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.


Challenges with Interpreting Northern Views Towards Slavery

Public historians interpreting nineteenth century United States history are tasked with facilitating discussions with their audiences about a wide range of unique and challenging historical topics. Scholars in recent years have emphasized the importance of discussing slavery, race, gender, economic inequality, and politics at public history sites rather than focusing exclusively on great white men, fancy furniture pieces, or anecdotal legends with dubious historical evidence. While some leaders of historic homes, museums, and other cultural institutions are undoubtedly hesitant to have their interpreters take on these contentious (and inherently political) topics, I believe that interpreters must be ready and willing to discuss them not because the cultural demographics of the U.S. are changing, but because we have an obligation to our audiences to share inclusive narratives that are historically accurate.

One of the biggest challenges I face as an interpreter lies in convincing my audiences that the historical legacies of slavery and racism in the United States are not problems unique to the South. Indeed, slavery thrived in North America for nearly 250 years and racism persists in our society today precisely because the entire nation was and continues to be complicit in accepting these wrongs as standard social practices. Harvard University, for example, had slaveholding presidents who had no qualms about selling and trading slaves for profit during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. New England textile factories thrived during the antebellum era thanks to the labors of enslaved people in the South who picked the cotton they used to manufacture their products. And countless Northern politicians like Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan defended slavery as a constitutionally sound practice and actively courted the votes of slaveholders throughout their careers.

Many Southern cultural institutions have actively worked towards the creation of more inclusive narratives that acknowledge the role of enslaved people in American society. Have Northern cultural institutions done the same? Some institutions like the New York Historical Society have created exhibits interpreting slavery in Northern states (some of the exhibit materials from the NYHS exhibit “Slavery in New York” can be viewed here), but I think there room for growth and improvement. Equally important, cultural institutions all over the country face the challenge of interpreting the ways Northern states gradually abolished slavery and embraced anti-slavery opinions while tolerating its practice in the South. We can better interpret how these evolving anti-slavery views shaped the vigorous debates over slavery’s role in American society leading up to the Civil War.

Many visitors come to historic sites thinking of pro-slavery and anti-slavery beliefs in black and white terms: Southerners were racists who supported slavery while Northerners thought slavery was wrong and wanted the institution abolished. Yet this dichotomy masks the complex and contradictory ways people throughout the country opposed slavery. At White Haven I often talk about Ulysses S. Grant’s parents Hannah and Jesse Root Grant, who held anti-slavery beliefs. The evidence for these claims stems mainly from Jesse, who once worked at a tannery with John Brown and who sometimes wrote letters to the editor and op-eds for newspapers in Ohio about his opposition to slavery. None of us at the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site have seen these newspaper articles, however, nor have historians cited specific newspaper articles from Jesse in their footnotes, instead opting to cite other secondary works on Grant. Thus we are left in a serious interpretive quandary: on what grounds did the Grants’ base their anti-slavery opinions?

Anti-slavery opinions took on a wide range of justifications during the antebellum era. Some based their opposition on economic grounds, arguing that slavery degraded the value of labor by enslaving African Americans. The emerging Republican party in the 1850s argued that the abolishment of slavery would allow all laborers an opportunity to make a livable wage and someday become landowners themselves. Republicans acknowledged that slavery was legal where it already existed, but they sought to ban its extension to new Western territories.

Others based their opposition on their belief that slavery was incompatible with democratic principles. Mob violence was commonplace throughout the country during the antebellum era, and much of this violence was geared towards those who expressed opinions against slavery. When a mob in Alton, Illinois, killed the anti-slavery newspaper editor Elijah Lovejoy in 1837, some people embraced the anti-slavery cause because they feared that slaveholders and their political allies would take further measures to stifle free expression, dissenting opinions, and the right to petition against slavery. These fears became reality when Congress passed a series of “gag rules” in the 1830s limiting the right to petition or express opinions against slavery to Congress. Similar resentments towards slaveholders emerged after the passage of the Compromise of 1850, which included a fugitive slave law requiring officials in free states to return runaway slaves to their masters in the South. Many anti-slavery Northerners found this practice barbaric and resented slaveholder attempts to use the power of the federal government to dictate what Northerners should do about slavery.

Still others opposed slavery simply because they held racist views against black people. They may not have cared for slavery, but they also didn’t care about African Americans and took measures to prohibit their residence in free states. Thus states like Oregon, Illinois, Ohio, and Indiana passed constitutional provisions banning black settlement within their boundaries. Free-Soil, Whig, and Republican politicians like David Wilmot supported these measures because they protected white labor from possible competition from free blacks, exposing the racist roots of free labor ideology in the 1840s and 1850s.

It is also important to point out that abolitionists were not necessarily the same people who considered themselves anti-slavery. Abolitionists generally believed that slavery was a moral wrong and demanded black equality through equal protection laws, the right to testify in court, and the right to vote. And as I wrote in a recent essay, some abolitionists chose to avoid active political participation in arguing against slavery. Those who held anti-slavery opinions, however, often avoided abolitionist moral arguments and opposed calls for black equality, instead embracing Wilmot’s desire to protect whites. Abraham Lincoln, for example, famously argued in 1858 that the two races were inherently unequal:

I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races, that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality.

In the future, I believe the challenge of exposing audiences to these nuanced arguments within Northern anti-slavery thought will be tough but necessary for public historians studying the history of slavery and race in the United States.

Are there any places you’ve visited that discuss Northern slavery or anti-slavery opinion? I’d love to hear your feedback in the comments.


William Lloyd Garrison and the Principle of Non-Voting

William Lloyd Garrison. Photo Credit: "Declaring America," http://declaringamerica.com/garrison-john-brown-and-the-principle-of-nonresistance-1859/
William Lloyd Garrison. Photo Credit: “Declaring America,” http://declaringamerica.com/garrison-john-brown-and-the-principle-of-nonresistance-1859/

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.