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December 2013

The Radical Abolitionists

The radical libertarian abolitionists thought it was senseless to attack slavery while defending the institutions that upheld it.

Afire with deep religious conviction, the libertarian radicalism of abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison looked on slavery not as an isolated, self-contained phenomenon, but as an all-pervading institution, its evil wellsprings and effects found across society. And if slavery and its underlying moral failings permeated all the halls of power, then it wasn’t enough merely to attack the practice itself, or even particular individuals of pieces of law. Rather the entire substructure of government was to be catechized and confronted, the bases of American social life subjected to the most fervid reassessment. Products of a distinct moment in American history, the radical abolitionists present an important and enduring — if underappreciated — contribution to libertarian thought, a legacy of unflinching, principled iconoclasm. In a basic sense and at its core, libertarianism is abolitionism, the opposition to human enslavement, be it full chattel slavery or some more qualified coercive control. Short of murder, the ownership of one human being by another is simply the most egregious and extreme affront to the fundamental principle defining the libertarian philosophy, the prescript standing in opposition to aggression against the individual.

The tenor of the radical abolitionists’ social and political thought cannot be comprehensively understood without reference to their ecclesiastical thought; Christian nonresistance, though by no means accepted by all abolitionists (and certainly not coextensive with the broader movement), stands as a striking feature in the topography of antislavery thought, a keystone for understanding abolitionism’s more extreme incarnations. And while the influences on the abolitionists we shall consider here are innumerable, a treatment of nonresistance will serve as an adequate starting point. As Lewis Perry observes in Radical Abolitionism: Anarchy and the Government of God in Antislavery Thought, nonresistance in and of itself contains “nothing inherently radical,” its essential component being “Christ’s injunction to individuals not to resist evil.” On its own, then, nonresistance is capable of embracing submissive, even conservative, political positions, deferring to power and political authority. The nonresistance of firebrand abolitions such as Garrison and Henry C. Wright may seem to present a contradiction given this connotation with passive capitulation. Their rendering of the philosophy of nonresistance, however, made it a Christian duty to oppose human government as standing at variance with the “government of God” — making them at least partial successors to the antinomian tradition. Antinomianism, generally, comprises several Christian views that focus on the individual, her perfectibility, and the relationship between grace and the freedom or exemption from the law­, be it moral or governmental. Auguring the millennium, the ascendency of God’s sublime government here on earth, antinomians throughout American history have denied the authority of human government and its attendant conditions.

James J. Martin, one of the foremost historians of American anarchism, took his fellow scholars to task for what he regarded as a marked over-inclusiveness, a tendency to “embark on an omnibus assembling of every social impulse which radiates any degree of anti-statist negativism and any measurable opposition to and rejection of organized power.” The errors and misunderstandings surrounding the question of who ought to be included as an “anarchist,” Martin argued, emanated in large part from a fixation on the political. The “economics of anarchism,” in contrast, were overlooked to a regrettable extent, leading scholarship on anarchism (from historians such as Charles Edward Merriam, Eunice Minette Schuster and David DeLeon) astray into other related yet distinct movements. Still, whether or not Garrison and the nonresistants may be accurately categorized “anarchists,” certainly their opposition to the state (indeed, to all human authority) is impossible to call into question. What’s more, by the time the many influences of anarchism proper had inspissated to become the thing itself, some among the earlier group of nonresistants were ready to adopt it as heir to their ideas. In 1890, just a few short months before his death, Adin Ballou, erstwhile president of the New England Non-Resistance Society, wrote of his acceptance of anarchism in Benjamin Tucker’s Liberty. “True order and harmony,” Ballou asserted, “are found in Liberty alone… . As liberty is only possible by an absence of invasion or aggression, Anarchism rejects all invasion or aggression.” More than half a century earlier, Ballou had said substantively the same, albeit without the label of anarchism: “[Government] originates in man, depends on man, and makes man the lord — the slave of man.”

Despite the substantive alignment of and continuity between nonresistance and mature anarchism, however, most of the nonresistant abolitionists rejected the claim that they were “no-governmentists.” Moreover, the willingness of some nonresistants like Ballou to later embrace anarchism may substantiate Martin’s claims regarding the arguably indispensible economic component of anarchism. After all, Ballou is as notable for his utopian experiments in “Practical Christian Socialism” as he is for his contributions in the agitation for antislavery. Notwithstanding his affirmation of anarchism, it is imperative to note that the principles of Ballou’s Hopedale Community — established near Worcester, Massachusetts in the spring of 1842 with the purpose of making “the spirit of the Prince of Peace … dominant in all social and civil relations” — were far removed from those of Tucker’s “scientific anarchism.” Whatever its appellations, Hopedale represents the politics of nonresistance and thus of libertarianism to the extent that its proscriptions were applied through persuasion and on the basis of conviction. The social and political environment of the mid-nineteenth century abounded in proposals for the ideal polity; in an 1840 letter to Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote of the “numberless projects of social reform,” observing, “Not a reading man but has a draft of a new community in his waistcoat pocket.” The Christian nonresistants were no different, and through Ballou had their own utopian undertaking, at least for a time. For all its many idiosyncrasies, the libertarianism of nonresistants like Ballou and Garrison proves familiar to the contemporary proponent of the philosophy of liberty, incorporating the characteristic respect for the irreducible individuality of each person. As Richard O. Curry and Lawrence B. Goodheart pointed out in their paper on these “Garrisonian Abolitionists,” their deep disapproval of slavery was a natural concomitant to their theological belief that — in the words of the constitution of the Lane Seminary Antislavery Society — each and every slave was “a moral agent, the keeper of his own happiness, the executive of his own powers, the accountable arbiter of his own choice.”

It is not necessary, of course, for one to accept the nonresistants’ religious positions in order to assume their positions on individual sovereignty and antislavery. Yet it is the all-encompassing consistency provided by the politics of Christian nonresistance that distinguishes the radicals in the antislavery movement of the time from the conservatives, those who favored piecemeal reform and aligned largely with the Republican Party. There existed at the time the antislavery positions marginally bearable to polite society, and then there was the obstinate, impassioned immediatism, as it were, of the Garrison crowd. In his article “Peaceful Hopes and Violent Experiences: The Evolution of Reforming and Radical Abolitionism, 1831-1837,” James Brewer Stewart suggests the possibility that too many scholars on the subject “have seen antislavery unity as existing longer than it actually did.” Regarding them as hypocrites and compromisers with sin, the radicals often denounced other abolitionists as vigorously as they did the apologists for slavery.

The radicals simply would not brook solutions to the slavery problem that left intact the most pernicious features of what abolitionist clergyman Beriah Green decried as the “stupid, grim, malignant conspiracy” of the United States government. They contended that it was senseless and illogical to attack slavery while defending the institutions — whether legal, governmental or religious — that upheld it, frequently interfering actively with the functioning of those institutions. As with any radical movement, internal controversies, stemming from both personal feuds and clashes over ideological purity, too often prevented concerted action and effective propagandizing. But the radical abolitionists present important lessons about both abstract libertarian theory itself and about its practical, political efficacies and possibilities.

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