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The Problem of Democracy in the Age of Slavery

Garrisonian Abolitionists and Transatlantic Reform

W. Caleb McDaniel

Publication Year: 2013

In The Problem of Democracy in the Age of Slavery, W. Caleb McDaniel sets forth a new interpretation of the Garrisonian abolitionists, stressing their deep ties to reformers and liberal thinkers in Great Britain and Europe. The group of American reformers known as “Garrisonians” included, at various times, some of the most significant and familiar figures in the history of the antebellum struggle over slavery: Wendell Phillips, Frederick Douglass, and William Lloyd Garrison himself. Between 1830 and 1870, American abolitionists led by Garrison developed extensive networks of friendship, correspondence, and intellectual exchange with a wide range of European reformers—Chartists, free trade advocates, Irish nationalists, and European revolutionaries. Garrison signaled the importance of these ties to his movement with the well-known cosmopolitan motto he printed on every issue of his famous newspaper, The Liberator: “Our Country is the World—Our Countrymen are All Mankind.” That motto serves as an important but underappreciated cue for McDaniel’s study, which shows that Garrison and his movement must be placed squarely within the context of transatlantic mid-nineteenth-century reform. Through exposure to contemporary European thinkers—such as Alexis de Tocqueville, Giuseppe Mazzini, and John Stuart Mill—Garrisonian abolitionists came to understand their own movement not only as an effort to mold “public opinion” about slavery but also as a measure to defend democracy in an Atlantic World still dominated by aristocracy and monarchy. While convinced that democracy offered the best form of government, Garrisonians recognized that the persistence of slavery in the United States revealed problems with the political system. They identified minority agitators as necessary to the health of a democratic society. Ultimately, Garrisonians’ transatlantic activities reveal their deep patriotism, their interest in using “public opinion” to affect American politics, and their similarities to other antislavery groups. By following Garrisonian abolitionists across the Atlantic Ocean and exhaustively documenting their international networks, McDaniel challenges many of the timeworn stereotypes that still cling to their movement. He argues for a new image of Garrison’s band as politically savvy, intellectually sophisticated liberal reformers, who were well informed about transatlantic debates regarding the problem of democracy.

Published by: Louisiana State University Press

Series: Antislavery, Abolition, and the Atlantic World


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pp. C-C

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. i-viii


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pp. ix-x


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pp. xi-xvi

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pp. 1-18

On April 14, 1865, hours before Abraham Lincoln sat down for the last time at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C., the famous abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison sat down for the first time in Charleston, South Carolina. More than three decades before, Garrison had founded the Boston Liberator, a newspaper dedicated to universal, immediate slave emancipation. In 1833, he helped found the American Anti-Slavery Society (AASS), a group devoted to ...


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1. The Education of William Lloyd Garrison, 1818–1833

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pp. 21-44

On July 5, 1824, William Lloyd Garrison—then an eighteen-year-old journalist with Federalist inclinations in politics and Romantic tastes in poetry— delivered a patriotic oration in Newburyport, Massachusetts. It did not sound at all like the speech of a future Constitution-burner. On the contrary, like most Fourth of July orators, Garrison described the United States “government [as] the most enlightened, the most liberal, and the most virtuous on ...

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2. The Troublous Ocean of Transatlantic Abolitionism, 1833–1840

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pp. 45-65

Garrison’s first time crossing the Atlantic Ocean shared one thing with all his future crossings: sea-sickness. On May 1, 1833, his New York–to– Liverpool packet ship had not even cleared the bay before Garrison’s stomach was “vanquished” by “a petty tumult among the waves!” Thirteen years later, after five more crossings of “the restless deep,” Garrison confessed...

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3. Conflict and Continuity in Transatlantic Abolitionism, 1840–1854

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pp. 66-86

The 1840s proved to be an even more active decade of transatlantic abolitionist networking than the previous one, but the decade opened with setbacks. Nathaniel Paul—the black abolitionist who had battled colonizationism in England from 1832 to 1836—died in 1839. Then, in January 1840, Charles Follen was killed in a steamship accident off the coast of New ...


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4. The Problem of Public Opinion

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pp. 89-112

Between 1830 and 1854, Garrisonians were transformed from unknown Americans into an infamous, tightly knit movement with dense connections to European reformers. But Garrisonians remained a diverse lot: no single theology or socioeconomic marker united all members of the AASS, who sometimes struggled to keep their community intact. Garrisonians generally...

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5. The Problem of Nationalism

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pp. 113-136

Not all Garrisonians drew so directly from Tocqueville, but others echoed Phillips’s ideas about democracy. Certainly Garrison agreed that “there is nothing like agitation,” and that “we have too little, instead of too much dissent among us.” “If we had not innumerable facts to prove the general corruption of the times,” said the Liberator in 1846, “the fear of free speech and...

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6. The Problem of Aristocracy

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pp. 137-158

Experience and reflection brought both Garrison and Phillips to stark conclusions about the dangers of democratic government. Both men concluded, for different reasons, that agitation outside of political office was necessary to counteract those dangers. But neither man concluded that some other form of government would be better than democracy. As Phillips...

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7. The Problem of Influence

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pp. 159-180

By the mid-1840s, Garrisonians agreed with a growing number of antislavery northerners about the dangers posed by the Slave Power. As historian Leonard L. Richards notes, “hostility toward slave oligarchs . . . provided common ground” for a wide range of people—including anti-expansion Whigs, antislavery Jacksonians, and political abolitionists—precisely because...


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8. Transatlantic Revolutions and Reversals, 1848–1854

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pp. 183-209

For all their heady talk of Christian perfection”—one historian has noted— Garrison and “his disciples were liberal nineteenth-century reformers” who “were not so very different from others of their kind—Richard Cobden, John Bright, and Daniel O’Connell.” But most Americans at the time could only hear “talk of Christian perfection” when they listened to Garrison...

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9. The Civil War and the Rupturing of Transatlantic Abolitionism, 1854–1863

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pp. 203-231

At Framingham, Garrisonians still believed their primary role was to agitate, but the temptation to politics did not go away. Neither did their questions about how to measure or deal with political influence. Even in the dark days of the Pierce administration, there were some antislavery men in Congress who raised those questions anew. Phillips “rejoice[d] beyond measure”...

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10. Reconstruction and the Rupturing of Garrisonian Abolitionism, 1863–1865

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pp. 232-258

Tensions between American and British Garrisonians eased slightly when Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 and Congress passed the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery in 1865. After 1863, prominent European liberals in Britain and France also swelled the ranks of the Union’s transatlantic allies. In an open letter published in England and republished ...

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pp. 259-270

On April 7, 1865, one week before Abraham Lincoln’s assassination and Garrison’s visit to Fort Sumter, the Liberator published an excerpt from an essay by Mary Grew, one of the delegates excluded from the World’s Convention of 1840. Grew depicted the closing of the war as a moment of congratulation for abolitionists, whose long faith in agitation had finally been...

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pp. 271-332

BAA British and American Abolitionists: An Episode in Transatlantic Under-standing, ed. Clare Taylor. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, BPL Boston Public Library, Anti-Slavery Collection, Rare Books and Manu-CWJSM Robson, John M. The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill. 33 vols. To-Garrison and Garrison, Garrison, Wendell Phillips, and Francis Jackson Garrison. William ...


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pp. 333-344

E-ISBN-13: 9780807150191
Print-ISBN-13: 9780807150184

Page Count: 376
Publication Year: 2013

Series Title: Antislavery, Abolition, and the Atlantic World
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OCLC Number: 841229167
MUSE Marc Record: Download for The Problem of Democracy in the Age of Slavery

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Subject Headings

  • Antislavery movements -- United States -- History -- 19th century.
  • Slavery -- Political aspects -- United States -- History -- 19th century.
  • Democracy -- Philosophy
  • Garrison, William Lloyd, 1805-1879.
  • Phillips, Wendell, 1811-1884.
  • American Anti-Slavery Society.
  • Abolitionists -- United States -- Biography
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