We should not set our feet, knees or arms on the necks of anybody, including our oppressors. In 1841, Rev. Owen Lovejoy, who became President Lincoln’s best friend in Congress, had sent a personal note to philanthropist and antislavery leader Lewis Tappan. Lovejoy congratulated Tappan for his part in freeing the Amistad Africans from jail in New Haven, especially young Cinque.

Cinque was the leader of the African slaves who had overpowered the captain and Spanish crew of the slave ship Amistad. Unable to effectively navigate the ship, they were lost on the ocean off the coast of Connecticut. 

“I was particularly struck by Cinque’s treatment of the Spaniards,” Lovejoy said, “his noble generosity in regard to the use of freshwater on board when it became reduced.” Cinque had given the same portion of precious water to the kidnappers as he had given to the kidnapped. Lovejoy felt for the young African. 

“I have read it several times, and yet I believe not without tears,” he said, then denounced with irony a popular sentiment of the day: “And this is the man on whose neck we are requested to set our foot! This is the race [said to be] doomed to everlasting inferiority!” This saying was popular in the culture prevailing at that time in a New England tied to the cotton industry.

On April 5, 1860, six weeks before Abraham Lincoln was nominated for president, Owen Lovejoy warned in Congress, that he would never admit “sovereigns have any right to convert man into a chattel, into goods, into four-footed beasts. I tell you, gentlemen, they have no authority to do it. I do not believe such a transformation is right, whether expressed by the people of the territory, or by the state, or by the czar of Russia. 

“No power on earth has the right to make a man a slave; in doing so, you trample upon the principles of the Declaration of Independence. … God made that man as he made you and me in his own image, and the sanction of his authority is around him. Sir, you had better take your foot from his neck.”

We should set our feet one after the other and keep in step with the music of South Africa, when new voters were being led by their liberator, Nelson Mandela: “We are marching, we are marching, we are marching in the Light of God.”

William F. Moore and Jane Ann Moore are historical researchers of the Illinois antislavery movement with Abraham Lincoln and Owen Lovejoy.

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