Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Book Reviews: From political histories to bad comics, to bad comics of political histories. And the occasional rant about fiction and writing.

Mimsy Review: The Abolitionists

Reviewed by Jerry Stratton, September 2, 2002

Observing the enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law, the Reverend Owen Lovejoy denied that the Constitution and the laws made under its authority must in all circumstances be obeyed. “Is the individual swallowed up in the citizen?” he asked. “Is there, must there not be, an ultimate appeal to conscience and the Supreme Court, not of the nation, but of the Universe?”

This is a fascinating look at how a tiny minority came to affect the course of a nation. The abolitionist movement was vocal, idealistic, principled, and their arguments irrefutable. But ultimately, nobody cared.

AuthorMerton L. Dillon
Length298 pages
Book Rating8

Those who agreed that slavery was bad in principle, were unsure about the the desirability of letting “Negroes” go where they pleased. Unions, for example, were firmly against the expansion of slavery--but they still preferred to keep the Blacks out. They felt that it was their nature to work for lower wages, depressing earnings. They couldn’t see, or didn’t care, that it was only slavery that did these things. Free Blacks were not allowed to join.

Subtitled “The Growth of a Dissenting Minority,” the basic thesis of “The Abolitionists” is that abolitionists succeeded through a judo-like application of their enemy’s strength. Abolitionists acted. The North ignored them. Southern apologists responded. And the North feared the response. Where they could care less about the original allegations of inhumanity, the South’s response--abusing the privacy, freedom, and labor of the North--drew more and more hatred. The more the South responded to the otherwise inconsequential abolitionists, the more hatred the South built against themselves. Until at the end, men in the North were willing to volunteer to fight and die to defeat them.

The South acted much as Britain had done in the events preceding the American revolution. “In every sectional crisis... from 1830 to 1860, Southern politicians responded... in a manner admirably suited to promote the antislavery cause.” (p. 87)

Abolitionists tried to mail anti-slavery fliers, and the South opened up private mail to stop such mailings. Abolitionists tried to petition Congress, and the South blocked free speech in the Congress as well, instituting the “gag rule” tabling such petitions as soon as they were received.

According to Dillon, however, the feelings stirred up in the North were anti-Southern, not anti-Slavery. The South was looked upon as “a despotic slave power bent on dominating the nation.” This lack of care for the freedom in general worried many abolitionists. “Abolitionists may attack slaveholding, but there is danger still that the spirit of slavery will survive, in the form of prejudice, after the system is overturned,” said Reverend Joshua Easton. It was only during the war that anti-slavery feeling began to pick up in the North, due to a realization “that to reincorporate the South with its slaveholding aristocracy intact would solve no national problem.” (p. 254) Even here, though, “slavery must be abolished not so much because it was the just course to follow as because it was the most direct way to destroy the power of the planter class” which was “dominating the nation”.

When the South finally seceded, some abolitionists (though not necessarily most) supported letting them go. Some abolitionists urged northern secession “as early as the 1830s”. (p. 171) To the Garrisonions, Union “had come to assume a value in itself, despite the evil practices that flourished under its aegis.” There was a bloodier side to this: “Abolitionists believed that slavery was sustained by the coercive power of the federal government. Remove that power by dissolving the Union and slavery would collapse in a great slave rebellion.”

Those that supported Union, “asserted that if the Union were to be saved, it must be made worth saving.” (p. 251) Others supported war not as a means to preserve the Union, but simply as a means to free the slaves.

Also interesting in the book is the sectional politics of an idealistic, far-flung group of independent-minded activists. Even as the North began to hate the South, the North hardly felt any goodwill towards abolitionists. To some extent, it appears that acts of hatred against abolitionists and blacks in the North and west grew right along with the hatred for the South and its anti-labor, anti-freedom policies. When Pennsylvania Hall in Philadelphia was destroyed by an anti-abolitionist mob, the official investigation held the abolitionists responsible for “promulgating in it doctrines repulsive to the moral sense of a large majority of our community.”

“Their bravery was beyond dispute,” Dillon writes of abolitionists in the introduction. They saw the evils of slavery; this was not uncommon. Unlike their fellow citizens, they refused to ignore those evils. One of the more fascinating characters is that of Elijah P. Lovejoy. He established an abolitionist newspaper in Alton, Illinois; mobs destroyed his press. The state attorney general “agreed that the mob’s action had been justified.” A second press was destroyed before it could be put into operation, while the mayor watched. Guarding a third press, he was shot and killed, and the press destroyed, by a third mob. “Lovejoy’s murder brought converts to the antislavery societies and persuaded men to join them who perhaps would not have done so had they not seen civil liberties endangered.”

This is a fascinating book, one which, if you can find it, I highly recommend. I think it will be especially interesting to prohibition reformers; the parallels with modern prohibition (which itself is often a racial issue) are profound. And the implications for reformers are interesting, at the very least. Sometimes you don’t necessarily have to win to win, and the moral judo that is described here may also be taking place on the federal level with regards to prohibition.

The Abolitionists

Merton L. Dillon

Recommendation: Purchase