“The mere sting of an insect, com­pared with the fangs of a tyger”: Heman Humphrey’s Parallel Between Intemperance and the Slave Trade

Heman Humphrey, Parallel Between Intemperance and the Slave Trade: An Address Delivered at Amherst College, July 4, 1828 (Amherst, MA: J. S. & C. Adams, 1828).

Heman Humphrey

In 1826 Lyman Beecher published his Six Sermons on the Nature, Occasions, Signs, Evils, and Remedy of Intemperance (see “A ‘Middle Passage’ of Slavery and Darkness”: Lyman Beecher’s Six Sermons on Intemperance), and drew repeated comparisons between intemperance and the slave trade. Just a few years later, Amherst College president Heman Humphrey would expand upon this parallel and deliver an entire address devoted to the Parallel Between Intemperance and the Slave Trade.

Humphrey and Beecher were just two members in an upper class of evangelical temperance activists in New England. Humphrey and Beecher had served together as Congregational ministers in the state of Connecticut (Humphrey in Fairfield, 1807–1817; Beecher in Litchfield, 1810–1826), and David Huehner notes that “Humphrey had assisted Lyman Beecher in launching the Connecticut Society for the Promotion of Morals” in 1813. The members of the Connecticut Moral Society agreed to abstain from “ardent spirits,” sabbath-breaking, profane swearing, slander, and gambling (see David R. Huehner, “Water is Indeed Best”: Temperance and the Pre-Civil War New England College,” in Jack S. Blocker, ed. Alcohol Reform and Society: The Liquor Issue in Social Context, 80; The Panoplist, and Missionary Magazine (October 1813): 368–71; The Panoplist, and Missionary Magazine (December 1813): 505–19; The Panoplist, and Missionary Magazine (January 1814): 17–20; “Connecticut Moral Society,” in Connecticut Evangelical Magazine and Religious Intelligencer (June 1815); Memorial Sketches: Heman Humphrey, 56; John Krout, The Origins of Prohibition, 146).

A decade later, Beecher and Humphrey had both moved to Massachusetts–Beecher to a pastorate in Boston, and Humphrey as the President of Amherst College–and when the American Society for the Promotion of Temperance was formed in Boston 1826, they were both listed among the founding members, which included a number of other elite New England evangelicals:

  • Joshua Bates, president of Middlebury College (Vermont)
  • Bennet Tyler, president of Dartmouth College (New Hamphsire)
  • Ebenezer Porter, professor at Andover Seminary (Massachusetts)
  • Leonard Woods, professor at Andover Seminary
  • Moses Stuart, professor at Andover Seminary
  • Lyman Beecher, pastor (Boston, Massachusetts)
  • Heman Humphrey, president of Amherst College (Massachusetts)
  • Marcus Morton, Massachusetts Supreme Court Justice
  • Francis Wayland, president of Brown University (Rhode Island)
  • Jeremiah Day, president of Yale College (Connecticut)
  • Eliphalet Nott, president of Union College (New York)
  • Samuel Miller, professor at Princeton Theological Seminary (New Jersey)

(see First Annual Report of the Executive Committee of the American Society for the Promotion of Temperance (Andover: Flagg and Gould, 1828), 27–28).

While the First Annual Report did not elaborate at length on the comparison (like Beecher or Humphrey) it too included a reference to the intemperate as an “abject slave” (21), and reprinted the Western District New Hampshire Medical Society’s resolution that physicians prescribing alcoholic “medicines” as producing “slaves to Intemperance” (39).

Thus, the comparison between intemperance and slavery was becoming common, especially among the evangelical elite.

Parallel Between Intemperance and the Slave-Trade

Humphrey’s address was delivered to the students at Amherst College on July 4, 1828, and he expanded greatly on the comparison between intemperance and slavery Beecher had made a couple years earlier.

Humphrey starts off lamenting:

“that after the lapse of nearly fifty years of undis­puted political freedom, the blood-freezing clank of a cruel bondage is still heard amid our loudest re­joicings. You will naturally suppose I allude to that grievous anomaly in our free constitution, which darkens all the southern horizon; but I have a more brutifying and afflictive thraldom in view. For however cruel and debasing and portentous African servitude may be, beyond the Potomac, there exists, even in New-England, a far sorer bondage, from which the slaves of the South are happily free. This bondage is intellectual and moral as well as physical. It chains and scourges the soul, as well as the body. It is a servitude from which death itself has no power to release the cap­tive” (4).

Humphrey sounds a note he will repeat over and over: intemperance is “a more brutifying and afflictive thralldom” than African enslavement, “a far sorer bondage.” He thinks that African slavery is merely “physical” but not “intellectual” or “moral,” and this framing sets the stage for his entire argument.

He explains his strategy: “I have long thought, that a great advantage might be gained, by comparing intemperance with some other terrible scourge of humanity, which has fallen under deep and universal reprobation. Such a scourge is the Af­rican Slave-trade” (6). Humphrey makes a truly remarkable claim: “the position which I mean to take is this, that the prevalent use of ardent spirits in the United States, is a worse evil at this moment, than the slave-trade ever was, in the height of its horri­ble prosperity” (6, italics original).

He knows that this is a bold statement:

“However much this position may shock and stagger belief, I am confident it can be maintained, without the least extenuation on one side, or exaggeration on the other. Nothing but a sober and sorrowful parallel is necessary ; and such a parallel I shall attempt to sketch with as much brevity as I can” (6–7).

The Slave-Trade, not Enslavement per se

It is important to be precise about what Humphrey means by “the slave-trade,” since modern readers might think he means “slavery” in general. In fact, he means very specifically the trans-Atlantic trade, which was abolished in 1807 with the passing of the “Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves.” It was common to decry loudly the evils of this trade while remaining lukewarm regarding the evils of enslavement itself in the United States (for example, Jonathan Edwards condemned the trade while at the same time holding several people in enslavement; a century later white-supremacist and slavery apologist Robert Lewis Dabney did the same thing). Humphrey makes this clear when he states that “Congress has no hesitation in passing the severest laws against the one [the slave-trade], and why not do something to check the more dreadful rava­ges of the other [intemperance]?” (30). Spoken in 1828, this can only apply to the “importation of slaves,” not the institution itself (which would not be abolished, at least in the Confederate states, until 1863). 

Humphrey’s argument is not that “the slave-trade was not that bad; therefore intemperance is worse”; rather, the argument is that “the slave-trade was horrifically evil; and yet, even still, intemperance is worse”:

“And can any thing, you will ask, be worse ? Can any guilt, or misery, or peril surpass that of the slave-trade ? Can any national stigma be deeper, than for a single year to have tolerated the importation of human blood and broken hearts and daily imprecations? Yes, I answer, intemper­ance in the United States is worse than all this—is a more blighting and deadly scourge to humanity, than that traffic, all dripping with gore, which it makes every muscle shudder to think of” (8).

He compares the “comparative aggregate of misery” in terms of both the “number of victims” and the “aggregate of human misery which it inflicts” and judges that intemperance outweighs the slave-trade on both counts (8–12). Humphrey has a peculiar judgment regarding the affects of either on human persons:

“But while intemperance mixes ingredients equal­ly bitter, if not similar, in the cup of trembling and woe which it fills up to the brim, it casts in others, which the slave-trade never mingled—for it fetters the immortal mind as well as the dying body” (14).

How Humphrey could claim that enslavement did not afflict the minds of the enslaved is unclear.

“The mere sting of an insect, com­pared with the fangs of a tyger”

Humphrey piles on rhetorical questions, assuming that his point is obvious:

  • “Think of his [the intemperate man’s] thus dragging out months and years of torture, till the earth re­fuses any longer to bear such a wretch upon its surface, and then tell me, if any Barbadian slave was ever so miserable” (15);
  • “Was ever a kid­napped African more wretched in his Atlantic dun­geon?” (16);
  • “The veriest wretch, chained and swelter­ing between decks in a Portuguese Guineaman, is not half so miserable” (17);
  • “who that is bought and sold and thrown into the sea, for the crime of being sable and sick, suffers half so much as this very slave [the intemperate]?” (17);
  • “can any slave-torture be more excruciating than this?” (18).

Humphrey even claims that given the choice, he would choose to be enslaved on a plantation than to practice intemperance:

“Ah, give me, you say, the chains and stripes and toil and perpetual servitude of a West-India plantation, rather than the woe, the wounds, and the diseases of the dram-shop” (19).

Intemperance is worse than the slave-trade in the shame it produces, and the guilt upon the conscience (19–20), and here he waxes eloquent:

“Now what, I pray you, is African slavery in its most terrific forms com­pared with this ? The mere sting of an insect, com­pared with the fangs of a tyger—the slight incon­venience of a ligature, contrasted with the live and crushing folds of the Boa Constrictor. Drag me bound and bleeding, if you will, from my blazing habitation— thrust me half dead into the fetid hold of any slave-ship—sell me me to any foreign master— doom me to labour in any burning climate— set over me any iron-hearted driver—load me with any chains and compel me to toil night and day in any sugar-house ;—but deliver me not over to the retributions of a conscience, exasperated by the guilt of intemperance!” (22).

White Supremacy

If it seemed that something was off in Humphrey’s moral calculus, he says it explicitly partway through the address. Intemperance “inflicts more misery” than the slave-trade, in part because of “the keener sensibilities of a civilized than of a savage state” (22, 23). Because white civilized men have “keener sensibilities” than the African “savage” white men would be more miserable in the bondage of drink than a Black person in actual enslavement. Humphrey’s comparison rests fundamentally on the stereotype of Black people as more impervious to pain, more “hardy,” with duller “sensibilities.”

Again, he asserts that the pain of a family ripped apart in Africa suffers not as badly as a family afflicted with intemperance:

“Or when you have wept with that aged pair, on the slave-coast, whose only son has just been carried off by the ruthless man-stealer, come home to New- England, and see the only prop of once doting, and now aged parents, falling intoxicated and blasphem­ing over the threshold of their door ; and tell me, whose breach is widest, whose sorrows spring from the deepest fountain ? Much as I love my children, let them all grind in chains till they die, rather, in­ finitely, than become the slaves of strong drink” (23).

“The Means of Grace”

Humphrey also compares the affect on religious faith, and again, makes several questionable claims regarding the two evils:

“intemperance is beyond all compari­son more destructive to the souls of men than the slave-trade. Diabolical as this traffic is, it does not deprive its victims of the means of grace, for they never enjoyed them. It seals not up the bible, nor blots out the sabbath, nor removes men from the “house of God and the gate of heaven.” It har­dens not their hearts. It sears not their conscien­ces. They are not more likely to lose their souls in America, than they would have been in their native country” (25).

The fact that many enslaved people and their descendants have struggled with Christianity as a “white slaveholding religion” seems utterly foreign to Humphrey. In fact, Humphrey pulls out the age old providential apology for slavery at this point:

“On the contrary, many are brought under the saving light of the gospel here, who, in all prob­ability, would never have heard of a Saviour there” (25).


Humphrey’s dubious comparison causes him to extend his argument into another fallacy, condemning drinking even in moderation:

“if intemperance is more af­flictive and disgraceful to humanity than the slave-trade, who can justify himself even in the moderate use of strong drink ? Would those respectable and influential men who drink sparingly, lend the weight of their example, for a moment, to perpetuate the slave-trade, supposing it had not yet been abolished? Would they go into the market and buy at all? Would they tell us, that much as they abhor a wholesale traffic in human flesh, they see no harm in trading a little ; and that nobody can be comfort­able without a few slaves?” (35).

If there is no such thing as “slaveholding in moderation,” then, according to Humphrey, neither can alcohol be consumed in moderation either. In fact, on the last page of the address, Humphrey exhorts his hearers to “Touch not—taste not—handle not”—even though, ironically, in the passage he is quoting from (Colossians 2:21), the apostle Paul is condemning such strict rules as “doctrines of men” rather than from God(Col 2:22). Humphrey’s rhetorical zeal got away from him in almost every sense.

Antislavery at Amherst College

It is probably unsurprising, therefore, that just as Humphrey followed Lyman Beecher in comparing intemperance with the slave-trade, he also did the same in suppressing an anti-slavery society at Amherst College, just as Beecher did at Lane Seminary (see ““Social Intercourse Irrespective of Color”: Lyman Beecher and the Lane Seminary “Rebellion” of 1834”). A year after Beecher disbanded the anti-slavery society at Lane, Humphrey did the same in 1835 at Amherst (see William Seymour Tyler, History of Amherst College During Its First Half Century, 1821-1871 (Springfield, MA: Clark W. Bryan, 1873): 245–51; Robert H. Romer, “Higher Education and Slavery in Western Massachusetts” (2005); Michael Jirik, “Combating Slavery and Colonization: Student Abolitionism and the Politics of Antislavery in Higher Education, 1833-1841,” (2015)).

Like many “moderate” northerners, Humphrey seemed more concerned with anti-slavery advocacy than with slavery itself, and as he demonstrates clearly in his address, was far more concerned with other social ills, like intemperance, than he was with enslavement.