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7. The Problem of Influence
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159 7 the problem of influence B y 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 “men and women could differ on scores of issues . . . and still lambaste the ‘slaveocracy.’”1 Garrisonians differed from other opponents of the Slave Power, however, in their steady refusal to vote or run for political office, even as others grew more convinced that slaveocrats could not be beaten any other way. By 1839, political abolitionists like Gerrit Smith, a wealthy New York philanthropist who supported the Liberty Party, were convinced that only a preponderance of “rightvoting abolitionists” could exert enough pressure on the major national parties to break the power of slavery in the federal government. But throughout the antebellum period, Garrisonians remained united in their abstention from voting and office.2 The Garrisonians’ reasons for not voting were actually more diverse than some opponents acknowledged. For some, non-voting was a consequence of non-resistance. Garrison supported the Chartists’ aims of what Lovett and Collins called “political reformation,” but he did not believe political reformation was a prerequisite for moral reformation. He continued to prioritize moral reform and refused voting as a kind of complicity in the sins that governments committed. But other Garrisonians simply believed they could not vote or take office without endorsing the Constitution’s protection of slavery. To these points, others added a fear that power would stifle their freedom of advocacy and rob them of their independence as agitators. 160 Part II: Ideas These lines of reasoning were not incompatible, however, and they all led AASS members to limit their tactical range: they printed newspapers without party tickets; they gave speeches, but not in Congress; they vilified politicians but did not vote. Above all, they talked. “Worshipping the tongue,” Phillips told his fellow Garrisonians, “let us be willing, at all times, to be known throughout the community as the all-talk party.”3 Many political abolitionists agreed that defeating the Slave Power required inciting “talk” over slavery; it was the idea of being an “all-talk” party to which they objected. Even after Frederick Douglass became “a Liberty party man” in 1851, he often still cited the Garrisonian argument “that political action is necessary only in the rear of public sentiment.” Douglass therefore urged antislavery politicians to “agitate, agitate. This is the grand instrumentality, and without this you . . . will come to nothing.” But Douglass and his fellow political abolitionists disagreed with Phillips that an aristocracy as powerful as the Slave Power could be defeated with agitation alone; they believed slaveholders had to be bested in the arena of politics because the government was what gave them so much protection and power.4 The distance between political abolitionists and Garrisonians on that point was slighter than it may appear, however, for one important reason: Garrisonians never believed that refusing to seek political power meant giving up on attempts to influence what happened inside Congress, political parties, or polling booths. Even in a speech to the Non-Resistance Society, Garrison predicted that “non-resistance” would one day “be felt powerfully at the polls.” And in 1839, Garrison made clear that, despite his non-resistance views, “I have always expected , I still expect, to see abolition at the ballot-box, renovating the political action of the country.” He and other members of the AASS maintained that a reformation of the “moral vision of the people” would ultimately lead to “political reformation.” In short, just as Garrison saw the government of God as the omega point of the progressive liberalization of human governments, he perceived political change as the omega point of progressive moral reformation.5 For just that reason, however, Garrison still longed for evidence of his political influence, even as he laid down his right to vote. For Wendell Phillips, meanwhile, the desire for influence may even have been greater. In 1844 Phillips confessed to Elizabeth Pease that “politics is a sore temptation, to me at least,” especially as he watched his old Harvard friend Charles Sumner move into Congress as a leader of the anti–Slave Power wing of the Whig Party.6 161 The Problem of Influence When tempted by politics, Garrisonians reassured themselves that they were at least doing their duty. They reminded each other...



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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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