Wednesday, February 4, 2015

A comment on Jon Grinspan: why the martyrs of anti-racist movements should not be disparaged


   Daniel Bruno Davis, a student in a seminar on Marx's Capital, which discussed Marx's theme at the end of "The Working Day" - ch. 10 -  "Labor in the white skin cannot be free where in the black skin it is branded," the connection of this struggle against slavery,  John Brown's multiracial abolitionist movement, and the upcoming struggle for the 8 hour day, signaled as Marx says, by the Baltimore Congress of Labor and the General Council of the International Workingmen's Association in 1866 and culminating at Haymarket in 1886, sent me the following note:

      "Hey Professor, I thought you might find this article interesting in light of the discussion Friday about John Brown. http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/01/30/was-abolitionism-a-failure/

***

      On Marx's point,  note that James Russell Lowell, long an abolitionist, saw an analogy between the abolition of slavery and the right to vote for poor whites, mocked in Grinspan's column...

***

    "Dear Daniel,

    Thank you very much for the article which raises important points but has a strange theme.  Abolitionism like the anti-Nazi movement in World War II Germany, particularly the White Rose,  the union movement, the civil rights movement,  the movement for women's suffrage, the American Revolution and Jesus and his followers, like all movements against the odds and against the powerful, ran into terrible opposition (Elijah Lovejoy was a martyr to abolition and freedom of the press, shot defending his newspaper office, in 1837; William Lloyd Garrison, a spokesperson for moral force abolitionism, was also beaten in 1837 and others) but eventually won some significant and lasting victories.  (In the American Revolution, think of Crispus Attucks and the 5 other martyrs in Boston in 1770...).

     About abolition, I trace the earlier, not widely recognized struggle during the American Revolution which created, through gradual abolition, the free North and Canada (that is, surprisingly given the previous historical literature, a theme of my Black Patriots and Loyalists) which despite an ugly up and down pro-slavery movement, eventually proved a bastion of anti-slavery sentiment which John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry and integrated meetings accompanying his capture and hanging crystallized...The abolitionist movement thus, had long downs as well as ups...

     Grinspan's point appears to be that mistakes by the slaveowners and their followers, seceding from Congress, and even Southern military victories, led by General Robert E. Lee, drove "moderates" like Lincoln to oppose slavery. Note Lincoln ceased to be a "moderate" as a war leader, when he issued the Emancipation Proclamation - the Union recruited 80% black soldiers afterwards (see Bruce Levine,  The Fall of the House of Dixie) and Lincoln, too, was martyred (see King's "Letter" below).  It is sadly, objectively true that it often takes war, or revolution often linked to war, to achieve decency, as Frederick Douglass insisted when he said that "you" only recognized us as human when we fought for "you"...

     Thus, moderates for Grinspan are the key.  That would be true, if he recognized the importance and even necessity  of those who had taken a moral stand.  For instance, dissent in a democracy and freedom of speech has probably come about because of the martyrdom of Socrates in Athens and  others who are less famous, though it eventually took "moderates" to carry it.  Grinspan overemphasizes the moderates, probably out of an underlying cynicism from the tone: "upright" abolitionists are juxtaposed/equated with "stiff-necked" slaveowners who made all sorts of "mistakes" - a very superficial analysis of the causes of the Civil War and the would-be Confederate expansion of bondage into the Caribbean (see Walter Johnson, River of Dark Dreams for a powerful and subtle account).

         Grinspan makes a rhetorical equation about "values," the flaw in which, if you feel your way into the stand and writings of Lovejoy, will probably become quite evident, for his  acts are courageous, decent and hardly "our" "21st century" "values." Does Chief Justice John Roberts really share the values of John Lewis about segregation and voting...? Do "Republicans" who massively disenfranchise blacks, the elderly and the young do anything but self-deception/self-parody in "admiring" abolitionism or Martin Luther King?

        For there is morally speaking, something objectively wrong with lynching people or murdering them for speaking out against injustice and this leads, against the odds, with  up and downs,  over time to great movements.  Or to put it differently, as King says below, there is a nagging sense of "nobodiness," a need for a sense of "somebodiness," which has led to many great movements against racist degradations historically and continues to do so, internationally (consider the Palestinians and Tibetans) to this moment.

    Given coerced historic amnesias about American genocidal practices toward blacks and native americans,  Lovejoy is not much remembered compared to Robert E. Lee - though Garrison is perhaps a rival and Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass and John Brown certainly are.  Lovejoy is, of course, a morally significant figure in a way that Lee is not.

      Grinspan is concerned with the possibilities of youth activism, but misses issues of justice which does give one some feeling for what issues such activism might be inspired by.  For slavery, the systemic degradation of a large group of human beings, was a source of outrage from below, led by sailors and artisans, black and white, before and during the American Revolution (see J. Philmore, "Two Dialogues concerning the Man-trade" - London, 1760 - and James Otis, "The Rights of the British Colonists Asserted and Proved" - Boston, 1764 - discussed in my Black Patriots and Loyalists, ch. 2).  And the continuation of racist brutality and the creation of permanent "nobodiness", for instance in the prison-system (see Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow), has begun to evoke new movements, notably Black Lives Matter! against wanton murders by police all across the country.

     And despite the best effort of the oil companies/Presidents, Vice-Presidents, Secretaries of State/Koch Brothers, there is a movement among young people (and internationally) to save human life and other species from extinction.  Since preserving life is a great moral good, that movement seems destined to grow stronger (after Hurricane Sandy, even the New York Times occasionally refers to the dangers of climate change in plain language...).

      Now there are deeper, buried forms of oppression.  For instance, the movement to recognize gays and lesbians as human and honor marriages is new in the US and Europe - still, sadly, under ban among Muslims... - and would not have been predicted by most, even Frederick Douglass, a lone male delegate for women's rights, in the 19th century.  But there, too, Grinspan would have to have some defensible conception of justice (after all, Hitler was a "flop" in 1923, too, and evil also has great and sometimes, for a while, encompassing movements).

     There is something awful in the way Grinspan trivializes "values."  For instance, the phrase that movements of courage, movements led by people who often sacrifice a great deal, are "a flop" is the contemptible rhetoric of many commercial/bought news commentators (they should try it about Jesus)...

    That the article is preceded by a drawing of the burning of the printing office/warehouse during which Lovejoy was shot - a "value" that Grinspan seems almost to be neutral towards, "effectiveness" being his sole criterion - in fact, ought to have made the author, and whoever edits the "Disunion" series, wince...

      In "Letter from the Birmingham City Jail" below, Martin Luther King speaks of the white "moderates" (including perhaps the 8 white ministers who urged him to abandon the fight in a Birmingham newspaper and go home) who gave segregation life.

     Here is the link to the 'Letter' (the whole of it is tremendously worth reading)

      All the best,
      Alan"
             
***

Martin Luther King, Jr.:

"You speak of our activity in Birmingham as extreme. At first I was rather disappointed that fellow clergymen would see my nonviolent efforts as those of an extremist. I began thinking about the fact that I stand in the middle of two opposing forces in the Negro community. One is a force of complacency, made up in part of Negroes who, as a result of long years of oppression, are so drained of self respect and a sense of 'somebodiness' that they have adjusted to segregation; and in part of a few middle-class Negroes who, because of a degree of academic and economic security and because in some ways they profit by segregation, have become insensitive to the problems of the masses. The other force is one of bitterness and hatred, and it comes perilously close to advocating violence. It is expressed in the various black nationalist groups that are springing up across the nation, the largest and best known being Elijah Muhammad's Muslim movement. Nourished by the Negro's frustration over the continued existence of racial discrimination, this movement is made up of people who have lost faith in America, who have absolutely repudiated Christianity, and who have concluded that the white man is an incorrigible 'devil.'

I have tried to stand between these two forces, saying that we need emulate neither the "do nothingism" of the complacent nor the hatred and despair of the black nationalist. For there is the more excellent way of love and nonviolent protest. I am grateful to God that, through the influence of the Negro church, the way of nonviolence became an integral part of our struggle. If this philosophy had not emerged, by now many streets of the South would, I am convinced, be flowing with blood. And I am further convinced that if our white brothers dismiss as 'rabble rousers' and 'outside agitators' those of us who employ nonviolent direct action, and if they refuse to support our nonviolent efforts, millions of Negroes will, out of frustration and despair, seek solace and security in black nationalist ideologies--a development that would inevitably lead to a frightening racial nightmare.

Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself, and that is what has happened to the American Negro. Something within has reminded him of his birthright of freedom, and something without has reminded him that it can be gained. Consciously or unconsciously, he has been caught up by the Zeitgeist, and with his black brothers of Africa and his brown and yellow brothers of Asia, South America and the Caribbean, the United States Negro is moving with a sense of great urgency toward the promised land of racial justice. If one recognizes this vital urge that has engulfed the Negro community, one should readily understand why public demonstrations are taking place. The Negro has many pent up resentments and latent frustrations, and he must release them. So let him march; let him make prayer pilgrimages to the city hall; let him go on freedom rides -and try to understand why he must do so. If his repressed emotions are not released in nonviolent ways, they will seek expression through violence; this is not a threat but a fact of history. So I have not said to my people: "Get rid of your discontent." Rather, I have tried to say that this normal and healthy discontent can be channeled into the creative outlet of nonviolent direct action. And now this approach is being termed extremist. But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you." Was not Amos an extremist for justice: "Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream." Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: "I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus." Was not Martin Luther an extremist: "Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God." And John Bunyan: "I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience." And Abraham Lincoln: "This nation cannot survive half slave and half free." And Thomas Jefferson: "We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal . . ." So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary's hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime--the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.

I had hoped that the white moderate would see this need. Perhaps I was too optimistic; perhaps I expected too much. I suppose I should have realized that few members of the oppressor race can understand the deep groans and passionate yearnings of the oppressed race, and still fewer have the vision to see that injustice must be rooted out by strong, persistent and determined action. I am thankful, however, that some of our white brothers in the South have grasped the meaning of this social revolution and committed themselves to it. They are still all too few in quantity, but they are big in quality. Some -such as Ralph McGill, Lillian Smith, Harry Golden, James McBride Dabbs, Ann Braden and Sarah Patton Boyle--have written about our struggle in eloquent and prophetic terms. Others have marched with us down nameless streets of the South. They have languished in filthy, roach infested jails, suffering the abuse and brutality of policemen who view them as "dirty nigger-lovers." Unlike so many of their moderate brothers and sisters, they have recognized the urgency of the moment and sensed the need for powerful "action" antidotes to combat the disease of segregation. Let me take note of my other major disappointment. I have been so greatly disappointed with the white church and its leadership. Of course, there are some notable exceptions. I am not unmindful of the fact that each of you has taken some significant stands on this issue. I commend you, Reverend Stallings, for your Christian stand on this past Sunday, in welcoming Negroes to your worship service on a nonsegregated basis. I commend the Catholic leaders of this state for integrating Spring Hill College several years ago.

But despite these notable exceptions, I must honestly reiterate that I have been disappointed with the church. I do not say this as one of those negative critics who can always find something wrong with the church. I say this as a minister of the gospel, who loves the church; who was nurtured in its bosom; who has been sustained by its spiritual blessings and who will remain true to it as long as the cord of life shall lengthen.

When I was suddenly catapulted into the leadership of the bus protest in Montgomery, Alabama, a few years ago, I felt we would be supported by the white church. I felt that the white ministers, priests and rabbis of the South would be among our strongest allies. Instead, some have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leaders; all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows.

In spite of my shattered dreams, I came to Birmingham with the hope that the white religious leadership of this community would see the justice of our cause and, with deep moral concern, would serve as the channel through which our just grievances could reach the power structure. I had hoped that each of you would understand. But again I have been disappointed.

I have heard numerous southern religious leaders admonish their worshipers to comply with a desegregation decision because it is the law, but I have longed to hear white ministers declare: "Follow this decree because integration is morally right and because the Negro is your brother." In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: "Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern." And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.

I have traveled the length and breadth of Alabama, Mississippi and all the other southern states. On sweltering summer days and crisp autumn mornings I have looked at the South's beautiful churches with their lofty spires pointing heavenward. I have beheld the impressive outlines of her massive religious education buildings. Over and over I have found myself asking: "What kind of people worship here? Who is their God? Where were their voices when the lips of Governor Barnett dripped with words of interposition and nullification? Where were they when Governor Wallace gave a clarion call for defiance and hatred? Where were their voices of support when bruised and weary Negro men and women decided to rise from the dark dungeons of complacency to the bright hills of creative protest?"

Yes, these questions are still in my mind. In deep disappointment I have wept over the laxity of the church. But be assured that my tears have been tears of love. There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love. Yes, I love the church. How could I do otherwise? I am in the rather unique position of being the son, the grandson and the great grandson of preachers. Yes, I see the church as the body of Christ. But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists.

There was a time when the church was very powerful--in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being "disturbers of the peace" and "outside agitators."' But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were "a colony of heaven," called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be "astronomically intimidated." By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests. Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church's silent--and often even vocal--sanction of things as they are.

But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today's church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.

Perhaps I have once again been too optimistic. Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world? Perhaps I must turn my faith to the inner spiritual church, the church within the church, as the true ekklesia and the hope of the world. But again I am thankful to God that some noble souls from the ranks of organized religion have broken loose from the paralyzing chains of conformity and joined us as active partners in the struggle for freedom. They have left their secure congregations and walked the streets of Albany, Georgia, with us. They have gone down the highways of the South on tortuous rides for freedom. Yes, they have gone to jail with us. Some have been dismissed from their churches, have lost the support of their bishops and fellow ministers. But they have acted in the faith that right defeated is stronger than evil triumphant. Their witness has been the spiritual salt that has preserved the true meaning of the gospel in these troubled times. They have carved a tunnel of hope through the dark mountain of disappointment. I hope the church as a whole will meet the challenge of this decisive hour. But even if the church does not come to the aid of justice, I have no despair about the future. I have no fear about the outcome of our struggle in Birmingham, even if our motives are at present misunderstood. We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom. Abused and scorned though we may be, our destiny is tied up with America's destiny. Before the pilgrims landed at Plymouth, we were here. Before the pen of Jefferson etched the majestic words of the Declaration of Independence across the pages of history, we were here. For more than two centuries our forebears labored in this country without wages; they made cotton king; they built the homes of their masters while suffering gross injustice and shameful humiliation -and yet out of a bottomless vitality they continued to thrive and develop. If the inexpressible cruelties of slavery could not stop us, the opposition we now face will surely fail. We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands. Before closing I feel impelled to mention one other point in your statement that has troubled me profoundly. You warmly commended the Birmingham police force for keeping "order" and "preventing violence." I doubt that you would have so warmly commended the police force if you had seen its dogs sinking their teeth into unarmed, nonviolent Negroes. I doubt that you would so quickly commend the policemen if you were to observe their ugly and inhumane treatment of Negroes here in the city jail; if you were to watch them push and curse old Negro women and young Negro girls; if you were to see them slap and kick old Negro men and young boys; if you were to observe them, as they did on two occasions, refuse to give us food because we wanted to sing our grace together. I cannot join you in your praise of the Birmingham police department.

It is true that the police have exercised a degree of discipline in handling the demonstrators. In this sense they have conducted themselves rather "nonviolently" in public. But for what purpose? To preserve the evil system of segregation. Over the past few years I have consistently preached that nonviolence demands that the means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek. I have tried to make clear that it is wrong to use immoral means to attain moral ends. But now I must affirm that it is just as wrong, or perhaps even more so, to use moral means to preserve immoral ends. Perhaps Mr. Connor and his policemen have been rather nonviolent in public, as was Chief Pritchett in Albany, Georgia, but they have used the moral means of nonviolence to maintain the immoral end of racial injustice. As T. S. Eliot has said: "The last temptation is the greatest treason: To do the right deed for the wrong reason."

I wish you had commended the Negro sit inners and demonstrators of Birmingham for their sublime courage, their willingness to suffer and their amazing discipline in the midst of great provocation. One day the South will recognize its real heroes. They will be the James Merediths, with the noble sense of purpose that enables them to face jeering and hostile mobs, and with the agonizing loneliness that characterizes the life of the pioneer. They will be old, oppressed, battered Negro women, symbolized in a seventy two year old woman in Montgomery, Alabama, who rose up with a sense of dignity and with her people decided not to ride segregated buses, and who responded with ungrammatical profundity to one who inquired about her weariness: 
"My feets is tired, but my soul is at rest." They will be the young high school and college students, the young ministers of the gospel and a host of their elders, courageously and nonviolently sitting in at lunch counters and willingly going to jail for conscience' sake. One day the South will know that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters, they were in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judaeo Christian heritage, thereby bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.

Never before have I written so long a letter. I'm afraid it is much too long to take your precious time. I can assure you that it would have been much shorter if I had been writing from a comfortable desk, but what else can one do when he is alone in a narrow jail cell, other than write long letters, think long thoughts and pray long prayers?

If I have said anything in this letter that overstates the truth and indicates an unreasonable impatience, I beg you to forgive me. If I have said anything that understates the truth and indicates my having a patience that allows me to settle for anything less than brotherhood, I beg God to forgive me.

I hope this letter finds you strong in the faith. I also hope that circumstances will soon make it possible for me to meet each of you, not as an integrationist or a civil-rights leader but as a fellow clergyman and a Christian brother. Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.

Yours for the cause of Peace and Brotherhood, Martin Luther King, Jr."

***

And I couldn't resist writing a 120 word note to the Times re Grinspan's article:

Re Jon Grinspan, "Was abolitionism a failure?"

Dear editor,

    Mr. Grinspan thinks “moderates” were the real heroes of abolishing slavery and no doubt they were important. But no great movement against oppression occurs without martyrdom and long unpopularity.  Was Jesus a “flop” when then enslaved Christians were fed to the lions in Rome? Was Freedom Summer in 1964 when the three civil rights demonstrators were murdered in Philadelphia, Mississippi or Jimmie Lee Jackson in Selma in 1965? 

     Grinspan equates 'stiff-necked' segregationists and 'upright' abolitionists, the latter holding '21st century values.'  But are there no reasonable arguments for why is bad to demean, imprison and murder other human beings?  And are there, in fact, “values” that can reasonably be argued on the other side? 

Alan Gilbert"

***

"Was Abolitionism a Failure?
By JON GRINSPAN JANUARY 30, 2015 9:39 PM
January 30, 2015 9:39 pm

Photo 
A mob attacking the warehouse of Godfrey & Gilman in Alton, Ill., where the abolitionist Elijah Lovejoy was killed in 1837.
Credit
Corbis

ON Jan. 31, 1865, Congress passed the 13th Amendment, banning slavery in America. It was an achievement that abolitionists had spent decades fighting for — and one for which their movement has been lauded ever since.

But before abolitionism succeeded, it failed. As a pre-Civil War movement, it was a flop. Antislavery congressmen were able to push through their amendment because of the absence of the pro-slavery South, and the complicated politics of the Civil War. Abolitionism’s surprise victory has misled generations about how change gets made.

Today, diverse movements cast themselves as modern versions of the struggle against slavery. The former Republican senator Jim DeMint, now the president of the Heritage Foundation, claimed that small-government “constitutional conservatism” has inherited the cause; the liberal TV host Chris Hayes, writing in The Nation, said battling climate change was the “new abolitionism.” That term has become shorthand for “fighting the good fight.” But the long struggle against slavery shows how jerky, contingent and downright lucky winning that good fight was.

It’s hard to accept just how unpopular abolitionism was before the Civil War. The abolitionist Liberty Party never won a majority in a single county, anywhere in America, in any presidential race. Ralph Nader got closer to the presidency. In 1860 the premier antislavery newspaper, The Liberator, had a circulation of under 3,000, in a nation of 31 million.

Even among [sic - white...] Northerners who wanted to stop the spread of slavery, the idea of banning it altogether seemed fanatical {plainly not to black Northerners nor to John Brown, Thomas Higginson, Henry Thoreau et al]. On the eve of the Civil War, America’s greatest sage, Ralph Waldo Emerson, predicted that slavery might end one day, but “we shall not live to see it.”

In a deeply racist society, where most white Americans, South and North, valued sectional unity above equal rights, “abolitionist” was usually a dirty word. One man who campaigned for Abraham Lincoln in 1860 complained: “I have been denounced as impudent, foppish, immature, and worse than all, an Abolitionist.”

While we remember the war as a struggle for freedom, at its outset neither Lincoln nor the Republican Party planned to ban slavery. To calm talk of secession, Congress passed a never-ratified, now-forgotten 13th Amendment promising that no amendment could ever end slavery. Lincoln backed it. Going into the conflict, Congress offered to abolish abolitionism, not slavery.

Abolitionism gained strength thanks to the uncompromising stance of radical “fire eating” Southerners. By ostracizing Northern allies, seceding and then starting a war, Southern radicals gave abolitionism gift after gift after gift. When South Carolina militiamen fired on Fort Sumter, Frederick Douglass exalted: “Thank God! — The slaveholders themselves have saved our cause from ruin!”

The war’s length and brutality gave further fuel to the abolitionist fire. The historian Gary W. Gallagher has argued that the successful generalship of Robert E. Lee ultimately helped emancipation, pushing bloodied and vengeful Northerners to free slaves. Moderates like Lincoln became convinced that “we must free the slaves or be ourselves subdued.”

Still, the war, not the strength of abolitionism, made the difference. When he finally issued the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln operated under the president’s war powers. And when thousands of slaves freed themselves and fought the Confederacy, they mostly did so as the Union Army entered their regions. Antislavery blacks fought bravely and lobbied cannily, helped by the radicalism of their former masters.

By January 1865, the tide had turned. Congress moved to ban slavery everywhere (not just in the Confederacy, but in loyal slave states like Maryland and Kentucky). A body that had tried to make slavery un-abolishable a few years before voted to free four million men and women. It could never have passed the amendment if all those Southern congressmen had stayed in Washington to vote against it. Every politician who stormed off to join the Confederacy cast an inadvertent ballot for abolition.

Here’s where the confusion emerges. After the war, many Americans interpreted slaveholder mistakes as abolitionist victories. Abolition looked like a road map for reform. Many claimed to have been on its side before the war. Publishers printed a torrent of memoirs by supposed abolitionists; everyone who ever cast a ballot for the Liberty Party seemed to write a book about it.

The generation of Americans raised after the Civil War modeled diverse movements on abolitionism, from supporters of labor, women’s rights and socialism to opponents of popular democracy and mass immigration. The Boston poet James Russell Lowell even compared a movement to suppress poor voters to abolitionists, writing: “They emancipated the negro; we mean to emancipate the respectable white man.”

Today, we point to abolition as proof that we can improve society by eliminating one glaring evil. This is what unites “new abolitionists” across the political spectrum, whether they’re working to end the death penalty or ban abortion. We like the idea of sweeping change, of an idealistic movement triumphing over something so clearly wrong.

The problem is, that’s not really how slavery ended. Those upright, moral, prewar abolitionists did not succeed. Neither did the stiff-necked Southern radicals who ended up destroying the institution they went to war to maintain. It was the flexibility of the Northern moderates, those flip-floppers who voted against abolition before they voted for it, who really ended 250 years of slavery.

Abolitionists make better heroes, though, principled and courageous and seemingly in step with 21st century values. But people from the past who espoused beliefs we hold today were usually rejected at the time. We can only wonder which of today’s unpopular causes will, in 150 years, be considered the abolitionism of 2015.
Jon Grinspan

Jon Grinspan is the author of a forthcoming book on the role of young people in 19th-century American democracy.


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