William Ellery Channing, Pre-Transcendentalist and Abolitionist

William Ellery Channing (1780-1842) was one of the most outspoken abolitionists of his era. He was determined to voice the rights of individual man-. A great preacher, called "the apostle of Unitarianism," he advocated tolerance in religion. His writings on slavery, war, labor problems, and education were extremely progressive and influenced many American authors, including Emerson and other exponents of Transcendentalism, Holmes, and Bryant. His works (6 vol., 1841-43) passed through many editions.

Writing of Channing's participation in the anti-slavery struggle, fire-side poet and abolitionist John Greenleaf Whittier said, "As to the matter of courage and self-sacrifice, very few of us have evinced so much of both . . . [Channing] threw upon the altar the proudest reputation, in letters and theology, of his day." Channing, whose Unitarianism Christianity was a driving force in his abolitionist views, also was indicative of the general humanitarian trend of nineteenth-century thought. Channing's debate with traditional dogma deepened in him the conviction that integrity was the essence of religion. Every man had a right to go through life unfettered, and for this reason, Channing was an outspoken abolitionist.

I admire Channing's vehemence in defending the rights of freedom, especially in regard to the persecution Abolitionists underwent in society at the time. I think it's helpful when reading this his essay on Slavery to keep in mind Channing's background. There was a large difference of opinion regarding slavery in his family--his grandfather signed the Declaration of Independence for Rhode Island and abhorred slavery, and his father was a lawyer who defended the rights of slave traders. Ironically, Channing himself was raised by slaves, and it wasn't until he was 12 years old, when his uncle went to court for owning slaves, that he began to form his own ideas regarding the evils of keeping other human beings as property. The slave should be acknowledged as a partaker of a common nature, as having the essential rights of humanity. This great truth lies at the foundation of every wise plan for his relief. Unfortunately at a young age he assimilated blacks as lesser beings because of their lack of education and overall inabilities to function as leaders in society. Of course, this was the overall assumption in his day, but we should laud his courage and determination in professing that "all men are indeed created equal" if only in their rights to absolute freedom. His evolution in becoming a Unitarian minister absolutely affected his beliefs regarding slavery and his passion regarding the subject made him a moving orator.

If I have written any thing under the influence of prejudice, passion, or unkindness to any human being, I ask forgiveness of God and man. I have spoken strongly, not to offend or give pain, but to produce in others deep convictions corresponding to my own. Nothing could have induced me to fix my thoughts on this painful subject, but a conviction, which pressed on me with increasing weight, that the times demanded a plain and free exposition of the truth.
He was most directly influenced by Rev.Samuel Hopkins, his senior, regarding the act of slavery being against biblical teaching. Both felt that every man has a right to be free, every man should model himself after Christ and embody religion. Sounding very Transcendental-like, he professed self-reliance, reason, the moral right and not following the masses in the spirit of Christianity. In the powerfully moving and dignified autobiography of Frederick Douglass, he so poignantly states, " I am not only an American slave, but a man, and as such, am bound to use my powers for the welfare of the whole human brotherhood."
The first line of Channing's essay is famous, "The first question to be proposed by a rational being is, not what is profitable, but what is Right." No one can argue with the rationale behind this statement--he argues in favor of the human being as a person, not an economic commodity, and guilt certainly would be a swaying factor in others who read the essay. He furthers this idea in saying, "To instigate the slave to insurrection is a crime, for which no rebuke and no punishment can be too severe.

Self-possession is essential to the growth of man, not the possessing of others. We are held accountable to a higher law than our Constitution which advocate all men are created equal--we are held to "unholy interference." It is our duty as a person and country to follow our own moral beliefs. They are bound to seek and hold the truth in regard to human rights; to be faithful to their principles in conversation and conduct, never, never to surrender them to private interest convenience, flattery, or fear.

One of the most despicable aspects concerning slavery was the status and power surrounding the owning of other human beings. Channing found the greatest evil of slavery to be the lust for power: "... slavery, above all other influences, nourishes the passion for power and its kindred vices. There is no passion which needs a stronger curb.

Author: 
Shannon Riley, Virginia Commonwealth University
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