This is part of a series
Apr 14, 2017
Abolitionism: Slavery as Sin
Smith begins his explanation of why so many abolitionists joined the crusade for the legal prohibition of alcohol.
I ended my last essay by noting that many leading abolitionists supported the prohibition of alcoholic drinks. As Wendell Phillips recalled in later life, “you couldn’t find one abolitionist out of a hundred who was not a temperance man.” William Lloyd Garrison campaigned for temperance early in his newspaper career, before he got involved with abolitionism. Likewise Theodore Weld was a temperance activist before he became one of abolitionism’s most effective campaigners. Gerrit Smith, a wealthy New York philanthropist who admired and financed Lysander Spooner’s writings on the Constitution and slavery, was also a dedicated prohibitionist. The Tappan brothers, Lewis and Arthur (successful businessmen from New York), worked diligently for the same cause. And after the Civil War, Wendell Phillips rejoined the temperance movement and gave a number of speeches calling for prohibition.
Before proceeding, I should explain the meanings of two key terms: temperance and prohibition. A temperance crusade may involve no effort to enlist government to enact anti-liquor laws. It may restrict its tactics to “moral suasion”—a term that was later picked up by Garrisonian abolitionists. But “temperance reform” may also refer to political movements that seek some measure of legal prohibition. Generally speaking, early temperance organizations in America adopted the method of moral suasion and did not advocate legal means to advance their cause. From around 1837, however, the focus shifted from moral suasion to prohibition, owing to the growing influence of the “ultras” (as the extremists in the temperance movement were called).
The ultras, aside from calling for prohibition, also pushed for more stringent goals in the temperance movement. They called for total abstinence (teetotalism) and condemned even moderate drinking as sinful. Moreover, no longer should temperance pertain only to hard liquor, with beer and wine excepted. All intoxicants—including (for some ultras) tobacco, coffee, and tea—were sinful to consume and therefore never to be ingested. Of course, this blanket prohibition raised the problem of wine used in communion, as well as how to interpret the biblical story of Jesus turning water into wine. Those learned theologians who favored complete abstinence, including wine in any amount, used their years of hermeneutical training to show that Jesus changed water into unfermented wine. (One sarcastic critic speculated that Jesus may have turned the water into grape jelly.)There were other explanations as well. According to one theologian, Jesus lacked accurate information about the harmful physical effects of alcoholic drinks. The pertinent facts only became known much later, so Jesus may be excused for his mistaken judgment, which we are under no obligation to follow. Needless to say, claiming that people during the early nineteenth century knew more than did the omniscient and infallible Son of God did not go over well with most Christians, so this argument pretty much died on the vine.
The ultras had many opponents in temperance groups. Critics argued that moral suasion is the only proper method to bring about the moral regeneration of society. Coercion can affect only external behavior, not the inner self, which should be the focal point of the conversion experience. Critics also argued that moderate drinking, far from being harmful, might actually be beneficial; and that to call for complete abstention from beer and wine is needlessly fanatical. When these controversies came to a head in 1837, the ultras proved victorious (for the most part). As a result the moderate temperance men quit the major temperance organizations in droves.
It is not my intention to trace the history of the temperance movement in America. But I should note that the abolitionists almost always defended legal prohibition, not merely moral suasion. This uncomfortable fact calls for an explanation, given that the libertarian premise of self-ownership was shared by every abolitionist with theoretical proclivities.
As will quickly become obvious to anyone who reads the original sources, again and again abolitionists characterized slavery as a sin. Although slavery was also called an injustice and a violation of the inalienable right of self-ownership, these labels were less common. Slavery is first and foremost a sin—an offense against God—and was typically labelled as such.
Although there were a few deists and atheists in abolitionist ranks, the vast majority of prominent abolitionists were evangelical Christians, despite their widespread repudiation of many traditional Protestant churches and teachings. Garrison in particular became notorious for his “come-outerism,” which was a call for antislavery Christians to leave their churches, if those institutions supported slavery or refused to denounce it. These people should come out of their churches and embrace a personal Christianity based on the conscience of the individual rather than on the judgments of ministers and other supposed religious authorities. Garrison and other abolitionists typically viewed the Protestant Reformation as a watershed in history, and they greatly admired Martin Luther for his independence and courage. The abolitionist crusade was a new Reformation, in effect—one that appealed to the conscience of individuals and their independent moral judgments, whatever traditional Christianity and its institutions had to say about slavery.
On at least one occasion Garrison claimed that he did not reject all governments. True, he denounced all human governments as evil, but he fervently believed in the government of God. The Bible was the only authority he respected; the teachings of the Bible are the ultimate standard by which human laws should be assessed. Any human law that conflicts with the Bible carries no moral authority and need not be obeyed.
According to Garrison and other temperance abolitionists, every immoral or unjust action is a sin, a violation of the divine will. Slavery fit easily into this scheme, but so did intemperance as understood by many abolitionists. The use of any intoxicant diminishes our ability to use our moral faculty (conscience) and so lessens our ability to render judgments that are consistent with the will of God. Intemperance, therefore, is more than a sin among many other sins. It is a fundamental sin that dramatically corrupts our ability to know and obey the sovereign will of God. Moreover, consumers of alcoholic drinks, with their diminished capacity to form moral judgments in accord with the will of God, threaten to undermine the foundation of social order. No society that permits the manufacture, distribution, or consumption of alcoholic drinks can be a truly moral society; and no immoral society can be a truly just society.
Only through prohibition may we expect the moral progress needed to create a perfect society that obeys the will of God. According to the doctrine known as “postmillennialism” and a theory known as “perfectionism,” only a morally perfect society will usher in the millennium, after which the Second Coming of Jesus will occur. In contrast to the doctrine called “premillennialism, according to which the Second Coming of Jesus will occur by supernatural means before the millennium, the postmillennialists believed that humans can speed up the millennium and the Second Coming through their own efforts, principally through various crusades that promote a moral society. The abolition of slavery was one such crusade, and so was the temperance movement.
Abolitionists linked intemperance to slavery in several ways. For example, in their lurid accounts of the brutality inflicted on slaves, sexual assaults on female slaves were often attributed by abolitionists to the drunkenness of overseers and masters. Even in the North, rape was typically linked to drunkenness, which in turn was attributed to the enervation of the moral faculty of intoxicated men. More than a few temperance reformers predicted that rape would virtually disappear in a society in which liquor was legally banned. The abuse of wives by their husbands received a similar analysis.
It was common for antislavery activists to view drinking as a type of slavery—a bondage of the inner self. To acquire the habit of drinking is to enslave oneself to that sin and thereby risk the eternal torments of hell. Here the abolitionists drew upon the notion of “freedom” defended by Martin Luther. True freedom, in this context, means freedom from sin, not freedom from aggression by other people. Prohibition would actually increase the amount of freedom in a society in this sense.
The title of a popular booklet published in 1828 left no doubt about the similarities between intemperance and slavery. In Parallel Between Intemperance and the Slave-Trade (1828), Heman Humphrey (president of Amherst College) argued that intemperance is worse even than slavery. A slave does not enslave himself, whereas a drinker is responsible for his bondage to alcohol. This means that a drinker has imperiled his eternal soul and consequently will feel a great deal of well-deserved guilt. In addition, intemperance threatens the foundation of social order, so it is the duty of rulers to pass laws not only against drinkers (including moderate drinkers) but also against distillers and retailers of spirituous liquors. Humphrey wrote:
Rarely indeed, I believe, does the drunkard, with all his pains, free himself entirely from the compunctious visitings of his conscience. She knows how to make her terrible voice heard even in the midst of his revelry. She enters before him into his sick-chamber, with her thorns for his pillow—takes her stand by his bedside, on purpose to terrify him with her awful forebodings and rebukes; and when the king of terrors comes, she anticipates his entrance into the dark valley, that she may there haunt his soul with undying horrors. Now what, I pray you, is African slavery in its most terrific forms, compared with this? The mere sting of an insect, compared with the fangs of a tiger—the slight inconvenience of a ligature, contrasted with the live and crushing folds of the Boa Constrictor. Drag me bound and bleeding, if you will, from my blazing habitation—thrust me half dead into the fetid hold of any slave-ship—sell me to any foreign master—doom me to labor in any burning climate—set over me any iron-hearted driver—load me with any chains, and compel me to toil night and day in any sugar-house—but deliver me not over to the retributions of a conscience, exasperated by the guilt of intemperance! O bind me not to a rack where I can neither live nor die under the torture!
I have given only a sketch of how prohibitionists viewed the social world, their belief that sin must be largely eradicated before moral progress can occur, and how moral perfection is necessary to usher in the millennium. But these details do not explain how abolitionists, with their thorough understanding of the inalienable right of self-ownership, could defend compulsory prohibition instead of confining themselves to the voluntary method of moral suasion—the latter being the same method that Garrison and his disciples promoted to bring about the emancipation of slaves. I shall consider this strange inconsistency in my next essay. For now I suggest that the answer lies in their belief that slavery is principally a sin and only secondarily an injustice. This nomenclature placed slavery in the same moral universe as intemperance and thereby blurred the boundary between actions that violate rights versus sinful (or immoral) actions that do not violate rights and so should not be the target of coercive legislation.
Not only with the consumption of alcohol but with some other sins as well, many abolitionists failed to apply their foundational principle of self-ownership consistently. Self-ownership was the moral equivalent of Schopenhauer’s cab. After taking abolitionists to their desired destination, the cab was dismissed and forgotten.