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Jan 20, 2017

Abolitionism: Wendell Phillips on Voting and Political Action

Smith discusses the controversy over whether the U.S. Constitution is pro-slavery, as illustrated in the opposing views of two leading abolitionists: Wendell Phillips and Lysander Spooner.

The dominant figure in abolitionism was William Lloyd Garrison, editor of The Liberator, which he founded in 1831. Garrison firmly believed that the U.S. Constitution (as originally written) sanctions slavery, even though the words “slave” and “slavery” never appear in that document. Garrison’s position was strengthened in 1840, when James Madison’s record of the Constitutional Convention was published for the first time. Delegates at the Convention had agreed to keep the proceedings secret from the public for fifty years, thereby hoping to escape accountability through death.

Although some fragmentary accounts had been published earlier, Madison’s more complete notes left no doubt about the place of slavery in the Constitution. It was sanctioned and protected as a means to bring the Deep South into the union. This is especially apparent in three clauses: the provision that “all other persons” were to be counted as three-fifths when computing representation in the House of Representatives (Art. 1, sec. 2); the provision that Congress could not outlaw the slave trade until 1808 (Art. 1, sec. 9); and the provision that required states to return runaway slaves to their master (Art. 4, sec. 2).

Garrison’s position was clearly and colorfully stated in 1854, when abolitionists convened in Framingham, Massachusetts to protest the return of a runaway slave, Anthony Burns. During his speech Garrison held up a copy of the Constitution and condemned it as “a covenant with death and an agreement from hell.” Then Garrison burned the Constitution while declaring, “So perish all compromises with tyranny!” Most of the spectators responded with amens.

According to Garrison, the Constitution was “the most bloody and heaven-daring arrangement ever made by men for the continuance and protection of a system of the most atrocious villainy ever exhibited on earth.” Many abolitionists disagreed with this position. They did not share Garrison’s condemnation of the Constitution as a pro-slavery document. This controversy split the abolitionist movement into two major factions, and this schism generated additional disagreements, especially over the wisdom of attempting to emancipate slaves by political methods.

Readers should understand how complicated and personal these movement debates could get. For example, William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips were friends and colleagues who worked together for many years. Although they agreed on almost everything, there was one notable exception: Garrison embraced “nonresistance,” i.e., pacifism that absolutely condemns the use of violence, even in self-defense. And since government operates by violent methods, Garrison defended a position known as “no-governmentalism.” This of course was anarchism under another name; but, then as now, to call oneself an “anarchist” suggested a person committed to the overthrow of governments through violence—an approach that was alien to what Garrison stood for and which he expressly repudiated. 

In contrast to Garrison, Phillips upheld the right to use physical force in self-defense, so he did not share Garrison’s philosophy of nonresistance, nor did Phillips condemn all governments on principle. Although some abolitionists—such as Angelina and Sarah Grimké, and the remarkable Henry C. Wright—sided with Garrison in this controversy, most did not. Some defenders of government complained that the advocates of nonresistance and no-governmentalism would strike Americans as crackpots and thereby cause serious damage to the crusade for emancipation. This in turn led to a serious schism in the abolitionist ranks, as critics of Garrison attempted to exclude his disciples from membership in antislavery organizations. These critics (most notably Lewis Tappan, a New York businessman) disagreed not only with Garrison’s philosophy of nonresistance and no-governmentalism, but also with his belief that abolitionists should not vote or hold any political office. Abolitionists, according to Garrison, should use only “moral suasion” in their fight against slavery. (I shall have more to say about Garrison’s approach in a future essay.)

It is to Garrison’s credit that he was ecumenical in regard to the abolitionist movement and organizations. Although he vehemently attacked many of his critics, he would often print their criticisms unedited in The Liberator, and he opposed excluding heretical abolitionists from antislavery organizations, however much they disagreed with his own views. Once, when asked by a critic if he believed that all abolitionists should embrace nonresistance as a matter of conscience, he replied that nonresistance was the right position for him; other abolitionists would have to make up their own minds. Similar problems arose when Garrison used The Liberator to advance causes other than emancipation, such as equal rights for women.  Garrison deeply believed in these causes, but he did not use them as litmus tests to determine who is and is not an authentic abolitionist. He understood that reasonable people, including abolitionists, may disagree on some matters, but this doesn’t necessarily make them enemies.

I previously noted how Garrison and Phillips differed on the issue of no-governmentalism. Both men agreed that the Constitution is a pro-slavery document, so both repudiated political action (for reasons I shall explain later). But Garrison’s anarchism, based on his pacifism, gave him an additional ground for repudiating political action. If governments are inherently evil owing to their use of violence, then no conscientious person should participate in that institution. Other factors came into play here, such as Garrison’s “perfectionism,” but a more complete account must await a future essay.

We now turn to a brilliant defense of the anti-political stance of the Garrisonians—Can Abolitionists Vote or Take Office Under the United States Constitution?(1845), by Wendell Phillips. This 38-page booklet holds a special place in my personal intellectual history. I first read it during the late 1970s, and it helped to clarify my objections to voting, the Libertarian Party, and those libertarians who seek political office. More than any other source, the work by Phillips led to my role in founding The Voluntaryist (with Carl Watner and Wendy McElroy) in1982. I took the label “Voluntaryist” from those nineteenth-century British libertarians who campaigned for the separation of church and state and, later, for the separation of school and state. (It was also picked up subsequently by the libertarian Auberon Herbert.) “Voluntaryism” has come to signify the branch of libertarianism that opposes voting and political office-holding, but this was not the position of the British Voluntaryists, who were thoroughly political. But the label had fallen into disuse for nearly a century, so I decided to appropriate it, albeit with a different meaning.

Before delving into Phillips’s arguments against voting and other political activities by abolitionists, some background information may help to place his tract in its historical context. We have seen how Garrison, Phillips, and their colleagues maintained that the U.S. Constitution is pro-slavery; this was the foundation of the anti-political arguments put forward by Phillips in Can Abolitionists Vote or Take Office Under the United States Constitution?  The big gun in rebutting this interpretation was the brilliant libertarian attorney and philosopher Lysander Spooner, a major figure in abolitionism. In 1845, Spooner published The Unconstitutionality of Slavery, which became a foundational text for the pro-political wing of abolitionism. Although other abolitionists, such as Gerrit Smith and William Goodell, wrote tracts defending the same position, they drew heavily from Spooner. Indeed, Gerrit Smith, a wealthy New York philanthropist, provided financial assistance to Spooner so he could write his numerous antislavery tracts. After publishing a tract, Spooner typically sent signed copies to every member of Congress. The postage could add up, so once, when Spooner ran out of money, he wrote to Smith asking if he would send another five dollars. Smith sent the funds but he added a caustic note saying that he was tired of rescuing Spooner from his “pecuniary embarrassments.” Spooner replied that he was equally tired of rescuing Smith from his “intellectual embarrassments.” There was a valid point to this remark. Smith’s own publications had drawn heavily from Spooner’s ideas and writings, sometimes without acknowledgment. Spooner added that he and Smith had an understanding when they dedicated themselves to the abolitionist cause: Smith would provide the money, and Spooner would provide the ideas. Spooner had kept his part of the bargain, so he resented Smith’s unkind remark about the five dollars.

In The Unconstitutionality of Slavery, Spooner sought to refute the Garrisonian critique of the Constitution and thereby open the door for voting and other political activities by abolitionists. This tract also provided justification for members of the Liberty Party (formed in 1840) in which Gerrit Smith played a major role. That Spooner was greatly admired by political abolitionists is reflected in this resolution passed by the Liberty Party in 1849:

Whereas, Lysander Spooner, of Massachusetts, that man of honest heart and acute and profound intellect, has published a perfectly conclusive legal argument against the constitutionality of slavery;

Resolved, therefore, that we warmly recommend to the friends of freedom, in this and other States, to supply, within the coming six months, each lawyer in their counties with a copy of said argument.

Given Spooner’s arguments that slavery is unconstitutional, we might expect him to have favored political activities by abolitionists. But this was not the case. Ironically, his position was similar to the Garrisonian position. In a letter to his friend George Bradburn, Spooner said that his “theory of voting” did not allow him to support any political party, even one that was antislavery. Bradburn was annoyed. How could it be “that such notions are held by him, who wrote ‘The Unconstitutionality of Slavery?’” Spooner replied:

I do not rely upon “political machinery” (although it may or may not, do good, according as its objects are, or are not, legal and constitutional)…because the principle of it is wrong; for it admits …that under a constitution, the law depends on the will of majorities, for the time being, as indicated by the acts of the legislature.

Spooner could not sanction the Constitution and the government it established. Although the Constitution is “a thousand times better…than it is generally understood to be,” it is so seriously flawed that “honest men who know its true character” should not sanction it. As Wendell Phillips perceptively observed, “Mr. Spooner’s idea is practical no-governmentalism.”

In my next essay I shall summarize the material in Can Abolitionists Vote or Take Office Under the United States Constitution? And in future essays I shall explain some key points in the controversy over the constitutionality of slavery, as well as other controversies that divided the abolitionists.  

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