Mr. Chairman, — My relation to this meeting not only authorizes, but requires, me to offer, at its commencement, some remarks on the purpose for which we are now assembled. It is not, indeed, without reluctance, that I rise to speak in a place, and under circumstances, to me so new and unusual; but I am commanded to make this effort by a voice which I cannot disobey, by a sense of what I owe to myself, to this community, and to the cause of freedom.
I know that there are those who say that this is not my place, — that my voice should be heard only in the holy temples of religion. I ask. Is there nothing holy here? Was there nothing holy in the spirit of our fathers, when within these walls they invoked the blessing of God on their struggles for freedom? Every place may be made holy by holy deeds. Nothing, nothing. Sir, would tempt me to come here to mingle in the conflicts of party. But when a great question of humanity and justice is discussed here, when a number of my fellow-citizens meet here to lift up their voices against violence and murder, and in support of the laws and the press, I feel that my place is here.
I rise simply to state the object of this meeting. It has been misrepresented, — I do not say intentionally. I do not come here to charge any of my fellow-citizens with unworthy motives. But there has been misrepresentation. You have been told that the professed object of the meeting is not its real one; that it was called to serve the purposes of a party; that it is an imposition. I grieve that this language has been used. It shows how little faith man has in man, how slow he is to ascribe good purposes to his brother, how prone to see by-ends and bad ends in honorable undertakings. Sir, there does exist such a thing as purity of purpose. It is possible for a man to desire freedom, not only for himself, but for his whole race. It is possible for a man to desire that the laws may guard, not only his own possessions, but the rights of every human being; and when laws and rights and freedom are trodden under foot, not once, but again and again, and with increasing fury, it is possible for a man sincerely to feel that he ought to meet with those of a like mind, and bear testimony with them against these atrocities. Sir, are not here motives enough and of sufficient force to bring men together, and to crowd this hall,—motives enough, and more than enough, to explain this meeting? And why, then, look beyond these, — why look for others and base ones?
I can say with confidence, Sir, that this meeting had a good origin. Call it unwise, if you will; but its purpose was pure, was generous, and worthy of Christian freemen. I claim to know something of its origin; for I believe no one had more to do with calling it than myself. Soon after the recent tragedy at Alton, I was called upon, and requested to deliver a discourse on that sad event. For various reasons, I declined so to do. I said to the friend who made the request, and I said it from my own mind, and without any hint from another, that I wished that the citizens of Boston would, in some public manner, express their abhorrence of the lawless spirit which had prompted to this and kindred deeds, and which had broken out here as well as at a distance. On the next day a petition was sent me, embodying the suggestion which I had made the evening before. To this petition I affixed my name. In signing it, my great apprehension was, that the absorption of our citizens in their private affairs would make them indifferent to the subject, so that a meeting sufficiently numerous for the desired impression might not be obtained. The idea of opposition to it did not enter my thoughts, and up to this hour I find a difficulty in comprehending, in making real to myself, the opposition it has excited. I signed the petition with the full understanding that the meeting should bear no relation to party, but should comprehend all citizens, of whatever sect or party, whose spirits had been stirred, as mine was, by the fearful progress of lawless force.
On me, then, Sir, not a little of the responsibility of this meeting rests. I owe it to truth and honor to avow it, and I am ready to bear this responsibility. I have no misgivings. I have a distinct consciousness, that the part which I act becomes a man, a citizen, and a Christian. I am willing that the report of what I am doing should go through the length and breadth of the land. I am willing it should cross the ocean. I care not how far, how wide, it is known, that, at this moment of increasing peril from lawless force, I labored to bring my fellow-citizens together, in order that, by a solemn public act, they might help to put down civil convulsion and bloodshed, — might assert the insulted supremacy of the laws, and might pledge themselves to sustain the endangered rights of the citizen. Sir, it is not impossible that the report of this meeting may cross the ocean, and may form a part of the enduring records of this city. I trust that it will not detract from the glory of our beloved city. I trust that the gentlemen who are now to address you will feel the dignity, the sacredness, of this occasion. I trust that they will rise above all local, personal, party considerations. I rejoice that the opening of this hall to us by the fathers of our city has put to rest one question which lately excited us, and I trust that no reference to this will disturb our harmony. In a word, I trust that this assembly will speak a language worthy of Boston; and worthy of those illustrious men, who, in times that tried men's souls, made these walls echo with their thrilling voices, and left here a testimony, which will never die, to the principles of freedom.
SOURCE: William Henry Channing, The Life of William Ellery Channing, p. 557-8