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A History of the United States by Cecil Chesterton

Garrison's movement killed Southern Abolitionism


Abolitionism was, however, quite a different thing. It owed its inception to William Lloyd Garrison, one of those enthusiasts who profoundly affect history solely by the tenacity with which they hold to and continually enforce a burning personal conviction. But for that tenacity and the unquestionable influence which his conviction exerted upon men, he would be a rather ridiculous figure, for he was almost every sort of crank--certainly a non-resister, and, I think, a vegetarian and teetotaller as well. But his burning conviction was the immorality of Slavery; and by this he meant something quite other than was meant by Jefferson or later by Lincoln. When these great men spoke of Slavery as a wrong, they regarded it as a social and political wrong, an evil and unjust system which the community as a community ought as soon as possible to abolish and replace by a better. But by Garrison slave-holding was accounted a personal sin like murder or adultery. The owner of slaves, unless he at once emancipated them at whatever cost to his own fortunes, was by that fact a wicked man, and if he professed a desire for ultimate extinction of the institution, that only made him a hypocrite as well. This, of course, was absurd; fully as absurd as the suggestion sometimes made in regard to wealthy Socialists, that if they were consistent they would give up all their property to the community. A man living under an economic system reposing on Slavery can no more help availing himself of its fruits
than in a capitalist society he can help availing himself of capitalist organization. Obviously, unless he is a multi-millionaire, he cannot buy up all the slaves in the State and set them free, while, if he buys some and treats them with justice and humanity, he is clearly making things better for them than if he left them in the hands of masters possibly less scrupulous. But, absurd as the thesis was, Garrison pushed it to its wildest logical conclusions. No Christian Church ought, he maintained, to admit a slave-owner to communion. No honest man ought to count a slave-owner among his friends. No political connection with slave-owners was tolerable. The Union, since it involved such a connection, was "a Covenant with Death and an Agreement with Hell." Garrison publicly burnt the Constitution of the United States in the streets of Boston.

Abolitionist propaganda of this kind was naturally possible only in the North. Apart from all questions of self-interest, no Southerner, no reasonable person who knew anything about the South, though the knowledge might be as superficial and the indignation against Slavery as intense as was Mrs. Beecher Stowe's, could possibly believe the proposition that all Southern slave-owners were cruel and unjust men. But that was not all. Garrison's movement killed Southern Abolitionism. It may, perhaps, be owned that the Southern movement was not bearing much visible fruit. There was just a grain of truth, it may be, in Garrison's bitter and exaggerated taunt that the Southerners were ready enough to be Abolitionists if they were allowed "to assign the guilt of Slavery to a past generation, and the duty of emancipation to a future generation." Nevertheless, that movement was on the right lines. It was on Southern ground that the battle for the peaceful extinction of Slavery ought to have been fought. The intervention of the North would probably in any case have been resented; accompanied by a solemn accusation of specific personal immorality it was maddeningly provocative, for it could not but recall to the South the history of the issue as it stood between the sections. For the North had been the original slave-traders. The African Slave Trade had been their particular industry. Boston itself, when the new ethical denunciation came, had risen to prosperity on the profits of that abominable traffic. Further, even in the act of clearing its own borders of Slavery, the North had dumped its negroes on the South. "What," asked the Southerners, "could exceed the effrontery of men who reproach us with grave personal sin in owning property which they themselves have sold us and the price of which is at this moment in their pockets?"

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