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)