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141 5 Frederick Douglass and the Abolitionist Response to the Election of 1860 John R. McKivigan Secessionists vehemently branded Abraham Lincoln an abolitionist in rationalizing their departure from the Union after his election to the presidency in November 1860. This view was arguably more the product of the growth of Southern nationalism and corresponding paranoia over the preceding thirty years than of any rational analysis of the position that Lincoln or his Republican Party had adopted toward slavery. This appraisal of the president-elect also was significantly out of line with that made by many of the nation’s leading abolitionists, including the prominent black editor and orator Frederick Douglass, who found that Lincoln and his party fell quite below their militant antislavery standards. Douglass ’s response to Lincoln’s presidential candidacy ironically reveals the ambivalence that many veteran abolitionists maintained toward their more moderate antislavery political counterparts. To use Frederick Douglass as a vehicle to explore the abolitionist response to the election of 1860, it is necessary to first explore his political activities in the years leading up to that critical election. Doing so is very fortuitous because in his twenty years as an abolitionist before 1860, Douglass had been a member for a time of each major antislavery camp: first the Garrisonians, then the Liberty Party, and finally the militant abolitionist conspiracy led by John Brown. At the same time Douglass had observed and sometimes supported more moderate antislavery political efforts by the Free Soilers in 1848 and 1852 and then the newly formed Republican Party in 1856. Briefly tracing Douglass’s early political career Fuller text.indb 141 1/15/13 2:55 PM 142 · The Election of 1860 Reconsidered yields significant insights about the political goals of various abolitionist groups that will help explain their response to Lincoln’s candidacy in 1860. Although abolitionists worked together in groups, they also made political decisions as individuals based on unique personal factors. Douglass ’s unusual personal history, first as a runaway slave and then a leading voice of Northern free blacks, shaped his politics. Changes in his personal circumstances between the early 1840s and 1860 definitely affected his political behavior. Throughout these years, it appears that three goals that guided Douglass’s response to antebellum political events. First, as an abolitionist , Douglass sought the immediate and complete emancipation of his slave brethren. Second as a black man, Douglass fought to overturn discriminatory practices he saw his people encounter in every phase of their lives in the “free” states. Finally, as a sensitive and ambitious individual , Douglass used the political stage as a means to win the respect of Fig. 26. Frederick Douglass, 1860. (Library of Congress) Fuller text.indb 142 1/15/13 2:55 PM Frederick Douglass and the Abolitionist Response · 143 members of both the free blacks and white abolitionist communities. In the 1860 election, all three of these factors would play a large role in guiding Douglass’s behavior. The abolitionists’ ambivalence toward moderate antislavery political activity had its roots in the origins of the immediatist movement in the early 1830s, well before Douglass had escaped from his youthful enslavement in Maryland. Abolition emerged as a by-product of the upsurge of religious revivalism popularly known as the Second Great Awakening. The original abolitionist principles and objectives revealed the deep influence of evangelical tenets. Revivalist assumptions led may churchmen to regard slavery as a product of personal sin and to demand emancipation as the cost of repentance. Early abolitionists therefore focused on a campaign of “moral suasion” to use religious institutions to reach and convert the consciences of slaveholders rather than pursuing political or governmental means to achieve emancipation.1 The rejection of this emancipation program by nearly every major American religious body in the 1830s forced abolitionists to reconsider their church-oriented strategy. Many followed the lead of the Boston abolitionist editor William Lloyd Garrison and abandoned the churches as hopelessly corrupted by slavery. Many of these Garrisonians also adopted pacifistic or “nonresistant” political practices and counseled Northerners to withhold their sanction from the proslavery Constitution by refusing to vote. The Garrisonians hired Douglass as a traveling lecturer only two years after he escaped from slavery in Maryland, resettled in New Bedford , Massachusetts, and espoused their basic political ideology.2 After the 1840 schism in the antislavery ranks, some non-Garrisonian abolitionists focused on reforming the churches. Many of these abolitionists joined the newly formed American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society, the most prominent...


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