In May 1865 Garrison realized that the movement he had founded would outlive him. His resolution to disband the AASS because of the imminent ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery in the United States was defeated decisively by a vote of 118 to 48 at its annual meeting. Phillips and Douglass argued that unless the government enfranchised all its black citizens, emancipation was not complete, and the dual goals of the AASS, ending slavery and achieving black equality, were not realized. Garrison was hardly opposed to black suffrage; he had championed it from the start and would continue to do so until he died fourteen years later. The division between him, along with the few who supported him, and the movement was not over principles. Garrison was exhausted after manning the guns for so long, and his wife lay debilitated by a paralytic stroke. But personal travails had never interfered with his ability to fight the good fight. The AASS still offered him the presidency, which he declined. In his valedictory address he said he was president of the society when it was unpopular, but “to-day, it is popular to be President of the American Anti-Slavery Society. Hence, my connection with it terminates here and now, both as a member and as its presiding officer.” He set the type for the December 29 issue of the Liberator for the last time after thirty-five years of “unremitting labor.” And Garrison left the movement he had started. Phillips was elected president, and he and Douglass would spearhead the abolitionist fight for black citizenship during Reconstruction, America’s first experiment with interracial democracy after the Civil War.
The division between Phillips and Garrison began over Lincoln. Initially, both men were united in criticizing the president as a “slow coach” for not acting expeditiously on emancipation and black recruitment into the Union army and for experimenting with colonization, gradualism, and compensation for border-state slaveholders. Garrison formed the Emancipation League in 1861 to goad the president to abolish slavery and upbraided him severely for advocating colonization. After emancipation Lincoln won Garrison over. He was impressed by the president’s capacity for growth, but Phillips continued to view him as a laggard in the cause of black rights. Before the war Phillips and Garrison had united against Pillsbury’s and Foster’s resolution denouncing the Republican Party as the greatest hindrance to emancipation. At the annual meeting of the AASS in 1864 Phillips joined Pillsbury and Foster. His resolution, stating that the Republicans were “ready to sacrifice” northern interests and freedpeople, was amended by Garrison to read “are in danger of sacrificing,” but there was no rapprochement. Phillips joined the movement to replace Lincoln with Frémont as the Republican presidential nominee, while Garrison journeyed to the Republican National Convention in Baltimore to lend his support to Lincoln’s renomination. Garrison, who was more nervous about Confederates and copperheads overturning emancipation, was wary of the Frémont movement. In his eagerness to support the president’s reelection he defended Lincoln’s wartime reconstruction of Louisiana, which did not guarantee black suffrage. Designed to expedite the end of the war rather than to be a blueprint for reconstruction, Lincoln’s plan left open the possibility of black voting, and he privately urged Louisiana’s governor to consider it. McKim assured Garrison that Lincoln was ahead of a majority in his own party on black suffrage. Most abolitionists led by Phillips were critical of the president’s pocket veto of the Wade–Davis bill, which contained civil protections for freedpeople but not the right to vote.
Garrison, like Lincoln, prioritized a constitutional amendment that would make emancipation irreversible and immune from political vicissitudes. When Stanton and Anthony formed the Women’s National Loyal League in 1863 to coordinate a national petition campaign for a congressional act of emancipation, Garrison recommended they change their demand to a constitutional amendment to abolish slavery, an idea that Freedom’s Journal had first proposed in 1827. The women’s league conducted the most successful petition campaign in abolitionist history for the Thirteenth Amendment, resulting in one million signatures in rolls carried by two black pages to Sumner’s desk in the Senate. Lincoln campaigned for it tirelessly as a necessary and fitting conclusion to the war and endorsed partial black voting, for Union army soldiers and the educated, before his death. All abolitionists, even those who had criticized him relentlessly, regarded his death as a calamity.1
Garrison thought the center of gravity of antislavery had shifted to the government. Abolitionists, he felt, should concentrate their energies on freedpeople’s relief and education, as had Lewis Tappan’s AMA, McKim, Coffin, and many other abolitionist men and women. Phillips and Douglass argued that the movement must continue as standard-bearers in the fight for equal rights and warned of backsliders who might undo an abolition victory. The work of abolition, Douglass declared, would not be complete until “black men” had been admitted to the “body politic of America.” In 1866 the Emancipation League became the Impartial Suffrage League. While Garrison and Phillips united to excoriate Andrew Johnson’s opposition to black citizenship, they differed once again over the Fourteenth Amendment, which established national birthright citizenship and guaranteed all citizens equality before the law. Phillips, Douglass, and Sumner feared that the amendment had sacrificed the principle of black suffrage, though Sumner ended up voting for it. Abolitionists and radicals like Stevens also demanded the redistribution of land among freedpeople. Except for a few wartime grants, most of which Johnson revoked, land reform never became a part of Radical Reconstruction. Labor radicals, too, looked beyond equality to demand a social reconstruction of class relations and industrial democracy. Abolitionists and their radical allies, assisted by the northern backlash against the obduracy of the former Confederate states, which, under Johnson, had hastened to reestablish the substance of slavery without its form, made black citizenship Reconstruction’s cornerstone. When Phillips and Douglass got their amendment, the Fifteenth, which gave black men the right to vote, they disbanded the AASS in 1870, overriding Foster’s objections that they should continue to agitate for land redistribution.
Women abolitionists especially, including Stanton, Anthony, and Stone, cried foul at the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, which introduced the word male, or a gender restriction, into the Constitution, though Stone ended up supporting the Fifteenth Amendment. The American Equal Rights Association, formed to campaign for blacks and women’s suffrage, fell apart. Stanton and Anthony formed the National Woman Suffrage Association, and Stone led most abolitionist feminists into the American Woman Suffrage Association in 1869. Black women like Harper and Truth refused to separate the two causes; as Harper had put it in her speech to the national women’s rights convention in 1866, “We are all bound up together in one great bundle of humanity.” The Reconstruction amendments remade the Constitution and substantially realized the abolitionist vision of an interracial democracy, even though they did not entirely live up to the abolitionist principle of equal rights. If Sumner, Phillips, Douglass, and Garrison were willing to sacrifice women’s rights to “the negro’s hour,” some women’s rights activists, led by Stanton and Anthony, were willing to sacrifice the abolitionist commitment to racial equality for the rights of women.2
Perhaps that is why abolitionists never really became popular and have come down to us as perpetual naysayers: they continued to focus on the shortcomings of the present to prepare the way for the achievements of the future. They refused to be satisfied by the success of their movement and warned of the dangers lurking ahead. In his letters published in the Tribune, Garrison inveighed against the government’s campaign against the Plains Indians, Chinese exclusion, and “bloody misrule” in the South that disfranchised “colored citizens,” and he supported the eight-hour-a-day demand and woman suffrage before his death. Phillips viewed the labor movement as a natural progression of abolition. Now that the struggle against those who asserted that “the laborer must necessarily be owned by capitalists” was over, the fight was for the refusal of labor to be “vassals of wealth.” To Douglass, Ida B. Wells’s campaign against lynching continued the abolitionist crusade for black liberation. He anointed her “Brave Woman” for doing an immeasurable service to the race. His last speech was against the new “Southern Barbarism.”
Garrison, Phillips, Weld, and Douglass lived long enough to see abolitionist gains undone, while the deaths of many others, like Tappan, Sumner, and Stevens, spared them. Stevens was interred in an integrated cemetery, his dying protest against racial inequality. In 1883 the Supreme Court overturned Sumner’s dying legacy, the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which presciently outlawed segregation in public spaces. Phillips and Garrison would unite once again in backing the Republican Party against the Liberals, who helped overthrow Reconstruction in the name of reforming government, preparing the way for the reunion between southern reaction and northern capital. Most abolitionists insisted that active government intervention was needed to safeguard the rights of former slaves and that the reconstruction of American democracy should not end. The Republican Party would be transformed from the party of antislavery and free labor to the party of big business, small government, laissez-faire, and states’ rights. The equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, designed to safeguard the rights of former slaves, was deployed on behalf of large corporations. Only in modern times has it been put to good use. In the late twentieth century the political base of the party of Lincoln shifted ironically to the former Confederate states, which had not given Lincoln a single electoral vote.
Garrison and Douglass had parted over state action decades earlier. In the end they both proved to be right. Emancipation and enfranchisement had been enacted by the actions of an antislavery government, but as long as a majority of white Americans remained immune to the abolitionist commitment to racial equality, they could be vitiated. As Douglass noted, “Until it shall be safe to leave the lamb in the hold of the lion, the laborer in the power of the capitalist, the poor in the hands of the rich, it will not be safe to leave a newly emancipated people completely in the power of their former masters, especially when such masters have ceased to be such not from enlightened moral convictions but by irresistible force.” The two men differed one last time. Whereas Douglass opposed the movement of former slaves, the Exodusters, from Mississippi to Kansas after the fall of Reconstruction, Garrison lent his support from his deathbed. Pioneering women abolitionists, among them Prudence Crandall Philleo, who had made her home in Kansas, Haviland, and Truth rushed to their aid. Douglass’s moving eulogy for Garrison, “the chief apostle of the immediate and unconditional emancipation of all the slaves in America” in 1879, while not shying away from the differences between them, was also a eulogy for the abolition movement.3
Individual abolitionists and their successors continued the struggle for black equality and criticized the narrowing of democracy after the overthrow of Reconstruction in the most dismal circumstances: the golden age of imperialism, social Darwinism, scientific racism, robber barons, and assaults on the rights of blacks, Native Americans, labor, and immigrants. Abolitionists wrote their memoirs even as disfranchisement, segregation, debt peonage, and lynching made a mockery of black freedom, the nadir of black history, as Rayford Logan called it. It made for narratives of defeat, not triumph.4 The tragedy of the Civil War was not that the abolitionist vision briefly triumphed over inertia and conservatism but that the opponents of the abolitionists, of their moral urgency and devotion to black rights, plunged the nation into yet another long racial nightmare. It would take a new movement in another century to realize abolitionist goals and unleash again a wave of radical social movements that pushed at the boundaries of American democracy.
For American radicals ever since, abolition has remained a model of activism, the template of a social movement. The interracial Knights of Labor viewed their project of a cooperative commonwealth as “the legitimate heir to mid-century abolitionism.” The Populists adopted the abolitionists’ lecturing agency system. Even the relatively conservative trade unionist Samuel Gompers of the American Federation of Labor recalled that “the great struggle against human slavery which was convulsing America was of vital interest to wage-earners” everywhere. The crusading black journalist William Monroe Trotter set type in the Liberator’s old office. Garrison was his beau ideal. In his Crisis editorials, the great intellectual and activist W. E. B. Du Bois repeatedly referred to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, cofounded by black radicals and a few white descendants of abolitionists, as the “New Abolition Movement.” Eugene Debs invoked the abolitionists to prove that socialism was an American ideal, not a subversive, foreign import. Labor radicals in the Industrial Workers of the World, the wobblies, revived the abolitionist struggle for free speech. Communists in the Popular Front era called their movement the new Americanism, evoking both Lincoln and Douglass. The labor leader A. Philip Randolph, the first black vice president of the AFL-CIO, looked to the UGRR for inspiration. Civil rights activists saw themselves as the new abolitionists and named their movement “the second Reconstruction” of American democracy. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was fond of quoting Theodore Parker, the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice. This was no blind faith in inexorable progress but a call to radical action. A black nationalist magazine took the name the Liberator, and today a journal of “insurgent politics” is called Abolition. Even activists against mass incarceration, who find fault with the Thirteenth Amendment’s exception for those legally convicted of a crime, call for the abolition of the prison industrial complex; their paper is the Abolitionist. Contemporary movements against human trafficking and labor exploitation continue to struggle against slavery in the name of abolition.5
The abolitionist legacy for American democracy lies hidden in plain sight. Deval Patrick, the first African American governor of Massachusetts, took his oath of office on the Bible presented by Cinque to John Quincy Adams. Loretta Lynch, the first black woman to occupy the office of U.S. attorney general, chose Douglass’s Bible. Barack Obama, the forty-fourth president of the United States, used Lincoln’s Bible. A racist critic once asked if Garrison could ever imagine voting for a black president, to which Garrison replied he surely would if a worthy candidate came along. In 2008 Obama compared his unlikely victory in the Iowa Democratic presidential caucuses to the way in which a band of ordinary men and women, black and white, the abolitionists, had achieved the destruction of slavery. His wife and children are descendants of American slaves. In 2015 he sang that old abolitionist hymn written by a repentant British slave trader, “Amazing Grace,” in a church founded by black abolitionists. The age of Obama, like the age of Lincoln, has its critics and its admirers, but neither would have been possible without the abolition movement.
The enduring heritage of the abolition movement is even broader: its unyielding commitment to human rights and a call to action, however much abolitionists disagreed on tactics and ideas until the end. Demonstrating the potential of democratic radicalism is no mean achievement. Their wide-ranging activism was, as Du Bois put it, “the finest thing in American history.”6