This is part of a series
Feb 2, 2018
The Abolitionists on the Right of Secession
Smith discusses some of the very few abolitionists who defended the right of southern states to secede from the Union.
Many antislavery leaders initially supported the right of southern states to secede from the Union. For decades William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips had advocated “disunionism,” calling for the North to secede from the South. But even less radical antislavery types believed that the right of peaceful secession was embodied in the Declaration of Independence and should be respected. In early 1861, for example, the antislavery minister James Freeman Clarke wrote that the right to secede was in accordance with “the principles of self-government, which are asserted in the Declaration of Independence.” Similarly, Horace Greeley, the influential antislavery editor of the New York Tribune, wrote that the southern states that had left the Union were merely applying the “great principle” enunciated in the Declaration, according which “governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed; and that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it.” If this “justified the secession from the British Empire of Three Millions of colonists in 1776,” then Greeley asked why the same reasoning “would not justify the secession of Five Millions of Southrons from the Federal Union in 1861.”
Things changed dramatically after southern forces bombarded Fort Sumter (near Charleston, South Carolina) in April 1861, after seven southern states had seceded and demanded that the North abandon the fort. This sparked the onset of the Civil War and caused most antislavery advocates to support the North in that extraordinarily bloody conflict. This does not mean that they also gave full-throated support to Abraham Lincoln, for they understood that Lincoln engaged in the war to restore the Union, not to abolish slavery. Abolitionists in particular tended to be highly critical of Lincoln, at least during the early phase of the war. The reaction of Garrison was fairly typical. After Lincoln delivered a speech to Congress (December 3, 1861) in which he failed to mention emancipation, Garrison wrote the following to Oliver Johnson, a fellow abolitionist.
What a wishy-washy message from the President! It is more and more evident that he is a man of very small calibre, and had better be at his old business of splitting rails than at the head of a government like ours, especially in such a crisis. He has evidently not a drop of anti-slavery blood in his veins; and he seems incapable of uttering a humane or generous sentiment respecting the enslaved millions in our land.
Only a handful of abolitionists remained true to the principle of secession. The best known was Lysander Spooner, who defended this right in No Treason, published in three parts. Another was George W. Bassett, a twenty-year veteran of abolitionist agitation, who published two tracts: A Northern Plea for the Right of Secession and A Discourse on the Wickedness and Folly of the Present War. In the latter tract (originally delivered as a speech in August 1861) Bassett—described by one historian as “an old-line Jeffersonian radical”—stated: “The same principle that has always made me an uncompromising abolitionist, now makes me an uncompromising secessionist. It is the great and sacred right of self-government.” Although Bassett supported John Brown and slave uprisings, he noted that the North was not fighting for emancipation. Rather, the North was fighting “for the identical object of Lord North in his war on the American colonies.” The purpose of Lincoln’s war was “not the freedom of the black man, but the enthrallment of the white man” by attempting to maintain a highly centralized government. Although the major motive of southern secessionists was to preserve slavery, Bassett (like Spooner) regarded motives as irrelevant. The right of self-government and its logical corollary, the right of secession, was rooted in the “laws of nature and of nature’s God; and not on the sandy and mutable foundation of human motives.”
Another abolitionist who consistently upheld the right of secession was Joshua Blanchard, who was in his eighties when the Civil War erupted. A longtime member of the American Peace Society, Blanchard was distressed by how the vast majority of its members quickly supported the northern side when the fighting started, even though opposition to all war was a fundamental tenet of its constitution. Indeed, when Blanchard surveyed the original signatories to the constitution of another pacifist organization, the League of Universal Brotherhood, who had pledged their opposition to all wars, he asked if they opposed the Civil War. Only two replied in the affirmative. A common reason given for supporting the Civil War was that it was not a true war at all, but a rebellion, and that the suppression of a rebellion was a police action and therefore a legitimate function of government. As the journal the Advocate of Peace put it, if the use of armed force to suppress a rebellion were illegitimate, “then all real, effective government is wrong, and society must be abandoned to a remediless, everlasting anarchy.” As Peter Brock wrote in Pacifism in the United States: From the Colonial Era to the First World War (Princeton, 1968):
The coming of war, indeed, witnessed a flight from the peace camp of a large number of the stalwarts of the old peace movement and hesitations and doubts on the part of others….The argument that the fighting was not really war, but simply police action, appears to have made the transition from pacifism to belligerency easier for many in the peace movement.
Blanchard defended secession in The War of Secession and in a broadside, Plan for Terminating the War. He argued that slavery would eventually disappear without the cooperation of the North. The detested Fugitive Slave Law would be repealed, for one thing, so runaway slaves would find sanctuary in the free states. The reformation rather than the destruction of slaveholders was the only method consistent with Christian principles. As the war continued with increasing ferocity and Blanchard’s antiwar arguments proved ineffective, he concluded that it was hopeless to expect the Union government to change, so he called upon masses of citizens to engage in nonviolent resistance by refusing to fight.
As stated previously, those abolitionists who supported the northern cause understood that Lincoln had no intention of liberating slaves. Nevertheless, they believed that the logic of events would eventually lead to this outcome. This was Garrison’s position. Garrison, the great champion of disunionism, was criticized for his support of a war fought to restore the Union, but he claimed that his critics did not understand his position. He had never defended an unqualified right of secession, he argued, but only secession undertaken for a just cause. This was the point of his citing the Declaration of Independence so often. And it was clear that the secession of southern states was not motivated by a just cause.
Garrison repeatedly criticized Lincoln for not making total emancipation a central purpose of the war. Secession provided a perfect opportunity for the abolition of slavery. Garrison, like most abolitionists, conceded that the federal government lacked constitutional authority to interfere with slavery in the states; it had jurisdiction only over federal property, such as the territories and Washington, D.C. But the southern states, after seceding, could no longer claim the protection of the U.S. Constitution. In a speech delivered in New York on January 14, 1862, and printed as a booklet, The Abolitionists and Their Relations the War, later the same year, Garrison stated:
Happily, the Government may now constitutionally do what until the secession it had not the power to do. For thirty years the Abolitionists have sent in their petitions to Congress, asking that body to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia to prevent the further extension of slavery, to repeal the Fugitive Slave Law, but not to interfere with slavery in the Southern States. We recognize the compact as it was made. But now, by their treasonable course, the slaveholders may no longer demand constitutional protection for their slave property. The old “covenant with death” should never have been made. Our fathers sinned—sinned grievously and inexcusably—when they consented to the hunting of fugitive slaves—to a slave representation in Congress—to the prosecution of the foreign slave trade, under the national flag, for twenty years—to the suppression of slave insurrections by the whole power of the Government….The Union should not have been made upon such conditions.
But how did Garrison, an avowed pacifist, justify the slaughter of people during the Civil War? He claimed that this was the judgment of God, who was punishing the United States, both North and South, for tolerating the sin of slavery. But he also had a more sophisticated explanation, which he stated during the controversy over John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry in 1859, which had led to a number of deaths. John Brown generated a dilemma for pacifists who admired the man but who could not endorse his violent actions. In a lecture delivered on November 25, 1859, Garrison stated:
In recording the expressions of sympathy and admiration which are so widely felt for John Brown, whose doom is so swiftly approaching, we desire to say—once for all—that, judging him by the code of Bunker Hill, we think he as deserving of high-wrought eulogy as any who wielded sword or battle-axe in the cause of liberty; but we do not and cannot approve any indulgence of the war spirit.
Garrison later explained his position in more detail.
I am a non-resistant—a believer in the inviolability of human life, under all circumstances; I, therefore, in the name of God, disarm John Brown and every slave at the South…..I am a non-resistant, and I not only desire, but have labored unremittingly to effect, the peaceful abolition of slavery, by an appeal to the reason and conscience of the slaveholder; yet, as a peace man—an ‘ultra’ peace man—I am prepared to say: ‘Success to every slave insurrection at the South, and in every slave country.’ And I do not see how I compromise or stain my peace profession in making that declaration.
I shall continue my discussion of Garrison in the next essay.