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Dwight's Published Views

Timothy Dwight portraitIn 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 by saying:

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.

Historian James 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).

Dwight's other 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)

In addition 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)

Dwight's apologetic 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. (80)

Dwight became 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).





Dwight's impact on Yale college

Naomi, slave of T. Dwight

Dwight's Published Views


Numbers in parentheses refer to notes. See the notes page.