- The Problem of Democracy in the Age of Slavery: Garrisonian Abolitionists and Transatlantic Reform by W. Caleb McDaniel
Historian W. Caleb McDaniel provides an important reappraisal of leading Garrisonian abolitionists by exploring their political thought and behavior while also detailing the transatlantic nature of their movement. Where others have painted Garrisonians as apolitical moral perfectionists, McDaniel contends that they were unmistakable political activists. Garrisonians, he argues, thought deeply about democracy and sought to reform its imperfect American form by ceaselessly agitating apart from the ballot box. At stake for them, McDaniel contends, was not only the destruction of slavery at home but also the global flourishing of what they saw as the world’s most promising political form. Indeed, McDaniel shows that William Lloyd Garrison and his followers’ enduring belief in the planetary significance of American democracy undergirded their project of and approach to destroying slavery. Grounded in a thorough investigation of abolitionists’ public and private writings, this insightful monograph should find a wide audience among historians of abolition and reform, nineteenth-century political and intellectual historians, scholars of social movements, and historically minded democratic theorists.
McDaniel’s book is organized in three parts. Comprising three chapters, part 1 proceeds chronologically and charts the rise of William Lloyd Garrison and his movement through the early 1850s. Some of this story is familiar. McDaniel recounts Garrison’s early influences, his conversion to immediatism, the antiabolitionist violence of the 1830s, and the abolitionist schisms of the 1840s, among other essential topics. But McDaniel’s dual emphasis on Garrisonians’ transatlantic connections and their political sensibilities provides a fresh perspective. Whether describing Garrison’s early interest in political conflict abroad and his enthusiasm for Lafayette’s return to the United States in 1824 or the later Atlantic crossings of American and British abolitionists and the transatlantic communications network they forged, McDaniel persuasively unearths the vitality of internationalism in Garrisonians’ intellectual framework and their tactics. Simultaneously, McDaniel establishes the early roots of Garrison’s faith in [End Page 590] democracy and of his turn to the tools of public opinion to defeat slavery democratically. These commitments would persist through the Civil War, constituting an important continuity, McDaniel argues, in the Garrisonian approach.
Shifting gears somewhat, part 2 closely examines intellectual problems generated by abolitionist activism. To McDaniel, Garrisonians were “thinkers” as much as they were “agitators,” and their experiences led some to wrestle with fundamental issues of public opinion, nations and nationalism, aristocracy, and political influence (89). Each topic receives its own chapter and has a transatlantic perspective, and all are worthy of scholars’ attention. In probing public opinion, for example, McDaniel explores Garrisonians’ confidence in its power to eradicate injustice while coming to terms with its propensity to be wrong and despotic. Here Wendell Phillips emerges as the star. Well versed in Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, Phillips shared fears of democracy’s tendency toward majority tyranny, intellectual stagnation, and conformity. Yet he nonetheless continued to champion democracy. Phillips, McDaniel reveals, developed a theory of “eternal vigilance” in which agitators (i.e., the Garrisonians) limited democracy’s dangers by advancing dissenting positions that unsettled public opinion (104). As in this section’s other chapters, McDaniel maintains that this type of intellectual work helped Garrisonians make sense of their own movement while more broadly influencing subsequent democratic political life. Somewhat surprising is the absence of extended discussions or even an entire chapter exploring the problem of racial prejudice that concerned Garrisonians, influenced their thinking about democracy, and took on transatlantic dimensions. Garrisonians saw prejudice as another problem of public opinion and democracy, and leading black abolitionists who traveled to Britain shamed America by describing how they felt more equal as foreigners in an aristocratic nation than they did in their own democratic nation, which purportedly prized equality.
The book’s final section returns to the chronological narrative at mid-century and continues to braid Garrisonians’ transatlantic enterprises with their domestic political agitation through the Civil War. International developments, including...