Lesson of the Hour: Introduction
By Noel Ignatiev
During the winter of 1860−61, as South Carolina and other states responded to Lincoln’s election by announcing their intention to secede, the great Abolitionist Wendell Phillips walked the streets of Boston under threat of attack from mobs that blamed the Abolitionists for the breakup of the Union. Barely one year later, when Phillips traveled to Washington, the Vice President of the United States welcomed him to the Senate chamber, the Speaker of the House invited him to dinner, and the President received him as a guest at the White House. What brought about the change in Phillips’ standing, from a member of a hated and isolated sect to an honored tribune?
Although slaves and others had opposed slavery from its inception, the Abolitionist Movement entered a new phase on January 1, 1831, when William Lloyd Garrison began publishing the Liberator with the now-famous declaration:
I am aware that many object to the severity of my language; but is there not cause for severity? I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice. On this subject I do not wish to think, or speak, or write, with moderation. No! No! Tell a man whose house is on fire to give a moderate alarm; tell him to moderately rescue his wife from the hands of the ravisher; tell the mother to gradually extricate her babe from the fire into which it has fallen; but urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present! I am in earnest. I will not equivocate—I will not excuse—I will not retreat a single inch—AND I WILL BE HEARD.
The Liberator began at a low point of the antislavery movement. The antislavery sentiment of the Revolutionary Period had been stifled by the country’s growing dependence on cotton and the general unwillingness of its citizens to imagine it with a large free black population. The Constitution placed slavery in the states beyond the reach of federal legislation, slaveholders controlled the executive and judicial branches and half the Senate. Free Negroes lost what political and civil rights they had, were driven out of trades they once held, and became the target of mobs seeking to reduce all those of African descent to the status of slaves.
If respectable antislavery sentiment had lessened, there were developments among slaves and free Negroes that would later be seen as pointing to a turn. In 1829 David Walker, a North Carolina-born free Negro living in Boston, published his Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World, which called openly for slave insurrection. It quickly went through three editions, and was thought so seditious that possession of it became a crime in several slave states. The unrest reached its peak in 1831 with the rebellion in Virginia led by Nat Turner.
Turner’s rebellion was suppressed, and was followed by a wave of repression in the slave states, directed against both the slaves and the free black population. The period of uprisings came to an end, as slaves concluded that they could not succeed and turned their attention inward, toward developing a culture of survival and resistance.
The receding of the hope of revolt also led many slaves to flee the plantation, and intensified repression led many free Negroes to leave the South. As more black people came north, they began to develop new institutions, including churches, schools, fraternal organizations, newspapers, conventions, and especially the underground railroad (the most important of all the railroads to which the nation owes its existence). This black population became the base of Abolitionism. Negroes made up three hundred of the first four hundred subscribers to the Liberator, and were a majority of its readers throughout the life of the paper. As C.L.R. James wrote,
The revolting slave, the persecuted free Negro, and the New England intellectual had got together and forced the nation to face the slavery question. When Garrison wrote, “I will be heard,” he was not being rhetorical. That was the first problem: to be heard. After Turner’s revolt that problem was solved for Garrison.
The same issue of the Liberator that carried Garrison’s prediction that he would be heard also carried his apology to the slaves for having previously supported the “pernicious” doctrine of gradual emancipation. Here he was expressing the central tenet of Abolitionism—immediate, unconditional, uncompensated emancipation. By taking an absolute position, the Abolitionists were making their stand on the grounds of morality rather than expediency. It was not, as some have charged, that they ruled out the possibility of partial measures or compromise but that they thought it necessary to establish the movement on a firm foundation: slavery was evil and must be destroyed.
The Abolitionists also stood for full equal rights for the Negro. It must be remembered that American slavery was racial slavery, a point not as obvious as it might appear. Unlike the situation in the West Indies, for instance, where people who in the U.S. would have been considered “black” were enlisted in policing the slaves, in the U.S. slavery rested solely on the support of those called “white,” giving rise to a system of color caste in which the lowliest of “whites” enjoyed a status superior to that of the most exalted of “blacks.” In response, free persons of color by and large identified their own cause with that of the slave, an alignment quite different from that which prevailed in, say, Saint Domingue or Jamaica. Another consequence was that the mass of “whites,” with nothing but their color to distinguish them from the slaves, were infected with racial hatred beyond any known elsewhere. By and large Americans were uneasy with slavery. But most found it easier to tolerate slavery than to imagine themselves living alongside large numbers of free Negroes. (That, of course, was Jefferson’s dilemma.) Equal rights for all, therefore, was not merely an ideal statement but the answer to the main argument against abolition, the supposed unassimilability of the Negro. For the Abolitionists the two demands were inseparable. As Paul Goodman notes in his study of Abolitionist racial attitudes, in linking the fight against slavery with the struggle for civil, legal, and social equality between black and white, the Abolitionists were following the lead of David Walker and other early black leaders who had set out, in defiance of the American assumption that race prejudice was natural and insurmountable, to win over “a small but prophetic vanguard of white men and women.” The Abolitionists’ unqualified commitment to emancipation defined them as revolutionary, and led them to various positions that placed them in conflict with all those who sought to make the movement respectable.
The first expression of the Abolitionists’ revolutionary approach was Garrison’s campaign against the American Colonization Society, which promoted manumission for slaves with compensation to their owners and their deportation to Liberia. Founded fifteen years earlier, the ACS was supported by many who disliked slavery and who thought to solve thereby what they called the problem of the free Negro in their midst. Its underlying premise was the inability of “whites” and free Negroes to live together, either because of the ineradicable prejudices of the former or the inherent inferiority of the latter. Having been educated by free black people, who insisted on their right to share in the country they had helped build, Garrison exposed colonization as a way of postponing emancipation forever, and moreover as a scheme of the slaveholders to rid the country of their most dangerous opponents, the free Negroes. Within two years he succeeded in discrediting it as a legitimate current in antislavery ranks.
The first group to organize on Garrisonian principles was the New England Anti-Slavery Society, founded in 1832. A year later there were enough Abolitionists in New England to permit the formation of state societies. In December of 1833, delegates from nine states met in Philadelphia and founded the American Anti-Slavery Society, with a Declaration of Sentiments written by Garrison. The first annual convention of the AASS took place in New York in May 1834. Along with local and regional societies, there were organizations for women, youth, and college students. By 1838, there were 1,350 societies in the national organization, with a membership of about 250,000. The greatest strength was in New York, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Ohio.
The work of the societies revolved around the efforts to petition Congress for the abolition of slavery. The aim was to force the issue onto the national agenda and in the process “abolitionize” public opinion. In 1837 they collected over 400,000 signatures. The societies fielded agents, who traveled throughout the free states, speaking publicly, selling literature, and helping to form new societies. In 1833 the AASS hired eleven agents. They were supported by dues and contributions from members and sympathizers and money raised at fairs, where crafts of various sorts, mostly made by female members, were sold. Garrison and other well-known spokesmen typically spoke to crowds of two thousand or more, and Abolitionist literature, including the Liberator and other newspapers and pamphlets, sold widely.
The House of Representatives responded to Abolitionist agitation by refusing to receive petitions relating to slavery, and the postal service responded by banning antislavery newspapers and pamphlets from Southern mail. The unofficial response was, if anything, even more hostile. In New York, Philadelphia, and almost every other city in the “free” states, mobs broke up Abolitionist meeting and attacked their halls. Sometimes the violence spilled over into attacks against free Negroes; sometimes it went the other way, with attacks beginning against the black community leading to attacks on the homes of well-known Abolitionists. The first time Phillips saw Garrison, in 1835, the editor was being dragged by a rope through the streets of Boston by a mob determined to lynch him. In 1837 Elijah Lovejoy was killed in Alton, Illinois, while defending his press from a mob that had destroyed it twice before. In 1838 a mob burned Pennsylvania Hall in Philadelphia, which the Abolitionists had just built by subscription.
The mobs united native-born and immigrants, brought laborers and apprentices together with merchants and bankers. The gentry were motivated by direct ties to the slave system; the proletarians feared that the ending of slavery would place them on the same level as the Negroes.
It is important to note that most people in the north—probably not less than seventy percent—opposed slavery. If some way could have been found to guarantee the merchants their profits and to guarantee the laborers that the freed slaves would all remain in the cotton fields, it is likely that their natural human sympathies would have come into play. But they knew better, and so did the Abolitionists, who insisted on linking the struggle for an end to slavery with the demand for equal rights for the Negro everywhere.
Not only did they link the demands programmatically, they sought to embody them in practice. It has been charged—often by persons seeking to discredit the movement—that white Abolitionists were no different from other white Americans in their feelings of superiority and condescension toward black folk. If so, they surely fooled their opponents at the time, who held it as one of their greatest crimes that they refused to observe the color line.
By 1838 some people in the Movement and outside of it were beginning to question its direction. If the Movement were to succeed, they reasoned, it would have to win a majority, and to do that it would have to shed its extremist image. Differences developed over political action, and over how Abolitionism should present itself to the public.
The Abolitionists had always been political. They regularly interrogated candidates for public office as to their views on the internal slave trade and slavery in the District of Columbia, and called upon their supporters to vote accordingly. They sought to repeal the fugitive slave laws, and to pass personal liberty laws. The question now came up, should they launch a new political party? Garrison opposed it, first, because he opposed all government in principle; second, because candidates would be required to swear an oath of loyalty to the Constitution, which he believed upheld slavery; third, because the need to gather votes would require the Abolitionists to dilute their program; and fourth, because he thought it would be ineffective. If, he argued, the new party limited itself to the slavery question, it would not meet the needs of voters who had other concerns; if it adopted positions on a broad range of issues, it would antagonize some portion of voters who agreed with it on slavery. Far better, he reasoned, for those who believed in voting, to demand of all candidates that they use their offices to oppose slavery.
The political-action controversy took the form of a dispute over whether the Constitution was a proslavery document; not merely a dispute over the meaning of a text, the debate reflected the difference between the revolutionary and the reformer. Those most aware of the inherent limitations of the electoral system sided with Garrison, but the lines between the two sides were not always the same: many who did not share his principled opposition to government nevertheless opposed forming a new party.
Differences also broke out over the proper attitude toward religion and the churches. Garrison was an antisabbatarian and a believer in human perfectibility (and hence rejected the doctrine of original sin). He also denied the divine authority of the scriptures. A number of clergymen in the Movement objected to these views, but more important they found embarrassing his and some of his associates’ regular denunciations of the sects as complicit with slavery. Garrison replied that his views were his own, that he did not attribute them to the Movement, but that he was determined to expose and break up all the institutions that upheld the slave system.
The controversy came to a head over what was then called the “Woman Question.” In the 1830s, two sisters from South Carolina, Sarah and Angelina Grimke, former slaveholders revolted by the degradation of female slaves, began speaking in the north against slavery, at first to women only, and then to “mixed” audiences. Soon a number of women began to assume responsibility in Abolitionist circles, both as behind-the-scenes organizers and as public speakers. Women speaking in public to “promiscuous” audiences and exercising leadership in “mixed” groups provoked widespread hostility. Garrison, as might be expected, was an advocate of full equality for women: political, civil, social, and sexual. As might also be expected, some within the Movement noted the disfavor it brought and demanded that the Anti-Slavery Society repudiate his views and adopt traditional restrictions on women’s public role. In a replay of the dispute over religion, Garrison insisted that his views were his own, and he did not attribute them to the Movement as a whole. On one point, however, he would not budge: the right of women to speak at Abolitionist meetings and take part in the Movement as full equals. At the 1840 World Anti-Slavery Congress in London, female delegates from the U.S. were denied their seats. In protest, Garrison sat with them in the balcony. At the next annual convention of the AASS, after failing to capture the Society, a minority walked out, forming another group, the “American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society.” The minority included a number of prominent clergymen and several of the Society’s biggest financial supporters. The A&F lasted only about a year, but the membership in the AASS shrunk to 60,000.
At bottom, the dispute turned over whether Abolitionism was revolutionary, and whether the Movement should try to make itself respectable. By and large, those who believed that slavery was a symptom of a fundamentally sick society took one side, while those who considered it an aberration in an otherwise healthy organism the other. The “woman question” served as the test of commitment to the goal (in much the same way anticommunism” did in the 1950s). When, shortly after the Convention, a correspondent asked about the recent “split” among the Abolitionists, Garrison replied, there is no split, merely some former Abolitionists who have gone off in another direction. The Abolitionists, he said, remained united.
By no means all of those who remained in the AASS agreed with Garrison on all questions, but they agreed that the Society itself would determine its own positions, and not pressure from outsiders. Nor did they limit themselves to work within the AASS; many took part in other activities, including challenges to segregation, setting up schools for black children, and working with the Underground Railroad and the vigilance committees that aided fugitive slaves. The fugitive slave issue was crucial to the development of antislavery feeling, because it embodied in a tangible way the complicity of the north with slavery. In the work with fugitive slaves, free Negroes took the lead.
Shortly after the 1840 convention the AASS, denouncing the Constitution as a “covenant with death,” began a campaign to get the north to secede from the Union. This was not a quixotic effort to remain uncontaminated by association with slavery, but the expression of a conscious strategy. The Abolitionists took seriously their assertion that the north, through its military backing, was the true upholder of slavery. By taking it out of the Union, they hoped to free it from the need to enforce the Fugitive Slave Law. “All the slave asks of us,” declared Phillips, “is to stand out of his way, withdraw our pledge to keep the peace on the plantation; withdraw our pledge to return him,… and he will right himself.” The slogan “No Union with Slaveholders” translated itself at every Abolitionist rally into a pledge never to send back the fugitive slave who set foot on free territory. The Abolitionists did not limit themselves to agitation; whenever possible they tried to rescue fugitives from the law. Phillips wrote in 1851:
The long evening sessions—debates about secret escapes—plans to evade where we can’t resist—the door watched that no spy may enter—the whispering consultations of the morning—some putting property out of their hands, planning to incur penalties, and planning also that, in case of connection, the Government may get nothing from them—the doing, and answering no questions—intimates forbearing to ask the knowledge which it may be dangerous to have—all remind me of those foreign scenes which have been hitherto known to us, transatlantic republicans, only in books.
When Garrison stood up at a public meeting on the Fourth of July, 1854 and burned the Constitution, he was making more than a symbolic gesture. He was seeking to resist official authority, not merely oppose it, and to thwart its operation. In the twentieth century it would become known as a strategy of dual power.
The Abolitionists have often been described as pacifists, and formally many were, but the term conceals more than it reveals. As C.L.R. James noted, “They took part in the rescue of fugitive slaves, not only by underground methods but in open defiance of all authority,” and “the violence of the polemic, the attack without bounds upon everything that stood in the way, the unceasing denunciations of slave property, the government, the constitution, the laws, the church was in itself a repudiation of pacifism.” When, in 1849, Frederick Douglass made a speech calling for slave insurrection, the Liberator published it in full. When antislavery forces sent arms to free-state settlers in Kansas, Garrison asked, “If such men are deserving of generous sympathy, and ought to be supplied with arms, are not the crushed and bleeding slaves at the South a million times more deserving of pity and succor? Why not, first of all, take measures to furnish them with Sharp’s rifles?” At a meeting after the death of John Brown, Garrison declared himself still a non-resistant, and asked how many others were in the audience of three thousand. Only one hand went up. Garrison then replied, “as a peace man—an ‘ultra’ peace man—I am prepared to say: ‘Success to every slave insurrection at the South, and in every slave country.’” Those were strange words for a pacifist. Above all, the Abolitionists were revolutionaries. Again quoting James, they were willing
to tear up by the roots the foundation of the Southern economy and society, wreck Northern commerce, and disrupt the Union irretrievably… They renounced all traditional politics… They openly hoped for the defeat of their own country in the Mexican War… They preached and practiced Negro equality. They endorsed and fought for the equality of women…
Like their Puritan ancestors—like all revolutionaries—they were intolerant. As James said, “They hated and mercilessly excoriated all who had the slightest touch with slavery… They argued over every comma of their doctrine with the utmost pertinacity and unyieldingness.” “Sincerity,” said Phillips, “is no shield for any man from the criticism of his fellow-laborers.” They sought no rewards, counting their wages in beatings, stonings, and mobbings. On one occasion when the Mayor of Boston begged a meeting of Abolitionist women to disband because he was unable to protect them from a mob, Maria Weston Chapman, probably the person most responsible for directing the day-to-day work of the movement, replied, “If this is the last bulwark of freedom, we may as well die here as elsewhere.” On another occasion Phillips, ignoring a barrage of hurled missiles, leaned forward and began speaking softly to the journalists in the first rows, thus quieting the howling mob that had drowned out his voice. James summed them up as a “clearly recognizable replica of the early Christians, the Puritans, and later the early Bolsheviks.”
Abolitionism, it has been shown, took shape not in direct opposition to slaveholders and overt proslavery ideas but to moderate elements within the antislavery camp.
As for those whom Garrison called “former Abolitionists,” they mostly went into electoral politics, forming the Liberty Party in time for the 1840 elections. When that Party drew fewer votes than the number of members of the A&F, they found themselves under pressure to discard various planks from its platform. Having freed themselves from the taint of association with women’s rights, most had little difficulty abandoning the commitment to racial equality (a vote-loser if ever there was). Next to go was the demand for complete abolition, since that could not be accomplished constitutionally. They also rejected as incendiary any public support for the efforts of slaves to run away or rebel. That left the internal slave trade and slavery in the District of Columbia, and on these issues the Party took its stand. Salmon Chase, Liberty Party leader in Ohio, and later Secretary of the Treasury and Justice of the Supreme Court, distinguished between abolition, which “seeks to abolish slavery everywhere,” and antislavery, which aims at reducing the slaveholders’ power over the federal government. He called upon the Party to reject the abolitionist label on the grounds that “while abolition is not properly speaking a political object, antislavery is.” To their credit, some of the so-called political abolitionists resisted the pressures in that direction, and some of them performed creditable work privately, including providing arms to those willing to use them. But of those public men—and of course they had to be men—who deserted the AASS, their names, with one exception, have been forgotten by all but specialists; the exception is Frederick Douglass, and sadly it must be admitted that he, too, wavered after he ceased to identify himself as a Garrisonian.
For several years the contest between pro- and antislavery forces stood still, until in the mid-1840s President Polk began beating the drums for war with Mexico. Americans were divided: most welcomed the opportunity to expand the country; many, however, saw the war as a scheme to gain new territory for slavery, and even the young Illinois Congressman, Abraham Lincoln, serving his first and only term, opposed it. In August 1846, only three months after the start of the War, Rep. David Wilmot, Democrat from Pennsylvania, introduced an amendment to the Texas annexation bill, banning slavery from any territory that might be acquired from Mexico. Wilmot’s Proviso marked the birth of the Free Soil Movement.
Free Soil was the name given to the Movement to exclude slavery from the territories. It was not “soft” abolitionism: it was the enemy of abolitionism. The young Free-Soil journalist Walt Whitman expressed its meaning clearly: “The whole matter of slavery,” he wrote, “…will be a conflict between the totality of White Labor, on the one side, and on the other, the interference and competition of Black Labor, or of bringing in colored persons on any terms.” Free-Soilers hated slavery because they hated and feared the black worker. At the same time the demand for Free-Soil disrupted the coalition that had governed the country since its birth. It ranged against the slaveholders powerful forces, including manufacturers, farmers, and craftsmen. For the first time there were elements in the country, apart from the Abolitionists, who contested the slaveholders’ dominance of the Union.
From 1846 on, slavery was the central issue in American politics. There were three main factions: the slaveholders; the Abolitionists; and those whom we shall call antislavery, who opposed the extension of slavery into the territories. The shifting relations among them shaped the course of events through the Civil War and Reconstruction; of the three, the Abolitionists were the weakest—at first.
The election of 1848 revealed divisions between pro- and anti-slaveholder factions within both major Parties, Whigs and Democrats, and saw the appearance of a new party standing for “Free Soil, Free Speech, Free Labor, and Free Men” (whites only). In 1850, Congressional leaders worked out a compromise which they hoped would bury the slavery issue. It had four provisions: (1) it outlawed the slave trade in the District of Columbia; (2) it admitted California to the Union as a free state; (3) it left slavery in the remainder of the territories taken from Mexico to the decision of the territorial legislatures; (4) it enacted a new fugitive slave law, which eliminated jury trials and placed the burden of proof on the suspected fugitive.
The Compromise of 1850 succeeded for a while in removing slavery from the national agenda, but the fugitive slave wrecked it, by making it impossible for northerners to deny their complicity with slavery. Who could forget Eliza on the ice? In 1854, Anthony Burns, a former slave living in Boston, was ordered returned to slavery. A crowd stormed the courthouse in a failed attempt to rescue him, and on the day of his delivery to the ship that was to take him back, U.S. infantry and artillery units guarded the courthouse and cleared the streets, while a large body of police, an entire brigade of the state militia, and a special armed guard of two hundred men accompanied him to the dock as a crowd of twenty thousand hissed and groaned. Stores were closed and buildings were draped in black. “An awful lot of folks turned out just to watch a colored man walk up the street,” said Burns, and one observer said, “We went to bed one night old-fashioned, conservative, Compromise Union Whigs, and waked up stark mad Abolitionists.” The pro-slavery Richmond Enquirer admitted, “One more victory like that and the South is lost.”
On the heels of the Burns case, Congress passed an Act opening Kansas to slavery, which had previously been banned there. The Act authorized the territorial legislature to decide whether Kansas would enter the Union as a free or slave state. Proslavery forces poured in to influence the elections, while land-hungry farmers from the free states also migrated there. The result was a dress rehearsal for the Civil War.
Free-staters in Kansas were opposed to the plantation system because it brought them into competition with slave labor, but they had no desire to work alongside free Negroes. They rejected Douglass’s suggestion to settle in Kansas one thousand free black families, who would constitute a “wall of fire” against slavery there. But the necessities of war compelled them to make common cause with the Abolitionists, and it was in Kansas that for the first time John Brown’s name became known.
John Brown was a Connecticut-born, Ohio-raised, “pitch-pine Yankee,” descendant of Mayflower stock (some today might call him a “WASP”) who, after long association with black people, decided at the age of fifty to devote the remainder of his life to the abolition of slavery. When conflict broke out in Kansas, he went there with his sons to take part. Near Pottawatomie Creek he killed five proslavery settlers in retaliation for massacres that had been carried out earlier against free-staters, thus beginning a guerilla war that lasted for two years and resulted in a victory for free-state forces. While free-staters had welcomed Brown’s intervention in the Kansas War, they were also glad to see him go, and the first constitution of the state barred free Negroes from emigrating there. Before retiring from Kansas, Brown crossed with his men into Missouri, where he attacked two plantations, liberating eleven slaves whom he then accompanied on a thousand-mile exodus to Canada, with the U.S. Army in pursuit.
The Kansas conflict gave rise to the Republican Party. Like its Free-Soil predecessor, the Republican Party sought to take federal power out of the hands of the slaveholders and prevent the expansion of slavery into the territories. It did not, however, oppose slavery, still less did it advocate rights for free Negroes; in fact it billed itself as the defender of white labor and denounced the Democrats as the “nigger party,” since the Democrats stood for the unrestricted expansion of slavery.
The country was moving toward Civil War. In 1856 a Southern Congressman assaulted Republican Senator Charles Sumner with a heavy metal cane on the senate floor, nearly killing him. In 1857 the Supreme Court ruled in the Dred Scott Case that Congress had no power to prohibit slavery anywhere, by implication declaring unconstitutional the main plank in the Republican platform. The slaveholders began agitating to legalize the slave trade, and the government in Washington declared its interest in annexing Cuba, where slavery still existed. The Republican Party grew as more and more people in the north began to resent the encroachments of the slaveholders.
And then on October 16, 1859, John Brown and a small band of followers, black and white, attacked the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. What was his aim? Many at the time and since have thought that the raid was to be the signal for a general slave uprising, but Brown denied it. W.E.B. Du Bois suggests that his aim was to seize arms and withdraw into the surrounding hills, from which he would conduct guerilla warfare against the slave system, gradually attracting slaves and others to his ranks and establishing a liberated zone, much like the maroon republics that were widespread in the West Indies and Brazil. The attack on Harpers Ferry was not an aberration but the logical implementation of the abolitionist strategy.
Brown and his men captured the arsenal, but instead of withdrawing in a timely fashion, they allowed the government time to bring in additional troops, and most, including Brown himself, were taken. If it failed to accomplish its military objective, the raid succeeded beyond expectations in other ways. For the six weeks between the raid and his hanging on December 2, Brown was the focus of national attention. Millions, including many who thought his act ill-advised, cheered his courage and acknowledged sympathy for his goal. A popular writer, Lydia Maria Child, offered to go to Virginia to nurse him. The wife of a Senator from Virginia undertook to engage Child in a debate on the merits of the northern and southern systems. Attempting to show the ties of affection between slaves and masters, she referred to the custom among plantation mistresses of nursing their slaves through childbirth and illness. Child replied that in New England as well the more privileged women customarily assisted the less privileged; the difference was that “after we have helped the mothers, we do not sell the babies.” The exchange was reprinted in papers across the country.
The defenders of slavery were routed; Thoreau declared Brown the reincarnation of a seventeenth-century Puritan hero; Emerson said his hanging would make the gallows as glorious as the cross. As usual, Wendell Phillips saw farthest. In a speech at Brown’s graveside on December 8, he said Brown had
abolished slavery in Virginia. You may say this is too much…. History will date Virginia Emancipation from Harper’s Ferry. True, the slave is still there. So, when the tempest uproots a pine on your hills, it looks green for months—a year or two. Still, it is timber, not a tree.
Brown, said Phillips, “startled the South into madness.” The slaveholders reacted with fury to the raid: they imposed a boycott on northern manufactures, demanded new concessions from the government in Washington, and began preparing for war.
When they sought to portray Brown as a representative of northern opinion, southern leaders were wrong; he represented only a small and isolated minority. But they were also right, for he expressed the hopes that still persisted in the populace despite decades of cringing before the slaveholders. The South did not fear John Brown and his small band of followers, but rather his soul that would go marching on, though his body lay a mould’rin’ in the grave. When the South sought to bully northern opinion, it did so not out of paranoia but out of the realistic assessment that only a renewal of the national proslavery vows could save their fragile system. By the arrogance of their demands, the slaveholders compelled the people of the north to resist.
“If the telegraph speaks truth,” declared Phillips in 1860, “for the first time in our history the slave has chosen a President of the United States… John Brown was behind the curtain.” But for the national discussion touched off by Harpers Ferry, it is unlikely Lincoln would have been elected. But for Lincoln’s election, the Civil War would not have broken out when it did.
The slave system bred rebellion, which provoked repression, which led black people to leave the South, which gave rise to a black community in the north, which was the basis of Abolitionism, which engendered John Brown, who provoked Southern retaliation, which compelled northern resistance.
But there is more.
Why did the slaveholders launch the Civil War? The reason could not have been fear of having their property taken away, because the Republican platform pledged not to touch slavery where it existed. What had the slaveholders lost? Domination of the Union, which they had held throughout the century. While the Republican Party was not an abolitionist party, its electoral victory marked the passing of the presidency into the hands of a party determined to end the slaveholders’ control of the federal government. Aided by the weapon of federal patronage, that party would grow stronger, inevitably linking with the southern white opposition to the slaveholders. (Hinton Helper’s The Impending Crisis of the South was the bible of that opposition, hitherto suppressed but never extinguished.)
The war aim of the South could not have been simply secession, the formation of a separate country, as has usually been said. The war aim of the South was to reconstitute the Union on the old basis, with the protection and expansion of slavery as the avowed national purpose, with the ultimate goal being the formation of a slave republic, modeled on ancient Rome, extending from Canada to Brazil and including as its auxiliaries the agriculture, commerce, and manufacture of the north. Southern leaders made their purpose clear, as when the Confederate Secretary of War predicted that before the War ended the Stars and Bars would fly over Faneuil Hall in Boston.
Phillips hailed the outbreak of war. “All my grown-up years,” he said, “have been devoted to creating just such a crisis as that which is now upon us.” Phillips went from being an advocate of disunion to a supporter of war. There are those who interpret this shift as marking a repudiation of his former stance. They miss the point. For Phillips the issue of Union or no Union had always been contingent, a mere detail. His concern was the slave. The cornerstone of his policy had always been to take the north, or as much of it as he could manage, out of the control of the slave power, and thus bring down slavery. The outbreak of war accomplished his aim, and it made little difference to him if the separation resulted from northern secession or southern. He was ready, because he had always striven to break up a Union devoted to the defense of slavery.
Many times this winter, here and elsewhere, I have counseled peace⎯urged, as well as I knew how, the expediency of acknowledging a Southern Confederacy, and the peaceful separation of these thirty-four states. One of the journals announces to you that I come here this morning to retract those opinions. No, not one of them! I need them all⎯every word I have spoken this winter⎯every act of twenty-five years of my life, to make the welcome I give this war hearty and hot.
Now the task was to transform the war for the Union into an antislavery war. The first obstacle was the Republican moderates. Lincoln was elected on a platform promising to ban slavery from the territories. He took office doing everything he could to avoid war, reiterating his pledge not to touch slavery where it existed. Among his first acts was to issue an order for strict enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law. His efforts were not enough to reassure the South, and the War began, in the words of Frederick Douglass, with both sides fighting for slavery—the South to take it out of the Union, the north to keep it in.
As the north suffered loss after loss, the pressure built up to reject the policy of conciliation. Over the winter of 1861−62, five million people heard Phillips denounce Lincoln or read his speeches. Gradually, under the pressure of events, Lincoln moved in Phillips’s direction. The shift was embodied in three measures: the Emancipation Proclamation, the enlistment of black soldiers, and the appointment of Grant as head of the Union Armies. As Marx noted, the war entered its revolutionary phase.
The Emancipation Proclamation actually freed no one, since it applied only to those areas of the country then in rebellion, that is, to those areas of the country where it could not be enforced. But it was important as a statement of purpose, and it encouraged what would become a general strike of black and white labor against the Confederacy. The enlistment of black soldiers marked the turning point. By the end of the War, over 200,000 had served in the Union forces; Lincoln declared that they meant the difference between victory and defeat. Years later, Douglass recorded the conversation he had with Lincoln shortly after the Emancipation Proclamation:
I agreed to undertake the organizing of a band of scouts, composed of colored men, whose business should be somewhat after the original plan of John Brown, to go into the rebel states, beyond the lines of our armies, and carry the news of emancipation, and urge the slaves to come within our boundaries.
And that is of course what happened, as Grant, the inventor of modern warfare, advanced into the South, the slaves rallied to his banner, and the Confederacy collapsed. It was not the north that freed the slaves, but rather the slaves and free Negroes who freed the country from the domination of the slave system. Each step led inexorably to the next: southern land-greed, Lincoln’s victory, secession, war⎯and the overthrow of slavery.
The course of events can never be predicted in other than the broadest outline, but in the essentials history followed the path charted by the abolitionists. As they foresaw, it was necessary to break up the Union in order to reconstitute it without slavery. More than that: if by 1863 millions were marching through the land singing (to the tune of “John Brown’s Body”) “As He died to make men holy let us fight to make men free,” and if (as Du Bois said) for a shining moment after the War the majority of Americans believed in the humanity of the Negro, it was not because the Abolitionists won them over (though they surely tried, and may even have thought that that was what they were doing). It was because their actions brought about a new situation, which led millions to act and think in new ways.
Have ever revolutionaries been more thoroughly vindicated by events? Have ever revolutionaries had a greater impact on events?
History has not been kind to the Abolitionists. Even those who profess to admire them for their dedication to the cause of freedom most often dismiss them as romantics who had little or no effect. (The IWW gets the same treatment.) Yet how could anyone in possession of the facts deny the Abolitionists their place as shapers of history? To appropriate Du Bois’s phrase used in another context, “It is only the blindspot in the eyes of America and its historians…”
The more I study the Civil War and Reconstruction, the more I am confirmed in the belief (derived from Du Bois) that, taken together, they represent a revolutionary upheaval as great as any. Slavery was not abolished through constitutional process but through war and revolution, and the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments merely ratified what had already been achieved on the battlefield. Not the English Revolution of the seventeenth century nor the French of the eighteenth involved such great masses of people nor such tremendous armies as did the American Civil War; neither the Russian nor the Spanish Revolution of the twentieth took people from such a low state and hurled them so close to power as did the revolution that took four million people who had been property and turned them overnight into soldiers, citizens, voters, and officeholders. Only the Haitian Revolution of the eighteenth century and the Chinese Revolution of the twentieth compare with the American experience in breadth and depth, and in neither case did the downtrodden classes come as close to power for so long as did American slaves after the Civil War.
Phillips was born in Boston in 1811, “the child of six generations of Puritans.” He attended Harvard College and Harvard Law School. He was a thorough Yankee; like that other New Englander, W.E.B. Du Bois, he did not equate “Yankee” and “white”:
Some men say they would view this war as white men. I condescend to no such narrowness. I view it as an American citizen, proud to be the citizen of an empire that knows neither black nor white, neither Saxon nor Indian, but holds an equal scepter over all.
Although Garrison is the most widely known of the abolitionists, and is rightly regarded as the founder, within ten years of Phillips’s joining he was the real leader of the movement. It is doubtful whether he ever shared Garrison’s absolute commitment to non-resistance. Yet all his life he referred to himself as a “Garrisonian.” His modesty in this regard reminds me of no one more than Malcolm X, who until the last year of his life was content to describe himself as a devoted follower of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad.
While continuing after the Civil War to fight for the rights of freed people and women, he expanded his activities to include the cause of the wage laborer. As a Labor Reform candidate for Governor in 1870 (the only time he allowed his name to be put up for political office), he resisted the anti-Chinese campaign that had gained the support of many self-proclaimed friends of labor. He joined the dreaded “International,” and spoke out in defense of the Paris Commune. Summarizing his career, he said he had “worked 40 years, served in 20 movements and been kicked out of all of them.” He died in 1884. His death was announced on the floor of the Senate with the words, “Wendell Phillips of America is dead in Boston.”
This little book is dedicated to the new abolitionists.
Boston, August 2001