4. The Problem of Public Opinion
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89 4 the problem of public opinion B etween 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 could draw on at least two commonalities, however: a hope that nonviolent agitation would change society in the future, and a set of experiences that made them feel embattled in the present. From these two group traits emerged a third: a habit of reflecting on and critically discussing their ideas and their experiences. Their careers as agitators made them thinkers, too.1 As thinkers, Garrisonians wrestled with intellectual problems that were widely discussed on both sides of the Atlantic, and that went beyond the problem of slavery itself. First and foremost, their experiences almost inevitably led Garrisonians to confront philosophical questions about the role of public opinion in a democracy like the United States. Indeed, as Garrisonians reflected on their history after the 1830s, many were led to ponder the central question of democracy itself: Was a society in which public opinion was omnipotent always preferable to the alternatives? Much of the Garrisonians’ strategic thinking rested on their faith in the power of public opinion. Both Garrison and Douglass had, at different times, called public opinion “omnipotent” and rejoiced in its rule. That faith even served as a slender piece of common ground with their factional adversaries, for all of whom influencing “public opinion” remained a strategic goal. Even political abolitionists who actively sought to win elections after 1840 saw their pursuit of political office partly as a means of reaching “public opinion” and generating discussion both inside and outside of Congress. Joshua Giddings described the 90 Part II: Ideas Free Soil Party, which formed in 1848 with the support of some Liberty Party activists, as a movement that sought to “correct public opinion, not . . . control political action.”2 Yet Garrisonians, even more than other abolitionist groups, believed American public opinion was deeply corrupt, which made its omnipotence troubling, too. Garrisonians understood themselves as a “trampled minority” opposed by sizable majorities both outside and within the abolitionist movement. So they had ample reason to “distrust public opinion,” as one abolitionist report put it, even though (or precisely because) they believed in its power.3 In retrospect, this ambivalence about public opinion is evident in the earliest texts that Garrisonians wrote. In Thoughts on African Colonization, Garrison predicted that “an enlightened and energetic public opinion” could reform the country, but he also admitted that black Americans were, in the meantime, weighed down by “the massy shackles of law and of public opinion.” Was public opinion, then, a coercive master or a force for good? The “reign of terror” of the 1830s, far from settling that question, only raised it with new force, especially since anti-abolitionists often described their riots and “gag rules” as legitimate expressions of “public opinion.” George Thompson concluded that in America “the minority [was] prostrate before the majority,” which was free to “perpetrate every enormity in the name of ‘public opinion.’ ‘public opinion,’” he bemoaned, “is at this hour the demon of oppression.”4 Thompson was far from the only contemporary to believe that public opinion could, at some hours, be a demon—the source of “terrors” instead of reform. Indeed, the idea that the public was vulgar and wrong, and that mere “opinion” was something often rooted in irrational prejudice, were commonplaces among thinkers on both sides of the Atlantic. Both ideas lay behind the motto that Garrison chose for one of his first newspapers: “Reason shall prevail with us more than Public Opinion.” And for many European commentators, the experience of the abolitionists in the 1830s only strengthened a common association of opinion with unreason.5 In his famous entry into the “travel wars,” for example, Charles Dickens scoffed at southerners who told him that public opinion curtailed the mistreatment of slaves. “Public opinion!” Dickens jeered in his American Notes. “Why, public opinion in the slave States is slavery, is it not? . . . Public opinion has made the laws,” while at the same time “public opinion threatens the abolitionist with death, if he ventures to the South; and drags him with a rope about his 91 The Problem of Public Opinion middle, in broad unblushing noon, through the first city in the East”—an allusion to the Boston...


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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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