Who Yale Honors
the Yale senior disputations of 1813-14, Dwight argues that: "The cause
assigned for taxing the slaves in this country, never existed, and never
will exist." Such a "slave tax" would have made slavery less profitable
and less attractive. Dwight is clear that he does not think this should
become a national issue, chiefly because nothing at all should be allowed
to threaten the unity of the Union:
The evils of disunion
would be so great, that nothing like an advantage which appears to
be promised by it, is worthy of a moment's regard. Dissolution would
involve so many calamities, that it would be childish to weigh it
against a few questions of local interest, which are as nothing when
put in contrast to it. (73)
Such a dismissive
attitude might seem to conflict with Dwight's passionate tirades elsewhere.
For example, Dwight's epic poem Greenfield Hill includes a lament
for the curse of slavery:
O thou chief
curse, since curses here began;
First guilt, first woe, first infamy of man;
Thou spot of hell, deep smirch'd on human kind,
The uncur'd gangrene of the reasoning mind;
Alike in church, in state, in household all,
Supreme memorial of the world's dread fall;
O slavery! laurel of the Infernal mind,
Proud Satan's triumph over lost mankind! (74)
In the stanzas
immediately following, however, Dwight makes clear that his target is
slavery as it appears in Europe and the West Indies (75). This section
has been introduced in stark contrast to slavery as it appears in Connecticut.
In lines 193-214 on pages 36-37, Dwight describes Connecticut slavery
But hark! what
voice so gaily fills the wind?
Of care oblivious, whose that laughing mind?
'Tis yon poor black, who ceases now his song,
And whistling, drives the cumbrous wain along.
He never, dragg'd with groans, the galling chain;
Nor hung, suspended, on th' infernal crane ...
But kindly fed, and clad, and treated, he
Slides on thro' life, with more than common glee ...
Here law, from vengeful rage, the slave defends,
And here the gospel peace on earth extends.
He toils, 'tis true, but shares his masters toil;
With him, he feeds the herd, and trims the soil;
Helps to sustain the house, with clothes and food,
And takes his portion of the common good :
Lost liberty his sole, peculiar ill,
And fix'd submission to another's will.
Essig comments on the poem by saying: "Dwight emphasizes the cruelties
and horror of West Indian slavery, almost as if he were trying to dwarf
the magnitude of slavery in Connecticut ... Dwight attempted to fix
the blame for the worst aspects of slavery on France or Great Britain"
(76). The comments by Dwight's biographer, Silverman, are even more
direct: "Dwight makes slavery, as a form of human brutality, a strictly
European vice; in America, it exists as a 'peculiar ill', a form of
social backwardness" (77).
published remarks bear out these conclusions. Dwight attacks the slave
trade but defends American and Southern slave owners. For example, in
the midst of a condemnation of slave trading, we read:
The Southern Planter,
who receives slaves from his parents by inheritance, certainly deserves
no censure for holding them. He has no agency in procuring them: and
the law does not permit him to set them free. If he treats them with
humanity, and faithfully endeavors to Christianize them, he fulfills
his duty, so long as his present situation continues. (78)
to defending the Southern American slave owner, Dwight even partially
defends the original American slave traders:
Our parents and ancestors
have brought their parents, or ancestors, in the course of a most
iniquitous traffic, from their native country; and made them slaves.
I have no doubt, that those, who were concerned in this infamous commerce,
imagined themselves justified; and I am not disposed to load their
memory either with imprecations or censures. (79)
stance toward American forms of slavery was compatible with his opinion
of African-Americans. He viewed them with contempt. Dwight considered
poor whites to be "entirely" different from the free blacks in New Haven:
The number of free blacks
in the city of New Haven was, in the year 1800, 150. Their vices are
of all the kinds, usually intended by the phrase "low vice" ... Many
of them are thieves, liars, profane, drunkards, Sabbath-breakers,
quarrelsome, idle, and prodigal, the last in the extreme ... The difference
between them, and the whites, who are the nearest to them in their
circumstances, is entire. The whites are generally satisfied with
being decent, with being dressed in such clothes, and living in such
a manner, as they can afford: the blacks ... ape those who are above
them, or rather people of fashion, in a manner sufficiently ridiculous.
a strong presence within the city of New Haven. He did help to establish
an elementary school for black people, "to teach negro children how
to read the Bible" (81).
At the same
time, "Dwight's presidency was the first to be marked by noticeable
violence between town and gown" (82).