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Down With the Slaveholding Union! – The Calls for Disunion by the Abolitionist Garrison

An imaginative portrayal of the violent suppression of abolitionist propagandizing and insurrectionism in the South. The print may have been stimulated by several instances during the early 1830s of hanging, tarring and feathering of anti-slavery activists in Georgia, Louisiana and Mississippi. LoC.
An imaginative portrayal of the violent suppression of abolitionist propagandizing and insurrectionism in the South. The print may have been stimulated by several instances during the early 1830s of hanging, tarring and feathering of anti-slavery activists in Georgia, Louisiana and Mississippi. LoC.

Throughout pre-Civil War American history, one of the greatest fears common to both Northerners and Southerners was the fear that the Union would be dissolved. Disunion meant that the fathers of the country had failed, that the “new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that ‘all men are created equal,'” might not, as Lincoln himself wondered, “long endure.”

The Southern attempts to secede in late 1860 are, of course, well known. But what is less known is how some in the North were, at an earlier period, not so opposed to the idea of the South getting their own nation.

From time to time, advocates on both sides of the aisle would accuse the other of sowing the seeds of disunion, casting blame upon (most often) slaveholders or abolitionists for the breaking apart of the United States.

Garrison the Abolitionist

For decades, this was the rhetoric. Often, the slave states would feel that slavery was threatened and would claim that the North or Washington would soon cause disunion – making life in the United States so unbearable that the slave states simply had to leave. The accused of either side would reply with denial, the subject would be diverted, and some meaningless compromise would push back the real question for a few years, when they’d perform this weird little dance all over again.

Abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison were a prime target for slaveholders, who often accused him of being a disunionist. Though an attempt at slander, Garrison might not have disagreed.

“It is said,” wrote Garrison in 1838, “that Abolitionists wish to destroy the Union. It is not true. We would save the Union, if it be not too late. To us it would seem that the Union is already destroyed. To us there is no Union. We, sir, cannot go through these so-called United States enjoying the privileges which the Constitution of the Union professed to secure to all the citizens of this Republic. And why? Because and only because, we are laboring to accomplish the very purposes for which it is declared in the preamble to the Constitution that the Union was formed! because we are laboring ‘to establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, and promote the general welfare.” 1Samuel May, Some Recollections of Our Antislavery Conflict (Boston: Fields, Osgood & Co., 1869) 192.

Garrison was admitting that the Union wasn’t just not perpetual, but that it was no more. Of course, this was hyperbole, but in a few years it would augment into something more.

Garrison the Radicalized

With the coming of the 1840 presidential election, abolitionists were of two minds. Some believed that their numbers had grown significantly enough to effect the vote. Others believed that even with numbers they could not look to Washington for help, the Southern aristocracy would never allow slavery to be abolished. Some, like Garrison, said both, seemingly unsure which to believe, though he publicly leaned more toward the latter. Add to this the schism taking place within the abolitionist movement at the time. Garrison had become more radicalized, even favoring the rights of women to vote. The more conservative abolitionists became fed up with him and ranks were split. 2John Jay Chapman, William Lloyd Garrison (Boston: The Atlantic Monthly Press, 1921) 153-154.

“What are women,” Garrison asked in his paper The Liberator, and what are slaves? Are not the rights of both identical? Human rights! – that is the great question which agitates the age.” 3William Lloyd Garrison, The Liberator, July 28, 1940.

An abolitionist print possibly engraved in 1830, but undocumented aside from the letterpress text which appears on an accompanying sheet. LoC.
An abolitionist print possibly engraved in 1830, but undocumented aside from the letterpress text which appears on an accompanying sheet. LoC.

This rift and the election had hardened Garrison. Over the next year or so, his speeches, his newspaper, and his letters swelled in radicalism: The government, shackled by the Southern slaveholders, could do nothing. The North, with its complex ties to slavery’s profits, would do nothing. This bond, then, would have to be severed.

Garrison the Disunionist

“As an abolitionist,” wrote Garrison to a friend in March of 1842, “as a friend of justice – as a man and as a christian […] I am for the repeal of the union between the North and the South – alias, between LIBERTY and SLAVERY – which is incomparably more unequal, more profligate, more intolerable, and more blighting, than that which ostensibly exists on the other side of the Atlantic. In both cases, IMMEDIATE AND UNCONDITIONAL EMANCIPATION will be the cry and the watchword of every consistent lover of Liberty.” 4William Lloyd Garrison, William Lloyd Garrison to Abel Brown, March 18, 1842. Letter. From Letters of William Lloyd Garrison, Volume 3 (Oxford University Press, 1973) 57.

To another friend, four days later, he wrote: “We must dissolve all connexion with those murderers of fathers, and murderers of mothers, and murderers of liberty, and traffickers in human flesh, and blasphemers against the Almighty, at the South.” They in the North had nothing in common with those in the South, Garrison continued. “Why then be subject to their dominion? Why not have the Union dissolved in form, as it is in fact […] Is it not treason against the cause of liberty to cry, ‘Down with every slaveholding Union!’ Therefore, I raise that cry! And, O, that I had a voice louder than a thousand thunders, that it might shake the land, and electrify the dead – the dead in sin, I mean – those slain by the hand of slavery.” 5William Lloyd Garrison, William Lloyd Garrison to George W. Benson, March 22, 1842. Letter. From Letters of William Lloyd Garrison, Volume 3 (Oxford University Press, 1973) 62.

A Moral Impossiblity

Garrison and his followers began to understand that the Union as envisioned in the Constitution was not the Union they were witnessing. In a July 1842 convention they resolved:

“That the union of Liberty and Slavery, in one just and equal compact, is that which it is not in the power of God or man to achieve, because it is a moral impossibility, as much as the peaceful amalgamation of fire and gunpowder; and, therefore, the American Union is such only is form, but not in substance – a hollow mockery instead of a glorious reality.”

Slavery was so adverse to the Constitution, Garrison held, that its very existence invalidated all for which the Union claimed to stand. He asserted that “the time is rapidly approaching when the American Union will be dissolved in form as it is now in fact.” 6Wendell Phillips Garrison, Francis Jackson Garrison William Lloyd Garrison, 1805-1879, Vol. III (Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Company) 46.

No Disunion here! The tree of liberty. The free population of the United States enjoying the refreshing shade of the tree of liberty. 1846. LoC.
The tree of liberty. The free population of the United States enjoying the refreshing shade of the tree of liberty. 1846. LoC.

The next logical thought would have been to question just how the dissolution of the Union would stop slavery. The South threatened to dissolve the Union if the North put curbs upon slavery. But wouldn’t telling the South, essentially, ‘good riddance to bad rubbish,’ effectively allow slavery to carry on indefinitely without the North to reign in the more horrendous abuses?

Slavery Has No Strength

When Garrison began his disunion rhetoric, his views on this were still a bit fluid. But as time wore on and other Free Soilers began to discuss this more openly, they concluded that if the South were to stay within the Union, it would have the ability to expand slavery into the territories as well as other areas such as the Northwest territory, Mexico and Cuba, as the United States gained more land. Slavery could, they held, only be sustained by expansion.

But if the South seceded, Garrison believed that “in itself, Slavery has no resources and no strength. Isolated and alone, it could not stand an hour….” Basing his arguments on a speech given by Kentucky Representative Joseph Underwood, Garrison reiterated that “to dissolve the Union, and separate the different States composing the confederacy, making the Ohio River and the Mason and Dixon’s line the boundary line, …slavery was done in Kentucky, Maryland and a large portion of Virginia, and it would extend to all the States South of this line. The dissolution of the Union was the dissolution of Slavery.” 7William Lloyd Garrison, No Compromise with Slavery New York: American Anti-Slavery Society, 1854) 32-33.

He was not wrong. If the slave states left the Union, the remaining states would no longer be required to return slaves as per the Fugitive Slave clause of the Constitution. They could not expand into the United States Territories or to Mexico, etc. They would be their own nation, but slavery could not expand and would thus, Garrison believed, die. After all, if the South really believed they could make it on their own, wouldn’t they have gone their separate way by now? 8Elizabeth R. Varon, Disunion! The Coming of the American Civil War, 1789-1859 (University of North Carolina Press, 2008) 153.

By the next year, however, Garrison was turning darker. “I have no expectation that the bloody-minded South will be brought to repentance,” he wrote in March of 1843, “but only to a terrible retribution. You may expect to hear of more exciting scenes and stormier times among us than have yet been witnessed; for, though we have passed through various important crises, the great crisis of all is yet to come!” 9William Lloyd Garrison, William Lloyd Garrison, March, 1843. Letter. From Letters of William Lloyd Garrison, Volume 3 (Oxford University Press, 1973) 128-129.

Curiously, even before the election of Abraham Lincoln, many of the fire-eaters in the South would be echoing Garrison’s prophecies as warnings of their own.

References   [ + ]

Eric
Eric has always had a love for history and the Civil War. During the 150th anniversary of the war, he wrote the Civil War Daily Gazette blog, which published daily for nearly five years. Wishing to continue the exploration, following the Charleston murders in 2015, and the activism around removing the Confederate Battle Flag, he decided to dig a little deeper into the causes and repercussions of the War.
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