I am reading a speech delivered by Sara T. Smith at the Second Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women.

I am confused what exactly the boldfaced lines in the paragraph below means. The context here is that Smith is encouraging women to participate in the abolitionist movement.

By the Constitution of the United States, the whole physical power of the North is pledged for the suppression of domestic insurrections, and should the slaves, maddened by oppression, endeavor to shake off the yoke of the taskmaster, the men of the North are bound to make common cause with the tyrant, and put down, at the point of the bayonet, every effort on the part of the slave, for the attainment of his freedom.

What does it mean for the men of the North to make common cause with the tyrant? Teaming up with a tyrant to put down every effort on the part of the slave sounds quite evil.

I believe I am missing the point here.

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  • "make common cause" simply means "become allies". Note that the excellent English Learner's site will answer questions such as this. – Fattie Nov 8 at 15:44
  • "Teaming up with a tyrant to put down every effort on the part of the slave sounds quite evil" The North and Lincoln, were, utterly evil. Lincoln said on a number of occasions that he couldn't care less about slavery, only about maintaining the combined tax base of the overall country. But all of that has absolutely nothing to do with English language. I direct you to the outstanding history site where your question may be more relevant and what you are "actually" asking. history.stackexchange.com – Fattie Nov 8 at 15:46
  • As stated, it is quite evil. – Hot Licks Nov 8 at 23:08

I think you (and Fraser) have missed an important point: the objectionable thing is not that the men of the North would wish to "make common cause with" the slaveowners, and "put down at the point of the bayonet" any slave rebellion, but that "By the Constitution of the United States...they are bound" to do so, since their "physical power is pledged for [we would say 'to'] the suppression of domestic insurrections". It is therefore the duty of the women of the North either to press for amendment of the Constitution, or to try to abolish slavery altogether. (Bound to' is indeed a (largely British) idiom meaning 'very likely or certain to', but here it clearly has a literal meaning.)

The argument is shaky, though no more so than those of many well-intentioned politicians through the ages. Fortunately, when it became necessary to decide, the domestic rebellion was by, not against, the slaveowners.

  • This is an English language forum. The question is about the English language in the passage not about the constitutional argument it makes. FWIW, you are correct, but I didn't touch on this subject in my answer simply because that was not the question. – Fraser Orr Nov 9 at 4:23

So first of all you shouldn't feel bad that you have a hard time with this English. It would not really be said in this way today. It is extremely Victorian in style. If you read many authors from this period, Dickens for example, you will see a similar style. For example, this is an EXTREMELY long sentence, as was common in those times. My view is that it was designed to impress with its complexity rather than communicate its meaning. Though that was the style, and I don't doubt the sincerity of the writer.

"Make common cause" means "to begin to share a common goal". In this context she was lamenting that the North's priority would be the suppression of insurrection over the freedom of the slaves. So she was predicting that the North would share the the tyrants goal of stopping any rebellious slave.

"on the part of the slave" is a rather old fashioned way of saying (in this context) "by the slave" -- "every effort by the slave to attain freedom."

So in this rather depressing passage Ms Smith is claiming that the North would work with the "tyrant" to put down, using military force, any efforts by a slave to become free.

  • 1
    Actually, she was exactly right in the present tense. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and the fact that federal troops participated in putting down the Nat Turner revolt in 1831 are proof that under the status quo, the the men of the North were bound by the Constitution to put down slave revolts. – user662852 Nov 8 at 16:36
  • It seems this specific speech is from 1838. This interpretation is from the political environment of the Civil War. I did downvote and will reverse if edited to reflect the politics of the contemporaneous Martin Van Buren administration. – user662852 Nov 8 at 17:03
  • This is an English language forum not a history or political forum. So I removed my unnecessary historical commentary. – Fraser Orr Nov 9 at 4:20

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