A Call for Morality over Money, 1859

Born to free black parents in Baltimore, Maryland in 1825, Frances Ellen Watkins spent her early years in the school of her uncle William Watkins, a renowned black activist, educator, and essayist. It was little surprise when she herself took up the mantle of black activism in the 1850s, using her training and literary talents to argue on behalf of emancipation and equality. The following excerpt from an essay Watkins published shortly before the Civil War reflects her thinking at this time. In it, she illustrates a style of protest that was radical, but which nonetheless fell within prescribed roles for middle-class Northern women. These roles, as suggested by nineteenth-century America’s “cult of true womanhood,” stressed women’s roles as moral nurturers. Women such as Watkins boldly applied this largely domestic ideal to matters of public concern, such as the fate of African Americans.

. . . Leading ideas impress themselves upon communities and countries. A thought is evolved and thrown out among the masses, they receive it and it becomes inter-woven with their mental and moral life--if the thought be good the receivers are benefited, and helped onward to the truer life; if it is not, the reception of the idea is a detriment. . . .

In America, where public opinion exerts such a sway, a leading is success. The politician who chooses for his candidate not the best man but the most available one.--The money getter, who virtually says let me make money, though I coin it from blood and extract it from tears-- The minister, who stoops from his high position to the slave power, and in a word all who barter principle for expediency, the true and right for the available and convenient, are worshipers at the shrine of success. And we, or at least some of us, upon whose faculties the rust of centuries has lain, are beginning to awake and worship at the same altar, and bow to the idols.

The idea if I understand it aright, that is interweaving itself with our thoughts, is that the greatest need of our people at present is money, and that as money is a symbol of power, the possession of it will gain for us the rights which power and prejudice now deny us.--And it may be true that the richer we are the nearer we are to social and political equality; but somehow, (and I may not fully comprehend the idea,) it does not seem to me that money, as little as we possess of it, is our greatest want. Neither do I think that the possession of intelligence and talent is our greatest want. If I understand our greatest wants aright they strike deeper than any want that gold or knowledge can supply. We want more soul, a higher cultivation of all our spiritual faculties. We need more unselfishness, earnestness and integrity. Our greatest need is not gold or silver, talent or genius, but true men and true women. We have millions of our race in the prison house of slavery, but have we yet a single Moses in freedom. And if we had who among us would be led by him? . . .

We need men and women whose hearts are the homes of a high and lofty enthusiasm, and a noble devotion to the cause of emancipation, who are ready and willing to lay time, talent and money on the altar of universal freedom. We have money among us, but how much of it is spent to bring deliverance to our captive brethren? Are our wealthiest men the most liberal sustainers of the Anti-slavery enterprise? Or does the bare fact of their having money, really help mould public opinion and reverse its sentiments? We need what money cannot buy and what affluence is too beggarly to purchase. Earnest, self sacrificing souls that will stamp themselves not only on the present but the future.

Let us not then defer all our noble opportunities till we get rich. And here I am, not aiming to enlist a fanatical crusade against the desire for riches, but I do protest against chaining down the soul, with its Heaven endowed faculties and God given attributes to the one idea of getting money as stepping into power or even gaining our rights in common with others. The respect that is only bought by gold is not worth much. It is no honor to shake hands politically with men who whip women and steal babies. If this government has no call for our services, no aim for your children, we have the greater need of them to build up a true manhood and womanhood for ourselves. The important lesson we should learn and be able to teach, is how to make every gift, whether gold or talent, fortune or genius, subserve the cause of crushed humanity and carry out the greatest idea of the present age, the glorious idea of human brotherhood.

Source: Frances Ellen Watkins, “Our Greatest Want,” The Anglo-African Magazine, Vol. 1, No. 5 (May 1859).