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Coatesville Address
John Jay Chapman

Delivered in Coatesville, PA, 18 August 1912,
on the occasion of the first anniversary of the lynching
and murder of a black man in the same town.

And the LORD said to Moses, When you go back to Egypt, see that you perform before Pharaoh all the wonders that I have put in your power; but I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go.
Exodus 4:21
Make the heart of this people dull, and stop their ears, and shut their eyes, so that they may not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and comprehend with their hearts, and turn and be hearled.
Isaiah 6:10
I will give them a new heart, and put a new spirit within them; I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, so that they may follow my statutes and keep my ordinances and obey them. Then they shall be my people, and I will be their God.
Ezekiel 11:19-20


We are met to commemorate the anniversary of one of the most dreadful crimes in history—
not for the purpose of condemning it, but to repent for our share in it.


We do not start any agitation with regard to that particular crime.


I understand that an attempt to prosecute the chief criminals has been made, and has entirely failed;
because the whole community, and in a sense our whole people, are really involved in the guilt.



The failure of the prosecution in this case, in all such cases,
is only a proof of the magnitude of the guilt, and of the awful fact that everyone shares in it.



I will tell you why I am here;
I will tell you what happened to me.



When I read in the newspapers of August 14, a year ago, about the burning alive of a human being,
and of how a few desperate, fiend-minded men had been permitted to torture a man chained to an iron bedstead, burning alive, thrust back by pitchforks when he struggled out of it,
while around about stood hundreds of well-dressed American citizens, both from the vicinity and from afar, coming on foot and in wagons, assembling on telephone call, as if by magic, silent, whether from terror or indifference, fascinated and impotent,
hundreds of persons watching this awful sight and making no attempt to stay the wickedness,
and no one man among them all who was inspired to risk his life in an attempt to stop it, no one man to name the name of Christ, of humanity, of government!



As I read the newspaper accounts of the scene enacted here in Coatesville a year ago,
I seemed to get a glimpse into the unconscious soul of this country.



I saw a seldom revealed picture of the American heart and of the American nature.



I seemed to be looking into the heart of the criminal—a cold thing, an awful thing.
I said to myself, "I shall forget this, we shall all forget it; but it will be there.



What I have seen is not an illusion.


It is the truth.


I have seen death in the heart of this people."


For to look at the agony of a fellow-being and remain aloof means death in the heart of the onlooker.


Religious fanaticism has sometimes lifted men to the frenzy of such cruelty, political passion has sometimes done it, personal hatred might do it, the excitement of the ampitheater in the degenerate days of Roman luxury could do it.


But here an audience chosen by chance in America has stood spellbound through an improvised auto-da-fé, irregular, illegal, having no religious significance, not sanctioned by custom, having no immediate provocation, the audience standing by merely in cold dislike.


I saw during one moment something beyond all argument in the depth of its significance.


No theories about the race problem, no statistics, legislation, or mere educational endeavor, can quite meet the lack which that day revealed in the American people.


For what we saw was death.


The people stood like blighted things, like ghosts about Acheron,
waiting for someone or something to determine their destiny for them.


Whatever life itself is, that thing must be replenished in us.


The opposite of hate is love, the opposite of cold is heat;
what we need is the love of God and reverence for human nature.


For one moment I knew that I had seen our true need;
and I was afraid that I should forget it and that I should start schemes of education, when the need was deeper than education.


And I became filled with one idea, that I must not forget what I had seen,
and that I must do something to remember it.


And I am here today chiefly that I may remember that vision.


It seems fitting to come to this town where the crime occurred and hold a prayer-meeting,
so that our hearts may be turned to God through whom mercy may flow into us.

The locus of responsibility

Let me say something more about the whole matter.


The subject we are dealing with is not local.


The act, to be sure, took place at Coatesville
and everyone looked to Coatesville to follow it up.


Some months ago I asked a friend who lives not far from here something about this case, and about the expected prosecutions,
and he replied to me: "It wasn’t in my county," and that made me wonder whose county it was in.


And it seemed to be in my county.


I live on the Hudson River;
but I knew that this great wickedness that happened in Coatesville is not the wickedness of Coatesville nor of today.


It is the wickedness of all America and of three hundred years—
the wickedness of the slave trade.


All of us are tinctured by it.


No special place, no special persons, are to blame.


A nation cannot practice a course of inhuman crime for three hundred years
and then suddenly throw off the effects of it.


Less than fifty years ago domestic slavery was abolished among us;
and in one way or another the marks of that vice are in our faces.


There is no country in Europe where the Coatesville tragedy or anything remotely like it could have been enacted, probably no country in the world.


On the day of the calamity, those people in the automobiles came by the hundred
and watched the torture, and passers-by came in a great multitude and watched it—
and did nothing.


On the next morning the newspapers spread the news and spread the paralysis until the whole country seemed to be helplessly watching this awful murder, as awful as anything ever done on this earth;
and the whole of our people seemed to be looking on helplessly, not able to respond, not knowing what to do next.


That spectacle has been in my mind.


The trouble has come down to us out of the past.


The only reason slavery is wrong is that it is cruel
and makes men cruel and leaves them cruel.


Someone may say that you and I cannot repent
because we did not do the act.


But we are involved in it.


We are still looking on.


Do you not see that this whole event is merely the last parable,
the most vivid, the most terrible illustration that ever was given by man or imagined by a Jewish prophet,
of the relation between good and evil in this world, and of the relation of men to one another?


This whole matter has been an historic episode;
but it is a part, not only of our national history, but of the personal history of each one of us.


With the great disease (slavery) came the climax (the war),
and after the climax gradually began the cure,
and in the process of cure comes now the knowledge of what the evil was.


I say that our need is new life,
and that books and resolutions will not save us,
but only such disposition in our hearts and souls as will enable the new life, love, force, hope, virtue, which surround us always, to enter into us.


This is the discovery that each man must make for himself—
the discovery that what he really stands in need of he cannot get for himself,
but must wait till God gives it to him.


I have felt the impulse today to testify to this truth.


The occasion is not small;
the occasion looks back on three centuries and embraces a hemisphere.


Yet the occasion is small compared with the truth it leads us to.


For this truth touches all ages and affects every soul in the world.


Further Reading

Arthos, John. "Chapman's Coatesville Address: A Hermeneutic Reading." Quarterly Journal of Speech 88 (2002): 193-208.
Burdick, Norman R. "The 'Coatesville Address': Crossroads of Rhetoric and Poetry." Western Journal of Speech Communication 42 (1978): 73-82.