Was Abolitionism a Failure? A Response

13th AmendmentToday marks a significant day in United States history. 150 years ago on January 31, 1865, Congress passed the 13th amendment to the Constitution, which ended chattel slavery in the U.S. The amendment was then forwarded to the states for ratification, and in December enough states ratified the measure for it to become the law of the land. Some slave states like Missouri had already chosen to abolish the institution prior to the amendment’s passage, but the event was nonetheless significant because President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was a wartime measure applied only to states in rebellion against the U.S. government during the Civil War. Although slavery was basically destroyed in parts of the Confederacy where heavy fighting and Union military occupation occurred, what would happen to slavery’s legal status after the end of hostilities remained an open question as the war began to wind down in 1865. Lincoln sought a permanent and constitutionally binding measure that would put an end to these questions and forever end the institution.

Historians since 1865 have debated extensively about the process of wartime emancipation and the eventual demise of slavery in the United States. How did a nation dedicated to protecting slaveholders’ human property, enforcing fugitive slave laws, and sanctioning the legal buying and selling of slaves in 1861 come to abolish slavery only four years later? What changes in American thought occurred over these four years, and how do we assess the agency of those whose efforts ended slavery?

One point I would not argue is that the abolitionist movement–which arose in the early 1830s and called for the complete end of slavery (without colonization) in all corners of the United States–was a failure that had little influence in ending slavery. Jon Grinspan, writing for the New York Times Disunion Blog, makes a valiant attempt to suggest otherwise:

Before abolitionism succeeded, it failed. As a pre-Civil War movement, it was a flop. Antislavery congressmen were able to push through their amendment because of the absence of the pro-slavery South, and the complicated politics of the Civil War. Abolitionism’s surprise victory has misled generations about how change gets made.

It’s hard to accept just how unpopular abolitionism was before the Civil War. The abolitionist Liberty Party never won a majority in a single county, anywhere in America, in any presidential race. Ralph Nader got closer to the presidency. In 1860 the premier antislavery newspaper, The Liberator, had a circulation of under 3,000, in a nation of 31 million.

I agree that abolitionism’s eventual 1865 victory was a surprise. Indeed, slaveholders who supported the Confederacy would have never pushed for secession in 1861 had they known that such an effort would have hastened their slaves’ freedom. Likewise, it’s safe to say that abolition was not a popular political stance with voters at that time. But Grinspan’s claims go too far.

The problem, in my opinion, is that one cannot measure the success or failure of the abolitionist movement based solely on a quantitative measure like county votes, the electoral college, or readership lists. As I’ve stated before on this blog, the abolitionist movement during the antebellum period experienced strong disagreements about the morality and practicality of participating in democratic politics. Many Garrisonian abolitionists (named after their leader, William Lloyd Garrison) considered voting to be a sinful act that sanctioned state violence and promoted allegiances to political parties and nations instead of God’s earthly kingdom. Going to the polls and voting was not nearly as important to these abolitionists as influencing public opinion about slavery and compelling non-abolitionist voters to choose anti-slavery candidates for office. The success of these efforts was undoubtedly limited, but to suggest that they were a “failure” is wrong if we move beyond quantitative voting tallies.

The leaders of Confederate secession were not stupid. Several states created Declarations of Secession that clearly outlined the reasons why they were leaving the Union, and it’s evident that regardless of abolitionism’s political power, its imagined influence in the minds of Confederate leaders was strong, so much so that they chose to leave the Union rather than accept President’s Lincoln’s repeated promise to leave slavery untouched in states where it legally existed. South Carolina’s Declaration complained that the free states–including the abolitionists–“denounced as sinful the institution of slavery” and “encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes.” It went even farther by attacking the abolitionist practice of sending incendiary anti-slavery literature through the mails to Southern slaveholders. Slaves that remained in bondage, the Declaration claims, were encouraged by “emissaries, books and pictures” to move towards “servile insurrection.” Mississippi was so threatened by abolitionism that its Declaration claims that “there was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin.”

In sum, the Civil War was ignited in large part by fears of a growing abolitionist movement and its potential to end slavery in the United States. Whether or not these fears were rational or realistic in 1861 is a moot point because leading secessionists believed abolitionism was a threat. To say that the Civil War and not abolitionism ended slavery in the United States, as Grinspan suggests, is to imply that abolitionism did little to influence the outbreak of war in the first place. This claim is clearly mistaken if we are to take the various Declarations of Secession seriously.

Were the goals of abolition fully achieved prior to the Civil War? No, far from it. But did that make the movement a failure? Of course not. Abolitionism was an ongoing struggle with limited results prior to the Civil War. The movement ultimately succeeded because a range of circumstances and contingencies that included the Union military, the slaves themselves, the Emancipation Proclamation, Abraham Lincoln, Congress, the act of Confederate secession, and yes, the abolitionist movement, all contain a degree of agency in pushing emancipation forward. I don’t doubt that the Union military’s presence in Confederate territory emboldened slaves to run away to their lines and hasten the institution’s demise during the war, and the 13th amendment certainly helped put an end to slavery in 1865. But underlying all of these efforts was an eventual acknowledgement that abolition was right for the country moving forward, and the abolitionists who spoke out against slavery in the years before the war deserve a degree of credit for their efforts.