Lenox Remond adopted a theme increasingly popular among many anti-slavery activists, arguing that Northern states such as Massachusetts should secede from the Union then dominated by slaveholders. Remond and others who advocated this radical view made two arguments. First they claimed dissolution of the union would cut off economic support for slavery from Northern business interests. However they also argued that dissolution of the Union was the only remaining response to a government that was unwilling to allow fundamental rights for African Americans. After his presentation, and similar remarks by other abolitionists, the New England Anti-Slavery Society adopted a resolution supporting the dissolution by a margin of 252 to 24. Thus, ironically, some of the earliest calls for the end of the Union came from abolitionists in the North rather than from Slaveholders in the South. Remond’s speech appears below.
I do not intend, Sir, even to attempt an answer to the respected friend who has just taken his seat. My point of view is too distant from his to leave me the vantage-ground for doing so. But I feel a deep interest in the question, and the present moment is perhaps the most fitting one for the expression of my humble views. I cannot expect them to make much impression upon the many—upon the body of this nation, for whose benefit the Constitution was made; but they will meet a response from the few whom it entirely overlooks, or sees but to trample upon, and the fewer still, who identify themselves with the outcast, by occupying this position, of a dissolution of their union with Slaveholders.
It does very well for nine-tenths of the people of the United States, to speak of the awe and reverence they feel as they contemplate the Constitution, but there are those who look upon it with a very different feeling, for they are in a very different position. What is it to them that it talks about peace—tranquility—domestic enjoyments—civil rights? To them it is no such union; and resting, as it does, upon all their dearest and holiest rights, I cannot but express surprise that there are so many to wonder that they, and those who feel with them, should look upon this Union as one that ought to be dissolved. Oh, Sir! look at them as they are falling, generation after generation, beneath the sway of the Union, sinking into their ignominious graves unwept, uncared for, unprayed for, enslaved, and say what has the Union been to them that they should look upon it with filial reverence! There was McIntosh, of St. Louis. He raised his dark, fettered hand, in defence of the chastity of his wife, as it is claimed that a white man ought to do, and he was burned in a slow fire! What was the Union to him? What was it to Turner of Southampton, than whom a nobler soul has never risen upon the human race in all the long line of its prophets and its heroes! The Union does not even preserve his name. He had no place in life under its protecting aegis—in history he is only Nat Turner, the miserable negro. Sir, I will never contempt-uously call him Nat Turner, for had he been a white man, Massachusetts and Virginia would have united to glorify his name and to build his monument; and is it strange, seeing all these things, that I should feel them too, and act upon the feeling? Yet, when such thoughts as these get such imperfect utterance as I am able to give them, men say to me, “Remond! you’re wild! Remond! you’re mad! Remond! you’re a revolutionist!” Sir, in view of all these things, ought not this whole assembly—this whole nation to be revolutionists too?
I belong to that class of persons called women’s rights men; and I look upon this matter in the light of my principles on that subject. Do you not all recollect the case of the woman in Maryland, which went the round of the papers not long since? She was endeavoring to make her escape to the land of Victoria—she was pursued and overtaken, and was about to be returned to her home of whips, and chains, and fetters, and of the American Constitution. She sprang into the Potomac, and sank from the clutch of her pursuers. As her condition was, then, stands that of one million of American women today! And when she was seized, I well remember that it was pleaded in favor of her savage pursuers, that, by the provisions of the American Constitution, she must be returned!—that all their proceedings were legal!
What if the word “slave” is not in it? It does not matter to me nor mine. Slavery was in the understanding that framed it—Slavery is in the will that administers it. If there were nothing but Liberty in it, would there be two and a half millions ground to the dust beneath it this day?
If any authority besides this fact were needed, I might cite the words of John Quincy Adams to the people of color, when we applied to him in the case of Latimer. He said his opinion should be forthcoming, subject to the provisions of the American Constitution.
With all my knowledge of the origin and the progress, and my experience of the present practical workings of the American Constitution, shall I be found here advocating it as a glorious means to a glorious end? No! my fellow countrymen, I am here to register my testimony against it! Not because I do not feel how valuable it might be, were its provisions secured to the few as they are to the many—not because I wish to claim anything more for the few than an equality of privileges—not because I am not ready to “yield everything to the Union but Truth—Honor—Liberty” [pointing to a banner inscribed with those words of Dr. Channing] —but because (and I regret to say it) we have, as a people, yielded even these; and with such a people, I feel that I must not, an individual, be numbered.
I have spoken of particular instances in illustration of the nullity of the Union. How is it with every colored man and woman in Boston? Can one of you plead its provisions at the South? No! It will be with you there even as it was with Nat Turner, and the Fugitive of the Potomac. If I am wronged, I may appeal, and I may go on appealing and appealing till I am greyheaded—in vain! Go the rounds of the Union, and tell me at what tribunal the man of color can have justice? Court, Judge, Jury—all are against him; and to what is it owing? Why, as an honest Buckeye (for he was fond of calling himself so) told me in Cincinnati, “it is this everlasting yielding to Slavery,” which always must take place, when Freedom yields the first step, by coming into union with it. If the Union had been formed upon the supposition that the colored man was a man, a man he would have been considered, whether in New Hampshire or Kentucky. But under the Union as it was, and as it is, he is kicked, stoned, insulted, enslaved, and the public sentiment that does it, falls back upon the Constitution for support, and will turn its back upon you, wherever you may be, if you deny that instrument to be obligatory as the paramount law.
I need not say how greatly I am troubled whenever a difference of opinion exists in the minds of those who love the cause of Freedom. I have tried in my own mind to make out a case for those who do not see eye to eye with us in this matter. But the more I have labored at it, the stronger becomes my conviction of duty in calling for a dissolution of the union between Freedom and Slavery. I speak after long thought, free and full discussion, and the clearest view of all the consequences and all the obstacles. I have taken all things into consideration; and in view of each and of all, I say here, as I did in New York, that if I can only sustain the Constitution, by sustaining Slavery, then—”live or die—sink or swim—survive or perish,” I give my voice for the dissolution of the Union.