thumbnail of American Experience; The Abolitionists; Interview with James Brewer Stewart, part 4 of 5
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We're getting there. We're in the war. We're in the war. I wonder if you just speak to get this, that idea of Garrison being carried along at some point. Garrison, by the late 1850s, sees the drama of the great sectional conflict as clearly and vividly as anybody else has. And probably more so, because Garrison's own self-designed role as moral censor, as the prophet crying in the wilderness is always prophesying God's judgment, is always prophesying the moment of truth, the time when the sword will fall. His argument about the peaceful abolition of slavery nonviolently is always with the idea that this is the only Christian alternative to something that involves divine wrath and punishment. So in his own mind's eye, the closer we get to Fort Sumter, the closer we get to the secession conventions in the south, the closer we get to the actual breakup of the union, the more that prophecy seems vindicated. Even while at the same time, the expectation is a gross violation of his own long position of nonviolence.
And so to be carried along to be a prophet with honor now, remember Garrison is someone who always wants to be hurt. Garrison is always the person who has to make sure that in his own mind's eye, he is the major moral interpreter of every event. So the secession crisis became a way for him to first of all say, for the last time, airing sisters departing peace. In other words, the Northern disunion should actually take place, but once the firing happens on Fort Sumter, he wraps himself in the flag. And like practically every other abolitionist endorses the war for the union as a war to eliminate slavery. The conflict becomes one about the ends of the war. Should the war be simply to bring the slave states back into union, or does it mean the transformation of the south by abolishing slavery? Garrison, like everybody, like Douglass, like all the people that have been in tremendous conflict with each other before the war, are in a sense reunited in the war for the union.
Great. I don't know if you're looking over there. I don't know if you're glasses. I'm not. I'm trying to look at you. Am I doing okay? Look at him. Okay. Okay. I don't want my glasses blending in, but I can't see. No, no, no. So how did Garrison feel about the war by, say, August of 62 before the war? Lincoln was, get started again. Start again. Can't remember to refrain. They've been fighting this battle now for a year and a half, and how it hasn't been going that way in terms of various ways. So how did he feel about it? William Lord Garrison's attitude towards the war as it developed was in some ways very much like lots of people's attitude towards the war as it developed. Nobody imagined the kind of carnage.
The tremendous physical human toll of battle. It's almost impossible for us to conceive in the 21st century when we worry about the number of people who were killed on 9-11. To think that the battle of Antietam, you would lose 16,000 people. In a population of only 30 million people out of which only 15 are male and within that number, maybe 8 million are a fighting age to have 600,000 casualties. The response to suffering, the response to the whole carnage of the war really hits Garrison very, very hard as it does for all abolitionists. But at the same time, he's able again to interpret it as God's visitation of judgment on a corrupt nation and a firm documentation of the imperative to emancipate all slaves. He's very critical of Abraham Lincoln for retaining his devotion to colonization, to not making the war for the Union into a war to abolish slavery.
Lincoln early in the war counter-mandered several orders of his field generals, both in New Orleans and in South Carolina, that basically created de facto emancipation situations. Garrison got very angry with that. One point he said, Lincoln is 6 feet 4 inches in height but a pygmy and moral stature. That kind of rhetoric is the standard sort of Garrison. His argument is that if all of this blood and treasure is going to be wasted and less slavery dies. And more and more and more, as the war goes on, it's a realization that many, many Northerners come to share with him. And especially after, in 1863, black troops begin to start fighting on their own and show this tremendous heroism as, for example, Massachusetts 54th, which he just endorsed and thought was a wonderful idea. One of his own sons fights in the war and Garrison is very much involved in all that.
Abraham Lincoln was someone who temper mentally and spiritually was the antithesis of William White Garrison. Garrison, the prophet, the divine, the outsider, the voice crying in the wilderness, his heart beating with God's message. Abraham Lincoln, a skeptic, someone who doubts God's will throughout the entire war, who can't figure out how to be able to address God's obvious design in any way, who simply sees the suffering and says, both sides can't be right if they're invoking God on their behalf. And you get this tortured sense of a person who's far more complicated than Garrison, and who's far more deeply bruised by what the war meant to ordinary people. Lincoln at the same time is someone who is responsible for the health and well-being of an entire political party that has representation only in one part of the union and has a very strong competitor in that one part of the union that wants to end the war without abolishing slavery.
It's called the Democratic Party, and he had to remember that he was going to run for president again in 1864 against a Democratic opponent who wanted the war settled without slavery being abolished, and that particular opponent had been his field general, General McClellan of the Army of the Potomac. All those factors together, and then remember also that many scholars speculate that Lincoln struggled with depression, that Lincoln struggled with tremendous self-doubt, and I think that Lincoln was someone who really felt that events came to him, and he learned from them, much more than his going out to find out what's going on.
And he actually said that at one point. I'm a paraphrasing something that I remember him having said. In that process, he was capable of something that isn't a moral revolution inside of a human heart, the way the Garrison thought it was, but a gradual realization, that there's something about black people that he had to understand that he didn't understand before. Part of it has to do with fighting. Part of it has to do with representations that come to him from African-American people. It doesn't go well the first time you talk to Lincoln, the first time you talk to Lincoln. If you're a black representative, he blames you for causing the Civil War. The last time he talks to Douglas, it's about the idea of doing subversive things under the table to try to see if slavery in the deep South can't be destabilized. And I think that those two cameo moments show you a transit of growth for Lincoln that is spectacular.
For someone who is, at the same time, coping with all the different things that are part of his mandate, given the kind of character and personality that he had. So I think Eric Fonder talks about this extraordinarily well in his new biography of Lincoln. And it is this capacity for moral insight. The idea of being able to reprise the last experience when the next experience comes at you. And the last experience was you started the Civil War, you black guys. And the final experience is something quite different in his conversation with Douglas. I don't know if you could jump to the end of the war, in any way. Would you describe the scene as their touring Charles? I just have to take a second. I got out at about four to six this morning to get my cabin.
No, I just know what I want to do is to just sort of reorient myself a little bit if I can because this is hard. I haven't done this kind of extended talking in a very, very long time. Thank you for one. Okay. This is probably the hardest question you've asked me because the way I write about it, I've written about this. It all goes back to the beginning. And I want to try this out before anybody films it. I wrote an article once about ten years ago on Garrison and Phillips and the symmetry of autobiography. The idea that the end of your abolitionist career reframes its origins. And that the whole idea of a complete life is a life that takes you back a second time to the place where it all happened the first time in order to be able to say to yourself as you're feeling your own mortality. This is a complete package. Phillips did it by going to Alton, Illinois, which is where Elijah Lovejoy was assassinated in 1837 because it was Lovejoy's murder that brought him to Final Ha to make his first huge anti-slavery speech.
So he goes out there and he worships at Lovejoy's grave and writes these incredible letters back to Anne Phillips' wife about what it's like out there. And he gives this huge speech which is all about the Mississippi River and it flowing unimpeded from free states all the way through New Orleans bringing the water of liberty and stuff like that. You can just see him. Even though he's going to go on and do a lot of other stuff in his career, he's buttoning the whole thing up psychologically and emotionally. And that's what Garrison doesn't trust him. And that's what he does when he goes back to Baltimore and goes, look, he really is upset that the jail isn't there. He wants to figure out if the judge is still there, if there are any jurists around. And what he's doing is the same thing. It's this idea of finding closure, a finding completion. My argument is that for Garrison, because he does that kind of stuff, it's easy for him to separate the ending of the crusade against slavery from the struggle for Friedman's rights.
And unlike a lot of people, including me, I may get some stake in my own book, who really sort of fought Garrison for not being able to see that this is when the struggle really starts. Caleb showed me through work that he's done that Garrison's way back into it in a variety of different ways working with other organizations knowing perfectly full well what's involved in the South. He just doesn't see it as a continuation of the career he used to have. So all that went through my mind when you asked that question, which is why I had to stop. What was Charleston, what did it represent? Well, I know how to, okay, I know how to, I really do know how to do this once I get my brain unscramble. I'm just way too far into my own scholarship right at this minute to let go of it. See, because I have a bigger theory about all this, which Caleb does a pretty good job of in his book, but there's another historian who's from the University of Chicago, who really grappled deeply with the question of how do these reformers
deal with the question of whether they've won or not, which is very difficult, deep question. These are people that are my age now, given what the chronology is back then. I mean, Wendell Phillips is considered a guy with a very long career. He died when he was 74. I'm two years younger than he is. You know, my pacemaker and everything else is keeping me alive. And so the whole idea that this crusade has to somehow fall together as a completed picture, regardless of the fact that you know, that there, and Phillips says it over and over again, we have a lot of slavery, but we haven't abolished the master. We abolished the slave, the master remains. It's just horrifying when you begin to think about it, unless you can begin to package your life in a certain way so you can die peacefully. And it's a psychological process that people my age understand, because you're interested in legacies.
And you're trying to be able to figure out what you're going to leave behind, which is, of course, why I do historians against slavery. You know, so it's all tied up in my own autobiography. And so that's what makes it all a very difficult question. Now they've gotten out on my system. I'll answer your question. Just vomit stuff, you know. Charleston, South Carolina. Charleston, South Carolina in 1865 was the defeated citadel of slavery. Remember, there is a real citadel there. It's now a university. It used to be a military installation. It looks like a castle. Slaveholders used to hold promenades and balls in there. And actually, their descendants still do. John C. Calhoun lived there. The nullifiers from the 1830s lived there. People used to say about South Carolina that it was too small for a Republican, too large for an insane asylum.
Because the extreme forms of pro-slavery behavior down there were just so, so radical. Charleston was one of the first places to fall in the Civil War because of naval bombardments and occupation that came from the sea inward. Charleston was a tremendous symbol of the defeated Confederacy. And the idea of William Lloyd Garrison actually being able to visit there and to put his stamp on their citadel and to be carried around on the shoulders of black people is a moment of spectacular vindication for William Lloyd Garrison. He writes to his wife from Charleston these euphoric letters about the experience that he feels like his life is complete. He feels like his life is whole. He understands why he did all these controversial things way back when he was a youth. He sees now what the design always was.
Garrison has a very dramatic figure as someone who's very interested in creating his own self-understanding as a dramatic figure on the great stage of American morality was able in Charleston because of the accolades that he received, because of the gratitude that was expressed to him by emancipated people was to really see his cause incarnated as freedom and for him it was a wonderful, wonderful experience. I'm glad he had it because it seems to me that somebody who spends 30 years of his time insisting that slavery is a terrible crime and a terrible sin is exactly what we would call it today, even though slavery is all over the world today. We stay that same thing about it. That a man who has been able to prophesy this is able to see the fulfillment of his prophecy. I'm glad that that happened to him. It's one of the most difficult questions. The abolitionist role in actually causing the Civil War.
It's a question that historians debate over and over and over again. Let me give you several different ways that the debate goes and maybe you can pick. One way to debate it is that they were so scary to slaveholders. They said so many volatile and disturbing things. They committed so many volatile and disturbing deeds, resisting fugitive slaves, sending pamphlets into the South, endorsing David Walker, repealing laws against marriage between races. Think of the picture that you can have off the plantation of what abolitionists really are, if you're a slaveholder.
And then to understand that these are people who dominate whole areas of the country, upstate New York, is the antithesis of South Carolina. Boston is the antithesis of South Carolina. These are places which from a planter's perspective are hell on earth, where all the inversion of moral order is really taking place. One argument, which is part of the discussion, is that the mere presence of abolitionists inflames southern white imaginations about political threats to them that make Civil War far more likely. By 1860, they have slaveholders are calling Abraham Lincoln an abolitionist, calling him a creature of mixed races, of seeing him and Frederick Douglass as being the same man. And it's that perception, the idea that there is no real distinction between the Republican Party and William Lloyd Garrison or Frederick Douglass or Wendell Phillips.
Is one way to say that the abolitionists contributed to the South's secession. Now, that can also go in the direction of saying that they inflamed issues far beyond their actual merit. But in order to make that statement, you have to really become very soft on the moral challenge of slavery in a republic dedicated to freedom in the first place. So that's one answer to your question. Second answer to your question is say that the abolitionists had very little to do with coming to the Civil War because the big driver of the sectional conflict was the westward expansion of slavery, not the morality of slavery itself. And that if abolitionists were demanding slavery to be recognized and uprooted as a moral crime against God's law. If they hadn't been there, if you just took them out of the picture, it might well be that you still would have such disagreements about the future of slavery in an expanding republic that you would get Civil War in Kansas, that you would get sectional inflammations of this kind that would create in the absence of an abolitionist movement or in the presence of an abolitionist movement, the kind of conflict that came.
So that would be another way to be able to answer it. The way I like to answer it is to be able to say that for all of their specialness and unique qualities, for all the different elements of religious imagination and rich emotional understanding of problems of slavery and race and the limitations of those visions. Abolitionists were involved in a deep conversation with Yankee culture, with a society that was growing up in such a way as to read novels, to read books, to think that public uplift was really important, to think that public education was very important, to see civic enlightenment as being very important. And to thinking of the idea that a free society really involves the improvement of human morality, through learning, through discourse, through conversation, and that abolitionists were really involved in creating the kind of understanding of a really sort of middle class morality.
That would allow it to become possible in 1852 for Harriet Beecher Stowe to write a novel called Uncle Tom's Cabin. At a time when the slavery issues had all been settled in 1852, the compromises of 1850 had been made, the fugitive slave law had been passed. Both political parties said we're all done with slavery. Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote her book, and you saw coming from deep in Yankee society this tremendous moral objection to slavery that made her book, the book that Lincoln said it was. You are the little lady who caused the big civil war.
I think that abolitionists were involved in a dialogue with people that were culturally very similar to them, who were evangelicals, who believed in uplift, who believed in religious imagination, who thought of the idea of themselves being contributors to a Christian republic. In such a way that the abolitionists' arguments do become encased in a broader critique of slavery that does have a moral quotient to it. In that way, it seems to me that their absence would have made the whole debate about slavery thin, ugly, racist, and without references to real people. It would not have been a movement that had empowered women and empowered black people. It is the first civil rights movement in that sense. How many people have passed away in such a sense? Okay. I'm just saying, I'm already, I sound like Wendell Phillips, I'm not even... No, I mean, it's kind of an unanswerable question. Well, you know, you have to parse it. If you don't parse it, you can't do it.
Just talk about that. That they're all real, they're all like... To believe in this crusade, had to take stock about what their movement meant. And so in 1876, remaining abolitionists who were not too rickety to travel and who could all converge in a central location ended up in Chicago, having a retrospective anti-slayer-remeeting talking about what the meaning of their careers had been. They could now see that the 15th Amendment had guaranteed black male suffrage.
They could see that the 14th Amendment had nationalized citizenship for black people and white people, Indians accepted. And there was very little more that the state could do. And I mean by the state, Washington, D.C. and what had at one time been an occupying army that had been involved in seven military districts within the slave states. Those states were now re-admitted to the Union. They had all had their slave codes ripped out of their constitutions, except for Mississippi, who suspended its and didn't repeal it until 1997. And the whole question of what did this mean became a matter of trying to invent a story that A, we did it, B, we're glad we did it, and C, that we're really afraid of what the implications of the future are for dark skinned people. Julie Jeffrey answers this question extremely well, I would think, don't you? Yeah. And I don't think you needed from me. She's got a lot more to tell you about this than I do.
But the idea that you're putting the crusade away is what some abolitionists seem to be suggesting, I have a red jealist book, so you're going to have to go on that. I don't read anymore. I want the whole thing. I guess more specifically, did they think they want? I don't know. I think I asked the question differently. How was the view from there?
I think I know how to do this. What did the abolitionist crusade mean to the people who were in it at the end? There are several things that are really important to understand because they understood these points. First, they knew that citizenship was guaranteed to dark skinned people. Second, they knew that African-American people could vote all over the country. Third, they could look in the South and see an organized Republican party that did, in fact, stand up for Black people's rights. By the late 1870s, the whole business of reclaiming the White South had not happened yet.
Elements of it were there. There was plenty of violence against Black voters. There was plenty of denunciation of that violence by abolitionists who still had their voices. But there was plenty of evidence all the way on through the 1870s and on into the 1880s that African-American people had a ballot that would protect them because there was a Republican party that they could turn to. There were plenty of instances, South Carolina being one of them, where Black legislators were sitting in deliberations doing things. Now, on the first appearance of things, one could imagine William Lloyd Garrison in 1879 on his deathbed thinking about a South that he could have never imagined but that he predicted a long time ago. Very early on in his career that there would be Black Daniel Websters and there would be Black Henry Clay's and it would be, it's fun to think about the idea of his thinking about people like that debating in the South Carolina legislature.
So in that sense, the available evidence can reassure someone like Garrison that the crusade has been successful. But at the same time, there is quite a bit of evidence that white terror, that the beginnings of the process of disenfranchisement, that fraud, violence, and worse. In 1876 is a big moment in South Carolina politics, where a big thing called the Redeemer Movement comes with a guy who had a former slaveholder named Wade Hampton, cleans out all that from the legislature there. And that's when people like Wendell Phillips are saying, we abolish the slave but the master remains. So while there's good case to be made for the legal basis for the participation of African American people in American politics, there's also a counterpoint of doubt, of worry.
And I know, I don't know about Garrison but I do know the Wendell Phillips went to his grave, worried about that. So it's an ambivalent legacy. So it's an ambivalent legacy.
Series
American Experience
Episode
The Abolitionists
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Interview with James Brewer Stewart, part 4 of 5
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WGBH (Boston, Massachusetts)
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James Brewer Stewart, James Wallace Professor of History Emeritus, Macalester College, retired, and the founder and director of Historians Against Slavery. Stewart's books include Holy Warriors: The Abolitionists and American Slavery. He has published biographies of four very well-known enemies of slavery: Joshua R. Giddings, Wendell Phillips, William Lloyd Garrison, and Hosea Easton. His most recent books include Abolitionist Politics and the Coming of the Civil War (2008) and Venture Smith and the Business of Slavery and Freedom (2009).
Topics
Biography
History
Race and Ethnicity
Subjects
American history, African Americans, civil rights, racism, abolition
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(c) 2013-2017 WGBH Educational Foundation
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00:31:49
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Duration: 0:31:49

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Chicago: “American Experience; The Abolitionists; Interview with James Brewer Stewart, part 4 of 5,” WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed May 29, 2024, http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-15-3r0pr7nn3c.
MLA: “American Experience; The Abolitionists; Interview with James Brewer Stewart, part 4 of 5.” WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. May 29, 2024. <http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-15-3r0pr7nn3c>.
APA: American Experience; The Abolitionists; Interview with James Brewer Stewart, part 4 of 5. Boston, MA: WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-15-3r0pr7nn3c