Taming the Antislavery Revolution

The Civil War wasn’t just a struggle against the South. It was an ideological battle within the heart of Northern society.

President Lincoln visiting the battlefield at Antietam, Maryland, October 3, 1862. Alexander Gardner / Library of Congress

By any reasonable standard, the violent overthrow of the largest, wealthiest slave society on earth ought to qualify as a revolution. Four million slaves were liberated during the American Civil War and with that the labor system of the South was radically transformed. Abolition was immediate and uncompensated. The “Slave Power” was overthrown, ending decades in which the South held disproportionate sway over the federal government. The Constitution was fundamentally restructured by three amendments that abolished slavery, redefined citizenship, banned racial discrimination in voting, and forever altered the relationship between the federal government and the states. The revolution secured the triumph of wage labor, paving the way for the Industrial Revolution of the late nineteenth century and with it a Gilded Age of capitalist plutocracy.

How did this happen? Ask a random group of American historians what caused the Civil War and they’re likely to reply in unison, “slavery.” Push them to elaborate and they’ll probably cite the southern secessionists who were as clear as could be that they were leaving the Union to protect slavery. But protect it from what? Was the North actually threatening slavery? Ask those questions and the same historians are likely to break out into rival and occasionally angry camps. On one side are those who insist that when the war began, northerners had no meaningful antislavery convictions to speak of. Emancipation was forced on an unwilling North and a reluctant Abraham Lincoln, either by the slaves themselves or by the exigencies of war. A few years back one historian of the secession crisis actually claimed that the slaves were freed “inadvertently.”

On the other side are those who see the rise of antislavery politics, culminating in the triumph of the Republican Party, as a major cause of the Civil War. Different historians stress different aspects of this process, but there is widespread agreement that antislavery politics not only split the nation, it also divided the North. Republicans ended up fighting a two-front war — against the South, obviously, but also against northern Democrats. This conflict within the North was epitomized in the famous series of debates between Abraham Lincoln and his Democratic rival Stephen Douglas.

Back in the 1930s and ‘40s the “revisionist” school of Civil War historians, led by J. G. Randall, praised Lincoln and Douglas as “moderates,” denied that there was any fundamental difference between them, and blamed the Civil War on irresponsible agitators — fire-eating secessionists in the South and unprincipled opportunists who gave voice to the wild-eyed radicals in the North. The Civil War, revisionists insisted, was a “needless conflict.”

Few historians still subscribe to this view. They discern two very different political cultures in the Republican and Democratic parties, differences of style, rhetoric, and substance, but above all, differences over slavery. More recently a number of historians, myself included, have emphasized the revolutionary nature of the Republican Party. We’re not talking about bomb-tossing anarchists: the Republicans were bourgeois revolutionaries, determined to use all means available within the liberal constitutional order to bring about the complete destruction of southern slavery and with it the triumph of free-labor capitalism. Nationally they faced an increasingly solid bloc of proslavery southerners. But at home, in the northern states, Republicans confronted a Democratic Party that was, according to a number of recent historians, fundamentally proslavery. In this account, the revolutionary overthrow of slavery required not only the military defeat of the southern Confederacy but the political defeat of the northern Democrats.

The Mirage of Consensus

Adam I. P. Smith’s The Stormy Present offers a lucid, learned, and unconvincing reinterpretation of the revolution against slavery, framed as a meditation on northern political culture. He agrees that the destruction of slavery was a “revolution” but asserts that it was a conservative one. According to Smith, northerners were a fundamentally conservative people whose shared values outweighed their conflicts. He discerns a singular “northern mind,” marked by what he calls an “antislavery consensus.” But as Smith sees it, the antislavery convictions of “most northerners” were so anodyne that they were embraced by Republicans and Democrats alike. Everybody believed in free labor. Everybody endorsed popular sovereignty. Resentment of the Slave Power was universal. And, of course, all of them were racists. In an echo of J. G. Randall, Smith claims there was no practical or even philosophical difference between Stephen Douglas and his arch-enemy Abraham Lincoln. And despite their shared antislavery convictions, “most” northerners were driven into the Civil War by their conservative impulses. They wanted more than anything to suppress the slaveholders’ lawless rebellion and restore order and stability to the Union.

Smith’s account of the origins of the Civil War has no place for the influence abolitionism on antislavery politics and pays scant attention to the growing economic and political power of the North. Instead, The Stormy Present focuses almost entirely on the way the mostly antislavery North became steadily more concerned about the threat slavery posed to law and order. Northerners disliked slavery, but their deep-seated conservatism led them to distrust abolitionists even more. As far as “most” northerners were concerned, it was antislavery radicals who threatened the peace and quiet of the Union with their incessant provocations, their blatant disdain for the Constitution, and their fanatical demands for immediate abolition and racial equality. That only changed when a series of shocks led northerners to conclude that proslavery southern radicals were the more serious threat to law and order.

First came an obnoxious new Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, empowering the federal government to enforce the right to slave property within northern states. Overbearing federal enforcement of the law not only provoked an intense backlash in the North, it exposed the fraudulence of the South’s supposed commitment to “states’ rights.” More shocking still was the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act, which repealed the long-established ban on slavery in the Nebraska territory. It was Stephen Douglas, the most powerful northern Democrat, who shoved the bill through Congress at the behest of proslavery southerners. Outraged Democratic voters abandoned their party in droves, despite Douglas’s insistence that “popular sovereignty” — the right of each state to decide for itself whether legalize or abolish slavery — was bound to make Kansas a free state, even without a federal ban on slavery. But the flagrant aggression of proslavery thugs in Kansas forced Douglas and the northern Democrats to defend popular sovereignty against the manifestly unpopular proslavery state constitution that landed in Congress’s lap. Thus Douglas remained within the antislavery consensus, Smith says, because he never abandoned his faith that Kansas would eventually enter the Union as a free state.

The next big shock to the previously lethargic antislavery consensus was the Dred Scot decision of 1857, in which the Supreme Court gave full-throated endorsement to the most extreme of all proslavery claims: that the Constitution “expressly” protected slavery as a basic right of property. Popular sovereignty, the favored policy of northern Democrats, was therefore unconstitutional because neither Congress nor territorial legislatures could deprive slaveholders of their inalienable right to “property in man.” This put northern and southern Democrats on a collision course that ended with the party’s crackup at the 1860 convention. The powerful southern wing of the party bolted when northern Democrats rejected a proslavery platform calling for a federal slave code for the territories. Once again, as Smith sees it, the Democratic Party split apart because the northern wing refused to abandon the “antislavery consensus.”

This catastrophic fissure within the Democratic Party paved the way for the victory of Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican president, despite the fact that, in Smith’s telling, there were few meaningful differences between Lincoln and Douglas. Lincoln’s election, in turn, prompted the secession of the Deep South and led inexorably to civil war. But according to Smith, it was Lincoln’s conservatism that set those wheels in motion. He was a law and order man and as such was determined to suppress secession as “the essence of anarchy.” As soon as Confederates fired on Fort Sumter, northern Democrats joined in the conservative chorus, no less determined to restore the Union than the Republicans who prosecuted the war. Where historians like Gary Gallagher argue that the North went to war only to restore the Union, Smith argues that “most” northerners could not separate their Unionism from their antislavery convictions.

It’s certainly true that Democrats and Republicans could unite in support of the “Union,” but there is no reason to believe that “most” northerners viewed the Union through the lens of an “antislavery consensus.” Republicans did. They were antislavery nationalists to the core. But there the consensus ended. Northern Democrats were Unionists, to be sure, but they were proslavery Unionists — pretty much the only ones left by 1861. And this raises a question: Is Unionism intrinsically conservative, no matter what kind of Union you’re fighting for?

Dampening the Contradictions

Smith’s definition of “conservatism” is frustratingly devoid of substance. You were a conservative if you disliked lawlessness, even if the lawlessness you wanted to suppress was the murder of abolitionists, the slaveholders’ rebellion, or the Ku Klux Klan. Smith also says that you’re a conservative if you call yourself a conservative — again without regard to anything you actually do or propose to do. I’m not so sure. The more radical Lincoln became over the course of the 1850s, the more inclined he was to paper over his radicalism by calling himself a conservative. It’s a familiar strategy: demand radical change in the name of traditional values — the Norman Yoke, the ancient constitution, the rights of Englishmen, republican independence. Antislavery radicals did just that. They claimed they wanted nothing more than to fulfill the intentions of the Founders. Such conservative self-fashioning should be taken seriously, but Smith goes further — he takes it at face value. You might say he relishes the conservative plumage but forgets the radical bird. And where recent scholars have demolished the old idea that Lincoln and the Radical Republicans hated one another, Smith puts his finger in the crumbling dike, determined to keep radicalism from spilling into the mainstream of northern politics.

To diminish the Republicans’ antislavery convictions, Smith relies on a device that is all too familiar in the historiography. He parses the different types of antislavery arguments, sequesters them from one another, and then stacks them in a moral hierarchy. For example, the “military necessity” of emancipation is banished to the lowest level because it was merely utilitarian; its popularity as a justification for emancipation is the final proof of just how conservative “most” northerners were. At the other end of the spectrum, high atop the moral hierarchy, sits humanitarianism, with its abiding concern for the enslaved people themselves.

This makes it seem as though people who thought slavery was, say, economically backward couldn’t also harbor humanitarian sympathy for the slaves. There were indeed political, economic, social, and humanitarian arguments against slavery, and as intellectual history those distinctions make sense. But they don’t apply very well to actual people. William Seward developed the economic argument against slavery, but he still believed that slavery was a political, social, and humanitarian disaster. Lincoln’s main argument against slavery was that it violated the principle of fundamental human equality, but he dropped enough hints in his public and private writings to indicate that he understood and sympathized with the humanitarian critique.

As for the supposed conservatism of the “military necessity” argument, the problem here is that the Radicals were the first and most enthusiastic supporters of military emancipation. From the earliest months of the war, antislavery Republicans justified emancipation as a “military necessity” while Democrats dismissed the argument as pure humbug. There was no military necessity, they insisted, the Republicans were just using it as an excuse to free the slaves. The grain of truth in the Democrats’ denunciation is that the strong antislavery convictions of the Republicans clearly made them more receptive to military emancipation.

Meanwhile, Smith tells us that “most” northerners didn’t care at all about slavery’s victims. But that’s not plausible, either, for how would we then explain the massive appeal of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which fairly reeks of humanitarianism? In any case, there’s something not quite right about this business of downgrading the radicalism of abolition by the giving low marks to the justifications for it.

I appreciate the appeal of humanitarianism, but it gets us into too many wars. So I’m skeptical, and not only because antislavery people tended to sympathize with all the arguments against slavery. I just don’t see why it’s more admirable to focus on the horrors of slavery than to denounce slavery as a violation of the principle of fundamental human equality. And what’s so bad about the argument that the slave economy made the planters rich and everybody else poor? As for the argument that slavery gave rise to an arrogant ruling class that threatened American democracy — that’s my personal favorite. Think about it in contemporary terms. Humanitarian sympathy for the victims of the subprime mortgage debacle is good; it justifies helping people keep their homes. But the homeowners didn’t get much help because the corrupt structures of economic power are still in place. That’s why the bankers have to be brought to heel, the financial industry regulated, and the crooks sent to jail — because in the long run that’s the only thing that can stop the plutocrats from doing it all over again.

Smith also discounts the Republican Party’s antislavery credentials by confusing verbal militancy with radical substance. According to Smith, only the Radicals talked of surrounding the slave states with a “cordon of freedom” until slavery, like a “scorpion girt by fire,” stung itself to death. But that colorful metaphor referred to a series of concrete federal antislavery policies, backed up by a theory of antislavery constitutionalism. And by the time he became president Lincoln was on record as having endorsed most of them — abolition in Washington, D.C., a complete ban on slavery in the territories (which meant no new slave states), a federal personal liberty law that would thwart fugitive slave renditions, and active suppression of slavery on the high seas. He justified those policies on the ground that the Constitution granted the federal government complete power over slavery anywhere outside the slave states. And he went further, threatening that if the slave states seceded they would forfeit any claim to fugitive slaves and the North would be released from any obligation to return them.

This was essentially the same set of policies, backed by the same constitutional theory, which William Lloyd Garrison first proposed in the 1833 “Declaration of Sentiments” announcing the formation of the radical American Anti Slavery Society. Garrison, in turn, was almost certainly inspired by Benjamin Lundy, a true abolitionist pioneer, whose idea was to surround the slave states on all sides, blocking slavery’s expansion and slowly squeezing it to death. Lincoln never used the “cordon” or “scorpion” metaphors, but as far as I know neither did Lundy or Garrison. Lincoln did, however, say that if the federal government adopted all those policies it would put slavery “on the course of ultimate extinction.” Is it unreasonable to detect the influence of abolitionism on Lincoln’s antislavery politics? He was not and never claimed to be an abolitionist himself, but as Eric Foner has noted, Lincoln viewed the radicals as the indispensable base of the Republican Party.

Smith does understand that although Lincoln was not an abolitionist, he was nevertheless firmly antislavery. He knows that you could be an antislavery politician without taking the most radical antislavery positions. But he fails to apply an analogous standard to the northern Democrats. Apparently, while you could be antislavery without being an antislavery radical, you could not be proslavery unless you were a proslavery radical. Stephen Douglas exposes the flaw in this reasoning. He didn’t take the most radical proslavery position, yet there’s a case to be made that he was still fundamentally proslavery, in both theory and practice. Indeed, Douglas was the embodiment of a proslavery northern minority that had been casting its lot with proslavery southerners ever since the nation was founded.

The Enemy Within

Between 1790 and 1860 there were approximately a hundred votes related to slavery in the House of Representatives and about 95 percent of the time a majority of northern representatives voted against slavery. But this was no “antislavery consensus,” because those northern votes were always split. Roughly speaking, about two-thirds of the northern congressmen voted against slavery and one-third voted for slavery, thereby handing the much more “solid” South a nearly unbroken string of proslavery victories. The strength of the proslavery bloc varied over time and was strongest in the 1830s, but the overall pattern persisted for decades. Even as political parties rose and fell, as political allegiances shifted, there remained a persistent divide between proslavery and antislavery northerners in the House — which is about as good a proxy as we have for the breakdown of northern public opinion. The northern proslavery minority voted in favor of the admission of Missouri as a slave state in the 1820s, in favor of the “Gag Rule” suppressing antislavery petitions in the 1830s, against the Wilmot Proviso that would have banned slavery in the territory acquired from Mexico in the 1840s, in favor of the draconian Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, and in favor of the Kansas-Nebraska Act repealing the restriction on slavery in the territories.

In one proslavery vote after another this vocal northern minority repeatedly expressed its undying opposition to any federal policy designed to put slavery in the southern states on a “course of ultimate extinction.” Proslavery northern Democrats carried this tradition into the Civil War, voting as a solid block against every single piece of antislavery legislation passed by the Republicans and nearly derailing the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery. Yet despite this long history of proslavery votes and vehement opposition to emancipation, the northern Democrats pulled back from endorsing the most extreme of all proslavery positions — the constitutional right of property in slaves — even though they did so for reasons that had little or nothing to do with antislavery convictions.

Smith doesn’t see this because he thinks most northerners were more or less racist more or less all the time. “White supremacist assumptions remained the norm,” he says. This premise precludes the possibility that conflicting views about slavery reflected differing views about racial equality. But those differences were in fact substantial.

Like the majority of northern Democrats, Stephen Douglas believed in free labor — for white people. He believed in popular sovereignty — for white people. In Douglas’s view, the natural rights promised in the Declaration of Independence were meant for white people only. Unabashed racism shaped everything Douglas believed about slavery. Blacks were not only inferior to whites, they were naturally suited to work as slaves in warmer climates, whereas whites worked best as free laborers in cooler climates. The reason slavery was unlikely to spread into Kansas, in his view, was that the climate was not suited to slavery. But if white people in any state or territory preferred to enslave black people, that was perfectly okay. If the United States were to expand into Central America or annex Cuba, as Douglas hoped, he would happily admit those territories into the Union as slave states because that’s what the white people in those areas would want. Douglas stopped short of endorsing a constitutional right of property in slaves. But he did so because, in principle, it would deprive white people in states and territories of their right to decide for themselves whether or not to enslave black people. Slave property was a legislative option, not a constitutional right.

These were not Lincoln’s positions. Lincoln insisted that the principle of free labor applied to everyone, blacks as well as whites, women as well as men. “In the right to eat the bread, without leave of anybody else, which his own hand earns,” the black man “is my equal and the equal of Judge Douglas and the equal of every living man.” Douglas must have gagged when he heard that. Lincoln was adamant that the promise of fundamental equality in the Declaration of Independence applied to blacks and whites alike and Douglas no less adamantly denied it. Smith dismisses this as an empty philosophical distinction of no practical significance. But in fact the struggle over the meaning of the Declaration of Independence went to the core differences between the antislavery policies Lincoln and the Republicans endorsed and the proslavery policies Douglas and the northern Democrats espoused.

Lincoln could not have been clearer on this point. He and Douglas both claimed to believe in popular sovereignty, but as Lincoln explained, Douglas’s version of popular sovereignty only made sense if you assumed that there was nothing wrong with states or territories treating black people as property. “But if the negro is a man,” Lincoln argued, “then my ancient faith teaches me that ‘all men are created equal.'” Lincoln said this over and over in his speeches, and Republicans said similar things all the time. They even quoted the Declaration of Independence in their 1860 platform — but rather than explain why they put it there, Smith veers off into an irrelevant tangent about how Horace Greeley wanted the quotation removed. Obviously, Greeley lost.

That’s not to say that Republicans were proto-civil rights activists or that Lincoln was some nineteenth-century precursor to Martin Luther King Jr. He was hardly that. In fact, the critical difference between Lincoln and the Radicals to his left had less to do with their antislavery convictions than with the limits of Lincoln’s racial egalitarianism. Unlike most abolitionists, Lincoln never endorsed the right of blacks to hold public office, sit on juries, or marry whites, and not until the end of his life did he endorse black suffrage. Well into his presidency Lincoln remained pessimistic that white majorities would every allow blacks to live in America as equals. His solution was to encourage blacks to voluntarily colonize themselves somewhere outside the United States. And yet, unlike Douglas, Lincoln believed that blacks and whites were equally entitled to the natural right of freedom, to the fruits of their labor, and to the privileges and immunities of citizenship. In this Lincoln reflected an important anti-racist strain within the Republican Party.

Before the Civil War, antislavery politicians in northern states frequently introduced bills to remove racial restrictions on the franchise and allow black men to vote. They always lost, usually by margins of roughly 45 to 55 percent. But think about what those numbers indicate. If most of the votes against black suffrage came from Democrats, that has to mean that most of the votes in favor of black suffrage came from Republicans. That’s what happened in New York just before the war began. Republicans in the legislature proposed an amendment to the state constitution that would remove the racially discriminatory property requirement for voting. The referendum went down to defeat, despite the fact the two-thirds of Republicans voted in favor of it. No one who reads the prewar debates over black suffrage in the state legislatures can reasonably conclude that northerners were united in their commitment to white supremacy. If they were, why would those votes keep coming up?

If you think, like Smith, that “most” northerners were racists, you’ll have no trouble finding racists, even among Republicans. But Republicans and Democrats said different things about race and slavery, wrote different platforms, introduced different laws, and voted in sharply different ways. These were partly conflicts over policy, but they also reflected broader differences between the political cultures of the two parties. Bury those differences and it’s impossible to understand the politics of slavery.

Very different approaches to slavery were on full display in the 1860 platforms of the two northern parties. Unlike the Republicans, for example, the Democrats conspicuously failed to affirm that all men were created equal. Why would they? They didn’t believe it. On the matter of slavery in the territories the Democrats vowed to abide by the decisions of the notoriously proslavery Supreme Court; in sharp contrast, the Republican platform flatly repudiated the court by proposing to ban slavery from all the territories on the ground that freedom was their “natural” condition. The Democrats called for the annexation of Cuba, which would have added hundreds of thousands of slaves to the United States and who knows how many new slave states. Meanwhile they denounced northern states for passing “personal liberty laws” that interfered with the Fugitive Slave Law. The Republicans hated the law, refused to insist that it be enforced, and so remained silent. (Lincoln himself called for a federal personal liberty law, a stunningly radical proposal that no Democrat would have endorsed.) For good measure, and with good reason, the Republican platform denounced the Democrats for their measureless subservience to the Slave Power.

If you don’t get what Republicans stood for in 1860, you can’t understand what happened in 1861 when, for the first time, the party secured the presidency and firm majorities in both houses of Congress. They immediately began emancipating slaves and within a few short years abolished slavery altogether. Congress repealed the ban on black enlistment in the Union army. The Lincoln administration repudiated the Dred Scott decision and declared that under the Constitution blacks were citizens after all. In 1866 Republicans passed a landmark civil rights bill. They added a powerful Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution guaranteeing black citizenship, followed by another amendment banning racial discrimination in voting everywhere in the United States. Democrats, on the other hand, climbed to new heights of racial demagoguery in their obsessive opposition to every one of those measures.

In the end, Smith seems less interested in the nitty-gritty politics of slavery than in what he calls “the Northern mind.” And because he sees no difference between Republicans and Democrats and believes all of them were conservatives, his account of the northern mind is consistently biased toward individuals who fit the profile. Instead of quoting mainstream Republicans and representative Democrats, Smith argues for his “antislavery consensus” by citing conservative Whigs who voted for Democrats and Democrats who didn’t like blacks but didn’t much like slavery either. From those skewed sources Smith concludes that “most” people had mixed feelings about slavery, the “broad electorate” didn’t care about black people, and the “vast majority” of northerners were firmly ensconced in the conservative middle ground. He notes that such ambiguous sentiments defy the simple categories of proslavery and antislavery, and then, without skipping a beat, dumps all the Democrats and Republicans right back into the blender, turns it all the way up to purée, and pours out an undifferentiated mass of antislavery conservatives. Well, maybe it’s an oversimplification to reduce everything to two categories of proslavery and antislavery. But two categories are twice as many as one.

Revolutionary Morality

Republicans believed that the capitalist system based on free labor was, in their own words, socially, politically, economically, and morally superior to slave society. But this did not make the Republicans “moral” and the Democrats “immoral.” It was never that simple, and no serious historian has ever said it was. At stake were fundamentally different conceptions about the best way to organize a good society, about what was and was not “moral.” The slaveholders could quote the Bible with the best of them. And no matter how cynically it was deployed, “popular sovereignty” — if it means that government legitimacy ultimately rests on the will of the people — was and remains a serious and valuable political conviction. But as David Brion Davis has demonstrated in a string of illustrious books, antislavery morality — our morality — was a revolutionary new idea in the early modern world and this moral revolution had something to do with the development of capitalism.

It took the abolitionists to develop and articulate those radical new standards of morality. But it took Lincoln and the Republicans to make the revolution happen. What’s the point of calling them conservatives?