Jan 7, 2014
The Radical Abolitionists, Part 2
D’Amato looks at the Garrisonians, the most diehard and arguably most consistently libertarian of the abolitionists.
The independent mindedness that led the radical abolitionists to their views on slavery naturally meant a certain volatility in their organizations. The individualism and libertarian spirit of incendiaries like William Lloyd Garrison, Henry C. Wright and Stephen S. Foster inclined them to a suspicion of consolidated institutional power, even among their own ilk. Thus did the Garrisonians, the most diehard and arguably most consistently libertarian of the abolitionists, become a separate and identifiable camp both in their own time and in retrospective examinations of the abolitionist cause. They sought purity and consistency, upholding an idea more than a policy, or club, or campaign. Hardly afraid of making enemies, the radical abolitionists decried those who attempted to leverage politics or legal and Constitutional arguments against the practice of slavery. Never one to mince words, Garrison typified the nonresistants’ view of government in writing that “our boasted Union is a snare, a curse, and a degrading vassalage.” This placed the radicals in a position sharply contrasting that of, for instance, political parties like the Liberty Party, which for almost a decade in the middle of the century entered the fray of America’s electoral fracas.
Among those we may consider the radical abolitionists, no light shined brighter or with a more inspiring ardor than William Lloyd Garrison, the spirited editor of The Liberator, which became the preeminent print organ for antislavery advocacy. Raised in Newburyport, Massachusetts, Garrison was born to Abijah Garrison, an inveterate drinker and gambler, and Fanny Lloyd, an unwaveringly devout Baptist who had abandoned her parents’ Episcopal Church as a girl—a choice that also meant disownment and banishment from her parents’ home. Such is the kind of spiritual conviction, deeply felt and expanding into every area of life, that the young Garrison inherited from his mother, a massive and lasting influence on a man whose father abandoned him when he was just 3 years old. In a letter from Baltimore, where she had settled in the search for work, Garrison’s mother had once told to him of an especially kind servant, writing that “although a slave to man, [she is] yet a free-born soul.” Assuming his mother’s compassion, Garrison fused it to a righteous anger that would character the rest of his life and work.
Next to his mother, it is the unexampled Quaker abolitionist Benjamin Lundy who we must regard as Garrison’s principal influence, the envoy of freedom who activated the libertarian spirit largely latent in Garrison up to that point. Garrison came to Lundy’s acquaintance by happenstance in March of 1828, upon the latter’s stop in Boston during a tour calculated to animate existing antislavery sentiments into action. And were it not for the cowardice and apathy with which Lundy’s exhortations were that day met by Boston’s men of the cloth, history may have given us a different William Lloyd Garrison. Just a little more than a decade after this chance encounter, in his obituary of Lundy, Garrison recounted the pivotal moment and his disappointment at the reaction—or lack thereof—to Lundy’s address: “He might as well have urged the stones in the streets to cry out on behalf of the perishing captives… . My soul was on fire then, as it is now, in view of such a development.” From that meeting, Lundy was eventually able to beckon Garrison, already an experienced printer and editor, to Baltimore, the city in which his mother had toiled to provide for her family; there Garrison accepted the editorship of Lundy’s paper, Genius of Universal Emancipation, the bold antislavery broadsheet that Garrison had once called “the bravest and best attempt in the history of newspaper publications.”
On its own, the Genius would be enough to secure Lundy’s legacy as among the most important libertarians of his generation; it railed against the hypocrisy of “some of the most free people in existence” being also “the foremost to extinguish” the lamp of press freedom, “attempt[ing] to muzzle” efforts in exposing the evils of slavery. But equally praiseworthy, Lundy was among a group of several Quakers at the forefront of early antislavery organizing, a member of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society—probably the first expressly antislavery group initiated on American soil. Founded in 1775 as the Society for the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage, the Society challenged slavery on legal grounds and included among its members notables such as Thomas Paine, Benjamin Rush and Benjamin Franklin. It stands as a forerunner of later-founded organizations such as Garrison’s American Anti-Slavery Society, which took root in 1833 and became an expansive network of chapters across the country. The American Anti-Slavery Society’s Declaration of Sentiments, penned by Garrison, reflects the flair for polemic and persuasion that marks all of his work, heralding “the destruction of error by the potency of truth.”
Intimations of Garrison’s more radical Christian perfectionism and nonresistance abound in the Declaration, the seeds of the movement fractionation to come already visible. For radicals like Garrison and Wright, the means to be employed were as important as the end to be achieved—the complete abolition of slavery—if not more so. Their principles, the Declaration says, “forbid the doing of evil that good may come,” an injunction against “the use of all carnal weapons for deliverance from bondage.” The most radical abolitionists thus embraced the libertarian non-aggression principle and refused to combat slavery’s aggression against the free individual with more of the same. They understood the inconsistency and incoherence of controverting the legitimacy of physical domination and bondage while engaging in or calling for coercive policies. Questions about willingness to call upon or participate in the political process would prove to be some of the most divisive and acrimonious that troubled the antislavery movement, occasioning bitter personal feuds and splits.
Foretokening the anti-voting and anti-political voluntaryism of libertarians like Carl Watner, Henry C. Wright stated his opposition to practical politics in stark terms; in his book Ballot-box and Battle-field, he writes, “Suppose the abolition of slavery throughout the world depended on a presidential election, and that my vote would throw the scale for abolition. Shall I vote? … I may not vote for the war system that is founded in guilt and blood and utterly wrong in its origin, its principles and means, even to abolish slavery.” In the election of 1836, Garrison similarly discouraged abolitionists from voting at all. Such refusal to compromise, to decouple the abolitionist cause from the rest of their views as nonresistants, frustrated the possibilities for collaboration with the broader antislavery movement. As nonresistants, they viewed politics itself as the adversary and the sustainer of slavery, as of myriad other evils.
The ideological purity of the Garrisonian faction—abolitionists such as Wright, Foster, Parker Pillsbury and Nathaniel P. Rogers—also left them indisposed to favorable feelings toward the clergy. They wrote indignant letters to their congregations and accused reverends of abetting slavery with their silence, treating them as cooperators in an evil, unholy practice. In their paper, “Denouncing the Brotherhood of Thieves: Stephen Symonds Foster’s Critique of the Anti-Abolitionist Clergy,” historians Troy Duncan and Chris Dixon allude to the 1844 New England Antislavery Convention, where Foster arrived flourishing an iron collar and manacles. In a raised voice, Foster, leaving no ambiguity about his feelings toward the clerics of his day, said, “Behold here a specimen of the religion of this land, the handy work of the American church and clergy.” And while Foster’s antics may have been more extreme and tendentious, the other radicals in the Garrison wing of the abolitionist movement shared his enmity toward the clergy.
The radicalism expressed in such attitudes, as well as in others such as advocacy of gender equality and of disintegration of the Union, provoked the departure of several early member’s of Garrison’s American Anti-Slavery Society. Historian John R. McKivigan observes that upon their leaving Garrison’s group and founding the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society, The Liberator discredited the new organization as being devised by the “clergy and their retainers,” a high insult. Because the Garrisonians’ abolitionism was based on an uncompromising, over-arching libertarianism, it was often more alienating to potential allies than encouraging. Fellow abolitionists arraigned the radicals as sectarians, and certainly they were—whether unduly so raises the enduring question that has always vexed libertarians, the question that pits expediency and practicality against principle.
Given that most sympathizers were not prepared to go as far as far as radicals like Garrison and Wright on even the slavery question, it should come as no surprise they shrank from their anti-government, anti-courts, anti-clergy nonresistance. In his valedictory to The Liberator, Garrison said of his own work that it had “vindicated primitive Christianity.” He was not the first or last Christian to place the faith itself in opposition to priesthood. Stephen S. Foster’s book similarly argued that the abolitionists ought to “cast upon the clergy the same dark shade which Jesus threw over the ministers of his day.” During a period of deep ferment in the country’s history, the radical abolitionists were enthusiastic in their attacks on institutions that even today, a century and a half later, are too often regrettably insulated from criticism. For that strength of conviction and for their role in ending American slavery, the radicals deserve a central place in the libertarian canon.