Antislavery: The Crusade for Freedom in America

By Dwight Lowell Dumond | Go to book overview

Chapter 15
VOICES FROM THE WEST

It was in the year 1808 that Kentucky gave to the country its second great indictment of slavery. David Rice had been a Presbyterian; David Barrow was a Baptist. Both were renowned preachers, but their everlasting fame rests, for each, upon a single antislavery pamphlet. Barrow was the leader of the antislavery Baptists of Kentucky until his death in 1819. He was the most distinguished and able of their preachers, a highly esteemed citizen, and a gifted writer. He worked indefatigably for the improvement of the free Negroes and inspired a petition to Congress requesting a haven for them in the public domain and the expenditure of unlimited public funds to assist them. This was something quite different from colonization, and the true test of the antislavery man.1

In 1807 Barrow wrote his Involuntary, Unmer ited, Perpetual, Absolute, Hereditary Slavery, Ex amined; on the Principles of Nature, Reason, Justice, Policy, and Scripture. It was published the following year at Lexington. We are already familiar with his definition of a slave. His thesis was that perpetual and hereditary slavery could not be supported on the principles of nature, reason, justice, good policy, or the Scriptures.

Barrow, as Rice had done, was exploring the field of natural law. The West was slowly moving toward the clarification and full acceptance of the higher law doctrine. If man would obey the laws of nature, then peace, love, and harmony would prevail, and slavery, being an unnatural usurpation, simply would not be able to exist. Man's mental faculties alone set him apart from beasts and lead him to nobility or to tyranny depending on whether they were dedicated to reason, justice, and mercy, or prostituted to passion, ease, and selfish interest!2 Reason and justice clearly demonstrate that anyone claiming property must have acquired it lawfully, and it must be a lawful kind of property. Slaves were obtained by fraud and violence, and neither the laws of England nor of America could operate contrary to reason, justice, and "the grand Charter given to the human race by the God of the Universe." "That innocent, unoffending persons and their posterity," said Barrow, "should suffer the most degrading kind of slavery to perpetual generations, only because some of their fellow creatures, through covetousness, imprudence, or ignorance, had paid inconsiderable sums of money for their parents several generations past, has no foundation in reason and justice...shall their misfortunes deprive others of unalienable and invaluable rights forever? Reason and justice must answer in the negative; any human law to the contrary notwithstanding."3 This was Rice's unjust law thesis, the basis of the higher law doctrine, the simple, but unassailable answer to property rights in slaves and to the demand for compensated emancipation.

What is the function of government, asked Barrow? Certainly something more than the protection of property rights. Government policy which fails to "secure the lives, limbs, characters, liberty, property, equality, peace, harmony, happiness, and safety of the whole, and every virtuous rational creature within its dominions, is tyrannic,

-133-

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