The Abolitionists, Secession, and the Coming of the War

It is a commonplace observation that white northerners did not go to war in 1861 to free the slaves but to preserve the Union.  This observation in turn leads some people to question the role played by slavery in the coming of the war; it also calls into question the role of the abolition movement in the coming of the war.  If abolitionists had so little impact on northern society, given the reason white northerners went to war in 1861, then perhaps one should question their role and thus the role of slavery in the coming of the war.

Not so fast.

It is true that the abolitionist movement never attracted too much direct support in the North.  However, it seems to have had an impact far beyond what its actual numbers would suggest when it came to the South, as Margaret Blough has suggested in a recent comment.  For the move toward immediate abolition through moral suasion came about just at the time when Nat Turner led his insurrection and Virginia’s constitutional convention declined to explore any efforts toward setting slavery on the road to ultimate extinction.  It appeared at a time when South Carolina’s leadership was already suggesting that to accept the federal government’s authority to impose a protective tariff opened the door to the possibility that the federal government might meddle with slavery … this at a time when notions of slavery as a positive good in the minds of many white southerners were displacing those arguments that it was a necessary evil.

White southerners were thus eager to shut down the abolition movement and its ability to deliver its message, whether it be through the press, the mails, or petitions to Congress.  These efforts to defend slavery by infringing on civil liberties were but the tip of the iceberg; in turn these actions began to encourage more white northerners to take a second look at the notion of live and let live when it came to slavery, because white southerners were not willing to follow the same principle.  Early efforts to introduce antislavery issues into politics gained but little support; however, efforts to resist southern efforts to protect and promote slavery gained more traction, with the renewal of territorial expansion in the 1840s offering more white northerners yet another reason to counter what they came to call “the slave power.”  That debate exploded in the 1850s when white southerners showed no hesitation whatsoever to trample over state rights and individual rights in their haste to enhance federal power to protect slavery through the passage of a new fugitive slave act; when the notion of popular sovereignty threatened to open to slavery areas already designated by previous compromises as free soil, even more white northerners opposed the expansion of slavery and the slave power’s political clout.  By the end of the 1860s, many white northerners would have agreed with Ulysses S. Grant that southern efforts to protect slavery at whatever cost drove white northerners into opposition.

Thus, the abolition movement played a part in the road to Sumter … but largely because of the reaction the movement sparked among white southerners, followed in turn by the growth of opposition in the North to the measures advocated by white southerners to protect and promote the peculiar institution.  Understanding this also helps us understand slavery’s place in the coming of the war, gives us some clues as to why the confrontation came when it did (although that;’s only part of the answer), and suggests that slavery as a political, economic, and social force had much to do with the coming of the war (thus setting aside the argument that because most white northerners were to at least some degree racist, slavery must not set aside to a significant degree in explaining the course of events from 1831 to 1861).

What say you?