8. Transatlantic Revolutions and Reversals, 1848–1854
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183 8 transatlantic revolutions and reversals, 1848–1854 F or 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 and his allies. Even though Noyes himself criticized the AASS and the NonResistance Society as insufficiently “religious,” and even though leading orators like Phillips never embraced non-resistance, many abolitionists continued to identify disunionism with non-resistance, and non-resistance with a total abjuration of politics.1 Garrison’s style of agitation did not exactly discourage confusion on these points. In 1854, at the Fourth of July meeting of abolitionists in Framingham, Massachusetts, Garrison famously burned a copy of the Constitution “to ashes on the spot,” before leading his audience in a responsive chant: “And let all the people say, Amen.” This extraordinary gesture, so reminiscent of Martin Luther’s burning of papal bulls, could not help but strike political abolitionists as further evidence of Garrison’s fanatical come-outer zeal. Moncure D. Conway, a Unitarian from Virginia who delivered his first antislavery speech at the same meeting, remembered concluding on that very day that Garrison was the leader of “a religion ,” not a political movement.2 But Conway’s judgments failed to explain the vast range of political subjects that Garrisonians had considered over the previous twelve years. Chartism, the Dorr Rebellion, the Free Soil Party, Giddings’s censure, Texas annexation, Wilson ’s speeches, Irish Repeal, the Anti–Corn Law League, the Haverhill petition— all found a place in the pages of the Liberator. Indeed, in the very same issue that 184 Part III: Events reported his burning of the Constitution, Garrison covered the entire front page of the Liberator with transcripts of the latest debates in Congress. Inside were comments on a speech by Charles Sumner, items about the Fugitive Slave Law, and a letter from an English friend about European events. This was nothing new. As early as 1844, the non-resistant Nathaniel P. Rogers complained that “Garrison holds politics a mortal sin, yet he fills his paper with the doings of politicians.” Shortly thereafter Rogers even left the AASS, convinced that Garrison had lowered his standard from the moral high ground of non-resistance and perfectionism. In the early 1840s Rogers was appalled by the attention Garrison paid to politicians like O’Connell and Giddings, and he singled out disunionism, the very thing most outsiders viewed as proof of Garrison ’s zealotry, as proof of how far the AASS had fallen from its task of declaring all politics unclean. “Garrison is advocating the dissolution of our political Union,” Rogers wrote in an anguished series of letters to Webb, shortly before retiring in disgust. But such an act was “a thing our politicians alone can do” and would ultimately require “the act of suffrage at the polls.” Garrisonians were therefore becoming “purblind with politics,” Rogers said. “They do not throw political dust, but they kick it up and love to be in it. They do not hold office or vote, but they love to hover about the polls . . . and about the state houses, where they can enjoy the turmoil of legislation.”3 Rogers died prematurely not long after these lines, but had he lived to see Garrison burn the Constitution, the event would only have confirmed his suspicions. The years between 1844 and 1854 also would have given him new evidence to support his charges that his friends were “purblind with politics,” for in these years Garrisonians continued to watch political events closely—searching the news for signs of their influence, debating whether it was time to take a more active role in politics, and oscillating between fears and hopes for the future of democracy in their country and elsewhere. Political events and the “turmoil of legislation,” both at home and abroad, would remain near the forefront of their thinking, even at Framingham, proving Rogers more correct about Garrison than Conway. Both Rogers and Conway erred, however, in assuming that Garrison’s religious views and his interest in political events stood in conflict. For Garrison, the belief that the kingdom of Christ would one day relink earth and heaven, and that abolitionists were instruments in God’s hands, made him all the more eager to search the present for signs...



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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