An Address to President Lincoln

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In the autumn of 1862 (after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued on September 22, and before it took effect on January 1, 1863), two Covenanter (Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America) ministers met privately with President Abraham Lincoln to discuss some particular priority goals that they wished the Lincoln administration to achieve. The Oval Office has rarely heard such a speech reminiscent of Psalm 2.

The address below to President Lincoln was authored and presented by James Renwick Wilson Sloane and Alexander McLeod Milligan (brothers-in-law as well as brothers in the Lord).

TO HIS EXCELLENCY ABRAHAM LINCOLN,
PRESIDENT OP THE UNITED STATES

We visit you, Mr. President, as the representatives of the Reformed Presbyterian, or, as it is frequently termed, "Scotch Covenanter," Church, — a Church whose sacrifices and sufferings in the cause of civil and religious liberty are a part of the world's history, and to which we are indebted, no less than to the Puritans, for those inestimable privileges so largely enjoyed in the free States of this Union, and which, true to its high lineage and ancient spirit, does not hold within its pale a single Secessionist, or sympathizer with rebellion, in these United States.

Our Church has unanimously declared, by the voice of her highest court, that the world has never seen a conflict in which right was more clearly wholly upon the one side, and wrong upon the other, than in the present struggle of this Government with this slaveholders' rebellion. She has also unanimously declared her determination to assist the Government by all lawful means in her power in its conflict with this atrocious conspiracy, until it be utterly overthrown and annihilated.

Profoundly impressed with the immense importance of the issues involved in this contest, and with the solemn responsibilities which rest upon the Chief Magistrate in this time of the nation's peril, our brethren have commissioned us to come and address you words of sympathy and encouragement, also to express to you views which, in their judgment, have an important bearing upon the present condition of affairs in our beloved country; to congratulate you on what has already been accomplished in crushing rebellion, and to exhort you to persevere in the work, until it has been finally completed.

Entertaining no shadow of doubt as to the entire justice of the cause in which the nation is embarked, we nevertheless consider the war a just judgment of Almighty God for the sin of rejecting his authority, and enslaving our fellow-men, and are firmly persuaded that his wrath will not be appeased, and that no permanent peace will be attained, until his authority be recognized, and the abomination that maketh desolate utterly extirpated.

As an anti-slavery church of the most radical school, believing slavery to be a heinous and aggravated sin both against God and man, and to be placed in the same category with piracy, murder, adultery, and theft, it is our solemn conviction that God by his Word and Providence is calling the nation to immediate, unconditional, and universal emancipation. We hear his voice in these thunders of war saying to us, "Let my people go." Nevertheless, we have hailed with delighted satisfaction the several steps which you have taken in the direction of emancipation. Especially do we rejoice in your late proclamation, declaring your purpose to free the slaves in the rebel States on the first day of January, 1863, an act which, when carried out, will give the death-blow to rebellion, strike the fetters from millions of bondmen, and will secure for its author a place high among the wisest of rulers and the noblest benefactors of the race. Permit us, then, Mr. President, most respectfully yet most earnestly, to urge upon you the importance of enforcing that proclamation to the utmost extent of that power with which you are vested. Let it be placed on the highest grounds of Christian justice and philanthropy; let it be declared to be an act of national repentance for long complicity with the guilt of slavery. Permit nothing to tarnish the glory of the act, or rob it of its sublime moral significance and grandeur, and it cannot fail to meet a hearty response in the conscience of the nation, and to secure infinite blessings to our distracted country. Let not the declaration of the immortal Burke in this instance be verified: "Good works are commonly left in a rude and imperfect state through the tame circumspection with which a timid prudence so frequently enervates beneficence. In doing good we are cold, languid, and sluggish, and of all things afraid of being too much in the right." We urge you by every consideration drawn from the Word of God and the present condition of our bleeding country, not to be moved from the path of duty, on which you have so auspiciously entered, either by the threats or blandishments of the enemies of human progress, nor to permit this great act to lose its power through the fears of its timid friends.

There is another point which we esteem of prominent importance, and to which we wish briefly to call your attention. The Constitution of the United States contains no acknowledgment of the authority of God, of his Christ, or of his law as contained in the Holy Scriptures. This we deeply deplore, as wholly inconsistent with all claim to be considered a Christian nation, or to enjoy the protection and favor of God. The Lord Jesus Christ is above all earthly rulers. He is King of kings, and Lord of lords. He is the one Mediator between God and man, through whom alone either nations or individuals can secure the favor of the Most High God, who is saying to us in these judgments, "Be wise now, therefore, O ye kings! be instructed, O ye judges of the earth! serve the Lord with fear. Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and ye perish from the way, when his wrath is kindled but a little. Blessed are all they that trust in him. For the nation and kingdom that will not serve thee shall perish; yea, those nations shall be utterly wasted."

This time appears to us most opportune for calling the nation to a recognition of the name and authority of God, to the claims of him who will overturn, overturn, and overturn, until the kingdoms of this world become the kingdoms of our Lord and of his Christ. We indulge the hope, Mr. President, that you have been called, with your ardent love of liberty, your profound moral convictions manifested in your sabbath proclamation, and in your frequent declarations of dependence upon Divine Providence, to your present position of honor and influence, to free our beloved country from the curse of slavery, and secure for it the favor of the great Ruler of the universe. Shall we not now set the world an example of a Christian State governed, not by the principles of mere political expediency, but acting under a sense of accountability to God, and in obedience to those laws of immutable morality which are binding alike upon nations and individuals?

We pray that you may be directed in your responsible position by divine wisdom, that God may throw over you the shield of his protection, that we may soon see rebellion crushed, its cause removed, and our land become Immanuel's land.

Another Covenanter minister, Thomas Sproull, reminisced shortly after Lincoln’s assassination about the president’s response to this powerful appeal:

Some time last winter two men connected with the Reformed Presbyterian Church were in Washington City, and called at the President’s house. While in the room that is always open to visitors, the President came in, and got into a conversation with them, in the course of which mention was made,of the Covenanters. The name seemed to arrest his attention, and he remarked: “I know something about these people — they want the Constitution amended by putting slavery out of it, and by putting a recognition of God in it.” To this they assented, and he proceeded to speak in kind and earnest terms of the brethren who had been with him urging the amendments. He added that they had obtained one object of their mission during his first term in office, and he hoped they would obtain the other before the end of his second term.

What Samuel Stanhope Smith had to say about Phillis Wheatley

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While most famous for authoring the 1776 Declaration of Independence and its eloquent articulation of the principles of freedom for all, U.S. President Thomas Jefferson is also well known for his public position that African Americans were intellectually inferior to White Americans. He made his views known in Notes on Virginia (1785).

One example of this is his critique of the famous African American poet Phillis Wheatley. She composed a tribute to George Whitefield, thoughts on the Providence of God, and a poem about being brought to America from Africa, among other notable verses. But Thomas Jefferson only gave her credit for her sincere religious beliefs.

Religion indeed has produced a Phillis Whately; but it could not produce a poet. The compositions published under her name are below the dignity of criticism. The heroes of the Dunciad are to her, as Hercules to the author of that poem….I advance it therefore as a suspicion only, that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments of both body and mind.

The reader will note Jefferson’s equivocal credit of authorship to her volume of poems (Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, 1773). It was actually necessary for local civil and religious authorities to investigate whether she, as an African American slave, had the ability to write the poems ascribed to her. They concluded that she indeed the poet that she claimed to be, and their written testimony was included by the publisher in the preface to her book. But questions about her ability to skillfully write poetry lingered in the minds of some - precisely because she was an African American.

In 1787, the first to refute this argument by Jefferson about the supposed intellectual inferiority of African Americans in general, and Phillis Wheatley specifically, was Samuel Stanhope Smith in his Essay on the Causes of the Variety of Complexion and Figure in the Human Species (2nd ed. 1810).

In 2019, it seems anachronistic to acknowledge not only Phillis Wheatley’s ability as a poet, but also the equality of African Americans with White Americans on an intellectual basis. But in 1787, it was noteworthy for Smith to publicly challenge Jefferson’s views.

These remarks upon the genius of the African negro appear to me to have so little foundation in true philosophy that few observations will be necessary to refute them…. The poems of Phillis Whately, a poor African slave, taught to read by the indulgent piety of her master, are spoken of with infinite contempt. But I will demand of Mr. Jefferson, or any other man who is acquainted with American planters, how many of those masters could have written poems equal to those of Phillis Whately?

Smith argued in his Essay for the doctrine of “[t]he unity of the human race, notwithstanding the diversity of colour, and form under which it appears in different portions of the globe.” In his view, differences between the peoples of different parts of the world should be understood as reflecting the conditions in which they lived. It should be understood by the modern reader of his Essay that Smith’s defense of the unity of all mankind regardless of skin color, though remarkable for its day, contains expressions which were dismissive of African culture.

Like Jefferson, Smith was a slaveholder. He was more moderate in his aim of gradual emancipation for slaves than his friend “Father” David Rice, who strived to ban slavery at the beginning of Kentucky’s statehood in 1792 — although Rice too was a slaveholder. Jefferson’s Notes on Virginia also advocated the colonization of Africa by freed slaves; Smith’s own ideas on the subject helped lead to the creation of the African Colonization Society in 1816 - a project that was controversial among white and black American Presbyterians and others.

Few American Presbyterians of that era were consistent in their principles and practices regarding opposition to slavery — George Bourne, and Alexander McLeod and the RPCNA were notable exceptions. Bourne, in his 1816 volume The Book and Slavery Irreconcilable, notes the contradiction represented by Samuel Stanhope Smith:

Dr. Smith exemplifies the difficulties, which a man must surmount, who endeavors to combine truth with error, and rectitude of principle with corruption of practice.

Yet, Smith’s defense of Phillis Wheatley was an important public statement of his position that African Americans are not “inferior” to whites. Wheatley, who was emancipated the same year that her poems were first published, once wrote a letter to Native American Presbyterian minister Samson Occom, in which she spoke of the universal love of freedom.

…in every human Breast, God has implanted a Principle, which we call Love of Freedom; it is impatient of Oppression, and pants for Deliverance; and by the Leave of our modern Egyptians I will assert, that the same Principle lives in us. God grant Deliverance in his own Way and Time, and get him honour upon all those whose Avarice impels them to countenance and help forward tile Calamities of their fellow Creatures. (Published in The Connecticut Gazette, March 11, 1774)

We may credit Samuel Stanhope Smith with defending the unity of mankind against the charge that African Americans were “inferior,” and using the example of Phillis Wheatley to demonstrate this, while yet decrying that this defense was ever needed, and also decrying Smith’s own inconsistencies regarding slavery.