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William Wordsworth, Dorothy Wordsworth

The Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth, Vol. 5: The Later Years: Part II: 1829–1834 (Second Revised Edition)

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  • MS. untraced.
  • K. LY ii. 647.

Rydal Mount, April 25, [1833]

My dear Sir,

Your Egeria arrived on the morning when I was setting off to visit my son,4 with whom I stayed nearly three weeks. This must be my apology for not thanking you for the valuable present pg 606somewhat earlier. The strain of your thoughts is, I think, excellent, and the expression everywhere suitable to the thought. I have to thank you also for a most valuable paper on Colonial Slavery.1 In your view of this important subject I entirely coincide. Fanaticism is the disease of these times as much or more than of any other; fanaticism is set, as it has always been, whether moral, religious, or political, upon attainment of its ends with disregard of the means. In this question there are three parties,—the slave, the slaveowner, and the British people. As to the first, it might be submitted to the consideration of the owner whether, in the present state of society, he can, as a matter of private conscience, retain his property in the slave, after he is convinced that it would be for the slave's benefit, civil, moral, and religious, that he should be emancipated. Whatever pecuniary loss might, under these circumstances, attend emancipation, it seems that a slave-owner, taking a right view of the case, ought to be prepared to undergo it. It is probable, however, that one of the best assurances which could be given of the slave being likely to make a good use of his liberty would be found in his ability and disposition to make a recompense for the sacrifice should the master, from the state of his affairs, feel himself justified in accepting a recompense. But by no means does it follow, from this view of individual cases, that the third party, the people of England, who through their legislature have sanctioned and even encouraged slavery, have a right to interfere for its destruction by a sweeping measure, of which an equivalent to the owner makes no part. This course appears to me unfeeling and unjust. . . .

What language, in the first place, would it hold out to the slave? That the property in him had been held by unqualified usurpation and injustice on the part of his master alone. This would be as much as to say, 'We have delivered him over to you; and as no other party was to blame, deal with your late oppressors as you like.' Surely such a proceeding would also be a wanton outrage upon the pg 607feelings of the masters, and poverty, distress, and disorder could not but ensue.

They who are most active in promoting entire and immediate Abolition do not seem sufficiently to have considered that slavery is not in itself at all times and under all circumstances to be deplored. In many states of society it has been a check upon worse evils; so much inhumanity has prevailed among men that the best way of protecting the weak from the powerful has often been found in what seems at first sight a monstrous arrangement; viz., in one man having a property in many of his fellows. Some time ago many persons were anxious to have a bill brought into Parliament to protect inferior animals from the cruelty of their masters. It has always appeared to me that such a law would not have the effect intended, but would increase the evil. The best surety for an uneducated man behaving with care and kindness to his beast lies in the sense of the uncontrolled property which he possesses in him. Hence a livelier interest, and a more efficient responsibility to his own conscience, than could exist were he made accountable for his conduct to law. I mention this simply by way of illustration, for no man can deplore more than I do a state of slavery in itself. I do not only deplore but I abhor it, if it could be got rid of without the introduction of something worse, which I much fear would not be the case with respect to the West Indies, if the question be dealt with in the way many excellent men are so eagerly set upon. I am, dear sir,

  • Very sincerely, your obliged    
  • Wm Wordsworth  

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Editor’s Note
3 For Benjamin Dockray, see pt. i, Ls. 253 and 380. His Egeria; or Casual Thoughts and Suggestions was made up of contributions to the provincial press between 1831 and 1843. The dates of the three parts are, respectively, 21 June 1831, 21 June 1832, and 4 Sept. 1840.
Editor’s Note
4 i.e. John W. at Moresby.
Editor’s Note
1 The slave trade with the West Indies had been prohibited to British subjects and British ships in 1807, and by 1830 France, Portugal, and Spain had followed this lead. But the trade still continued, and prohibition was made more difficult by lack of co-operation from the United States. A policy of 'melioration'; of the slave's status, as a prelude to emancipation, was put in hand; but it was opposed by the planters. In Apr. 1833 Edward Stanley, later 14th Earl of Derby (1799–1869), the Victorian Prime Minister, became Secretary for War and the Colonies, and introduced a measure of emancipation embodying a transitional period in which slaves would be apprenticed to their masters before they attained their freedom; but the scheme soon broke down under pressure from the abolitionists that complete emancipation should be granted without delay.
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