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6. The Problem of Aristocracy
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137 6 the problem of aristocracy E xperience 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 put it in 1859, democratic institutions, while “not perfect,” were still “the best possible institutions.”1 Garrison agreed, though his commitment to democratic institutions can be harder to discern, both because of his belief that voting was a sin for him and because of statements made at the very beginning of his immediatist career. In the second issue of the Liberator, and again in Thoughts on African Colonization, Garrison sometimes distinguished his campaign for emancipation from a campaign for enfranchisement. “Immediate abolition,” he argued, “does not mean that the slaves shall immediately exercise the right of suffrage, or be eligible to any office .” But these early statements were not Garrison’s last word on the subject. In an address delivered to free people of color in 1831, Garrison described state laws disfranchising people of color unconstitutional and urged their overthrow, and in its early volumes the Liberator approvingly covered efforts to challenge complexional language in voting laws and make them more “truly democratic.”2 Garrison’s later career also quickly carried him in democratic directions that were radical for his time. The constitutions of the New England Anti-Slavery Society and the American Anti-Slavery Society both called for equal civil and political rights regardless of color. His early and controversial alliances with abolitionist women also led him to declare in 1850 that “I want the women to have the right to vote.” When women were granted that right, Garrison explained, “it will be for them to say whether they will exercise it or not,” but first he wanted 138 Part II: Ideas “impartial liberty to prevail.” In 1859, while Massachusetts debated whether to withhold the suffrage from naturalized immigrants for two years after they obtained citizenship, Garrison condemned the proposal as “an act of political injustice ,” even though “we do not go to the polls ourselves.”3 The idea of enfranchising women, people of color, and immigrants was extremely controversial in the antebellum United States, but in Jacksonian America and the broader Atlantic World, even universal white manhood suffrage remained a radical doctrine. Many people supported limitations on voting rights, using arguments like the ones Tocqueville used in Democracy in America. In an 1849 article printed in the Liberator, for example, one non-resistant abolitionist, Abraham Brooke, disagreed with a recent column by William Henry Ashurst arguing for universal suffrage, because “majorities” had no special right “to execute their will against the consent of minorities, simply because a greater number favor than oppose the measure.” And in a revealing private note from 1841, Alexis de Tocqueville confessed that, despite his “intellectual preference” for democracy , “I am aristocratic by instinct, that is I despise and fear the crowd.” Other European liberals favored limiting suffrage according to notions of capacity to vote, and many American Whigs continued to admire England’s mixed government, fearing that full democracy might place King Mob in charge of the country.4 By contrast, Garrison, Phillips, and most of their allies opposed aristocracy and limited suffrage, both by instinct and intellectual preference. If the essence of aristocracy was the idea that only some people should be allowed to participate in government, Garrisonians were democrats. Despite the objections of some non-resistant readers like Brooke, Garrison published numerous columns by Ashurst advocating the application of “the democratic principle” in Britain and defending efforts by the Chartist movement there to enfranchise all adult men. And Garrison endorsed and embraced Chartists, too. In one letter to Elizabeth Pease, he made his own political instincts clear by arguing that “the extension of the right of suffrage” did not even go far enough. In Britain, he thought, “the watchword should be . . . Down with the throne! Down with the aristocracy!”5 These exclamations underscore again Garrison’s differences with Noyes, who denied that there was any significant difference between democratic or monarchical human governments. By contrast, Garrison explained, “non-resistants do not deny that some form of government, however arbitrary and despotic, is better than a state of anarchy; that a limited monarchy is infinitely to be preferred 139 The Problem of Aristocracy to an absolute despotism; and that a republican is far...



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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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