The Problem of Democracy in the Age of Slavery: Garrisonian Abolitionists and Transatlantic Reform by W. Caleb McDaniel (review)
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Slavery, Abolitionism, William Lloyd Garrison, Garrisonians

The Problem of Democracy in the Age of Slavery: Garrisonian Abolitionists and Transatlantic Reform. By W. Caleb McDaniel. (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2013. Pp. 376. Hardcover, $48.00.)

W. Caleb McDaniel’s excellent account of Garrisonian abolitionists presents the antislavery crusaders as they saw themselves: as intellectual [End Page 147] activists (or activist intellectuals) fighting for liberty on a global stage. In showing how the Garrisonians’ philosophical outlook and reformist agitation were mutually reinforcing, McDaniel has made a significant contribution to the fields of nineteenth-century social and intellectual history.

From the start, William Lloyd Garrison regarded the fight for human freedom as a transnational endeavor. Consequently, he thrilled at the exploits of two liberty-loving Romantic figures. The first was Lord Byron, who penned epic freedom-fighting poems and who himself died battling for Greek independence. The other was the Marquis de Lafayette, who had risked his life aiding the American Revolution, received a hero’s welcome during his triumphant U.S. tour in 1824, and continued to combat aristocratic forces in France. Garrison envisioned Byron and Lafayette among his international band of brothers and sisters.

For all his talk about liberty, young Garrison said little about slavery. He disliked the institution, of course, but to the extent that he discussed slavery, he used it as a metaphor for European despots’ subjugation of the masses. This changed in the late 1820s when Garrison embraced abolitionism. His conversion represented not so much a rethinking of the problem of slavery and the methods of eradicating the institution, but rather a new view of racism, which, Garrison concluded, unnaturally divided the human family.

Abolitionism compelled Garrison to reevaluate the government’s role in the struggle for human freedom. Some individuals, like John Humphrey Noyes, urged people to eschew nationalism altogether, telling them to “come out” from under human institutions that failed to promote universal liberty. Garrison would not go that far. For him, the triumph of freedom in America would serve as a model for the rest of the world. For this reason, Garrison and his followers did not think nationalism and cosmopolitanism were incompatible. The problem, argued Garrisonians, was that slavery and racism were not only brutalizing millions of black Americans, they were robbing the United States of its proper role as a moral citadel. But how did one combat the twin evils of bondage and prejudice?

The answer: by shifting public opinion. Like most Americans, Garrisonians believed that public opinion was the foundation upon which government legitimacy rested in a democratic republic. The most effective means of changing public opinion about slavery was through ceaseless agitation, particularly “patriotic shaming.” Again and again, [End Page 148] Garrisonians proclaimed that slavery made a mockery of America’s professed commitment to freedom. Garrisonians then took their case overseas, establishing networks with European reformers who likewise called into question the U.S.’s vaunted liberty. Once public opinion shifted, predicted Garrisonians, legislative triumphs would follow. By these means, freedom and democracy would reign in America and, by way of example, imperil slavery and despotism elsewhere.

In the meantime, Garrisonians had to deal with the unpleasant fact that democracy was not working to their advantage, that proslavery laws were enacted by popular majorities, as were statutes designed to stifle antislavery dissent. Put another way, as members of a persecuted minority, Garrisonians knew firsthand that majorities could tyrannize minorities. Moreover, because laws had the imprimatur of “popular opinion,” it was difficult for individuals to publicly oppose the measures. Democracies, in short, countenanced conformism. They also rewarded politicians who appealed to the lowest common denominator. All of these things were anathemas to high-minded Garrisonian agitators. Even so, Garrisonians rejected aristocracy. Indeed, reform movements that hedged their bets, especially for the sake of political expediency, were deemed unworthy of support by Garrisonians.

Since they believed that they were doing God’s work, Garrisonians assumed victory was inevitable. But confidence in their impending success brought questions anew. Specifically, they feared that once they could influence public policy, their movement would be corrupted and compromised. The Garrisonians never cracked this philosophical nut, but to many...


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