The Abolitonists

January 8th, 2013

On July 4, 1854, William Lloyd Garrison set fire to a copy of the U.S. Constitution. “A covenant with death,” he called it, “and an agreement with hell.” Holding the parchment above his head, he repeated forcefully a psalmic rouse to the hundreds of men and women gathered around him: “And let all the people say, Amen.” The crowd exploded: “Amen!”

Writing at Humanities Magazine, James Williford takes a look at the new PBS film The Abolitionists, focusing specifically on the agitator (as the abolitionists were sometimes called) William Lloyd Garrison. The documentary covers roughly 40 years of the abolitionist movement in America, from Frederick Douglass’s escape from slavery to the conclusion of the Civil War, and focuses on movement leaders such as Douglass, Harriet Beecher Stowe, John Brown, Angelina Grimke, Theodore Weld, and—at the center of them all—William Lloyd Garrison. As Williford notes, it was the “firebrand newspaperman” Garrison “whose passion helped draw more than a few of those leaders (and many others) to the cause, and whose increasing radicalism then gradually alienated them from his particular brand of emancipation politics.”

Williford continues:

The climactic moment of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society’s Independence Day picnic—a somber affair held that year at Harmony Grove, just outside Boston—Garrison’s public immolation of the all-but-sacred law of the land dramatized an argument that he had been making in speeches and in the pages of his weekly newspaper, The Liberator, for a quarter century. The nation, he thought, was founded on an unsustainable contradiction: on one hand, the natural law of human liberty, as laid out in the Declaration of Independence; and on the other, the “peculiar institution” of the South, an evil expressly protected under the Constitution (in the three-fifths clause of Article I, for example, or the fugitive slave clause of Article IV). “It matters not what is the theory of the government,” he had written in 1845, “if the practice of the government be unjust and tyrannical.” And the practice of the present government, he continued, by pandering to the interests of slaveholders rather than upholding the principle of universal freedom, amounted to “a despotism incomparably more dreadful than that which induced the colonists to take up arms against the mother country.” There was more than a note of warning in Garrison’s allusion to the events of ’76: Only the immediate and absolute emancipation of the slave population could save the republic, he declared—anything short of that, any feeble compromise or token gesture of appeasement, and the North had a moral duty to secede. Later generations would learn about union and emancipation together, but in Garrison’s prewar reckoning, abolition could not be achieved without secession, without disunion. […]

Garrison claimed abolition “common ground”—“upon which men of all creeds, complexions and parties, if they have true humanity in their hearts, may meet on amicable and equal terms to effect a common object”—but the ground he staked out for his cause was, as The Abolitionists suggests, also precipitously high. He eschewed political parties and religious organizations for fear that their interests would pollute those of the cause, and brooked no compromise when it came to matters of his moral principles or pacifism. There were tense (though friendly) letters of disagreement exchanged between Garrison and Stowe, who worried that the editor would “take from poor Uncle Tom his Bible, and give him nothing in its place.” And even Douglass, whom Garrison had discovered, so to speak, and worked with, criticized his former mentor’s lack of pragmatism, warning others against the tactics of abolitionists who wanted “rain without thunder and lightening . . . the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.” For Douglass, Garrison’s secession strategy was mere abandonment of the slaves, and his rejection of existing institutions, unnecessarily limiting. The struggle for freedom, he felt, required more than loud proclamations of absolute righ- teousness—it required the action of political parties and voters, the engagement of congregations, a revised understanding, not a rejection, of the U.S. Constitution, and, quite possibly, the use of force.

But “reform is commotion,” Garrison often said—his forte. And slavery, he had come to believe, would not be overthrown by moderation or half measures, but with “excitement, a most tremendous excitement.”

That tremendous excitement came, of course, in 1861, in the form of disunion and war. It didn’t happen the way that Garrison thought it might—the North didn’t secede from the South, and the slaves didn’t rise up en masse against their masters—but emancipation did finally seem possible. And Garrison, despite his pacifism (and initial distrust of Abraham Lincoln, whom he judged a waffler), announced himself “with the Government,” and then rejoiced in and even thanked God for the fratricidal conflict. “Never before,” he remarked just after the outbreak of hostilities, “has God vouchsafed to a Government the power to do such a work of philanthropy and justice.” The war, he hoped, referring to his earlier invocation of the nation’s infer- nal “covenant,” would “stop the further ravages of death and . . . extinguish the flames of hell forever.”

Read more about Garrison and The Abolitionists at Humanities Magazine. And to learn more about Frederick Douglass’s evolving view of the Constitution—which he came to consider “a glorious liberty document,” causing Garrison to label his views as “apostasy” and “treachery”—read WSPWH editor Diana Schaub’s 2000 essay in The Public Interest, “The Spirit of a Free Man.”

Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

Tags: , ,