Fanatical and Intransigent Abolitionists

The antebellum abolitionists saw in majority rule the basis of power – that “might makes right” and through their higher law fiction new laws could be manufactured that would impose punishment on those they disliked. It should be noted that the author below mentions “the free States” as many historians do, but should rightly be identified as “former slave States.”

Bernhard Thuersam,


Fanatical and Intransigent Abolitionists

“The abolitionist, sharing the transcendentalist’s refusal to accept the dictum vox populi vox dei, had to carry that refusal one step further: public opinion at any given time before the establishment of God’s kingdom on earth could never be the voice of God, and if it were, the reformer would lose his vocation. The voice of the reforming minority was the voice of God.

But the majority was also teachable; the reformer was God’s instrument to teach the nation the truth and the vanguard in its march to a better social order. [T]he abolitionist would insist that truth is not ascertained by public opinion polls, and he would point out that the majority in the 1830s and 1840s would vote against abolition of slavery, against prohibition (a few abolitionists would too), for capital punishment, and for Jim Crow laws in the free States.

The laws, customs, even the Constitution, reflecting the general will in the unregenerate state, could not be the authority on which the reformer based his claim to the role of teacher. His authority to a higher law as embodied in the Bible and conveniently set forth, in part, in the first sentence of the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence. The corrupt majority prevailed not because it was right, but because it could enforce its will. “Might makes right” was in the abolitionist’s view logically deducible from the principle of majority rule.

It follows that the reforming minority, while necessary, must always be unpopular. As Wendell Phillips put it, when explaining why even abolitionists who employed conciliatory and moderate language “found every man’s hand against them”: “our unpopularity is no fault of ours, but flows necessarily and unavoidably from our position.” [Those abolitionists who carried this logic to its conclusion would suggest . . . that public acceptance would be a sign that their duty was to move on to a new unpopular position.]

Their refusal to water down their “visionary” slogan was, in their eyes, eminently practical, much more so than the course of the antislavery senators and congressmen who often wrote letters to abolitionist leaders justifying their adaptation of antislavery demands to what was attainable.

The abolitionist, while criticizing such compromises, would insist that his own intransigence made favorable compromises possible. He might have stated his position thus: If politics is the art of the possible, agitation is the art of the desirable. For one thing, [this] 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.”

(Means and Ends in American Abolitionism, Aileen S. Kraditor, Pantheon Books, 1967, pp. 25-28)

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