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A Letter from James G. BirnEX, Esq. to the Rev. THORNTON J. Mills,
Corresponding Secretary of the Kentucky Colonization Society, dated Mercer County, Ky, July 15, 1834.
The readers of the African Repository have had an opportunity of perusing, in several of the numbers for the past and the present year, some letters, originally published, we believe, in the Huntsville (Ala.) Democrat, from the pen of Mr. James G. BIRNEY. This gentleman was recently Agent of the American Colonization Society for the south-western district, composed of the States of Tennessee, Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi, and the territory of Arkansas; and the object of those letters was to vindicate, by making more fully known, the principles and course of the Snciety. Though not concurring in all the views taken by the writer, we were not deterred by that consideration from copying his essays into the Repository; and he may feel assured, that the suspension of their republication after the seventh number proceeded only from the casual loss of the subsequent letters. Should he be able to supply them, it will give us pleasure to complete the series, though, perhaps, at the risk of renewed censure from intelligent friends who had objected to some passages of the republished numbers, as having a pro-slavery tendency. It was our design, should we recover the missing numbers, to accompany the translation of them to this Journal, with an attempted defence against that imputation. Our anxiety on the subject, was soon, however, interrupted most unexpectedly by rumours that the party for whom we were meditating an apology had surrendered to his assailants, a!id was about to fulminate from their camp charges against the Colonization Society, similar to those which had been made against himself. The flourishes with which the organs of Immediate Abolition announced, in advance, Mr. BIRNEY's abjurement of the Colonization cause, were in due season followed by the appearance of the letter, of which the title is given at the head of this article. Instead, therefore, of defending the officer of the Society against his adversaries, we are placed in the sudden necessity of defending the Society against the Parthian warfare of the fugitive officer. .
This task is undertaken with a strong feeling of regret, at the loss which the cause of Colonization has sustained in the desertion of an adherent conspicuous for official zeal and diligence, and enjoying a high reputation for his literary attainments, moral respectability and ardent piety. Such incidents, however, though painful, are not discouraging. The excellence of the cause will, as it has heretofore done, raise up for itself new supporters; and in the retirement of one champion from its defence, its constant friends will recognise a fresh motive for perseverance and energy on their parts
As it was scarcely six months before the date of Mr. Birney's letter, when the Kentucky Auxiliary elected him one of its Vice-Presidents, without, it would seem, any whisper from him, that the honour was inappropriate, Mr. Mills, unless more than ordinarily penetrated with the truth of the wise man's saying "there is no new thing under the sun"'must have started with surprise at the first tidings of the new functionary's new movement. This emotion was probably eren more lively in the breasts of such friends of the Society, as knew that so lately as last fall, when Mr. B. informed the Parent Board that his intended change of residence would close his Agency for the south-western district, the information was coupled with professions of undiminished zeal for the Coloniza. tion cause, with pledges of future service, and with an intimation of his willingness to accept an Agency for Kentucky. That the Managers did not act on this suggestion, was owing, it is presumed, to the fact, that their interests in Kentucky were then in charge with another gentleman.They received, during the winter, fresh assurance from Mr. B. of his continued attachment.
The suspicion excited by the suddenness of Mr. Birney's conversion, that it proceeded rather from some mystical afflatus, than frum full reflcction, is not removed by the apparent elaboration of his manifesto. For though this paper reaches the formidable length of some 15 or 20 columns of the Liberator, much of it will be found to be, not the result of original reasoning, but the accumulation of trite commonplaces against Colonization; in collecting which, a sharp pair of scissors was quite as important as a sharp intellect. Long as the manifesto is, the reader will be dismayed to learn that it contains only "some of the reasons which have persuaded" the writer to abandon the Colonization Society. Possibly, when the reserved reasons shall be forthcoming, some indications may be seen in them of the "unequalled force of logic,” which the Secretary of an Anti-Slavery Society facetiously ascribes to the reasons which are proclaimed. On these, it is our purpose now to submit some observations.
After an introductory account of his early impressions concerning the Colonization Scheme, and of his exertions as Agent of the Society for the south-westeru district, Mr. Birney notices the formation, through his instrumentality, and that of Mr. Polk, of an Auxiliary Society at Huntsville:
“This,” he adds, “was the first instance of direct action in the South, for the benefit of . any part of the coloured population, of which I then had a personal knowledge. I was greatly encouraged at the favorable aspect of things on this, the first trial, for it was made in a town where, considering its size, there is unusual concentration, of intelligence, and in the very midst of a population numbering a majority of blacks. At that time, I beliered there was in the project so much of a vivifying spirit, that to ensure success, it was only necessary for the people of the South once to become interested in it: that there was in it so much of the energy of life, that it required nothing more than once to be set on foot. to put beyond all question its continuance and growth. As auxiliary to the impulses of benci olence, I calculated upon the selfish advantages to the South. These, I thought, could be so clearly and powerfully exhibited, that there would be none to gainsay or resist, and that, by the union of benevolence and selfishness, the co-operation of the whole South might be secured. I unhesitatingly declare, that the total incongruity of these two principles did not strike my mind as it has done, since I witnessed their dissociable and mutu.
ally destructive energy. Of the truth of this remark, the Huntsville Society will furnish good evidence, for notwithstanding its auspicious beginning, and the excitement of elo. quent and animating addresses delivered, at different times, by gentlemen of distinguished ability, it never was efficient, its excitability wore away as it advanced in age, and'it protracted a languishing existence until last autumn, when, I apprehend, it terminated its being, except in name.”
The legitimate use of the fact, that the formation of a Colonization Society at Huntsville was the first instance, within Mr. Birney's knowledge, of "direct action in the South, for the benefit of any part of the coloured population," would be to infer from that fact, the peculiar tendency of the Society to waken public attention to the interests of the coloured people. In this effort, it seems that Mr. B. relied, “as auxiliary to the impulses of benevolence," on "the selfish advantages to the South”—a reliance which he has since found reason to condemn. His present opinion appears to be that the Colonization Society cannot be a scheme at once be. nevolent to the coloured people, and conducive to the interests of the whites at the South; he having recently discovered a total incongruity" between the two principles! He even thinks this truth to be so obvious, as to require from him an apology for his not having formerly perceived it. "IUNHESITATINGLY DECLARE, that the total incongruity of these two principles did not strike my mind, as it has done, since I witnessed their dissociable, and mutually destructive energy.” Now, we submit, that it is by no means wonderful that this imputed incongruity did not strike Mr. Birney's mind sooner. The wonder is, that it ever struck his mind at all, or the mind of any man. Reflecting persons have generally supposed that a plan may be based on the strongest foundations of duty, and be animated by the most enlarged principles of philanthropy, and yet promise advantages, on the score of individual interests, which its advocate would be not only justifiable for pressing, but inexcusable for omitting. Nay, on a subject, in comparison with which all matters of merely human concernment are but trifles, appeals to subordinate interests have been regarded as appropriate. The Ministers of our Holy Religion, not content with urging its bigb sanctions as a Revelation from the Almighty, announcing His will. and demanding the obedience of His creatures, habitually enforce the consideration, that man's temporal happiness is best subserved by his conformity with the rule of life which that Revelation prescribes. These pious men are now to be told, that there is a "total incongruity' between the spiritual character of the Gospel, and its capacity to confer "selfish advantages” on man. It must be noted, that in using the latter topic they are careful not to invest it with an importance disproportioned to that of the main argument. A similar caution is incumbent on the advocates of any inferior system, recommended on the one hand by its benevolence, and on tbe other by its utility. If, in pleading for Colonization, Mr. Birney dwelt exclusively or too fondly on its "selfish advantages," this was an er. ror of his own, which it is not very gracious in him to make now an article of his impeachment against the Society:
If this gentleman's theory of the total incongruity, &c." be strange. the illustration of it. which he complacently calls “evidence," is not less 80. What is it? Why, that an Auxiliary Colonization Society was dissolved last autumn. This may show that the Auxiliary had what Mr. B.. calls a "dissociable energy," but it no more proves his assumption, than the death of an individual proves a "total incongruity" between bis intellectual and his animal nature. Mr. B. seems himself to suspect the inadequacy of this illustration to the purpose of its adduction, and even to forget, in a few moments, that he had such a purpose in view: for in the next paragraph but one, he says:
"I mention the institution of the Society at Huntsville and its decline, not for the purpose of giving its history as a inatter of interest in itself, nor solely with the view of showing iny friendly disposition towards Colonization, but as an instance, (to which the condition of the others mentioned, as weli as that of all the smaller Societies thro:ighout the region in which I acted, might be added,) falling under my own obervation that every day's experience is making inore palpable to my mind, that there is not in Colonization any principle or quality, or constituent substance, fitted so to tell upon the hearts and minds of men as to ensure continued and persevering action. If there be the onnection supposed, between the facts introduced above and the proposition just stated, may I not ask you, sir, if the little that has been done for Colonization by our own State, where years ago it was welcomed with open arms, and within whose limits I could not state from personal knowledge that it has a single enemy, and the present crippled and unmoving condition of the numerous Societies, auxiliary to that whose correspondence you so ably conduct, do not fuinish testimony very powerful if not irresistible, that the whole watter has not in it any principle exciting to strenuous—to continuous action.”
The case of the Huntsville Society seems as little likely to promote the object for which it is here brought forward, as it was to prove the dogma of the "total incongruity.” The revised motive for the reference to it, is to show, "hat there is not in Colonization any principle, or quality, or constituent substance, fitted so to tell upon the hearts or minds of men, as to ensure continued and persevering action;" or, in other words, that the vicissitudes of an Auxiliary Society prove the system of which it is a part, to be unsound and desperate. Is this be "logic” at all, it may readily be admitted to be "unequalled.” The corollary is, that the hopelessness of the Colonization Society being thus demonstrated, its friends ought to abandon it. Is it then true, that no scheme, however redundant of promised benefits and blessings, can ultimately prosper, because it sus. tains occasional disasters. It is well that this timid philosophy was unknown to Columbus, 'when ignorance and prejudice opposed his plan for discovering a world; or to the colonizers of Jamestown), so often suffering under aggravated calamities, and so nearly their victim; or, to cite a loftier example, to the early Missionaries of the Cross, when principalities and powers sought to trainple on them: and that it has not chilled those coutless plans of benevolence which characterize our own day and generation. Justice, as well as sound philosophy, prescribes a test for trying any project, very different from that of its partial unpopularity. Both require that if on fair and full examination it appear worthy of acceptance, its friends should find in its adversity an added stimulus to "strenuous to continued action."
But, on this topic, we not only reject Mr. Birney's reasoning, but we deny his facts. Without expressly affirming, he leaves it to be plainly inferred, that the cause of Colonization is weaker now than it was at its inception. That it is vehemently denounced in various quarters, is admitted. But this very circumstance has induced an investigation of its' principles, and a comparison of it with other projects for meliorating the condition of the African race; and the result, by throwing into bright contrast its practical, peaceful and constitutional character, has acquired for i: a popularity too solid to be shaken by occasional missortunes, by the vituperation of foes or the infidelity of friends. If Auxiliary Societies have gone down in one place, they have risen up in another; if prominent individuals, who had embraced it under erroneous views, have since forsaken it, other individuals equally prominent, whom prejudice had estranged from it, have, on farther observation, cast away that prejudice, and are now its zealous supporters; the torpor of the public mind on the subject has been roused by discussion, and discussion has in the general result, increased and confirmed the claims of our cause on public confidence. As the alleged unpopularity of the colonizing system seems to have weighed heavily with Mr. Birney, it might perbaps be advisable for him to re-examive bis cop, clusions on that point. It is not easy to reconcile them with his subsequent com plaint, that the “Colonization Society has succeeded in bringing around it the learned, the religious, the influential;"' and that by the multiplied resolutions of favoring legislatures, of eeclesiastical bodies, with their hundred conventions, assemblies, conferences and associations, it has so far exalted itself into the high places of public sentiment, as itself to constitute public sentiment." But this is not, as will be seen in the sequel, the only instance in which the “unequalled force" of Mr. Birney's logic is directed against his own arguments.
The compliments of intelligent prints to the moderation of this gentleman's language in the letter under review, had prepared us to find him free from the error so common with converts, of vilifying their forsaken faith; and we felt quite sure that good taste would prevent hin from reproaching his former associates. These agreeable impressions were strengthened by the just tribute to their motives, contained in the following paragraph :
"In stating the objections which exist in my mind to Colonization, I wish to be understood distinctly at the outset, that I do not, in the slightest degree, impute to the benevolent individuals by whom it was originated, or even to a large majority of those by whom it is still warmly cherished, any unworthy motive as proinpting their zeal. Whilst I cheerfully attribute to this majority stainless purity of motive in what they have done and are doing; and further, a strong persuasion that it is the only means of rescue from the polluting and crushing folds of slavery; I should be insincere, were I not to state my belief that Colonization, if not supported, is not objected to, by many a keen-sighted slaveholder in the abstract, who has perspicacity enough to discern that the dark system in which he has involved himself, his posterity and their interests, will remain as unaffected by it as mid-ocean by the discharge of a pop gun on the beach.
«Nor do I intend to be understood, as making any objection to the purpose of the American Colonization Society, as expressed in its constitution, “to promote a plan for colonizing (with their consent) the free people of colour residing in our country, in Africa, or such other place as Congress may deem most expedient.” If its operations be limited to the gratification of an intelligent wish on the part of the free people of colour, or any other class of our population, to reinove to Africa, with the view of establishing a colony for the prosecution of an honest commerce, or for any lawful purpose whatever, there could exist, so far as I could see, co reasonable ground of opposition, any niore than to the migration, that is now in progress, of crowds of our fellow citizens to Texas, or any other part of Mexico.”
Alas! immediately after the foregoing passages, in which "a stainless purity of motive” is so emphatically ascribed to "a large majority of the friends of Colonization, comes the subjoined description of that very majority :
“If on the other hand, it is meant that this “consent” may be lawfully obtained by the imposition of civil disabilities, disfranchisement, exclusion from synipathy; by making the free colored man the victim of a relentless proscription, prejudice and scorn; by rejecting altogether his oath in courts of justice, thus leaving his property, his person, his wife, his children, and all that God has by his very constitutiin made dear to him, unprotected from the outrage and insult of every unfoeling tyrant, it becomes a solemn farce, it is the refine. ment of inhumanity, a mockery of all wercy, it is cruel, uninanly, and meriting the just indignation of every American, and the noble nation that bears his name. To say, that th: "consent" thus extorted is the approbution of the mind, is as preposterous as to affirm that a man consents to surrender his purse, on the condition that you spare his life, or, tr be transported to Botany Bay, when the hand of despotism is ready to stab him to the honit.
"Now, if the Colonization Society has done-is doing this; if it has succeeded in bring. ing around it the learned, the religious, the influential; if by the multiplied resolutions of favoring legislatures, of ecclesiastical bodies, with their hundred conventions, assemblies, conferences, and associations, it has so far exalted itself into the high places of public sentiment, as itself to constitute public sentiment; if it has acquired great authority cver the mind of this people, and uses it to encourage and not to check this leartless and grinding oppression; if, instead of pleading for mercy to the weak an: helpless, it sanctions the most open and crushing injustice, or even connives at it, by urging the necessity of Colodization upon the alleged ground of the immutability of the state of things, for the perpetua