Adrian Desmond
James Moore

Darwin's Sacred Cause

He now not only had the most detailed castigatory travelogues of Southern slavery—Martineau's three volumes of Society in America, and three more of Retrospect of Western Travel, all published within two years of Darwin's return—but their author mooching around the dinner table. He would read them all. But there was no rush while she was a fixture at Erasmus's brilliant parties next door and stood ready to compare'our methods of writing.'

Already a literary lioness for her Whig government propaganda, Martineau was instilling the spirit of American abolitionism into a British anti-slavery movement, flagging after its achievement in emancipating the slaves in its colonies. She wanted the movement now to target the American south with its thriving plantations and internal slave trade. Martineau's two years of fact-finding was intended to measure American society against the nation's founding beliefs, but she was never a neutral observer. Even before returning home she had come out for immediate and complete emancipation without compensation for slave-owners. Any Darwin or Wedgwood woman visiting America might have had the same experience. (Aunt Sarah Wedgwood, articulate and self-opinionated, was in many respects a middle-aged Martineau with money.) They all shared the same radical Unitarian-humanitarian heritage, to which Harriet added the moral obligation to speak out.

Martineau's stories were standard fare at dinner parties. Having arrived in America amid rising anti-abolitionist violence, she had dared to speak at Boston's 'female' branch of the American Anti-Slavery Society as angry protesters stoned the building. She stood up for what she called the 'holy cause,' and William Lloyd Garrison, the ultra-abolitionists' driving force, publicized her words in his inflammatory rag the Liberator. Travelling with her ear trumpet through the south, she denounced slavery as an 'utter abomination and inconsistent with the law of God.' For abusing Southern hospitality the slave-holders hated her. Newspapers invited her back so they could cut out her tongue. In Charleston, South Carolina, where she saw a woman sold with her children in the slave market, they called her a secret incendiary, and she learnt of plans for her lynching. The prospect galvanized her: after 'witnessing & being implicated in the perils & struggles of the abolitionists' she wrote Society in America in the white-hot hope of mobilizing a moral army to free the blacks. This was Darwin's frequent dining companion as he penned his own incendiary racial-evolution notes.

While Yankees joked about her book being 'placed on the Index Expurgatorius of the South,' Maer devoured every word, and cousin Emma Wedgwood knew the Darwin sisters would 'really like Miss Martineau.' The women found her 'uncommonly acute,' and not just as an observer. She was a consummate literary strategist, weaving anti-slavery through her chapters to make it 'impossible for the Americans' to remove it from their edition. Some family members thought she was diluting the message by also rubbing in the 'sufferings of woman' in general. To Aunt Fanny Allen, this simply detracted from her 'noble true & powerful' remarks about 'the real sufferers, the slaves,' though she still believed the book would do 'infinite good.' It was 'impossible not to catch some of her hopefulness on Slavery.'

Martineau was an acquired taste, but the 'wonderful woman' had a knack for attracting 'geniuses,' Darwin marvelled—Whig grandees, Edinburgh Reviewers, freethinking professors, Erasmus who would send her a single rose from time to time. Erasmus saw her soft side; so did Charles, and he had to admit she was 'not a complete Amazonian.' 'Thinking too much' exhausted her, as it did him as he filled his notebooks. More to the point, she shared his first-hand experience of slavery as no one else in their circle. They had both witnessed brutality, felt threats of violence, heard shrieks of pain. They had seen black men treated as animals by white men behaving as animals. The sight of so much New World slavery, far from dulling their senses, had quickened their conscience, and in 1838 Darwin took notes on yet another new title by Martineau, How to Observe.

She had sketched out the book en route to America, aiming to distil what the 'philosophical traveller' needed to know about how the moral sense manifested in different peoples. Darwin compared it with a book on ethical philosophy by Sir James Mackintosh and found a common ground: besides 'some universal feelings of right & wrong,' humans have a 'moral sense' that varies even from race to race, Darwin noted, just as breeds of dogs have 'different instincts.' Moral feelings are as 'natural' to people as herding instincts are to deer. Yet however fixed mankind's 'conscience or instinct' might seem to be, it can be changed and improved. It was more grist to Darwin's mill as he ground on, trying to grasp how savages became sophisticates.

The American South for Martineau was an incongruous mix of politeness and injustice, patrician slavery without guilt. On the plantations charity and barbarity were bedfellows, yet many whites considered slave life idyllic. It was blindness due to ignorance, and her remedy was education: teach white Southerners the nation's libertarian principles and slavery would cease. Darwin sympathized but his approach would undercut the very wellsprings of the 'domestic institution' (a common euphemism in America for slavery): the belief that slaves were another kind, or could be treated as such.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.