Theodore Parker 1855
I discovered a cousin, John G. Parker III, online a few years ago while doing some genealogy research. We share the same great-great-grandparents, John and Elmira Parker. He has followed our Parker family line back to England, and has discovered some interesting people in the Parker family tree along the way. He tells me that one of those Parkers is the Rev. Theodore Parker, the famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) New England abolitionist. From the book The Inner Civil War: Northern Intellectuals and the Crisis of the Union by George M. Frederickson:
The foremost spokesman for the use of force in the righteous cause was Theodore Parker. Parker found it easy to be a rebel against authority because he was steeped in the traditions of the American Revolution. His grandfather had led the minutemen on Lexington Green, and Parker never forgot this; he kept Captain Parker’s musket hanging over his desk as a constant reminder. When efforts were made in the early 1850′s to recapture fugitive slaves in Massachusetts under the new federal law, Parker came to the conclusion that the slave code had been brought to New England and that a revolutionary state existed. Once again the time had come for citizen resistance to unjust laws. Parker became chairman of the Boston Vigilance committee and directed the forcible attempts to rescue fugitive slaves from the authorities. His principle lieutenant was Thomas Wentworth Higginson…It was Higginson, fresh from a meeting addressed by Parker, who led the anti-slavery mob which attempted to free Anthony Burns by assaulting the Boston Courthouse in 1854…For Parker, the revolutionary creed of the Declaration of Independence had the dual sanction of tradition and conscience…Slavery was wrong, and a form of tyranny: One had an historical justification, a natural right, and a moral duty to use any means to bring down its destruction.
Higginson would go to Kansas and involve himself in the Kansas-Missouri border war after the passage of the Nebraska Bill. Parker was too old and unhealthy by that time but he helped finance arms sent to the free-staters. Parker and Higginson later became the leading figures of the group of Northern abolitionists known by some as the Secret Six, who financed John Brown’s raid at Harper’s Ferry in 1859. Parker had left the country in search of better climate for his failing health when he received the news of Brown’s failed expedition. He sent a lengthy letter from Rome in 1860 in which he carefully elaborated his views:
1. A man held against his will as a slave has a natural right to kill everyone who seeks to prevent his enjoyment of liberty. This has long been recognized as a self-evident proposition coming so directly from the Primitive Instincts of Human Nature, that it neither required proofs nor admitted them.
2. It may be a natural duty of the slave to develop this natural right in a practical manner [and themselves ?] kill all those who seek to prevent his enjoyment of liberty. For if he continue patiently in bondage: First, he entails the foulest of curses on his children; and, second, he encourages other men to commit the crime against nature which he allows his own master to commit. It is my duty to preserve my own body from starvation. If I fail thereof through sloth, I not only die, but incur the contempt and loathing of my acquaintances while I live. It is not less my duty to do all that is in my power to preserve my body and soul from Slavery; and if I submit to that through cowardice, I not only become a bondman, and suffer what thraldom inflicts, but I incur also the contempt and loathing of my acquaintance. Why do freemen scorn and despise a slave? Because they think his condition is a sign of his cowardice, and believe that he ought to prefer death to bondage. The Southerners hold the Africans in great contempt, though mothers of their children. Why? Simply because the Africans fail to perform the natural duty of securing freedom by killing their oppressors.
3. The freeman has a natural right to help the slaves recover their liberty, and in that enterprise to do for them all which they have a right to do for themselves. This statement, I think, requires no argument or illustration.
4. It may be a Natural Duty for the freeman to help the slaves to the enjoyment of their liberty, and as means to that end, to aid them in killing all such as oppose their natural freedom. If you were attacked by a wolf, I should not only have a Right to aid you in getting rid of that enemy, but it would be my DUTY to help you in proportion to my power. If it were a murderer, and not a wolf, who attacked you, the duty would be still the same. Suppose it is not a murderer who would kill you, but a kidnapperwho would enslave, does that make it any less my duty to help you out of the hands of your enemy? Suppose it is not a kidnapper who would make you a bondman, but a slaveholder who would keep you one, does that remove my obligation to help you?
5. The performance of his duty is to be controlled by the freeman’s power and opportunity to help the slaves. The Impossible is never the Obligatory.
Parker included this observation in his letter also:
Such insurrections [as Brown's] will continue as long as Slavery lasts, and will increase, both in frequency and in power, just as the people become intelligent and moral. Virginia may hang John Brown and all that family, but she cannot hang the Human Race; and until that is done, noble men will rejoice in the motto of that once magnanimous State—” Sic semper Tyrannis! ” “Let such be the end of every oppressor.” It is a good Anti-Slavery picture on the Virginia shield: – a man standing on a tyrant and chopping his head off with a sword; only I would paint the sword-holder black and the tyrant white to show the immediate application of the principle.
You can find the entire document here. Did Parker make his case? Should his philosophy be applied to other injustices?
In the midst of the turbulent 1960′s, historian Bertram Wyatt-Brown published an essay entitled Abolitionism: Its Meaning For Contemporary Reform in which he examined the various interpretations historians have assigned to the abolitionists and asked what abolitionism contributed to American reform movements. He wrote:
Old historical traditions do not die easily. One of them holds that abolitionists plunged the nation into civil war simply to gratify their own bloodlusts. Black Reconstruction was the result. Scholars may claim their emancipation from this apology for the Old South, but regional folklore remains in unswept corners of the most sophisticated minds. A similar interpretation was expressed by the late James G. Randall, whose biography of Abraham Lincoln reflected his sympathy for a conservative approach to slavery. Moreover, Randall, like some other historians writing between the two world wars, considered violent conflict an ineffectual and immoral means to settle national and international disputes. In consequence, he held that war, not slavery, was the compelling sin of mid-nineteenth-century America. Abolitionists, therefore, were harpies of destruction rather than prophets of freedom. Another tradition has grown out of Charles A. Beard’s theory of American history, which, with its emphasis upon class and economic issues, undercut the moral significance of the abolitionists’ role. By implication at least, they became apologists for wage-slavery and Yankee industry. Despite their oversimplifications, these familiar interpretations have colored our attitudes toward the movement.
Although it has been forty-five years since Wyatt-Brown’s essay was written, these interpretations of abolitionists still have currency. Wyatt-Brown also opined that the “vital contribution of abolitionism has been its help in the development of our guilty conscience about race.” Is this still true? And how helpful is guilt? I wrote about this in an early post.