Letter One

State Slavery – Imprisonment of A. Bronson Alcott – Dawn of Liberty

[ Intro ] – [ I ] – [ II ] – [ III ] – [ IV ] – [ V ] – [ VI ] – [ VII ]


    Letter I        January 16, 1843


SIR: Another stone in the old castle of human wrongs has this day been loosened, of which you and your readers will be interested in learning the particulars, if, in the unavoidable excitement of the occasion, they can be reported. Thousands feel the inequity of the incorporated state system as keenly as the millions have felt the incompatibility and baseness of the incorporated church system. A forced church, a tyrannous love, has long been felt to be no church and no love whatever; and not a few persons in this country, as well as in all other parts of the world, are fully prepared to suffer violence, persecution and death, rather than commit any act to support such false and forced Christianity. But of the numbers who feel that the State, when it calls upon us by its club law, its mere brigand right of a strong arm, to support guns and bayonets, murderous armies and navies, legislators, judges, jailers, executioners, teachers, &c. &c. no one has yet, it seems ventured to act upon the conviction, and passively endure the consequences, whatever they might be, of a faithful adherence to principle. It is often said, that in a condition of society where one is obliged to let pass so much that is immoral, it is not worthwhile to undergo so much inconvenience as close imprisonment on account of State prosecution.

Very different to this, however, has been the feeling of A. Bronson Alcott, of Concord; and being convinced that the payment of the town tax involved principles and practices most degrading and injurious to man, he had long determined not to be a voluntary party to its continuance. Last year, by the leniency of the collector in prepaying the 1.50 dollar, the question was not brought to issue, and only the humblest instrument of the State was subdued, in so far as he declared the law was too base for him to execute. This year, a step further has been gained. By the system of putting up the collector’s office to public auction, and accepting the man who will do the dirty work for the lowest per centage, the town is pretty sure to secure the services of the most suitable instrument of its tyranny. When the citizens generally shall take the trouble to look into the law and the circumstances of this affair, they will shudder at the slavery to which they subject themselves; and the sooner they do so, the better; for greater oppressions than any they have thrown off, have grown from smaller beginnings.

This year, a collector was appointed, who could execute the law; and although no doubt it wen hard with him to snatch a man away from his home, from his wife, from the provision and education of his little children, in which latter he found Mr. Alcott serenly engaged, he nevertheless did it. He witnessed, with his own eyes, the little hasty preparations to attend him to the jail, the packing up of a few personal conveniences to ward off the inclemencies of the season, and yet, with no higher authority than the general warrant in his pocket, which, without particular investigation, trial, or inquiry, hands over the liberty of every townsman to his discretion, he took a fellow-citizen, an unoffending man, to a long confinement.

To the county jail, therefore, Mr. Alcott went, or rather was forced by the benignant State and its delicate instrument. Probably the authorities anticipated that if they showed a rigid determination to enforce this old monstrous system, a weakness would be discovered somewhere; that domestic attractions would be too potent; that wive or friend would interfere, and pay the money. But they were mistaken. A virtuous man is not often surrounded by friends who would persuade him to desert his conscience, and turn his back upon moral principles, just at the trying moment. In this case, at all events, no one was unwise enough so to act. Having worked up to this point, it appears the enemy’s courage failed. The constable collector having brought his victim to the jail, the next step was to find the jailer, who appeared to be not at home. A considerable delay ensued, during which the prisoner, of course, waited patiently; and after nearly two hours had thus been passed, the constable announced that he no longer had a right to detain his caption. – On inquiring how that happened, he said that both the tax and costs had been paid. To the question, by whom the payment had been made, he replied by naming a gentleman who may be regarded, and who would willingly be regarded, as the very personification of the State. In these facts, humble as the individual and the circumstances may appear, we have a wide and deep subject for reflection, which I trust you will not permit to pass in a barren manner. This act of non-resistance, you will perceive, does not rest on the plea of poverty. For Mr. Alcott has always supplied some poor neighbor with food and clothing to a much higher amount than his tax. Neither is it wholly based on thee iniquitous purposes to which the money when collected is applied. For part of it is devoted to education, and education has not a heartier friend in the world than Bronson Alcott. But it is founded on the moral instinct which forbids every moral being to be a party, either actively or permissively, to the destructive principles of power and might over peace and love. Suppose this tax were levied by the town in its caprice, and the full value of the amount were to be returned the next day to each payer in bread. Would it not be a sacred duty in every man, in the virtuous integrity of his nature, to deny such a proceeding? Doubtless it would. All but the meanest souls would thereby be raised to dis-annex themselves from the false and tyrannous assumption, that the human will is to be subject to the brute force which the majority may set up. It is only tolerated by public opinion because the fact is not yet perceived that all the true purposes of the corporate state may as easily be carried out on the revolutionary principle, as all the true purposes of the collective church. Every one can see that the Church is wrong when it comes to men with the Bible in one hand and the sword in the other. And is it not equally diabolical for the State to do so? The name is of small importance. When Church and State are divorced by public opinion, they still may carry on an adulterous intercourse. Then, look at the peculiar law in this case. When a debtor is imprisoned by an ordinary creditor, he can be bailed out, and have considerable liberty to employ himself, preserve his health, and the like. But the impersonal town is an inexorable monster, and permits not his debtor to quit the prison walls. He is treated as a convicted felon. No trial, no jury is permitted him. Many are the points worthy of consideration involved in this uncouth, barbaric, unchristian state of the law; and I earnestly trust you will not allow the occasion to escape your enlightened and benevolent pen, nor fail to inform the public at large of the facts.

Yours sincerely,

C.L. Concord, Mass.


January 28, 1843


SIR: A typographical error in my communication inserted last week, impels me again to take up the pen upon the comprehensive subject of a voluntary government. In the fifth line from the bottom of the first column, the word ‘revolutionary’ is printed, instead of ‘voluntary’ principle. As the word revolutionary is rather alarming to some friends’ nerves, it is of importance that the reader’s mind should be disabused of any imagination, that violent proceedings are recommended or contemplated. In as much as the principle of universal charity is quite opposed to the principle of brute force, the proposed new basis for social action may be said to involve a revolution; that is to say, a something on the other side of the moral wheel. But nothing can be more clear, than that if the new plan is to be brought into the actual world, it must be only by kind, orderly, and moral means.

I am not unaware that it may require some time to render this thought familiar to the public mind; but I see very plainly, that the more the practicability of immediate abolition of colored slavery is considered, the sooner all will be brought to see that really there is little hope for its success, until we entertain this question of the larger evil, of which colored slavery is, in fact, but a consequence. Let us suppose that success should attend the present abolition efforts, and all the colored population are liberated, or are at least what we call set free; still, this master evil, this monster tyrant will remain. Whereas, if we could but penetrate, at once, to this deeper, this more radical vice, the shallower crime would at the same time be dried up. Let us imagine the colored man turned from a forced workman to a hired laborer, what will be his condition? Will he not, by reason of his present notions, and our false state of society, fall into that degraded position, in which the Irish laborer is found? Slavery, we know, is the Ireland of the United States. It is the machinery by which one portion of the race has, in almost every age, oppressed another portion; and the transference of the colored man to hireling servitude would leave him a bondman still. Why then should we aim alone at the mere modification, when with as much ease we might carry the whole question? Nay, not alone with as much ease, but with more. Thorough virtue is more easily sustained than any compromise, if we have but the valor to set about it. In this case, a new class of persons will become interested in abolition. The circle will be widened, the numbers augmented, the feeling deepened. In comprehending white freedom as well as black, the white man as well as the black will be heartily engaged in the great cause of human freedom. Coadjutors, who feel deeply because the question comes vitally home to them, will be actively enlisted. This, Sir, is the little wicket gate, by which we must enter the straight and narrow way which leads to universal liberty. As soon as we see this, we shall vigorously and successfully struggle out of the slough of despond. Every abolitionist must perceive, by this time, that the great obstruction to colored freedom consists in this very fact of government, not of charity, but of force. The State and its intrigues, its place-hunting, its office-seeking, is at this moment the only serious obstacle to that freedom, in favor of which public opinion is even now strong enough, if this hard, compacted hindrance did not stand in the way. Moral feeling, I declare, Sir, is at this hour clear enough, potent enough, to carry this small step, this triffling section of personal freedom, were but our brute force government superseded by a voluntary government. The State, not being a person, can be carried to any tyrannic action without any remorse. There is none to blush for it. It imprisons without inquiry. It punishes without trial, either by jury or solitary judge. It converts and perverts an anti-slavery constitution into pro-slavery conduct. It does things daily without shame, which no individual in it could do without soul-stirring contrition. It involves a system which absolutely shuts out the best men from public life, and selects only the mediocre, such as are capable of being used as tools and instruments. It pretends to defend person and property, and is the first to invade them, and that also in a more brutal manner than it allows to any of its individual members. Let the people recollect that it is themselves who have made and who sustain this dragon, which respects or disrespects, holds up or tramples down written constitutions, just as slaveholders shall suggest. Away, then, with such a delusion! There is no safety for a person or property, while a government by force exists. Let us supersede it by one of charity. Let us have a voluntary State, as well as a voluntary Church, and we may possibly then have some claim to the appellation of free men. Till then, at least, we are slaves.

Yours, dear friend,

C.L. Concord, Mass.


February 21, 1843


SIR: The idea that the business of a nation could be carried on if it were left to the free judgment in every individual to support it or not as to him seemed best, must no doubt appear at first sight to the ordinary politician as most chimerical. But this is the fortune of all new ideas; and happily we are now-a-days too much accustomed to new and progressive thoughts, to be stopped in our efforts to carry them out by any such vaporish charge. I have no doubt if we can succeed in attracting due attention to the subject we shall soon have the charitable feelings and sound thoughts of the country on our side. If it were not that we are so accustomed to the present mode of life as to overlook its incongruities, disharmony, and injustice, we should be impulsed at once to demand “Why should we have all this complicated and costly machinery of government?”

The purposes and pretences for which the representative system of government has credit, it wholly fails to secure. Nay, in many instances, it is the foremost actor in breaking the principles it declares it exists to maintain. It professes to be a defence for person and property. Whenever, the propriety of maintaining the government is questioned, the first prompt remark is that neither person nor property would then be secure. But how does it preserve person? Whose person is more secure under political government than it would be without it? Whom does it guard? From whom does it ward off the consequences of anger, hatred, jealousy, revenge, or the many other passions which occasionally boil up in the human heart and impel the hand to strike? Not even the very first executive officer, the royal or presidential head of government itself, is exempted from personal assaults of this kind by any governmental power. No guards, guns, gendarmerie, police, nor any such contrivance, can protect a Louis Phillippe, or a Victoria, from an enemy’s or maniac’s hand. Still less can it accomplish preventively for the person of any private citizen. The notion of actual prevention is, then, quite ridiculous. But when the advocate for coercive government is brought to this point, he admits that by actual temperate and kindly prevention the political government is altogether powerless; and that it is only by terror, by the force of example in the imposition of pain on previous offenders, that it can be of any effect whatever. Now, let any rational man answer the question whether this is any personal protection. The head of the decapitated murderer will not fit the shoulders of any murdered brother. A man is not much benefitted by the knowledge in his dying moment that his assassin, if caught, will be hanged by the neck until he is dead. No man strikes or kills another without a motive. Individual persons so not murder for amusement, though governments and nations do. And the fact is, that terror of punishment ceases to have any effect just when it is most needed, that is to say, when the passions are unduly excited. Indeed it has no such result as prevention at any time that personal safety is jeopardized. Men are not restrained from murder by the fear of external punishment, but by the internal governor. Just to that degree in which a consciousness of the divine government is developed in the individual is he restrained from destruction, violence, or wrong to his neighbors. There is no other preventive of crime. We may go on, as nations have gone on, to add capital offence to capital offence, making so many crimes punishable by death that the whole code is wet with human blood, and one would think the hangman enacted the laws; but in the way of prevention all this is vain. Nations have done this, they have built up systems which by their spirit we might suppose had been dictated by Jack Ketch and his associates. And what has been the consequence? Surely not an increased protection to person and property. No; but such an utter repugnance to have any participation in so sanguinary a scheme that innocent victims have rather been content to remain at the mercy of the depraved than prosecute them unto death. Coercive governments have bid high in blood for popular support; but the very excess of their offers has disgusted the people. It is to be hoped that this disgust will be increased by the growth of moral power and perception in the nations; that it may not only be applied to capital punishment, but be extended also to ordinary punishments. Revenge or retaliation is a principle which cannot prevent crime, but must rather increase it. Retaliation is itself a crime. And a grosser crime than original attack. The nations, that is to say the moral people in them, have discovered the tendency of governmental force with respect to the prevention of personal offences. They have discovered that an increase of force so far from affording an increased protection has led to a diminution of it; and that the protection of the murdered, and the reclamation of the murderer are alike futile by the hanging of the latter. A little more consideration will lead to the just conclusion that pain inflicted after the committal of crime is altogether a failure in the prevention of offences. What is true of the extremely heavy is also applicable to the middling and lighter crimes. This argument need scarcely be here followed out to its further ramifications. Although at first sight it may appear to be quite fanciful to assert that a force government does not and cannot protect the subjects of its pretended solicitude, yet a moderate extent of thoughtful investigation soon opens the mind to the undeniable fact. Nay, we may go a step further, and from the recent case of Mr. Alcott, as reported in your paper, assert that on some occasions the government itself is foremost in attacking the sacred right of personal liberty. Because this citizen as a man, as a christian, has conscientious scruples in doing aught in support of a government which spends people’s money on prison, gunpowder, halters, and the like civilized gear, that very government lays violent hands upon him and imprisons him for a term only shortened by its good will and pleasure. Why, sir, the supposed wild and lawless red man, whom we have exiled from his native forests, could do nothing worse in principle than this. He left the result of personal assaults unavenged, even when it amounted to murder. – So too perhaps would the untaught Irishman, and the Scotch Highlander. But nothing so bad as to attack in a body the most meek, inoffensive, and well-disposed of the community ever entered the minds of these “great untaught.” But the iron-hearted system does not limit its depressing despotism to the case of a total denial of its right divine. This is a sort of high treason which might be expected to arouse its ire. But it also takes into its vengeance any partial denial of its purity; and, on smaller occasions, thunders forth its unrelenting anger. When a young man, happily conscious of the wickedness of learning to shoot his fellow-creatures, refuses to be drilled, and to bear deadly arms against the innocent, the guns of the willing are pointed at his head, and long imprisonment, as the lightest expiation, follows. Such a mode of protecting the persons of its citizens, of respecting their native feelings, their purest sentiments, seems abundantly curious, and difficult of reconciliation with our intuitive moral precepts.

Many years have not elapsed since we were in a like predicament regarding the church. It is still thought in some countries that a legislative enactment, a procedure of collective man, is necessary to the due upholding of Divine laws. Some people still think, or pretend to think, that communities and nations can be made religious by act of parliament. We have, however, beneficially escaped from this unworthy predicament, and it is not a very profound foresight to prophecy that we shall soon be rid of the one in question. We prefer a voluntary church as the only true church. We shall shortly devise a voluntary political organization as the only true State. Human beings, we are now convinced, can not be rendered more fit for heaven by human coercion; neither can they by such a contrivance, be better qualified for a true life on earth. In fact, the goodness and qualification for one are the same as for the other. They both spring from one sentiment, from one state of being. They both originate in the religious nature in the human soul. This nature above all others, is out of the reach of external power. Government may only lay hold of men’s bodies, their carcasses they may imprison, and even their minds they may, by education, do something towards impressing with particular doctrines, and, through public opinion, some influence is occasionally produced on the sympathies and moral sentiment. But, for the latter, the contrivances must be very delicate and their appliance very quiet and subtle, or they will fail for their end. And for a man’s religious being, for the inmost nature, the deepest good within, coercive government ever has and ever must fail. The sensitive plant coils up not more quickly at the human touch than does the religious element on the application of the smallest particle of violence. Not only political government, but social force, the power of a sect, shall in vain assault the sacredness of soul. No: not even a parent’s care over his child may by force extend to this sphere. It is holy ground, an on one may stand thereon with rough shod feet.

If it were safe to abandon force with respect to the maintenance of religious belief, surely it is no less salutary to give it up in reference to religious conduct. All conduct is either religious, or should be so. If it be not it happens because force has profaned it. If, in respect to the church, we can leave it to men’s free will to support it by word or money as they deem proper, most certainly we shall be right as men are now constituted, in leaving political and social economy to their good sense. Worldly minded as men are now admitted to be, it cannot be probable that they would fail in supporting a system which they thought protected their worldly goods. Religious opinion is a thing which by no external means men and women are compelled to declare; yet, so strong is the spontaneity in this direction, that upon most occasions a public feeling is manifested which includes every one. If it be said that many are compelled by force of public opinion to subscribe in money and submit in behaviour, we can prove on the other hand, that many are carried, by a pure zeal, much beyond the point which the public voice demands; and it is in fact that perpetually fresh zeal which is ever creating and keeping alive the public opinion which is said to draw in the luke warm.

May we not then boldly ask whether it is probable that men who are so ready to maintain the things which are unseen, would spontaneate less on behalf of the things which are visible? If the love of peace, of our fellow citizens’ good opinion, compels men to pay so handsomely for churches and spiritual protectors, why should such motives fail for a similar result when their persons and worldly property, which are open to all men’s eyes, are concerned? It is not possible that men of property would neglect an institution which protected their property, any more than they now neglect to insure against loss by fire without an external force to compel them. It is clear that this argument entirely fails. No one believes in its validity. At all events if the government itself had any faith in this imaginary axiom that it (the government) is necessary for the protection of person and property, its members would at once give up all coercion employed for its maintenance, and rely on the self-interest of persons and of property holders for support. – This low motive of self-interest would singly be sufficient to bring in all needful supplies, if there were any veracity in it. But there is not. And however axiomatical, or self-evidently true this sentiment may once have been, it is now worn out, and should be discarded. It has now no more a legitimate place amongst us than our great grandfathers’ three cornered hats and tye wigs which kept their heads so warm.

Much more may be said, and I apprehend from the deep seated position of this delusion must be said, in order to awaken mankind to a due sense of their degradation and loss; but possibly for this occasion I have said enough. If I shall succeed in calling the attention of thinkers to the subject, some of them will perhaps find leisure either to confirm or disprove the position I am endeavoring to establish. In the meantime I remain sir,

Yours, very respectfully,
C.L.
Concord, Mass.

[ Intro ] – [ I ] – [ II ] – [ III ] – [ IV ] – [ V ] – [ VI ] – [ VII ]

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