Means and Ends in American Abolitionism: Garrison and His Critics on Strategy and Tactics, 1834-1850
Powder Keg: Northern Opposition to the Antislavery Movement, 1831-1840
Free But Not Equal: The Midwest and the Negro During the Civil War
Black Scare: The Racist Response to Emancipation and Reconstruction
From the opposite ends of American history has come impressive evidence of white racism, of both its antiquity and its intensity. Winthrop D. Jordan in White Over Black (1968) unearthed its origins in Elizabethan England and sixteenth-century Europe and traced its growth as the functional rationale of white supremacy and American identity down to 1812. The Kerner Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (1968) spelled out the disastrous consequences in the violence and riots of contemporary America. But what of the period between? Was there not, as legend has it, an interlude of virtue in the mid-nineteenth century when white Americans, inspired by the antislavery crusade, put aside their racism, rededicated themselves to their ideals of equality, and waged a heroic war for freedom and a temporarily successful campaign for racial equality? Or was the crusade itself corrupted and frustrated by a sickness endemic among the crusaders?
Answers to these questions are obscured by time and propaganda, by vested interests of racial and national pride. For one thing, the justification of the bloodiest war in our history, the sacrifice of 600,000 lives—more than the number of Americans killed in two world wars—is at stake. Answers will be slow in coming and may never be clear. From time to time, however, additional insights are provided by historians, even when they have other purposes and problems in mind.
One exceptionally illuminating source is Eileen S. Kraditor’s study of the abolitionists’ strategy and tactics, The Means and Ends of American Abolitionism. To her surprise she came out with a new and favorable revision of the prevailing interpretation of William Lloyd Garrison. She began with the received opinions, presented most recently in two able biographies of Garrison, one by John L. Thomas and the other by Walter M. Merrill, both published in 1963. As she says, whatever respect they inspire for their subject is “more than balanced by the conviction that he was bullheaded, arrogant, vindictive, and incredibly blind to some obvious truths.” For more than a generation it has been standard practice, even among the most strongly pro-abolitionist historians, to protect the reputation of the movement by disavowing Garrison’s importance or centrality in it. Dwight L. Dumond, for example, though an ardent champion of abolitionists, puts Garrison down as “insufferably arrogant” and (in italics) “a man of distinctly narrow limitations among the giants of the antislavery movement.”
Miss Kraditor does not contend that Garrison was a typical abolitionist or that he represented majority opinion on antislavery strategy. Nor does she deny his personal idiosyncracies and foibles (though she does put in a timid and not too convincing claim for his sense of humor). But she is “struck by the logical consistency of his thought on all subjects,” granted his principles, with which she finds herself usually in agreement. She admits that he changed his opinions from time to time but holds that “the changes themselves represented a logical development.” Though she does not use the terms, she sees Garrison as the “hedgehog” (in Isaiah Berlin’s sense) among the “foxes,” the man who “knows one big thing.” His big thing was that abolitionism was a radical and not a reform movement, that slavery, and the racial dogmas that justified it so thoroughly, permeated American society and government, North as well as South, that the eradication of the institution and its ideological defenses—and the racism of the latter was as important to him as slavery—was a root-and-branch operation. On that he never equivocated.
Garrison’s abolitionist opponents were reformers, not radicals. They believed in constitutional means and political strategy. They professed to be “realists” and sought to attract moderates rather than repel them by extremism and “extraneous” issues. They believed that American society, government, and institutions were fundamentally sound and that once the alien institution of slavery was removed, all would be well. Hence they were appalled at Garrison’s intransigent denunciation of the Constitution as “a covenant with death, and an agreement with hell” which “should be immediately annulled.” They deplored his demand for disunion, along with sundry “extraneous” demands such as no government, no church, and no party. Moderates believed him capable of following to its conclusion “every corollary, and every corollary of every corollary of a syllogism.” To them there were limits to logic.
To the incorrigible radical, logic has few limits. Slavery was a sin and that was that, and the only thing to do about sin was to stop sinning. Now. As for the impracticability of his demands, his answer was that politics was the art of the possible, and that his role was agitation, the art of the desirable. To ask the agitator to trim his demands for the sake of expediency was to miss the point. Garrison’s ends were much too radical for political and parliamentary means. In his opinion American society was not fundamentally sound but thoroughly corrupt, top to bottom. Down with it, root and branch. He would not trim, he would not compromise, he would not vote for corrupt politicians nor support corrupt governments and churches, and he would not temper his means to his ends.
The old Liberator will find more unqualified admirers on the contemporary scene than he would have a few years ago. But even the most hot-gospel root-and-brancher of today will have difficulties with Garrison’s rhetoric and premises. As Miss Kraditor says, “The key to Garrison’s ideology is perfectionism.” He believed implicitly in the perfectibility of man. Modern man does not. Or if he does he should have his head examined. Modern libertarians will also balk at his puritanical rigidity on morals and stimulants, all the way down to and including a cup of tea. There are numerous other difficulties, including (“I will not equivocate, I will not excuse”) those “personal idiosyncracies.” W.L.G. was a strange and difficult man.
But modern radicals will also find his abolitionist opponents hard to take in their stride. Contending that anything so evil as slavery deserved serious consideration of practical means for its elimination, they were ready to compromise with imperfection to gain their ends. Striking poses of perfectionism was not enough. As Eric Foner observes in a recent article, the antislavery men who controlled the Free Soil Party in 1852 “realized that in a society characterized by an all but universal belief in white supremacy, no political party could function effectively which included a call for equal rights (for blacks) in its national platform.” The movement that eventually democratized antislavery sentiment and made it respectable was not Garrison’s movement, for he abhorred racism as much as he did slavery. But the successful antislavery movement embraced anti-Negro followers and their prejudices and triumphed over slavery in the name of white supremacy.
Miss Kraditor appears to believe that history in a measure vindicated Garrison. After all, as she points out, it did take a revolution, a war, and a repudiation of the old Constitution, as well as some drastic shaking up of other institutions to abolish slavery. She goes further to speculate on what might have happened had the abolition movement “not weakened the moral focus of its propaganda and accepted the compromises dictated by political expediency.”
That is a legitimate subject for speculation. It is all the more interesting since recent investigations of white American attitudes toward slavery and race policy make such speculation more profitable and informed than it might otherwise have been. One such study is on the Antebellum Northwest (Middle West), the Great Plains, and Far West; a second treats New England and the Middle Atlantic states; a third deals with the Middle West during the Civil War, and two others take up the period of Emancipation and Reconstruction. Several years ago Leon Litwack opened up this field with a stimulating survey. North of Slavery (1961). The new studies get down to the particulars and the in-fighting. Only on this level is it possible to appreciate fully what the opponents of slavery and race prejudice were really up against in planning their strategy and tactics. Only thus can one assess the wisdom and the chances of success that the various policies might have had and test the claim of historical vindication for Garrison.
The thesis of Eugene H. Berwanger’s The Frontier Against Slavery is that “prejudice against Negroes was a factor in the development of antislavery feeling in the ante-bellum United States.” His study “concentrates on the ever shifting frontier regions which became free states or territories by 1860” but which were threatened at some time with the legalization of slavery. This latest investigation of “frontier influences” offers cold comfort to Frederick Jackson Turner’s hypothesis that the frontier experience was a major source and an ever rejuvenating stimulus of the democratic impulse in American life—if democracy and American life included Negro people. Without explicitly making the comparisons suggested, Berwanger lends less support to Turner’s thesis than to Tocqueville’s observation in 1835 that “the prejudice of race appears to be stronger in the states which have abolished slavery than in those where it still exists; and nowhere is it so important as in those states where servitude never has been known.”
Pro-slavery men kept up their fight for legalizing bondage in the Old Northwest until the 1830s, but by 1811 antislavery and anti-Negro forces of the Indiana territorial legislature had passed laws preventing Negroes from testifying in court against whites, excluding them from militia duty, and barring them from voting. Ohio in 1807 excluded Negroes from residence in the state unless they posted a $500 bond for good behavior. In 1813 Illinois ordered every incoming free Negro to leave the territory under a penalty of 39 lashes repeated every fifteen days until he left. The chief argument against slavery was that it would eventually produce a free Negro population. By the early 1830s all three states had adopted “almost identical statute restrictions against free Negroes.” Michigan and Iowa followed suit in their turn, and Wisconsin joined them in voting down Negro suffrage by large majorities. Anti-Negro activity intensified in the 1840s and 1850s, when Illinois and Indiana wrote harsh free Negro exclusion provisions into their Constitutions. John A. Logan of Illinois, future radical Republican leader, was the author of “the most severe anti-Negro measure passed by a free state.”
The peak of the anti-Negro movement in the Middle West coincided with the height of agitation over the slavery-expansion issue, but Mr. Berwanger’s evidence indicates that the real concern was not so much over the expansion of slavery as the migration of Negroes. David Wilmot, author of the famous “Proviso” excluding slavery from new territories avowed his object was to “preserve to free labor…of my own race and own color” those new lands. Horace Greeley declared that the unoccupied West “shall be reserved for the benefit of the white Caucasian race.” Owen Lovejoy, congressman from the “most abolitionized” district of Illinois and brother of the martyred abolitionist Elijah, denounced the idea of Negro equality. Joshua Giddings, zealous antislavery congressman from Ohio, pronounced Negroes “not the equal of white men,” and Benjamin F. Wade, another congressman of the same state and same persuasion, called Washington “a Nigger ridden place.” Lyman Trumbull, Illinois Republican leader and a close friend of Lincoln, declared that “We, the Republican Party, are a white man’s party.” And Lincoln himself was on record as being “in favor of the race to which I belong having the supreme position.”