Garrison’s View on Voting

A view by the author/researcher/collector, Horace Seldon

Abolitionists often disagreed about the efficacy of using the vote to achieve their goals.  To believe in voting was an implicit assumption that one could trust the political process and the politicians who guide it. Those who doubted that process often refused to participate in Political Parties.  It is important to keep in mind the distinctions between political action through or independent from Parties.

In this brief article I want to counter an assumption about Garrison which I too often find in historical reviews of his life.  That he chose not to be a “Party” person, has too easily led to forgetting or overlooking his record of clear, constant political involvements. Even the most charitable critiques of Garrison’s life too often imply that he was not involved politically.

In another essay in this series I have enlisted examples to show Garrison’s constant political involvement aside from Political Parties.  His political involvement included attendance at legislative hearings, calls for petitioning legislators, newspaper comments directed to/at politicians, assessments in the Liberator of the effectiveness of specific politicians, public comments on political questions, all examples of Garrison’s political action.  In spite of this full record of activity, it has been much too easy for some historians to imply that because Garrison was not a “Party” person, he was not active politically.

A look at Garrison’s early life indicates a growing skepticism of politicians,  contributing to a lack of confidence in the “Parties” through which they functioned.  Those who admire the words of Elizabeth Heyrick, and recognize Garrison’s acquaintance with her “immediatist” convictions might also wonder if her view of how to achieve the goal of immediate abolition influenced his view of politicians.  “Truth and justice”, said Heyrick, “make their best way in the world when they appear in bold and simple majesty with more the spirit of Christian combatants, and less of worldly politicians”.

In his early attempts to effect political issues Garrison came to a view which Heyrick would have liked.  It was similar to what George Washington said when he commented that frequently political decisions were guided more by private interest than by public good.  For Garrison the “private interest” was slaveholding, and the “public good” was abolition of slaveholding.  His single object was the abolition of slavery .  “No other end is advanced.”  All other change in society was secondary.

Doubt in the political process and Parties for Garrison was also rooted in his view that the Constitution itself was an “instrument of the Devil”.  Since all political action  derives its power from the Constitution, Garrison questioned what good might come  from it.  Garrison’s view of the Constitution was rejected by most in the nineteenth century and became the source of controversy in the abolition movement and strong personal antagonisms.

In an 1838 letter dated Aug 10, addressed to Abolitionists of Massachusetts, signed by Francis Jackson, there was a recommendation to abolitionists relative to the exercise of political privileges.  Given the structure of the AASS and the role of Jackson, we can be sure that it also reflected the view of Garrison.   Abolitionists were advised that whereas “some oppose every form of political action … we cannot yield to this reasoning …. politics cannot be deserted innocently……we view political action chiefly as a means of agitating the subject … our policy is not to turn party politicians, but in politics as elsewhere to stand firm by our principles, and let the politicians come to us..”

It is clear that Garrison was concerned that people who wanted to vote should have the opportunity do so.  In the Dec 10, 1841 Liberator Garrison was concerned that 20 colored men lost their votes. They were left off the voting lists, and he wondered if many whites may also have been left off the list.  The article informed those concerned that they should “call at 32 Washington St., Liberty Reading Room to see if their name is on the list.”

Action through political Parties became an issue on which many were divided. With that came divisions about whether or not voting should be obligatory for members of any Anti-Slavery Society.  Contention over the issue itself was joined with disagreements regarding Garrison’s leadership.

Garrison did vote once.  In 1848, he voted for the pacifist, Amasa Walker.  The fact that he did vote at least that once, was often used as a way to challenge his consistency, and to demand that he support a requirement that all members of the AAS be pledged to vote.  His response was simply that wisdom had changed his views, and he refused to say that voting was obligatory for abolitionists.

Henry Mayer, in his classic story of Garrison is clear that Garrison “insisted upon the right to advocate his ideas but made no attempt to enforce them as a creed.” He believed in free discussion, evident in the way the Liberator was open to all points of view.  He believed in moral autonomy of individuals, evident in his response to his son’s enlistment in the 55th Regiment during the Civil War. He disagreed with George’s choice to enter the military service but honored his right of personal conscience and choice. He resisted every temptation  to make his views a part of a membership criteria for the AASS.  At the 1839 annual meeting there was an attempt to make it a requirement that all members must promise to vote.  Behind that move was an intent to embarrass Garrison who was known as a non-voter.  It was also part of larger controversies over leadership in the Society, motivated by James Birney, Lewis Tappan, and Henry Stanton. Garrison survived that attempt, and asserted his confidence in and commitment to the right of individual moral decision.

A succinct view of the role of voting for Abolitionists, came later in his life  from Garrison: “let us aim to abolitionize the conscience and hearts of the people and we may trust them in the ballot box or anywhere else.”