This is part of a series

Feb 24, 2017

More on Wendell Phillips and Anti-Political Abolitionism

Smith continues his discussion of the arguments in Can Abolitionists Vote or Take Office Under the United States Constitution?

Before continuing with the details of Wendell Phillips’s arguments against voting and office-holding by abolitionists, it might be helpful to review the general perspective of the anti-political Garrisonians, of which Phillips was probably the most effective spokesperson.

By the time Phillips published Can Abolitionists Vote or Take Office Under the United States Constitution? in 1845, the American Anti-Slavery Society (the major abolitionist society for many years) had adopted two key positions advanced by William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips.

First, the free states should peacefully secede from their Union with the slave states. As Garrison reported in The Liberator (May 7, 1844), at the tenth-anniversary meeting of the American Anti-Slavery Society (AASS)

it was decided by a vote of nearly three to one of members present….that the existing national compact should be instantly dissolved; that secession from the government is a religious and political duty, that the motto inscribed on the banner of Freedom should be NO UNION WITH SLAVEHOLDERS; that it is impractical for tyrants and the enemies of tyranny to coalesce and legislate together for the preservations of human rights, or the promotion of the interests of Liberty; and that revolutionary ground should be occupied by all those who abhor the thought of doing evil that good may come, and who do not mean to compromise the principles of Justice and Humanity.

For years thereafter the motto “No Union with Slaveholders” graced the masthead of Garrison’s influential paper, The Liberator.

Second, the AASS resolved that abolitionists should not vote or engage in other political activities, such as running for or holding political office. But Garrison never insisted that this belief should be a requirement for membership in the AASS. On the contrary, membership should be open to all abolitionists, whatever their views on political action may be. It was Garrison’s opponents, the political abolitionists, who wished to restrict membership in the AASS to those who agreed with their advocacy of political activity—a controversy that came to a head during the AASS convention in 1840, when Lewis Tappan and hundreds other political abolitionists broke from AASS and formed their own organization

The position of Garrison and Phillips on this matter reflected their deep respect for the conscience of every individual. They understood that sincere abolitionists may disagree on important matters of strategy. As Phillips put it in Can Abolitionists Vote or Take Office Under the United States Constitution?

No one who did not vote for the Resolution is responsible for it. No one is asked to quit our platform. We, the majority, only ask him to extend to our opinions the same toleration that we extend to him, and agreeing to differ on this point, work together where we can. We proscribe no man for difference of opinion.

Despite this tolerance, Garrison and Phillips fervently believed in the need for a moral vanguard in the antislavery movement—a group of “agitators” who would eschew the dirty, self-serving business of politics and its inevitable compromises, while striving instead to uphold and spread the pure ideal of freedom. Only those voters committed to this moral ideal could be trusted not to compromise. As Garrison succinctly put it: “let us aim to abolitionize the conscience and hearts of the people and we may trust them in the ballot box or anywhere else.” Phillips expressed the Garrisonian disdain for political activity as follows:

It loses our high position as moral reformers; it subjects us to all that malignant opposition and suspicion of motives which attend the array of parties; and while thus closing up our access to the national conscience, it wastes in fruitless caucusing and party tactics, the time and the effort which should have been directed to efficient agitation.

With this background, I now return to the specific arguments presented by Wendell Phillips in Can Abolitionists Vote or Take Office Under the United States Constitution? In my last essay I explained the premises of his anti-political stance, several of which bear repeating. Phillips insisted that the Constitution is a proslavery document, and that no abolitionist can in good conscience swear to defend this “covenant with death and agreement with hell” (as Garrison characterized it), as required in an oath of office. Moreover, the “voter, who, by voting, sends his fellow citizen into office as his representative, knowing beforehand that the taking of this oath is the first duty his agent will have to perform, does by his vote, request and authorize him to take it. He therefore, by voting, impliedly engages to support the Constitution. What one does by his agent he does himself.”

It is in Phillips’s replies to many objections to his “no-voting theory” that the nuances of his position emerge most clearly. Consider this objection:

A promise to do an immoral act is not binding: therefore an oath to support the Constitution of the United States, does not bind one to support any provisions of that instrument which are repugnant to his ideas of right. And an abolitionist, thinking it wrong to return slaves, may as an office-holder, innocently and properly take an oath to support a Constitution which commands such return.

Phillips had no patience with this argument. He wrote:

Now I contend that such loose construction of our promises is contrary alike to honor, to fair dealing, and to truthfulness—that it tends to destroy utterly that confidence between man and man which binds society together, and leads, in matters of government, to absolute tyranny.

To swear an oath is a very serious matter, according to Phillips and other abolitionists. “If I offer a man the copy of an agreement, and he, after reading, swears to perform it, have I not a right to infer from his oath that he assents to the rightfulness of the articles of that paper? What more solemn form of expressing his assent could he select?” Phillips continued:

A man’s oath expresses his conviction of the rightfulness of the actions he promises to do, as well as his determination to do them. If this be not so, I can have no trust in any man’s word. He may take my money, promise to do what I wish in return, and yet, keeping my money, tell me, on the morrow, that he shall not keep his promise, and never meant to, because the act, his conscience tells him, is wrong. Who would trust property to such men, or such maxims in the common affairs of life?

Phillips conceded that immoral laws are “void, and should not be obeyed.” But that was not the relevant point here. Rather, “the question is here whether one knowing a law to be immoral, may innocently promise to obey it in order to get into office.” At the very least, lying to get into office is scarcely an auspicious beginning for any politician who claims to be a person with moral principles. 

Phillips next considered this objection: “I swear to support the Constitution, as I understand it. Certain parts of it, in my opinion, contradict others and are therefore void.”

This argument had been proposed by those abolitionists who conceded that the Constitution contains proslavery clauses but who also maintained that, more generally considered, the Constitution is pro-freedom. Thus, in view of these contradictory elements, one may dismiss the proslavery parts as void and swear allegiance only to the good parts.   

This objection may seem a bit bizarre, but if nothing else it illustrates how far some political abolitionists would go in pressing their case. In responding to it, Phillips appealed to the need for an impartial arbiter when interpreting law.

As in all other contracts, so in that of the Constitution, there is a power provided to affix the proper construction to the instrument, and that construction both parties are bound to abide by, or repudiate the whole contract. That power is the Supreme Court of the United States.

Phillips pointed out that the Supreme Court had always interpreted the Constitution as proslavery and that this effectively settled the matter. What the individual abolitionist personally regarded as null and void in the Constitution was legally irrelevant.

But, says the objector, do you mean to say that I swear to support the Constitution, not as I understand it, but as some judge understands it? Yes, I do—otherwise there is no such thing as law. This right of private judgment, for which he contends, exists in religion—but not in Government. Law is a rule prescribed. The party prescribing must have the right to construe his own rule, otherwise there would be as many laws as there are individual consciences. Statutes would be but recommendations if every man was at liberty to understand and obey them as he thought proper. But I need not argue this. The absurdity of a Government that has no right to govern—and of laws which have no fixed meaning—but which each man construes to mean what he pleases and obeys accordingly—must be evident to every one.

What was good for the goose was also good for the gander. If abolitionists may take political office based on what they personally understand the Constitution to mean, “then we must remember that by the same rule, slave-holders may take office and lawfully use all their power to help Slavery.” Phillips ended this section with some effective, if somewhat exaggerated, rhetoric.

Away with such logic! If we have a Constitution, let us remember Jefferson’s advice, and not make it “waste paper by construction.” The man who tampers thus with the sacred obligation of an oath,—swears, and Jesuit like, keeps “reserved meanings ” in his own breast,—does more harm to society by loosening the foundations of morals, than he would do good, did his one falsehood free every slave from the Potomac to the Del Norte.

I shall continue this discussion in my next essay.

This is part of a series