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Proceed, illustrious youth,
Yes, in every opinion, and in every science.
J. WEDGEWOOD, Esg.
Lichfield, Feb. 18, 1788. I am honoured and obliged by your endeavours to enlighten me on a subject so important to human virtue and human happiness. They have not been vain ; and I blush for the coldness my late letter expressed, whose subject demanded the ardour of benevolent wishes, and of just indignation.
Let me, however, do myself the justice to observe, that my heart always recoiled with horror from the miseries which I heard were inflicted on the negro slaves ;* but I have had long acquaintance with a Mr Newton of this place, who made a large fortune in the East, where slavery pervades every opulent establishment. He constantly assured me, that the purchase, employment, and strict discipline of the negroes were absolutely necessary to maintain our empire, and our commerce, in the Indies. As constantly did he affirm, that they were of a nature so sordid and insensible, as to render necessary a considerable degree of severity, and to make much lenity alike injurious to the indulger and the indulged ; that the accounts of the cruelties practised upon the slaves by their masters were false, or at least infinitely exaggerated. He observed, that the worst people will abstain from vice, when it is against their interest to practice it; that the high price and value of the subjugated, inevitably preserves them from the dire effects of this imputed barbarity.
When I sighed over the severe discipline, for the necessity of which he pleaded, I was desired to recollect the fate of the Ashwells-uncle and brother to young gentlewomen of this town. The former, a West India Planter, whose compassionate temper, which his nieces assert had been ever soft and indulgent, even to weakness, led him to give his slaves unusual relaxation from toil, and to take scrupulous care that they were constantly and plentifully supplied with wholesome food; yet was he murdered by them in the most cruel manner; and his nephew, then a youth of fourteen, intentionally murdered ; they ham-stringed, and cut off his left arm, and two of the fingers on his right hand, leaving him, as they thought, lifeless.
The last mentioned Mr Ashwell, who lives the hapless wreck of negro cruelty, uniformly confirmed to me, for I have often conversed with him, all Mr Newton had told me of the generally treacherous, ungrateful, and bloody temper of the negroes. Impressed with these ideas, I was led to consider the present efforts for their enfranchisement, as fruitless and dangerous, though just and humane ; that the Scriptures, which often mention slavery, bear no testimony against it as impious ; that, in some countries, the subjection of beings, that form the latest link in the chain descending from human to brute animality, was an evil inevitable, as war between nations has always been found in
climate. Beneath the force of that melancholy conviction, I avoided reading any thing upon the subject; flattering myself, that if the abolition of a traffic so lamentable could be safely effected by our legislators, they, as Englishmen and Christians, would listen to merciful remonstrance, and feel themselves impelled to abolish it.
Your letter, and the tracts which accompanied it, have changed my ideas on the subject. They have given me indignant convictions, decided principles, and better hopes that the flood-gates of this overwhelming cruelty may be let down without ruin to our national interests.
But as to your exhortation that I would write a poem on the subject, I sicken at the idea of encountering the certain pains, and uncertain pleasures of publication, by committing this theme to my muse, fruitful as it is in the great nerves of poetry, pathos, and horror ; and this, because I have no confidence that her voice would arrest the general attention. Better poetry than mine, though richly the product, is not the taste of this age. Mr Day's sublime poem, The Dying Negro, past away without its fame, though eminently calculated to impress the public with horror of the slave-trade.
You gratify me much by speaking so highly of my Elegies on Cooke and André, and on Lady Millar. When the society for arts and sciences, of which my acquaintance, Sir Joseph Banks, is President, struck a medal in honour of Captain Cooke, Mr Green of our museum had one,
and indeed every person who had interested themselves at all publicly in the memory of that philanthropic hero.
* « To me alone
Then the public hireling critics are not my friends ; and I have personal enemies in some of them, rendered such by my sincerity, and because I could not stoop to flatter with praise the miserable rhymes they presented to: me; and for that sin of omission to their vanity, they load my writings with imputed vulgarness, bombast, immorality, and obscenity itself, as the European Magazine and English Review testify. However contemptible such evidently groundless censure, it is not very pleasant to its object.
In losing + Mr Bently, my muse lost a friend and protector. I had not the pleasure of being known to that gentleman, when he spoke to the public in such warm praise of my writings, either personally or by letter. He fanned her fires with the breath of ingenious, generous, classical, and
* From Cowley's Ode on being refused a place at Court, with the hopes of which he had been flattered by Charles the Second, to whose interests he had devoted himself in that monarch's adversity.-S.
+ He was reviewer in the poetic department of the Monthly Review many years.--S.