This is part of a series
Mar 23, 2018
More on Garrison and the Civil War
Smith explains why Garrison, an avowed pacifist, supported the North during the Civil War.
The bombardment of Fort Sumter—begun on April 12, 1861, the shelling lasted for 34 hours—had a profound impact on Northern public opinion. Massive demonstrations were held throughout the North in support of violent retaliation. Even many who had argued that no force should be used against the seceding states changed their minds and supported a war to restore the Union. The South, after all, had fired the first shot, so it was responsible for the consequences.
Within a week of the Sumter incident, William Lloyd Garrison advised his fellow abolitionists to lay low and refrain from public criticism of Lincoln or the war. He feared that abolitionist critics of the war would be targeted by violent mobs who blamed them for the violence, and possibly killed. Garrison explained his thinking to a fellow abolitionist:
Now that civil war has begun, and a whirlwind of violence and excitement is to sweep through the country, every day increasing in intensity until its bloodiest culmination, it is for the abolitionists to “stand still, and see the salvation of God,” rather than attempt to add anything to the general commotion. It is no time for minute criticism of Lincoln, Republicanism, or even the other parties, now that they are fusing for a death-match with the Southern slave oligarchy; for they are instruments in the hands of God to carry forward and help achieve the great object of emancipation for which we have so long been striving….All our sympathies and wishes must be with the Government, as against the Southern desperadoes and buccaneers; yet, of course, without any compromise of principle on our part. We need great circumspection and consummate wisdom in regard to what we say and do, these unparalleled circumstances. We are rather, for the time being, to note the events transpiring, than seek to control them. There must be no needless turning of popular violence upon ourselves, by any false step of our own.
Every abolitionist understood that Lincoln’s purpose in waging war was to restore the Union, not to free slaves, but most abolitionists also believed that emancipation would inevitably follow a Union victory, whereas a Confederate victory would result in the protection and spread of slavery. This expectation made it easy for abolitionists to choose sides. As the prominent British abolitionist George Thompson wrote to Garrison in June 1861:
I am extremely glad to find the views expressed in your letter before me so coincident with my own. I have pondered much and deeply upon the probable issues of the present war. I was occupied in writing all day yesterday upon the subject, and could not resist the conclusion, that the present struggle must end in the downfall of slavery. I dare say, if I had time to develop my process of reasoning, it would be found that our ratiocinations are alike. May God grant that our hopes may be realized!
Thompson was not discouraged by the fact that “the abolition of slavery is not one of the declared objects of the President in the struggle he has commenced. … No! I have confidence in the inevitable tendency of events, and their resistless influence. The doom of slavery is sealed!” Garrison had a similar attitude. “It is alleged that the Administration is endeavoring to uphold the Union, the Constitution, and the laws…but this is a verbal and technical view of the case. Facts are more potential than words, and events greater than parchment arrangements.” For decades abolitionists had predicted disaster for America if it failed to emancipate its slaves, and “now that their predictions have come to pass,” it would be unwise for those same abolitionists to protest “the natural operation of the law of justice.” Emancipation “is nearer than when we believed, and the present struggle cannot fail to hasten it mightily, in a providential sense.”
As I explained in previous essays, Garrison repeatedly insisted that his support of the Union did not violate his beliefs about peace and nonresistance. The “peace principles are as beneficent and glorious as ever, and are neither disproved nor modified by anything now transpiring.” Indeed, if peace principles had been embraced and implemented by a greater percentage of the American people, “neither slavery nor war would now be filling the land with violence and blood.” Where peace principles prevail, no person need fear for his life and liberty. Principles should not be held responsible for consequences they do not legitimately produce, and nothing in the principles of peace brought about the Civil War.
Garrison’s principled opposition to war and coercion did not prevent him from expressing sympathy for the North. Both sides were using violent methods, but this should not blind pacifists to the justice or injustice of the cause for which each side was fighting.
[A]s between the combatants, there is no wrong or injustice on the side of the [Union] Government, while there is nothing but violence, robbery, confiscation, perfidy, lynch law, usurpation, and a most diabolical purpose, on the side of the secessionists. The weapons resorted to, on both sides, are the same; yet it is impossible not to wish success to the innocent, and defeat to the guilty party. But, in doing so, we do not compromise either our anti-slavery or peace principles. On the contrary, we wish all the North were able to adopt those principles, understandingly, heartily, and without delay; but according to the structure of the human mind, in the whirlwind of the present deadly conflict, this is impracticable.
To appreciate this passage, we need to factor in Garrison’s belief that a Union victory would result in emancipation, regardless of Lincoln’s stated purpose for waging war. Lincoln would be unable to control the ultimate consequences of the war, and the logic of events would dictate the abolition of slavery. Garrison mentioned a variety of factors (which I won’t list here) that would contribute to abolition with the inevitability of natural laws, so even pacifists could support the Union military efforts with a clear conscience. True, most Northerners had not evolved morally to the point where they rejected all coercion; instead, they “profess to believe in the right and duty of maintaining their freedom by the sword.” The worst thing these people could do “is to be recreant to their own convictions in such a crisis as this.”
Garrison’s appeal to the conscience of individuals was a double-edged sword. If Northerners were following their conscience in fighting against the South, the same could be said of Southerners who seceded and joined the Confederacy. Secessionists sincerely believed in their principles; they sincerely believed that their freedom, especially their freedom to own slaves, was seriously threatened by the ascendency of a Republican to the presidency. Republicans represented sectional interests with virtually no support in the South. Lincoln would be vested with the presidential power of patronage, which would enable him to appoint antislavery postmasters and other Republican officials to federal offices in the South. Moreover, the Republican advocacy of a free-soil policy, which would ban slavery in the federal territories and free every slave brought into those territories, would also apply to federal forts, such as Fort Sumter, so slaves could escape by fleeing to those enclaves of freedom. This would make the capture of runaways even more difficult than it already was.
Although Garrison did not hesitate to condemn slaveholders in virulent terms, he occasionally showed empathy, if not sympathy, for their situation. In 1861, Garrison wrote the following in the Liberator:
The brutality, the barbarity, the demonism, are all at the South. Yet I pray you to remember that the slaveholders are just as merciful and forbearing as they can be in their situation—not a whit more brutal, bloody, than they are obliged to be in the terrible exigencies in which, as slaveholders, they are placed. They are men of like passions with ourselves; they are of our common country; and if we had been brought up in the midst of slavery, as they have been,—if we had our property in slaves, as they have,—if we had had the same training and education that they have received,—of course, we should have been just as much disposed to do all in our power to support slavery, and to put down freedom, by the same atrocious acts, as themselves. The tree bears its natural fruit—like causes will produce like effects.
Although Garrison maintained that pacifists should not fight as soldiers, they could play an important role in creating “a great Northern sentiment which shall irresistibly demand of the Administration, under the war power, the emancipation of every slave in the land.” Garrison also argued that a Union victory, if it ridded the land of slavery, would ultimately benefit the South.
Yes, we will make it possible for them to be a happy and prosperous people, as they never have been, and never can be, with slavery. We will make it possible for them to have free schools, and free presses, and free institutions, as we do at the North. We will make it possible for the South to be “as the garden of God,” under the plastic touch of liberty; and for the nation to attain unparalleled glory, greatness, and renown.
Garrison believed that individuals should follow their own conscience, but this did not lead him to place both sides in the Civil War on the same moral footing. The “higher law” of justice and self-ownership trumped other considerations. The slaveholder may claim the right of freedom for himself, but in denying the same freedom to his slaves, he placed himself in a hypocritical position that was philosophically indefensible. Freedom, properly understood, does not include the “freedom” to oppress others.