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Aug 6, 2019

Henry Clarke Wright: Abolitionist, Non-Resistant, Libertarian

Henry Clarke Wright was a radical among radicals, driven by a religious conviction in the equality of all people.

Radical abolitionist, feminist, and libertarian forerunner Henry Clarke Wright was born on Tuesday, August 29, 1797, in Connecticut’s northwest corner, the descendant of New England puritans and the son of a house-joiner.1 Arguably “the most notable of the champions of non-resistance”2 and “the chief theoretician of nonresistance,”3 Wright influenced several of the radical movements of his time, perhaps most notably the abolitionist cause. As a young man, in 1814, Wright entered a hatmaking apprenticeship in his home state, but his time as a hatter did not last;4 powerfully influenced by the religious instruction and tenets of his parents, he was destined for the clergy and went in 1819 to study at the Theological Seminary in Andover, Massachusetts. There he established for himself several strict rules, calculated to open his mind, to put it “into a posture of neutrality.”5 Among these, Wright resolved, “I would take nothing for granted as true or false, right or wrong, but would doubt on all subjects, without any regard to what others might think or say of me.”6 To this precept he seems to have held fast throughout his life, maintaining fierce independence of thought and never shying away from controversy.

Ordained in the summer of 1826, Wright found a congregation in West Newbury, Massachusetts, where he first encountered William Lloyd Garrison’s radical anti-slavery periodical The Liberator. His initial reaction to Garrison, thought he knew Garrison was right, was one of disapproval; he regarded Garrison’s denunciations of the church and the clergy as “rash, imprudent, and bitter in spirit.” Though it would be several years before the two would meet, Garrison words left their mark, as we shall see. Wright, though, was not yet finished with the ministry. Known for his love of children, Wright became both an agent of the Sunday School Union and a children’s minister; he had, by all accounts, a unique passion and aptitude for communicating with children, and he even wrote a children’s book, A Kiss for a Blow, composed of a series of morality tales teaching the principles of non-resistance.7

Wright urged strict adherence to the doctrine of non-resistance, thus counseling meek, “passive submission to enemies.” His non-resistance was based on a radical interpretation of Jesus calling on Christians to “resist not evil,” to abandon force even to defend themselves. Wright lived his convictions unyieldingly, adamant that one must meet evil by turning the other cheek. In a personal journal entry, dated March 1835, he recounts his being struck in a Philadelphia hotel, whereafter he invited his assailant to his home and assured him that he had no ill feelings toward him. The next morning, the man who had attacked him visited his room to ask for forgiveness.8

Wright’s non-resistance philosophy often very nearly approximates contemporary libertarianism in its principled renunciation of coercive force, its emphasis on the importance of the individual, and its defense of voluntary cooperation.9 On the question of slavery, these views led Wright to immediatism, which held that the peculiar institution must be abolished forthwith—no concessions or compromises. Wright was steadfast in the conviction that the Christian, as such, could abide no accommodation of any kind to slavery. Reacting to the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, he wrote to Garrison objecting strongly to its apparent suggestion that Christianity’s effect on the slaveholder is “to make him kind, just, humane, as a slaveholder.” For Wright, “the first, and last, and only effect of the Christian spirit on such a character is, to cause him to cease, at once and forever, to be a slaveholder.” As a non-resistant, Wright sees all government as, in principle, a species of slavery, for all existing governments are predicated on the invalid, usurpative claim of “a right to control the will of a fellow being by physical force.” So radical were his opinions that the American Anti-Slavery Society discontinued his agency in 1837,10 citing the fact that he refused to “cease[] interweaving his ‘no government’ views with abolitionism.”11 For Wright, the issues to which he devoted himself were all necessarily and inextricably connected to one another; he felt that he could not be true to himself or to these causes if he pledged, as was the Anti-Slavery Society’s request, “to confine himself to the discussion of abolitionism.”12 Every issue must be on the table—the woman question, the slavery question, the peace question, etc.—for all were related to one another and to the non-resistants’ repudiation of violence.

Wright and other radicals in what came to be called the “ultra” camp, believed that to be a consistent advocate of peace meant not only opposing wars between nations, but condemning all acts and institutions of violence, even (or perhaps especially) one’s own government. Many in both the abolitionist and peace movements believed that by wedding these causes to other more radical views, perceived as unrelated, they would alienate potential allies and fracture existing support. “Wright was probably the most ultra of the peace ultraists,”13 extending his underlying philosophical commitment to non-resistance across the board and seeing the logical relationships between the pressing issues of his day. Historian Marc-William Palen has made important contributions in considering the connection between various liberal (and indeed proto-libertarian) currents of the Victorian era, including the opposition to war and heralding of world peace, the promotion of global free trade against protectionism, the advancement of women’s rights (particularly suffrage), and the support for the abolition of slavery.14 One of many Garrisonian abolitionists to become closely affiliated with Manchester school free-traders and members of the Anti-Corn Law League, Wright attended league meetings during an 1843 visit to England and “even addressed a large free-trade banquet in Manchester.”15 And throughout his life, Wright frequently used his platform to attack traditional gender roles.16 He was given occasion to voice his commitment to equality for women when, in 1840, a number of the American Anti-Slavery Society’s prominent members seceded to form a new organization after one Abby Kelley, a woman, was appointed to one of the Society’s committees. In his letter to The Liberator, Wright wondered how this new organization could carry on calling itself an anti-slavery society when the assertion underlying opposition to slavery is “the equality of human rights,” the recognition of “every human being, without regard to complexion, sex, or condition, as being the image and representative of God on earth.” In this exclusion of women Wright saw “the spirit of despotism,” which sequesters them and makes them a second class, “the uncomplaining, suffering slave[s] of man.” It was unclear to Wright why people who would relegate women in such a way would even maintain the pretense of principled anti-slavery sentiment.

Though he served as an agent of the American Peace Society for a brief period in 1836, philosophical differences predictably led Wright to part ways with the Society. The Society’s leadership had urged Wright to adopt a more measured approach, one adapted perhaps to the views and prejudices of his audiences, for whom his uncompromising pacifism, rejecting even defensive war, was simply too extreme, impeding a more ecumenical approach to the cause.17 Even in the characterization of his views, Wright had to challenge the orthodoxy of the movement’s leaders, preferring “anti-war” to “peace,” believing the former to be more “aggressive.”18 It is interesting to observe the similarities between the internal debates and divergences of the peace activists, abolitionists, and other nineteenth century social reformers and those that divide today’s libertarians, who frequently disagree on both tactics and first principles. Is electoral politics, for example, a vital and necessary medium for the communication of libertarian ideas and the most direct path to effecting practical change? Or does it require endorsing violence and man’s evil domination of man? Ever the firebrand, Wright was sure of his answer to that question, convinced that his approach was the right and true one, and was so fervently anti-political that he would not vote even “if his single ballot could abolish slavery.”19 “A bullet,” he said, “is in every ballot,” the practical political process leading inevitably to “the gallows or the battlefield,” with “no consistent or honest stopping place between them.”20

Wright, Garrison, and other ultras at last resolved to inaugurate a new organization, committed to “the principle of the Inviolability of Human Life,” to “the anti-man-killing principle,”21 founding the New England Non-Resistance Society born in 1838. Wright’s picture of mankind as a single race and brotherhood, each individual a child of God, translated into principled and explicit cosmopolitan, anti-nationalistic views. Wright, in point of fact, condemned “nationalism” at a time when use of the term was itself quite rare.22 The masthead of The Liberator famously bears the words, “Our country is the world—our countrymen are all mankind,” and the Non-Resistance Society’s Declaration of Sentiments elaborated this message of universal, worldwide brotherhood, announcing:

Our country is the world, our countrymen are all mankind. We love the land of our nativity only as we love all other lands. The interests, rights, liberties of American citizens are no more dear to us, than are those of the whole human race.

In an 1844 letter to Garrison, published in The Liberator, Wright relates the story of a conversation at the dinner table, at which Wright’s interlocutor remarked on Wright’s low patriotism and pressed him to acknowledge, at least, that he “like[d] America a little better than any other country.” Wright replied indignantly: “You know that I abjure the name American—that I never wish to be called an American—that I profess not to love America any better than England, or Austria, or any other land, and that, as a practical principle, I adopt the Brotherhood of our race.” In the letter, Wright argues that God holds people responsible not as nations, but as individuals, and moreover that the great object of governments “seems to have been to enable the few to rule and murder the many, systematically, respectably, and legally.” It is worth quoting Wright at length:

States and nations are to be regarded as we regard combinations of men to pick pockets, so steal sheep, to rob on the road, to steal men, to range over the sea as pirates—only on a larger and more imposing scale. When men steal, rob and murder as states and nations, it gives respectability to crime—the enormity of their crimes is lost sight of, amid the imposing number that commit them, and amid the glitter and pomp of equipage. The little band of thieves is scorned and hunted down as a felon; the great, or governmental band of thieves, is made respectable by numbers, and their crimes cease to be criminal and hateful in proportion to the number combined to do them.

Lewis Perry likens Wright to a radical contemporary, the mid-nineteenth century French anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, arguing that Wright plainly presented “a version of anarchism,” consistent with a three-part test Perry derives from Proudhon’s thought.23 First is Wright’s hope for an end to all human government, regarded as an illegitimate usurpation of a power rightfully possessed only by God—the power to lord over mankind. Secondly, Perry contends that, like Proudhon, Wright did not only agitate for an end to government but presented a positive vision of “the creation of new and uncoercive social arrangements.”24 Finally, as noted above, Wright finds justification for his radical libertarian message in sources exterior and, more importantly, antecedent to the authority of man-made law as actually set forth, viz., the government of God. For Wright, “Human government is just as necessary as sin—no more.”25 In this view, and in the words of Wright’s friend Garrison, “human governments [are] the results of human disobedience to the requirements of heaven.” Wright did not refer to himself as an anarchist, yet neither did many of those adjudged anarchists from the standpoint of the present (Josiah Warren, among many other American examples). In his history of American anarchism, William O. Reichert writes, “No American more fully embraced the essential attitudes of the anarchist idea than did Henry Clarke Wright.”

As a matter of course, non-resistants such as Wright were also the prison abolitionists of their day, denouncing all punishment as at odds with God’s law, not to mention futile. They argued “that physical coercion is not adapted to moral regeneration,” and that only gentleness and love could defeat evil and sin. If, as Wright argued, the individual can never rightly seek retribution or recompense, then neither can any government, which is only a group of men. For non-resistants, the Old Testament formula that prescribes taking an eye for an eye is mere vengeance, impermissible to individuals, who are enjoined to forgive their enemies in all cases. In the words of another prominent non-resistant contemporary, Adin Ballou, “the reign of military and penal violence must ultimately give place to that of forbearance, forgiveness, and mercy.” Wright is careful to distinguish between government as such—that is, rules appropriate to protect the rights of the individual—and “government by force” (emphasis added). To those who insisted that his non-resistance philosophy, with its opposition to human law and government, represented anarchy (in the sense of lawless chaos), Wright turned their argument back on them: he maintained that in fact it is the reign of violence, embodied in every state, that results in anarchy. If violence is wrong for the individual, he argued, then so too is it wrong for the state.26 He compares the label “no-government man” to the term “Quaker,” which also emerged as one of reproach, but was later adopted by Friends themselves.

Wright’s energies were at the heart of the Non-Resistance Society; when he went to tour Britain, it fell into a period of relative inactivity (at least as a formal entity), having found no one to take up his mantle, its other members being focused on activities in the furtherance of the antislavery cause.27 Wright should be remembered as among the great American libertarians, a powerful and principled voice for freedom and equality of rights for all human beings, without distinction of race or gender. On so many important and enduring questions, he was more than a century ahead of his time—and frequently ahead even of our own time—pushing fellow abolitionists and champions of peace to be more principled and consistent.


  1. Henry Clarke Wright, Human Life: Illustrated in My Individual Experience as a Child, a Youth, and a Man (Bela Marsh 1849), page 19.
  2. Merle E. Curti, “Non-Resistance in New England,” The New England Quarterly, Vol. 2, No. 1 (Jan., 1929).
  3. Richard O. Curry, “The Right to Self-Government: Anti-Institutionalism and Individualism in Abolitionist Thought” in Richard O. Curry and Lawrence B. Goodheart, eds., American Chameleon: Individualism in Trans-National Context (The Kent State University Press 1991), page 110.
  4. Wright, though he resolved to learn the hatmaking craft cheerfully, describes this time in terms that today are easily recognized as reflecting a deep depression. He recounts “a sinking of spirit,” loneliness, a “loathing of food” and “distaste for amusement,” and an incredible effort to appear happy on the outside.
  5. Henry Clarke Wright, Human Life: Illustrated in My Individual Experience as a Child, a Youth, and a Man (Bela Marsh 1849), page 184.
  6. Ibid. at 185.
  7. Walter M. Merrill, ed., The Letters of William Lloyd Garrison, Volume III: No Union with the Slaveholders (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press 1973), page 126, note 8. 7↩
  8. Ibid.
  9. Of course, in forswearing even defensive force, the non-resistance doctrine breaks from contemporary libertarianism as generally understood. Few libertarians today argue against an individual’s right to defend himself.
  10. John R. McKivigan, ed., The Frederick Douglass Papers: 1842-1852 (Yale University Press 2009), page 65, note 5.
  11. Wendell Phillips Garrison and Francis Jackson Garrison, William Lloyd Garrison, 1805-1879: The Story of His Life Told by His Children (Houghton, Mifflin and Company), page 159.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Larry Ceplair, ed., The Public Years of Sarah and Angelina Grimke: Selected Writings 1835-1839 (Columbia University Press 1989), page 137.
  14. See, for example, Marc-William Palen, “British Free Trade and the International Feminist Vision for Peace, c.1846-1946 in Imagining Britain’s Economic Future, c.1800-1975: Trade, Consumerism, and Global Markets, David Thackery, Andrew Thompson, and Richard Toye, eds. (Palgrave Macmillan 2018), and Marc-William Palen, “Free-Trade Ideology and Transatlantic Abolitionism: A Historiography” in Journal of the History of Economic Thought, Volume 37, Issue 2 (The History of Economics Society 2015).
  15. W. Caleb McDaniel, The Problem of Democracy in the Age of Slavery: Garrisonian Abolitionists & Transatlantic Reform (Louisiana State University Press 2013).
  16. Ann Braude, Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women’s Rights in Nineteenth-Century American (2nd. Edition) (Indiana University Press 2001), page 63.
  17. Perry at 60.
  18. Martin Ceadel, The Origins of War Prevention: The British Peace Movement and International Relations, 1730-1854 (Oxford University Press 1996), page 323.
  19. Ibid. at 89.
  20. See Carl Watner, “Those ‘Impossible Citizens’: Civil Resistants in 19th Century New England” (1979).
  21. Wendell Phillips Garrison and Francis Jackson Garrison, William Lloyd Garrison, 1805-1879: The Story of His Life Told by His Children (Houghton, Mifflin and Company), page 224.
  22. W. Caleb McDaniel notes the infrequent use of the term at this time generally, as well as the fact that “[n]o more than five or six articles prior to 1843 used nationalism in something like Wright’s sense of excessive patriotism.” The Problem of Democracy in the Age of Slavery: Garrisonian Abolitionists & Transatlantic Reform (Louisiana State University Press 2013).
  23. Lewis Perry, Radical Abolitionism page 22.
  24. Ibid.
  25. Daniel Ritchie, Isaac Nelson: Radical Abolitionist, Evangelical Presbyterian, and Irish Nationalist (Liverpool University Press 2018), page 57.
  26. Henry Clarke Wright, Six Months at Graefenberg with Conversations in the Saloon, on Nonresistance and Other Subjects (Charles Gilpin 1845), page 188.
  27. Walter M. Merrill, ed., The Letters of William Lloyd Garrison, Volume III: No Union with the Slaveholders (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press 1973), page 238.