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?

19 thoughts on “The Abolitionists, Secession, and the Coming of the War

  1. Margaret Blough August 6, 2011 / 7:27 pm

    Brooks-Thanks for the kind mention. I think white northern attitudes are a lot more complex than they are often portrayed. A person can be a racist who fully and thoroughly believes that all members of another race are inferior to him/her but still believe it to be wrong to hold members of that race as chattel property solely because of their membership in that race. As for higher levels of involvement in political life, that was another matter. At that time, throughout the country, universal suffrage was far from a universal reality even for white males..

    The ability of abolitionists to drive the slave owning white elite nuts was extraordinary. and, as you point out, totally disproportionate to their relative numbers Some of it was by design but a lot of the rest of it was self-inflicted by the slave owners. That’s why I think “Arguing About Slavery” by William Miller is such a valuable book. During Jackson’s administration, the Postmaster General sanctioned the destruction of the US Mail in the form of abolitionist tracts being sent to WHITES to try to persuade them of the error of their ways and the House of Representatives for years nullified the petition clause of the First Amendment in the Gag Rule.

    To me, the issues of the antebellum era are like a wheel with slavery as the hub and other issues spokes radiating from it. I’ve read and heard people claim that it was economic issues but how do you separate economics from slavery when the Peculiar Institution was the basis for Southern white wealth? Yes, land was important but land to the southern white elite and those who aspired to that status was worthless without slave labor to work it. The northern economy based on free labor no matter how downtrodden and oppressed meant that it was ready to attract the waves of immigrants streaming from Europe in ways that the slave states of the Deep South in particular could not. The planter elites dominated Southern politics, in some states more than other.

    Madison stated quite clearly in the Constitutional Convention on June 30, 1787, “But, he contended that the States were divided into different interests not by their difference in size, but by other circumstances; the most material of which resulted partly from climate, but principally from the effects of their having or not having slaves. The two causes concurred in forming the great division of interests in the U. States.” from “Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787 Reported by James Madison.”

  2. James F. Epperson August 7, 2011 / 12:56 am

    Margaret’s thesis is something that I think is put forward very well in William Lee Miller’s book on the Gag Rule, “Arguing About Slavery”.

  3. Lyle Smith August 7, 2011 / 7:35 am

    Yep the politics, economics, and social issues around slavery was the cause.

    However, how abolitionist leaning were the Republicans who were elected to Congress in 1860? That election seemed to be more of a manifest threat to slavery than any other thing before it.

    • Brooks D. Simpson August 7, 2011 / 10:53 am

      Most of those Republicans would have been content to contain slavery where it was and turn back southern political power. Their commitment to destroying slavery as a moral evil was limited, and their commitment to black equality even less.

      White southerners saw Lincoln’s election as cracking the control over national politics that they felt was essential to protecting slavery. Secession was a preemptive first strike response.

      • Ray O'Hara August 7, 2011 / 2:43 pm

        Was their commitment limited or were their means limited? Is a commitment to destroying slavery judged on ones willingness to break the law and Constitution or can we say that stopping its spread and containing it so that it would wither away enough.

        this bringing up Northern racism by many is odd. yes northerners were racist too. most people still are to some degree. does that somehow negate their anti-slavery views and actions?

        Were most Northerners Abolitionists? not actively. but they didn’t disapprove of them nor do anything to curb them.
        I’d say it was akin to the “support” the IRA got in the Republic of Ireland. nothing official but there was a willingness to look the other way when the need arose and a refusal to shut them down. Tolerance is a strong form of support in such affairs..

        and it’s not like those in the North didn’t understand what the Republicans leanings were.

        • Brooks D. Simpson August 7, 2011 / 3:55 pm

          Ray, many white northerners did not like abolitionists. Abolitionist were the target of northern violence, too. There was a wave of anti-abolition mob actions in the North in the 1830s.

          Many northerners may have been passively antislavery in the abstract, but that’s as far as it went, because abolitionists did not stop with ending slavery. Many of them also spoke for equality for blacks, and most white northerners were not for that. Otherwise Reconstruction turns out differently.

          • Ray O'Hara August 7, 2011 / 5:38 pm

            Yrs, they were called Democrats. they got outvoted badly when Lincoln got elected. abolitionist haters didn’t vote for the Repubs.

          • Brooks D. Simpson August 7, 2011 / 7:16 pm

            Well, Ray, you have an interesting understanding of the political power of abolitionism among northern voters that not a single historian has found. You might also look at how even Republican states failed to secure black suffrage in the later 1860s (something I’ve discussed here on the blog), and how Republicans responded to that with the 15th Amendment.

            I believe Lincoln gathered only 39.8 percent of the vote in 1860; even in the North, in 1864, a shift in one of twenty votes and Lincoln and McClellan are in a dead heat, and that’s after Atlanta and Sheridan’s Valley victories. If Republicans were so confident of the appeal of black equality among their voters, I assume they would have run a committed Radical for president in 1868; Grant’s candidacy assumed front-runner status among those Republicans who were not confident that they could win on that basis.

  4. Al Mackey August 7, 2011 / 7:54 am

    We’re in complete agreement on this.

    While the abolitionists may not have had much of a direct impact on public opinion outside of the south, the reaction of the slave states did. Whites outside the slave states were okay with slavery existing in the south as long as they didn’t have to deal with it. However, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 threatened to put slavery right in their laps, turning them into slave catchers. The demand of the slave state politicians that free state politicians kowtow to the slave state viewpoints rankled. Rather than hearing shouts against slavery itself, one would hear shouts against the arrogance of the slave power. While there was little sympathy for the slave, there was tremendous anger at the slaveowners and their demands to control laws in other states and people in other states.

  5. John Foskett August 7, 2011 / 7:58 am

    Margaret makes what i believe is a, if not the, crucial point. Racism, in its varying degrees, is not inconsistent with a belief that human slavery is wrong. The neo-Confeds and Lost Causers (to oversimplify) love to point out that Lincoln, for example, held beliefs on race which were common to white northerners at the time and which hardly supported black equality . The unspoken deduction one is supposed to make is that he really didn’t believe that slavery was evil. The calculation proceeds on a false premise. And there are absolutely no grounds for doubting that in 1860-61, the secessionists perceived that Lincoln, the Republicans, and the North generally were in full assault mode on their “domestic institution”, even if that perception was overstated. I can’t get away from the tried and true assumption “no slavery – no secession – no war”. But then I foolishly rely on the letters and speeches of the secession Commissioners from the states of the lower South.

  6. EarthTone August 7, 2011 / 9:27 am

    A point that I’ve made elsewhere is that, many people of today don’t understand that in the antebellum era, a person could be anti-slavery and not be abolitionist.

    Few people in the North were outright abolitionists. But for many, the problem was not that they hated slavery, but rather, that they hated slaveowners. There was a feeling that the Slavocracy had an inordinate amount of political power, and that the Slave Power acted counter to the interests of the majority of Americans.

    In addition to that, there were many people believed in a society based on free labor, for a number of reasons. For one, they believed that free labor produced the best, most vibrant society. But also, they believed that slavery devalued white labor; or more succinctly, many Northern whites believed, and resented, that slavery created a pool of cheap labor which drove down wages for free people. This was a reason why so many were against the expansion of slavery.

    What’s interesting is that, much – most(?) – of the rhetoric of the secessionists is crouched in terms of anti-abolitionist language. Perhaps they believed what they said; perhaps they invoked the dreaded abolitionist bogeyman as a way to rally the troops. Whatever… it was a misrepresentation of overall Northern sentiment.

    In a way, for Northerners, it was really all about NIMBY: many Northerners didn’t care if the South had slaves, they just didn’t want to see slavery in their own back yard. They believed that slavery would end, but only as a result of it being an ineffective and inefficient system. Ending slavery was not something they were willing to fight or die for.

    But I can’t tell you how often I speak to people who don’t immediately grasp that anti-slavery does not equal abolitionism. They associate the term “anti-slavery” with abolitionism – ie, a desire to end slavery based on moral or religious reasons. This helps explain the many straw man arguments that we hear – for example, “Well, if the North went to war to end slavery, then they must have been hypocrites, or else why did they support the Corwin?” That argument is based in part on the false premise that if Lincoln and the Republicans were anti-slavery, they had to have been abolitionist – a premise that is incorrect.

    • Brooks D. Simpson August 7, 2011 / 10:50 am

      There are so many ways in which northerners could be antislavery/antiSouth without sharing the views of the abolitionists. That helps explain not only how war came but also what happened during Reconstruction.

  7. Jeff Davis August 7, 2011 / 9:37 am

    Excellent summary of events and causes, Brooks. I’d only add that the Quincy Adams-led fight in the House several decades ante-bellum was also a large part of that. But the abolitionists as the squeaky wheel so irritated the south that they did indeed make many attempts on many fronts to push back at it [as meddlesome I believe it was referred to]. And Adams fight against the “gag rule” in the House was a years long battle on that front.

    I recommend “Arguing About Slavery, John Quincy Adams and the Great Battle in the United States Congress,” by William Lee Miller. In it he details the power of the Slave Interest to which you refer:

    “… Five of the first seven presidents were slaveholders, for thirty-two of the nation’s first thirty-six years forty of its first forty-eight, fifty of its first sixty four, the nation’s president was a slaveholder. The powerful office of Speaker of the House was held by a slaveholder for twenty-eight of the nation’s first thirty-five years. The president pro tem of the Senate was virtually always a slaveholder. The majority of the cabinet members and — very important — of justices of the Supreme Court were slaveholders. The slaveholding Chief Justice Roger Taney, appointed by slaveholding President Andrew Jackson to succeed the slaveholding John Marshall, would serve all the way through the decades before the war into the years of the Civil War itself; it would be a radical change of the kind slaveholders feared when in 1863, President Lincoln would appoint the anti-slavery politician Salmon P. Chase of Ohio to succeed Taney…”

    • Brooks D. Simpson August 7, 2011 / 10:49 am

      Of course, Taney died in 1864 … and only then did Lincoln name Chase … and I would not mistake Marshall’s pro-nationalist, pro-colonization views for those of Taney.

      What Miller’s recitation does is to remind us that the South exercised disproportionate power in the national politics of the early republic.

  8. Brooks D. Simpson August 7, 2011 / 10:46 am

    It interests me that so many people cite the William Lee Miller book, Arguing About Slavery, which circulated among a general reading public arguments about the Gag Rule debate that had been in circulation among scholars (and some others) for some time. I’m a little more ambivalent about his Lincoln volumes, especially the second one. But Miller’s books are an interesting case study in how arguments that have long been a staple of scholarly discussion are disseminated to a broader public. He’s simply shared an argument that’s sometimes known as “the slave power conspiracy” argument … and that goes all the way back to Henry Wilson, an antislavery Republican who served as Grant’s second vice president.

    • Jeff Davis August 8, 2011 / 5:12 pm

      I have not had the advantage of being in those circles. What Miller did for me was show me, as you note, the disproportionate power of the slave interest. It also gave a vivid picture of what life in Washington was like. especially for Congressmen and Senators during the 1830s and 1840s. It also gave an almost laughable account of the way Quincy Adams and the Northern members of Congress would find loophole year after year to defeat the effect of the gag rule, to the utter frustration of the southern democrats.

      The gag rule story gives rise to a question.

      Have the courts, or Congress, ever addressed the First Amendment rights of Congress while in session? It seems to me the gag rule crossed the line even within the rules created by Congress for the conduct of its business. I know Adams felt that way, but was it ever tested in court? I would think this constitutes at least interference with Congress’s ability to do their jobs, a different type of which we see today.

  9. Ray O'Hara August 8, 2011 / 6:34 am

    I found this in the New Yorker. the source was a Ryan Lizza article on Michelle Bachmann
    it’s mentions a book she recommended on R.E.Lee

    As Lizza investigates Bachmann’s biography, he comes across her former State Senate campaign Web site, which houses a list of book recommendations called “Michele’s Must Read List”; the third book on the list is a biography of Robert E. Lee, published in 1997, by J. Steven Wilkins, who is the leading purveyor of the theological-war interpretation of the Civil War, which holds that the South was an orthodox Christian nation unjustly attacked by the godless North. In the book, Wilkins condemns “the radical abolitionists of New England” and writes that “most southerners strove to treat their slaves with respect and provide them with a sufficiency of goods for a comfortable, though—by modern standards—spare existence.” Slavery, Wilkins writes, “as it operated in the pervasively Christian society which was the old South, was not an adversarial relationship founded upon racial animosity. In fact, it bred on the whole, not contempt, but, over time, mutual respect. . . . The unity and companionship that existed between the races in the South prior to the war was the fruit of a common faith.”

    Read more

    • Brooks D. Simpson August 8, 2011 / 11:00 am

      Ouch. But we’ve seen the same from people with similar perspectives and intellects.

      • MarkD August 8, 2011 / 6:30 pm

        I agree that it’s an “ouch,” but referring to intellects? I think that’s a big stretch. I think we simply have to acknowledge that people just don’t know their history. That isn’t a good thing, but I’ve met so many bright people I agree with on every issue I know of go that go completely off in the weeds historically to judge them. That doesn’t stop me from chiding them and even arguing with them vociferously, and I do, but saying this has something to do with intellect is to commit crackpot philosophical fallacies from the 19th century that many are also prone to do. In the past know one would dare call themselves educated who didn’t have a decent grasp of Western philosophy, and now even the most highly “educated” don’t know squat about it. It isn’t because of their intellects.

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