The Real Problem with White Abolitionists

The antislavery project couldn’t think beyond the market — and that failure haunts progressive politics.

Do the abolitionists have anything left to say to us? Did the antislavery movement leave us with any enduring legacy — any precedents or precepts that can shed some light on the creeping barbarism of our neoliberal age? Do those bourgeois revolutionaries have anything to tell us about the structures of inequality in a capitalist system they did so much to bring about? Or was their failure so complete — their legacy so tainted — that we are better advised to condemn than embrace it?

All revolutions are unfinished. All triumphs are partial. Successful movements, if they do nothing else, expose the fault lines along which the next set of struggles will play themselves out. History is frustrating in that way. When a revolution fails to usher in the millennium it’s all too tempting to turn against the revolution itself. We often end up condemning the revolutionaries for their defective vision and decrying the violence and the bloodshed that seems to have given us so little in return. So it is with the great revolution that destroyed slavery in the United States, the event we call the Civil War.

And so it is with the historians who write about the Civil War. They’ve turned against it. Horrified by the brutal realities of black life in the New South — sharecropping, Jim Crow, disfranchisement, not to mention chain gangs and lynch mobs — historians on the Left have begun to say things that were once the commonplaces of conservative white southerners. The Civil War wasn’t worth it. Instead of freedom it brought misery and repression to the former slaves. Instead of a better life, emancipation brought sickness and death to hundreds of thousands of freed people.

Inevitably, historians are more and more inclined to blame the revolutionaries themselves for the appalling outcome of the Civil War.

The counterrevolutionary thrust of so much recent scholarship has its roots in the failure of the Civil Rights Movement to bring about a just and equitable society. The great achievements of the 1960s and 1970s — formal legal equality, voting rights, and a flourishing politics of diversity — have done nothing to stop the scandalous incarceration rates of young black men and increasingly obscene levels of economic inequality.

Whether it’s the Civil Rights Movement or the Civil War, the same question arises: What went wrong?

The obvious answer, the answer most historians gravitate toward as if by instinct, is the persistence of white racism. And not simply the racism of white southerners — for no one questions the reality of the white backlash in the defeated Confederacy. But recent historians of the Civil War era have tended to point their accusing fingers at the antislavery politicians and even the white abolitionists who led the charge against slavery. “I don’t like white abolitionists,” one historian, an unapologetic leftist (himself, a white male), recently announced. Presumably, what flags this sentiment as radical rather than reactionary is the word “white.” He doesn’t dislike abolitionists, he dislikes white abolitionists.

He didn’t explain why, but it’s clear enough what he meant. White abolitionists were blinded by the same infectious racism that all whites succumbed to in the mid-nineteenth century America and thereby doomed both abolition and Reconstruction to failure. Radical historians who once cut their teeth on the critique of “consensus history” now routinely invoke a white racial consensus as their all-purpose explanation for whatever has gone wrong in American history.

But there was no consensus among whites in mid-nineteenth-century America. Not for nothing did conservatives denounce Abraham Lincoln as a “Black Republican.” For like nearly all opponents of slavery — from the most radical to the most moderate — Lincoln repeatedly insisted that the promise of fundamental human equality applied to whites and blacks alike, that black and white workers were equally entitled to the fruits of their labor, and even that free Americans, black or white, were equally entitled to the privileges and immunities the Constitution guaranteed to all citizens.

To be sure, radicals like William Lloyd Garrison and Charles Sumner were committed to a more robust anti-racist project than were mainstream antislavery politicians like Lincoln. But in the middle decades of the nineteenth century Lincoln and his fellow moderates stood out — and were most often attacked — for the extent rather than the limits of their commitment to racial equality. Whatever the differences between the radical and mainstreams of the antislavery movement, it was the Republican Party that steered the Civil War toward the abolition of slavery, passed the Civil Rights Act of 1866, and sponsored the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments to the Constitution.

It is not obvious that the racism of antislavery activists and politicians can account for the disastrous aftermath of slavery.

If there was a fatal flaw within the antislavery movement, it was one that radicals and moderates shared, and one that was closely related to the very nature of their bourgeois radicalism — an unquestioning commitment to the economic and moral superiority of free labor, a commitment that both inspired and deluded the opponents of slavery.

Even the most radical abolitionists betrayed a blind faith in the magical healing powers of a free market in labor. Scarcely a single theme of the broader antislavery argument strayed far from the premise. Sometimes it was front and center, as when William Seward claimed to have seen with his own eyes the supposed backwardness and irrationality of a southern economy impoverished, or so Seward thought, by its dependence on labor that was coerced rather than rewarded.

Other antislavery arguments were deduced from the premise of free labor’s superiority. The critique of the Slave Power, for example, rested on the assumption that the slaveholders had successfully hijacked the federal government to prop up a slave economy that, left to its own devices, should have shriveled and died on its own. The cruelty and barbarism of slavery likewise derived from the fact that slave labor had to be forced whereas free labor was self-motivated by the lure of remuneration.

Slavery’s enemies used language that delegitimized slavery by mystifying free labor. Dethrone the Slave Power, they claimed, and slavery would die a “natural” death. Lincoln’s own defense of free labor sounded less of economic efficiency than of scriptural injunction, less Adam Smith than the King James Bible. In the right to bread she earns from the sweat of her brow, Lincoln often said, the black woman is my equal and the equal of any living man. Statements of this sort make it difficult, not to say futile, to draw sharp lines between the “moral” and the “economic” arguments against slavery.

It’s hard to imagine what abolitionism would have looked like without its faith — for that’s what it was: faith — in the invisible hand of a free market in labor. In 1833, no less a radical than William Lloyd Garrison invoked its power in the founding charter of the American Anti Slavery Society. Immediate abolition would make the South more rather than less prosperous, Garrison believed, because free labor was more highly motivated than slave labor. Emancipation “would not amputate a limb or break a bone of the slave but,” he explained, “by infusing motives into their breasts, would make them doubly valuable to the masters as free laborers.”

Even Garrison’s later disunionism rested on the premise that northern secession would force the slave states to survive on their own, isolating them within a cordon of freedom, and causing the slave system to die its long-delayed natural death. The slaveholders themselves would eventually realize that a free market in labor power would make their farms and plantations more profitable than ever.

Frederick Douglass put the matter succinctly during the Civil War. When Democrats asked, “What is to be done with the Negro?” once slavery was abolished, Douglass’s one-word answer was: Nothing. Leave the former slaves alone, free them from the restraining hands of their masters, and they would be fine. This was bourgeois radicalism at its most blinkered, narrowing freedom down to formal civic equality and letting the “market” do the rest of the work.

Only after the Civil War, when it became clear that leaving the freed people to fend for themselves was a recipe for disaster, did Douglas repudiate his former faith in the miraculous workings of the free labor market. Like many radicals in the late nineteenth century, Douglass came to see that libertarianism was not enough, that the state would have to actively intervene in the economy if capitalism was to preserve even the semblance of justice and decency. Formal civic equality and contract labor had brought little freedom and less prosperity to the postwar South. Doing “nothing” was doing too much damage.

But at their best, abolitionists transcended the limits of bourgeois libertarianism. As good liberals they were committed to the ideal of self-ownership, to the conviction that freedom resides in the natural right every of human being to the ownership of his or her own self. One person could not rightfully own another, and for that reason “property in man” — slavery — became fundamentally illegitimate in ways that it had never seemed before.

This was an important moral breakthrough. It opened the eyes of millions to the genuine horrors of slavery. It clarified at least as much as it mystified. The critique of the Slave Power, though often discounted as a conspiracy theory, was in fact a sophisticated and persuasive account of how the slaveholding class — the “one percent” of its day — was able to throw so much of its pernicious weight around in Washington, D.C.

The barbarism of slavery was a very real feature of a labor system that relied inescapably on the master’s brute force. And regardless of whether slavery enriched or impoverished the South, there can be little doubt that the slave market shaped Southern society in ways that were fundamentally different from Northern market in free labor. In their stinging critiques of the Money Power and then the Slave Power, homegrown radicals saw clearly that concentrations of private wealth tended to corrupt democracy and threaten freedom.

Even moderates like Lincoln insisted that there were limits to the rights of property, that some things — not least of all human beings — should not be treated as commodities.

There is no mandate from heaven, no precept of natural law, that tells us what does and does not count as property, what is or is not a legitimate commodity. Governments make those decisions, and they are best made democratically. For that we need formal civic equality and jealously guarded voting rights — not only as an end but as the means by which we achieve a more decent society.

In 1860, American voters elected a president who believed that the rights of property did not include the right of one human being to hold property in another. When eleven slave states seceded, the party of Lincoln took control of Congress and proceeded to undermine and ultimately destroy the right of “property in man.” The abolitionists had a neat way of describing this: slavery was the “theft” of the slaves’ property in themselves, they argued, and emancipation merely the restoration of the slaves’ natural right to self-ownership. From this perspective — and it’s a good one — abolition was the largest redistribution of wealth in American history.

This is a precedent we condescend to at our peril. We are faced yet again with the threat to democracy posed by extreme concentrations of private wealth. This morning’s paper has a story about a single hedge-fund billionaire in the United States who is holding 41 million Argentinians hostage to his greedy demand for full payment of his loans. Finance Power now distorts public policy in the same way that the Slave Power once did. Under these conditions how likely are lawmakers to deploy the power of the state to put essential limits on the insidious spread of commodification?

“Left neoliberalism” is no solution; it has no answers to some of the most pressing questions of our time. Should Bill and Melinda Gates be setting the agenda for school reform? Should health care be up for sale? Can the market reliably determine what counts as a living wage? Is college a commodity, available as a service to the highest bidders, its value determined by the pay scale of its graduates? Have we unlearned the lesson Frederick Douglass learned, that when it comes to protecting the weak against the strong, “nothing” is not enough?

From the earliest decades of the republic through the middle of the twentieth century, sharp critiques of private power were a recurring theme in American politics. Even Eisenhower raised alarms about the military-industrial complex. But that oppositional tradition has long since shriveled. Social issues that rightly demanded the repeal of state-sponsored forms of discrimination gave a new purchase to libertarian critiques of state power and with them a diminished appreciation of the threat to freedom posed by overweening private power.

Progressives once enlivened the state to limit working hours, outlaw child labor, guarantee workers the right to bargain collectively, provide social security to the elderly and the disabled and medical care to retirees. The same progressives used government to reign in bankers, tax bloated wealth, and force businesses to bargain with unions.

But the rise of neoliberalism has turned many progressives against this tradition. They now seek “market” solutions to problems caused by the unrestrained and increasingly unregulated market. They define students and their parents as “consumers” and offer them more “choices” instead of better-trained teachers. They deregulate the financial system. Their health care reforms are a boondoggle for the insurance industry. Meanwhile the infrastructure that only the state can sustain is ready to collapse. Prisons are privatized. We even contract our wars out to private corporations! The market is out of control, and there are few mainstream voices left echoing the sentiments once uttered even by moderates like Abraham Lincoln: There are limits to the rights of property. Some things should not be up for sale.

What does or does not count as legitimate property is as much a political decision today as it was in the 1860s. This is why, as much as I admire Thomas Piketty’s remarkable study of Capital in the Twenty-First Century, I’m skeptical of his claim that rising inequality is a virtually natural “law” of capitalism. When Piketty tells us that inequality was lessened in the first half of the twentieth century only because of seemingly exogenous shocks of war and depression, I’m reminded of the historians who claim that slavery was not destroyed by abolitionists and runaway slaves but by the war itself.

But wars don’t lead, willy-nilly, to the equalization of wealth or the abolition of slavery. It takes politics, and that means political movements, to turn wars in a progressive direction. Pearl Harbor did not lead inevitably to an 85 percent income tax rate any more than Fort Sumter led inevitably to the Thirteenth Amendment. In both cases those in power took advantage of the war to redistribute wealth.

One Congress raised those taxes during the Second World War; decades later another lowered them. No “law” of capitalism compelled either decision, and neither policy was “natural.” Piketty tells us that inequality will inevitably increase if capitalism is left to its own devices, but when has capitalism ever been left to its own devices? The decision to tax capital gains at 18.5 percent rather than 85 percent is a political one; it has nothing to do with the innate “laws” of capital accumulation.

The Civil War made it possible to abolish slavery, but the decision to abolish it was still a political one. And as terrible as the war was, without it the decision to destroy slavery could never have been made. So I don’t begrudge the anti-slavery movement for not finishing what it started. Revolutions are always unfinished. The truth is, I rather like the abolitionists, even the white ones. Let’s grant them their blind spots and acknowledge the limits of their vision. For better and for worse, they were bourgeois radicals, not socialists.

Alas, in its affection for the principles of the marketplace, “left neoliberalism” echoes the worst rather than the best of the abolitionist legacy. The antislavery movement was not crippled by the racism that scholars are too quick to discern, but by the libertarian strain that other scholars admire.

I’m much more interested in the way abolitionism moved beyond the limits of libertarianism. But unlike so many students of the movement, I’m not attracted to the cult of true radicalism. I just don’t care which abolitionists top the scales that measure them by their ideological purity. Above all, I’m interested in efficacy; I want to know how the abolitionists got abolition done. I want to figure out how hundreds of thousands of men and women managed to organize a successful political movement that brought racial slavery to an end in America. And I want to understand how, by destroying slavery, abolitionists made the next set of struggles possible.

There could be no Civil Rights Movement until there was no more slavery. To guide us through those subsequent struggles, the abolitionists left us with an invaluable set of principles — that equality is a means as well as an end, that working people have a right to “reasonable” wages, that there are limits to the rights of property, and that at a certain point concentrated wealth is not merely obscene, but is a fundamental threat to democracy itself.