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Apr 13, 2018

Moncure Conway’s Fall from Grace

How was the abolitionist Moncure Conway widely criticized by other American abolitionists for his peace proposal that would end the Civil War?

In The Decline of American Liberalism (1955)—the best overview of American history written from a classical-liberal perspective—Arthur Ekirch, Jr. said the following about the many violations of civil liberties during the Civil War:

[T]he Civil War was the first modern total war—a conflict fought to the point of exhaustion which engages most of the energies of the participants. Thus, although neither Lincoln nor Jefferson Davis aspired to become a dictator in the twentieth-century sense of the term, before the close of their long struggle the governments of both the North and the South verged closely upon military despotism.

The abolitionist Moncure Daniel Conway (1832-1907) cited these violations of liberty—such as conscription, the suspension of habeas corpus, and the suppression of dissenting newspapers—when explaining his opposition to all wars, including the Civil War. Conway was a valuable novelty among abolitionists. Born in Virginia to a prominent slaveholding family, his antislavery views developed at an early age. Then, after his opposition to slavery became known, he feared that he would be tarred and feathered by his neighbors, so he moved north and joined the abolitionist movement. Former slaveholders who converted to abolitionism were rare—other examples were the Grimké sisters and James Birney, who went from owning slaves to twice running on the presidential ticket of the abolitionist Liberty Party—so Conway was popular as a lecturer. For one thing, he confirmed Garrison’s claim that slaveholders could be converted to opponents of slavery through “moral suasion.”

Like many abolitionists, Conway supported the Union in the early phase of the war, but he quickly changed his mind. He came to believe that war is a worse evil than slavery. After learning that Lincoln would offer him a foreign consulate, he refused. As Conway explained in his magnificent two-volume account, Autobiography: Memories and Experiences (1904):

At one time, believing the war to be one of emancipation, I had thought of serving in Virginia as a chaplain, and mentioned this to General Schenck; but when his offer came, I was filled with horror at the thought of assisting a military invasion of people not for their rescue and that of their slaves, nor for rescue of the nation from the demon of discord and desolation.

Conway compared the gradualism of Lincoln to “firing off a gun a little at a time.” Thus far he was in complete accord with Garrison and other abolitionists, but after traveling to England in 1863, he became involved in an incident that caused him to be virtually disowned by the American abolitionist community. Garrison wrote letters of introduction for Conway, hoping that his lectures would change the minds of some of the many Brits who supported the South. Conway was well received in London, but he became involved in a controversy with James Murray Mason, a grandson of George Mason and a former Senator from Virginia who was now serving as an envoy for the Confederacy. Conway saw a chance to initiate a peace proposal, so on June 10, 1863 he wrote a letter to Mason. It reads, in part:

Sir,—I have authority to make the following proposition on behalf of the leading antislavery men of America, who have sent me to this country:—

If the States calling themselves “The Confederate State of America” will consent to emancipate the negro slaves in those States, such emancipation to be guaranteed by a liberal European commission, the emancipation to be inaugurated at once and such time to be allowed for its completion as the commission shall adjudge to be necessary and just, and such emancipation once made to be irrevocable,—then the abolitionists and antislavery leaders of the Northern States shall immediately opposes the further prosecution of the war on the part of the United States government, and, since they hold the balance of power, will certainly cause the war to cease by the immediate withdrawal of every kind of support from it.

Mason replied that he found Conway’s proposal “worthy of the gravest consideration,” but he would need to know the people “on whose behalf and authority you make the proposition referred to, with your evidence of your ‘right to make this offer.’” Conway said that he could easily provide evidence that his proposal represented the views of leading American abolitionists but that he would eliminate any doubt by writing to America for explicit approval of his plan. Mason then said that this would be unnecessary; he had since learned that Conway had brought with him “letters of sufficient credit from those who sent you” to justify Conway’s claim to speak for American abolitionists. Mason then published the correspondence in the London Times, probably to embarrass Conway.

Conway speculated that Mason published the letters in an effort to embarrass Conway personally—to punish him for being a “Virginia renegade.” More importantly, although the abolitionist community might accept Conway’s proposal, the U.S. government never would, and this would implicitly demonstrate that the Union was not fighting for emancipation. This latter was an important issue for the British. The House of Commons was about to vote on whether or not to recognize the Confederacy. Although antislavery sentiments were widespread in Britain, many Brits believed that the North was fighting not for emancipation but to crush the independence of the South. Many Northerners feared that the British would ally with the South. Conway had been sent to England by William Lloyd Garrison and other abolitionists to convince the British to stay out of the war, as Mason had been sent by the South to persuade them to intervene on the side of the Confederacy.

Conway had no experience in diplomacy, and he conceded that his two letters to Mason were a mistake. But, in his own defense, he pointed out that he had no reason to think that Garrison and his followers would reject his proposal, given that those abolitionists had claimed that emancipation was the only possible justification for the war. As Conway explained in his highly interesting Autobiography:

The Antislavery Society, in particular its great chieftain Garrison, had for so many years been advocates of non-resistance principles, and had so unanimously opposed suppressing secession by bloodshed—until war had actually broken out—they had so constantly directed all their efforts simply to control and influence the horrible cyclone to the one end of extirpating its fatal source [slavery] forever; that it had never occurred to me that now, if that source were at once removed, any of them would countenance bloodshed for the sake of political and economic interests.

At this point Conway knew nothing of how American abolitionists would respond to his proposal, but he noted that it “embarrassed my English friends a good deal.” His second letter to Mason, which stated that he would write to America for authorization by abolitionists, contradicted his first letter, which stated that he already had the necessary authority. “My second letter to Mason was a virtual admission that I had made a mistake in writing the first.” The appearance that Conway had lied in his first letter prompted British antislavery associations to deny that they knew anything about the matter. Nevertheless, Conway insisted that Mason’s remarks seriously harmed the Confederate cause in Britain. “Mason’s final letter was universally regarded as an admission that the Southern Confederacy was founded on slavery”—and this was precisely what the South did not want Brits to believe.

Rather, the official line of the Confederacy, at least in Britain, was that the Civil War had been started over economic disputes, especially over the high tariffs favored by the North. This position was argued by the Confederate James Spence in The American Union (1861), which was widely read in Britain. Spence maintained that slavery had little to do with the war; the real cause was the effort of the industrial North to benefit at the expense of the agrarian South. (This would later be Lysander Spooner’s explanation as well.)

Spence supported his case by referring numerous times to the Morrill Tariff, which was passed two days before the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln, after many Southern congressmen had resigned their seats to join the Confederacy. After the amount of the tariff was increased twice during the war, it almost tripled the previous tariff, amounting to a 47 percent surcharge on steel, clothing, and many manufactured goods. Understandably, the South, which depended heavily on foreign trade, especially with England, viewed the Morrill Tariff—which had been drafted with the advice of the protectionist economist Henry Carey (who later became the chief economic advisor to Lincoln)—as a significant threat to the southern economy. Since tariffs were the primary source of revenue for the American government of the time, Southerners did not protest all tariffs, but they regarded the Morrill tariff (which had originally been proposed to Congress in 1860) as naked exploitation by Northern industrial interests. Spence called the tariff “political jobbery.”

Given the widespread approval of free trade in the Britain of 1861, Spence’s arguments found many receptive ears. In addition, the Morrill Tariff would cause hardship for many British workers, so they tended to support the Southern cause. Major exceptions were found among leading British liberals, such as Richard Cobden, John Bright, and Herbert Spencer (who claimed that British support for the South had been exaggerated in America). But some major British intellectuals, such as the novelist Charles Dickens, accepted the thesis that the Civil War had been caused by the tariff controversy, not by slavery.

The stakes were therefore very high when Conway made his proposal to Mason. But Conway misjudged badly when he said that American abolitionists would undoubtedly support the proposal. His inference was logical, but logic rarely exerts a significant influence during war. Conway received some hard knocks from Garrison and other abolitionists when they learned of his correspondence with Mason. After Garrison read the Conway-Mason correspondence in Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune, he responded (June 3, 1863) that Conway had never been authorized to make the proposal. Quoting Garrison:

This correspondence is of so extraordinary and grave a character that I beg permission to state, in The Tribune, in behalf of the Abolitionists with whom I am identified, that they have not been guilty of such folly and presumption as to authorize any such proposition to be made to Mr. Mason; nor will they forward any endorsement of it to Mr. Conway, who is in England upon his own responsibility alone, representing the Anti-Slavery cause no further than does every other eloquent and devoted friend of freedom who desires to see the rebellion speedily suppressed, and slavery as speedily abolished.

Garrison gave “three weighty reasons why the Abolitionists could not make any overture of this nature to the Confederate traitors, especially through the infamous author of the Fugitive Slave law.” (Mason had drafted the detested Fugitive Slave Law of 1850.)

Garrison’s first reason was that even if the Confederates accepted the terms of Conway’s proposal, they simply could not be trusted to keep their word and free their slaves. “Having long since proved themselves capable of uttering any falsehood, however stupendous, practicing any deception, however detestable, and breaking any pledge, however solemnly made, it would be the height of infatuation to suppose them morally capable of carrying out any stipulation for the emancipation of their wretched bondmen.”

Garrison’s second reason was that Confederates were carrying on the war “expressly and avowedly to obtain wider scope and stronger safeguards for their cherished slave system”—so Conway’s proposal that they abandon slavery as the price for their independence would be received as “an insult and a mockery.”

Garrison became far less critical of Lincoln after he issued the Emancipation Proclamation (January 1, 1863), and he cited that document in his third reason. Lincoln’s Proclamation had already freed slaves “forever” in the rebellious states, and this process would inevitably continue until all slaves had been liberated. Confederates should not be permitted to claim credit for emancipation and thereby “screen themselves from punishment, which has been wisely and constitutionally done by President Lincoln to save the Republic.”

Wendell Phillips was far more sympathetic to Conway. In a speech delivered on July 4, 1863, Phillips declared:

I think his [Conway’s] intentions were as honest as the midday sun is clear…Now I wish to say further that I entirely agree with the essence of that offer. The Union without liberty is to-day tenfold more accursed than it was any time the last quarter of a century. Union without liberty I spit upon.

Conway became dispirited after the largely negative reaction to his proposal from American abolitionists. Although only one abolitionist paper, the Anti-Slavery Standard, expressly said “that the war should be continued even were slavery not involved, it became plain to me that the old peace principles of abolitionism had largely vanished.” Conway never returned to America, except upon the death of his father, to accept an honorary degree from Harvard (his alma mater), to visit friends, and to deliver an occasional lecture. And he pretty much abandoned his antislavery activities, devoting his time instead to writing the two-volume Life of Thomas Paine, biographies of other notables, and works on other topics.  He also delivered many lectures for the South Place Society (later the South Place Ethical Society) on topics of interest to freethinkers. Conway remained true to his peace principles for the rest of his life. He opposed the Spanish-America War, for example, attributing it to the imperialistic “spreadeaglism” of many Americans. Conway sought to preserve the anti-war principles of an earlier liberalism, but in this he was only partially successful.

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