In Despotism in America (1840) Richard Hildreth pointed out that the American Republic, commonly thought of as an experiment in democracy, was also an experiment in racial despotism. His Theory of Politics (1853) warned that “chattel slavery” and the “accumulation of wealth” and power were the bane of American democracy. Hildreth argued that all wealth was an “element of aristocracy,” and “social slavery” left the masses “to labor, suffer and submit.” He asked, “Is there never to be an Age of the People—of the working classes?” The socialist question about the “distribution of wealth” could not be “blinked out of sight.” Hildreth linked the cause of the American slave to that of American democracy and the working classes. Suffering from ill health, he was appointed by Lincoln as consul in Trieste, Italy, at the request of Sumner and Seward. He died there in 1865.1

Antislavery politics, or free soilism, grew out of abolition. Nearly all Radical Republicans began their careers as abolitionists or allies of abolition. They occupied the vanguard of their party. Political abolitionists established the precedent of third-party politics, the vehicle for antislavery success in the North. They developed arguments on the unconstitutionality of slavery, the unrepublican character of the Slave Power, and a free labor critique of slavery that enlisted the mass of northern citizens in the fight for the future of the country. Free labor ideology appealed across class lines: both to labor, for whom it signified economic independence, and to the middle classes, for whom mobility offset the rise of a permanent class of wageworkers. It included the abolitionist critique of the perceived aristocratic classes, the slaveholders and the doughface merchants of the North, who presided over the political economy of slavery in antebellum America. Free soilism visualized eventual abolition, slowly choking slavery to death by curtailing its expansion into western territories, but it was not abolition.2 The politics of abolition continued to exist beyond the structures of state and party. Its diverse political traditions encompassed women’s rights, black citizenship, and, for Garrisonians, a critique of the state. It never became an uncritical valorization of free society.


Abolitionists first espoused constitutional ideas and legislative strategies to not just contain but abolish slavery. They predicted various scenarios in which the power of the state could be harnessed against rather than for slavery. The abolitionist petition campaigns of the 1820s and 1830s demanded that the federal government abolish both slavery in the District of Columbia and in the federal territories and the domestic slave trade. Some had called even for a constitutional amendment to abolish slavery. In 1838 Weld published The Power of Congress over the District of Columbia during the petition campaign. Responding to southern claims that Congress had no authority to legislate over slavery, Weld argued that the constitutional power of the federal government to legislate for the District was so clear it “defies misconstruction.” But beyond that narrow question, Weld maintained that slavery could be abolished by legislative authority, as it had been in the northern states, or by Congress, as in the case of the Northwest Ordinance and the abolition of the African slave trade. Weld contended that slavery was brought into existence by “statute law” and since slavery was a “creature of legislation,” it could be abolished by it. In rejecting the idea that legislative abolition was barred by the constitutional sanction against the confiscation of property without due process, Weld was upholding not a bourgeois sanctity of property but the abolitionist notion that there could be no property in human beings. The political abolitionist Samuel B. Treadwell, the editor of the short-lived Michigan Freeman, asserted that it was the duty of Congress to abolish the slave trade, which treated human beings as “articles of commerce.” Like Hildreth, he warned of how “slaveholding politicians . . . devised ways and means for the monied, political, and ecclesiastical aristocracies in the north to blind, entrap, ensnare and finally enslave, the entire laboring population of the free states.” In his extended defense of abolitionists’ right to discuss slavery, Treadwell illustrated how its “despotic power” acted against American constitutional liberties and, as Wright and Cornish commended, the human rights of black people.

Abolitionists hitched their politics to black citizenship. Three years later Weld vindicated the “rights of colored citizens under the U.S. Constitution.” Despite holding “our fathers” guilty of the constitutional compromises over slavery, William Jay (the son of John Jay was speaking literally here) held that the Constitution recognized no differences based on color. But the federal government “OPPRESS[ES] AND DEGRADE[S] THE FREE PEOPLE OF COLOR,” he noted, with its racist citizenship and militia laws. It aided slaveholders “in trampling upon those great principles of human rights.” Jay listed the names and stories of free blacks held in prisons in the District of Columbia and at times sold, as they had no slaveholding claimants. Domestically and internationally the American government acted as the handmaiden of slavery: upholding the domestic slave trade and slavery, refusing to recognize the “heroic republic” of Haiti, warring against the Seminoles, demanding rendition of fugitives and compensation for slave rebels, tolerating an illegal African slave trade and infringements of civil liberties, and plotting to annex Texas. Jay predicted that if slaveholders seceded, their slaves would rise up in rebellion and, in the absence of the protection of the federal government, slavery was doomed. The “rapid sale” of his pamphlet led to a second edition in 1844.3

Abolitionists also put their words into action. Weld was part of Leavitt’s “Abolitionist lobby” in Washington. They worked assiduously with the few congressmen representing abolitionist strongholds in the North to overturn the Gag Rule and nurture antislavery politics in the capital. Jay developed some of the most influential arguments defending the right to petition. Weld and Leavitt shared abolitionist ideas and living quarters, Ann Sprigg’s boardinghouse, with antislavery Whigs. It came to be known as the “Abolition house.” Hired slaves worked there to buy their freedom. Leavitt even received his mail care of Giddings to avoid paying postage. Leavitt saw the “true issue” as “SHALL SLAVERY GOVERN THE COUNTRY?” Weld did research for Adams’s speeches, “ransacking the Library of Congress.” He reasoned that one antislavery peroration in Congress reached many more northerners than abolitionist agents did.

Abolitionists’ northern Whig allies were at the forefront of political antislavery in the nation’s capital. Their antislavery “select committee” first opposed plans to annex Texas. Lundy and, later, David Lee Child, who also moved to Washington, sounded the alarm against slaveholders’ designs on Texas to Adams, who spoke out against annexation. Giddings called for the admission of Florida as a free state and, as mentioned in chapter 12, condemned the government’s war against the Seminoles. In 1843 Gates wrote an appeal against the annexation of Texas signed by Adams, Andrews, Slade, and Giddings. These men helped make anti-expansionism Whig policy on the eve of the Mexican War. With the founding of the Liberty Party in 1840, Leavitt criticized antislavery politicians for refusing to abandon the Whigs, but he, Weld, and even the allegedly apolitical Garrison came to appreciate their antislavery commitments. For most antislavery Whigs, the free trade economic policies of the Liberty Party and Leavitt leaned too Democratic. While Gates, who felt that Leavitt did him “an injustice” in questioning his antislavery, joined the Liberty Party, Giddings and Adams remained Whigs.4

The political influence of the abolitionist Liberty Party on northern politics cannot be gauged by electoral bean counting. While it significantly improved its national vote count in the presidential elections, growing steadily between 1840 and 1844 from 6,225 to nearly 62,000, it never came close to winning. Some Libertyites were better abolitionists than politicians, urging “moral action at the ballot box,” and their perennial presidential nominee, James Birney, a reluctant candidate in 1840 who avoided campaigning, was not a huge electoral draw. Renominated in 1841, Birney started campaigning more, his letter of acceptance drawing attention to how slaveholders had used the federal government and Constitution to perpetuate their power as well as the persecution of African Americans, Native Americans, and Mormons. But as early as 1842 he avowed that not only the government and church but also the people themselves were corrupt. Birney’s questioning of universal suffrage and his notion of giving immigrants the right to vote with “parsimony” made most abolitionists uncomfortable. Birney was specifically repudiating the “white man’s democracy,” swelled by the first great wave of European immigration, which did not hesitate to trample on the rights of racial minorities. The attempt to expand the Liberty platform from the “one idea” of abolition by adding a variety of other economic and political issues resulted in further confusion. As Garrison argued, partisan politics proved to be uncongenial to abolitionism pure and simple. But as a political pressure group, abolitionists of all factions did influence northern politics.

Notwithstanding Libertyites’ accusation that Garrisonians voted for “pro-slavery parties,” many Liberty Party voters were rank-and-file Garrisonians who paid little heed to abolitionist organizational divisions. In 1841 the Liberty Party in Massachusetts even nominated the Garrisonians Francis Jackson as mayor, Nathaniel Rodgers and Wendell Phillips as aldermen of Boston, while Samuel Sewall, the Liberty Party gubernatorial candidate in Massachusetts, remained with the old organization. Many old organization men, Edmund Quincy complained, voted for the Liberty Party. The strongholds of abolition, Massachusetts, upstate New York, and Ohio, gave the Liberty Party its largest vote counts. Despite Garrison’s personal aversion to electoral politics and public debates between Garrisonians and Libertyites, AASS lecturing agents helped to increase the new party’s vote count. Abby Kelley and Douglass debated political abolitionists in upstate New York and Ohio, Kelley trying even, in copious letters, to convince the stalwart Libertyite Gerrit Smith to see the error of his ways. The lines between Garrisonians and the Liberty Party were still not well drawn in upstate New York or Ohio, Kelley reported. Giles Stebbins wrote to Gay that many Liberty men subscribed to the Garrisonian NASS.

Garrison thought Adams and Giddings took antislavery stances far ahead of those of most northern politicians and was thus more complimentary of them than of his abolitionist rivals in the Liberty Party, who, he argued, lowered the abolitionist standard by entering partisan politics. So carried away were Garrisonians in their praise of Adams, wrote Birney, that they had forgotten he was not an abolitionist. Garrison conceded the “purity of purpose” of Libertyites in private but strongly resisted converting the abolition movement into a political party. That did not prevent him from supporting antislavery politicians. In 1845 he sent MASS agents to work for the reelection of the antislavery Democratic representative John P. Hale in New Hampshire, who was read out of his party for his opposition to the annexation of Texas. To Garrison, the political place of abolitionists lay in agitation, to move the political center to the left, rather than in party politics. Smarting under Garrison’s criticism for confining abolitionism to the ballot box, Libertyites accused the nonvoting Garrisonians of harboring a “covert design” to vote for the Whigs.

The abolitionist ideology of the Liberty Party converted Democratic rhetoric against the “money power” into a critique of the Slave Power and harnessed Whigs’ statist beliefs to demand action by the federal government against slavery. Appearing as vice presidential nominees on its presidential ticket were antislavery Democrats such as Thomas Earle in 1840 and Thomas Morris in 1844. But Morris’s reluctance to endorse black citizenship discomfited abolitionists. While antislavery Whigs stole the party’s abolitionist thunder, the presidency of the proslavery “His Accidency” John Tyler after the death of the Whig president William Henry Harrison in 1841 vindicated the case for independent abolitionist politics. As Leavitt noted, South Carolinian and Virginian slaveholders such as Calhoun, Abel T. Upshur, and Waddy Thompson dominated Tyler’s administration and plotted the annexation of Texas.5

The Liberty Party made antislavery an essential component of the partisan loyalties of many northerners. It was a notable presence in states where abolitionists composed a substantial voting bloc. The party received support in Massachusetts, upstate New York, Ohio, and certain districts of upper northwestern states like Wisconsin and Michigan, where Birney eventually made his home and ran for the governorship. In Maine, the abolitionists Samuel Fessenden, Austin Willey, and Joseph Lovejoy urged voters to abandon old partisan loyalties for the Liberty Party, which elected town representatives in a number of cities. In Massachusetts, Whittier, among others, headed the Liberty Party congressional ticket. In Ohio, Liberty Party supporters were concentrated around Oberlin College, whose president, Asa Mahan, was an ardent Libertyite, as was Salmon Chase, though antislavery Whigs such as Giddings and Benjamin Wade in the Western Reserve also received abolitionist votes. A minority of Liberty voters was concentrated in the northern counties of Illinois and in Quaker-dominated counties in Indiana. Libertyites influenced state elections and were blamed by Whigs for putting New York in the Democratic column in the presidential election of 1844, which James Polk won over Henry Clay. Whigs used a local Democratic nomination of Birney in Michigan to perpetrate the so-called Garland forgery, claiming that Birney had endorsed the Democratic Party and Polk. The forgery and the efforts of Giddings, Wade, and Cassius Marcellus Clay, Clay’s antislavery nephew, kept many in the Whig column.

Libertyites ran viable party newspapers like the Emancipator, which moved to Boston and continued to be a flashpoint in the quarrel between Garrisonians and political abolitionists, the Liberty Press and Albany Patriot in upstate New York, Gamaliel Bailey’s the Philanthropist in Ohio, Zebina Eastman’s Western Citizen in Chicago, the Quaker-run Free Labor Advocate in Indiana, Austin Willey’s Liberty Standard in Maine, Sherman Booth’s American Freeman in Wisconsin, the New Jersey Freeman, and Theodore Foster’s the Signal of Liberty in Michigan, which pleaded with antislavery voters, “Don’t throw away your votes.” “One Idea” in the Liberty Press also urged voters to put aside economic issues that had separated Whigs and Democrats and vote abolitionist. The sixty-odd Liberty newspapers played a large role in determining party ideology and in electioneering.

In the burned-over districts of upstate New York, political abolitionists reaped the benefits of a potent combination of evangelical abolitionism with third-party politics. Their popular slogan “Vote as you pray” was designed to wean antislavery evangelical voters out of the Whig Party. The party press often carried news from abolitionist churches as much as political matters. Here, Birney wrote, the amalgamation of politics and religion was complete. Garrison rejected the church as inherently proslavery, and so did some of his detractors. Evangelical “come outers” established interdenominational abolitionist Union churches in New England and New York. These abolitionist congregations formed the voting base of the Liberty Party. Prominent leaders of the AFASS, including Tappan and Jay, followed Leavitt into Liberty Party ranks. The perfectionist “Bible politics” of Smith, who, like Garrison, rejected the sabbatarianism of the evangelicals, William Goodell, and Beriah Green also made upstate New York a hotbed of the Liberty Party. Voting for the Liberty Party, that is, to come out of old parties, was the political counterpart to religious “comeouterism.”6

Ecclesiastical abolitionists were no lackeys of the emerging capitalist order in the countryside, as a simplistic social control model has long posited. Most were radical critics of their churches as well as of the commercialization of their society, which “elevate[d] property over humanity,” as exemplified by the unholy alliance between northern manufacturers and southern slaveholders. According to Alvan Stewart, slavery degraded northern labor. He linked slaveholders’ demands for shoes and tools to the unpaid labor of northern workers. In 1843 Jay issued an appeal to southern nonslaveholders to vote their class interests, anticipating Republican Party strategy. Goodell, Elizur Wright, and Smith fashioned themselves as champions of “universal reform” and labor. These Libertyites championed land reform and homestead legislation, progressive taxation, the abolition of war, the movement for a ten-hour workday, trade unions, and direct elections of federal officials, the aims of generations of labor and progressive reformers. One of the biggest criticisms Libertyites made of Clay, the Whig standard-bearer in 1844, besides being a slaveholder, was the fact that he had no sympathy for labor. Smith’s wing of the Liberty Party fashioned itself as the “Poor Man’s Party” that was faithful to the rights of black as well laboring white men. In Massachusetts, Libertyites formed coalitions with labor activists, successfully wooing working-class support. Wright called on Massachusetts voters to reject the “proslavery Whig aristocracy,” the Cotton Whig manufacturers in cahoots with slaveholders, and to vote for “Birney and human rights.” James C. Jackson’s Liberty Press of Utica, appealing to working-class voters, drew attention to the impoverishing nature of the slave labor system. A careful study of the party’s rank and file reveals that in upstate New York more laborers and mechanics voted for the Liberty Party than “nonabolitionist” parties. In the northwest the party garnered votes of farmers from the rural, agricultural hinterland.7

The Liberty Party attracted substantial African American support, especially in New York. In a public letter to Clay, Smith argued that the Constitution was antislavery and challenged not only Clay’s criticisms of abolitionists but also his view that the Republic was constructed only for the defense of white men’s liberties and rights. Black abolitionists attended national and state Liberty conventions as delegates, and the platform of 1844 welcomed “our colored fellow citizens to fraternity with us in the Liberty party.” Black abolitionist clergymen such as Garnet and Ward, the editor of the party paper the Impartial Citizen, were ardent Libertyites, as were, to a lesser extent, Ray, Wright, Pennington, Gloucester, and the Bemans of Connecticut. William Lambert and George DeBaptiste in Michigan, the Langstons in Ohio, and John Jones of Illinois were Libertyites, and fugitive slave abolitionists like Bibb, the Clarke brothers, and Lunsford Lane became lecturers for the party. Martin Delany’s newspaper Mystery favored the Liberty Party, which had strong support among Pittsburgh’s black population.

Like Goodell and other Libertyites, Ward acquired a reputation as a champion of labor, arguing, “The poor mechanic and the laboring classes in almost every part of the country are becoming more and more depressed. Monopoly usurps the land, lowers wages, raises prices, contracts the circulation of money, holds all the offices, frames all the laws, and despising the poor, crushing him continually, and sets him at defiance.” In 1848 Smith’s National Liberty Party Convention elected Garnet as one of its vice presidents. An address to the colored population of the North sought their votes for the Liberty Party after most Libertyites had joined the new Free Soil coalition. Ward was the vice presidential candidate, with Smith heading the Liberty slate. The national black convention in Cleveland, however, backed the newly formed Free Soil Party, while claiming “the higher standard and more liberal views which have heretofore characterized us as abolitionists.”8

Despite its racial inclusiveness, the Liberty Party remained bound by an ideology of “domestic feminism” that eschewed formal support of women’s rights and suffrage. According to Stewart, “a wide door of usefulness” was still open for the “Liberty ladies.” Women participated in Liberty meetings and formed Female Liberty Associations, though some Liberty Associations in New York and Connecticut included them. Like the colonizationist Whig women in Virginia, Liberty women entered national partisan politics even when they did not have the right to vote. A writer calling herself Maria published a Liberty Party appeal to the women of the free states during the presidential election of 1844. The Female Anti-Slavery Society of Dundee, Illinois, presented a banner proclaiming “Lovejoy and Liberty” to Millcreek’s abolitionist voters for casting over 60 percent of its votes for the Libertyite Owen Lovejoy, the brother of Elijah Lovejoy, in the congressional elections of 1846. Apparently it was a tradition for Liberty women to make and present such banners to counties that gave the party its highest votes, as they did the same thing in Massachusetts. Like other abolitionist women, Liberty women also held fund-raising bazaars and fairs. In New York, women managed to secure Liberty Party support for married women’s property rights and for the vote.

Women played prominent roles in the substantial Liberty Party press. Jane Van Vleet published the Star of Freedom in Michigan, and Mary Brown Davis contributed several articles to the Western Citizen after having published in Lundy’s Genius of Universal Emancipation. The most famous Liberty newspaperwoman was Jane Grey Swisshelm, who began her journalism career as a writer for the Spirit of Liberty in Pittsburgh and became editor of the Saturday Visitor, which eventually supported the Free Soil Party and women’s rights. Kelley addressed the Liberty Party nominating convention in 1843 after it voted her permission to do so, and Mott received five votes for the presidency at Smith’s Liberty Party convention five years later. Women’s widespread participation in the politics of abolition, however, did not translate into a formal endorsement of women’s suffrage by the party platform. Some Libertyites like Smith, whose daughter Elizabeth Smith Miller designed and first wore bloomers, worked for women’s equality.9

The Garrisonians emerged as more consistent advocates of women’s rights, including the right to vote, than evangelical and political abolitionists. Garrisonian women like Kelley and Mott were organizers and participants in the antebellum women’s movement. In Ohio abolitionist admirers of Kelley like Betsey Mix Cowles of the Ashtabula FASS, Jane Elizabeth Hitchcock Jones, and Josephine Griffing orchestrated women’s rights state conventions in Salem and Akron. The one-thousand-strong gathering in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1850 inaugurated the national women’s rights conventions that met throughout the decade. It earned greetings from antislavery and feminist writers like Harriet Martineau in Britain, Frederika Bremer in Sweden, and Jeanne Deroin and Pauline Roland, who sent the best wishes of “socialist sisters of France” from their jail cell in Paris. The British feminist Harriet Taylor, the future wife of John Stuart Mill, wrote an influential review of the convention’s proceedings, advocating the “Enfranchisement of Women.” Stone, who had launched a petition campaign for woman suffrage in 1848–49 in Massachusetts, was the chief organizer of the national conventions. Wendell Phillips, Parker Pillsbury, Stephen Foster, and the Unitarian ministers James Freeman Clarke, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Theodore Parker, and William H. Channing regularly attended the national and state women’s rights conventions of the 1850s, voicing their support. In Massachusetts, Ohio, and New York abolitionist feminists launched petition campaigns to state legislatures and constitutional conventions for woman suffrage, finding allies among Liberty Party members.

Women activists infused fresh blood into the Garrisonian wing of the movement. Some of the most talented agents for the AASS were feminist-abolitionists such as Stone, Susan B. Anthony, and, ironically, Sallie Holley, the daughter of the founder of the Liberty Party, Myron Holley. Garrison opened the pages of the Liberator to women’s rights advocates like Caroline Dall, Sarah E. Wall, and Elizabeth Oakes Smith. Garrison’s critique of the church and clergy, staunch opponents of women’s rights, resonated with early feminists. In 1860 Cady Stanton addressed the annual anniversary of the AASS on the invitation of Garrison. She insisted that women’s rights were part of the abolitionist cause, which was a “great humanitarian one.” In “settling the question of the negro’s rights,” she continued, in words that would come back to haunt her, “we find the exact limits of our own, for rights never clash or interfere.”10 “Woman rights” was an important, if divisive, component of the politics of abolition.


The emergence of political abolitionism forced Garrison and his allies to develop their own stance on politics, often mischaracterized either as an outmoded adherence to moral suasion or as apolitical. Garrisonians developed a politics of agitation that questioned the very foundations of the slaveholding Republic. In 1842, disgusted by the Prigg decision, Garrison announced his doctrine of disunion: “A repeal of the Union between northern liberty and southern slavery is essential to the abolition of one, and preservation of the other.” For Garrisonians, disunionism was a concerted attack on slaveholders’ political power, not a retreat into inaction. He was delighted when Adams’s presentation of a disunion petition from Haverhill, Massachusetts, outraged southern members of Congress, some of whom regularly spewed threats of secession. According to Lydia Maria Child, the Union was a sham based on coercion rather than cooperation: it was the “disunited” states of America. The next year Garrison affirmed that he was in earnest about disunion, however much condemnation it evoked, even from abolitionists. In January 1843 the MASS approved the disunion program. By 1844 the official policy of the AASS became “no union with slaveholders” by a vote of fifty-nine to twenty-one, Earle, Loring, and David Lee Child among the dissenters.

Disunionism thinned the ranks of Garrisonians and drew a sharper line between them and political abolitionists. Child resigned as editor of the NASS, and Loring resigned from the MASS board of managers. Bradburn switched allegiances to the Liberty Party. Even for the black Garrisonian William Powell, disunion was too “cumbersome” an armor to bear. William I. Bowditch debated Gay on disunion. In 1845 Kelley and Foster established the Western Anti Slavery Society (WASS), and Benjamin and Jane Elizabeth Hitchcock Jones started publishing the Anti-Slavery Bugle on the new disunion platform, as many Garrisonians subscribed to Liberty Party newspapers. The OASS supported the Liberty Party, and the Garrisonian Ohio and American AS became the WASS. That year the NEAS convention, to thunderous applause, endorsed disunion overwhelmingly by a vote 250 to 24. Amasa Walker and Hildreth demurred.

Garrisonian disunion was a strategy to end northern complicity in the upholding of slavery. When Burritt expressed reservations at a warlike strategy, Garrison signed his reply, “Yours for the dissolution of every proslavery alliance.” The Union, he noted in his “Address to the Friends of Freedom and Emancipation in the United States,” was bought “at the expense of the colored population of the country.” Garrison expected opposition to so bold and revolutionary a step but argued that in advocating disunion the AASS had taken “the highest possible ground” against slavery. He called for a “peaceful revolution,” one which deprived slavery of northern political support, saying, “In ceasing oppression we establish liberty.” He said the Union was a “guilty compromise” over slavery and the Constitution, with its three-fifths and fugitive slave clauses and call to put down insurrections, a bulwark of the slaveholding oligarchy that made all American citizens prey on slaves. The next year he pronounced the founding document a “proslavery compact,” a “covenant with death, and agreement with hell.”11

Not known is the fact that Garrison lifted his famous condemnation of the Constitution from Pennington. In 1842, at the height of the Latimer affair (see chapter 12), Pennington delivered a sermon to his Hartford congregation titled “Covenants Involving Moral Wrong are not Obligatory Upon Man,” which began with a quotation from the book of Isaiah: “And your Covenant with Death shall be Disannulled, and Your Agreement with Hell Shall not Stand.” He argued that “laws and compacts designed to legalize the system of human bondage,” like the constitutional obligation to deliver up fugitive slaves, ought to be swept away, as they involved disobedience to God. Pennington invoked the Declaration, the spirit of the Constitution, and divine law against the fugitive slave clause, a higher law, before it became popular with abolitionists and antislavery politicians. Garrison expanded Pennington’s biblical condemnation of the fugitive slave clause into an indictment of the Constitution as a whole.12

While Garrisonians led the charge on political disunion, ecclesiastical abolitionists led the movement for religious disunion. Their failure to convert their churches to abolition had led to the formation of come outer abolitionist churches, the religious base of the Liberty Party. All abolitionists acted on the principle of “no Christian fellowship with slaveholders.” Birney and Weld witnessed the Presbyterian schism of 1837–38 between Old and New Light, whose liberal theology was suspect on slavery. While the old school remained a bastion of proslavery sentiment, southern Presbyterians seceded from the new school twenty years later when it renewed a condemnation of slavery from 1818 under pressure from abolitionist Free Presbyterians. The first philippic against the church came from Birney’s The American Churches: The Bulwarks of American Slavery, published in England in 1841. It was an exposé of the actions and words of the major Christian denominations in the United States—the Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, and Episcopal Churches—on slavery and the unapologetically proslavery views of southern clergymen. He noted Presbyterian elders’ involvement in the whipping of Amos Dresser and Bishop Onderdonk’s persecution of black Episcopalians. That year Thomas Clarkson issued his reprimand of proslavery American clergymen and slaveholders. Goodell advocated secession from corrupt, proslavery churches in his pamphlet on “come-outerism,” and Phillips endorsed it on behalf of the AASS despite political differences.

Anticlerical Garrisonians like Foster and Pillsbury liked Birney’s formulation so much that they constantly quoted his phrase “bulwark of slavery.” Foster, who had been imprisoned for debt, and Pillsbury, who had his license to preach revoked by the Congregational Church, were men of humble origins. In 1844 Foster published The Brotherhood of Thieves, which indicted the church, slavery, and anti-abolition mobs as the “queer trinity.” Foster saw American clergymen as being guilty of crimes that would “disgrace an Algerine pirate.” They upheld the violence, murder, and robbery that defined slavery, and were “watch-dogs” of southern plantations. Foster and Pillsbury were known to disrupt worship, many times being physically removed from churches.

The agitation of abolitionist clergymen and the Garrisonians’ unrelenting criticism of the church made slavery a bone of contention among Methodists and Baptists. In a postscript to his pamphlet, Birney noted that abolitionists were “earnestly laboring to purify them [the churches] from the defilements of slavery.” Abolitionist Methodists such as Orange Scott, LeRoy Sunderland, Luther Lee, and George Storrs founded the American Wesleyan Anti-Slavery Society in 1840 and established the Wesleyan Methodist Connection in 1843, their titles invoking the antislavery opinions of John Wesley. Abolitionist Baptists such as Elon Galusha, Nathaniel Colver, Charles Denison, and Cyrus P. Grosvenor organized an American Baptist Anti-Slavery Society in 1840 and the American Baptist Free Mission Society in 1843. The following year the Methodist general conference voted to suspend a slaveholding Georgian bishop, leading to the secession of the southern delegates and the formation of Methodist Episcopal Church, South, in 1845. The same year southern Baptists seceded over the issue of excluding slaveholding missionaries forming the Southern Baptist Convention.

Not just abolitionists but also conservative antislavery men like the Baptist minister and president of Brown University Rev. Francis Wayland debated the proslavery Baptist minister Richard Fuller of South Carolina, questioning the morality of slavery in his book on moral science. Many of the ideas antislavery and proslavery clergymen used in their religious fight over slavery borrowed from the political and constitutional discourses of federalism, states’ rights, and disunion. Southern ministers evoked the Calhounian doctrine of state sovereignty to legitimize their secession. During the secession crisis, most southern clergymen were vocal proponents of disunion.13 The sectional division of the two major evangelical denominations in 1844–45 over slaveholding foreshadowed political disunion.

Even after the breakup, abolitionists pushed their churches to take a more overt antislavery position. In 1846 Jay wrote the introduction to a book by Wilberforce’s son, Bishop Samuel Wilberforce of the Anglican Church, that criticized the failure of American Episcopalianism to address the issue of slavery. Jay called the Episcopal Church a “mighty buttress” of slavery and excoriated its discriminatory attitude in the North, retelling the story of Onderdonk’s persecution of “colored clergymen and colored Christians.” In a public letter to Bishop L. Silliman Ives of North Carolina he defended Wilberforce’s “reproof” of the American church, challenging southern claims on the religious instruction of slaves and using the testimony of its greatest proponent, Rev. Charles Colcock Jones, on slaves’ dissatisfaction with proslavery doctrine.

The next year Pillsbury renewed the Garrisonian critique of the church, calling it the “forlorn hope of slavery,” building on Birney’s and Foster’s arguments. Pillsbury’s book read like a declension narrative, with the initial antislavery leanings of the various denominations corrupted by their consistently proslavery actions. He drew attention to the persecution of abolitionist clergymen like the anti-Garrisonian Galusha. Humanity, Pillsbury wrote, had grown tired of slavery’s horrors, but the “religious sanction” of the church prevented its abolition. Garrison viewed come outerism as the second reformation of the church, and he linked his no union with slaveholders’ stance to “no fellowship with pro-slavery ministers or churches.”14

Political and religious abolitionist disunionism grew hand in hand. The AMA employed the abolitionist Kentucky clergyman and founder of the interracial Berea College, Rev. John G. Fee, after he was read out by his state’s New School Presbyterian synod. Fee’s conversion to abolition began with a long, disheartening struggle with his father over the freedom of a slave woman, Julett Miles, who died in prison for attempting to “steal” her children and grandchildren from slavery. Fee was educated at Lane Seminary until his father summoned him home and threatened to send him to Princeton, a bastion of proslavery theology. In 1849 Fee summarized the religious abolitionist argument in his Non-Fellowship with Slaveholders the Duty of Christians, which was first published as a series of articles in the newspaper of Cassius Clay, an antislavery politician and Henry Clay’s nephew, and then in the national organ of political abolitionism, Bailey’s National Era. Foster linked his denunciation of the clergy with that of politicians, calling Tyler a thief, his cabinet, congressmen, and Supreme Court justices, negro thieves, and the American state, like the church, a “brotherhood of thieves.” Pillsbury drew attention to the approval of most American ministers to annex Texas and aggrandize territory from Mexico, and abolitionist clergymen met in opposition to the Mexican War. Rankin, Goodell, Tappan, Fee, and the slaveholding South Carolinian convert to abolition Rev. William H. Brisbane attended the Christian Anti Slavery Convention in 1850.

Increasingly, ecclesiastical abolitionists trained their fire on proslavery ministers, with Fee producing the most influential scriptural arguments against slavery since Weld and Goodell, rather than on the Garrisonians, with whom they seemed to have found some common ground. Jay issued an appeal on behalf of the AFASS to the “Anti-slavery Christians of the United States” to unite against slavery. It was signed by a number of northern clergymen. In 1854 he published An Examination of the Mosaic Laws of Servitudeto refute the argument that the Old Testament sanctioned slavery. Rev. William Patton argued that while pro-slavery ministers accused the Garrisonians of religious infidelity, it was they who brought disrepute to Christianity. Brisbane assured Garrison he would not rank him as an infidel even though he differed from him in regard to their religious opinions. By the 1850s the AASS had endorsed the Church ASS, and a reconciliation of sorts took place between Christian and Garrisonian abolitionists. Garrison, who had been critical of abolitionist clergymen like George Cheever because of their support of capital punishment, published their writings. In his magnum opus Slavery and Anti-Slavery, Goodell compared Garrison to the Hebrew prophets of old for his denunciations of a “priesthood that strikes hand with oppressors” and northern “servility” to the Union, even though he thought that the Union and Constitution “rightly construed” would lead to abolition.15

Political abolitionists shifted the sectional argument over slavery from the Bible to the Constitution, also a sacred text for most Americans and part of their civil religion. Alvan Stewart, in “A Constitutional Argument on the Subject of Slavery,” pronounced slavery unconstitutional on the basis of the Fifth Amendment, which stipulated that no person could be deprived of life, liberty, and property without due process of law. Stewart’s legal argument grew out of his abolitionist conviction that African Americans were citizens under the Constitution and entitled to all its protections. Jay, Birney, Leavitt, Wright, and Bailey rejected Stewart’s claim that the federal government could abolish slavery in order to fulfill the constitutional guarantee of republican government in the southern states and in accordance with the general welfare. Until his death in 1849 Stewart rejected antislavery moderation, and his constitutional views inspired radical political abolitionists such as Smith and Goodell. Even Garrison recommended G. W. F. Mellen’s work of 1841 on the unconstitutionality of slavery as required reading for all abolitionists. Mellen was aware that Stewart had preceded him in arguing that under the Constitution neither the states nor Congress could establish slavery. Mellen’s four-hundred-page book concluded that if the country’s “courts decide that the descendants of Africa are to be thrown out of all government protection,” then it would be better for “these United States to be broken up at once. . . . We saw no object in their Union.” At the MASS meeting that year, Mellen reiterated that slavery was impossible under the Constitution.16

Garrisonians’ and political abolitionists’ stances on the nature of the Constitution hardened in response to each other. In 1844 Phillips, a lawyer by training, presented the full-blown Garrisonian argument in The Constitution a Pro-Slavery Compact. He went beyond the specific constitutional clauses dealing with slavery. He mined Madison’s notes on the Constitutional Convention debates of 1787, which were published in 1840, to prove the intent of the founding fathers to protect slavery. Phillips concluded that the Constitution was an infamous bargain that proved “the melancholy fact” that “our fathers bartered honesty for gain, and became partners with tyrants, that they might profit from their tyranny,” a radical critique of the sacrosanct reputation of the founders. He conceded that the Constitution had been put to proslavery use, but the Constitution in its original form, “as is,” was also proslavery.

In a public letter to Whittier, Smith had called the Constitution “a noble and beautiful temple of liberty” based on the defense of human rights that had been perverted to proslavery ends. Even the three-fifths clause, he pointed out, could not prevent a northern white majority from voting in an antislavery government. In a response, Phillips asked how Smith could explain away the three-fifths clause as proliberty. A year later in Can Abolitionists Vote or Take Office under the United States Constitution? Phillips argued that the AASS’s opposition to a proslavery government and laws should not be mistaken as endorsing a “no government” or nonresistant position. It had simply judged all institutions, no matter how venerable, by the “touchstone of anti-slavery principle” and found them wanting. The AASS published an expanded version of Phillips’s pamphlet with an endorsement from its executive committee. It went through three editions, meriting a response from political abolitionists.

Goodell’s Views of American Constitutional Law in its Bearing upon American Slavery (1844) and The Unconstitutionality of Slavery (1845) by the Massachusetts lawyer Lysander Spooner were the most detailed expositions of the political abolitionist position. Goodell’s long treatise began with the deceptively simple premise that the American government and Constitution cannot be viewed as neutral or even partial on the subject of slavery; it must be either completely for or against liberty, as even a slight toleration of slavery endangered all liberty. If it was proslavery, as the Garrisonians argued, then abolitionists would have the option of the “right to revolution” or submission. But he argued that slaveholders’ proslavery reading of the Constitution was based on their rejection of democracy, their defense of slavery, and their contempt for the laboring masses, black and white. The Constitution gave the federal government the power to act against slavery in the territories and the District. Going further, he noted that if republicanism is the basis of the Constitution, then even the domestic violence alluded to in the clause on republican governments was against the violence perpetrated in slavery, not slave rebellion. The democratic spirit of the Constitution, with its positive exhortations on liberty and rights, like that of English Common Law, the Declaration, and the New Testament, which also did not include a specific abolitionist injunction, was antislavery. Goodell’s was the radical democratic interpretation that privileged ideas over the facts unearthed by Phillips.

Similarly, according to Spooner, all law, especially constitutional law, must be based on principles of natural rights and justice. Making a historical argument, Spooner wrote that slavery was not recognized in either the state constitutions or the Articles of Confederation, and if slavery did not have a “constitutional existence” earlier, it certainly did not under the Constitution, which recognized all people as citizens. The preamble referred to all the people of the United States, not just to whites or free people, as citizens of the country. The only guarantee in the Constitution concerned not slavery, despite the arrogant and bombastic claims of slaveholders, but a republican form of government, which slavery contravened. Spooner concluded that the antislavery nature of the Constitution guaranteed that all the children of slaves were born free and ought to be freed immediately by federal judges. In his review of Spooner’s book in 1847, Phillips proceeded to dismantle each one of his historical and constitutional arguments but ended with genuine admiration for their ingenuity. While political abolitionists sought to harness the power of the state for abolition, Garrisonians, far from simply endorsing the proslavery constitutional argument of Calhounites, called for its revolutionary overthrow. Goodell recognized that despite their differences abolitionists shared enough common ground to recommend unity of purpose.17

Political abolitionists were more interested in dismantling slaveholders’ constitutional claims than in sparring with Garrisonians. As in biblical interpretation, while slaveholders championed a literal and strict construction of the Constitution, they appealed to its liberal spirit. In 1846 the “Constitutional Abolitionist” Benjamin Shaw, in his “Illegality of Slavery,” argued that since slavery sanctioned robbery, murder, and “all sorts of villainy” it could not be legal. Like Stewart, Goodell, and Spooner, whose works he recommended, Shaw based his argument on the Declaration and an antislavery reading of the Constitution. Three years later the abolitionist lawyer Joel Tiffany of Ohio declared slaveholders’ claim that the Constitution guaranteed slavery absurd and ridiculous, as it went against the principles of the American Revolution. Tiffany contended that the Declaration disallowed slavery in the American Republic. He evoked state power, using the Prigg decision, to maintain that if the national government had the power to recapture fugitives, it also had the power to set them free. All people born in the United States, not just whites, the rich, or any such subset of the body politic, were entitled to citizenship. Tiffany insisted that “colored persons” were citizens entitled to the protections of habeas corpus and due process.18

Antislavery constitutional theory built on the idea that slavery was the creature of positive law and in contravention to the Constitution but dropped the abolitionist insistence on black citizenship and immediate abolition in the southern states. The person who best developed what he called constitutional antislavery was Chase. Just as he had used Birney’s ideas to establish himself as the “attorney general of fugitive slaves,” Chase elaborated abolitionist constitutionalism to convince northerners of the constitutional nature of the antislavery enterprise. Conceding ground to the Garrisonians, he argued that the Constitution protected slavery in the southern states but that the founding principles of the country were antislavery. The Constitution gave full powers to and made it the duty of the federal government to act against slavery in areas under its control, namely, the District of Columbia, the territories, the slave trade, and the fugitive slave clause. Chase’s notion of the divorce of the federal government from slavery was incorporated into the Liberty Party platform of 1844. His slogan, the “DENATIONALIZATION OF SLAVERY,” became the rallying cry of antislavery politicians. Chase argued that “the general government has the power to prohibit slavery everywhere outside of the slave States,” and other radical antislavery politicians, like Sumner, popularized it under the slogan “Freedom National, Slavery Local.” It was appropriate that this intrepid promoter of antislavery constitutional theory ended his career as the chief justice of the Supreme Court, appointed by Lincoln during Reconstruction and replacing Chief Justice Taney, who personified proslavery constitutionalism.

Chase, who joined the Liberty Party in 1841, became an advocate of broadening its appeal in the North. Maria Weston Chapman noted the emergence of Liberty men who seemed to be shunning the name of abolitionists. From the start, the party had been divided between politically savvy westerners led by Chase and Bailey, whose position was endorsed by a massive Liberty convention in Cincinnati in 1845, and abolitionist easterners like Stewart, Goodell, and Smith, who stressed abolition in the southern states and black rights. Smith suggested that Liberty men bury their differences by advocating a live-and-let-live policy. The western Ohio contingent could continue to stress “the rights and safety of the north,” while the eastern wing of the party could advocate the abolition of slavery and black rights. Even in Ohio some abolitionists from the Western Reserve resisted the Cincinnati clique’s control of the Liberty Party. Chase’s attempt to replace Birney with more nationally known candidates such as Adams or Seward as the party’s presidential nominee failed. Birney insisted that only an abolitionist should replace him. Tappan approached Jay as a possible candidate, but he declined.19 With the rise of the controversy over the expansion of slavery, the Chase acolytes won the day.


The resurgence of the slavery expansion issue gave birth to a successful brand of antislavery politics. It all began with the annexation of Texas in 1845, which Calhoun, as Tyler’s secretary of state, justified on specifically proslavery and racist grounds in his infamous letters to the British minister in Washington, Richard Pakenham. The plan, first conceived by Calhoun’s predecessor Albert P. Upshur, a states’ rights Whig from Virginia, infuriated abolitionists, who had led the anti-Texas movement since 1837. That year abolitionists sent 180,000 petitions to Congress against the admission of slaveholding Texas into the Union. The anti-Texas agitation contributed to the repeal of the Gag Rule in 1844. Moderate antislavery men such as Channing opposed annexation in his letter to Clay, the perennial Whig presidential nominee. Garrison noted that American slaveholders had reintroduced slavery into Texas; it had been abolished by the Mexican government, although Mexico implemented the ban indifferently. In Congress, Giddings argued that the annexation of Texas was for the express purpose of perpetuating slavery by opening new markets for the domestic slave trade. A Whig revolt defeated Tyler and Calhoun’s attempt to ram through a treaty acquiring Texas in 1844.

Opposition to Texas annexation cost Clay the election. David Lee Child announced that he would vote for Clay, who came out against annexation, rather than Polk, causing much debate among both nonvoting Garrisonians and voting Libertyites. Under pressure from southern Whigs, Clay equivocated, and in the end twelve southern Whigs, including the future Confederate vice president Alexander Stephens, voted for annexation. The Liberty press was particularly critical of Clay and his antislavery Whig supporters like Seward and Giddings. In New York a group of Barnburner Democrats, increasingly resentful of the southern dominance of their party that had denied Van Buren the Democratic presidential nomination because of his opposition to Texas, was led by his son John Van Buren, Preston King, and Silas Wright. Twenty-seven northern Democrats voted against annexation. The antislavery Democratic editor Theodore Sedgwick III opposed annexation for ensuring “the perpetuity of slavery.”

But most Democrats fell in line with Sen. Robert J. Walker of Mississippi, writing an influential letter pleading for annexation and citing the old canard that expansion would lead to the diffusion and demise of slavery. The idea of stealth British influence in Texas, assiduously promoted by Calhoun’s political manager Duff Green, also appealed to the spread eagle nationalism of “Young America,” the country’s “manifest destiny to overspread the continent,” as the Democratic editor John L. O’Sullivan put it. Their heady brew of territorial and commercial expansion, with its proslavery baggage, won the day. In 1845 Congress annexed Texas by the constitutionally questionable measure of a joint resolution before Polk was inaugurated. To abolitionists and antislavery politicians, this was yet another instance of the federal government acting on behalf of slaveholders, who evoked strict construction only when it suited them.20

Abolitionist criticism of proslavery imperialism gave antislavery politicians their wedge issue. As early as 1843 the MASS characterized American policies toward Mexico as “eminently disgraceful.” Rep. John P. Hale of New Hampshire first tried to append the “Hale proviso” to Texas annexation to ensure the exclusion of slavery and then opposed annexation as a proslavery plot. Opposed by the state’s doughfaces, he was elected to the Senate the following year as an Independent Democrat by a coalition of political abolitionists, Whigs, and antislavery Democrats in a political “Hale storm.” The New Hampshire alliance managed even to elect a Libertyite to serve out the senatorial term of Levi Woodbury. Like many pioneering free soilers, Hale ended his political career as a Lincoln appointee, the American minister to Spain. In Massachusetts a group of young so-called Conscience Whigs, among them Sumner, Palfrey, Henry Wilson, and the son of John Quincy Adams, Charles Francis Adams, whose party was already committed to nonexpansion, assumed leadership of the movement against Texas. Wilson, the “Natick cobbler,” had been an indentured servant and became vice president in the Grant administration. Palfrey, a Unitarian minister and the former editor of the North American Review, had freed his Louisiana slaves. Educated with Phillips at Boston Latin and Harvard Law School, Sumner recalled that the Liberatorwas the first paper he had ever subscribed to and was an admirer of Lydia Maria Child’s Appeal. Sumner imbibed the legal nationalism of his mentor, Chief Justice Story, and the antislavery ideas of Channing, Giddings, and Adams. His antiwar speech on the Fourth of July in 1845 alarmed conservatives but solicited high praise from abolitionists.

The anti-Texas movement created common antislavery ground among Garrisonians, Libertyites, and antislavery Whigs and Democrats. Abolitionists presided over a monster meeting with antislavery politicians in Faneuil Hall that generated an anti-Texas petition with over sixty-five thousand signatures. Wilson and Whittier carried the petition to Adams, who presented it in Congress. Whittier lobbied northern congressmen, especially the Van Buren Democrats, to vote against Texas. Lewis Tappan supported Stephen Pearl Andrews’s scheme of compensated emancipation in Texas by the British government, and Garrison, politicized by the Texas issue, drummed up anti-Texas resolutions and reports in the MASS, the NEASS convention, and AASS. The ninth annual report of the AASS protested Texas annexation as a “scheme of slaveholding aggrandizement” designed to despoil Mexico of her territory. According to abolitionists, Garrison was “our Clarkson” and Adams “our Wilberforce” in the fight against Texas. Abolitionists published the antislavery speeches of Cassius Clay, calling him a “southern prodigy.” Clay decried the “Texas treason.” Garrison also published Henry Bowditch and Jay’s arguments that Texas was part of a slaveholders’ plot to perpetually expand slavery as well as Whittier’s and Lowell’s poems against annexation. Smith noted that antislavery politicians were holding a “looking glass” that abolitionists had been holding for years. Garrison attended all of the political meetings called by the Conscience Whigs, who also invited Clay to Massachusetts.

Whereas Garrison called for disunion on the admission of Texas, Stewart asked northerners to overthrow slavery and Texas through the ballot box. It was during this time, when antislavery became the stuff of politics, that Garrison stopped publishing the Non Resistant and parted ways with Nathaniel Rogers, who got into a dispute with his protégé Foster over the NHASS’s control of the Herald of Freedom. Texas annexation protest meetings coordinated by the Massachusetts Anti-Texas Committee, consisting of Sumner, Wilson, Adams, and Palfrey and abolitionists like Phillips, Samuel May, Theodore Parker, Wright, and Stanton, were held throughout the state. The former Democratic governor Marcus Morton led antislavery Democrats into a political alliance with these men. The legislature condemned the summary expulsion of Judge Samuel Hoar, the state’s emissary to South Carolina, to protest the treatment of Massachusetts’s free colored seamen. Here was another unconstitutional act perpetrated by the Slave Power, a violation of the equal privileges clause on citizenship, a platform that abolitionists and antislavery politicians could unite on. Wright and Phillips predicted that slaveholders’ overreaching would absorb the entire “political power of the north.”21

This entente cordiale between abolitionists and antislavery politicians, or “A CORDIAL UNION OF EFFORTS,” as Garrison called it, was strengthened during the Mexican War, when opposition to slavery expansionism united the antislavery wings of both parties with the Liberty Party. Antiwar sentiment gave a boost to the peace movement, which counted many abolitionists in its ranks. Garrison openly sympathized with “injured” Mexicans. Birney recommended the abolition of the army and navy, and Smith referred to all wars as “brutal, barbarous, and unnecessary.” Richard Webb saw no difference between the imperialist wars of England in Asia and the robbery of Mexico by the United States. Abolitionists and antislavery politicians alike viewed the war started in 1846 under Polk, a Democratic slaveholding expansionist from Tennessee, as a land grab for slavery and a direct result of the disputed boundaries of Texas.

Barnburner Democrats, smarting under snubs from the Polk administration on patronage and its failure to pursue northern claims in Oregon against the British with the same vigor as American claims in the southwest, led a northern revolt within the party of Jackson. The result was the introduction of the Wilmot Proviso in Congress, named after Rep. David Wilmot of Pennsylvania, who first introduced it, and framed deliberately in the language of the Northwest Ordinance by Jacob Brinkerhoff of Ohio. Barring slavery in territories to be acquired from Mexico, it was attached to Polk’s war appropriations bill. Reintroduced the next year by Preston King of New York, who widened its purview to include all future territories to be acquired by the United States, the proviso divided Congress along sectional lines, most northerners voting for it and virtually all southerners against it regardless of party affiliations. Giddings wrote to Smith that it made “slaveholders rave” and northern “doughfaces turn pale.” Tappan noted the spread of antislavery sentiment in the North as a result of the war. Adams, who led the Whig opposition to it, gave his blessings to the proviso. He and Giddings had manned the congressional battle against slavery for years, as Adams wrote in his ode to Giddings: “Be ours the blessings to restore, / Our country’s and the rights of men.” Adams died at his post in the House two years later. Despite his reservations about Garrisonian disunion and the “peculiar views” of abolitionists, Giddings admired the “friends of humanity,” of “the oppressed,” and of “the slave,” as he variously called them. He wrote to Gay that he was eager to meet Garrison and Phillips, and in 1847 he would get a chance to debate Garrison on disunion during Garrison’s western tour. His daughter Maria was a Garrisonian abolitionist.

Whig stalwarts such as Clay, Thomas Corwin of Ohio, and a first-term congressman from Illinois, Abraham Lincoln, also opposed the war in Congress. The Democratic Party could agree on expansion but not on slavery. Northern Democrats such as Hannibal Hamlin of Maine, Lincoln’s first vice president, and Gideon Welles of Connecticut, his secretary of the navy, opposed the extension of slavery in the southwest, and southern Democrats opposed the restriction of slavery in territories as far north as Oregon. Two exceptions to sectional alignment proved that slavery rather than territorial expansion was the real bone of sectional contention. Whereas Calhoun opposed the Mexican War because it might lead to the incorporation of a mixed race—revealing, according to Garrison, the “true spirit of slaveholding domination” in its “vulgar” regard for “the Caucasian” rather than for the “brotherhood of mankind”—Bailey supported it precisely on those grounds, in that the “dark skinned” Mexicans would undermine the racialist logic of American slavery.22

Although it failed to pass the Senate, the proviso became a rallying point for northern antislavery sentiment. Bailey moved to Washington, D.C., and started publishing the National Era, bankrolled by Tappan. He now called the war a “plundering [of] a weak neighbor of its territory, for the sake of extending human slavery” and advocated the passage of the proviso, writing that it was the sine qua non of political antislavery. The National Era became the largest-selling antislavery newspaper after Greeley’s Tribuneand an organ of the newly formed Free Soil Party, which adopted the proviso, or the nonextension of slavery, as its party platform. A coalition of the Liberty Party, whose presidential candidate, Hale, quickly withdrew from the race, Conscience Whigs, and Barnburner Democrats met at the Free Soil convention in Buffalo in 1848, nominating Martin Van Buren as its presidential and Charles Francis Adams, as its vice presidential candidate. Chase masterminded the party platform, which avowed itself to be in favor of “the rights of Free Labor against the aggressions of the Slave Power, and to secure Free Soil for a Free People.” The new party stood for the national platform of freedom against the “sectional platform of slavery” under the twin slogans “No more Slave States and no more Slave Territory” and “Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Speech, and Free Men.”

Though leading free soilers had fought for black rights, against the black laws of Ohio, and for voting rights in Wisconsin, Michigan, New York, and Connecticut, the party’s antislavery appeal was directed at northern whites. Unlike the Liberty Party, the Free Soil Party did not formally endorse black rights. Douglass and Bibb addressed the Free Soil convention, which many abolitionists, including May, attended, causing some consternation among the Barnburners. The convention jettisoned the constitutionally suspect immediatism and racial egalitarianism of abolition for an antislavery platform that its largest contingent, the Barnburner Democrats led by Benjamin F. Butler of Massachusetts and Van Buren’s supporters from New York, could back. Stanton suggested “Liberté, Fraternité, Egalité” as the slogan for the new party, evoking France’s revolution of 1848 and its abolition of slavery. The Free Soil convention, he wrote, was a “motley assembly” with “abolitionists of all shades of opinion present”; the Barnburners were the “Girondists” of the coalition and presumably abolitionists, the Jacobins. Free soil was the lowest common denominator of antislavery, designed to appeal to the widest constituency.

The construction of an antislavery ideology that could appeal to states’ rights Democrats by leaving southern slavery alone and to statist Whigs by demanding federal action against slavery in the territories and thereby unite all antislavery northerners was a free soil achievement. Giddings undertook a triumphant lecturing tour of Massachusetts feted by abolitionists. The state’s Conscience Whigs followed him into the new party. Stanton, Chase, Bailey, and Leavitt led a majority of the Liberty men into the free soil coalition. According to Quincy, the Liberty Party had committed suicide, but Leavitt answered that it was not dead but “translated” into the Free Soil Party. Most Libertyites like Owen Lovejoy made the journey from abolitionism to free soilism. The alliance with the chastened Barnburners fell apart when most of them rejoined the Democratic Party after tipping New York into the Whig column and electing Zachary Taylor, a Louisiana slaveholder and war hero, to the presidency and the native son Millard Fillmore to the vice presidency. Antislavery Whigs like Seward, Lincoln’s future secretary of state, Thaddeus Stevens, and Lincoln and antislavery Democrats like Hamlin, who, along with the free soilers Wilmot, King, and Brinkerhoff, was part of the group that had engineered the proviso, stayed with their parties. The Free Soil Party lost the presidential election of 1848, but its vote count was more than double that of the Liberty total in 1844. Unlike Giddings, Benjamin Wade also remained a Whig, though his brother Edward was a Liberty man and a free soiler. Bailey and Smith, who disagreed on free soilism, agreed that men like Greeley were one of the “wicked Whigs” who professed antislavery principles but ended up supporting their regular party ticket. Tappan’s die-hard Democratic brother, Benjamin Tappan of Ohio, who had voted for the annexation of Texas, like most Van Burenites joined the Free Soil Party.

Despite its electoral defeat, the Free Soil coalition played a role in making antislavery a favored political principle in the North, as party regulars hurried to co-opt its platform. Sectional divisions delayed the organization of the House and election of a Speaker. Led by Giddings and Palfrey, antislavery Whigs refused to vote for the cotton Whig Robert Winthrop, who did not support the proviso. In 1848 the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican War, nearly doubled the size of the country by ceding a vast amount of Mexican territory and intensified the sectional battle over the territories. Both free soilers and slaveholders had long realized that their future status as slave or free states would determine the future of slavery, whether it would exist in perpetuity or be put on the road to extinction. Fifteen northern states and Delaware had endorsed the proviso, and ten southern states had repudiated it. The Free Soil Party elected a handful of staunch antislavery men like Giddings and the newcomer George Julian of Indiana, Giddings’s future son-in-law, to Congress and, in coalition with Democrats, sent Chase to the Senate, where he joined Hale.

Bailey’s home became the new antislavery headquarters in the capital, his Saturday night soirees a meeting point for abolitionists and their political allies. His newspaper kept the flag of the Free Soil remnant, the Free Democracy, flying long after the passage of the Compromise of 1850, which dealt a deathblow to both the Free Soil and Whig Parties. In 1852 Free Democrats nominated Hale for the presidency and Julian for the vice presidency on an abolitionist platform that repudiated the congressional compromise and the new Fugitive Slave Act, passed in 1850, calling slavery “a sin against God and a crime against man, which no human enactment nor usage can make right. . . . Christianity, humanity, and patriotism, alike demand its abolition.” It called for the recognition of Haiti and justified the right of revolution. The convention elected Frederick Douglass as a secretary. Garrison viewed the Free Democracy as “an encouraging sign of the times” but argued that no union with slaveholders was the higher and truer position. The Free Democrats won just 5 percent of the vote in contrast to the 10 percent gained by free soilers in 1848, revealing that free soilism, not abolition, mobilized northern voters. The sectional compromise eclipsed political antislavery until the Kansas–Nebraska Act in 1854 reopened the question of slavery expansion.23

The simultaneous broadening and dilution of abolition into a northern antislavery party divided abolitionists. When the Liberty Party nominated Hale as its presidential candidate in 1847, Goodell and Smith formed the Liberty League, the “politico-religious” wing of the party, at Macedon Lock, New York. It stood on abolitionist ground, the abolition of southern slavery by the federal government, and for their brand of universal reform: abolition of all monopolies and debt, direct taxation instead of tariffs, land for the landless, and religious freedom. Ward joined them. Goodell complained that while the “one idea” Liberty men had objected to mixing abolition with other reforms, they had abandoned abolition for free soil. Green called the Free Soil Party a “poor concern.” Garrison argued that Libertyites who advocated the constitutional abolition of slavery were actually close to his disunion position because if they implemented their program it would blow the Union “sky high.” The Liberty League ran Smith for the presidency in 1848. In 1852 he was elected to Congress in coalition with free soilers. Garrison hailed Smith’s election. With abolitionists in Congress, Gates wrote, Birney need not despair of the Republic.

Birney had suffered from a debilitating stroke in 1845 and had retired from active politics. In a series of articles for the Albany Patriot in 1847 he insisted that Congress had the power to abolish slavery not just in areas under federal jurisdiction but also in the southern states. Refuting Chase and Bailey’s states’ rights concession that the federal government did not possess the power to abolish southern slavery, Birney argued that Congress “should emancipate” under its war powers or to secure “domestic tranquility” and the “general welfare.” If Calhoun and his followers argued that the Constitution carried slavery with it everywhere, in Birney’s reading the Constitution, established to secure natural rights and justice, carried abolition. All who opposed this idea, Birney concluded, valued the “wrongs of the oppressor more than the rights of the oppressed.” When Tappan’s AFASS endorsed Hale as the Liberty Party’s presidential candidate, Birney resigned, asserting that he could not abide by Hale’s “low and false grounds” in supporting the restriction rather than abolition of slavery. Tappan had joined Chase and Bailey in developing a broad antislavery platform but balked at supporting Van Buren. He and Birney voted for Smith in 1848. Four years later Goodell headed the Liberty ticket, but for all intents and purposes the party was dead. Its political descendant was Smith’s Radical Political Abolition Party, whose organ, the Radical Abolitionist, was edited by Goodell.

Disillusioned, Birney, in a letter to African Americans appended to his pamphlet on the Supreme Court decision of 1850 Strader, Gorman and Armstrong v. Graham, recommended emigration. The decision, which challenged the freedom principle in the North by holding that any slave who voluntarily returned to a slave state could not sue for his freedom based on residence in a free state, along with the new fugitive slave law weighed heavily on Birney, and he saw no prospects for black rights. At the same time, Birney remained critical of the ACS and argued that emancipation should not be made dependent on colonization. Sidelined from the abolition movement, he moved to Raritan Bay, where the Welds resided, and died there in 1857.24

Ironically, the political abolitionists who did not make the transition to free soilism were far more critical of it than Garrison, whose constitutional position aligned with free soilers’ belief that the Constitution protected southern slavery. Unlike the Fosters and Pillsbury, who were suspicious of all politicians, Garrison commended free soilism as a political advance but insisted that abolitionists must continue to agitate against slavery and for black rights. Garrison was especially fulsome in his praise of the Massachusetts abolitionist-minded free soilers, Sumner, Wilson, and Palfrey, for standing up to slaveholders’ abuse. These men and Giddings, who had introduced a bill to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia that allowed free black men to vote on it, Garrison argued, set the “liberty ball . . . rolling.” If the Van Burens and the Adamses could combine, the North was finally aroused, as was the South, Garrison noted. He reprinted Calhoun’s address to southern members of Congress asking them to unite on slavery.

Quincy praised the rise of antislavery, a result, he observed, of abolitionists’ labors, as earlier the nation had only a “slavery party.” But he complained that many of “our old coadjutors” were joining the free soilers. Pillsbury noted with alarm that most abolitionists voted for the Free Soil Party and were abandoning the movement that inspired it. The Free Soil Party was not revolutionary, Garrison argued, until it forthrightly attacked slavery rather than its extension and supported black rights. It fell far short of the AASS standard, and abolitionists must still arouse the “conscience of the north.” The AFASS also clarified that nonextension was not the same as abolition. Some political abolitionists, like Bradburn, who thought the Liberty League conventions were “within gunshot” of his own antislavery politics, agreed: “What is to be the end of Free Soilism? Shall we not have to content ourselves with or be, at least, resigned to getting one thing done at a time?” But Giddings pointed out that antislavery politicians like himself “regarded the high position and the labors of the American Anti Slavery Society as indispensable to the growth and efficacy of Free Soil, and all similar operations.” Free soilism was not abolition, as its policy of forming a cordon sanitaire of freedom to strangle slavery to death was too gradual, and its failure to formally endorse black citizenship marked a red line between it and abolition. Garrison maintained that free soilism was derivative of abolition, a small step in the right direction. McKim, Phillips, and Pillsbury were critical of its watered-down antislavery.25

Free soil sentiment among Democrats and in the border slave states could be anti-abolitionist and antiblack. Thomas Hart Benton, the old Jacksonian Democrat from Missouri, was a convert. In West Virginia, Rev. Henry Ruffner, the president of Washington College, advocated both majority rule for the state’s nonslaveholding white population, chafing under unequal representation, and gradual emancipation in a pamphlet of 1847. Employing anti-abolitionist rhetoric, Ruffner blamed the “meddlesome sect of abolitionists” for the failure of emancipation in the border states. He also denounced northern free soilers for threatening the bonds of union between slave and free states. Ruffner’s critique of slavery was mainly economic, decrying its retarding effects on agriculture, manufacturing, public education, and white labor. He recommended laws to prohibit the importation of slaves to Virginia and encourage their “export” and post nati emancipation and to make slaveholders responsible for educating and colonizing their former slaves. His racialist antislavery ideas preceded those of the famous Hinton Rowan Helper in the 1850s.

The abolitionist Fee joined the free soiler Cassius Clay and antislavery colonizationists like Breckinridge and Henry Clay in a coalition to put gradual emancipation on the agenda in Kentucky’s constitutional convention of 1849. To Fee, this was a continuation of the abolitionist legacy of David Rice. Cassius Clay started publishing the antislavery True American in 1845, until a proslavery mob shipped his press off to Cincinnati. A critic of Texas annexation, Clay had established a national reputation by giving antislavery speeches in Boston and New York. He expounded an economic, free labor critique of slavery, arguing that Kentucky would become “the garden of the world” without slavery. Despite participating in the Mexican War, for which abolitionists roundly criticized him, he was an advocate of free soil whose antislavery surpassed that of his slaveholding, colonizationist uncle. With financial help from Chase, Tappan, and Smith, Clay started publishing the Louisville Examiner and led an emancipationist movement in Kentucky. Despite a cholera epidemic that dampened voter turnout in antislavery urban areas, the emancipationists garnered around 35 percent of the vote to the state convention, higher than the national free soil vote count. But Kentucky ended up with a far more proslavery constitution after this defeat. Clay supported Taylor in the elections in 1848 but joined the Free Soil Party soon after. By 1852 both Fee, who established an antislavery colony and school in Berea, and Clay actively campaigned for the Free Democratic ticket, hosting its vice presidential candidate Julian on a lecture tour. The abolitionists Lucretia and James Mott also undertook a lecturing tour of the state. The pitiful strength of abolition in Kentucky was demonstrated by the 266 votes the Free Democrats won in the elections of 1852. Clay eventually joined the Republican Party and was appointed the American minister to Russia by Lincoln, and Fee allied with Smith’s radical political abolitionists, for which he was forced to leave the state. He returned during the war to teach black Union soldiers and their families at Camp Nelson and at Berea College, a noteworthy experiment in interracial higher education. In the postwar years, he continued his abolitionist crusade against racial caste.26

The growing cultural appeal of antislavery matched slavery’s national political spread. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, one of the era’s most beloved poets and a close friend of Sumner, published his Poems on Slavery in 1842. Though not critically acclaimed, the slim anthology of verses depicting slaves longing for liberty was welcomed by abolitionists. His “The Slave in the Dismal Swamp” evoked the image of the runaway slave, “the hunted negro.” During the Mexican War, Walt Whitman lost his position as the editor of the Democratic Brooklyn Eagle when he became a free soiler. He attended the Free Soil convention in 1848 and briefly edited the Daily Freeman, writing political poems excoriating northern doughfaces and lauding the European revolutions. The abolitionist Whig poet James Russell Lowell in Boston published the satirical The Biglow Papers (1848), which, appearing first as a series in the Boston Courier in 1846, were against war and northern servility to the slave South. When Lowell joined the NASSstaff, Douglass called his addition a most “fortunate one for the paper and the cause which it advocates.” There were a few exceptions, the most prominent being Nathaniel Hawthorne, who shared the doughface politics of his friend Franklin Pierce, writing his campaign biography for the presidential election of 1852. Hawthorne had a decidedly jaundiced view of abolition and utopianism after his experience at Brook Farm, which he lampooned in The Blithedale Romance.27

The American romanticist movement, Transcendentalism, gave abolition its most acclaimed cultural figures. Transcendentalists’ emphasis on spiritual universalism borrowed from German idealism and Hindu philosophy, and quintessential American notions of individual self-reliance and nature lent themselves to antislavery critique and inspired a literary renaissance. Transcendentalism led not to an anti-institutional individualism but to political engagement. Leading Transcendentalist thinkers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, and Henry David Thoreau became fellow travelers of abolition during the slavery expansion controversy in the 1840s, while others, like the radical Unitarian ministers Theodore Parker, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, William Henry Channing, William F. Channing, William Furness, James Freeman Clarke, and the Virginian Moncure Conway, were converts to abolition. Some, like William H. Channing, also espoused socialism, and most were critical of the soul-destroying materialism and inequality bred by early capitalism. The Transcendentalist Caroline Healey Dall was a regular contributor to the Liberator on women’s rights.

Emerson, the country’s most famous essayist and the founder of the Transcendental Club, shared his mentor William Ellery Channing’s initial distaste for organized abolition despite the fact that his wife and brother were abolitionists. During the late 1830s, however, Emerson signed abolitionist petitions against the annexation of Texas, and Garrison praised his public letter to President Van Buren against Cherokee removal. At the height of the Texas controversy, Emerson became allied with the abolition movement, delivering the First of August oration at the annual MASS celebrations three times and calling emancipation a “moral revolution.” In his speech in 1845 Emerson rejected the proslavery argument on the racial inferiority of Africans and instead drew attention to the barbarous nature of American slaveholders. With the start of the Mexican War, Emerson lent the prestige of his name to abolition, supporting the rescue of fugitive slaves and, together with Sumner, refusing to lecture before the racially segregated New Bedford Lyceum. Scholars have challenged the long-circulating myth that Emerson blackballed Douglass from his Town and Country Club, whose librarian was William Cooper Nell. Nell, a forgotten black Transcendentalist, was the founder of the Adelphic Union of the “most enterprising young men of color,” which hosted lectures by leading Transcendentalists, including Emerson, abolitionists like Garrison, and antislavery politicians like Hale and Sumner. Thoreau, whose female family members also preceded him to abolition, famously protested against the Mexican War, the rendition of fugitive slaves, and the treatment of Native Americans by the government and refused to pay his poll taxes, for which he was briefly imprisoned. His famous lecture of 1848, “Resistance to Civil Government,” published the following year, founded a tradition of civil disobedience that influenced Mahatma Gandhi, who in turn inspired Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela.

More than Emerson and Thoreau, Parker, who had been taught by Palfrey at Harvard Divinity School and was known for his religious iconoclasm, became the face of transcendental abolitionism. Parker, like Emerson, defied the religious and political conservatism of Harvard Unitarianism. He shared Garrison’s anticlericalism and biblical skepticism, attending his anti-Sabbath conventions. He also made his abolition debut at the MASS West India Day celebration in 1845. A couple of years later Parker issued his abolitionist letter on slavery to the American people. He became a regular speaker at AASS meetings and at his church, the Melodeon, a site for abolitionist meetings. One hundred and seventy Unitarian ministers had signed an antislavery protest composed by Clarke opposing Texas annexation. As early as 1842 Clarke delivered a sermon on the evils of slavery and two years later one against the annexation of Texas. In 1848 Parker and Clarke started publishing the Massachusetts Quarterly Review, hailed by abolitionists. Parker became known for his blistering sermons against the war, which he called “national infidelity,” and supported the Conscience Whigs, delivering a moving eulogy of Adams. Parker, like Higginson, who also entered the abolitionist ranks in the 1840s, harnessed the romantic revolutionary spirit of the times in the slave’s cause.28 Antislavery popularized abolition among the North’s leading political and cultural figures.


For abolitionists and antislavery men the free soil revolution against slave-holding despots of the New World was akin to the European revolutions of 1848 against Old World tyranny, its overthrow with the Compromise of 1850 similar to their defeat. The stalemate between the free soil movement and southern threats of secession over the future of the Mexican territories was broken by Henry Clay’s perennial politics of sectional compromise. Stephen A. Douglas, the Democratic senator from Illinois, expedited the passage of the compromise by dividing Clay’s “monster bill” into smaller, palatable parts for each section. The hopes of free soilers died with President Taylor, a slaveholding nationalist open to the idea of restricting the spread of slavery, and the succession of the conservative Fillmore. Clay’s compromise, which allowed residents of the territories of New Mexico and Utah to vote slavery up or down, based on the losing Democratic presidential candidate Lewis Cass’s “popular sovereignty” formula, was a decisive rejection of the free soil platform. Jay, who in an open letter to the inhabitants of New Mexico and California warned that slaveholders would not allow them the right of self-government without establishing “the dominion of the WHIP,” opposed Clay’s compromise because it denied the federal government the power to abolish slavery in the territories. Most galling to abolitionists was the passage of a draconian new federal fugitive slave law. In return, the North got the admission of California as a free state, expedited by the gold rush, and the abolition of the slave trade in Washington, D.C., facilitated by the retrocession of Alexandria, where most slave traders operated, to Virginia.

The opposition of the free soil contingent in Congress—Chase, Hale, and Benton in the Senate and nine representatives led by Giddings—failed to overcome Douglas’s maneuvering, which involved putting each bill up for a separate vote, with each section, joined by a few defectors, voting for its interests, resulting in an “armistice” rather than a true compromise. Many northerners simply absented themselves or abstained from the vote on the fugitive law, illustrating their political cowardice to abolitionists. To drive home the point, Thaddeus Stevens had a congressional page inform the absent northern congressmen that they could safely enter the chambers as the slavery matter was disposed of. In a public letter to Samuel Eliot of Massachusetts excoriating his vote for the law, Jay argued that the compromise strengthened every provision of the Constitution designed to protect and perpetuate slavery and decreed that every power for its curtailing remained dormant. Two men came in for special abolitionist criticism, Clay and Daniel Webster, who supported the compromise. Webster claimed that the deserts of the southwest and Mexican abolition would naturally deter the spread of slavery and made the proviso unnecessary. Of the “Great Triumvirate” in the Senate, abolitionists had always detested Clay, the slaveholding colonizationist who had rained abuse on abolitionists, and Calhoun, an unyielding spokesman for slaveholding interests, whose speeches regularly graced the Liberator’s “Refuge of Oppression” column. Calhoun now called the admission of California as a free state just cause for southern secession. Bailey distinguished “philanthropic Disunionists,” or Garrisonians, from “the demagogues and politicians of the South who are aiming . . . to bring about a dissolution of the Union!”

But it was Webster’s betrayal that shocked abolitionists and free soilers, who had underestimated his conservatism and presidential ambitions despite his course during the Creole affair. Abolitionists condemned his Seventh of March speech justifying the new fugitive law and calling for five new slave states to be carved out of Texas. While Whittier composed “Ichabod” for the fallen senator from Massachusetts, Parker and Phillips called him an “apostate to humanity.” Garrison recommended a petition drive to censure Webster. By 1852 all three men were dead. Seward, who was behind Taylor’s plan to admit California and New Mexico as free states, represented the antislavery position. In 1845 he had written to Smith that abolition was “the first, the leading, the paramount question of the day.” Seward commanded the respect of abolitionists for his support of black voting rights and opposition to fugitive slave rendition when he was the governor of New York. He was also a political opponent of the conservative Fillmore, a Silver Grey Whig, who championed the compromise. In his famous “higher law” speech opposing the compromise, Seward equated the sectional quarrel over slavery with the fight between reaction and democracy and argued that emancipation represented a democratic revolution against capital. Seward reiterated an abolitionist idea, northerners’ right to resist the fugitive slave law based on a higher calling to defend freedom. He called human rights the only “permanent foundations of society.” At an abolitionist meeting in Faneuil Hall, Ward noted, Seward, “a Senator of my own State,” unlike Webster, deserved “honorable mention.” Tappan’s AFASS printed ten thousand copies of his speech, and Greeley published it in a special edition of the Tribune.29

Garrison now distrusted the political world of compromise even more, but the rise of political antislavery facilitated Douglass’s conversion to political abolitionism. On his return from England, Douglass had raised enough funds to start an independent newspaper, a venture that Garrison advised against as being risky, given the financial woes of the Liberator, and as jeopardizing Douglass’s role as the star lecturer of the AASS. Instead, Garrisonians offered Douglass a paid column in the NASS and advised him to help Van Rensselaer’s new paper, the Ram’s Horn. On their joint western lecture tour in 1847, Douglass outshone his mentor, and when Garrison fell ill he was forced to carry on alone. Garrison complained about not receiving a letter from Douglass and about the fact that Douglass did not seek his advice on starting his newspaper. But it is a mistake to trace the break between the two to these incidents. Garrison’s continued fulsome praise of Douglass in private and in the pages of his newspaper reveals that he was not resentful of Douglass’s success or of his attempt to fashion himself as an independent spokesman of abolition. When Douglass moved to Rochester and started publishing the North Star in December, Garrison not only wished him well but also frequently reprinted material from his newspaper and solicited subscriptions for it. In his articles on the free soil movement Garrison often quoted Douglass, and both joined forces in dismissing the Bibles-for-slaves campaign launched by evangelical abolitionists. What was the point, they asked, when slaves were forbidden from acquiring literacy, the greater wrong in their eyes. When the North Star ran into trouble in 1849, Garrison wrote that his “enterprising and eloquent coadjutor[’s]” paper “must continue to twinkle in the Antislavery firmament.”

The break came in 1851, when Douglass publicly announced at the annual AASS meeting in Syracuse that he had changed his mind about the Constitution and now agreed with Smith, Goodell, Spooner, et al. that it was an antislavery document. Though not unexpected, given the drift of Douglass’s paper, it surprised Garrison, who cried out, “There is roguery somewhere.” A couple of months later the North Star received a much-needed infusion of funds from Smith and acquired the subscription lists of the Liberty Party Paper, with which it merged, and Ward’s Impartial Citizen. Douglass renamed his paper Frederick Douglass’ Paper and made it a Liberty Party organ. Garrison undiplomatically made it clear that he did not like either its new name or its politics. Douglass’s conversion was not opportunistic but a result of his growing closeness to Smith, whose donations sustained his paper, and to New York’s black political abolitionists. He was vice president of the national black convention in 1843 and its president in 1848. His actions were also a well-considered response to the growing potential of political antislavery. Nor did Douglass simply give way to expediency over principle, as he was constantly torn between supporting free soilism, with its promise of antislavery success, and his primary allegiance to Smith and political abolitionism. Garrison could not resist mocking his shifting support for the free soilers and the Liberty Party, claiming his paper represented both sides.

To reduce the Douglass–Garrison breach to a simple matter of race trivializes the serious political differences that developed between the two men. When Ward, also a Liberty man, accused Garrison of racism, Garrison responded that he had no qualms about criticizing a black man, as he did white men. At the next annual AASS meeting in Rochester, Douglass continued as one of the managers of the society, and Smith sent a letter noting that he had more in common with the Garrisonians on abolition, except for voting, than with Tappan’s AFASS and the free soilers. Later, a vituperative debate between Douglass and Purvis and Remond also revealed that race was not the fault line in the break. While some black abolitionists split across the New York / Boston–Philadelphia axis, reflecting Garrisonian / anti-Garrisonian strength, others in Detroit and Chicago, except for a Libertyite meeting led by John Jones and one led by George T. Downing in Rhode Island, insisted on praising both men and refused to take sides. Garrisonians like Nell and Wells Brown also supported the Free Soil Party, although Wells Brown and Remond debated Douglass on the Constitution. Garrison was still printing Douglass’s speeches and extracts from his paper after 1851 and praised the black convention’s address in 1853 written by him as “an admirable document . . . impregnable in its positions.”

But the truce did not last. The quarrel developed personal overtones starting with Douglass’s criticism of the British abolitionist George Thompson and Richard Webb in defense of Smith and the Liberty Party. It became worse when Douglass accused Foster, Pillsbury, and Henry C. Wright of religious infidelity, a charge Garrison’s clerical opponents had long hurled at him. Ironically, just as Garrison started being more generous in his appraisal of abolitionist clergymen after the schisms in the major denominations over slavery, even publishing a complimentary piece on Colver, Douglass revived the old accusation. Douglass also criticized Phillips’s supercilious questioning of his presence at the MASS West India Day celebration, implying that Phillips had chosen to criticize him because he had lost his long public debate with Horace Mann over the Constitution and political action. While Garrison came to Phillips’s defense, Douglass was clearly taken by Mann’s arguments. Douglass also called Nell a “contemptible tool” after Nell, who had helped him start his paper, criticized him, and he alluded to Purvis’s “blood-stained riches.” Purvis responded in a letter that his white father was a merchant, not a slaveholder. Black Bostonians were suspicious of the free soiler Mann, who, unlike Henry I. Bowditch, had not lifted a finger to help them in their battle against school segregation when he was on the city’s school committee. In the fall of 1853 Garrison began publishing Douglass’s attacks against “our white and colored friends” in his “Refuge of Oppression.” The wrath of the entire Garrisonian press, the NASS, the Pennsylvania Freeman, and the Anti-Slavery Bugle, descended on Douglass, who was forced to write a lengthy rebuttal. Garrison disowned Douglass, writing that his “hostility to the American Anti-Slavery Society and its leading advocates is unmitigated and unceasing.” The two men stopped speaking to each other.

Garrison also did not take the high road, blaming the British abolitionist Julia Griffiths, Douglass’s editorial assistant, who worked hard to keep his paper afloat, for causing unhappiness in Douglass’s home. Abby Kelley Foster was convinced that Griffiths exercised a pernicious influence on Douglass, as she was allied with the evangelical wing of British abolitionists. A letter from Anna Douglass, probably written by Douglass and Griffiths, put to rest any suggestion of impropriety. In fact, Anna ordered Griffiths out of her home. Douglass, who had until then been respectful of Garrison, was outraged that he had “seen fit to invade my household” and given credence to scandalous rumors. Things only got worse, each hitting the other below the belt: Garrison claimed that fugitive slaves had no special insight into abolition, and Douglass accused him of racism. Like Griffiths, the radical German journalist Ottilie Assing stayed in Douglass’s home. She referred derogatorily to Anna as an old woman who was uneducated and ignorant. Assing, suffering from cancer and upon hearing of Douglass’s marriage to his second wife, Helen Pitts, later committed suicide in Europe, leaving her estate to Douglass. When Douglass married Anna, he was a slave and she a free woman; now he was an international celebrity and she the mother of his children, who treated her husband as an “honored guest” in her home. Their daughter, Rosetta, wrote in a tribute to Anna, who, she recalled, was active in abolitionist circles in Massachusetts, that her “unswerving loyalty” had made Douglass’s success possible. Only those who knew her “intimately,” she wrote, could appreciate her “enduring patience” as wife and mother.

By 1855 Douglass was lecturing on the antislavery movement, pointing out that abolition predated Garrison. But Douglass continued to praise him alongside Smith, noting he would not deprive Garrison of any “honor justly his.” As a political abolitionist, Douglass criticized Garrisonian disunionism as well as the free soilers. To Douglass belongs the last word on the abolitionist debate over the Constitution. Like most political abolitionists, Douglass combined a literal reading of the nation’s founding legal document; he stressed that neither slavery nor slaves were specifically mentioned in it, with the insistence that constitutional guarantees of citizenship rights included African Americans. But he went further. Douglass held that the original intent of the founders, many of whom, he well knew, were slaveholders, was irrelevant. Instead, he treated the Constitution as a living, breathing document whose democratic promise must be redeemed and extended by subsequent generations. As Douglass put it in 1860 in his speech, which was published as a pamphlet, The Constitution of the United States: Is it Pro-slavery or Anti-Slavery, slaveholders had given the Constitution a “proslavery interpretation,” but the Constitution “will afford slavery no protection when it shall cease to be administered by slaveholders.” By refusing to be held hostage to the intent of the founders, Douglass went well beyond slaveholding apologists like Calhoun, antislavery Republicans, and political abolitionists, all of whom claimed to have the founders on their side. He laid out the path to fundamentally remake the founders’ Constitution along abolitionist lines. Slavery was abolished through political action but in the midst of the enormous bloodletting of the Civil War, indeed Garrison’s covenant with death.30

Douglass’s move to political abolitionism was facilitated by the election to Congress of the two men he most admired, Smith and Sumner. Sumner, a “one-idead abolitionist,” was elected to the Senate on a fusion Free Soil–Democratic ticket after a drawn-out legislative battle in 1851. The presence of these men in Congress, along with Chase and Giddings, proved to be fortuitous when the next storm over slavery expansion erupted. In 1853 Stephen Douglas proposed a bill organizing Nebraska territory, a part of the Louisiana Purchase, to facilitate the building of a transcontinental railroad. As a price for southern support, the proslavery clique of senators in the F Street mess that included the Virginian James Mason, the author of the new fugitive slave law, and his partner in crime, Sen. Andrew Pickens Butler of South Carolina, proposed the rescinding of the Missouri Compromise line, allowing for the spread of slavery well to its north. Douglas viewed the Compromise of 1850 as taking precedence over the settlement of 1820: “popular sovereignty” in the territories would decide the fate of slavery. Like some other northwestern doughface politicians in the 1850s, he owned a Mississippi plantation and was indifferent to the spread of slavery. The antislavery minority in Congress was up to the challenge. Slavery and the Cotton Kingdom had expanded at such a rate in the antebellum American Republic that the Missouri Compromise line that had once been excoriated by abolitionists now stood as the last line of antislavery defense in the west.

Even before the passage of the Kansas–Nebraska Act of 1854, Chase, with the editorial help of Sumner and Smith, who were no doubt responsible for its abolitionist tone, composed an “Appeal of the Independent Democrats in Congress to the People of the United States.” Published first in the NE and in a new, moderately antislavery newspaper, the New York Times, the appeal succeeded in doing what generations of abolitionists and antislavery politicians had sought, to portray slavery as an existential threat to American democracy. It drew attention to the scheme to exclude Old World immigrants and northern free labor from the territories, turning them into a “dreary region of despotism, inhabited by masters and slaves.” It delineated the vast area in the northwest, from the newly acquired Mexican territories to Canada and from Missouri to the Pacific, that the bill would affect. Starting with the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, the Republic had pledged to keep this territory free. It targeted specific northern antislavery constituencies, namely, the German language press, the working classes, and Christian ministers. The appeal signed by Chase, Sumner, Giddings, Smith, and Alexander DeWitt of Massachusetts was a classic example of tried-and-true abolitionist tactics, the ability of a radical minority to change the course of public debate. Suffused with enough abolitionist logic and rhetoric, it gained both Garrison’s and Douglass’s praise. The “atrocious plot” to spread slavery was one against “EQUAL RIGHTS AND EXACT JUSTICE for all men.” It asked the American people not to become complicit in spreading “Legalized Oppression and Systematized Injustice.”

The appeal did not displace concern for black freedom with white liberty; instead, it warned of the designs of the Slave Power against both black and white freedom in the Republic. It was an effective distillation of abolitionist political thought, one that Chase said he was most proud of, and it planted the seeds of a northern electoral rebellion against slavery. Douglas traveled home to Chicago by the light of his burning effigies. Northern Democrats, who had voted for the bill, were consigned to political oblivion. Abolitionist ministers like Higginson and Parker took up the gauntlet, delivering fiery sermons against it, and anti-Nebraska meetings spread like a prairie fire across the North. Over three thousand clergymen in New England, including the longtime opponents of abolition Leonard Bacon and Lyman Beecher, signed a remonstrance against rescinding the Missouri Compromise. Garrison called the passage of the Kansas–Nebraska Act a triumph of the proslavery Union. In his speech reported as “Douglas vs. Douglass,” Douglass characterized the accusation of his “namesake” that opponents of the Nebraska bill were more solicitous of black than of white rights as “mean, wicked and bitter.” The appeal proved to be prescient, as the wars in “bleeding Kansas” between free-state and proslavery settlers illustrated. Missouri “border ruffians” who periodically raided the territory to steal elections made a mockery of white democracy, leading even Douglas to repudiate his handiwork.31

The aggressive nature of proslavery imperialism, or what Garrison called “Slavery’s Foreign Policy,” facilitated by the Pierce administration also alarmed abolitionists. Pierce used the weight of his presidency to give his blessing not only to Kansas–Nebraska but also to designs to acquire Cuba. As early as 1848, the Polk administration had tried to purchase Cuba. The Cuban adventurer Narciso López led illegal filibustering expeditions to the island from the United States until he was executed by Spanish authorities in 1851. Cuban annexation would “augment indefinitely the political power of slavery,” according to Bailey. Southern Democratic slaveholding planter-politicians such as Pierre Soule of Louisiana and the former governor of Mississippi, the fire-eating secessionist John A. Quitman, were ardent backers of Cuban filibustering. In 1854 Soule, appointed the American minister to Spain, along with the ubiquitous Mason, the American minister in France, and James Buchanan, the northern doughface minister in Britain, issued the Ostend Manifesto declaring the intent of the U.S. government to acquire Cuba. In Congress, Giddings and Hale led the charge against Cuban annexation, while southern expansionists warned against the “Africanization of Cuba.” Coming on the heels of Kansas, Pierce repudiated the Ostend Manifesto, and Soule resigned, which Douglass sarcastically called “Mr. Soule’s Flight.”

Undeterred, Soule became a champion of the American filibusterer William Walker, whose private army, financed by the northern magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt, conquered Nicaragua the following year and reinstituted slavery there. The real war, Walker, “the gray eyed man of destiny,” argued, was not to secure Kansas for slavery but to “re-establish slavery in Central America” and strengthen it through a tropical empire beyond the limits of the Union. Walker’s proslavery government was overthrown, and he was executed in 1860, but the Buchanan administration revived the attempt to acquire Cuba. Parker listed Kansas, Cuba, fugitive slave renditions, filibustering, and the movement to reopen the African slave trade as revealing the alarming nature of proslavery imperialism in the 1850s. Douglass pointed to the revival of the African slave trade and filibustering as an illustration of the “Aggressions of the Slave Power.” Writing as Ethiop, William J. Wilson warned that slavery gave rise to “every monstrosity of the age,” fugitive slave laws, “Cuba invasions,” and “Haytien subjugation schemes.”32

The formation of the Republican Party was a direct result of the slavery expansion controversies. Despite competing cultural and political forces—temperance and the Maine prohibition law of 1851, and the nativism embodied in the rise of the Know-Nothing Party in 1854—antislavery came to dominate the northern political landscape, especially after the battle for Kansas escalated into an all-out war on the ground. A fusion of anti-Nebraska Democrats, antislavery Whigs, and free soilers in Michigan and one in Ripon, Wisconsin, adopting the Jeffersonian name Republican, and thirty congressmen in Washington who subsequently took the same name, signaled the rise of the new party. Bailey, a consistent booster of political antislavery, calculated by the end of 1855 fourteen to fifteen Republican or Republican-leaning senators, predicting that by the next year they would have twenty, a substantial advance from the two to three free soil senators before Kansas. On Christmas Day, Sumner, Chase, King, and Bailey met in Francis Blair’s Missouri home to put the Republican coalition together, border state free soilism being the farthest removed from abolition.

The Republicans soon challenged the temporary ascendance of Know-Nothings, who swept into power in Massachusetts only to break apart like the traditional parties over slavery. Garrison predicted that nativism was a temporary excitement and indicative of the degraded “moral and mental condition” of northern whites. He saw nativism as linked to racism. Douglass argued that the slave should expect nothing from the nativist party and concluded, “Neither can we, oppressed as we are, consistently and conscientiously proscribe a man because of the accident of foreign birth.” Bailey called the Know-Nothings a contemptible anti-Catholic movement that adopted abolitionist causes in Massachusetts and proslavery stances in the South. He was critical of attempts to form fusion tickets with the nativist party, arguing that its only tendency was to defeat Republicans, who sought “to rescue the Federal Government from Slave-holding tyranny.” Writing on behalf of the Radical Political Abolition convention at Syracuse, the successor to Smith’s Liberty League, Goodell maintained that whereas abolitionists’ devotion to human rights made them reject nativism, free soilers made expedient alliances with it. Wilson found a temporary home in the Know-Nothing Party, using its legislative majority to get elected to the Senate and helping to divide the party by insisting on a stronger antislavery position. But Sumner, Seward, and Lincoln repudiated it. Giddings said nativism was “unjust, illiberal and un-American,” contrasting it with antislavery, which “rejects all distinctions in political or civil rights, founded on birth, color, or religious creed or connection.” Republicans viewed nativism as a competing political force. Mindful of German immigrants, the Republicans absorbed antislavery Know-Nothings but did not adopt the party’s nativist platform.33

The Republican Party was neither rewarmed Whiggery, nor a resurgence of old Jacksonian Democrats, nor a nativist party; it was a free soil party whose radical vanguard was affiliated with the abolition movement. Douglass could barely contain his excitement at the success of Republicans in the anti-Nebraska elections of 1854. By 1856 Republicans had emerged as the dominant political opponent to the southern-based Democratic Party with a majority in the House of Representatives and a Speaker from its ranks. Its first presidential party platform condemned slavery and polygamy, an allusion to the Mormons, as the “twin relics of barbarism.” Its candidate, John Frémont, an explorer and the son-in-law of Benton, gained the support of antislavery men because of his solid free soil credentials in California and Kansas. The so-called pathfinder was a dashing, romantic symbol of western freedom, and his ambitious wife, Jesse Benton Frémont, captured the imagination of free soil women. The Republicans presented a stark contrast to the relentlessly proslavery Democratic Party, which accused the “Black Republicans” of demolishing racial as well as gender hierarchies. Unlike abolitionists, Republicans had little to say about black rights or the dispossession of Native Americans on which their free soil program was predicated.

Abolitionists remained critical yet supportive of the party’s first presidential campaign. Garrison, who was committed to nonvoting under a proslavery Constitution, said that he would like to bestow a million votes on Frémont. The “Rabolition” press was for Frémont. May wished for Frémont’s election over the two “proslavery” candidates from the Democratic and nativist American Party, Buchanan and Fillmore, respectively. Douglass switched to Frémont after supporting Smith, the Radical Political Abolition candidate. Smith himself donated five hundred dollars to Frémont’s campaign. Stanton organized a speaker’s bureau for the new party. Greeley’s paper and his election pamphlet on the history of slavery extension disseminated free soil ideology throughout the North. Frémont swept the upper north, Michigan, Wisconsin, and New England as well as New York and Ohio, areas that had given both the Liberty and Free Soil Parties their largest vote counts, and he made an impressive showing even in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, where the Democratic Party barely got over 50 percent of the vote. While the one-year-old party performed worse in states where it was disorganized or joined fusion People’s Party tickets, it won a plurality of northern votes in an exciting election with an 83 percent voter turnout, high even by antebellum standards. Frémont lost to Buchanan in a “glorious defeat.” The electoral math was clear: if the party could win the conservative lower north states, they could win without the slave south.34

Despite his criticisms of the Republican Party for its noncommitment to black rights, Garrison conceded that nonextension was antislavery, though not abolition. Radical political abolitionists such as Smith and Douglass, who inhabited the left wing of antislavery politics, and abolitionist free soilers like Sumner, Giddings, Julian, and Stevens made sure that the center of gravity of the new party remained antislavery. When Republicans moved to the right in order to woo moderate northern voters after the elections of 1856, abolitionists perfected their role as critical allies of the party. But abolitionist politics was not confined to an electoral strategy: its revolutionary edge lay revealed in the explosive fugitive slave controversies of the 1850s.

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