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Black History Month
Garrisonian Abolitionists

This month, the editors of the Oxford African American Studies Center have provided us with insights into black history and culture. To go along with this year’s Black History Month theme “From Slavery to Freedom: Africans in the Americas,” today we will present one final post about Garrisonian Abolitionists by Raymond James Krohn. Check out the past posts about Anna Murray Douglass, Frederick Douglass and the Freedman’s Savings and Trust Company.

Garrisonian abolitionists were distinctive from other opponents of slavery because of their more advanced positions on gender and racial equality. In addition, they championed a broad activist platform that attacked the state, the military, and the churches for their connections to slavery and generally renounced party politics, especially voting. Yet it was not necessarily consensus over strategies and tactics that united Garrisonians. Group cohesiveness, which began to solidify during the late 1830s, was maintained by several factors: participants’ emotional ties of loyalty and friendship to William Lloyd Garrison; their common belief that antislavery organizations should be fundamentally inclusive—regardless of individuals’ views on society, religion, and politics—and should require of members only their devotion to immediate emancipation; and their collective allegiance to the government of God (as opposed to its human counterpart), which required direct obedience to divine law and merely submission, and disobedience when their consciences dictated, to its man-made analogue.

In the early 1830s, at the outset of the movement for immediate, uncompensated emancipation without expatriation, abolitionists were not divided into separate factions. The outspoken and uncompromising activist-editor William Lloyd Garrison—whose newspaper the Liberator (inaugurated 1 January 1831) dramatically signified a new and strikingly aggressive phase in American antislavery reform—was the leader of one delegation of New Englanders among several other groups of like-minded individuals who met in Philadelphia in 1833 to form a national antislavery organization. Beginning in 1837, however, the abolitionists who gathered around Garrison’s leadership, sympathetic to his reformist vision and united on the issue of the equal participation of women, emerged as an identifiable group. Moreover, from 1840 onward, Garrison and his followers controlled immediate abolitionism’s original national association, the American Anti-Slavery Society (AASS), as well as the regional Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society (the name adopted in 1835 by the former New England Anti-Slavery Society) and sundry local societies. They also helped establish the editorial policies of various antislavery presses, including the National Anti-Slavery Standard (official organ of the AASS), the Pennsylvania Freeman (mouthpiece of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society based in Philadelphia), and the Anti-Slavery Bugle (the journal of the Western Anti-Slavery Society, based in Salem, Ohio).

Aside from the normative principle of immediate emancipation (to which all abolitionists subscribed), Garrisonian abolitionists consistently espoused the principles of moral suasion, attempting to convert Americans to immediatism by convincing them of the sinfulness of slavery. First promulgated in 1833, moral suasion underwent substantial modifications over the ensuing two decades. Initially, according to the Declaration of Sentiments of the AASS, abolitionists rejected the use of “carnal weapons for the deliverance from bondage” by either slaves or anyone acting on their behalf. By the start of the Civil War, Garrisonian compunctions toward physical resistance had altered significantly, so much so that slave revolts as well as sectional military conflagration became justifiable. Whatever their accommodations to violence, such founding measures that directed abolitionists to fight “moral corruption” with “moral truth,” to destroy “error by the potency of truth,” and to abolish slavery “by the spirit of repentance” were nonetheless fundamental to the Garrisonian initiative. Unlike the abolitionists who formed the Liberty Party in 1840 and entered the political process more formally, Garrisonians maintained that appeals to conscience, made through the lecture circuit and the circulation of antislavery publications, would more effectively reform the electorate and abolitionize the ballot box.

Indeed, moral suasion was the foundational tactic on which Garrisonians elaborated their extremist doctrines; in so doing, they greatly radicalized what was essentially an evangelical revivalist method designed to inspire religious rebirths. Although perfectionism, nonresistance, and disunionism reasserted the tenets of moral suasion, they also amplified its scope. Thus the conversion of slaveholders ceased to be Garrisonians’ focal point; instead, they aimed at personal sanctification, the spiritual regeneration of all Americans, and the purification of humanity for the Kingdom of God on Earth (perfectionism); the abolition of enslavement and the eradication of coercive institutions, whatever their forms (nonresistance); and the annulment of a proslavery constitution and the dissolution of a slaveholder’s federal union (disunionism). So all-encompassing was the Garrisonian agenda that it approximated a religion, and because Garrisonians were generally unorthodox religiously, their activist ideologies filled the theological void left by the denominations and the formal dogma they disclaimed. The apostles of that faith made up Garrison’s inner circle—the “Boston Clique” according to members and critics—which consisted of such affluent abolitionists as Francis Jackson, Samuel J. May, Wendell Phillips, Edmund Quincy, Deborah and Anne Weston, and Maria Weston Chapman. Agitators of more humble origins included Charles C. Burleigh, John A. Collins, Abby Kelley Foster, Stephen S. Foster, Parker Pillsbury, and Henry C. Wright.

Frederick Douglass also moved within the Garrisonian orbit. Although he was not a Boston Clique insider, Douglass established friendships with Phillips and Garrison, both of whom contributed prefatory remarks to Douglass’s first autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845). Douglass traveled the northern lecture circuit with the two abolitionists and was joined by Garrison on an antislavery mission abroad in Great Britain in 1846. Unbeknownst to Douglass, or Garrisonians at the time, it was his experiences overseas that ultimately contributed to the break in their relationship. Because of the equality that Douglass enjoyed during his long sojourn (1845–1847), absent the castelike strictures and the blatant racial prejudices that confronted him daily in the United States; because of the intellectual independence that he discovered from speaking to audiences throughout the British Isles and addressing listeners on various aspects of American society, religion, and reform and on incidents from his life in bondage; and because of the freedom that he legally received owing to the actions of his English antislavery friends, who raised funds to secure his manumission, Douglass emerged from his British residency newly created: more self-confident and self-reliant.

As a result of that transformation—revealed in Douglass’s 1855 autobiography My Bondage and My Freedom—his homecoming marked his arrival as a black activist in general and a race leader in particular. To fulfill that combined role and to accomplish the paramount goals of the annihilation of slavery and the establishment of black civil rights, he decided to become the editor of his own press. Still, to Douglass’s surprise, Garrisonians cited several reasons against such a venture. Although Douglass momentarily acceded to that counsel, he was not dissuaded from his plans, for on 3 December 1847 he launched the first issue of the North Star in Rochester, New York, where he was then residing. That move, and his growing involvement in antislavery politics, isolated Douglass geographically and ideologically from his Boston friends. By 1851 the remaining bonds between Douglass and the Garrisonians were severed when he began to assert the Constitution’s antislavery potential, an interpretation that directly conflicted with the Garrisonian position.

For Garrison the nation’s founding document was—in language inspired by the prophet Isaiah (28:14–18)—nothing more than a “covenant with death” and an “agreement with hell.” With the help of the Harvard-educated lawyer Phillips, who was the leading Garrisonian theoretician of the proslavery nature of the Constitution, Garrison justified that interpretation on the ground that various constitutional clauses unequivocally recognized and guaranteed slavery, despite the term’s notorious absence. To buttress that stance, Garrisonians enlisted the 1840 publication of James Madison’s notes on the debates of the 1787 Philadelphia Convention, which revealed that slavery figured prominently in the Constitution’s drafting. Four clauses, in particular, provoked Garrisonian abolitionists’ vituperation and ire: the three-fifths clause, because it incorporated a considerable portion of the South’s enslaved population (60 percent) into the total number of free persons, thus increasing a slave state’s number of congressional representatives (Article I, Section 2, Paragraph 3); the domestic insurrections clause, because it required Congress to call on the militia to suppress slave uprisings (Article I, Section 8, Paragraph 15); the “slave trade clause,” because it protected participation in the African slave trade—the importation of “such persons as any of the states now existing shall think proper to admit”—for at least twenty years (Article I, Section 9, Paragraph 1); and the fugitive slave clause, because it prohibited states from emancipating escaped slaves and also required the return of such fugitives to bondage (Article IV, Section 2, Paragraph 3). These four clauses represented irrefutable evidence that the Constitution was, in Garrison’s unambiguous language, “the most subtle and atrocious compromise ever made … stained with human blood, and supported by human sacrifices, … a mighty obstacle in the way of universal freedom and equality.”

Therefore, Garrison, Phillips, and other Garrisonians agitated for the Union’s demise—that is, the peaceful withdrawal of the nonslaveholding states. Should the free states not heed that advice, however, they advocated acts of individual separation, from abolitionists in particular and northerners more generally. In its 10 January 1845 issue, the Liberator announced:

“Secede, then, from the government. Submit to its exactions, but pay it no allegiance, and give it no voluntary aid. Fill no offices under it. Send no Senators or Representatives to the national or State Legislature; for what you cannot conscientiously perform yourself, you cannot ask another to perform as your agent.”

In May 1844 the American Anti-Slavery Society, by a vote of 59 to 21, proclaimed disunionism official policy; the New England Anti-Slavery Convention adopted that creed by an overwhelming majority of 250 to 24 shortly thereafter. When Garrison’s press reported those developments, the editor boldly declared that “No Union with Slaveholders” was thenceforth the Garrisonian rallying cry. That motto also served as the paper’s masthead for many years; not until the Civil War did the Liberator’s front page broadcast a different message.

Despite the extremism of the Garrisonians’ persuasion on various social issues seemingly unrelated to slavery, those abolitionists remained committed not only to the destruction of the South’s “peculiar institution” but also to the overthrow of racial discrimination in the North. Indeed, throughout the antebellum period, Garrisonians actively fought on behalf of desegregation, indicating their sincerity regarding one of the AASS’s founding objectives: “to secure to the colored population of the United States all the rights and privileges which belong to them as men and as Americans.” During the 1830s and 1840s Garrisonians helped secure the repeal of the Massachusetts antimiscegenation laws, which prohibited racial intermarriage; successfully protested “Jim Crow” seating on public railways and steamships in the state; and assisted in an eleven-year struggle to integrate Boston’s public schools, which culminated triumphantly in 1855.

Yet the campaign against racial discrimination was not solely a white abolitionist enterprise, for black activists equally participated and often led in that cause. The black Garrisonian abolitionist William Cooper Nell, who was the Liberator’s Negro Employment Office manager, a mass meetings organizer, and frequent columnist to the Liberator, commanded the integrationist forces against Boston’s exclusive public school system from the outset. In addition, the black activist and journalist David Ruggles spearheaded the boycott against segregation in public transportation when he refused to sit in a “blacks only” section on a steamship and sought admittance into a railway car reserved for whites. The fact that white Garrisonians eagerly joined in those efforts, and spoke and publicized news in the Liberator on their behalf, illustrates that they acted on their words and reveals their genuine desire to alleviate and destroy social injustice and racial inequality.

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