Agitating for Equality Rather than Peace
Abolitionists of the Old North were agitating for equality more than the end of African slavery. Their strategy was not to compromise and find a peaceful and practical solution to the riddle; the goal of their radical Republican brethren who aided and abbetted them was to destroy the Southern economy and Southern political influence in national councils, no matter the cost in human lives and misery.
Bernhard Thuersam, Circa1865
Agitating for Equality Rather Than Peace
“To have dropped the demand for immediate emancipation because it was unrealizable at the time would have been to alter the nature of the change for which the abolitionists were agitating. That is, even those who would have gladly accepted gradual and conditional emancipation had to agitate for immediate and unconditional abolition of slavery because that demand was required by their goal of demonstrating to white Americans that Negroes were their brothers. Once the nation had been converted on that point, conditions and plans might have been made.
Before the war, they refused to be drawn into discussions on the problem that sudden emancipation might create or on “plans” for easing the transition to freedom, for implicit in such discussions, they felt, was an assumption that Negro inferiority rather than white racism would produce the problems. This would not be so if the discussions were carried on by a society free of racism but merely anxious for the change in the Negro’s status be as smooth as possible.
But among whites unready to accept the Negro as inherently their equal, any such debate would feed the prevalent prejudice and provide an anesthetic for consciences that were beginning to hurt.
This is why [William Lloyd] Garrison’s first great campaign was to discredit colonizationism; that movement diverted attention from the principle of equality and had proved an adequate salve on potential antislavery consciences. That is also why some abolitionists could not accept free-soilism as a tactic to strangle slavery to death in the Southeast; while they might recognize the practical utility of the tactic, they could not admit the legitimacy of slavery in any part of the country without denying their movement’s fundamental principle [of equality].
To criticize the agitator for not trimming his demands to the immediately realizable – that is, for not acting like a politician – is to miss the point. The demand for a change that is not politically possible does not stamp the agitator as unrealistic. For one thing, it can be useful to the political bargainer; the more extreme demand of the agitator makes the politician’s demand seem acceptable and perhaps desirable in the sense that the adversary may prefer to give up half a loaf rather than the whole. Also, the agitator helps define the value, the principle, for which the politician bargains.”
(Means and Ends in American Abolitionism, Aileen S. Kraditor, Pantheon Books, 1967, pp. 27-28)