Was Abolitionism a Failure?
Jan. 31, 1865, Congress passed the 13th Amendment, banning slavery in America. It was an achievement that abolitionists had spent decades fighting for — and one for which their movement has been lauded ever since.
But before abolitionism succeeded, it failed. As a pre-Civil War movement, it was a flop. Antislavery congressmen were able to push through their amendment because of the absence of the pro-slavery South, and the complicated politics of the Civil War. Abolitionism’s surprise victory has misled generations about how change gets made.
Today, diverse movements cast themselves as modern versions of the struggle against slavery. The former Republican senator Jim DeMint, now the president of the Heritage Foundation, claimed that small-government “constitutional conservatism” has inherited the cause; the liberal TV host Chris Hayes, writing in The Nation, said battling climate change was the “new abolitionism.” That term has become shorthand for “fighting the good fight.” But the long struggle against slavery shows how jerky, contingent and downright lucky winning that good fight was.
It’s hard to accept just how unpopular abolitionism was before the Civil War. The abolitionist Liberty Party never won a majority in a single county, anywhere in America, in any presidential race. Ralph Nader got closer to the presidency. In 1860 the premier antislavery newspaper, The Liberator, had a circulation of under 3,000, in a nation of 31 million.
Even among Northerners who wanted to stop the spread of slavery, the idea of banning it altogether seemed fanatical. On the eve of the Civil War, America’s greatest sage, Ralph Waldo Emerson, predicted that slavery might end one day, but “we shall not live to see it.”
In a deeply racist society, where most white Americans, South and North, valued sectional unity above equal rights, “abolitionist” was usually a dirty word. One man who campaigned for Abraham Lincoln in 1860 complained: “I have been denounced as impudent, foppish, immature, and worse than all, an Abolitionist.”
While we remember the war as a struggle for freedom, at its outset neither Lincoln nor the Republican Party planned to ban slavery. To calm talk of secession, Congress passed a never-ratified, now-forgotten 13th Amendment promising that no amendment could ever end slavery. Lincoln backed it. Going into the conflict, Congress offered to abolish abolitionism, not slavery.
Abolitionism gained strength thanks to the uncompromising stance of radical “fire eating” Southerners. By ostracizing Northern allies, seceding and then starting a war, Southern radicals gave abolitionism gift after gift after gift. When South Carolina militiamen fired on Fort Sumter, Frederick Douglass exalted: “Thank God! — The slaveholders themselves have saved our cause from ruin!”
The war’s length and brutality gave further fuel to the abolitionist fire. The historian Gary W. Gallagher has argued that the successful generalship of Robert E. Lee ultimately helped emancipation, pushing bloodied and vengeful Northerners to free slaves. Moderates like Lincoln became convinced that “we must free the slaves or be ourselves subdued.”
Still, the war, not the strength of abolitionism, made the difference. When he finally issued the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln operated under the president’s war powers. And when thousands of slaves freed themselves and fought the Confederacy, they mostly did so as the Union Army entered their regions. Antislavery blacks fought bravely and lobbied cannily, helped by the radicalism of their former masters.
By January 1865, the tide had turned. Congress moved to ban slavery everywhere (not just in the Confederacy, but in loyal slave states like Maryland and Kentucky). A body that had tried to make slavery un-abolishable a few years before voted to free four million men and women. It could never have passed the amendment if all those Southern congressmen had stayed in Washington to vote against it. Every politician who stormed off to join the Confederacy cast an inadvertent ballot for abolition.
Here’s where the confusion emerges. After the war, many Americans interpreted slaveholder mistakes as abolitionist victories. Abolition looked like a road map for reform. Many claimed to have been on its side before the war. Publishers printed a torrent of memoirs by supposed abolitionists; everyone who ever cast a ballot for the Liberty Party seemed to write a book about it.
The generation of Americans raised after the Civil War modeled diverse movements on abolitionism, from supporters of labor, women’s rights and socialism to opponents of popular democracy and mass immigration. The Boston poet James Russell Lowell even compared a movement to suppress poor voters to abolitionists, writing: “They emancipated the negro; we mean to emancipate the respectable white man.”
Today, we point to abolition as proof that we can improve society by eliminating one glaring evil. This is what unites “new abolitionists” across the political spectrum, whether they’re working to end the death penalty or ban abortion. We like the idea of sweeping change, of an idealistic movement triumphing over something so clearly wrong.
The problem is, that’s not really how slavery ended. Those upright, moral, prewar abolitionists did not succeed. Neither did the stiff-necked Southern radicals who ended up destroying the institution they went to war to maintain. It was the flexibility of the Northern moderates, those flip-floppers who voted against abolition before they voted for it, who really ended 250 years of slavery.
Abolitionists make better heroes, though, principled and courageous and seemingly in step with 21st century values. But people from the past who espoused beliefs we hold today were usually rejected at the time. We can only wonder which of today’s unpopular causes will, in 150 years, be considered the abolitionism of 2015.
Jon Grinspan is the author of a forthcoming book on the role of young people in 19th-century American democracy.