The Constitution and a Call for Disunion

A view by the author, researcher, collector Horace Seldon

It did not take long for the public of the 1830’s to discern that Garrison was to advocate a radically critical view of the United States Constitution. Listen to him, in 1832:

“There is much declamation about the sacredness of the compact which was formed between the free and slave states on the adoption of the Constitution. A sacred compact, forsooth! We pronounce it the most bloody and heaven-daring arrangement ever made by men for the continuance and protection of a system of the most atrocious villany ever exhibited on earth. Yes – we recognize the compact, but with feelings of shame and indignation; and it will be held in everlasting infamy by the friends of justice and humanity throughout the world. It was compact formed at the sacrifice of the bodies and souls of millions of our race, for the sake of achieving a political object — an unblushing and monstrous coalition to do evil that good might come. Such a compact was, in the nature of things and according to the law of God, null and void from the beginning. No body of men ever had the right to guarantee the holding of human beings in bondage. Who or what were the framers of our government, that they should dare confirm and authorize such high-handed villany – such a flagrant violation of all the precepts and injunctions of the gospel — such a savage war upon a sixth of our whole population? —They were men, like ourselves – as fallible, as sinful, as weak, as ourselves. By the infamous bargain which they made between themselves, they virtually dethroned the Most High God, and trampled beneath their feet their own solemn and heaven-attested Declaration, that all men are created equal, and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights – among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. They had no awful power to bind themselves, or their posterity, for one hour – for one moment – by such an unholy alliance. It was not valid then – it is not valid now. Still they persisted in maintaining it –and still their successors, the people of Massachusetts, of New England, and of the twelve free states persist in maintaining it. A sacred compact! A sacred compact! What, then, is wicked, and ignominious?”

“Bloody”, “heaven-daring”, “atrocious villany”, “monstrous coalition”, “to do evil”, “a flagrant violation”, “savage war”, “infamous bargain”, “unholy alliance”. If that was a sacred compact, what on earth is wicked?

At other times, Garrison called the Constituion “a devil’s pact”, “dripping with blood”, and his disdain was acted out at a July 4th gathering, in 1854, when he burned a copy of the Constitution, and urged the crowd to shout “Amen”.

This kind of language and thought was a basis for much falling-out, including that with Frederick Douglass and most major politicians. Following the logic of those convictions led him to his position which urged “Disunion – No Union with Slaveholders”. It was also a basis for his rejection of Political Parties, for a judgment that it would be impossible to build on that Constitution, a faulted compromise which could not serve as a basis of uncompromising legal justice. Aboliton would require a new Constituion, because to expunge slavery from it would mean removing the cornerstone.

The extension of Garrison’s very radical view of the Constitution, led to a call for dissolution of the union. Any compact based on such a moral evil could not nor should not last.

Garrison was convinced that the Union of free states and slave states entwined the cultures, the economics, and the legal structures of both. The Union institutionalized a mutual identity and dependence. That is what a Union ought to do, but the moral degradation of this Union, led to an unwanted end. The North, Garrison believed, was victimized by the power of the slave oligarchy. Interdependence also meant that the South could not exist without the North. What bound the two was a mutual dependence on an immoral system. The Union would need to be broken. Disunion would mean that the North would break away, and a new Constitution would be formed. With a free nation, with an antislavery Constitution, at its North, the South could not long exist, and slavery would come to an end.

For Garrison the call for Disunion was not based on expediency. His call beckoned for action based on moral conscience. There could be NO UNION with slaveholders! Any such union would be a “heaven-daring, unholy alliance”. The North must terminate the Union, and seek the higher, moral law which radical abolition called for.

With disunion “death and hell had seceded”.