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George Brown
Chapter XI - Against American Slavery


IN his home in Scotland Brown had been imbued with a hatred of slavery. He spent several years of his early manhood in New York, and felt in all its force the domination of the slave-holding element. Thence he moved to Canada, for many years the refuge of the hunted slave. It is estimated that even before the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law, there were twenty thousand coloured refugees in Canada. It was customary for these poor creatures to hide by day and to travel by night. When all other signs failed they kept their eyes fixed on the North Star, whose light “ seemed the enduring witness of the divine interest in their deliverance.” By the system known as the “underground railway,” the fugitive was passed from one friendly house to another. A code of signals was used by those engaged in the work of mercy—pass words, peculiar knocks and raps, a call like that of the owl. Negroes in transit were described as “fleeces of wool,” and “volumes of the irrepressible conflict bound in black.”

The passage of the Fugitive Slave Law deprived the negro of his security in the free states, and dragged back into slavery men and women who had for years been living in freedom, and had found means to earn their bread and to build up little homes. Hence an impetus was given to the movement towards Canada, which the slave-holders tried to check by talking freely of the rigours of the Canadian climate. Lewis Clark, the original of George Harris n Uncle Tom's Cabin was told that if he went to Canada the British would put his eyes out, and keep him in a mine for life. Another was told that the Detroit River was three thousand miles wide.

But the exodus to Canada went on, and the hearts of the people were moved to compassion by the arrival of ragged and foot-sore wanderers. They found a warm friend in Brown, who paid the hotel bill of one for a week, gave fifty dollars to maintain a negro family, and besides numerous acts of personal kindness, filled the columns of the Globe with appeals on behalf of the fugitives. Early in 1851 the Anti-Slavery Society of Canada was organized. The president was the Rev. Dr. Willis, afterwards principal of Knox Presbyterian College, and the names of Peter Brown, George Brown, and Oliver Mowat are found on the committee. The object of the society was “ the extinction of slavery all over the world by means exclusively lawful and peaceable, moral and religious, such as the diffusion of useful information and argument by tracts, newspapers, lectures, and correspondence, and by manifesting sympathy with the houseless and homeless victims of slavery flying to our soil.” Concerts were given, and the proceeds applied in aid of the refugees.

Brown was also strongly interested in the settlements of refugees established throughout Western Canada. Under an act of the Canadian parliament “ for the settlement and moral improvement of the coloured population of Canada,” large tracts of land were acquired, divided into fifty acre lots, and sold to refugees at low prices, payable in instalments. Sunday schools and day schools were established. The moving spirit n one of these settlements Avas the Rev. William King, a Presbyterian, formerly of Louisiana, who had freed his own slaves and brought them to Canada. Traces of these settlements still exist. Either in this way or otherwise, there were large numbers of coloured people living in the valley of the Thames (from Chatham to London), in St. Catharines, Hamilton, and Toronto.

At the annual meeting of the Anti-Slavery Society in 1852, Mr. Brown moved a resolution expressing gratitude to those American clergymen who had exposed the atrocities of the Fugitive Slave Law. He showed how, before its enactment, slaves were continually escaping to the Northern States, where they were virtually out of reach of their masters. There was a law enabling the latter to recover their property, but its edge was dulled by public opinion in the North, which was rapidly growing antagonistic to allowing the free states to become a hunting-ground for slave-catchers. The South took alarm at the growth of this feeling, and procured the passage of a more stringent law. This law enabled the slave-holder to seize the slave wherever he found him, without warrant, and it forbade the freeman to shelter the refugee under penalty of six months’ imprisonment, a fine of one thousand dollars, and liability to a civil suit for damages to the same amount. The enforcement of the law was given to federal instead of to State officials. After giving several illustrations of the work ng of the law’, Mr. Brown proceeded to discuss the duty of Canada in regard to slavery. It was a question of humanity, of Christianity, and of liberty, in which all men were interested. Canada could not escape the contamination of a system existing so near her borders. “We, too, are Americans; on us, as well as on them, lies the duty of preserving the honour of the continent. On us, as on them, rests the noble trust of shielding free institutions.”

Having long borne the blame of permitting slavery, the people of the North naturally expected that when the great struggle came they would receive the moral support of the civilized world in its effort to check and finally to crush out the evil. They were shocked and disappointed when this support was not freely and generously given, and when sympathy with the South showed itself strongly in Great Britain. Brown dealt with this question in a speech delivered in Toronto shortly after Lincoln’s proclamation of emancipation. He had just returned from Great Britain, and he said that in his six months journey through England and Scotland, he had conversed with persons in all conditions of life, and he was sorry to say that general sympathy was with the South. This did not proceed from any change in the feeling towards slavery. Hatred of slavery was as strong as ever, but it was not believed that African slavery was the real cause of the war, or that Mr. Lincoln sincerely desired to bring the traffic to an end. This misunderstanding he attributed to persistent misrepresentation. There were men who rightly understood the merits of the contest, and among these he placed the members of the British ministry. The course of the ministry he described as one of scrupulous neutrality, and firm resistance to the invitations of other powers to mire in the contest.

Brown himself never for a moment failed to understand the nature of the struggle, and he showed an insight, remarkable at that time, into the policy of Lincoln. The anti-slavery men of Canada, he said, had an important duty to discharge. “We, who have stood here on the borders of the republic for a quarter of a century, protesting against slavery as the sum of all human villainies—we, who have closely watched every turn of the question— we, who have for years acted and sympathized with the good men of the republic in their efforts for the freedom of their country—we, who have a practical knowledge, of the atrocities of the ‘peculiar institution,’ learned from the lips of the panting refugee upon our shores—we, who have in our ranks men all known on the other side of the Atlantic as life-long abolitionists, we, I say, are in a position to speak with confidence to the anti-slavery men of Great Britain—to tell them that they have not rightly understood this matter —to tell them that slavery is the one great cause of the American rebellion, and that the success of the North is the death-knell of slavery. Strange, after all that has passed, that a doubt of this should remain."

It was true, he said, that Lincoln was not elected as an abolitionist. Lincoln declared, and the Republican party declared, that they stood by the constitution ; that they would, so far as the constitution allowed, restrict slavery and prevent its extension to new territory. Yet they knew that the constitution gave them all they desired. “ Well did they know, and well did the Southerners know, that any anti-slavery president and congress, by their direct power of legislation, by their control of the public patronage, and by the application of the public moneys, could not only restrict slavery within its present boundaries, but could secure its ultimate abolition. The South perfectly comprehended that Mr. Lincoln, if elected, might keep within the letter of the constitution and yet sap the foundation of the whole slave system, and they acted accordingly.”

In answering the question, “Why did not the North let the slave states go in peace.” Brown freely admitted the right of revolution. “The world no longer believes in the dhine right of either kings or presidents to govern wrong; but those who seek to change an established government by force of arms assume a fearful responsibility—a responsibility which nothing but the clearest; and most intolerable injustice will acquit them for assuming.” Here was a rebellion, not to resist injustice but to perpetuate injustice; not to deliver the oppressed from bondage, but to fasten more hopelessly than ever the chains of slavery on four millions of human beings. Why not let the slave states go? Because it would have been wrong, because it, would have born up a great slave power that no moral influence could reach, a power that would have overawed the free Northern States, added to its territory, and reestablished the slave trade. Had Lincoln permitted the slave states to go, and to form such a power, he would have brought enduring contempt upon his name, and the people of England would have been the first to reproach him.

Brown argued, as he had done in 1852, that Canada could not be indifferent to the question, whether the dominant power of the North American continent should be slave or free. Holding that liberty had better securities under the British than under the American system, he yet believed that the failure of the American experiment would be a calamity and a blow to free institutions all over the world. For years the United States had been the refuge of the oppressed in every land ; millions had fled from poverty in Europe to find happiness and prosperity there. From these had been wafted back to Europe new ideas of the rights of the people. With the fall of the United States this impetus to freedom, world-wide in its influence, would cease. Demands for popular rights and free constitutions would be met by the despotic rulers of Europe with the taunt that n the United States free constitutions and popular rights had ended in disruption and anarchy. “Let us not forget that there have been, and still are, very different monarchies in the world from that of our own beloved queen; and assuredly there are not so many free governments on earth that we should hesitate to devise earnestly the success of that one nearest to our own, modelled from our own, and founded by men of our own race. I do most heartily rejoice, for the cause of liberty, that Mr. Lincoln did not patiently acquiesce in the dismemberment of the republic.”

The Civil War in the United States raised the most important question of foreign policy with which the public men of Canada were called upon to deal in Brown's career. The dismemberment of the British empire would hardly have exercised a more profound influence on the human race and on world-wide aspirations for freedom, than the dismemberment of the United States and the establishment on this continent of a mighty slave empire. Canada could not be indifferent to the issue. How long would the slave-holding power, which coerced the North into consenting to the Fugitive Slave Law, have tolerated the existence of a free refuge for slaves across the lakes? Either Canada Would have been forced to submit to the humiliation of joining in the hunt for men, or the British empire would have been obliged to fight the battle that the North fought under the leadership of Lincoln. In the fare of this danger confronting Canada and the empire and freedom, it was a time to forget smaller international animosities. Brown was one of the few Canadian statesmen who saw the situation clearly and rose to the occasion. For twenty years by his public speeches, and still more through the generous devotion of the Globe to the cause, he aided the cause of freedom and of the union of the lovers of freedom.


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