U.S. Intellectual History Blog

William Ellery Channing and Abolitionist Historiography

[Note: This is a guest post by Christopher Cameron, an assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He is the author of To Plead Our Own Cause: African Americans in Massachusetts and the Making of the Antislavery Movement (Kent State University Press, June 2014). Cameron is currently working on a book about liberal religion and slavery in early America, as well as a history of African American freethinkers from the early 19th century to the present. Enjoy!–RG2]

In her essay “Coming of Age: The Historiography of Black Abolitionism,” Manisha Sinha notes that abolitionists have generally been viewed as little more than “bourgeois reformers saddled with racial paternalism and economic conservatism.”[1] This view of abolitionists changed with the work of scholars such as Patrick Rael, Julie Roy Jeffrey, W. Caleb McDaniel, John Stauffer, and Shirley J. Yee, to name just a few. While the reputations of “radical” abolitionists such as Gerrit Smith, William Cooper Nell, William Lloyd Garrison, and Lydia Maria Child has undergone a drastic transformation in the scholarship on abolitionism over the past 40 years or so, much less attention has been given to “moderate” abolitionists such as William Ellery Channing. This situation is understandable, especially since Channing and many others like him often protested the tactics and rhetoric of their more outspoken counterparts. An analysis of Channing’s works, however, shows that he was actually fairly close ideologically to the Garrisonians, even while he deplored their sharp denunciations of slaveholders.

Channing first encountered plantation slavery while he was a tutor in the family of David Meade Randolph of Richmond, Virginia between 1798 and 1800. While he noted in a 1799 letter that the existence of slavery “is one object here which always depresses me” and would keep him from ever permanently living down South, he did not become an ardent opponent of slavery until the 1830s. In the fall of 1830, poor health compelled Channing to travel to Santa Cruz, where he once again encountered slavery. Upon his return, he preached a sermon in his Federal Street Church (Boston) where he explained that “the most striking features in the state of society which I have been called to observe is the existence of slavery. This drew my thoughts more than all that was peculiar in the natural world, and though I saw this evil in its mildest form, my conviction of its magnitude grew stronger and more painful.”[2] The agitation of abolitionists in Boston such as David Walker, Garrison, and Maria Stewart likely also drew his thoughts ever more to slavery, and he would begin to write his book Slavery in 1831, although he delayed publication until 1835.

One reason for this delay was that Channing did not want to be associated with a group of cranks such as the abolitionists, as most people viewed them in the antebellum era (many historians likewise did so up until the 1960s.) He believed strongly that abolitionists “have fallen into the common error of enthusiasts, that of exaggerating their object, of feeling as if no evil existed but that which they opposed, and as if no guilt could be compared with that of countenancing or upholding it.”[3] He believed that the tone and manners of antislavery activists was often unchristian and he disagreed with the notion that all slaveholders were evil. Lastly, and this is what has likely pushed him into the category of moderate reformers, he thought that the immediate abolition of slavery, which the Garrisonians championed, was “inconsistent with the well-being of the slave and the order of the state.”[4]

Channing came around to more active participation in the antislavery cause after a conversation with Samuel Joseph May, a fellow Unitarian minister and a Garrisonian abolitionist in his own right. They met at Channing’s home in the fall of 1834 and, after Channing seemed to dwell at length on the severity of the Garrisonians’ denunciations of slaveholders, May replied “I am tired of these complaints. The cause of suffering humanity, the cause of our oppressed, crushed colored countrymen, has called as loudly upon others as upon us, who are known as the Abolitionists. It was just as incumbent upon others, as upon us, to espouse it. We are not to blame that wiser and better men did not espouse it long ago. The cry of millions in bondage had been heard throughout our land for half a century, and disregarded. The wise and prudent saw the wrong, but thought it not wise and prudent to lift a finger for its correction.”[5] This line of critique continued for a few minutes, after which Channing responded “Brother May, I acknowledge the justice of your reproof; I have been silent too long.”[6]

Channing would end his silence and finally publish Slavery the following year. Over  the next decade he would speak on abolitionism at Faneuil Hall, head up a petition drive, publish books such as Emancipation (1840) and The Duty of the Free States, or Remarks Suggested by the Case of the Creole (1842), and help influence the abolitionist thought of key reformers. His own ideology was very similar to the Garrisonians. He argued that slavery was inconsistent with God’s moral law, degraded both the master and slave, was sinful, and constituted the chief stain on American republicanism. He also believed strongly in the necessity of non-violent means in ending slavery, arguing that “an enterprize of Christian philanthropy is not to be carried on by force; that it is time for philanthropy to stop, when it can only advance by wading through blood.”[7] While William Lloyd Garrison could be at times a strong critic of Channing, he wholeheartedly agreed with Channing’s latter point, noting in his comments to the letter that his “homily to abolitionists upon the Christian obligation not to resort to carnal weapons in self-defence, or to aid in the cause of liberty, finds a sincere response in our own bosom.”[8]

Where William Lloyd Garrison would strongly diverge from Channing was in his belief that slavery ought to be immediately abolished. This question of immediatism has been at the heart of abolitionist historiography, with proponents of gradual emancipation or colonization often being portrayed as less ardent reformers than those calling for the immediate end to slavery. Yet as David Brion Davis argued of immediatism more than 50 years ago, “to some reformers the phrase seemed mainly to imply a direct, intuitive consciousness of the sinfulness of slavery, and a sincere personal commitment to work for its abolition. In this subjective sense the word ‘immediate’ was charged with religious overtones and referred more to the moral disposition of the reformer than to a particular plan for emancipation.”[9] Channing, no less than the Garrisonians, possessed this “intuitive consciousness of the sinfulness of slavery.” He wrote in Slavery: “God gave us intellectual power, that it should be cultivated; and a system which degrades it, and can only be upheld by its depression, opposes one of his most benevolent designs. Reason is God’s image in man, and the capacity of acquiring truth is among his best inspirations.”[10] While Channing was skeptical that denouncing slaveholders and immediately liberating the slaves without any preparation for freedom may not be the wisest course of action, he was nevertheless an important proponent of abolitionism, one whose voice helped lend the movement an air of legitimacy that was lacking from the dominance of “babes, sucklings, obscure men, silly women, publicans, [and] sinners,” in the words of Samuel Joseph May.[11]

[1] Manisha Sinha, “Coming of Age: The Historiography of Black Abolitionism,” in Prophets of Protest: Reconsidering the History of American Abolitionism Timothy Patrick McCarthy and John Stauffer, eds. (New York: The New Press, 2006).

[2] Memoir of William Ellery Channing, with Extracts from his Correspondence and Manuscripts Vol. 3 (Boston: Wm. Crosby and H. P. Nichols, 1848), 148.

[3] William E. Channing, Slavery (Boston: James Munroe & Co., 1835), 134.

[4] Ibid, 135.

[5] Memoir of William Ellery Channing, with Extracts from his Correspondence and Manuscripts Vol. 3, 156.

[6] Ibid, 158.

[7] William Ellery Channing, A Letter to the Abolitionists, with Comments (Boston: Isaac Knapp, 1837), 5-6.

[8] Ibid, 22.

[9] David Brion Davis, “The Emergence of Immediatism in British and American Antislavery Thought” The Mississippi Valley Historical Review 49(1962): 209-210.

[10] Channing, Slavery, 74.

[11] Memoir of William Ellery Channing, with Extracts from his Correspondence and Manuscripts Vol. 3, 157.

10 Thoughts on this Post

  1. By the way, Professor Cameron is traveling today, so he’ll start to answer any questions and comments tomorrow. But please, bring them on—more 19th century intellectual history is great for the blog!

  2. Great read. I have done some limited research on Benjamin Lundy – Garrison’s mentor. Lundy’s story probably sustains Cameron’s critique of the idea that “proponents of gradual emancipation or colonization [were] as less ardent reformers than those calling for the immediate end to slavery.”

    I’m looking forward to reading more on the blog about scholarship on abolitionism!

  3. My favorite part of his essay Slavery is where Rev. Channing borrows an elegant theological argument from Francis Wayland: The Bible [“Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ.”] was used as a justification that slavery is part of the divine plan.

    However, similar to the political argument Locke makes against an absolutist reading of Romans 13 [“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.”], Channing/Wayland elegantly argue that had Christianity been purely about social justice, it would have been nothing more than a bloody force in this world* rather than the gateway to the next.

    “The gospel was designed, not for one race or for one time, but for all men and for all times. It looked not at the abolition of this form of evil for that age alone, but for its universal abolition. Hence the important object of its author was to gain it a lodgment in every part of the known world; so that, by its universal diffusion among all classes of society, it might quietly and peacefully modify and subdue the evil passions of men; and thus, without violence work a revolution in the whole mass of mankind.

    In this manner alone could its object, a universal moral revolution, have been accomplished. For if it had forbidden the evil instead of subverting the principle, if it had proclaimed the unlawfulness of slavery, and taught slaves to resist the oppression of their masters, it would instantly have arrayed the two parties in deadly hostility throughout the civilized world; its announcement would have been the signal of servile war; and the very name of the Christian religion would have been forgotten amidst the agitations of universal bloodshed.

    *Yeah, yeah, I know. However, this does further Christopher Cameron’s observation that

    [Channing] believed that the tone and manners of antislavery activists was often unchristian and he disagreed with the notion that all slaveholders were evil. Lastly, and this is what has likely pushed him into the category of moderate reformers, he thought that the immediate abolition of slavery, which the Garrisonians championed, was “inconsistent with the well-being of the slave and the order of the state.”[4]

  4. Nice post! For further reading, there are also
    sympathetic interpretations of Channing in Ed Rugemer’s book The Problem of Emancipation, which notes the importance of British West Indian emancipation to his conversion, and in Davis’s short book Challenging the Boundaries of Slavery, which contains some fascinating reflections on how liberal biblical hermeneutics paralleled changing ways of interpreting the Constitution circa 1819.

    • Thanks so much for the suggestions! Davis’ thoughts there seem similar to Molly Oshatz’s work Slavery and Sin, although she focuses more on the 1830s. I am particularly interested in Channing and West Indian emancipation, as he seemed to convert fairly quickly from a strong critic of it to embracing the plan.

  5. I include a bit about Channing and Lundy in my new book on Pennsylvania Hall and am working on a project contrasting Channing and Whittier. It’s interesting stuff indeed. Channing and Whittier have both been neglected too long.

  6. Christopher–
    This is an interesting post, but I would like to push back against the notion that you seem to be arguing here that Garrisonian abolitionists and antislavery gradualists like Channing were really ideologically compatible. The reason I think this is wrong is that in Garrison’s view, the moral wrong and sin of slavery demanded behavioral conformity–the inner and the outer life must be made to be one consistent and coherent thing. His commitment to a kind of moral absolutism and religious perfectionism pushed him to see human action in absolutistic terms. A plan of gradual emancipation, as he saw it, was a plan to continue sin. Since there were no degrees of sinfulness but only absolute sin, any compromise with slavery and slaveholding was unacceptable. Hence, Garrison’s anti-constitutionalism and his rejection of political means. Channing, on the other hand, shared the notion of the moral wrong of slavery, but also argued that freeing the slave without providing the means of moral and economic development would also be morally wrong–and that such education and development could not be done immediately. In rejecting Garrisonian radicalism, Channing didn’t simply disapprove of the tone of abolitionist rhetoric, but actually imagined the relationship between ideal forms of moral principle and the ambiguous and complex forms of social and political life, in an entirely different way from the Garrisonians. This is seen in Channing’s reliance on the State and his arguments for collective ownership and moral responsibility through the instrument of the State. For instance, the idea in Channing’s _Slavery_ that the emancipated slave would require the quasi-paternal aid of an appointed guardian is one that immediatists would have roundly rejected. Channing’s views, not just about slavery but about self-culture as well, stressed development and growth, rather than the polar slave/free absolutism of the abolitionists. In general, the radicalism of abolitionism should be seen as quite distinct and ideologically opposed to the fundamental assumptions about the relationship between the spiritual and material worlds, and between self and society, that informed other forms of antislavery thought.

    • TNC: http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2011/06/the-convenient-suspension-of-disbelief/240318/

      Your call.

      The institution of slavery is a stain on this nation’s soul that will never be cleansed. It is just as wrong as wrong can be, a huge sin, and it is on our soul. There’s a second sin that’s almost as great and that’s emancipation. They told four million five hundred thousand people, You are free, hit the road. And we’re still suffering from that. Three quarters of them couldn’t read or write, not one tenth of them had a profession except for farming, and yet they were turned loose and told, Go your way. In 1877 the last Union troops were withdrawn after a dozen years of being in the South to assure compliance with the law. Once they were withdrawn all the Jim Crow laws and everything else came down on the blacks. Their schools were inferior in every sense. They had the Freedmen’s Bureau, which did, perhaps, some good work, but it was mostly a joke, corrupt in all kinds of ways. So they had no help. Just turned loose on the world, and they were waifs. It’s a very sad thing. There should have been a huge program for schools. There should have been all kinds of employment provided for them. Not modern welfare, you can’t expect that in the middle of the nineteenth century, but there should have been some earnest effort to prepare these people for citizenship. They were not prepared, and operated under horrible disadvantages once the army was withdrawn, and some of the consequences are very much with us today.

      I wouldn’t want to be Shelby Foote, but if I were, fortunately I’m dead.

    • Thank you for this great comment Dan. I think you are right that the more critical distinction between Garrisonians and others such as Channing lies in the moral absolutism of the former. While Channing certainly viewed slavery as sinful and supported the peace principle, these positions were of course one shared by abolitionists of all stripes. You’ve given me a lot to think about as I develop my thoughts on the topic.

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