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  • Upstate New York on the Brink of War: The Garrisonians and the March Toward Civil War.
  • Nick Thony (bio)

The day Thurlow Weed departed for Illinois to meet with President-elect Abraham Lincoln, his influential newspaper, the Albany Evening Journal, published a controversial editorial criticizing the radical element of the Republican Party. In an attempt to temper concerns the secession debate had created across the United States, the politically astute Republican newspaperman, “drew the line between radical and conservative Republicans.” As the prospects of war became more apparent to Weed, he argued that amplifying the conservative voices in the Party would ultimately give rise to a much stronger Union in the event of conflict. “By insisting that the war was prosecuted to maintain the government and preserve the Union,” Weed argued, “the Democratic masses, with some of their leaders, would remain loyal.” However, if “the whole Republican party proclaimed it a war for the abolition of slavery, a united South would prove too strong for a divided North.”1

By the time Weed arrived in Springfield, Illinois, the recently elected Lincoln had read the editorial. Lincoln admitted that he had been instructed by the piece, but told Weed he still held out hope that war could be avoided. He also expressed concern over Weed’s critique of his fellow Republicans in New York saying, “You have opened your fire at a critical moment, aiming at friend and foe alike. It will do much good or much mischief.” It would not take long for some of those friends to respond to Weed’s stance.2

Upstate New York had long been a hotbed of abolitionist activity. While many reform-minded residents joined anti-slavery societies in the [End Page 149]

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Figure 1.

Hon. Thurlow Weed (between 1855 and 1865). Photograph courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, it was not until 1827 –when “An Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery” (passed in 1799) brought an end to slavery—that the movement gained momentum.3 Various antislavery factions, often hindered by schisms within their ranks, emerged. Historian Judith Wellman argues that these upstate New York reformers can be divided into three key groups: legal reformers, political abolitionists, and egalitarian abolitionists (some of whom defined themselves as [End Page 150] “Garrisonians”). These groups regularly chastised one another, but, as Wellman explains, the lines distinguishing these groups were often blurry.4 This is illustrated by the relationship between Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott. Stanton, the organizer of the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, who was initially associated with the political brand of abolitionists, dedicated most of her early advocacy promoting equal rights for women through political reforms. However, Stanton’s introduction to Mott, a Quaker and prominent social advocate, connected her to the Garrisonian element of abolitionism which “emphasized not political action but moral suasion.” Widely viewed as radicals, the Garrisonians embraced “total equality for all people.”5

It is not surprising, then, that when the Garrisonians responded to Weed’s editorial, they assailed his integrity. Lydia Mott, a fellow Garrisonian and distant relative of Lucretia Mott’s husband, shared her perspective in a late November personal letter to Stanton. Mott declared that Weed was “entirely devoid of any fixed moral principle.”6 For Mott and other abolitionists of the moral suasion sect, Weed’s willingness to compromise with southern politicians on the expansion of slave territories and slave compensation was too much to bare. “Opposed to all compromises,” the Garrisonians organized the aptly named “No Compromise With Slaveholders” speaking tour. Just as Lincoln had predicted Weed’s letter had an impact, and this group took up the task of traveling across upstate New York early in the winter of 1861.

Bouncing precariously from faction to faction, those who participated in the “No Compromise With Slaveholders” tour navigated the tangled abolitionist networks of upstate New York that existed in the decades proceeding 1861. The key organizer, Susan B. Anthony, began her career as a social reformer, engaging in numerous debates regarding equal pay for women teachers, women’s suffrage, temperance, and abolition. Guided at times...


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