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Feb 23, 2018

Conflicts among Peace Advocates during the Civil War

Smith discusses how peace activists and pacifists justified their support of the North during the Civil War.

In 1838, after Garrison began devoting a substantial portion of each Liberator to the non-resistance cause, he was admonished by some of his friends that this might hurt the antislavery campaign. On October 1, 1838, George Bourne wrote to Garrison:

I am aware that there is no necessary and inseparable connection between the anti-slavery cause and any other, and that every individual has the right to engage in as many more warfares as he pleases; but I candidly confess that I see you the standard-bearer of the Non-Resistance Society with regret. I should equally regret to witness you occupying a prominent position in any other cause which is not a portion of the emancipation warfare.

Bourne noted that he had read the Liberator for years without disagreeing with its articles because it focused solely on “the sacred cause.” But things changed after Garrison began devoting its pages to crusades other than emancipation.

It is but candid to say that, during the whole of this summer, I have scarcely met a number in which there is not something which repels. Either it is irrelevant, or so ill-adapted to carry out our principles and designs, that I would rather have seen a blank spot than many paragraphs which I have read….I seriously believe that every square of the Liberator which is devoted to subjects which have not the smallest reference to the anti-slavery controversy is mischievous to the cause, and injurious to your influence in the momentous conflict.

A similar criticism by Anne Warren Weston cut to the heart of the problem. Unlike Bourne, Weston shared Garrison’s philosophy of nonresistance, but she feared that its radical “no-government” implications would alienate many potential abolitionists. In the Declaration of Sentiments, drafted by Garrison and adopted by the Non-Resistance Society in September, 1838, we find a clear affirmation of Christian anarchism.

We cannot acknowledge allegiance to any human government; neither can we oppose any such government by a resort to force. We recognize but one KING and LAWGIVER, one JUDGE and RULER. We are bound by the laws of a kingdom which is not of this world; the subjects of which are forbidden to fight…which has no state lines, no national partitions, no geographical boundaries; in which there is no distinction of rank, or division of caste, or inequality of sex….

In her cautionary letter to Garrison, Anne Warren Weston recommended that Garrison dedicate the Liberator solely to the cause of abolitionism. By combining abolition with nonresistance in the same paper, Garrison opened himself to “allegations that we are contending for the abolition of government rather than that of slavery”—a cause that even many abolitionists would not endorse. Moreover, the Liberator could not do justice to the pacifist cause. “The non-resistance people feel as though it were a sort of sufferance, only, by which they have a place in the Liberator, and do not therefore feel perfectly at liberty to bring forward their views there. This, at least, would be the case with myself.”

Weston recommended that Garrison begin a separate journal devoted to the cause of nonresistance, though she recognized that Garrison’s heavy workload would probably make him unable to edit the journal himself. “Very many, I think, who do not wish to have the cause introduced into the Liberator, would be anxious to take a paper wholly devoted to it.” Garrison took Weston’s advice; the first issue of the semi-monthly Non-Resistant (edited by Edmund Quincy) was published the following year. Both the journal and the Non-Resistance Society itself were short lived; in 1844, Garrison wrote that the “Society, I regret to say, has had only a nominal existence during the past year….It is without an organ, without funds, without publications.”

Garrison and other nonresistants split from the American Peace Society because they regarded its principles as too lax. Members of the Peace Society ranged from those who opposed all wars to those who condemned only offensive wars. Although virtually all activists in the peace movement condemned the war with Mexico in 1846—the United States, they claimed, was clearly the aggressor in that conflict—they disagreed substantially among themselves on other issues. For example, George Beckwith, an influential member of the Peace Society, argued for a crucial distinction between wars between states and domestic insurrections. Only international wars, according to Beckwith, were authentic wars, so only those conflicts should be condemned by peace advocates. Domestic insurrections were another matter; a government could legitimately suppress those uprisings with violence, since this was an essential part of a government’s duty to maintain peace. Beckwith applied this reasoning to the Civil War in his 1861 article, “The Enforcement of Law a Peace Measure.” Beckwith published his article in the Advocate, a leading peace journal.

For years Beckwith had opposed the anarchistic tendencies of Garrison’s pacifism, which condemned a government’s use of coercion against its own citizens. In his article Beckwith responded that the cure and control of many evils requires governmental force, not nonviolence. Among such evils was secession, which in Beckwith’s opinion was obviously criminal.  Nevertheless, Beckwith believed that the seceding states should be permitted to leave the Union without molestation. But, like thousands of Americans, his opinion changed after the bombardment of Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861. Beckwith insisted that no peace advocate could possibly tolerate a violent attack against the United States government. The Union was entirely within its rights to retaliate with violence. Indeed, the Union government had a duty to preserve law and order.  Beckwith wrote:

It is not possible for a peace man to be a rebel. We may dislike the government over us, and seek to change it, but never in the way of violent resistance to its authority. We cannot for a moment countenance or tolerate rebellion.

In 1861, after violence had erupted, the Peace Society laid down some principles that peace advocates should follow during the Civil War. After declaring that “We are in the midst of a rebellion the most gigantic perhaps that the world ever saw,” the Society insisted that peace advocates should support the North unreservedly. As historian Valerie H. Ziegler noted (The Advocates of Peace in Antebellum America, 1992, p. 156):

Convinced…that the South was involved in “the gigantic crime of attempting to overthrow the freest and best government on earth,” the society would spend the rest of the war vilifying the South and praising the virtues of the North. It was hard for the advocates of peace to be objective about the Union—when they were convinced that the North fought on behalf of the Lord. That very attitude, of course, also encouraged them to interpret Southern actions in the worst possible light.

The Peace Society also upheld the distinction between war between nations and domestic disputes. The Civil War was a criminal uprising, which the government had a duty to suppress. It was a police action, not a real war, so peace principles did not apply. Although this distinction was ridiculed by peace advocates in England, many American peace advocates continued to use it to justify their enthusiastic support of the Union.

The argument of Beckwith and his colleagues in the Peace Society, to the effect that the Civil War was a domestic police action, obviously depended on the belief that secession by the southern states was illegitimate. This was also the position taken by Abraham Lincoln, who declared that the Confederacy was not a separate nation in fact but merely consisted of renegade states that, legally considered, were still part of the Union. To maintain otherwise, to concede that the Confederacy qualified as an independent nation, would have undercut Beckwith’s contention that the Civil War was merely a legitimate police action by the U.S. government.

The right of secession was widely debated in the Civil War era. I shall discuss that controversy in a later essay, but for now I wish to recall Garrison’s position on secession. In calling for disunion in the years before the Civil War, Garrison appeared to defend the right of states to secede, but he later qualified his position. He stated that secession could be justified only for a just cause, and that the South, in seeking to preserve slavery, obviously could not plead justice in its own defense. A few abolitionists disagreed, however, and their position on secession is worth mentioning.

In A Northern Plea for the Right of Secession (1861), the veteran abolitionist George W. Bassett argued that the right to secede from an existing government is a logical corollary of the right of self-government. This right does not depend on the motives of those who choose to secede. As Bassett put it:

The specific question is, “Has any one of the United States a right to secede from the Union at her own option?”

This should not be confounded with other collateral or incidental questions, such as, whether there is sufficient cause for secession? or whether it is expedient for the seceding States? Or best for the other States?

Bassett went on the defend secession as an “absolute and unqualified right of the people of any State to dissolve their political connection with the General Government whenever they choose.” His major argument was as follows:

The right of secession implies, of course, the right of the people to be their own exclusive judges in this matter. By the very act of asking the consent or permission of the other States to secede, they relinquish the right to do so. So by granting them that permission, you would deny them the right.

Many abolitionists appealed to a “higher law” to determine when a particular act of secession was justified, but some defenders of slavery appealed to the same source. Bassett understood that the only way to resolve such disagreements is to respect the right of self-government and allow the people in each state to decide whether or not to secede, however questionable or tainted their reasons might be.

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