This is part of a series
Mar 24, 2017
Abolitionism and Modern Voluntaryism
Smith discusses some similarities between the anti-political abolitionists and contemporary voluntaryists.
Before continuing with my discussion of the abolitionist no-voting theory, as elaborated upon by Wendell Phillips in Can Abolitionists Vote or Take Office under the United States Constitution? (1845), I wish to make a few general remarks.
As I noted in a previous essay, during the late 1970s and early 1980s Phillips’s monograph influenced my own thinking about the morality and the wisdom of political action for modern libertarians. But I had already embraced the voluntaryist opposition to political action before then, and my position was based on principles not found in Phillips. (I first proposed “voluntaryism” as a label for anti-political libertarianism in 1982, and the label has stuck.) One of the first public presentations of my anti-political views was a speech I gave for the Orange County Libertarian Supper Club in 1980. Titled Party Dialogue, this speech was subsequently printed in Sam Konkin’s periodical New Libertarian, and later by Carl Watner for The Voluntaryist. I vividly recall the first comment at the Orange County Supper Club. Robert LeFevre (1911-86) a venerated figure in the modern libertarian movement (especially in Southern California) who had long opposed political action, stood up and announced that my presentation was the best lecture he had ever heard, aside from his own lectures.
LeFevre’s humorous endorsement was not shared by the majority of libertarians. Even many libertarian anarchists were not pleased with my views. This became evident to me at the 1980 National Convention of the Libertarian Party (in Los Angeles), where I was invited to give a talk on my objections to the Libertarian Party. I was favorably impressed by the invitation, since rare indeed is the political party that will solicit talks on why that party should not exist. But this was a formative period of the modern libertarian movement—a time when basic ideas about strategy were being hammered out and when many libertarians were interested in ideas for their own sake, quite apart from what their practical implications may be. But not all attendees at the 1980 convention welcomed my appearance; quite the contrary. While at the convention but before my talk, I learned that a petition was being circulated that protested my invitation to speak. The petition reportedly had hundreds of signatures, including that of John Hospers. In addition, large white protest buttons were passed out that simply read “Why”—curiously, the button omitted the question mark—and I saw many attendees at my well-attended talk wearing those buttons. (Somewhat flattered by being the object of a formal protest, I obtained a button and proudly displayed it in my home for many years.) Unlike those abolitionists who were victims of mob violence, no anti-Smith mobs were formed at the convention, and I felt perfectly safe walking the halls of the Century City Hotel and riding its spectacular elevators.
I mention these personal stories because of the obvious parallels between the no-voting stance of contemporary voluntaryists and the Garrisonian wing of abolitionism. Voluntaryism is a minority wing of the modern libertarian movement, just as the Garrisonians comprised a minority in the broader antislavery movement. For many years historians of abolitionism tended to treat the anti-political position of Garrison and Phillips as an eccentric glitch that harmed the antislavery cause, or at the very least retarded its progress. But two magnificent and highly regarded books helped to turn the tide to a more favorable view: Means and Ends in American Abolitionism: Garrison and His Critics on Strategy and Tactics (1968), by Aileen S. Kraditor; and Radical Abolitionism: Anarchy and the Government of God in Antislavery Thought (1973), by Lewis Perry.
A major merit of these scholarly accounts is that they take the anti-political views of Garrison, Phillips, and their follower seriously, instead of dismissing them out of hand as too absurd for serious consideration. The anti-political arguments are considered on their own terms, as they appeared to the abolitionists themselves, rather than from the perspective of those modern historians who cannot conceive how any significant social or political changes could come about except through the ballot box. But whether one agrees with the Garrisonian position or not, it is virtually impossible for contemporary libertarians to read the extensive abolitionist debates over this controversy without being impressed by how detailed and thoughtful they are. Modern libertarians have said very little if anything about the pros and cons of voting and other political activities that was not said over 150 years ago by the abolitionists. In short, there is a good deal that libertarians can learn from studying abolitionist literature on this topic, whatever our ultimate conclusions may be.
Consider the presidential oath of office: “I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.” This and similar oaths of office were the major sticking point for Wendell Phillips and other anti-political abolitionists who viewed the Constitution as a proslavery document. How could any sincere abolitionist swear to “preserve, protect, and defend” a document that sanctioned the enslavement of human beings? And how could any sincere opponent of slavery seek to appoint, through voting, an agent who would publicly commit to the preservation and protection of slavery?
Back in the late 1970s, when I first became seriously interested in abolitionism, it quickly became clear that public oaths were regarded far more seriously in earlier times than they tend to be today. I therefore took a detour to study the history of oath-taking, and it was a fascinating journey. One story, which I read in a history of the French Revolution (I no longer recall the title or author), pertained to a problem experienced by Louis XVI when he was preparing for his coronation. The king’s oath contained items that he could not endorse, such as a pledge to persecute Protestants, so Louis sought the advice of Turgot (one of the better libertarians of his day). Turgot supposedly advised Louis to mumble those parts of the oath to which he could not honestly and sincerely commit. I do not know if Louis took Turgot’s advice, but this “mumble theory of oath-taking,” as I subsequently called it, was eerily similar to the rationalizations offered by those political libertarians who were criticizing voluntaryism. I was told that libertarians who could not support the Constitution (especially the taxing power vested in the federal government) could nonetheless swear under oath to “preserve, protect, and defend” that selfsame Constitution. Why? Well a variety of reasons were offered by my critics, and it is quite remarkable that Phillips discussed virtually all of these in Can Abolitionists Vote or Take Office under the United States Constitution? Moreover, all seemed variants, in one form or another, of Turgot’s mumble theory of oath-taking.
In my next essay I shall consider more of the specific arguments offered by Phillips for his “no-voting theory.” The number of objections which he considers—17 in all—alone illustrates the intricacy of the debate among abolitionists over this matter. I close this essay with a few quotations by Phillips that discuss some general points.
The position of a non-voter, in a land where the ballot is so much idolized, kindles in every beholder’s bosom something of the warm sympathy which waits on the persecuted, carries with it all the weight of a disinterested testimony to truth, and pricks each voter’s conscience with an uneasy doubt, whether after all voting is right. There is constantly a Mordecai in the gate.
I admit that we should strive to have a political influence—for with politics is bound up much of the welfare of the people. But this objection supposes that the ballot box is the only means of political influence. Now it is a good thing that every man should have the right to vote. But it is by no means necessary that every man should actually vote, in order to influence his times. We by no means necessarily desert our social duty when we refuse to take office, or to confer it.
This objection, that we non-voters shall lose all our influence, confounds the broad distinction between influence and power. Influence every honest man must and will have, in exact proportion to his honesty and ability. God always annexes influence to worth. The world, however unwilling, can never get free from the influence of such a man. This influence the possession of office cannot give, nor the want of it take away. For the exercise of such influence as this, man is responsible. Power we buy of our fellow men at a certain price. Before making the bargain it is our duty to see that we do not pay “too dear for our whistle.” He who buys it at the price of truth and honor, buys only weakness—and sins beside.