Garrison’s Political Activity, Moral Vision, Public Opinion and Lincoln

A view by the author, researcher, collector Horace Seldon

Garrison is known as the radical abolitionist who had chosen not to participate in political parties. For Garrison such participation would have seemed too much like an admission that moral suasion had failed; to be a “party man” might taint a moral position either with an actual or a perceived lust for the spoils of political power. Even when other abolitionists created a third party or parties, Garrison remained outside of and critical of their efforts.

Because Garrison chose not to take part in political parties, often there have been assessments which underestimate the extent and influence of his political interests and activity. Too often his involvement in political action has been overlooked, and there has been failure to appreciate his effectiveness in bringing change to the political life of the nation.

The Liberator is a witness to Garrison’s awareness of the importance of political dynamics. The Liberator is a witness to Garrison’s determination to shape those political dynamics.

The pages of the Liberator are crowded often with news about what politicians are doing and saying, with a focus on what they are not doing or not saying! News comes from local, national, and international sources. The functions and roles of those within the parties are watched and reported regularly.

It is clear that the editor knew what was happening in the political arenas. He wanted readers to know, and wanted to affect public opinion so that it would create new political possibilities. Garrison was never pleased with simply “better” options for the politicians. Garrison was always ready to hold out an uncompromising option. Some anti-slavery contemporaries felt that his uncompromising stance relegated him to a political irrelevance, wishing he would disappear from the political scene. Slave owners were not among those who found Garrison to be irrelevant!

Garrison appeared at political gatherings, legislative hearings, and public discussions. He urged petitions for political action on the part of legislators at both state and Congressional levels. He sent and urged others to send petitions to specific legislators, to government administrators, Judges, and Presidents. The newspaper urged people to sign petitions against the Fugitive Slave Laws, for Personal Liberty Laws (65,000 signatures on a 150 pound document presented to the legislature!) , for Equal School Rights, for Womens’ Suffrage and full rights, for Disunion, for colored militia, against the Death Penalty, for an investigation of the classes of people confined to lunatic asylums. A thorough review of the paper would add other causes to the list.

Garrison took an active role in pursuit of many political issues. If politics is the art of compromise, he brought to the field of action the art of uncompro-mising moral stance. From an uncompromising position his role was to force people to think, to agitate public opinion. Sometimes the result was to frame debates among politicians in less compromising ways. In some cases individuals were challenged to forego compromise and to adopt more radical moral positions.

Leonard Bacon experienced the affect which Garrison had on many. Bacon, was senior editor of The Independent, a Congregational Journal. He was one of the majority of church leaders who had consigned Garrison to the place of “infidels”. For twenty years Bacon had objected to everything Garrison stood for. He could not abide Garrison’s insistence that the faith demanded from him a stronger stance against slavery. Change came for Bacon after he had been out of the country, and upon return found that his junior colleagues had embraced Garrisonian abolitionist “fanaticism”. They now told Bacon that the times had changed. They advised him to recognize the great truths the church held in common with abolitionists. Bacon began to reconsider his own views, and soon announced that “the eternal law of right is higher than any constitution…it is a rule for political action, and you know it. You must obey it.”.

Garrison chose not to be involved in Political Parties, but was politically alert and active. Prior to the Republican Convention, 1860, everyone knew that Senator William Seward (later Secretary of State), was hoping to be nominated for President. Garrison commented on objectionable portions of one of Seward’s speeches, seeing compromises which he could not abide. “Senator Seward”, he said, in the Liberator, “it is incomparably better to be true to the cause of liberty than to be President of the United States!”

In that same momentous year, 1860, on Independence Day, Garrison addressed the failure of the Republican Party. It was not an anti-slavery party, and that was its defining fault:

“The Republican party no more intends to meddle with slavery south of Mason and Dixon’s line, or to aim at the emancipation of those now held in bondage, than it intends to seek, directly, the overthrow of the British monarchy. My charge against the Republican party is not that, among its members, there are not many warm anti-slavery hearts – I know that there are very many; nor that the party, is not, after all, the result of our moral agitation — I accept it as such, imperfect as it is; but, at the  same time, our province is not to stop with compromises, or compromisers. Our object is, the abolition of slavery throughout the land; and, whether, in the prosecution of our object, this party goes up, or the other party goes down; it is nothing to us.  We             cannot alter our course one hair’s breadth, nor accept a compromise of our principles for the hearty adoption of the principles themselves. Our mission is, to regenerate public opinion. We are not concerned for the loaves and fishes of office, we are not seeking the elevation of any particular man, nor the success of any particular party…”

While Garrison indicates no concern for any  particular party, it is clear that he watches for any change in Lincoln, perhaps encouraged by his acquaintance with Herndon.

Lincoln’s law partner, Herndon, had visited with Garrison, and was a subscriber to the Liberator. The newspaper was delivered to the law office; and later it was delivered to the White House. We can only wonder what affect Garrison’s paper might have had on Lincoln, during the President’s early months in Washington. Lincoln’s first inaugural address got careful attention from Garrison. Commenting, in the Liberator, Garrison commends parts of the speech, but makes it clear that he takes issue “with the ‘Republican tone’ (as well as with the Democrats )..” He notes that Lincoln supports the right of slaveholders to reclaim their fugitive slaves; anyone who supports that right, says Garrison, is “an accomplice in man-stealing”. The President claimed that there would be no need of bloodshed or violence, unless forced upon the federal authority. Garrison provided a different alternative for the President and for the North – “either blood must flow like water, or you must confess that the American Union is dissolved beyond the power of restoration…the ‘covenant with death’, the ‘agreement with hell’ (the Constitution) must no longer stand ..God wills immediate and eternal overthrow; the will of God be done!”

As early as the fall of 1861, the Liberator urged people to petition the Congress and the President, calling for the use of war powers to enlist colored troops and to emancipate all the enslaved. The masthead of the paper for weeks carried a quotation from John Quincy Adams, asserting the constitutional right for such use of war powers.

Also in 1861Garrison authored a collection of statements in support of the use of Presidential war powers for emancipation.  In addition to Adams, there are words to the editor of the New York Tribune, from J. R. Giddings.  Other sources quoted include the Chicago Congregational Herald,  the New York Herald, The Erie True American, and Fremont’s Proclamation.  Accented are ideas that slavery is “the very heart and head of this whole struggle”, and that the war is “a war of principle as well as of self-preservation”.  This adds strength to Garrison’s own call to make the war a war against slavery.

Garrison’s views of Lincoln went through major change from the early words about his first term as President. The magnitude of the change is measured by Garrison’s appearance at the 1864 Republican Convention as a Lincoln supporter! The occasion brought at least two personal conversations between the two men. Reading those early words by Garrison calls for some explanation of the change. To account for some part of that major change, it is helpful to concentrate on the dynamics of major forces in the lives of the two men.

Both Garrison and Lincoln concentrated on public opinion, each in different ways.

Both men were guided by moral values rooted in religious conviction, each in different ways.

Both men were guided by political possibilities, each in different ways.

For both men, public opinion was of central importance. For Garrison public opinion was a force to be molded to conform to an uncompromising demand that slavery was an evil to be eliminated from the face of God’s earth. He sought a revolution in that public opinion. Garrison wanted a revolution in public morality as the means to shape that public opinion for what was an uncompromising right. Lincoln understood that in a democracy, public opinion was a primary force for the politician. No political good could be accomplished without public support. Many historians have asserted that in those early 1860’s, Lincoln was watching public opinion, with a remarkable ability which accounted for much of his political success.

Garrison’s changing view of Lincoln is an indication of his alert attention to the political climate of the land. His view of Lincoln changed between 1860 and 1864, just as Lincoln also changed his view toward the political options available for dealing with slavery. Lincoln’s famously admired ability to measure public opinion is paralleled with Garrison’s view that abolitionists must bring a revolution in that public opinion.

In similar and dissimilar ways the convictions of each man were rooted, with varying degrees of force, in religious faith. Garrison’s earliest convictions regarding slavery were rooted in his belief that slavery was not simply a moral disorder, but that it was “sin”. For Garrison there was never a question about this; the religious convictions were core. Lincoln’s religious convictions about slavery were more submerged and became central only gradually over the years. Those religious convictions emerged slowly until the time when he accepted that God had a purpose in the Civil War, and that he was an “instrument” of that Divine Will.

In similar and dissimilar ways both men watched for change in public opinion. As Garrison completed thirty years of the Liberator, and launched a new decade in January, 1861, he saw new hope. That hope was undergirded by a confidence in Divine guidance. He wrote of an “assurance of success in the cause we advocate”; he was strengthened by “the progress made toward the goal of final victory”. He reminded readers of the opposition of “organized religious sentiment, the political power, the combined wealth, the recognized respectability, the popular feeling, the business selfishness”. Still the movement has “advanced with slow but irresistible power, under Divine guidance”, with the qualities of “spirit sublime” and “truths self-evident”. Progress was clear for Garrison as he saw evidence of the public moral opinion moving steadily toward radical emancipation. His confidence in progress was always rooted in faith that emancipation was ordained of God.

In the context of the early 1860’s Garrison measured the man, Lincoln, with strong negative judgments. He had “not a drop of anti-slavery in his blood”, “manifestly without moral vision”, “incompetent to lead”, “destitute of hearty abhorrence of slavery”, “a dwarf in my mind”. After Lincoln’s meeting with black leaders in ’62, Garrison called the event a “humiliating impertinent spectacle”, and dubbed him the “President of African Colonization”. It would have been unthinkable at that moment to anticipate the change in Garrison which took place by 1864!

By September of 1863 Garrison, with a developing confidence in “victory” which he could see on the horizon, with a growing confidence in Lincoln, author of the Emancipation Proclamation, with confidence in a military strengthened with colored troops, Garrison concluded that the most politically viable option was to support Lincoln.

“Even if we creep slowly onward, hereafter as heretofore, it is now made certain that we are creeping in the right direction, and  that Abraham Lincoln intends to proceed in that direction…Mr. Lincoln has evidently taken courage from the movement of  Northern people in the direction of freedom, and is relieved from the fear that movements of his own in that direction would  fail for want of popular cooperation. He now declares, in a tone more affirmative and decided than ever before, his purpose to stand by the policy of enfranchisement, as far the enforcement of the Proclamation.”

This view of Lincoln is a long way from the Garrison saw in 1860.  To understand more fully this change it will be good to review something Garrison said in 1831.  In one of his earliest public statements, in 1831, Garrison listed options for bringing an end to slavery.  There were “three modes in which slavery could be overthrown:

by physical force on the part of the free states

by the same force on the part of the slavs

and by an enlightened and benevolent public opinion. ”

Now, in 1864, having justified the attempts of John Brown to encourage a slave revolt,  seeing the force of the free states in the war, and seeing the change in public opinion, the three “modes” were united in the option presented by the Republican Party in the person of Lincoln. In the early statement, Garrison had said that “all discard as revolting and disastrous” the first two modes. By even listing them as possibilities, we might now say, it is clear that he had not then fully “discarded” those options. The two options of using force may not have been as much “discarded” as Garrison thought, or the change in the moral opinion of the times, may have enlivened the choice again.

By the 1864 Republican Convention Garrison was sure that the change in public opinion for which he had labored, was flourishing. There was much evidence of support for the Emancipation Lincoln had proclaimed. The party platform proclaimed a political commitment to Emancipation. The ending of slavery was the single moral object for which Garrison had worked. It now seemed politically possible that freedom and suffrage would be implemented.

Henry Mayer records that Lincoln told General Daniel H. Chamberlain that “he considered himself ‘only an instrument’ in the antislavery struggle…the logic and moral power of Garrison and the antislavery people of the country and the army, have done it all.