A New Look at the Abolitionists

Mr. Chadwick is a free-lance writer living in New York City.

I have long been puzzled by the way my American History teachers, and the textbooks they used, presented the Abolitionists — the men and women of the American anti-slavery movement — in a very friendly light. Now, most of these teachers were quite openly of the Left. It always struck me a bit odd that they who admired Chairman Mao should sing the praises of such ardent individualists as Thoreau. Their logic seemed to be: (a) the slaves were Negroes, (b) the Abolitionists were helping the slaves, (c) the Left helps Negroes through the "Civil Rights" movement and Welfare-State programs; therefore, (d) the Abolitionists were of the Left.’ Yet I, as a libertarian and individualist, found myself closely identifying with the Abolitionists. I couldn’t help thinking that their fight is our fight today, in different circumstances and with a new set of oppressors. The more I read their writings and speeches the more I see, in the Abolitionists’ rousing call to freedom, ideas that are as relevant in the fight against the tyranny of today’s all-powerful State as they were in the struggle against yesterday’s slaveholder.

The Abolitionists saw themselves as the philosophical heirs of Jefferson, Franklin, Paine and other intellectual leaders of the War for American Independence. They saw themselves as trying to fulfill the promise of 1776, and the Declaration of Independence’s famous defense of the "inalienable rights . . . (of) life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." The first major public address of William Lloyd Garrison, probably the most prominent of the Abolitionists, was given on the Fourth of July and referred to the discrepancy between the American creed, as contained in the Declaration, and the American practice of slavery.`’ In the first issue of his famous paper, The Liberator, Garrison again invoked the Declaration: "I determined at every hazard, to lift up the standard of emancipation in the eyes of the nation, within sight of Bunker Hill and the birthplace of liberty."3

Angelina Grimké, the leading woman in the movement, likewise advocated the ideals of 1776, stating that Americans "must return to the good old doctrine of our forefathers" — the doctrine of every man’s right to his own life, liberty and property.4 Similarly, the poet and Abolitionist John Greenleaf Whittier spoke of a time when "the practice of our people shall agree with" the ideals of the Declaration of Independence.5

In Opposition to Violence

It is frequently noted that the Abolitionists, by and large, were religious people, who believed slavery a sin; but this, while true, gives the impression that the religious Abolitionists opposed slavery as an act of faith rather than on any clear ethical grounds. Actually, they called slavery sinful because they realized it was maintained by violence. This religious libertarianism can be seen in the writings of Stephen Symonds Foster (not the composer), who was, according to one historian, "called by some second in effect only to Garrison in the early years of the agitation for the abolition movement."6

Foster catalogued the sins on which slavery was based: theft — a man owns his own industry, and slavery steals that industry and puts it to work for another; adultery — slave-owners violate the marriage-contract of the slaves; man-stealing — "God has given to every man an inalienable right to himself … and he who interferes with the free and unrestricted exercise of that right, who, not content with the proprietorship of his own body, claims the body of his neighbor, is a man-stealer;" piracy — the slave-trade, piracy legally and morally; and most important, murder — because the slave-owner "maintains his ascendancy over his victims … only by the threat of extermination,"7 One wishes that some of the religious socialists of today, using Christian principles as a basis for advocating the legally-sanctioned violence of statism, could be introduced to the religious libertarianism of Foster and his kind, who knew coercion when they saw it.

Involved in Socialism

John Thomas, in his article, "Antislavery and Utopia," points out that Jefferson Davis saw the abolitionists as socialists who were starting out with an attack on slave holding (which Davis considered a form of private property) but would finish by attacking all forms of private property, Thomas also points out that George Fitzhugh, the leading intellectual apologist for slavery, said that many Abolitionists, because they were socialists, were embracing slavist ideas.8

Because the ideas of Davis and Fitzhugh contain a germ of truth — quite a few Abolitionists were involved in socialism — modern students of Abolitionism may be led to believe that the standard view has been correct all along, that the Abolitionists and today’s Welfare-Statist are both of the Left, But the chief mistake here is Davis’ mistake, to believe that just because the Abolitionists refused to recognize any right of one man to own another as property, they were against all property rights as such, Thus, the Abolitionists become typical liberal humanitarians seeking to put "human rights" above "property rights."

Yet, reading the speeches and writings of the Abolitionist mainstream, one finds no bias against private property; they simply did not believe a human being can rightfully be another’s property. It is today’s advocate of the Welfare State who treats human beings as property — property of Big Brother, natural resources to be used for whatever purposes the government has in mind, driven by the whip of the government’s police power.

While it is true, as stated above, that many Abolitionists were socialists, even the communitarians among them were libertarians, advocating socialism only on a voluntaristic basis. The fascist mentality of the modern statist would have been entirely foreign and abhorrent to them. Consider one of the most prominent among them, Stephen Pearl Andrews. Andrews, a lawyer, was chased out of Houston, Texas, by a pro-slavery mob, and went to England, where he tried — with some support from John Quincy Adams —to convince Lord Palmerston and Lord Aberdeen to lend money for the purchase (with the intent of emancipation) of the slaves in Texas.°

Andrews was influenced in becoming an anarchist by the ideas of Josiah Warren, the founder of an anarcho-communist settlement in New Harmony, Indiana; Warrenism was a combination of Robert Owen’s Utopian socialism and native American individualism.¹° Men like Andrews steadfastly held to the individual’s right to freedom from coercion, and their communitarian experiments were strictly voluntaristic. One might refer to a man like Andrews as a left-wing anarchist but would have to call him a right-wing socialist, using "right-wing" to mean respect for the rights of the individual. Warren had called his philosophy "Individual Sovereignty," and Andrews made this phrase his motto.

In his magnum opus, The Science of Society — which is, at least in its first section, "The Sovereignty of the Individual," a classic of libertarian thought — Andrews comes out four-square for laissez-faire in economics: "Nothing short of absolute free trade. Democracy says to government, Hands off! Let the Individual determine for himself when and where, and how he will buy and sell."¹¹ Andrews’ hope was that out of the workings of the free market, the kind of individualist-socialism (sounds contradictory, doesn’t it?) he wanted would naturally evolve; I do not share in this hope, but I respect Andrews’ undiluted libertarianism.

The Abolitionists, generally speaking the same laissez-faire language as we modern libertarians, were a far cry from the so-called "New Abolitionists" of today’s statist Left. We who recognize that "Massa" has changed his name to "Big Brother" should give them honor. I close with a passage from a letter written to William Lloyd Garrison by Theodore Weld, Garrison’s chief rival for leadership of the antislavery movement. In the letter, Weld states that he is unfamiliar with the exact philosophy and aims of the New England Anti-Slavery Society (Garrison’s organization), but that:

Its expressive name is dear to my soul. From that I infer that the Society is based on that great bottom law of human right, that nothing but crime can forfeit liberty. That no condition of birth, no shade of color, no mere misfortune of circumstances, can annul that birthright charter, which God has bequeathed to every being upon whom he has stamped his own image, by making him a free moral agent, and that he who robs his fellow man of this tramples upon right, subverts justice, outrages humanity, unsettles the foundation of human safety, and sacrilegiously assumes the prerogative of God.”12

To these words, we modern "Abolitionists" — the real "New Abolitionists"—can add a resounding, "Amen!"


1 The left-wing historian Howard Zinn, for example, has written a book about the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee called SNCC: The New Abolitionists (Boston: Beacon, 1964). See also Zinn’s article, "Abolitionists, Freedom-Riders, and the Tactics of Agitation," in Duberman, Martin (ed.), The Antislavery Vanguard (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1965), pp. 417-451. Even more objectionable is the title of one collection of Abolitionist writings: Forerunners of Black Power. To compare men like Garrison and Wendell Phillips with the likes of Stokely Carmichael and Eldridge Cleaver is a bit ludicrous. Bormann, Ernest G. (ed.), Forerunners of Black Power (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1971).

2 Speech reprinted in Frederickson, George M. (ed.), William Lloyd Garrison (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hail, 1968), p. 15, and in Garrison, Wendell Phillips and Francis Jackson Garrison, William. Lloyd Garrison (New York: The Century Company, 1889), Vol. I, pp. 127137.

3 In Frederickson, p. 22.

4 Grimké, Angelina E., "Appeal to the Christian Women of the South" (no publisher given, 1837) , p. 3.

5 In Ruchames, Louis (ed.), The Abolitionists: A Collection of their Writings (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1963), p. 57.

6 Thomas, John, "Antislavery and Utopia," in Duberman, pp, 243-244,

7 Foster, Stephen Symonds, "The Brotherhood of Thieves," in Bormann, pp, 110-112,

8 Bormann, p, 105,

9 Martin, James J., Men Against the State (Colorado Springs: Ralph Myles Publisher, 1970), p. 153; and Stern, Madeleine B., The Pantarch (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1970), pp. 10, 12-13.

¹º Martin, pp. 26-55, passim.

¹1 Andrews, Stephen Pearl, The Science of Society (Boston: Sarah E. Holmes, Publisher, 1888), p. 18.

¹² Weld to Garrison, January 2, 1833, in Barnes, Gilbert H., and Dwight L. Dumonds (eds.), Letters of Theodore Weld, Angelina Grimké Weld, and Sarah Grimké. Weld, 1822-1844 (New York: D. Appleton Century Company, 1934), Vol. I, p. 98. 

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