Abolitionism and the Political Culture of Antebellum America

The abolitionist movement is the template for American radicalism. All subsequent political radical movements either model themselves on it or relate to its legacy in some other way. They figured out how movements for change can work in a democratic, open society like America's. What are the appropriate tactics here? The abolitionists introduced an idea that is central to the self conception of modern America: a pluralistic society of equals, where being American does not depend on accidental variables (race, gender). The idea did not exist prior to then, certainly not in law until after Civil War.

The era before the Civil War is often referred to as the Age of Reform. All sorts of movements mushroomed then, like communitarians, temperance, labor, abolitionists, prison reformers, educationists, pacifists, advocates for the ill and insane, and so forth. They sent out speakers, drew up petitions, and overlapped in their causes. Women's rights came out of abolitionism. These movements were transatlantic, crisscrossing from the US to the United Kingdom and Europe. American exceptionalism does not explain the flourishing of these movements for change. They all spoke the language of freedom. For example, "alcoholism is slavery." At the same time, they all aroused opposition for forcing their views on others through politics. The rhetorical frames of abolitionism have echoed throughout subsequent US politics, as movements from labor and civil rights movements to antiabortion have called themselves the "new abolitionists." (See George W. Bush's invocation of the Dred Scott case during the 2004 presidential debates with John Kerry.)

Antislavery and abolitionism weren't the same, however, as the latter was the radical edge. The former might just want to stop the westward expansion of slavery. Abolionists called for immediate action, not gradual emancipation. They tended to believe in the supremacy of a higher moral law. William Lloyd Garrison expressed this radical conviction when he burned the Constitution at a July 4, 1854 celebration: "This is a covenant with the devil." Abolitionists also demanded incorporation of black Americans as equal citizens, which was a marginal view at the time. Jefferson, Jackson, Clay, Webster, Lincoln and Marshall all criticized slavery in some way or another, but they all thought black people would be "colonized" elsewhere when it was all over. This was a dream of ethnic cleansing. They could not envision America as a multiracial society, because it was a white man's country. The real abolitionists consisted of a small group throughout this period, and some thought they were crazy. Wendell Phillips's family tried to get him committed, and we still do not know if John Brown was crazy. In any case, the idea of a society of equals was thought to be crazy. And the abolitionists were able to develop enormous influence despite the intransigence and resistance of conventional wisdom.

James Stewart points out that antislavery feeling had deep roots. American Revolution made it a public issue for first time, thanks to the obvious contradiction of liberty and democracy with slavery and disenfranchisement. Many northern states initiated gradual emancipation during the early years of the Republic. On the other hand, compromises like the notorious "3/5 clause" embedded slavery in the Constitution, padding the electoral power of slave states. The vast majority of presidents up to the Civil War were slaveholders, and the South frequently controlled the levers of the federal government. While the Founders had hoped slavery would die out, it actually got bigger as the cotton kingdom expanded to the old southwest, and into the rich delta areas. Southern slaveholders held not just political power, but also the key to an international commodity that was crucial to the revolution in textile production during the early nineteenth century.

As for those emancipated from slavery, few wanted to move to Africa, as Jefferson and so many others wished. In Philadelphia in 1817, free black Americans gathered together for the first time, and they agreed to condemn the colonization project. David Walker's appeal from Boston may have inspired the new abolitionist movement; it developed in the 1830s, largely from the Second Great Awakening's spiritual enthusiasm. In the North, at least, the revivals created a frame of mind of liberatory power and responsibility over one's self and society, in contrast to the ideas of original sin and predestination. Some revivalists believed that "you can eliminate sin from the world," and move human nature closer to perfection. In the 1830s and 1840s, the passion for individual salvation easily migrated into the social realm. Social institutions can be thought of as sinful, and sin cannot be compromised with. The nation itself need to go to a revival.

The downside is that these sins require new political and economic relationships to be effectively removed. This mentality is "immediatism," and it pops up in a lot of movements. The temperance movement becomes prohibitionist, and the peace movement becomes more resolutely pacifist. What does immediate abolitionism mean? It is really a call for a moral judgement from the nation. Abolitionists appeal to the slaveowner in a way, seeking his repentance. They want the North to recognize its complicity. They were willing to see states, parties, and institutions ripped to shreds, which is what ultimately happened. The rhetoric was intended to remove the middle ground as an option, so that Americans could not waffle and opt for minor reforms. Thoreau refused to pay taxes to support Mexican War, and wrote Civil Disobedience about his punishment for it. He declared that the individual has the right to resist unjust laws, because law is less relevant than morality.

Abolitionist firebrand Garrison personified this belief in a higher good that could not be delayed. He founded the Liberator newspaper in Boston in 1831, and it lasted until 1865. "I will be as harsh as truth," Garrison said, "and as uncompromising as justice." He became famous because southern newspapers reprinted his content as an example. Like Walker, he attacked colonization. He called for immediate abolition, unlike the Northern policy of gradual emancipation; there were still a handful of slaves in New Jersey as late as 1860. Garrison used harsh invective to rouse people up. He insisted on fighting racism head-on, and he supported free blacks in the North who were marginalized in many ways. In fact, two thirds of the Liberator's first subscribers were blacks. It was the first racially integrated political movement, although there were integrated religious ones (e.g. Shakers, Quakers). They were first to use visual iconography as a weapon, with lurid imagery of oppression and violence. Most white abolitionists were pacifists who did not like idea of rebellions. They used moral suasion: the idea that the slave is your brother, so you must treat him that way. The introduction of the steam printing press in the 1830s made rapid and cheap publication possible, allowing abolitionists to flood the North with propaganda. America does not really have a violent radical tradition, apart from a handful of anarchists, John Brown, and the Weathermen. Public opinion has been recognized as the ruler of society. The abolitionists could have smuggled arms to the slaves or sabotaged the southern economic slave system or assassinated slaveholders, but they did not. If you can determine the boundaries of the debate, it does not matter what is being said. Abolitionists managed to put their issues on the agenda, and their first target was the "conspiracy of silence."

The 1830s were a time of turmoil, of both internal and external threats to the slave regime. In 1831 Britain banned slavery, and Nat Turner led a rebellion in Virginia. Meanwhile, the nullification crisis pitted South Carolina against President Andrew Jackson. The South soon closed in on itself as it clamped down on public discussion. The mail was opened and burned to prevent literature from getting in, in a sort of nineteenth century version of China's "Great Firewall." This coincides with the growth of antislavery in the north. A key architect of antislavery activism was Theodore Weld, who put together "the Seventy" — ministers trained to go through rural north from town to town to speak and set up local groups. These were the shock troops, who set up a 1,000 societies with 100,000 members by 1837. They mobilize local women into action for the first time, circulating petitions. The strategy was to persuade people to sign petitions even if you knew that Congress was going to ignore it. Such actions generate a list of sympathizers, if nothing else. Organizing also provoked violent opposition: abolitionists meetings were broken up, activists received death threats, and homes were burned or sacked, etc. In 1838 a mob burned Pennsylvania Hall to the ground, albeit after removing Washington's picture. "The greatest threat to American liberty exists at home," Lincoln said at age 27.

In fact, this violence put civil liberties on the agenda for the first time, suggesting that slavery had clearly become a threat to white Americans' freedom. Abolitionism becomes surrounded by sympathetic "fellow travellers," who disdain oppression of the activists. Their persecution gets them attention and enlarges their influence. Slavery was not just a southern question any longer.

Abolitionists soon had to face the question of electoral politics, i.e. whether or not to engage with an unjust and corrupt system. The Garrisonian wing was against voting. Political parties are good for nothing, they believed, and you have to pledge to support the filthy Constitution. Politics is the art of the "possible," of compromise. On the other hand, the Liberty Party formed in 1840 and said, in essence, "Why surrender the vehicle of voting when you could use it for moral ends?" There was no need for a single tactic. These factions fought on different planes, but they were not mutually exclusive. In a sense, the split in abolitionism strengthened it.

In time, the movement became more focused on politically viable demands. You go from Liberty Party to the Free Soil Party in 1848 and then the Republicans in 1854 — increasingly pragmatic. Some abolitionists had to drop the goal of equal rights for black people, as Free Soilers and Lincoln did, because you could not get votes with that position. In contrast, the issues of brutality in the South or plantation expansion into the West had political appeal. They found the lowest common denominator by 1860, and it was Lincoln. The abolitionist movement was never anywhere near a majority in the North, although after the war many people claimed membership. They understood that the purpose of agitation is polarization, to force people to be uncomfortable, not to satisfy everyone. The people with good intentions who did nothing were actually an obstacle to the movement. As Weld suggested to the Seventy, do not allow yourself to be drawn away from the main object; men will be relieved of responsibility when they can nitpick over the problems in a detailed plan. Just make people confront a basic moral problem. Abolitionists knew that the system worked best when the fundamentals were not in question, when the minority can accept defeat because their basic interests are not mortally threatened. The abolitionists were not successful in one sense because the problem was solved through war, rather than a moral transformation in which whites embraced blacks as brothers. As Lydia Maria Child wrote after the war, emancipation resulted from "miserable military necessity." Were they successful? They managed to end slavery, but not racism.

Clement Lime

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