Smith discusses plans for the abolition of slavery by radical members of the Republican Party.

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.

From the beginning of his abolitionist crusade in the early 1830s, William Lloyd Garrison emphasized the crucial differences between abolitionism and the various schemes of gradualism that had been advocated by lukewarm critics of slavery for many years. But it didn’t take long, especially in the South, for all critics of slavery to be labelled “abolitionists.” Antislavery periodicals were banned from the southern mails, and a “gag rule” prevented antislavery petitions from even being considered in Congress. Garrison founded the Liberator in 1831. When, later the same year, Nat Turner’s Rebellion occurred—the most deadly slave uprising in U.S. history—Garrison and his paper got the blame, even though Garrison expressly repudiated violent methods for emancipation and called instead for the use of “moral suasion.”

Contemporary critics of the Civil War commonly identified abolitionists as its major cause. They argued that abolitionists, with their incessant moral denunciations of slave owners, had inflamed passions to such an extent that reasonable compromises became nearly impossible. This trend continued during the war. “Copperheads” in particular—those northern Democrats who hated Lincoln and called for a truce instead of continuing the bloody conflict, were quick to blame abolitionists for bringing about the mess. And by this time, virtually any antislavery activist qualified as an “abolitionist,” in the eyes of the Copperheads. Consider these remarks by Clement Vallandigham, a prominent Democrat from Ohio, a former member of Congress, and a tireless campaigner against the war who was imprisoned by Lincoln (after Lincoln had suspended habeas corpus) in an effort to shut him up. In a speech delivered at Dayton on August 2, 1862, Vallandigham had this to say about abolitionists:

Who is an Abolitionist? Whoever is for indiscriminate confiscation in order to strike at slavery, is an Abolitionist. Whoever is for the emancipation and purchase of the slaves of the Border States, and the pretended colonization of them abroad, but really their importation North and West to compete with our own white labor, is an Abolitionist. Whoever would reduce the Southern States to Territories in order to strike down slavery in them by Federal power, is an Abolitionist. Whoever is in favor of arming the slaves or of declaring slavery abolished by executive or military proclamation, is an Abolitionist. And, finally, whoever is for converting the war, directly or indirectly, into a crusade for the Abolition of slavery, is an Abolitionist of the worst sort; and he who votes for those who favor these things, is also an Abolitionist in practice, no matter what his professions or his party name may be. Whoever is opposed to these projects and votes accordingly, and is for the Constitution as it is and the Union as it was, is a truly loyal citizen, whether he fights Secession rebels in the field or Abolition rebels at the ballot box.

In January 1860, the antislavery politician Thaddeus Stevens explained to fellow members of the House of Representatives the position on slavery adopted by the Republican Party. All Republicans, Stevens stated, would love to see slavery eliminated in the United States, but Republicans also believed that the federal government lacked constitutional authority to interfere with slavery in the states. Slavery had been created by the states, so it was up to the states, not to the federal government, to dismantle the institution. “And we do deny now, as we have ever denied, that there is any desire or intention, on the part of the Republican party, to interfere with those institutions.” Free states in the North had prohibited slavery on their own, and Republicans desired the same process to continue in the South. This of course was the position enunciated by Abraham Lincoln in his First Inaugural Address. Lincoln believed that he was bound by his oath of office not to meddle with slavery in those states where it already existed. This “federal consensus” was part of the Republican platform.

Republicans had a plan aimed at persuading Southerners that abolishing slavery would eventually prove in their own best interests. They embraced the free‐​soil doctrine of prohibiting slavery in the federal territories; as these territories applied for statehood, this policy would guarantee that only free states were admitted into the Union. Federal property, according to Stevens, included “the Territories, the District of Columbia, the navy‐​yards, and the arsenals [that] have no legislative body but Congress.” Congress did have constitutional jurisdiction over these and similar federal properties, and “it is our purpose to provide in the exercise of our legislative duty, for preventing the extension of slavery into free soil under the jurisdiction of this General Government, or any extension of slavery upon this continent.”

The free‐​soil program was part of a broader plan for the gradual extinction of slavery throughout the United States. As its defenders saw the matter, slavery could not survive without expanding into new lands As slave states found themselves surrounded by free states, they would eventually banish slavery on their own, as it became evident that slavery was no longer economically viable. This process would probably begin in the border states, where slaves could more easily escape to freedom, and from there emancipation would progress further south.

This gradualist plan faced a serious obstacle, namely, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Various states had passed Personal Liberty Laws, which attempted to take the teeth out of the Fugitive Slave Law. They sought, for example, to restore the right of habeas corpus, along with other procedural safeguards, to blacks who were accused of being runaways but who were banned from testifying in their own behalf. In this heated controversy, which led to a number of violent confrontations, we see an interesting reversal of the standard assertion that southerners favored state rights, whereas northerners desired greater expansion of federal power. In this conflict, it was largely the slave interests that demanded federal enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law. Free states should not be permitted to obstruct the enforcement of a federal law, and severe punishment should be meted out to any person who made the attempt. The antislavery faction, in contrast, argued that it should be up to the states to determine how it would enforce the federal law.

The free‐​soil crusade appealed not only to antislavery gradualists but also to racists who wished to keep blacks out of the territories so they could not compete with white labor. The motives were mixed, and both types were found in the Republican Party. But among the serious antislavery Republicans, there was little doubt that halting the expansion of slavery was a key part of a grand plan to abolish slavery in the long run. Thaddeus Stevens was quizzed on this very point after he delivered the speech quoted above. Congressman Sherrard Clemens (from Virginia) reminded Stevens of his previous comment to the effect that the long‐​range plan of the Republican Party “was to encircle the slave States of this Union with free states as a cordon of fire, and that slavery, like a scorpion, would sting itself to death. I ask the gentleman if he did not make that remark, or something like it?” After Stevens responded with an evasive answer, Clemens pressed the point.

[I]f his policy is carried out, whether today, tomorrow, or fifty years hence; if not a single new slave State is admitted into the Union; if slavery is abolished in the District of Columbia, in the Territories, in the arsenals, dockyards, and forts; if, in addition to that, his party grasps the power of the Presidency, with the patronage attached to it…—whether, if he did all this, would he not carry out the full extent of the remarks which he made, that he would have slavery surrounded like a camp in a prairie or a scorpion with fire, and if it would not sting itself to death?

The metaphor of a scorpion, surrounded by fire, stinging itself to death was a popular metaphor for the gradualist plan of emancipation in current slave states. (For details, see James Oakes, The Scorpion’s Sting: Antislavery and the Coming of the Civil War, W.E. Norton, 2014) The slave states themselves, with no opportunities for expansion, would realize the economic inefficiency of slavery and abolish it on their own. The argument that expansion was essential to the survival of slavery was also advanced by many slaveholders, who were a major force behind the war with Mexico and the later annexation of Texas. Indeed, some slaveholders went so far as to call for the conquest and annexation of all of Mexico and Cuba. These measures, they argued, would generate breathing room for slavery to expand and survive.

James Freeman Clarke, an advocate of equal rights for blacks and women, was one of many writers who used the scorpion metaphor. Freeman, writing in 1859, argued that violent confrontations, such as John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, could have been avoided if banning slavery from the territories had been enacted years before.

[The Slave Power] would have ceased from its aggressions; the lovers of Freedom at the South would have been encouraged; the Border States would have been led to take measures for emancipation. Gradually, peacefully, joyfully the cause of Freedom would have grown strong; that of slavery weak—until, at last, surrounded by the hosts of Free labor, by emigrants from the North, by invading light and advancing religion; hemmed in by all this illumination and warmth, like the scorpion girt with fire, it would have turned its sting against itself.

There is, in my judgment, a good deal of wishful thinking in Clarke’s version of counterfactual history. For one thing, many antislavery activists underestimated the strength that proslavery ideology had on the southern mind. As Adam Smith pointed out nearly 200 years earlier, even if slaveholders became convinced that their system was economically inferior to free labor, it doesn’t necessarily follow that they would replace their slaves with free laborers. Slavery was more than an economic system for the minority of people who owned slaves in the South. It was part of the culture of the ruling class—the so‐​called Slave Power—that deeply resented being treated like second‐​class citizens. Why should their property in slaves be treated differently than any other kind of property? If a person could freely bring other property into the territories, then why not slave property as well? The same argument was used to encourage legalization of the international slave trade.

Garrison and his follow abolitionists never liked gradualism. As he perceptively noted, “Gradualism in theory is perpetuity in practice.” There never will come a time when gradualists will say, We have now arrived at the proper time for emancipation. Rather, there will always be some practical objections to emancipation, so emancipation will always, or almost always, remain a goal for the future. Moreover, as abolitionists repeatedly pointed out, the appropriate time for emancipation was invariably calculated for the convenience of slave owners and other white people, but never for the convenience of the slaves. How long would emancipation take, according to the estimates of Republican gradualists? Perhaps only twenty‐​five years, according to some gradualists, but others predicted a much longer period. Garrison observed that this amounted to a Republican sanction of slavery for an entire generation (or more) of those blacks who suffered in bondage.