With the passing of November 4, 2014, has come another cycle of debate, discussion, and voting in the United States. Every two years U.S. citizens participate in this ritual by voting for local, county, state, and national leaders to serve and protect their interests. In the months before these elections we are constantly told by politicians, celebrities, and even religious leaders that we must make our voices heard by voting. When we leave the polls we get “I Voted” stickers that act as self-assuring indications to ourselves and others that we’ve participated in the democratic process and have successfully completed our civic duty.
But is voting alone really enough to fill that civic duty? To what extent should we be held responsible for the consequences of our votes? Must all democratic governmental changes take place within the system, or are there acceptable strategies for enacting change through outside activism? Might there be ethical or moral issues with voting in a representative democracy? These questions were hotly debated in the United States during the nineteenth century, a time when American representative democracy was still in its infancy and most countries were still run by monarchies and aristocrats. Caleb McDaniel’s recent publication The Problem of Democracy in the Age of Slavery: Garrisonian Abolitionists and Transatlantic Reform illuminates these debates as they took place within the abolitionist movement from 1831-1865.
Antebellum abolitionists are well-known in history for their strong opposition to slavery, their desire to see the institution abolished immediately, and their wish to provide suffrage rights and political equality for African Americans. As McDaniel points out, however, abolitionists also read about and debated a wide range of issues intimately associated with slavery, including free speech, democracy, nationalism, and religion. Within these debates emerged different perspectives about the merits of voting and whether or not it would help in the fight to end slavery in the United States. Garrisonian abolitionists, named after their leader William Lloyd Garrison, took a decided stand against voting or running for political office in the years before the Civil War, arguing that political agitation outside the system would be most effective in convincing Americans to call for the end of slavery.
Garrison, a devoutly religious abolitionist and editor of the Boston-based newspaper The Liberator, provided a nuanced, thought-provoking stance towards the principle of non-voting.
All governments, according to Garrisonians, were coercive entities who used violence to achieve and maintain their legitimacy. The United States received special condemnation from Garrisonians because its government readily implemented legalized state violence to keep millions of blacks in slavery while proclaiming itself as the freest nation on earth. As Garrison argued in 1845, “[The United States] was conceived in sin, and brought forth in iniquity; and its career has been marked by unparalleled hypocrisy, by high-handed tyranny, by a bold defiance of the omniscience and omnipotence of God. Freedom indignantly disowns it, and calls for its extinction; for within its borders are three millions of Slaves, whose blood constitutes its cement, whose flesh forms a large and flourishing branch of its commerce.” Garrisonians viewed all acts of violence as sinful, therefore voting constituted a sinful act that violated the will of God. Voting was also sinful because it privileged allegiances to political parties, governments, and nations over God’s earthly and sovereign kingdom.
Garrisonians instead called on “public agitation” to effect change in American society, arguing that suffrage took a back seat to the important work of influencing public sentiments about slavery. Garrisonian agitations took on many forms, including public speeches and debates, newspaper editorials, books, and abolitionist literature sent to Southern slaveholders through the mails (although President Andrew Jackson’s Postmaster General Amos Kendall allowed postal officers in the South to withhold this mail from its intended recipients, a clearly illegal maneuver aimed at protecting the sensibilities of slaveholders). At heart in these efforts was the belief that agitation was essential to influencing public sentiment and promoting the free expression of dissenting opinions. Garrisonians believed that agitation alone (without actively participating in the democratic process through voting) could convince voters to select anti-slavery candidates for office. In sum, influencing voters’ political perspectives was more important to Garrisonians than teaching them the virtues of voting in the first place. Garrison brought this point home when he remarked in 1839 that “I still expect to see abolition at the ballot-box, renovating the political action of the country . . . not by attempting to prove that it is the duty of every abolitionist to be a voter, but that it is the duty of every voter to be an abolitionist.”
By the 1840s, however, “political abolitionists” began arguing that voting was necessary to overtake the so-called “Slave Power.” According to McDaniel, political abolitionists like Frederick Douglass, Gerrit Smith, and James Birney “believed slaveholders had to be bested in the arena of politics because the government was what gave them so much protection and power” (160). Agitation alone was not enough to effect change, according to these abolitionists, and it was necessary to form political parties to beat proslavery politicians at their own game. Parties like the Liberty Party and the Free-Soil Party formed in the 1840s with the explicit goal of ending slavery, but their success at the polls was minimal and without the support of Garrisonian abolitionists who still believed their freedom to agitate would be compromised by active political participation.
While I personally disagree with the principle of non-voting, I think Garrisonians are right in asserting the importance of influencing public sentiment outside the systems that maintain a representative democracy. Dissent and activism are essential to a healthy republic that values free discussion; free elections can’t take place without those prerequisites. Voting alone doesn’t necessarily fulfill our civic duty because we must also agitate for those prerequisites. In a sense voting is only one tool within a larger responsibility to promote universal freedom and equality at all times.