Smith discusses what Garrison meant by the “right of secession,” and how he reconciled his views with his condemnation of secession by the southern states.

George H. Smith was formerly Senior Research Fellow for the Institute for Humane Studies, a lecturer on American History for Cato Summer Seminars, and Executive Editor of Knowledge Products. Smith’s fourth and most recent book, The System of Liberty, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2013.

On January 12, 1861, Senator William Seward, soon to be Secretary of State in the Lincoln administration, delivered a speech on the topic of compromise. Compromise, said Seward, was necessary, even if it means that the politician must sometimes support a law that contains measures of which he disapproves.

I learned early from Jefferson that, in political affairs, we cannot always do what seems to be absolutely best. Those with whom we must necessarily act, entertaining different views, have the power and right of carrying them into practice. We must be content to lead where we can, and to follow when we cannot lead; and if we cannot do for our country all the good that we would wish, we must be satisfied with doing for her all the good that we can.

Seward’s speech infuriated William Lloyd Garrison, who had previously admired Seward for his contributions to the antislavery cause. It is of course true, Garrison conceded, that some compromise is necessary in political affairs, but it is a mere truism to say that “where there are many minds of conflicting views to be reconciled, mutual concessions must be made to secure the desired unity of action.” So long as no moral principle or sacrifice of justice is involved, compromises are acceptable. This is a matter of common sense; “otherwise, the state of society would be chaotic, and an efficient administration of public concerns impossible.”

But Seward’s speech contained a number of recommendations that were offensive to abolitionists. His speech was intended to appease the South by convincing secessionists that Lincoln had no intention of interfering with slavery in the states where it already existed. This plank was already included in the 1860 Republican Party platform, which called for slavery to be banned in the territories but which disavowed any desire to meddle with or ban slavery in the states: “That the maintenance inviolate of the rights of the States, and especially the right of each State to order and control its domestic institutions according to its own judgment exclusively, is essential to that balance of powers on which the perfection and endurance of our political fabric depends.” The platform went on to condemn the “lawless invasion by armed force of the soil of any State or Territory, no matter under what pretext, as among the gravest of crimes.” This was written to assure voters that the Republican Party did not endorse John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, which had occurred just a year earlier and was widely cited by southern fire‐​eaters as evidence that the North had evil intentions toward the South. The Republican platform also called for economic policies formerly associated with the defunct Whig Party, such as federal financing of internal improvements on rivers and harbors, and for the construction of a transcontinental railroad.

As part of his effort to conciliate the South, Seward proposed a constitutional amendment that would forever prohibit the federal government from interfering with slavery in the states. Seward put it this way:

Experience in public affairs has confirmed my opinion that domestic slavery, existing in any state, is wisely left by the Constitution of the United States exclusively to the care, management, and disposition of the State; and if it were in my power, I would not alter the Constitution in that respect. If misapprehension of my position needs so strong a remedy, I am willing to vote for an amendment of the Constitution declaring that it shall not, by any future amendment, be so altered as to confer on Congress a power to abolish or interfere with slavery in any state.

Lincoln was delighted when he read Seward’s speech, but Garrison had the opposite reaction. He was horrified by Seward’s willingness to surrender the freedom of millions of slaves in the hope of preserving the Union. Like Seward, Garrison conceded that the federal government lacked the constitutional authority to interfere with slavery in the states, but he detested the idea of a constitutional amendment that would prohibit any future amendments that might improve the condition of slaves, or even free them. Seward had gone far beyond any legitimate offer of compromise. In an article in the Liberator, Garrison wrote:

Personal integrity and straightforward regard for the right can allow no temptation to make them swerve a hair’s-breadth from the line of duty; for they are of more consequence than all the compacts and constitutions ever made. Disregardful of this, the doctrine that “the end sanctifies the means,” or that “we cannot always do what seems to be absolutely best” becomes the doctrine of devils. Mr. Seward means just this: a compromise of principle to propitiate the perverse wrongdoers of the South—or his language is a mockery of this emergency. He is dealing, not with a material question of dollars and cents, but with the most momentous moral question ever presented to the world—not with well‐​meaning but deluded men, but with desperadoes and remorseless man‐​stealers.

We have seen in some previous essays how Garrison had advocated disunionism since the early 1840s. A separate nation of free states, he believed, would make it easier for slaves to escape and relieve the free states of any legal obligation to return runaways to their owners. Only secession by the North from the South would absolve Northerners of participating in the sin of slavery.

When, years later, Garrison vigorously condemned southern secessionists for committing “treason” against the United States government, he was widely criticized for abandoning his earlier defense of the right of secession. He explained, however, that he had never defended an unqualified right of a state to secede. Secession was justified only to escape oppression, as illustrated by the American Revolution. But southern states had seceded in order to protect and strengthen the institution of slavery, not to destroy or weaken it. Garrison firmly believed that slavery was the ultimate cause of the Civil War, despite Lincoln’s refusal to declare emancipation as a reason for going to war. The controversy of slavery had festered in America for decades, and time and again fire‐​eaters had threatened to secede if slaveholders failed to win a particular political contest. All this proved to be bluff and bluster—threats meant to intimidate northern politicians—until the South, led by South Carolina, began the secession movement in earnest, beginning in late 1860.

Was Garrison rationalizing his position on secession during the 1860s, when the war was underway? I don’t think he was. If we read what Garrison had to say about secession during the 1840s, a period when disunionism was a hot‐​button topic for abolitionists, we find his later claims to be accurate. I have never found a statement by Garrison that defends the right of secession per se, as we find in the writings of Lysander Spooner and George Bassett. Rather, Garrison objected to northern participation in slavery, and he saw secession as a cure for this evil alliance. Moreover, Garrison sometimes used “secession” to mean two different things. He meant not only a political separation of North and South but also a personal secession in which people renounce their allegiance to the American government, and thereafter refuse to sanction or support it voluntarily so long as slavery still existed in the areas within the jurisdiction of the government.

We see the notion of personal secession expressed in a letter of resignation written by the Garrisonian Francis Jackson to the governor of Massachusetts. Jackson, a distinguished judge, said he regretted ever taking an oath to support the Constitution. He wrote:

The Constitution of the United States, both in theory and practice, is so utterly broken down by the influence and effects of slavery, so imbecile for the highest good of the nation, and so powerful for evil, that I can give no voluntary assistance in holding it up any longer.

Henceforth it is dead to me, and I to it. I withdraw all my profession of allegiance to it, and all my voluntary efforts to sustain it. The burdens that it lays upon me, while it is held up by others, I shall endeavor to bear patiently, yet acting with reference to a higher law and distinctly declaring that, while I retain my own liberty, I will be a party to no compact which helps to rob any other man of his.

In January, 1845, the Massachusetts Anti‐​Slavery Society gave its formal assent to the proposal for disunionism submitted by William Lloyd Garrison. Ellis Gray Loring, a friend of Garrison for fourteen years, expressed his dissent by resigning his position on the board of officers, and many other prominent abolitionists voiced their disagreement as well. But Garrison didn’t budge; indeed, he had already placed his new motto, “No Union with Slaveholders!” on the masthead of the Liberator, where it remained for over 20 years.