This is part of a series
Apr 4, 2017
Anarchism Versus Limited Government Abolitionism
Smith discusses how William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips differed in their approaches to non-voting.
In Can Abolitionists Vote or Take Office under the United States Constitution? (1845), Wendell Phillips considered seventeen objections to the no-voting position of the Garrisonians. Yet, after devoting substantial chunks of the previous five essays on Phillips and his arguments, I have only covered three objections, leaving another fourteen to be discussed. I think it would be unwise to consider all the remaining objections, given the number of additional essays this would take; so in this essay I shall focus on a few of the more significant objections to which Phillips replied, especially those with broad implications for political theory.
In Objection 13, the political abolitionist tells the nonpolitical abolitionist that “the same conscientious objection against promising your support to government, ought to lead you to avoid actually giving your support to it by paying taxes or suing in the courts.”
But is there really an inconsistency here? Are principled non-voters logically required to refuse payment of taxes, and must they spurn the court system altogether? No, said Phillips.
We should keep in mind that Phillips, unlike William Lloyd Garrison, was no pacifist, so he did not embrace the anarchistic “no-government” position that Garrison preached, owing to the fundamental role that violence plays in all governments. Although Objection 13 might—and I stress might—make sense against anarchists, it did not apply to those limited-government abolitionists who believed that the U.S. Constitution is proslavery. Therefore, according to Phillips, abolitionists should not vote for political agents who will swear under oath to “preserve, protect, and defend” the Constitution, for this would be tantamount to defending and possibly enforcing slavery itself.
After tracking down some of the original sources that Phillips may have used in summarizing objections to the no-voting theory, it became clear that many of those objections were targeting Garrison and his justification thereof. The critics therefore linked the no-voting theory to Garrison’s defense of nonresistance. From this premise, according to the critics, Garrison justified the no-government doctrine; and from this the no-voting theory followed logically.
As Phillips stated in Can Abolitionists Vote or Take Office under the United States Constitution? he was not a no-government man. This means that his rebuttals of the Objections could not appeal to Garrisonian anarchism. But in rebutting Objections that were specifically aimed at Garrison, Phillips sometimes failed to answer the original point of the criticisms. I suspect that Objection 13, for example, was originally framed with Garrison’s position as the target. It attributed the no-voting theory to Garrison’s anarchism, which Phillips did not share. But there was another perspective that was more often used to justify the no-voting theory, namely, the proslavery nature of the Constitution. This perspective was essential to those limited-government abolitionists, like Wendell Phillips, who preached non-voting. Consider one objection to which Phillips responded: True, the Constitution is currently proslavery, but it may be amended in the future to eliminate this repulsive feature. The provision for amendments means that voting and office-holding are permissible for abolitionists, for they may realistically hope to achieve emancipation through the political process.
To this argument Phillips had a terse reply. If there ever should be an antislavery constitutional amendment (as later happened with the 13th amendment, ratified on Dec. 6, 1865), then justice will have prevailed, at long last. With the abolition of slavery, there would no longer be any need for antislavery organizations. And with the dissolution of such organizations there would be no use for abolitionist strategies, such as non-voting. Thus if the cruel blot of slavery in the Constitution were to be rendered null and void, then voting would no longer violate the consciences of former anti-political abolitionists. But, according to Phillips, it does not follow that abolitionists should vote in 1845, twenty years before the 13th amendment was ratified, when the slavery clauses in the Constitution were still in effect. The hope that emancipation might come about through an amendment does not change the status quo, including the immorality of voting. Hopes of what may eventually happen in the future cannot change the moral obligations of abolitionists in the present.
This rebuttal by Phillips is not one that Garrison would have been obliged to accept, given his opposition to all governments. Even if an antislavery amendment were ratified, this would not necessarily modify Garrison’s criticism of voting. His commitment to nonviolence in all circumstances (of which slavery would just be one evil among many) placed his no-voting theory on a broader foundation than we find in Can Abolitionists Vote or Take Office under the United States Constitution? by Wendell Phillips. It should be emphasized that I am speaking theoretically here, not personally. Garrison could be maddeningly inconsistent at times, as evidenced by his support for the North in the Civil War—and this by a professed pacifist and disunionist—so we have no assurance that Garrison’s approach to non-voting would have remained consistent with his anarchism. In fact, we have evidence to the contrary.
Much of the problem with Garrison lay in the fact that he was not a competent philosopher of anarchism. His ideas on that topic were sketchy at best and crackbrained at worst, having been influenced by the perfectionism and utopianism of John Humphrey Noyes. This may help to explain why I have never seen any of Garrison’s writings in any anthology on American anarchism. On the other hand, Garrison’s skills as a tactician, publisher, and movement organizer were first rate.
The highpoint of Garrison’s influence on abolitionism was during the 1830s, but it declined precipitously during the 1840s. As a steadfast defender of equal rights for women, both in and out of abolitionist organizations, Garrison retained the admiration and agreement of many female abolitionists, but he also lost many of his followers, especially those who clung to traditional ideas about the proper roles of women in society and politics. Even those who agreed with Garrison on equal rights for women sometimes complained that the emancipation of slaves was a more important issue, and that the two causes should not be intermingled. Other issues that Garrison discussed in The Liberator—from disunionism to attacks on traditional churches that failed to speak out against slavery to equal rights for blacks after emancipation—drove away more readers, including many free blacks and runaway slaves. Blacks had comprised a significant percentage of readers and donors after The Liberator began publishing in 1831, but their numbers declined precipitously as they came to feel that freedom for blacks was being demoted below other social causes.
Perhaps the most significant reason for the decline in Garrison’s influence among abolitionists was the establishment of the Liberty Party in 1840. The Liberty Party had only a single plank—the abolition of slavery—and its membership featured some of the most distinguished abolitionist writers and speakers of the era. Thanks largely to Lysander Spooner’s The Unconstitutionality of Slavery, the Liberty Party officially declared slavery to be unconstitutional, though it conceded (as Garrison did) that the federal government lacked constitutional authority to abolish slavery in the states. But Congress did have the authority to abolish slavery in Washington, D.C., to prohibit the slave trade between states, and to forbid the expansion of slavery into the territories and in future states that would be carved out of those territories. These objectives became essential parts of the Liberty Party agenda.
Garrison severely criticized the Liberty Party from its inception in 1840 to its effective demise in 1848. Because of Garrison’s towering reputation, his criticisms were taken seriously for the first few years; but as the reputation and influence of the Liberty Party grew during the first half of the 1840s, its members and defenders tended to ignore Garrison and his anti-political doctrines. The no-voting stance could not be taken seriously in a conventional party, nor could Garrison’s call for disunion.
Given that Can Abolitionists Vote or Take Office under the United States Constitution? was printed in 1845—a time when anti-political arguments were losing ground and political arguments were gaining ground under the auspices of the Liberty Party, it is possible that Wendell Phillips sought to recapture lost ground from the political abolitionists.