Speech of Joseph Barker (Part 1)

Citation Information:

“Speech of Joseph Barker,” (Part 1) Proceedings of the American-Anti-Slavery Society at its second decade. New York, 1854. Twelfth Anniversary of the American Anti-Slavery Society.

JOSEPH BARKER, of Ohio, again took the platform, observing, that as he hardly expected to have another opportunity to speak, after that evening, he would, with the permission of his audience, make a few remarks, in relation to the apparent difference of opinion between himself and his friend HENRY C. WRIGHT. He did not think it worth while to dispute whether America, with regard to its government, institutions and laws, was ahead of England, or England ahead of America; or, rather, he did not think it worth while to dispute which of the sinners was the worst sinner, or which of two bad principles was the worst principle. The best plan was, having ascertained that two principles, or the existence of two laws was bad, instead of spending time in disrupting which is the worst, to set to work to get both abolished, and better ones put in their stead. (Cheers.)

He could say a great deal to show that if the Aristocracy of Great Britain and Ireland were not as bad as our Southern slaveholders, they were at least the next bad set of men on the face of the earth (applause) and if he could not prove that the conduct of the English and Irish aristocracy has been as purely selfish, unfeeling and cruel towards the working classes, as the conduct of the Southern slaveholders towards their victims, he could prove that the difference, to say the least, was one in degree only, and that the effects of the misconduct of the English and Irish Aristocracy have been more ruinous than he effects of the selfishness and cruelty of the Southern slaveholders. But if they should enter upon the consideration of these questions, they would not be directing all their influence and energies to the one great object for which they were assembled, namely, the establishment of universal and impartial freedom throughout the world, and the abolition of every form of oppression and wrong. Their object should be to endeavor to find where they could stand together, and in what way they could cooperate most harmoniously for the overthrow of oppression in this land, and in all other lands.

There was one consideration which might comfort them, and that was, that, in warring with any one evil, they were warring with all evils that prevailed throughout the world. There was no country that did not exercise a great influence over every other country; and if in this country we had corrupt institutions, bad laws, and evil public sentiment, these operated injuriously upon every other country through the world; and if we tolerated these evil institutions and wicked laws, and this corrupt public sentiment here, we were really strengthening the corrupt institutions, bad laws and evil public sentiment in every country within the reach of our influence. So, on the other hand, if some individuals said the Aristocracy of Great Britain and Ireland are as guilty as our Southern slaveholders, and that the part of the English and Irish is to labor to abolish it, they were in reality taking from Slavery one of its props; they were undermining it. It was on this account that the reformers could afford to differ; for while they were working in diverse fields, and occupying different positions, they were really working for the same object. It was not worth while for reformers to quarrel with each other, because they differed in their modes of operation. They would never find the slaveholders rejoicing greatly because some Abolitionists wanted to reform Great Britain and Ireland, to abolish hereditary monarchy and aristocratic land monopoly, while other reformers were directing their efforts to the abolition of Slavery here. But if these two classes of reformers, instead of each working in its own field, and in its own way, would begin to quarrel, and not work at all, then, if they could hear how the oppressors chuckled and laughed, they would learn to lament the quarrels of reformers, and see the necessity of their tolerating each other, and encouraging each one to work in his own way.

While the discussion had been going on during the afternoon, his mind was impressed with the great influence which this new country—it was a county which, in many respects, was unparalleled, both in its history and institutions—is exerting upon the countries of the old world. Dispute and differ as men might about this country, America, it was, after all, a great country, and no mistake! (Laughter and loud cheers.) It was, in many respects, the wonder of all other countries. It was, in many respects, a prodigy of a stupendous and magnificent character; and, in proportion to its greatness and the liberality of its institutions, was the attention it attracted from the other side the Atlantic, and the influence it exerted upon the sentiments and feelings of the old world. This country, say what they would, was exerting a modifying influence upon every other country under heaven; even upon countries that are not acquainted with her institutions, and have scarcely heard her name. America, therefore, was doing something every hour, for good or for evil, for every class of men on earth, and for every country and government under heaven. Her influence was great, and was increasing every year. This country was destined to spread, to grow in population, to increase in power, in riches, and to attract every year more and more attention from abroad, and to exercise every year an increasing influence on all the nations of the earth. They formed a part of this nation, and it therefore became them to do what they could to make the influence which America exerts, and is to continue to exert, as beneficial and as little injurious as possible.

How could they do this? He said, at once, that the thing of all others that they had to do, was to abolish Slavery, and to bring all the institutions and laws of this country into harmony with the best principles of our original Constitution, and the leading sentiments of the Declaration of Independence. (Great cheering.) If they could do this, they destroyed the power of any portion of America for evil, and increased the power of every portion for good. What was it that prevented America now from transforming the despotisms of Europe into liberal Democracies? Simply the existence of abuses with which American can be justly charged. They talked of a Republic, and every sixth man and woman among them was a slave, a chattel, a victim to the lust and power and selfishness of the rest. They talked of reforming other nations, and they were tender, to a proverb, if any body undertook to reform them. They talked of restoring order in Europe, and encouraged riots and mob-law to put down the advocates of impartial Freedom. They talked about the wrongs of the oppressed, and their sympathy for the plundered and tortured people of Great Britain and Ireland, of Austria, Italy and Naples, and all this while they put the best men in the land in their dungeons, for helping a fugitive on his way from the house of bondage, and try to convict men of treason because they would not stop the flight of the escaped bondman, at the bidding of the slaveholder. (Cheers.) So long as the tyrants and despots of Europe, and their paid editors and paid lecturers, could point to such instances as these, so long the influence of America was great for evil, and limited for good.

Mr. Barker said he wrote home to England, and gave his friends there a picture of American society and institutions; he endeavored to show the points in which our laws were more liberal (with respect to the white men) than those of England; and he sometimes took particular pains to point out the enormity of certain laws, on which the hereditary Aristocracy of Great Britain and Ireland is based, and by which its power to plunder and torture and kill is perpetuated. His friends wrote back to him, “We shall appreciate your commendations, and admit the force of your rebuke, when you have got rid of that Fugitive State Law, and have abolished Slavery!” Of course, it was foolish and impolite in any nation to refuse to share our glory, because we had not had the firmness to throw away every one of the evils that were fostered among us; but they knew that a good dinner was not so pleasant from off a dirty platter as from a clean one, and so our relish for good institutions was lessened by the evil and mischief with which they were associated. Thus, the people of the old world could not do justice to what was liberal and just and humane and divine in our laws and institutions, so long as they saw the blackest of all stains and all shadows rising into frightful and gigantic dimensions, and throwing a melancholy shade over every thing that is beautiful in our land.

He (Mr. Barker) had adopted this country as his country, and the country of his children. They admired this country more than their own. They wanted to be able not only to say a great deal that was good, but every thing that was good of it, and nothing that was bad. They wanted the county to be not only more honorable than any other, but honorable throughout. They wanted the influence which this county exercised upon other countries not only to be good, but purely and unmixedly good; and they wanted America to exercise an irresistible influence in transforming the despotisms and tyrannies of the old world into institutions purely liberal, just and impartial. They did this, not only out of regard for other counties, but out of regard for themselves. They did it in order to prevent the possibility of a servile insurrection; in order to retain what they had already got that was good, and avoid what might threaten them that was evil.

Besides all this, it was perfectly plain to him that they could not tolerate Slavery in one part of the country, without subjecting themselves to a modified Slavery in every part of the country. They knew well that in the Southern States, the liberty of the white man had to be sacrificed, in order to prevent the black man from getting his liberty. There was no liberty, even for the slaveholders themselves; they were afraid to express sentiments friendly to freedom. So, in some degree, we of the North were enslaved by this great despotic and tyrannical evil. The North had got a Fugitive Slave Law, which made them kidnappers, man-hunters, bloodhounds. True, they could defy that law, as every man of intelligence, bravery, virtue and humanity did defy it; but he could only do this by defying and setting himself in opposition to the government of his county. Just as the malaria which originated in one swamp, spreads itself and affects a neighborhood that has no swamp, so this one dead body of slavery, this one mass of moral putridity, would generate a malaria sufficient to spread over the whole land. “A little leaven leaveneth the whole lump;” a single spark will kindle the flame that forms a national conflagration.

Slavery had already exerted a most depressing, deadening and corrupting influence upon Northern society. The two leading parties of the country only showed the natural influence of the toleration of a wicked and bad institution, when they both joined together in saying, “We must suppress agitation; we must resist or discountenance freedom of speech.” If the nation would have Slavery, they must have the means of keeping their slaves. They must have the vigilance committees, their watch-dogs; they must arm themselves with their dirks and daggers, their bowie knives, and their rifles and revolvers. They must have their bloodhounds, and they must have their Fugitive Slave Law, to require the Northern people to become man-hunters; and, of course, the tongues of the people must be tied, and the presses gagged. They could not have Slavery, without having all these evils which they deplored, and which they felt to be a curse and a disgrace and an infamy to the nation, as long as they remained. If they wanted to free themselves from the disgrace of a partnership in government with woman-whippers and man-hunters, if they wanted to have rulers that they could respect and love, if they wanted laws which they could approve, and institutions which they could admire, and a press that should be free, they must have done with this accursed evil of Slavery. It must be extinguished, if they wished to extinguish the fearful evils which sprang from it. (Applause.)

Mr. Barker said, that, in his opinion, the sentiments of his friend Mr. Whitson were correct. He (Mr. W.) thought that nothing deserved the name of Infidel but the subjugation of man’s reason, judgment and conscience to the erroneous and uncertain standard of man’s interest; that the man who will subject the certain to the uncertain, the dictates of right and justice to the suggestions of interest or convenience, was an Infidel; that the truly Orthodox man is he who finds truth, and sticks to it; who learns what is good, and, instead of sacrificing the good to an established institution, says, “I will make that bend to the good; and if it won’t bend, I will break it.” (Loud Cheers.) If he had not that spirit, he hoped he should “grow” so, as Topsy said. (Laughter.) But, if there were some people who called this Infidelity, if they said, “Because you will not, out of reverence to a book, give up what, in your own heart, you know to be true, why, then are you an Infidel,” then, in that sense, he was an Infidel; but it was a bad name which they gave to a good thing. Nevertheless, he would have the good thing; for he would rather swallow a wholesome substance with a poisonous label, than a poisonous substance with a healthful label. (Laughter and cheers.)

His firm conviction was, that the people of this country were coming nearer to reason and nearer to truth than they were some time ago. This change had been going on more rapidly in districts and cities at the West, than even in the more populous cities of the larger States, where old established bad things had worked with greater and more systematic power. He knew that there were exceptions; that there were men who declared the Declaration of Independence a “rhetorical flourish,” and who professed to believe that a colored person had not as good a right to live where he pleased as a white person; and even in Ohio, he had met with men who would say (thought he hoped they told a lie) that, under certain circumstances, they would as soon kill a “nigger” as a chicken or a turkey; but they were becoming rarer and rarer, and those who remained were not so ready to express their inhuman thoughts and their outrageous and diabolical feelings as they used to be. He lived in Knox county, (which might be spelt without the K-nox-in Latin, meaning night,) which was considered the darkest part of Ohio; but even there, things were changing. In his town, one of the worst even in Knox county, the Free Soilers numbered twenty-four votes; and if the election had occurred after he and his family took up their residence in the town, they would have added two or three votes more;—and, formerly, they could not muster one. The nation had progressed, and was progressing; and when he saw persons, differing with respect to opposite and minor details, yet having no greater happiness than in finding how they could agree on essentials, and work together for the general good, the universal emancipation and salvation of mankind, then he thought that was another indication that the triumph of right over might was at hand, and that we have reason to believe that the dawn of a better day is upon us. (Loud cheers.)