In the New York Times’s Disunion blog, Jon Grinspan offers the argument that the end of slavery should not be equated with the success of the abolitionists. Sure, he points out, the abolitionists were all about destroying slavery, but it was the war, not the abolitionists, that achieved that end.
Yes … and no.
Grinspan’s on target to suggest that when people nowadays associate their cause with that of abolitionism in an effort to say that they are for the right and that the right prevails that they overlook the extent to which abolitionism as a movement was overtaken by the debate over the expansion of slavery in the 1850s, followed by an escalating feud over the place of slavery in America’s present and future. Moral suasion did not triumph: force did.
But one cannot overlook the role played by abolitionists in the 1830s and 1840s in getting the ball rolling. Although they were a clear minority in northern society (and often a despised one), abolitionists through their tactics if not their strategy pricked proslavery defensiveness over discussing the prospects of the peculiar institution. Gag rules, intercepting the mails, and so on provided points of overreaction that in turn ruffled northern whites’ sensibilities about how the protection of slavery required compromising the rights of whites as well as blacks. Defenses of slavery as a positive good increased in intensity and volume, but found little sympathy in the minds and hearts of an increasing number of white northerners who balanced their racist inclinations against the notion that even inferior human beings were nevertheless human beings, and, as such, should not be subjected to the violent repression that arguments about slavery’s legality, morality, and superiority could ill conceal. Nor can one overlook that in the ranks of abolitionists one would find men such as Frederick Douglass, whose very existence challenged assertions of white superiority on a daily basis.
No, Americans did not go to war in 1861 because they thought slavery wrong, although some Americans did go to war because they thought slavery was right, that it was proper and profitable, and that it must be protected, regardless of the cost. To say otherwise is contradicted by the historical record: only apologists who seek absolution for their ancestors, actual or imaginary, are blind to the stark facts. But that proslavery southerners had to articulate such a defense and were prepared to do whatever they could to protect their peculiar institution–whether it meant supporting a war of conquest and expansion, creating new federal bureaucracies and congressional practices that compromised civil rights, endangering the legitimacy of elections, legislation, or the Supreme Court itself before embarking on that ill-fated journey called secession–was due in the beginning to the abolitionists’ ability to provoke such an overreaction. Much like taking a sledgehammer to squash a housefly, proslavery advocates succeeded in shattering their own future in a series of devastating blows that brought an abrupt end to the cornerstone of their experiment in independence. No one can doubt that the abolitionists played a role in that process.
So, two cheers to the abolitionists, who in any case were pleased enough with the result not to worry overmuch about who got the credit … unless, of course, you are talking about Charles Sumner.