Antislavery and Homelessness

Last night I heard Kathy Izard speak about her book, The Hundred Story Home, and her quest to end homelessness.

The book, in a sense, starts with another book, Same Kind of Different as Me, by Ron Hall and Denver Moore. That book describes how Ron Hall befriended Denver Moore, took him into his home, and thus helped him change from a homeless person to a normal person. Izard invited Hall and Moore to her hometown of Charlotte, North Carolina, to speak at a fundraiser for their soup kitchen ministry. Izard gave Moore a tour of the soup kitchen, but he was not impressed, asking at the end of the tour “where are the beds?” When she started to explain that they were a soup kitchen, not a homeless shelter, he asked her whether it made sense to help people during the day and then lock them out at night. And he challenged her to dosomething about the problem.

Izard knew that she was not qualified to solve the city’s homeless problem: she was a graphic designer, and the mother of four children; she did not have a joint degree in business and social work. The call, as she puts it in her book, was crazy. “It sounded as unlikely as building an ark, and I definitely wasn’t Noah.” But the call grew on her and she decided to tackle it, closing down her graphics business, working full time to raise money for a “housing first” project in Charlotte.

(When I read this part of the book, and heard her speak about it, I was reminded of my own decision to shift from practicing law to writing books, and the call that I heard in Hong Kong one evening to write American history. See

To make a long story shorter, Izard and her colleagues raised $10 million, mainly from private donations, and built Moore House, a residential facility in Charlotte for the formerly homeless. Moore House is staffed with social workers, who help the residents deal with their many issues: physical disabilities, addictions, mental illnesses, government paperwork. Moore House serves about a hundred people—each with his or her own story—and several hundred more are housed in rental units. They have appreciably reduced the numbers of homeless people on the streets of Charlotte, and hope to serve as a model for other communities around the nation.

After her talk, when I met Izard face to face, I mentioned that I was an author, but said that I did not write such exciting stories. As I thought about it last night and this morning, however, I realized that the story of ending slavery is in many ways like the story of ending homelessness. So if I tell the story of the life of Salmon Chase right, Chase’s story should be as exciting as Izard’s story of her struggle to change lives in Charlotte.

Think about it: in 1841, when Salmon Chase joined the Liberty Party, and committed himself to the gradual end of slavery, there were millions of slaves in the United States, and only a handful of people who thought slavery could or should end. A year earlier, in the presidential election, there were 2,412,694 votes cast, of which only 7,453 were cast for the Liberty Party candidate. To abandon a promising political career in a major political party—as Chase did—and to join the Liberty Party was to join a handful of quixotic eccentrics—who had about as much chance of ending slavery as Quixote did of changing Spain.

Chase was far from the first man to denounce slavery, and indeed his criticism of slavery were far more muted than those of the ardent abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison. Chase’s great contribution was to see that, in order to end slavery, anti-slavery had to become a political movement, not just a moral movement, and that it had to become a mass political movement. In parallel, Chase was the leader of a legal movement, arguing not just case-by-case for the freedom of fugitive slaves, but arguing that the Constitution as a whole did not support slavery, that at most it allowed individual states to have their own internal slave laws. In this Chase disagreed with both the abolitionists, who denounced the Constitution as a pact with slavery, and the southerners, who insisted that the Constitution sanctioned and protected slavery.

In 1844, Chase published what he called the Liberty Man’s Creed. It read in part: “I believe that slavery is so odious that nothing can uphold it except positive law, and that all such law violates inalienable rights, and ought to be immediately repealed. . . . I believe that if Liberty men will do their duty, being constant in season and out of season, and always faithful to their nominations, the antislavery strength of the country will be concentrated at the ballot box in less than four years, that a Liberty President and Congress will be elected in 1848, and that the census of 1850 will not include a single slave. I believe that the work has to be done, and that it might as well be done in four years as in forty. I believe that I will do my share of it.”

In a sense none of this happened. There was no Liberty Party in 1848, it had merged into the Free Soil Party, of which Chase was a founding father. The Free Soil party did not win the presidency in 1848, and not many Free Soil men were elected to Congress in that year. (One exception was Chase, elected as senator because of a deadlock between the two major parties.) The federal census of 1850 counted 3.2 million slaves; this number would increase to almost four million in the 1860 census.

And yet in another sense what Chase predicted did happen and within Chase’s lifetime. The Republican Party, another antislavery party of which Chase was a founding father, elected Abraham Lincoln in 1860. The South seceded, to protect slavery, and the South started the Civil War, which in the end destroyed slavery. By the time of the 1870 census, after the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, there were no slaves in the United States. By that time Chase was the Chief Justice of the United States; one of his first acts as Chief was to admit the first black man, John Rock, to the bar of the Supreme Court.

There is another parallel between the anti-slavery movement and the anti-homelessness movement: the role of religion. It was not an accident that Izard spoke last night at St. James Episcopal Church, for many of the key players in her story are men and women of faith. Many of the key leaders of the antislavery movement, including Chase, were also men and women of faith. Think of William Henry Seward, the subject of my second book, who declared in his famous Senate speech that there was a “higher law than the Constitution” that dedicated the western territories to freedom. Think of Seward’s wife Frances, who wrote about the death of William Freeman, the homeless black man whom her husband had defended, that Freeman had gone home to God, “whose benevolence is not chilled by the color of the skin of his children.”

That chapter of my Seward book has a heading that sounds like Izard: “You and I Can and Must Do It.” The quote is not from Izard but from Seward, speaking in Cleveland in 1848. “Slavery can be limited to its present bounds, it can be ameliorated, it can be and must be abolished, and you and I can and must do it.” Seward also lived to see the end of slavery; indeed as Secretary of State he was the man who signed the certificate to confirm that the Thirteenth Amendment was now part of the United States Constitution.

Let me close with the quote from Izard’s book that she used to close her presentation last night:

“Each of us has a call patiently waiting and whispering. You might have heard yours already but are afraid to admit it. It could be as big as a building or as technical as creating proformas for a non-profit, or as simple and powerful as a ministry of sending cards. My message to you is this: trust the whisper. Whatever it is. Whatever you feel is quietly, persistently, relentlessly calling to you. No matter how crazy or inconvenient it might be to listen. Once you hear it, that one true thing, it’s impossible to turn away because it will keep whispering. And when it does, you must spend the rest of your life either answering it or pretending you never heard it.”