Works, vol. V (by Theodore Parker, 1863)
The publication of the fifth volume of the new edition of Theodore Parker's works is very opportune. It contains the first instalment of his discourses on slavery, the subject to which he directed greater attention than to any other practical matter of which he had occasion to treat. It is curious to see how the matter presented itself to the most distinguished man by far of the theoretical school of Abolitionists. Theodore Parker was, perhaps, on the whole, the most vigorous and original theological writer produced by the United States since the Declaration of Independence, unless, indeed, Dr. Channing forms an exception. He went very far indeed beyond the limits of what is usually considered as orthodox speculation on either side of the Atlantic; but, with that thin fervour which is so eminently characteristic of Americans in general, he substituted for the common types of dogmatism a dogmatism of his own, even more positive and unyielding than that from which he revolted. He took the high a priori road to all his beliefs, and laid down the fundamental doctrines of his creed, not merely as being true, but as being first truths resting on their own evidence, and requiring no other proof at all in order to command the belief of all the unprejudiced part of mankind. In a former article we made some observations on the general theological conclusions in which this habit of mind landed him. The present volume supplies an admirable illustration of the strength and the weakness of the same temper as applied to morality. Perhaps no other modern writer has given such an instructive illustration as he of the consequences which must always be produced by the attempt to put morality on a transcendental basis, and to draw practical inferences from the theory so laid down. In reading Theodore Parker, we can understand the spirit by which the extreme Abolitionist party appears to be actuated in the present crisis; and, on the other hand, by looking at the temper of the Abolitionist party, we can form a fair notion of the consequences of that mode of speculation in which their chief theoretical leader was so eminent.
Theodore Parker's view of morality is constantly repeated in different parts of the present volume, and may be thus stated. God made the universe, both material and moral, and—
‘Of course, if the universe be thus made, there must be power and force enough of the right kind in it to accomplish the purposes of God; and this must be true of both parts of the universe, the world of matter and the world of man. . Now, there are certain natural modes of operation of these forces and powers which God has put in the universe; the natural powers of matter and of man are meant to act in a certain way, and not otherwise. These modes of operation I will call laws, natural laws; they exist in the material world and in the human world. They are a part of the universe.’He then proceeds to explain that the material world perfectly obeys its laws, but that with men it is otherwise. Man has a conscience, of which the function is “to inform us of the moral ideal, to transfer it from God's mind to our mind; “to inform us what are the natural modes of operation, the rules of conduct in our relation with other men.” This function it discharges either by instinct or by reflection. Reflection and instinct between them somehow make up a moral ideal which is constantly improving from age to age, and is more or less reflected in human laws, or— as Parker, to mark their inferiority, calls them – statutes. One of the principal laws of God in relation to men is that all men have certain inalienable rights, of which personal liberty is one of the most important. This, like other divine laws, overrides all human laws whatever, destroys the moral obligation to obey them, and even imposes a moral obligation to disobey them. So far does Parker carry this theory that he distinctly, and at considerable length, maintains that a juryman ought to govern his verdict, not by the law of the land, but by his private conscience; that, if he objects to capital punishment, he has a moral right, not only to refuse to serve on a jury which is to try a man for his life, but to serve on it and acquit the prisoner in the face of the evidence; and generally that he has a right to paralyse in this way any and every law, and every particular application of the law, which appears to him unjust. As to slavery, that, of course, is utterly wicked and abominable. No matter what may be the law of the land, no matter what authority may be pleaded in favour of such an institution, it is contrary to the natural, inalienable, imprescriptible rights of man. To such a writer, the principles of the Declaration of Independence are of course infinitely truer than most parts of the Bible; and the references to them, and to the petty skirmishes at Lexington and elsewhere which began the War of Independence, are so frequent and so noisy that the very names of the places get to be a weariness and vexation of spirit.
The weak side of this sort of theory has been so frequently shown that a very short reference to the points of the well-worn controversy will be sufficient. Nothing can be more obscure than the principles of the system, or more arbitrary than their application. That its principles are obscure will be obvious to any one who tries, in good faith, and without using words in all sorts of different senses, to understand what Parker means by a law. If the law of gravitation is a law of God, there is nothing like it in the moral world. If the Ten Commandments are laws of God, there is nothing like them in the material world. That the application of the principles is arbitrary is apparent from the fact that, what with instinct to help reflection and reflection to bolster up instinct, anybody may make anything he likes into an eternal law. If the slave-owner said that slavery is a useful institution, Parker could answer that instinctive morality shows its enormity. If the slave-owner said that his instincts are all in favour of slavery, Parker could reply that reflective morality proves the falsehood of those instincts. The truth is that all such theories, when properly examined, are reducible to one form:—“I give you my word that this is true, and you ought to be satisfied with my assertion.” To considerate persons accustomed to measure their words, and not inclined to say more than they can stand to, this way of speaking is exceedingly unwelcome. There is something puerile in heaping up piles of words about absolute, infinite, eternal, inalienable rights. They do not really strengthen a statement. They are only ways of saying, “I, the writer, am very much in earnest about all this, I think this or that view of the matter infinitely important, and this or that other view of it monstrously absurd.” This may be all very well as far as it goes, but it goes a very little way. It proves only that a particular man takes a particular view very earnestly, whatever that may be worth.
This sort of language, however, has its use like other things. It is a singular fact that the great bulk of mankind will not attend to particular facts unless they are thrown into an abstract shape, even though the abstract shape really adds nothing at all to the particular facts which are described by it. To say that slavery is equally injurious to the master and the slave, that it wastes money, wastes labour, destroys most of the beauty of life, and leads to great occasional cruelty; and habitually to disgusting and degrading immorality, may be, and indeed is, quite true; but, for some reason or other, such statements do not impress people half so much as the vehement assertion that it is a horrible sin, an atrocious crime, a violation of the inalienable rights of man—all which in reality means the same thing over again. The difference between the two statements is, that the specific one admits of, and indeed invites and provokes, discussion. If it is either exaggerated or false in fact, it may be refuted or cut down to its proper dimensions. The general statement, on the other hand, admits of no degrees. You may agree with it or not; but it is not easy to refute a man who appeals ultimately to his own instincts, and the question cannot be considered, under any circumstances, as a question of degree. Exactly in proportion to the degree in which such language is ill-suited for discussion it is well-suited for denunciation, and in certain states of public feeling no doubt denunciation is highly useful. When a crying evil is established by law, and goes on from generation to generation, people are fatally apt to come to look upon it as not being an evil at all; and no extravagance, either of language or of conduct, into which the Northern Americans may be at present betrayed, ought to blind us to the fact that for some sixty years the nation, as a whole, showed a degree of indifference to the existence amongst them of negro slaves which every good and honest man must have regarded with disgust. There is no inconsistency between a dislike for Parker's way of expressing himself about absolute rights, and eternal laws, and other such matters, and a strong opinion that, after all, the feelings of which that language were the expression did him the highest honour. He saw—and proved by evidence which, though not perhaps very novel, is unanswerably cogent—that all the interests of the United States, moral and material, were fearfully injured by slavery; and he had the courage to express that opinion in marvellously forcible language, at a time when it required considerable courage to do so. He had also an undoubted claim to the great merit of having taught his countrymen a lesson which they and most other populations are apt to forget with fatal ease—namely, that there is such a thing as moral responsibility for the general character of institutions as well as for particular acts, and that those who contribute to the establishment or support of an institution selfish, degrading, and pernicious to the souls and bodies of millions of men, incur a responsibility which is perhaps all the greater because it does not involve any positive act generally considered wrong and odious. This is a merit which ought to outweigh, the evils of a great deal of objectionable metaphysics and occasionally violent language.
It must, however, be admitted that the advantages of this kind of language are confined to times of apathy. It may be useful for the purpose of startling indifferent people out of their stupid contentment with any state of things which does not actually and sensibly inconvenience themselves; but it is a terrible thing when the men who use it are at the head of a majority, with all but irresistible power in their hands. It makes men savage and cruel fanatics, willing to sacrifice everything else in the world to their own theories. Theodore Parker was one of those men who show to the best advantage as confessors, not to say martyrs. He was just the person to protest against an iniquity, to refuse to submit to it, to call God to witness that it is an iniquity not to be endured or even passively witnessed; but he, and men like him, are awful people to turn loose upon sinners. The tender mercies of the righteous are not particularly humane; and, of all the righteous men from whom one would wish to be delivered, hardly any can be so terrible as that particular kind of righteous man who, by the help of a set of innate ideas and an omniscient conscience, finds himself in possession of infallible criteria by which he can always be assured that it is his most sacred duty to gratify to the utmost his strongest antipathies.
Saturday Review, November 14, 1863.