Two Cheers for the Abolitionists

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.

13 thoughts on “Two Cheers for the Abolitionists

  1. John Foskett February 2, 2015 / 2:33 pm

    Grinspan’s thesis strikes me as another one of those contrived “either-or” arguments that are generally so unhelpful in understanding history. For example, the origins of the Republican Party clearly were tied to the Kansas-Nebraska Act and opposition to extending slavery into the territories. Whether that is a form of “abolitionism” tied to moral imperatives, a reflection of other factors (the founders were philosophically devoted to economic concepts of free labor), or a mix of the foregoing,really doesn’t matter. And the “either-or” notion that emancipation was caused by (1) abolitionism or (2) the War, is premised on the false assumption that they were mutually exclusive. Lincoln, for example, was pushing voluntary abolition early in his first term, but jumped on the war as a vehicle when it suited his needs. I also have the impression that Grinspan, whatever the specifics of his article, operates from an assumption that abolition = belief in racial equality. For some abolitionists, certainly. But for others – not hardly, Pilgrim. A minor quibble with one point – “Americans did not go to war in 1861 because they thought slavery wrong, ” Some did, in fact. But many – most – did not. It became more of an acquired taste during the War, however.

    • Brooks D. Simpson February 2, 2015 / 5:07 pm

      I don’t think many Americans went to war in 1861 because they thought slavery was wrong, including many who thought slavery was wrong. But I could be wrong.

      • John Foskett February 3, 2015 / 9:02 am

        Agree. So far as we can tell, only some did – it’s in surviving letters, etc. But not many.

      • Scott February 7, 2015 / 6:00 am

        Hello professor, have been enjoying reading your blog. I disagree with much of your positions but it’s good to read opposing views

  2. Mark February 2, 2015 / 3:09 pm

    Even the most racist were give pause by some of the things they saw in the war. A racist Northern soldier in his diary wrote that he saw a black man living in a woods (some slaves quit the business regardless of the cost) had a back that was a shockingly grotesque river of skin due to beatings and wondered how advocates of slavery could justify such things. Even those without what we’d call sympathy blanched at such things.

    I’ve heard it said that the furor over enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Laws radicalized the opposition to slavery. True or not, I don’t think most people realize now what a huge deal the FSL were in so many ways. In some ways it seems to me that was a sufficient cause of the war. The threat of non-enforcement was enough for SC to call it a cause of their secession, and the obligation to enforce as terms of the union was reason enough for many to violate local laws for decades. Sometimes I think those points aren’t stressed enough. The underlying reasons would have their own explanations of course, but it seems to me there is a bottom-line reasoning that can be obscured in chasing a full explications of “root causes”. Maybe in missing this we don’t see how people really make decisions in such things as giving up on negotiation and arming up.

  3. Will Hickox February 2, 2015 / 3:37 pm

    I’ve always thought that the fact Confederates often referred to all northerners and Union troops as “abolitionists” indicates a victory of a sort for actual abolitionists.

    • Brooks D. Simpson February 2, 2015 / 5:10 pm

      Confederates used the threat of abolition as a way to whip up support for independence and war. Notice they did not call all northerners advocates of protective tariffs. They knew what moved white southerners to act, and it wasn’t the tariff.

      • Andy Hall February 2, 2015 / 5:42 pm

        Yes. As I recall George Wallace re-learned that lesson a century or so later.

      • Mark February 2, 2015 / 5:45 pm

        I wasn’t aware that the Confederates did call all Union troops “abolitionists”. That’s interesting. A generic slur from their perspective I guess.

        So you don’t think very many Americans went to war in 1861 because they thought slavery was wrong, my understanding as well, but that the Southerners liked to promote the idea that they did to gin up support for the Confederate cause? Makes sense, but I guess I didn’t think of that. That would seem to be strong evidence for the fact that slavery was the root cause of the war if not the immediate impetus, which I think is the informed consensus now. Not that there was ever any lack of evidence, but I just supposed they weren’t so obvious about it because of obfuscations such as “states rights” and such. I thought they felt the need to conceal the real reasons. I would have thought they would have stuck to tyrant slurs and such.

        • Will Hickox February 3, 2015 / 3:31 pm

          Confederates during secession and the war were often very upfront about their desire to protect slavery and found a republic based on white supremacy. But after the war a strong movement began to rewrite the war’s history, one of the founding documents of which was Alexander Stephens’s “A Constitutional View of the Late War Between the States” (1867-70).

          • Bob Huddleston February 3, 2015 / 8:15 pm

            Alexander Cornerstone Stephens invented “WBTS” in both his title and the text.

  4. Roger D. Bridges February 2, 2015 / 3:56 pm

    I agree Foskett, “Some did, in fact” thought the war was the way to end slavery and were unhappy that Lincoln did not publicly endorse that sentiment.

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