Browsing "Abolitionists & Disunionists"

Northernizing the South

Arguably the first shots of the War Between the States were fired by Reverend Beecher’s guns in mid-1850s Kansas; John Brown’s armed attack on Virginia in 1859 was a logical result of abolitionist fanaticism. Unwilling to work toward a practical and peaceful solution to the riddle of African slavery in the United States, they plunged the country into revolution and war costing nearly a million lives.

Bernhard Thuersam, www.circa1865.org

 

Northernizing the South

“By the fall of 1856, some members of the Massachusetts aid committee, concluding that private support for the Kansas free-State settlers was not sufficient to protect them from proslavery advocates there, were urging northern State governments to intervene in the territory. [Amos Lawrence] consulted with some of his conservative friends about the idea and was told the State of Massachusetts had no constitutional authority to act in Kansas affairs.

Lawrence admitted that such an action could then only be justified upon “higher law” ground. The concept of higher law was one abolitionists were fond of invoking, and Lawrence confessed that it was a concept “which I never believed tenable, except for extreme cases, which come up once in a lifetime.”

[Lawrence] told Samuel Gridley Howe that he deemed the denial of honest elections in Kansas to be “a sufficient cause for revolution.” Lawrence hoped to avoid civil war in the territory, but if it came to that, he predicted, “it will be a contest between liberty and slavery, and it cannot last long for the slaves will not wait for its termination.” Instead, they would revolt and the uprising would spread into neighboring Missouri, toppling slavery there.

The leaders of the [New England Emigrant Aid] company made every effort to divorce themselve’s from the abolitionist camp. Rather than emphasize the evils of slavery for the slave, most of the men active in the [company] stressed the threat of slavery to northern values and institutions . . . New Englanders believed that the very future of republican government was at stake in Kansas and, furthermore, the nation.

Thus for them, Kansas became battleground between New England and Southern ways of life.   Eli Thayer, who founded the company, shared in this New England sense of mission. He hoped to keep the Emigrant Aid Company alive and to use it to promote free-labor colonies north and south of Kansas. By 1858, he was even proposing to “New Englandize” Central America . . . “we [will] send steam engines sir, which are the greatest apostles of liberty that this country has ever seen.”

[At] . . . the company’s annual meeting in 1856 he raised the possibility of colonizing Virginia . . . and in 1857 settled some northerners in western Virginia, near the Ohio River. By such means, Thayer proposed to “Northernize the South.”   [Lawrence]. . . preferred to secure the western territories for freedom and let the superiority of the northern economic system eventually transform the South. Until then, the Southerners should be left alone to bear responsibility for owning slaves; “it is not for us who imported their ancestors to complain.”

(Cotton and Capital, Boston Businessmen and Anti-Slavery Reform, Richard H. Abbott, UMass Press, 1991, pp. 42-47)

 

Expecting Unending Federal Interference

In no way was the North a monolithic unit against the American South during the War, and many the Northern Democratic party criticized Lincoln’s policy’s though at the risk of imprisonment. Though the abolition of slavery was a noble effort, they saw free government as more precious.

Bernhard Thuersam, www.circa1865.org

 

Expecting Unending Federal Interference

“[“Samuel “Sunset”] . . . Cox concluded once again that the purpose of the war was being perverted; the Union soldiers had been deceived, for “they never went into a crusade for abolition.” He pronounced [The Freedman’s Bureau] bill “sweeping and revolutionary” in its effect since “it begins a policy for this Federal Government of limited and express powers, so latitudinarian that the whole system is changed” into a centralized, unitary government, operating “by edict and bayonet, by sham election and juggling proclamation.” [He said] The way to peace was to “restore the Union through compromise” not by “military governors for rebellious provinces.”

As reports reached Washington that Southerners were freeing their slaves for use in the army, it was clear that the end of slavery would not be a bar to negotiations for a restored Union. So on January 21, 1865, as Cox recorded later, “I fully intended . . . to cast my vote for the amendment.” He had explained his position at length several weeks earlier.

Conceding the power to amend the Constitution to abolish slavery . . . Cox preferred to leave the question “to the States individually.” He had urged a policy of non-intervention by the government in the slave question ever since “I first came to this Congress.” Slavery “is to me the most repugnant of all human institutions,” but the principle of “self-government” by the States over their own affairs “was even more precious than the end of human bondage,” for, if the federal government could intervene in this matter, then federal interference could be expected in all domestic matters.

Most important of all, however, was the Union. If peace with Union could be achieved “by the abolition of slavery, I would vote for it.” But if abolition “is an obstacle in the way of restoring the Union,” as Cox felt it was at the moment . . . then he would vote against it.”

(“Sunset” Cox, Irrepressible Democrat, David Lindsey, Wayne State University Press, 1959, pp. 91-94)

 

Freedmen Fleeing Northern Race Prejudice

To quell the fears of Northerners who feared emancipated slaves flooding their way in search of employment and wages, Northern leaders began advancing interesting theories. Giving the freedmen political control of the defeated South would “drain the northern Negroes back to the South” as they fled the race prejudice common in the North. Lincoln and other Republicans advanced ideas of colonization; Grant as president gave serious thought to deporting freedmen to Haiti.

Bernhard Thuersam, www.circa1865.org

 

Freedmen Fleeing Northern Race Prejudice

“As the war for the union began to take on the character of a war for freedom, northern attitudes toward the Negro paradoxically began to harden rather than soften. This hardening process was especially prominent in the northwestern or middle western States where the old fear of Negro invasion was intensified by apprehensions that once the millions of slaves below the Ohio River were freed they would push northward – this time by the thousands and tens of thousands, perhaps in mass exodus, instead of in driblets of one or two who came furtively as fugitive slaves.

The prospect of Negro immigration, Negro neighbors, and Negro competition filled the whites with alarm, and their spokesmen voiced their fears with great candor. “There is,” [Illinois Senator] Lyman Trumbull told the Senate, in April, 1862, “a very great aversion in the West – I know it to be so in my State – against having free Negroes come among us.”

And about the same time [Senator] John Sherman, who was to give his name to the Radical Reconstruction Act five years later, told Congress that in Ohio “we do not like negroes. We do not disguise our dislike. As my friend from Indiana [Congressman Joseph A. Wright] said yesterday, the whole people of the northwestern States are, for reasons correct or not, opposed to having many Negroes among them and the principle or prejudice has been engrafted in the legislation of nearly all the northwestern States.”

So powerful was this anti-Negro feeling that it almost overwhelmed antislavery feeling and seriously imperiled the passage of various confiscation and emancipation laws designed to free the slave. To combat the opposition Republican leaders such as George W. Julian of Indiana, Albert G. Riddle of Ohio, and Salmon P. Chase advanced the theory that emancipation would actually solve northern race problems.

Instead of starting a mass migration of freedmen northward, they argued, the abolition of slavery would not only put a stop to the entry of fugitive slaves but would drain the northern Negroes back to the South. Once slavery [was] ended, the Negro would flee northern race prejudice and return to his natural environment and the congenial climate of the South.

One tentative answer of the Republican party to the northern fear of Negro invasion, however, was deportation of the freedmen and colonization abroad . . . the powerful backing of President Lincoln and the support of western Republicans, Congress overcame [any] opposition. Lincoln was committed to colonization not only as a solution to the race problem but as a means of allaying northern opposition to emancipation and fears of Negro exodus.

(Seeds of Failure in Radical Race Policy, C. Vann Woodward, New Frontiers of the American Reconstruction, Harold M. Hyman, editor, pp. 126-129)

Lincoln's Party of White Supremacy

The freedmen did not receive the franchise because of their political maturity and judgment as the clear intent was to simply keep the Republican party in power. The Republican party’s Union League organization taught the Southern black man to hate his white neighbor, and to vote for Northern men whose own States had initiated Jim Crow laws. An excellent source for Northern antebellum racial views is “North of Slavery: The Negro in the Free States, 1790-1860,” Leon Litwack, Chicago, 1961.

Bernhard Thuersam, www.circa1865.org

 

Lincoln’s Party of White Supremacy

“The Republican leaders were quite aware in 1865 that the issue of Negro status and rights was closely connected with the two other great issues of Reconstruction – who should reconstruct the South and who should govern the country. They were increasingly conscious that in order to reconstruct the South along the lines they planned they would require the support and the votes of the freedmen.

And it was apparent to some that once the reconstructed States were restored to the Union the Republicans would need the votes of the freedmen to retain control over the national government. While they could agree on this much, they were far from agreeing on the status, the rights, the equality, or the future of the Negro.

The fact was that the constituency on which the Republican congressmen relied in the North lived in a race-conscious, segregated society devoted to the doctrine on white supremacy and Negro inferiority.

“In virtually every phase of existence,” writes Leon Litwack with regard to the North in 1860, “Negroes found themselves systematically separated from whites. They were either excluded from railway cars, omnibuses, stagecoaches, and steamboats and assigned to special “Jim Crow” sections; they sat, when permitted, in secluded and remote corners of theaters and lecture halls; they could not enter most hotels, restaurants and resorts, except as servants; they prayed in “Negro pews” in the white churches . . . Moreover, they were often educated in segregated schools, punished in segregated prisons, nursed in segregated hospitals, and buried in segregated cemeteries.”

Ninety-three per cent of the 225,000 Northern Negroes in 1860 lived in States that denied them the ballot, and 7 per cent lived in the five New England States that permitted them to vote. Ohio and New York had discriminatory qualifications that practically eliminated Negro voting.

Ohio denied them poor relief, and most States of the old Northwest had laws carrying penalties against Negroes settling in those States. Everywhere in the free States the Negro met with barriers to job opportunities, and in most places he encountered severe limitations to the protection of his life, liberty and property.

[Many Republican leaders], like Senator Lyman Trumbull of Illinois, the close friend of Lincoln, found no difficulty in reconciling antislavery with anti-Negro views. “We, the Republican party,” said Senator Trumbull in 1858,” are the white man’s party. We are for free white men, and for making white labor respectable and honorable, which it can never be when negro slave labor is brought into competition with it.” [And] William H. Seward, who in 1860 described the American Negro as “a foreign and feeble element like the Indians, incapable of assimilation”; [and], Senator Henry Wilson of Massachusetts, who firmly disavowed any belief “in the mental or intellectual equality of the African race with this proud and domineering race of ours.”

(Seeds of Failure in Radical Race Policy, C. Vann Woodward, New Frontiers of the American Reconstruction, Harold M. Hyman, editor, pp. 125-12”

 

Moribund Republican Party Saved by Lincoln

Lincoln reportedly gave a great deal of attention to the last half of his “House Divided” speech, a trumpet call to form ranks against a South which he claimed wanted to push slavery into the Northern States, when no such threat existed. With that paragraph, Lincoln “gently cut the [Republican] party loose from its old Whig moorings and warily charted its course to the port of the abolitionists.” This solidified his party of disunion, and forced the South to react.

Bernhard Thuersam, www.circa1865.org

 

Moribund Republican Party Saved by Lincoln

“Lincoln possessed political sagacity to a high degree and well understood the force of public opinion. When [he] sounded the “eventually all free” note in his campaign against [Stephen] Douglas, he had a very definite political object in view. His immediate purpose was to win enough votes to get elected to the United States Senate.

His ground for asking for the votes of his fellow Illinois citizens was that he would represent those who did not want slavery to spread into any of the national territories. However, at the time he was making this race for the Senate with Douglas, it was becoming increasingly clear that slavery did not have the ghost of a show for establishment in any of the unsettled lands then belonging to the nation because the economic basis for the system was lacking in all of them.

The defeat of the slave-State constitution in Kansas made it certain that none of the land which Douglas had opened to slavery north of 36-30 would become slave. In view of the economic circumstances it was becoming more evident that unless the Republican party acquired new tenets there was no reason for continuing its organization.

The purpose for which it had been organized, i.e., restoring the free status of the land north of 36-30, having been accomplished, it would fall to pieces unless it acquired new reasons to continue its existence.

[William] Seward, one of the leading lights of the party, and [Horace] Greeley, the leading editor of the party, were willing at this time to dissolve the party, but Lincoln was unwilling for the Republicans to disband their distinctive anti-slavery organization and have nobody to follow but Douglas, who did not care whether slavery was “voted up or voted down.”

Accordingly, in his debate with Douglas, he had to supply additional material for the sustenance of the party’s life; for the time was rapidly approaching when it would become obvious to everybody that the extension of slavery into the territories had been checked permanently by prevailing economic conditions.

In order to win victory at the polls in 1858 it would be necessary for a Republican candidate not only to hold persons already enrolled in the moribund political organization, but also gain additional recruits . . . [and] two groups from which new members could be drawn were the bona-fide abolitionists and the Henry Clay “Whigs,” who had hitherto refused to enroll themselves in the sectional political party.

The abolitionists supplied the soul of the anti-slavery movement of the north, but they had in general refused to vote for anybody who compromised on anything less than a declaration in favor of abolition of slavery in the slave States. The Henry Clay Whigs of the North opposed further acquisition of territory which could be devoted to slavery but desired ultimate abolition only under conditions equitable to the South. They had the most kindly feelings toward the Southern whites and like Clay preferred the liberty of their own race to that of any other race, although they were no friends of slavery.

Lincoln so skillfully calculated the wording of his famous House-Divided speech that it won converts to his following from both the above-mentioned groups. It carried water on both shoulders, so to speak, for it was so constructed that it was acceptable to both radicals and moderate conservatives.”

(The Peaceable Americans of 1860-1861, A Study in Public Opinion, Mary Scrugham, Columbia, 1921, pp. 17- 20)

England's Slave Trade Guilt

The English colonial system and a need for large labor forces to cultivate land and generate products for the benefit of the British Empire was behind the importation of slaves to North America, and fueling the transatlantic slave trade were the Muslim kings of Africa’s Gulf of Guinea who readily sold their subjects to European traders.  Slavery in Africa was a widespread institution and existed in the Sudan, Senegambia, Upper Gambia and along the Niger River. The New England abolitionists could have adopted Wilberforce’s peaceful campaign to eradicate slavery, and repaid humanity for the sins of their own slave trading fathers.

Bernhard Thuersam, www.circa1865.org

 

England’s Slave Trade Guilt

(Speech in the House of Commons by William Wilberforce, 12 May, 1789)

“When we consider the vastness of the continent of Africa; when we reflect how all other countries have some centuries past been advancing in happiness and civilization; when we think how in this same period all improvement in Africa has been defeated in her intercourse with Britain;

[W]hen we reflect that it is we ourselves that have degraded them to that wretched brutishness and barbarity which we now plead as the justification of our guilt; how the slave trade has enslaved their minds, blackened their character . . . What a mortification must we feel at having so long neglected to think of our guilt, or attempt any reparation!

It seems, indeed, as if we had determined to forbear from all interference [with slavery] until the measure of our folly and wickedness was so full and complete; until the impolicy which eventually belongs to vice was become so plain and glaring that not an individual in the country should refuse to join in the abolition; it seems as if we had waited until the persons most interested should be tired out with the folly and nefariousness of the trade, and should unite in petitioning against it.

Let us then make such amends as we can for the mischiefs we have done to the unhappy continent; let us recollect what Europe itself was no longer ago than three or four centuries.

What if I should be able to show this House [of Commons] that in a civilized part of Europe, in the time of Henry VII, there were people who actually sold their own children?  What if I should tell them that England itself was that country?  What if I should point out to them that the very place where this inhuman traffic was carried on was the city of Bristol?

Ireland at that time used to drive a considerable trade in slaves with these neighboring barbarians; but the great plague having infested the country, the Irish were struck with a panic, suspected (I am sure very properly) that the plague was a punishment sent from heaven for the sin of the slave trade, and therefore abolished it.

All I ask, therefore, of the people of Bristol is, that they would become as civilized now as Irishmen were four hundred years ago.  Let us put an end at once to this inhuman traffic – let us stop this effusion of human blood.”

(The World’s Famous Orations, William Jennings Bryan, editor, Funk and Wagnalls, 1906, pp. 66-68)

Lincoln's Instrument of Subjugation

Lincoln was not the first to invoke an emancipation of slaves in the South for the purpose of carrying off his enemy’s agricultural labor and inciting a bloody race war – Virginia’s Royal Governor Lord Dunmore did this in 1775 and Rear Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane the same in 1814. As enlistments for his war machine had virtually ceased after the carnage of 1862, Lincoln saw more blue-clad troops in slaves carried off from their Southern plantation homes.

Bernhard Thuersam, www.circa1865.org

 

Lincoln’s Instrument of Subjugation

“Lincoln had laid aside his [emancipation] proclamation waiting for a victory. He waited two months, meanwhile giving out public statements based on his previous noncommittal attitude [regarding African slavery]; then on September 22, after Lee’s invasion had been foiled at [Sharpsburg], he issued the preliminary proclamation.

That this proclamation was far from an abolition document is shown by a careful reading of its provisions. The President began by reiterating that the purpose of the war was the restoration of the Union and reaffirming his intention still to labor for compensated emancipation. He then declared that on January 1, 1863, slaves in rebellious States should be “then, thenceforward, and forever free” . . .

The proclamation was not expressive of any general antislavery policy. On January 1, 1863, the definitive proclamation was issued, its chief provision being that in regions then designated as “in rebellion,” (with certain notable exceptions) all slaves were declared free. [But] the stereotyped picture of the emancipator suddenly striking the shackles from millions of slaves by a stroke of the presidential pen is altogether inaccurate.

The whole State of Tennessee was omitted [from the proclamation]; none of the Union slave States was included; and there were important exceptions as to portions of Virginia and Louisiana, those being portions within Union military lines. In fact freedom was decreed only in regions then under Confederate control.

“The President has purposely made the proclamation inoperative [declared the New York World] in all places where we have gained a military footing which makes the slaves accessible. He has proclaimed emancipation only where he has notoriously no power to execute it. The exemption of the accessible parts of Louisiana, Tennessee and Virginia renders the proclamation not merely futile, but ridiculous.

The proclamation is issued as a war measure, as an instrument for the subjugation of the rebels. But that cannot be a means of military success which presupposes this same . . . success as the condition of its own existence . . . A war measure it clearly is not, inasmuch as the previous success of the war is the thing that can give it validity.”

“We show our sympathy with slavery, [Secretary of State William] Seward is reported to have said, “by emancipating slaves where we cannot reach them and holding them in bondage where we can set them free.”

The London Spectator declared (October 11, 1862): “The government liberates the enemy’s slaves as it would the enemy’s cattle, simply to weaken them in the . . . conflict . . . The principle is not that a human being cannot justify owning another, but that he cannot own him unless he is loyal to the United States.”

Earl Russell in England declared: “The Proclamation . . . appears to be of a very strange nature. It professes to emancipate all slaves in places where the United States authorities cannot exercise any jurisdiction . . . but it does not decree emancipation . . . in any States, or parts of States, occupied by federal troops . . . and where, therefore, emancipation . . . might have been carried into effect . . . There seems to be no declaration of a principle adverse to slavery in this proclamation.”

It will be noted that Lincoln justified his act as a measure of war. To uphold his view would be to maintain that the freeing of enemy slaves was a legitimate weapon of war to be wielded by the President . . . [and] in the new attitude toward slavery which the war produced [in the North] it was natural to find considerable support for the view that slavery was a legitimate target o the war power [of the President]; but it is a matter of plain history that prior to the Civil War the United States had emphatically denied the “belligerent right” of emancipation.

Indeed, John Quincy Adams, who has been credited by his grandson [Charles Francis Adams] with having originated the idea of the emancipation proclamation, declared officially while secretary of state in 1820 that “No such right [emancipation of slaves] is acknowledged as a Law of War by writers who admit any limitation.”

To Lincoln’s mind the war emergency justified things normally unconstitutional. “I felt that measures otherwise unconstitutional,” he said, “might become lawful by becoming indispensible to the preservation of the Constitution through the preservation of the nation.”

(The Civil War and Reconstruction, J.G. Randall, D.C. Heath and Company, 1937, pp. 489-493)

 

An End to Southern Abolition

Left alone regarding African slaves in their midst, Southerners, like the North before them, would have found solutions to what they saw as a great alien population among them, and a labor system they saw as detrimental to their progress. Southern emancipation efforts halted after the Nat Turner massacres in Virginia, which the South saw as fomented by fanatical abolitionists. Had the North channeled its energies into practical and peaceful solutions rather than violent ones, the country might have avoided that destructive war.

Bernhard Thuersam, www.circa1865.org

 

An End to Southern Abolition

“I had a very interesting conversation with Governor [William] Graham on the subject of slavery, when I passed the day with him in the Spring of 1874. I told him that I had recently seen the commencement oration of my uncle, the Rev. John Haywood Parker, delivered at his graduation in 1832; and that it was an argument in favor of the abolition of slavery in North Carolina.

He replied that it was at that same commencement of 1832 that Judge Gaston, in his address to the Literary Societies, had made his famous plea to the young men of the State, that they should realize their duty of taking up that great problem and removing the burden of slavery which was depressing the influence, the development, and the best interests of the State. Governor Graham said that in 1832 the abolition of slavery was freely discussed in the State and was favored by many of our best and wisest men.

I asked him how it came about that there was such a sudden and total change in public opinion within the next twenty years. He replied that there were several concurrent causes of this. In the first place Nat Turner’s Insurrection in Southampton County, Virginia in 1831, had much to do with it. That short but bloody outbreak excited such horror and alarm that people feared talk of freeing the Negroes lest it might tend to suggest the idea of freedom to their minds and lead them to similar attempts at freeing themselves by force.

Also it was just about this period that the Quakers and others in the North began to send to Congress petitions for the abolition of slavery; and the struggles in Congress and the resentment of the people of the South at what they considered an interference in their domestic affairs caused a great revulsion of feeling. The Southern people were willing to consider the subject themselves, but they would not be dictated to.

I afterwards mentioned this conversation to Judge [George] Howard who agreed with Governor Graham; but he added that another element in the problem of abolition of slavery was the acquisition of immense territory by the Mexican War and then the discovery of gold in California immediately afterwards.

This opened so much additional territory for the extension of slavery in Texas and the Southwest, and so stimulated all values that slave property was more than doubled in value. When a Negro man was worth three or four thousand dollars, as he was before 1832, the abolition of slavery was one question. When the same Negro came to be worth one thousand dollars, as he came to be before many years had passed, the question of abolition had become a quite different one.”

(Nonnulla, Memories, Stories, Traditions More of Less Authentic, Joseph Blount Cheshire, UNC Press, 1930, pp. 136-137)

Emancipation in 1845 South Carolina

Always fearful of slave revolts as the black population steadily grew, and shaken by reality in the Nat Turner massacre of women and children, Southerners logically erected anti-emancipation laws to control slave populations. The constant agitation of slave revolt by Northern abolitionist fanatics, culminating in John Brown’s 1859 crime in Virginia, was an effective means to end even voluntary emancipation in the South. Peaceful emancipation initiatives from the North would have had a better effect and avoided war.

Bernhard THuersam, www.circa1865.org

 

Emancipation Sentiment in 1845 South Carolina

“In 1840 there came up to the Court of Appeals the noted Carmille case. A slaveowner, Carmille, had died leaving a will which with reference to his slaves provided that they should be set free if possible . . . or conveyed in trust to certain trustees who would allow them to hire their time, paying only a nominal sum to the trustees.

This was unquestionably in conflict with the policy of the [South Carolina] statutes on the subject of emancipation. [A] court held that the will of the testator was not contrary to the principles of the act of 1820 and was not in violation of the State’s policy toward the Negro, and that the will ought to be carried out.

The decision . . . aroused the sentiment of the legislature and caused the passage of the sweeping act of 1841. The act of 1841 was intended apparently to close every avenue of approach to emancipation. These laws are always of course to be taken as a final indication of public sentiment. There was evidently a large class of persons who honestly desired to see a less severe policy pursued. Their views cannot be better expressed than in the clear and rugged style of Justice O’Neall. In 1845 he said:

“I think its policy [i.e., of the legislature against emancipation] so questionable that it ought to be repealed. A law, evaded as it is, and against which public sentiment, within and without the State, is so much arrayed, ought not to stand. It is better by far, that a wise and prudent system of emancipation, like that of 1800, should exist, rather than that unlicensed emancipation according to private arrangement should take place.

What is there in the policy of South Carolina to forbid emancipation by an owner, of a faithful, honest, good slave? Have we anything to fear from such a liberal and humane course?

Until fanaticism and folly drove us from that position of the law our State had uniformly favored emancipation by owners, of their slave property, with such limitations and guards as rendered the free Negro not a dangerous, but a useful member of the community, however humble he may be. It is time we should return to it and say to all at home and abroad, we have nothing to fear from occasional emancipation.”

(Control of Slaves in South Carolina, H.M. Henry, PhD Dissertation Vanderbilt University, 1914, pp. 173-174)

Emancipation Regardless of the Consequences

Today’s progressive religion of empathy with oppressed peoples worldwide emulates that of the antebellum abolitionist, who expressed deep concern with people he had never met, could not understand, and whose world was alien to him. To salve their own guilt and difficult grasp of reality, the abolitionist fomented a bloody conflict which unleashed forces no one could control, and an oppressive result we live with today.

Bernhard Thuersam, www.circa1865.org

 

Emancipation Regardless of Consequences

“Most Northerners before the Civil War, and indeed many slaveholders, were “against” slavery.” The abolitionists recognized also that they must continually reinforce their own commitment to their cause. The frequent meetings and intra-group journals of any movement for change serve an indispensable function even when they repeatedly pass the same resolutions and proclaim familiar truths to the already committed.

The twin tasks of refreshing the commitment of abolitionists and of converting outsiders’ passive disapproval of slavery into active opposition differed only in emphasis, especially after the movement had grown from a handful of pioneers into a network of societies with thousands of members.

In propaganda aimed at both groups, the abolitionists relied heavily on the same arguments: among others, that slavery denied the humanity of the Negro and prevented the slave from having normal family relations and religious life, that the North shared the slaveowners’ guilt, that absolute power of one individual over another encourages atrocities, that slavery was responsible for the degraded condition of Northern free Negroes . . . ”

[William Lloyd Garrison] deliberately [pictured] himself in the place of the oppressed. On the first anniversary of his marriage, he wrote to his brother-in-law describing his happiness and extolling the institution of marriage; and he added, how horrible it would be if he and Helen were slaves and were separated by sale. All the more reason, then, to rededicate his life to the abolition of slavery.

This theme, which for convenience will be referred to as “empathy,” appears repeatedly in abolitionists’ private discourse and public propaganda, in exhortations among themselves to increase their zeal and in efforts to induce complacent whites to imagine themselves in the place of the slaves.

But the abolitionist movement comprised mainly white men and women, most of whom had never been in the South. The empathy theme can thus be seen, perhaps, as a substitute for direct involvement in the suffering that movement was dedicated to end. It appeared in other forms as well. When Abby Kelley Foster was asked how she could leave her baby with others, to travel the abolitionist lecture circuit, she replied, “For the sake of the mothers who are robbed of all their children.” Beriah Green . . . [said]: You can act as if you felt that you were bound with those who are in bonds, as if their cause was all your own . . .”

Abolitionist propaganda reiterated that Northern whites were in fact indirectly “bound with” the slaves. Paradoxically, the North was not only an accessory to the enslavement of the Negroes; it was at the same time a secondary victim of the slaveowners. With their strong religious motive for proclaiming the duty of emancipation regardless of the consequences, the abolitionists could not in good conscious appeal to the North solely or chiefly on the basis of interest.

The empathy theme enabled them in a remarkable way to combine interest with principle, for if a Northern white could be made to feel bound with the slave he would fight the slave power to defend himself, as Beriah Green suggested, as well as to exculpate himself. To free the slave would be to free himself of both guilt and bondage; the two motives would become one.”

(Means and Ends in American Abolitionism, Aileen S. Kraditor, Pantheon Books, 1967, pp. 235-238)