- The Problem of Democracy in the Age of Slavery: Garrisonian Abolitionists and Transatlantic Reform by W. Caleb McDaniel
This insightful study will be read profitably by seasoned scholars as well as those new to the field of abolitionist studies. In ten chapters covering the period between the 1820s and the 1870s, McDaniel addresses historiographical debates on transatlantic abolitionism, the relationship between William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips, the role of radical activists in a democracy, and the quick pivot of immediate abolitionists like Garrison from marginalized agitators in 1860 to pro-Lincoln unionist supporters in 1861. Perhaps the book’s most significant contribution, however, is its rich analysis of the relationship between American abolitionism and the waxing and waning of global democratic reform.
The heart of the book focuses on the middle third of the nineteenth century, and during these decades American abolitionists struggled with a central question: if slavery was evil and democracy was the most moral form of government, how did one explain the existence of bondage in America? McDaniel argues that as intellectuals as well as activists—Garrison, Phillips, Abby Kelley, Samuel May, and other likeminded adherents to emancipation—had to answer this central question, in part because their transatlantic colleagues repeatedly asked it. Although events at home, including the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law, led them to despair, reformers (especially Garrison) rarely questioned that democracy was morally superior to other forms of government. Instead, they conceived of democracy as a work in progress, in constant flux, and in constant need of agitation to achieve moral perfection. While nuanced differences remained, differences that would ultimately cause a rift between Garrison and Phillips, the abolitionist faith in democracy stood remarkably strong.
McDaniel shows that despite their disdain for politicians, American abolitionists remained vigilant observers and commenters on domestic and international [End Page 459] news. The Liberator published numerous columns on political machinations, excoriating unionist (especially Democratic) leaders for their eagerness to sacrifice slaves in appeasing the South and meticulously following the ebb and flow of democratic reform across Europe. Garrisonians watched from afar the democratic revolutions that spread across Europe on 1848, enthusiastically embracing the movements as harbingers of democratic sentiment that would inevitably sweep across mankind, reflecting the cosmopolitanism that Garrisonians saw as central to abolitionism. Through a rich correspondence bolstered by repeated transatlantic crossings, American antislavery liberals built relationships with European counterparts like Giuseppe Mazzini and George Thompson.
Abolitionists eagerly drew parallels between the spread of democracy in Europe and the need to perfect democracy at home. From Chartism in England to Mazzini’s democratic movement in Italy, European activism could be employed to shed light on the faults remaining in America. Garrison and other activists used the successes of international democratic movements to shame Americans into reforming their own system. When the European revolutions failed, however, Garrisonian optimism quickly turned to despair. The 1852 visit of Louis Kossuth, the Hungarian democrat, to the United States provided a perfect opportunity to highlight American hypocrisy, for just as President Millard Fillmore and his secretary of state, Daniel Webster, were actively enforcing the return of runaways like Anthony Burns to bondage under the Fugitive Slave Law, they eagerly embraced Kossuth and his fight for freedom. Phillips, Garrison, and their adherents were outraged at the glaring hypocrisy and attempted to embarrass unionists for the contradiction. This public shaming continued into the 1850s as abolitionists never relented in pressuring the Republicans to support immediate emancipation.
The need to pressure politicians into abolition proved less clear when the South seceded in 1860 and 1861. Garrisonians were caught off-guard, for they believed white southerners had been bluffing in their threats of disunion. Referring back to the claims of southerners themselves, Garrisonians thought that the Union provided the best protection of slavery, a view that prompted many abolitionists to welcome disunion. But the formation of the Confederacy led to an international crisis in the abolitionist movement and, in particular, caused a rift between...