This is part of a series
Feb 16, 2018
Garrison on the Civil War and Conscription
Smith defends the pacifist Garrison from the charge of hypocrisy for supporting the Union during the Civil War.
For decades William Lloyd Garrison advocated disunionism and pacifism, but he ended up supporting the North during the Civil War—all the while insisting that he never compromised his basic principles. How are we to evaluate this claim of consistency? One approach was that taken by Garrison’s biographer James Brewer Stewart (William Lloyd Garrison and the Challenge of Emancipation, 1992), who accused Garrison, in effect, of hypocrisy. According to Stewart, “For Garrison, the journey to patriotic militarism was quick and simple, accomplished through the now-familiar process of self-deception that always allowed him to preserve his sense of moral purity.”
For years I accepted Stewart’s explanation, more or less. This was largely because I relied on the opinion of historians, rather than reading what Garrison himself had to say about his apparent transition from pacifist to war-hawk. Over the past six months or so, however, I have read much of Garrison’s correspondence and published articles on this topic, and my opinion has changed. This is not to say that I agree with Garrison or that his explanations are not without difficulties, but they are at the very least plausible. Not being a pacifist myself, it was difficult for me to give pacifists like Garrison a fair and comprehensive hearing; but when I delved into the pacifist literature, which is quite extensive, his position made more sense to me.
The purpose of this essay is to give Garrison a sympathetic hearing. All quotations from Garrison are from one of two sources: Volume IV of William Lloyd Garrison, 1805-1879. The Story of His Life, as Told by His Children, 1861-1879 (This set, published in 1889, is valuable primarily for its extensive and lengthy quotations from Garrison’s writings.) and Volume V of The Letters of William Lloyd Garrison, titled Let the Oppressed Go Free, 1861-1867, edited by Walter M. Merrill, 1979.
If we are to understand Garrison’s pacifism, we must first understand a distinction he drew from the beginning of his antislavery activism, namely, the difference between opposition to all violence and war and taking sides in a violent conflict. To oppose all violence, even in self-defense, does not mean that one must remain agnostic when judging a violent conflict. One may still assess the relative merits of each side and conclude that one side has justice on its side, whereas the other does not. During the 1830s, for example, after Nat Turner and his band had killed 45 whites in a slave rebellion, Garrison expressed his disapproval of Turner’s methods but noted that his violent actions were entirely understandable as a reaction to the violent oppression of slave owners. Garrison applied the same kind of analysis to John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry in 1859 and to other violent actions against slavery. His position never changed on this matter; so when, with the outbreak of the Civil War, he claimed that the North was entirely in the right and the South was entirely in the wrong, he merely extended the same reasoning to a larger conflict.
A less palatable feature of Garrison’s position was his conviction that the Civil War, which he predicted would be long and bloody, was God’s judgment on a sinful nation. In a letter to a friend (Jan. 19, 1861), Garrison wrote:
Dark as the times are, beyond them all is right. I would have nothing changed; for this is God’s judgment-day with our guilty nation, which really deserves to be visited with civil and servile war, and to be turned inside out and upside down, for its unparalleled iniquity.
This belief imparted a sense of inevitability to the war, and Garrison saw little point in resisting the inevitable. At one point Garrison even counselled abolitionists to go easy when criticizing Lincoln and the war, because as deplorable as Lincoln was in waging the war to preserve the Union, he was engaged in an enterprise that would almost certainly result in the extinction of slavery in America.
In 1860, after South Carolina seceded, Garrison characterized any attempt to coerce the state back into the Union as “idiotic.” Indeed, Garrison was delighted when six more states seceded in quick succession, for this provided an ideal opportunity for the North to sever its relationship to slavery. In early 1861, before the inauguration of Lincoln but after seven states had seceded, Garrison commented on what the northern states should do. The federal government had the constitutional authority to use coercion against those states, according to Garrison, but they should not use that authority.
[T]o think of whipping the South (for she will be a unit on the question of slavery) into subjection, and extorting allegiance from millions of people at the cannon’s mouth, is utterly chimerical. True, it is in the power of the North to deluge her soil with blood, and inflict upon her the most terrible sufferings; but not to conquer her spirit, or change her determination.
What, then, ought to be done? The people of the North should recognize the fact that the Union is dissolved, and act accordingly. They should see, in the madness of the South, the hand of God, liberating them from “a covenant with death and an agreement with hell.”
Instead of pretending that the Union was still intact, in theory if not in fact, Northerners should convene a “Convention of the Free States” to organize an independent government on “free and just principles.” Garrison continued:
Let the line be drawn between us where free institutions end and slave institutions begin! Organize your own confederacy, if you will, based upon violence, tyranny, and blood, and relieve us from all responsibility for your evil course!
Aside from Garrison’s explicit comments about secession and the war, interesting details are also contained in his remarks about conscription. Although the U.S. Congress did not enact national conscription until it passed the Enrollment Act in March of 1863, some Northerners figured this was only a matter of time. In the summer of 1862, the pacifist Elizabeth Chace wrote to Garrison asking what his three sons of draft age would do if they were eventually conscripted into the Union army. Garrison replied that two of his sons, Wendell and William, were principled nonresistants. They were “in principle opposed to all fighting with carnal weapons,” so “they will not go to the tented field but will abide the consequences.” The third son, George, “is inclined to think he shall go, if drafted, as he does not claim to be a non-resistant.” As for the possibility that draftees might avoid serving by hiring substitutes—a provision that was later included in the Enrollment Act—Garrison opposed this option, noting that a person who is conscientiously opposed to all war could not consistently “employ another to do what he could not do himself.”
Garrison said that he would not object if a non-pacifist abolitionist decided to fight for the Union, provided the purpose of the war was to abolish slavery. But so long as the purpose of the war was to restore the Union, as Lincoln declared, “I do not see how I, or any other radical abolitionist, could consistently fight to maintain it.” In the final analysis,
I do not object to my children suffering any hardships, or running any risks in the cause of liberty and the support of great principles, if duty requires it; but I wish them to know themselves, to act from the highest and noblest motives, and to be true to their conscientious convictions.
After national conscription became law, Garrison wrote two lengthy editorials in the Liberator analyzing how the draft should apply to professed pacifists. He objected to the exemptions granted in some states solely to Quakers. These exemptions, he insisted, should apply to all authentic pacifists, regardless of their religious beliefs. “For he who believes in total abstinence from war as a Christian duty, though a member of no religious body, ought to have the same toleration as though he wore a Quaker dress and belonged to a Quaker society.” But Garrison added a serious qualification. Those who vote should not be exempt from the draft. Voters authorize the government to act as their agents and administer the functions of government, including the power to declare and wage war. “[W]e say that he who votes to empower Congress to declare war, and to provide the necessary instruments of war, and to constitute the President commander-in-chief of the army and navy, has no right, when war actually comes, to plead conscientious scruples as a peace man; but is bound to stand by his vote, or else to make confession of wrong-doing and take his position outside of the government.” Garrison continued:
But we submit to all the people, that such as wholly abstain from voting to uphold the Constitution because of its war provisions, and thus religiously exclude themselves from all share in what are deemed official honors and emoluments, ought not to be drafted in time of war, or compelled to pay an equivalent, or go to prison for disobedience. If conscience is to be respected and provided for in any case, it is in this.
This passage is interesting because it extends Garrison’s theory of nonvoting beyond objections to the slavery provisions in the Constitution to the clauses that pertain to the military and war. Of course, no exemptions of the sort Garrison recommended were ever enacted (nor were they likely ever to be enacted), so Garrison predicted that non-Quaker pacifists could expect a good deal of hardship from their refusal to fight for the Union in the Civil War. This was to be expected. Pacifists “surely knew the liabilities to which they subjected themselves when they gave in their adhesion to the principles of Non-Resistance,” so they should bear whatever penalty is inflicted upon them “in patience and serenity…whatever penalty may follow their non-compliance with the draft.” But this does not mean that pacifists should hesitate to denounce the southern rebellion as “horribly perfidious, as having for its object the overthrow of every safeguard of popular liberty.” Despite their refusal to fight, pacifists should “register their testimony that the Government has exercised no injustice towards the South, nor given any occasion for such a treasonable outbreak.”
I have only scratched the surface of Garrison’s attitude toward the Civil War, but additional details will have to wait for subsequent essays.