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Apr 17, 2017

Abolitionism, Prohibition, and the Whig Party

Smith continues his explanation of why so many abolitionists supported the compulsory prohibition of alcohol by linking them to the ideology of the Whig Party.

In the spring of 1834, opponents of Andrew Jackson, who was serving his second term as president, marshalled their forces and formed a new political party. They called this the Whig Party, after the English Whigs who had traditionally resisted excessive executive power by a monarch, especially George III. This seemed an appropriate label, given how Jackson sometimes acted more like a king than a president. With the advent of the Whig Party America entered what is called the Second Electoral System. Later, when the Whig Party was replaced by the newly formed Republican Party during the late 1850s, America entered the Third Electoral System—the one still in existence today, if only in name.

When the Whig Party dissolved, most of its members, including Abraham Lincoln, fled to the Republican Party. And though nearly every abolitionist had quit the Whig Party before the 1850s, it is important to understand that most abolitionists had formerly been Whigs and had brought into the antislavery movement much of the Whig way of thinking about society and government. The Whigs comprised the big government party of its day. They stressed the significant role that the U.S. government should play in promoting social and cultural values. Hence the widespread advocacy we find in the Whig Party for prohibition, state schools, ridding cities of prostitutes and other undesirable elements, and similar crusades for moral reforms. If the Democratic Party of the time saw itself as the party of liberty, the Whig Party saw itself as the party of morality.

In The Political Culture of the American Whigs (1979, p. 9), Daniel Walker Howe explained that the Whig Party “sought to transform America along moral lines.” Howe continued:

For the religious crusaders who led the temperance, peace, antislavery, missionary, and other benevolent societies, it was not enough to win individual souls to Christ; society as a whole must respond to His call. American Whigs, many of them members of the evangelical sects, typically believed in the collective redemption of society—“believed in” it, that is, in the triple sense of thinking it possible, thinking it desirable, and expecting it to occur. This religious impulse fused in the minds of many Whigs with their desire for economic development to create a vision of national progress that would be both moral and material. Society would become more prosperous and at the same time cleansed of its sins.

The Whig Party rejected laissez-faire and called for extensive government intervention in the economy, including tariffs to protect domestic industries, government subsidies for canals, railroads, and other “internal improvements,” and a monopolistic national bank with the exclusive right to issue currency. The Whigs also spearheaded the drive for state schools. Horace Mann, a prominent Massachusetts Whig who became known as the “father” of the common school system, preached incessantly about how crime would virtually disappear in America if the government took control of education by providing universal, free, and compulsory schooling. Mann’s plan for government schools, if not his utopian prophecies, was fulfilled after the Civil War, as Northerners concluded that Southerners would become more tractable and less rebellious if their children were taught proper values, especially obedience to their government.     

The Democratic Party favored free-trade and laissez-faire policies generally, and it not did want the federal government to interfere in the personal lives of American citizens. Unfortunately for the future of America, many southern Democrats placed slaveholding within the orbit of personal values and private property. For the federal government to restrict or abolish slavery would violate the slave owner’s property rights in his slaves. And this, as one Southerner put it, would be a serious violation of the individual freedom so precious to Americans. Modern readers may feel that they have gone down the rabbit hole when they read comments like this, but they were very common in their day.

It is one of the great tragedies in American history that most antislavery advocates were members (or ex-members) of the Whig Party, whereas the Democratic Party was dominated by defenders of slavery, mainly from the South. With this egregious and inexcusable exception, Democrats were far more libertarian than their Whig rivals, but the defense of slavery so tainted the Democratic Party that it is difficult to view the party in hindsight with any degree of sympathy. Of course, some historians will chastise me for interjecting my own values into a culture that existed nearly two centuries ago. I have committed the cardinal sin of “presentism,” they will say. But it is not as if my judgment was not found during the early to mid-nineteenth century, given how many people condemned the Democratic Party for precisely the reason I presented. History demands an objective account of both sides, but once that account is given, there is no reason why the historian should not take sides—not necessarily in his role as a historian but in his role as a moral philosopher. The historian is far more than just a historian, or at least he should be.

My purpose in this essay is not to engage in the slavery controversy. Rather, the preceding summary of the Whig Party is meant to explain, in part, why leading abolitionists, almost all of whom came from the Whig Party, were active in the temperance crusade and campaigned for compulsory prohibition. They shared the moral fervor of the Whigs and sought (as Howe put it) a collective redemption of society. Although abolitionists viewed slavery as a monumental sin that needed to be abolished before Americans could progress on the path to a moral society, they thought the same about the consumption of alcohol. And just as abolitionists believed that slavery should be abolished by law, so they believed that drunkenness should be abolished by law. Whigs had no problem calling on the state to enforce moral values. When many abolitionists deserted the Whig Party, they did so not because they disagreed with its position on state-enforced morality, but because, in their view, the Whigs had not done nearly enough to end slavery. Most Whig politicians had sacrificed their moral principles for political expediency, and this was unforgivable for abolitionists. It was with this kind of hypocrisy in mind that many abolitionists repudiated both parties and refused to participate in the political system, or voted only for antislavery candidates regardless of party affiliation, or “scattered” their votes by refusing to vote for any major party candidate, or joined the abolitionist Liberty Party. 

It should be noted that not all abolitionists, including ex-Whigs, accepted the economic policies of the Whig Party. Some were laissez-faire types and some were former Democrats. Were it not for their advocacy of prohibition, these abolitionists would have been exemplary models of classical liberalism. Gerrit Smith, a wealthy New York philanthropist, is the type of abolitionist I have in mind here. Smith was a consistent limited government libertarian—even to the point of favoring market education over state education (a rare position among whiggish abolitionists)—with the single exception of prohibition.

That was quite an exception. What would we think today of someone who accepts every libertarian position but one: he believes that Americans should reinstate the constitutional ban on alcoholic beverages that was in effect from 1920 from 1933. How could we explain what for us is an obvious inconsistency? Well, since our hypothetical libertarian-prohibitionist is a single exception to the general rule, we might attribute his inconsistency to a failure to reason correctly, or perhaps to some psychological peculiarity that generated an obsessive fear of alcohol. But no such individualistic explanation will work when it comes to the high percentage of prohibitionists among the abolitionists. For them prohibition was the rule rather than the exception—so we must seek general causes, not particular reasons that may vary from one person to the next.

There can be no doubt that prohibition was part of the culture of abolitionism. Since many leading abolitionists were active in the temperance crusade before they became abolitionists, it is likely that the prohibition mentality was largely imported into the abolitionist crusade from the outside. Temperance reformers brought their beliefs with them and regarded slavery as one among many sins that needed to be eradicated to transform America into a moral country.

Nevertheless, after sketching the religious background of abolitionism in my last essay and its political background this essay, I feel I have given only a partial explanation of the connection between abolitionism and the temperance crusade. I have puzzled over this connection for decades, trying to imagine how Garrison, Phillips, and other abolitionists could have combined their defense of self-ownership and individual rights, on the one hand, with their defense of compulsory prohibition, on the other hand. Some abolitionists did not seem to regard this as a problem at all; whereas others, such Gerrit Smith, were sensitive to the apparent conflict and attempted to reconcile the two positions. I shall examine some of those attempts in a subsequent essay.   

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