- Beyond Garrison: Antislavery and Social Reform
Since the early nineteenth century, abolitionists and subsequent historians of the abolitionist movement have debated the relative merits of the social and political strategies of antislavery. Did the rhetorical tactic of "moral suasion" represent the best means to eliminate slavery and its attendant sins from American society, or did politics offer a more effective road? Important episodes in this nearly 200-year debate included William Lloyd Garrison's initial disparagement of political means as tainted, early twentieth-century historians' denigration of Garrison and his allies as unrealistic fanatics, the resurrection of Garrisonian means by neo-abolitionist historians of the 1960s, and most recently a renewed discussion of the question on the electronic network H-SHEAR. The proponents of moral suasion have held the dominant position in this debate since the 1960s; however, the tide may be turning. Recent volumes in defense of political abolitionism include Jonathan H. Earle's Jacksonian Antislavery and the Politics of Free Soil (2004) and Frederick J. Blue's No Taint of Compromise: Crusaders in Antislavery Politics (2005). Bruce Laurie joins the fray with his stimulating new book, which argues that when antislavery activists pushed beyond Garrison by entering the political arena, they formed fertile connections with labor advocates and other democratic leaders that both advanced black civil rights and held promise for biracial economic progress. Laurie revises the familiar [End Page 495] declension narrative, which regards political antislavery as a retreat from principled moral suasion, by focusing his gaze on the positive consequences of "the politicization of abolitionism in antebellum Massachusetts" (1).
Beyond Garrison is a richly detailed local history that describes both the ideological battles and the political horse-trading engaged in by antislavery politicians in antebellum Massachusetts. Laurie is most successful in the first chapters of the book, which describe how certain Massachusetts antislavery leaders made the transition from moral suasion to politics and how they used politics to advance black civil rights. This story has received less attention than it deserves. Laurie painstakingly recreates the successful political battles fought against racial segregation and anti-intermarriage laws, as well as for personal liberty laws. He impressively recovers the significant role that black activists played in encouraging antislavery politicians to pursue a civil rights agenda. However, Laurie reserves the majority of the credit for the agenda's passage to the members of the Liberty Party. Here Laurie challenges the common assumption that abolitionist politics were ineffective and uses the occasion to make a jab at the "unabashedly self-serving" William Lloyd Garrison, who tried to take some credit for the accomplishments (112). There are weaknesses to this argument. First, Laurie fails to consider how the moral suasion practiced throughout the 1830s may have set the stage for the Liberty Party's political victories. Second, the successful battle against railroad segregation in Massachusetts cannot be considered strictly a political victory. Legislation did not force railroads to abandon segregated seating for African Americans; railroads did so voluntarily in response to a combination of political pressure and community pressure.
The book's latter chapters describe the connections that antislavery leaders formed with political labor activists, and the episodes of cooperation and conflict between these two reform movements. Laurie argues persuasively that some Liberty party leaders supported labor reform and gave it "a useful political partner, raising its profile in public and strengthening its hand in party politics" (135). He is less convincing in his attempt to show that antislavery sentiment had strength among working-class labor reformers. Laurie's examples of workingmen's rhetoric against "slavery" can easily be read as intended to enhance the claims of white freedom without offering any true critique of black slavery. Subsequent chapters on Free Soilism enrich this story of antislavery–labor cooperation. Laurie argues that Free Soilers in Massachusetts were not [End Page 496] virulent racists, but racial paternalists who campaigned for black equal rights (179). Ultimately however, he concedes that "cultural" racial politics divided laborites and antislavery activists, trumping their...