Slavery Was Defeated Through Mass Politics

The overthrow of slavery in the United States wasn't a byproduct of capitalist development nor the triumph of an enlightened activist vanguard. It was a battle waged and won in the field of democratic mass politics — a battle that holds enormous lessons for radicals today.

"The Anti-Slavery Society Convention, 1840," by Benjamin Robert Haydon. National Portrait Gallery

In the middle decades of the nineteenth century, the United States was the largest, strongest, and richest slave society in the history of the modern world. By 1860 nearly four million enslaved laborers, valued collectively at over three billion dollars, produced an agricultural product that accounted for well over half of American global exports. The United States did not stand alone as a major slaveholding society — the slave economies of Brazil and Cuba were also booming — but it was unquestionably the most dynamic and influential in world affairs. At a moment when there were more enslaved workers and more slave-produced goods than ever before, the political and economic power of the United States led the way.

The recent flood of scholarship on this general subject, devoted to the intimate historical relationship between slavery and capitalism, would not have surprised contemporary observers. “So long as slavery shall possess the cotton-fields, the sugar-fields, and the rice-fields of the world,” declared New York Senator William Seward in 1850, “so long will Commerce and Capital yield it toleration and sympathy.” Today economic historians continue to debate the nature of this relationship: in what ways did enslaved African labor fuel and shape capitalist development, both in the United States and across the broader Atlantic World? It is not the purpose of this essay to intervene in that important debate. Instead I will take up the challenge posed by Seward in the next sentence of that same 1850 speech, in which he contemplated not the economic structures that gave slavery its power, but the political effort necessary to overthrow it: “Emancipation,” said Seward, “is a democratic revolution.” Likening the struggle against American slavery to the struggle against European aristocracy, Seward argued that any challenge to the power of the slaveholding class must come through mass democratic politics.

This political dimension of the question, as James Oakes has observed, has often gone missing from the recent debates around slavery and capitalism in the United States. And yet in some ways it is the politics of antislavery, more than the economics of slavery itself, that made the mid-nineteenth-century American experience so distinctive. The largest and strongest slave society in the modern world history also produced the largest and strongest antislavery political movement in modern world history. Almost alone among its contemporaries, the United States ended chattel slavery not through royal decree, judicial verdict, or armed insurrection, but through mass democratic struggle. To be sure, electoral victories alone were not sufficient to destroy human bondage: that required the hard and bloody work of the American Civil War. But the legal emancipations of that war were all threatened, announced, executed, and sustained democratically, by an antislavery political party that won office through national elections. Even the armed resistance of the Southern slaves themselves, so essential to the defeat of the Confederate rebellion, can hardly be understood without reference to the power wielded by the slaves’ Northern allies in government. Every emancipation that came at the point of a bullet began, and in a critical sense depended, on the face of a ballot.

In the classic formulation of W.E.B. Du Bois, the motor behind this Northern political revolution was the “abolition-democracy,” a vanguard of antislavery radicals whose effective alliance with African Americans in the South made emancipation and Reconstruction possible. For Du Bois, this group only represented “a minority in the North,” which was otherwise “overwhelmingly in favor of Negro slavery, so long as this did not interfere with Northern moneymaking.” And yet the narrative of Black Reconstruction, beginning in 1860, largely skimmed past the political struggle in which this heroic minority somehow obtained control of a federal government heretofore dominated by slaveholders. This was a crucial element of the story: it was the electoral triumph of Abraham Lincoln and the Republican Party, after all, that sparked secession and first opened the door to a military struggle against slavery thereafter. In fact, the construction of an antislavery majority in the North — the true “abolition-democracy” — was an essential precondition for the Civil War’s emancipatory bond between Republican politicians, Northern soldiers, and Southern slaves. It was “votes,” as Du Bois wrote in The Souls of Black Folk, that “made war and emancipated millions.”

If contemporary scholars have eagerly documented the many links between American slavery and capitalism, they have been far slower to explore the relationship between American emancipation and democracy. For the most part, US historians remain less impressed by any fundamental conflict between slavery and democracy than their apparent inextricability. This is the devious and tragic “American paradox” proposed by Edmund S. Morgan nearly half a century ago, in which rights for free white Americans depended on the oppression of African slaves. Morgan’s story centered on the rather specific history of colonial Virginia, but that has not stopped scholars from regarding it as a kind of skeleton key for the whole of American experience, in which the legacy of slavery remains unchangingly entwined with the democratic promise of freedom. But whatever its merits as an interpretation of Bacon’s Rebellion or the mind of Thomas Jefferson, this “paradox” evades the obvious and profound tensions between American slavery and American democracy, across the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Above all, it does little to help us understand the long history of antislavery struggle in the United States, which — from the earliest abolition societies to the battles of Reconstruction — nearly always rooted itself in democratic politics. In the 1850s, the mass movement that broke the power of the master class took shape as a political party within Northern electoral democracy.

Marxist historians, from Du Bois onward, have been better at identifying the basic contradictions between slavery and democratic politics. And yet very often, the adjective “democratic” tends to function either as a synonym or subordinate modifier for the more historically significant category of “bourgeois.” From this angle, the political rout of the Slave Power was less a victory for popular democracy than a loud consequence of much more deep-lying structural developments, that is, “the subordination of merchant- to industrial capital in the US economy.” To be sure, economic change in the early nineteenth-century North — including the decline of bound labor, the spread of wage relations, and new transportation links between markets in the Northwest and Northeast — helped provide a material foundation for the social critique of slavery in the 1850s. As Eric Foner has argued influentially, the Republican celebration of “free labor” drew in part on “loyalty to the society of small-scale capitalism” in the North.”

Yet the triumph of the Republicans cannot be reduced to the victory of industrial capitalism, either in material or in ideological terms. On the eve of the Civil War, over 70 percent of Northerners lived in rural areas and made a living from agriculture: this distinctive society of small farmers, which formed the bedrock of the Republican Party, certainly sought economic development but hardly organized itself around the accumulation of capital. The average size of Northern farms decreased across most of the nineteenth century. Meanwhile the antebellum Northern owners of capital themselves had very little to do with the origins, the organization, or the electoral triumph of uncompromising antislavery. Indeed, many of them fought it at every turn. The opponents of the slaveholding aristocracy, William Seward reminded an audience in Wisconsin, could not rely on the virtue of “commercial and manufacturing communities” to save them. “There is no virtue in Pearl street, in Wall street, in Court street, in Chestnut street, in any street of the great commercial cities, that can save the great democratic government of ours, when you cease to uphold it with your intelligent votes … You must, therefore, lead us.”

The Republican Party aimed to transform the slave South not simply through economic modernization — by building railroads or factories in a backward hinterland — but necessarily through political struggle, by organizing Northern voters into a phalanx that could overthrow the master class and its allies in Washington. The Achilles’ heel of the Slave Power was not its inability to adapt to capitalism, but its weak foundation within a majoritarian democracy. “The whole number of slaveholders is only three hundred and fifty thousand,” Seward pointed out in 1855, just “one hundredth part of the entire population of the country.” To overcome this antebellum 1 percent, he argued, antislavery forces must turn to the “agency of the ballot-box,” with a firm confidence that “the people of the United States do not prefer the wealth of the few to the liberty of the many.”

Approaching the antebellum birth of the “abolition-democracy” as a political revolution, this essay underlines the radicalism of that revolution from two distinct perspectives. First, by putting American antislavery politics in context with other struggles against servitude across the Atlantic World, we can better understand the particularity of the US experience. The scale of the political mobilization against slaveholding power, in the decade before the Civil War, distinguished the American antislavery movement from its international peers throughout the nineteenth century. Second, by exploring the genuinely popular basis of American antislavery in the North — and its tentative but significant connections with enslaved people in the South — we can better establish the roots of the even more revolutionary transformations of the Civil War. The fusion of antislavery sentiment and mass democratic politics in the 1850s has often been regarded as a diminution of the more radical abolitionist movement that preceded it. But in crucial ways the emergence of the Republican Party as a major political force only deepened the radical potential of the antislavery struggle as a whole. By linking the moral battle against slavery to the material concerns of millions of Northern voters — through participation in concrete electoral campaigns — Republicans elevated and sharpened the collision between “freedom” and “slavery” in America. It was this process, commenced years before the first shots of the Civil War, that prepared the way for the most convulsive era of emancipation in nineteenth-century world history.

Abolition in Comparative Context

The modern history of abolition begins in the late eighteenth century. For millennia, of course, enslaved people from Rome to Russia resisted their enslavement — often to the last extremity — and this was no different for the millions of Africans captured and transported to the Americas after 1492. But across ancient and modern history, resistance and even collective rebellion has seldom sufficed to challenge the power of a slave regime, and this too was true in the exceptionally brutal conditions of the Atlantic plantation complex. From within this European-dominated system, meanwhile, occasional voices lamented the cruelty of New World bondage, or offered religious denunciations of the conduct of the slave trade. But isolated pockets of Jesuits and Quakers — like early slave rebels and maroons — generally failed to rattle the foundations of the larger plantation regime, if they even sought or imagined such an ambitious goal.

The serious struggle to abolish slavery itself — to emancipate the millions of bondspeople across the Americas and end the chattel system altogether — only emerged with the great revolutions that shook the Atlantic World after 1770. In the long century that followed, every slave regime in the Western Hemisphere was dismantled, from the first legal abolition written into the Vermont constitution of 1777 to the final emancipation of Brazilian slaves in 1888. Within this longer span of struggle, it is possible to distinguish between two waves of emancipation. During the first wave, from roughly 1776 to 1825, gradual abolition was achieved in the context of anti-colonial warfare and revolutionary regime change. The black Jacobins of Saint-Domingue, whose twelve-year military struggle established the independent state of Haiti — the only successful slave rebellion in modern history — were just the most outstanding example of the era’s anti-colonial abolitionists. Vermont’s pioneering constitution was composed by a huddled conclave of rebel delegates, anxiously tracking the progress of British general John Burgoyne, who had captured Fort Ticonderoga three days before. Only the American victory in the Saratoga campaign, later that autumn, allowed the Vermont Council of Safety to distribute its abolitionist constitution to the people for approval. The social contexts of these struggles, of course, varied radically. But from Pennsylvania’s Gradual Abolition Act of March 1780 — passed by another revolutionary assembly in the teeth of the American War of Independence — to the Colombian Manumission Law of July 1821 — pushed by Simón Bolivar amid the war against Spain — effective antislavery politics generally tracked the progress of anti-colonial revolutions on the battlefield.

Most of the successful emancipations between 1770 and 1830, with the spectacular exception of Haiti, came in continental societies where colonial slavery had been relatively weak or peripheral to the regional economy. Where plantation slavery had been economically central and politically influential — in the Southern United States, Spanish Cuba, the British and French West Indies, and the Empire of Brazil — it generally weathered the storm of anti-colonial rebellion and persisted deep into the nineteenth century. The second major wave of abolition, from 1830 to 1888, thus unfolded in a different set of contexts. The growing industrial economies of the North Atlantic demanded ever larger helpings of cotton, sugar, and coffee, fueling a dramatic expansion and intensification of the hemispheric plantation complex, especially in Cuba, Brazil, and the US South. This “second slavery,” as historians have called it, featured politically powerful slaveholders presiding over economically dynamic slave societies, in which the tools and techniques of industrial capitalism were brought to bear on plantation production. By the 1850s this international master class, with American planter elites at its head, was richer and more sophisticated than ever before in modern history.

Yet in spite of these differences, the second wave of mid-nineteenth century emancipation shared at least one key feature of the first: violent revolution and war were catalysts for antislavery political action. In an echo of the earlier anti-colonial rebellions, the Paris revolution of 1848, followed by slave uprisings in Martinique and St Croix, dealt a coup de grâce to French and Danish slavery in the Atlantic. Two decades later, the Cuban rebels of 1868 did not succeed in winning independence from Spain, but the bloody Ten Year War (1868–78), the increasing assertiveness of Cuban slaves, and a liberal revolution in Madrid were all necessary to produce the Spanish abolition laws of 1870, 1880, and 1886. In imperial Britain and Brazil, meanwhile, royal governments responded to peacetime abolitionist pressure by instituting a range of gradual antislavery measures. And yet in both cases, interstate wars (the American Revolution of 1775–83, the Paraguayan War of 1864–70) and slave uprisings (Jamaica’s Baptist War of 1831–32) significantly hastened the progress of abolition.

In the largest slave society of the nineteenth-century Atlantic World, the United States, emancipation also came in the course of a devastating war, as the Union Army, aided by nearly two hundred thousand ex-slave soldiers, crushed the Confederate rebellion from without and within. The final destruction of American slavery — written into the US Constitution in the Thirteenth Amendment of 1865 — depended upon Union military triumph in the Civil War. And yet the chronological sequence of mid-nineteenth-century American abolition differed crucially from the events that ended bondage in other Atlantic societies, across both waves of emancipation. Elsewhere, from Vermont to Colombia to Cuba, antislavery gains followed violent revolution and military conflict — struggles that often originated over issues far removed from the question of slavery itself. Only in the United States, from 1854 to 1865, did an explicitly antislavery political victory precede, produce, and in a critical fashion sustain an abolitionist military revolution.

Before the mid-1850s, after all, slaveholders remained confidently at the helm of all three branches of the US government, while overseeing the expansion of the most powerful slave state in the hemisphere. It took the triumph of an antislavery political party to convince Southern masters to abandon the American union. In April 1861 Jefferson Davis, the president of the breakaway Confederacy, offered a clear explanation of how slaveholders understood the meaning of Republican victory in the election of 1860 in the United States:

Finally a great party was organized for the purpose of obtaining the administration of the Government, with the avowed object of using its power for the total exclusion of the slave States from all participation in the benefits of the public domain … of surrounding them entirely by States in which slavery should be prohibited; of thus rendering the property in slaves so insecure as to be comparatively worthless, and thereby annihilating in effect property worth thousands of millions of dollars. This party, thus organized, succeeded in the month of November last in the election of its candidate for the Presidency of the United States.

As a graduate of West Point, an officer in the US war with Mexico, a long-serving Senate chairman of the Military Affairs committee, and a pioneering Secretary of War, Davis had worked as hard as any antebellum American to build the strategic power of the United States. Like most of the slave South’s national leadership, he was far from a rash or single-minded secessionist. But the electoral victory of the Republicans in 1860 — followed by their refusal to compromise over the future of slavery — drove a reluctant Davis to quit the union he had worked so hard to strengthen.

In this sense, the Republican political revolution led directly to a Confederate counterrevolution, which itself produced the social revolution of the Civil War. “Slaveholders,” as Frederick Douglass put it as early as May 1861, had “invited armed abolition to march to the deliverance of the slave.” In that same month, the first Southern slaves crossed Confederate lines and were effectively emancipated by the US military, a process quickly ratified by Republicans in Congress. War, to be sure, accelerated antislavery politics; but unlike nearly every other slave society in the Americas, peacetime antislavery politics had first triggered war.

Among major slaveholding states in the Atlantic, only Brazil, Great Britain, and the United States developed popular antislavery movements that exerted major influence on peacetime politics. In Britain, where Seymour Drescher and others have most fully demonstrated the power and efficacy of antislavery protest, abolitionists concentrated on mobilizing public opinion outside of government, chiefly through massive petition campaigns. Such extra-parliamentary activity was a vital ingredient in the eventual abolition of the slave trade in 1807 and British West Indian slavery itself from 1833 to 1838. It also served as a significant inspiration and precedent for antislavery struggles in the United States and elsewhere.

Yet across the early nineteenth century, the British struggle for abolition unfolded within an aristocratic society, where both economic and political power was concentrated in the hands of the dominant landowning class. Threatened by waves of middle-class protest and working-class unrest, Britain’s rulers succeeded in fending off any revolutionary challenge to their authority. The Reform Act of 1832 granted the vote to some middle-class men, but denied the secret ballot, retained a property qualification for suffrage, and ultimately underlined the ongoing power of landholders in government. “The whole edifice of the state,” concludes Robin Blackburn, “remained oligarchic in character.” British antislavery reforms had to pass through the House of Commons, whose antidemocratic system of representation was adjusted rather than transformed by the 1832 Act. They had to win the sanction of the House of Lords, the terrain of a landed nobility that still constituted the wealthiest class in Britain and still exerted a major influence on politics. Last, British abolition had to receive the royal assent from King William IV, not entirely a formality in this period, and in any case a potent symbol of the essentially aristocratic nature of the regime.

The final Slavery Abolition Act, as approved by the monarch in 1833, was the recognizable product of this British society and this British government. After extensive negotiations with planter representatives in London, Parliament granted a handful of West Indian slaveholders £20 million in compensation — four times the annual budget of the Royal Navy — while assigning eight hundred thousand West Indian slaves to a six-year period of forced “apprenticeship.” The rights of property were respected in full; the system of class rule was maintained; and the end of slavery in the British Caribbean, whatever changes it slowly wrought in West Indian society, was something well short of a “democratic revolution.”

As scholars from Eric Williams to David Brion Davis have shown, the struggle against West Indian slavery also brought numerous rewards — structural, ideological, and otherwise, to the metropolitan men of business who helped advance the fight inside and outside of Parliament. That does not mean, exactly, that abolition was the work of capital: even Britain’s highly unequal emancipation would have been impossible without the extra-parliamentary agitation of radical abolitionists, who were far more likely to critique than celebrate the workings of British capitalism. Popular antislavery mobilization, involving a large swath of Britain’s working class, certainly helped make slave abolition possible within a society whose propertied leadership showed little inclination to take any such initiative on its own. But that same antislavery mobilization, for all its breadth, never really threatened the power of the existing elite, or managed a realignment of national politics from the ground up. Ultimately, British emancipation in the 1830s involved the acquiescence, even the active cooperation and connivance, of the ruling classes themselves — aristocratic landowners and industrial capitalists alike. Considering the course and outcome of British abolition as a whole, it would be difficult to disprove Linda Colley’s blunt verdict: “Britain’s rulers ended the slave trade and freed the West Indian slaves because they wanted to.”

Antebellum America’s slaveholding rulers, by contrast, did not write their own script. In Britain, antislavery press and petition campaigns influenced Parliament from the outside, but even at their height in the 1830s, slavery remained just one of many issues roiling national politics. Britain’s elites adopted and administered the Abolition Act in the same narrow period that they also managed the progress of Reform and Catholic emancipation, reorganized imperial rule in Ireland and India, fended off the Ten Hours Movement, and passed a new (and draconian) Poor Law. In the United States, on the other hand, the birth of a dedicated antislavery party in the mid-1850s broke apart the political order and virtually took over American congressional debate for seven continuous years. The political triumph of American antislavery in 1860 did not resolve a crisis, but accelerated one, with South Carolina announcing its secession just weeks after the Republican victory at the polls. Nor did American abolition grow out of negotiated settlement between elites, but precisely the failure of such a negotiation: it was the Republican refusal to compromise on the future of slavery, in the winter of 1860–61, that finally sent Jefferson Davis from Washington back to Mississippi to break up the Union and (within a few months) start the Civil War. Antebellum America’s democratic politics, once invaded by a popular party opposed to slavery, proved far less amenable to elite brokerage than the oligarchic system of Hanoverian Britain.

Of course, the nineteenth-century United States was far from an egalitarian democracy: only adult men could vote, and in many states, only adult white men. Yet selective mass suffrage in America was also fundamentally distinct from the property-based regime in Britain, where, even after the Reform Act, just 18 percent of adult males had the right to vote (and far fewer actually did). The fusion of antislavery struggle and electoral politics, finally, meant that the scale of antebellum popular mobilization against bondage was also quantitatively greater than anywhere else in the Atlantic. In 1833, Drescher reckons, about one in five adult men in Britain signed a petition against West Indian slavery. In the fiercely contested 1860 presidential election, which turned out 80 percent of eligible voters, more than one in three adult men in the North cast a ballot for Lincoln.

In September 1862, when Lincoln announced the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, Karl Marx declared it “the most important document in American history since the establishment of the Union, tantamount to the tearing up of the old American Constitution.” But rather than salute the President himself, Marx recognized that the structure of America’s mass democratic institutions — more than the character of its leadership — had played a decisive role in the US road to abolition. Lincoln the man, he wrote, was “without extraordinary importance,” merely “an average person of good will … placed at the top by the interplay of the forces of universal suffrage unaware of the great issues at stake. The new world has never achieved a greater triumph than by this demonstration that, given its political and social organisation, ordinary people of good will can accomplish feats which only heroes could accomplish in the old world!”

Antislavery as Mass Politics

But even if ordinary voters of good will drove the process of American abolition, can we really regard the rise of the Republican Party as an antislavery mobilization? Or was Marx’s own functionalist view of US electoral politics — “the forces of universal suffrage unaware of the great issues at stake” — a better characterization of the 1850s? Generations of historians, Marxist and non-Marxist alike, have tied themselves into knots denying the popular basis of American antislavery before the Civil War. Republican voters, argues one school, were driven largely by religious identity (as pietistic Protestants) and cultural bigotry (toward Irish immigrants), rather than the politics of slavery. But it is one thing to show that most evangelicals voted Republican, and most Catholics voted Democrat; it is another thing to construct a narrative of the 1850s that does not turn on the political struggle over slavery, which dominated every national election in the second half of the decade. As the foremost scholar of the “ethnocultural school” has acknowledged, when the Republicans achieved a breakthrough in 1856, their “master symbol” was “the concept of a Slave Power” — an oligarchy of Southern slaveholders whose ambitions “threatened the very essence of republican government.”

The fallback position for skeptics, then, is to assert that popular Northern hostility to the Slave Power — or to the extension of slavery — somehow did not constitute popular hostility to slavery itself. Such a view, however, willfully neglects the very tangible ways that containing slavery’s expansion would undermine the institution at its core. It papers over the contemporary understanding, almost ubiquitous on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line (and readily grasped by distant observers like Marx), that a Republican quarantine of bondage was a means to “put it on the course of ultimate extinction,” as Lincoln famously said in 1858. It ignores the frequency and the vividness with which Republican leaders before and beyond Lincoln made this same point. As Seward declared in the 1855 speech which announced his conversion to the party: “Slavery is not, and never can be, perpetual. It will be overthrown, peacefully or lawfully, under this constitution, or it will work the subversion of the constitution, together with its overthrow. Then the slaveholders would perish in the struggle.”

Historical skepticism about Republican antislavery often emerges from the many Republican disavowals of any intention to meddle directly with slavery inside the Southern states. Yet we should remember that such formal reassurances to the South — including Lincoln’s famous effort in his First Inaugural — universally failed to reassure. “The difficulty,” Frederick Douglass noted in 1861, as Southern states fled Lincoln’s union, “is the slaveholders understand the position of the Republican party too well. Whatever may be the honied phrases employed by Mr. Lincoln … all know that the masses at the North (the power behind the throne) had determined to take and keep this Government out of the hands of the slave-holding oligarchy, and to administer it hereafter to the advantage of free labor against slave labor.” It makes little sense to place limp and unconvincing rhetorical disclaimers at the center of Republican politics — as if Republicans campaigned chiefly on what they would not do — while obfuscating the political essence that made such disclaimers necessary. That essence lay not in specific doctrines or proposals, but, as Seward put it, the party’s amorphous but relentless antagonism toward “slavery,” in the broadest sense:

the character and fidelity of any party are determined, necessarily, not by its pledges, programmes, and platforms, but by the public exigencies, and the temper of the people when they call it into activity. Subserviency to slavery is a law written not only on the forehead of the democratic party, but also in its very soul — so resistance to slavery, and devotion to freedom, the popular elements now actively working for the republican party among the people, must and will be the resources for its ever-renewing strength and constant invigoration.

From 1854 to 1860, Republican antislavery agitation — and its enthusiastic response within the Northern electorate — forcibly reorganized American political conflict around this blunt binary between “slavery” and “freedom.” As Ohio governor Salmon Chase put it during the 1856 election, “the popular heart is stirred as never before, for the issue is boldly made between Freedom and Slavery — a Republic and a Despotism! … The chain-gang and Republicanism cannot coexist, and you must now elect whether you will vindicate the one at whatever cost, or whether you will yield to the other.”

With Republicans established as a major political party, such rhetoric multiplied across the national elections of the late 1850s, coursing through stump speeches, mass rallies, newspapers, and periodicals, and converting the ordinary infrastructure of electoral politics into a vast propaganda apparatus. In this sense, the emergence of a nationally competitive antislavery party did not narrow the scope of the battle against bondage or redirect it toward an elite effort to win office. On the contrary, the regularly scheduled engagements of the antebellum electoral calendar offered antislavery forces further chances to expand their rhetorical war on the Slave Power. If skeptical historians persist in seeing the party of Lincoln, Seward, and Chase as a party of slavery non-extension, slaveholders themselves knew better. The Republicans were, as the 1856 Democratic platform put it, preeminently a party of “slavery agitation.” In the words of the Richmond Enquirer on the eve of that year’s election:

Slavery, slavery is the war-cry inscribed on the black banner of a reckless party, and, with stereotyped phrases, repeated morning, noon and night, at public meetings and in social circles, by knots in the streets and orators in the stump, from the pulpit and the grogshop, echoed and re-echoed from the Rocky Mountains to the mighty oceans which surround our vast domain ….”

It was this popular agitation against bondage, as much as any item in the Republican agenda, that terrified Southern elites, who began to threaten secession if the “antislavery excitement” continued. Virginia Senator R.M.T. Hunter, urging a New York audience to vote down the Republicans or risk disunion, declared that he would “pass over some of the subjects of sectional difference, raised by the platform of this party,” and lay aside “the constitutional argument … familiar to us all.” The Republicans threatened the peace because of their effort to “agitate the public mind of the North against the South,” chiefly by whipping up hostility to slavery and hatred of slaveholders. It was this same fear, across the late 1850s, that united a wide range of antebellum conservatives — whatever their programmatic positions on slavery in the territories — around a pledge to kill the dangerous “agitation” once and for all. But Republican politicians, responding to the manifest political appetite of Northern voters, refused to let it die.

As their conservative opponents recognized with increasing alarm, Republicans did not embrace antislavery rhetoric as a way to shape Northern public opinion, but a way to meet Northern public opinion, in order to win votes. “It is idle and child’s play to deny that the masses at the North are opposed to the institution of slavery,” lamented one Louisiana observer in 1856. The arrival of a major antislavery party disclosed the extent to which most Northern voters, including many who did not ultimately vote Republican, despised the idea of human bondage. On the campaign trail in the North, Democrats emphasized the Republican danger to the Union, the Republican threat to white supremacy, even wild rumors that various Republicans (Seward, Charles Sumner, John C. Fremont) were once slaveholders — anything rather than confronting the question of slavery itself. By contrast Republicans aimed whenever possible to present the election as a direct contest with the forces of bondage. “The word slavery,” admitted the leading Democratic party organ in Washington, “furnishes to sectional agitation its chief argument and support … What occurs half so frequently in the harangues and editorials of abolitionists and black republicans as the terms ‘slave-driver,’ ‘slave power,’ ‘slaveocracy,’ ‘slave oligarchy,’ and the like expressions?” Northern conservatives likewise trembled at this new brand of popular agitation. In Massachusetts, the rise of the Republicans left the moderate Whig Robert Winthrop, once the political prince of Beacon Hill and a former Speaker of the House, isolated and despondent about the state of national politics. Like R.M.T. Hunter, Winthrop located his fear not in “platforms” or “persons,” but the new temper of Republican engagement with the public. “The agitations and extravagances of Anti-Slavery Men and Anti-Slavery Parties” had only sharpened “passions and prejudices of the hour.” “Nothing but denunciation & defiance,” Winthrop wrote a friend, “seem to be tolerated by the masses.”

It was either a vicious or a virtuous cycle: antislavery feeling multiplied itself through mass politics, while mass politics encouraged a hardening of antislavery feeling. The Republican Party press, whose circulation numbered in the hundreds of millions, probably printed more column inches of antislavery text in the summer of 1856 alone than a decade’s worth of abolitionist tract-writers. After Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner was attacked by a proslavery South Carolinian in the Capitol, his speech that had triggered the assault — laced with lurid attacks on “property in human flesh” — became perhaps the most important propaganda document in the Republican arsenal. The New-York Tribune, the largest newspaper in the country, declared its intention to distribute “three million copies” of Sumner’s hundred-page address, instructing local organizers to deliver a copy “into every voter’s door.” The ubiquitous mass campaign rallies of 1856 and 1860, which brought tens of thousands of Republican voters to hamlets like Massillon, Ohio, and Beloit, Wisconsin — chiefly to hear orators like Seward and Sumner flay the Southern master class — fused the fanfare of mid-nineteenth century democracy and the fervor of antislavery commitment. Nothing in this line surpassed the Wide-Awake movement of 1860, which enlisted perhaps 100,000 Northern young men into something like a grassroots Republican paramilitary organization. Mostly wageworkers and farmers, Wide-Awakes from Maine to Minnesota formed themselves into companies with ranks and officers, donning soldiers’ caps and dark cloaks for midnight infantry drills. Their theatrical torchlight parades, accompanied by brass and drums, under banners celebrating “Free Labor,” “Free Land,” and “Lincoln, Liberator of Slavery,” attracted hundreds of thousands more awestruck spectators, and testified to the martial intensity of Northern popular feeling.

Antislavery as Class Politics

In many ways, the newfound power of the antislavery appeal benefitted from the activist labors of American abolitionists, from William Lloyd Garrison to Harriet Beecher Stowe, who had spent over two decades creatively decrying the sin and crime of human bondage. On a speaking tour in central Ohio in 1856, after the election of Governor Chase, Frederick Douglass contrasted his enthusiastic reception there with the brickbats that greeted abolitionists a decade earlier: “Things are very different now. It is not always given to Reformers to see the gratifying results of their labors. They sow, and others reap … But such has been the progress of Anti Slavery principles in Ohio, that a lecturer of a dozen or fifteen years standing … can now lay side by side, in pleasant contrast, the toils of seed time and the joys of harvest.” “Lincoln is in place, Garrison in power,” cried Wendell Phillips after the election of 1860.

Douglass and Phillips were right to claim Republican victories as victories for the cause of abolition, whose true strength lay with an agitated public, not heroic leaders or artful politicians. Yet it would be a mistake to regard the mass politics of antislavery, as they emerged after 1854, as primarily an exercise in consciousness-raising. While Republicans like Seward and Sumner often adopted the moral intensity of Garrisonian abolitionists, they also appealed to the very material self-interest of Northern voters. Above all, Republicans depicted the battle against slavery as a species of class struggle — a social war not simply between slaves and masters, but between the overwhelming majority of Americans and a tiny aristocracy of slave lords who controlled the federal government. In such a struggle it was obvious that large and concrete interests were directly at stake.

Over fifty years ago, Eugene Genovese laid out the materialist view of the American sectional crisis in one sentence: “So intense a struggle of moral values implies a struggle of world views and so intense a struggle of world views implies a struggle of worlds — of rival social classes or of societies dominated by rival social classes.” It was this core insight that inspired Eric Foner to relate the social transformations of the early nineteenth-century North, including the decline of bound labor and the emergence of an interlinked market economy, to the free labor ideology of the Republican Party. Republican leaders did sometimes broadcast the worldview of the North’s emerging capitalist class, which was conveniently optimistic about the prospects for social mobility in an unequal society. But on the campaign trail they tended to emphasize a very different form of class politics, aimed at heightening a very different sort of class rivalry.

As Republican organizer Francis Blair declared of the party’s strategy during the election of 1856: “the contest ought not to be considered a sectional one but rather the war of a class — the slaveholders — against the laboring people of all classes.” Such populist rhetoric came naturally to old Jacksonians like Blair, who had cut their teeth in battle against the early republic’s banking elite, and now converted their hatreds from the Money Power to the Slave Power. But it also flew with ease off the tongues of Blair’s former rivals, ex-Whigs like Seward, Horace Greeley, Benjamin Wade, and Thaddeus Stevens, who largely jettisoned their old party’s celebrations of social harmony in favor of all-out political war on the slaveholding class, as a class. Seward proved especially energetic on this theme. His maiden speech as a Republican lambasted slaveholders as a “privileged class,” which he later refined into a “property class,” akin to the patricians of Rome and the landlords of Europe. In 1860, Seward’s major Senate address divided the republic not between North and South, but between “labor states,” subject to democratic self-government, and “capital states,” where master-class barons monopolized political and economic power, quashed free speech, and organized all society around “the system of capital in slaves.”

To be sure, the nature of Seward’s private political beliefs remains ambiguous, even to his biographers. The conservative turn of his politics after 1861, at the very least, offers reason to doubt his commitment to a serious struggle against “slave capitalists,” or any capitalists at all. But in the 1850s the force of this Republican class-conscious attack on slavery did not grow out of individual moral conviction; it grew out of the requirements of mass democratic politics. As Seward once said winkingly to Jefferson and Varina Davis, he did not believe every word of his own aggressive speeches, but he knew that such rhetoric was “potent to affect the rank and file of the North.” Whether this was or was not a revealing joke is beside the point. Every player in antebellum politics seemed to understand, especially at election time, that the way to win the Northern masses lay less in lofty vindications of the market economy than scathing attacks on the oligarchic master class. After Seward’s senate speech, the Northern Democrat Stephen Douglas summarized this strategy: Republicans were attempting to turn the slavery debate into “a question between capital and labor,” so they could “take the side of the numbers against the few.”

That much was unmistakable, and Republicans did not take the side of the numbers with senatorial rhetoric alone. In 1856 they made a detailed case that master-class rule in Washington, and the commercial policy it demanded, actively suppressed workers’ wages in the North. Dubbing Democratic nominee James Buchanan “Ten Cent Jimmy” because he had once suggested that ten cents a day might satisfy a working man, at campaign parades Republicans hitched together dilapidated wagons packed with ragged mechanics, pantomiming labor in a “Buchanan Workshop.” “The proprietors of the mines, and of furnaces, forges, and rolling-mills,” declared the Albany Evening Journal, were Buchanan’s “companions and friends … Being politically bound to oppose Protection of American Manufactures, he could profit the capitalists only by reducing laborers’ Wages.” “In view of some oligarchs,” argued Greeley’s Tribune, “$20 a year is all-sufficient for the food, raiment, and shelter of the workingman, while the magnificent master is entitled to all the rewards, and may be a prince on a plantation as well as a fashionable swell at a watering-place.” Drawing on an older abolitionist critique of slavery’s links to capitalist elites in the North — the lords of the loom allied to the lords of the lash — helped Republicans deliver a pointed election-day appeal. In Boston, where a congressional race pitted an antislavery radical against a leading merchant and banker, Republicans made their case bluntly: “To protect a poor man’s rights, you must vote for Burlingame. To increase a rich man’s pocket, vote for Appleton.”

In 1860, with Lincoln the “Rail-Splitter” at the top of the ticket, the class politics of the Republican campaign became even more theatrical. Working men’s companies of Wide-Awakes marched “with ruddy capes and gleaming hatchets” to celebrate “honest toil,” while Republican speakers and newspapers declared that Democrats, through their alliance with slaveholders, had come to believe that “Capital should own its Labor.” (After the election, one triumphant Illinois broadside depicted a wide-winged eagle with a banner in its beak: “capital shall not own us!”) By 1860, too, the party had developed an economic program specifically designed to deepen its material case against master-class rule. A protective tariff, federal funding for infrastructure projects, and a range of agricultural and educational reforms — in Republican hands, this was neither simply the old Whig agenda, nor exactly a cunning plot to advance the interests of industrial capital. For political purposes, it was above all a series of desirable economic goods, backed by a broad majority of Northern voters, but blocked by a rapacious and oligarchic slaveholding class.

The centerpiece of Republican economic policy, in any case, was something no Whig or industrialist would have dreamed of on their own: a homestead act by which the government would give away millions of acres of land for free. This idea, of course, depended on an assumption that the North American West rightly belonged to Euro-American settlers, not its indigenous inhabitants. Yet in its conception it also represented an unprecedented distribution of wealth from the government to ordinary citizens, on the premise that land should be “as free to all its inhabitants as the sunlight and the air; and every man has, by his nature … a perfect right to a reasonable portion of it.” Although Foner and other historians have depicted the homestead idea as an expression of “middle-class, capitalistic” ideology — an effort to convert restive eastern workers into industrious western farmers — its origins lay in radical, “agrarian” labor movements, and its advocates in the 1850s generally summoned a rather different sort of class politics. Homesteads, declared the leading Republican congressional advocate of the measure, were necessary to resist “the power of soulless capital and grasping speculation.”

But like the other major items on the Republican platform, the chief political function of the homestead idea was to illuminate the ways that class rule by slaveholders and their tools strangled the economic prospects of the Northern masses. After Southern Democrats helped convince James Buchanan to veto a homestead bill in 1860, Republicans made this alliance of slave aristocracy and land monopoly a major theme in the national campaign. The Democratic Party, as one Minnesota Republican charged in typical fashion, “would place the lands of the nation in the hands of the capitalist, and permit him to buy and sell the tillers of the soil — negroes if convenient, if not, white men … The homestead bill will divide the soil into small qualities, and make every tiller of the soil an independent freeman.”

Indeed the particular power of homestead politics, as Republican opponents recognized, was its ability to offer Northern farmers and workers a clear material reward for linking arms against the Slave Power. “Free Homes to Actual Settlers,” read a Wide-Awake banner in Chicago. What could a Northern conservative propose as an alternative? “He has no pay or plunder to offer,” complained the Richmond Enquirer in 1856, reluctantly acknowledging the strength of the Republican appeal. “He tells not the masses, follow me, and the fair fields of Kansas, and all the wide prairies of the West, shall be yours now … He points not to his rich neighbor’s field, inveighs not at land monopoly, nor promises to each one his fig and vine tree.” In this sense, the Republican homestead plan was not so much a social “safety valve,” designed to alleviate class conflict, but something closer to a political weapon of class conflict, aimed at Northern speculators and Southern slaveholders alike.

For some abolitionists — and many later historians — the Republican embrace of class-conscious free labor rhetoric, and the party’s support for tariffs and homesteads, represented the dilution of a purer struggle against slavery’s injustice. The Garrisonian abolitionist Henry Wright offered a critique of the Republican Party that has resonated with many later scholars: “the party, as a party, has nothing to do with the enslavement of the African; that the only question at issue is — Shall the North be enslaved?” For these critics the Republicans’ broader appeal to Northern voters precluded a truly moral campaign against slavery’s injustice. But this perspective reflects the limits of a liberal humanitarian view of politics: it categorically rules out self-interest as a motive for radical action, conflating egalitarian struggle with charitable sympathy. Even more perversely, it brands the very boldness of the Republican agenda — building a mass movement to overthrow a ruling-class oligarchy — as moderate or even conservative politics. The Republican achievement in the 1850s was not to isolate moral, cultural, or economic arguments against slavery, but to combine them into a compelling and victorious whole.

Within the racial caste society of the antebellum United States, where the electorate in most states was exclusively white, and many free black residents lacked basic civil rights, no political movement or party could assail the Slave Power without reckoning with racism. In this environment, as historians have documented in considerable detail, some Republicans did embrace the language of white supremacy, either out of political calculation or sincere belief. Yet after 1854 the Democratic Party of the North, allied to slaveholders but unwilling to celebrate slavery, increasingly and aggressively defined itself as the party of the white man, with Republicans cast as “woolly-heads” and “negro-worshippers.” In response to such taunts, Republicans for the most part sought neither to refute nor outbid Democratic racism, but rather to insist on the thread that bound both issues together — the struggle of all working people against the aristocratic Slave Power. Southern masters, declared a Cleveland newspaper, “enslave the blacks, not because they are black, but because they are laborers — and they contend that the highest civilization demands that the laboring class should be subjected and owned by the ‘higher class.’ The election of 1856, argued a Republican editor in Pittsburgh, was “not a contest of races, but a contest of institutions.” It was a fight “between the Slave-holding Oligarchy, on one hand, who desire to introduce slave labor and slave institutions into Kansas, and the laboring white people of the country opposed to slavery … who wish to introduce Free Labor.”

Reading this rhetoric, some contemporary abolitionists and many later historians have found prime evidence that the demands of mass political competition pushed the Republicans away from racial equality. To win votes from a deeply racist white electorate, this argument goes, Republicans — unlike the much smaller abolitionist movements before them — were forced to downplay any actual or potential commitment to black people, whether enslaved or free. There is a nugget of truth in this, amid many contradictions. Yet as Frederick Douglass observed in 1860, “no bowing or cringing to the popular prejudice against color, will win for the Republican Party the support of genuine pro-slavery men, or avert from the party the odium of being the advocate and defender of the Negro as a man and a member of society.” Republican racism and pandering aside, there was no real confusion about which antebellum party spoke for unstinting white supremacy in the 1850s. It was not the party that denounced black bondage, contended for black civil rights, and claimed the support of virtually every black voter in the North.

In other ways, moreover, the demands of mass political struggle — the development of a material case against the Slave Power to win over white voters — gave the Republicans an armor against aggressive white racism that earlier abolitionist groups had lacked. In 1856, after all, when Democrats organized their first national campaign against the “Black Republicans,” those same Black Republicans became the largest party in the North; in 1860, brushing off even more virulent attacks, the so-called “negro-worshippers” took the White House. In this basic sense the antebellum victory of the Republicans, in the face of fever-pitch appeals to white supremacy, delivered a more severe blow to American political racism than anything their abolitionist predecessors had achieved. It showed that the power of “prejudice against color,” however formidable, was not entirely invincible; and it established the abolition-democracy as a political force that could and would continue to triumph over white racism in even more dramatic fashion in the national elections of the next decade.

Black Abolitionists

Perhaps the most suggestive readings of Republican mass politics came from contemporary black observers. One familiar narrative in African-American history casts the 1850s as a time of pessimism and even withdrawal: buffeted by the Fugitive Slave Act and the Dred Scott decision, some black abolitionists grew gloomier than ever about the prospects for political change in the United States; others embraced incipient forms of nationalism, including plans for black emigration to Canada, Haiti, or West Africa. Yet this was very far from the whole story. In many other ways, black activists, political leaders, and voters viewed the mass politics of the 1850s as a new and exciting opportunity for antislavery struggle. Returning to New York after several years in the Caribbean, in the early stages of the 1856 election, the black minister Henry Highland Garnet was happily surprised by “the great spread and intensification of Anti-Slavery feeling at present … The most promising sign of the coming downfall of Slavery is, that the people are beginning to think and talk, and above all, to vote and pray aright for it.”

While African Americans seldom failed to register the strength of white racism, at any time in the nineteenth century, many black activists in the 1850s began to notice a more unusual phenomenon: popular antislavery sentiment, aroused and organized, that outstripped the positions taken by more cautious political leaders. Attending a mass meeting in Boston in 1856, John Swett Rock noted that “most of the speakers were ten years behind the people … The people were aroused and enthusiastic, and what they wanted was, the speakers to make ‘a clean breast of it’, and call things by their right names. The more radical the sentiments the more extravagant it was appended …” By addressing white Northern voters directly, argued the black Ohio politician John Mercer Langston in 1858, Republicans had enlisted the masses in the battle against bondage in a new and powerful way. In that sense they had expanded, rather than diminished, the antislavery movement as a whole:

[T]he enslavement and degradation of one portion of the population fastens galling fettering chains upon the limbs of the other … This identification of the interests of the white and colored people of the country — this peculiarly national feature of the anti-slavery movement — is one of its most cheering, hope-inspiring, and hope-supporting characteristics … White Americans cannot stand as idle spectators to the struggle, but must unite with us in battling the fell enemy if they themselves would save their own freedom.

A number of black abolitionists, too, testified against the notion that electoral competition itself would somehow dilute the antislavery struggle. Quite the opposite was true, suggested William Still, the veteran leader of the Philadelphia underground railroad. While attending the 1856 Republican convention, Still noted that “the most radical and vehement antislavery speeches, were most cordially received and enthusiastically applauded and endorsed throughout. This popular demonstration on the side of freedom, surpassing by far anything ever known in the United States before, perhaps, [will] have had its influence upon the people …” For Still, the major virtue of the Republican campaign was not its limited platform or problematic leadership, but the radical simplicity of its political formula. By boiling the national election down to the binary of “Slavery or Freedom,” Republicans would do mighty work in the larger battle for abolition.

The most influential black abolitionist in the country agreed. Like many Northern activists, Frederick Douglass’s estimate of the Republican Party wavered across the 1850s, alternating between delight in the emergence of a mass antislavery organization, loyalty to his particular tendency (for Douglass, the Radical Abolitionist party of Gerrit Smith), and fear that the Republicans, in pursuit of electoral success, might abandon the antislavery struggle altogether. “Principles,” Douglass wrote in his newspaper in early 1856, endorsing Smith’s hopeless bid for president, “are more precious than numbers.” And yet when the national campaign acquired momentum, and mass Republican rallies came together across the North, Douglass recognized the power of numbers, too. As angry letters from his disproportionately black readership urged him to reconsider — some threatening to cancel their subscriptions — the editor admitted that Republicans were “the most numerous Anti-Slavery Party, and, therefore, the most powerful to inflict a blow upon … the Slave Oligarchy.”

Finally, in August 1856 Douglass endorsed the Republican candidate, John C. Fremont, on the same fundamental grounds as William Still: “There is now but one great question of widespread and all-commanding national interest; and that question is Freedom or Slavery.” He was joined that fall by “colored political meetings” in Boston, Brooklyn, Syracuse, and elsewhere, which all pledged to work for Republican victory in the fall. By reorganizing national politics around the binary of freedom or slavery, Douglass argued, Republicans would not disarm the struggle against bondage, but mobilize, concentrate, and heighten it:

One by one the old parties have been driven by the pro-slavery sentiment of the South, and the Anti-Slavery sentiment of the North, from the positions which denounced slavery agitation … until the two great parties stand front to front, one pledged to the sustenation and extension of slavery, the other being forced by the positions of its adversary, the surgings of public sentiment, to work for its overthrow. It may be as yet, an unorganized mass; demogogues … may deny its aim, and inevitable mission; thousands of its adherents may as yet see but dimly the great work which they have addressed themselves; but the party is formed and its purpose is fixed, and that purpose is to destroy slavery.

Over the next four years, Douglass’s view of national politics continued to ricochet between excitement at antislavery progress, devotion to Radical principle, and dread of Republican betrayal. In 1860 he was still capable, on occasion, of delivering a magnificent jeremiad on the moral decline of American antislavery politics, from the pure abolitionism of the 1840s to the “corrupt” Republican embrace of “non-extension” only. Yet even so, he had little difficulty declaring a preference in the 1860 election: “I sincerely hope for the triumph of that party over the odds and ends of slavery combined against it.” Like Rock, Langston, and other black activists, Douglass retained hope in the Republicans chiefly as a means to channel and accelerate “the surgings of popular sentiment” against human bondage. “The vital element” of the Democratic Party, he noted, was “hatred of the Negro”; “the vital element of the Republican party” was “the antislavery sentiment in the Northern States.” Among black voters in the North, Douglass was hardly alone in this view. At a rally in Boston in October 1860, where ten thousand Wide-Awakes marched for Lincoln’s election, their number included over two hundred black men, representing the “Sumner Blues” and “West Boston Wide-Awakes,” wearing caps, carrying torches, and bearing aloft a banner “presented by the colored ladies of Boston, with the inscription, God never made a tyrant or a slave.”

Slaves and Republicans

If black abolitionists in the North had begun to see how a mass antislavery party could revolutionize American politics, enslaved people in the South may have grasped more than an inkling, too. Was it pure coincidence that the largest slave insurrection panic in antebellum American history arrived just weeks after the first Republican election campaign, in the late fall of 1856? The rumored insurrection plots, vigorously prosecuted by Southern authorities from Maryland to Tennessee to Texas, involved the trial of hundreds of slaves, and the execution of dozens of alleged slave rebels. The panics of 1856 remain understudied in the historical literature, but Douglas Egerton’s recent investigation concludes that the ideological turmoil of the autumn campaign played a crucial role in shaping the way the scares — and perhaps some slave plots themselves — spread across the South. “The recent Presidential canvass has had a deleterious effect on the slave population,” one Nashville newspaper noted in late 1856. “The negroes manifested an unusual interest in the result, and attended the political meetings of the whites in large numbers.” In Memphis, reported another paper, a plantation mistress “went into her kitchen and gave some directions to the negro cook, who replied with a sneer, ‘When Fremont’s elected, you’ll have to sling them pots yourself.’” Even when masters failed to notice, some slaves were paying attention: in Missouri, Henry Clay Bruce recalled becoming “a ‘Fremont man,’ but a very silent one”; in Kentucky, William Webb remembered, “the name of Fremont sounded in every colored person’s heart.”

John Brown’s famous 1859 raid on Harper’s Ferry sent a wave of panic throughout the slaveholding South, but in some ways the election of 1860 — with its rowdy mass politics of “freedom” versus “slavery” — represented an even more disruptive event. A July fire in Dallas led panicked authorities to discover another wave of Republican-inspired slave insurrection plots across the state of Texas. In the fall, as the campaign grew hot, reports of intrigues and incendiary antislavery rhetoric spread from Richmond to Talladega, Alabama, where enslaved people reportedly believed that a literal “black republican” was running for president, and would set them free at once. On the ground, slaves’ information was often imperfect, but their awareness of a mass movement in the North — “another Nation wishing for the slaves to be free,” as Webb put it — climaxed amid the unprecedented “excitement” of the 1860 campaign. William Still’s underground railroad agent in Virginia, himself a slave, reported that “the politics of the day is in a high rage,” and hoped that Still would be “one of those wide-awakes as is mentioned from your section of the country now-a-days, etc.”

“Virtually every slave who left an account of the times,” concludes Stephanie McCurry, “recalled Lincoln’s election as a major development.” Booker T. Washington, then a small child in Virginia, remembered his enslaved mother, Jane Ferguson, kneeling over her children and praying for Lincoln’s success:

From the time that Garrison, [Owen] Lovejoy, and others began to agitate for freedom, the slaves throughout the South kept in close touch with the progress of the movement …. During the campaign when Lincoln was first a candidate for the Presidency, the slaves on our far-off plantation, miles from any railroad or large city or daily newspaper, knew what the issues involved were. When war was begun between the North and the South, every slave on our plantation felt and knew that, though other issues were discussed, the primal one was that of slavery.

Slaves, Lincoln said at Cooper Union, “would scarcely know there was a Republican party” if not for the panicked misrepresentations of slaveholders themselves. Most historians have agreed with him. But was what slaves like Jane Ferguson knew — and later acted on — so erroneous? The primal issue of midcentury American politics was in fact slavery, or, specifically, the future of slavery. And the most dangerous threat to slavery’s future, by the late 1850s, was no longer radical abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison, or even rogue militants like John Brown. Instead it was Republican politicians like Owen Lovejoy (elected to Congress in 1856), and indeed Abraham Lincoln, who were armed not merely with printing presses or a few steel pikes, but the support of millions of mobilized Northern voters, and — in the not-too-distant future — the power of the American state.

Escorted by uniformed Wide-Awakes to an October 1860 rally at Republican headquarters in Chicago, Lovejoy closed his speech with a series of bold predictions, cheered by the crowd of thousands and reprinted from Iowa to New Hampshire: “I see the spirit of freedom revived here and everywhere. I behold it going into the slave States and the free States commencing a system of emancipation, and finally emancipating their slaves and ridding the country of this evil; and in that bright future, now close at hand, I behold a free American Republic reposing proudly among the nations of the earth.” Not all Republicans promised so much, so soon. Yet even those who disclaimed any immediate plan of emancipation, across the 1850s, were helping fashion a political order that sustained a shared struggle between antislavery actors in the North and enslaved people in the South.

Although national Republican platforms dodged the question of the Fugitive Slave Law, the party’s emergence coincided with a mounting Northern hostility to the recapture and return of Southern runaways. This was most dramatic in Wisconsin, where the Republican Party itself only coalesced after a crowd of abolitionists broke into a Milwaukee jail to free the former slave Joshua Glover. In Iowa, Republican governor James Grimes personally assisted a fugitive’s escape to Canada in 1855, cheered by a thousand supporters; he thought that “three-fourths” of the people agreed with him, and that “a slave could not be returned from Des Moines County to slavery.” Throughout most of the Upper North, indeed, state liberty laws and fierce popular resistance — often organized by leading Republicans — made the Fugitive Slave Law a dead letter by the mid-1850s. Even in more conservative central Illinois, Lovejoy could close a public meeting by boasting about his aid to fugitives, knowing he would receive cheers from the Republican crowd. When slaveholders accused the Republican-governed North of scorning its lawful duty to return runaways, they had a point.

Finally, across the 1850s, Republicans were not shy about warning slaveholders that a violent commitment to bondage would lead to a violent end to bondage. After the raid on Harper’s Ferry, many party leaders worked to distance their party from John Brown, but even these disclaimers, such as they were, retained a quality of ambivalence not likely to soothe the owners of slave property. At Cooper Union, Lincoln denounced the raid and dismissed the likelihood of a general slave insurrection, but observed, almost casually, that “occasional poisonings,” “open or stealthy assassinations,” and “local revolts extending to a score or so” were all among “the natural results of slavery.” Salmon Chase deplored Brown’s attempt as “mad” and “criminal,” but praised “his unselfish desire to free the oppressed,” and called for greater reprobation of “slavery itself, which underlies it all.”

And as news of Brown’s trial and execution washed across the North, prompting mass meetings and hundred-cannon salutes, outraged public opinion increasingly viewed the old captain as an antislavery martyr. In the words of Horace Greeley’s Tribune, still the largest newspaper in the Union, “Thirty Millions of Americans — including the Four or Five Millions of Slaves — are talking and thinking of John Brown — of his daring, his purpose, his defeat, and his death.” The realignment of national politics around the primal issue of slavery, and the tyrannical rule of the master class, meant that even cautious politicians were now subject to the antislavery fervor of the masses. Democrats who initially hoped that the Harper’s Ferry raid might shatter the Republican organization instead faced a party perhaps even more entrenched in its opposition to the Slave Power. “I find the hatred of slavery greatly intensified by the fate of Brown,” wrote the radical Ohio congressman Joshua Giddings; “men are ready to march to Virginia and depose of her despotism at once.”

The prospect of a violent collision with slavery came most clearly into view when Republicans considered the prospect of Southern secession. Slaveholders, Seward argued in 1855, would never flee the Union because they depended on it “for their own safety. Three millions of slaves are a hostile force in their presence … The world without sympathizes with the servile enemy.” As James Oakes has shown, by the 1850s antislavery statesmen had already stocked a powerful arsenal of moral, political, and legal arguments for military emancipation during wartime. When the South began to secede in the winter of 1860–61, Republicans lined up to inform slaveholders that in the event of disunion, “slavery will go out in blood.”

Yet well before the crisis of secession winter, key Republicans depicted slaves themselves as political actors and ultimately potential authors of their own freedom. On the floor of the Senate, Ben Wade mocked slaveholders for being afraid to read the Declaration of Independence aloud, lest it “stir up the blood of servitude.” Seward laced his commentary on slavery’s inherent lawlessness with vague but unmistakable references to the moment “when the African race itself shall rise to assert its own wrongs.” Speaking in St Louis on the eve of the 1860 election, the German-American Republican Carl Schurz painted a vivid picture of a slave South turned upside down by war, insurrection, and social revolution from below:

The probability, therefore, is that wherever a Northern army appears, the slaves will disappear, and so much of slavery with them… The slave States, therefore, cannot expose their territory without leaving unprotected the institution for the protection of which the war was undertaken. They have to cover thousands and thousands of vulnerable points, for every plantation is an open wound, every negro cabin a sore ….

Besides, the slave States harbor a dangerous enemy within their own boundaries, and that is slavery itself. Imagine them at war with anti-slavery people whom they have exasperated by their own hostility. What will be the effect upon the slaves? The question is not whether the North will instigate a slave rebellion, for I suppose they will not; the question is, whether they can prevent it, and I think they cannot.

It took almost another year for this process to begin in earnest, in Virginia, in South Carolina, and everywhere the Union Army made contact with the Confederacy. But by 1860 the foundations of the abolition-democracy that linked Jane Ferguson, Frederick Douglass, and Abraham Lincoln had already been laid.

Emancipation as Revolution

“Easily the most dramatic episode in American history,” Du Bois began Black Reconstruction, “was the sudden move to free four million black slaves in an effort to stop a great civil war, to end forty years of bitter controversy, and to appease the moral sense of civilization.” In its drama, its suddenness, and its scale, slave emancipation remains the most revolutionary episode in the American past, and perhaps the most spectacular event of its kind in the modern history of slavery and abolition. But this revolution, for all its terrific speed, did not come out of thin air. It was not the benevolent gift of a great emancipator, nor a spontaneous rising of the oppressed; neither was it some kind of ironic accident of war. The second American revolution had its roots in political struggle — an antebellum antislavery movement, as C.L.R. James once wrote, that united “petty bourgeois democrats,” “the free farmers of the Northwest,” and “certain sections of proletariat,” alongside “the independent mass action of the Negro people.” First taking shape within “the vigorous political democracy of the North,” it was this broad movement — the true abolition-democracy — that animated the Republican Party, triggered Southern secession, and ultimately achieved revolutionary emancipation by fire and sword.

The revolution, of course, did not go on forever. In the decade after the Civil War, the fragile alliance between Southern freed-people and Northern masses was shattered by what Du Bois called a “counterrevolution of property,” which put an end to the democratic experiment of Reconstruction. The Republican Party remained in power in Washington, but the reign of the abolition-democracy was over. A new industrial capitalist class entrenched itself in the North, while unblushing racial tyranny fought its way back to power in the South. In the continental West, and before long the Caribbean and the Pacific, too, the US imperial state only grew more fearsome under Republican rule, usually with devastating consequences for indigenous people.

The destruction of slavery in the United States, for all its dramatic significance, did not break the power of homegrown white supremacy, much less derail the march of global capitalism.

All this is unmistakable, and yet it is equally unmistakable that we must reckon with the most momentous era in American history, when the largest slave society in the nineteenth-century world was demolished and revolutionized. Writing against half a century of racist propaganda, Du Bois insisted that the Civil War era had witnessed “the finest effort to achieve democracy for the working millions which this world had ever seen.” In today’s academic literature, it has become axiomatic that the African-American struggle for emancipation and civil rights represented the central democratic movement of the era. When it comes to the antebellum political struggle against slavery, however, scholars remain much more skeptical. And in recent years, as Civil War scholars turn pessimistically against the binary that once served Republicans so well — pitting “freedom” against “slavery” — the idea of a truly democratic struggle against bondage seems perhaps stranger and more distant than ever.

Yet for the antebellum architects of the abolition-democracy, it was obvious that mass politics presented the central front in the fight against enslavement. “There is a judgment and a feeling against slavery in this nation,” Abraham Lincoln warned slaveholders in 1860, “which casts at least a million and a half votes.” Less than a decade earlier, such a statement would have been preposterous; the antislavery candidate for president in 1852 had received just one-tenth of that number. In the event, Lincoln undercounted his own support by nearly four hundred thousand ballots. What accounted for this astonishing change? Not just the sagacity of Republican statesmen, or the audacity of abolitionist activists, but the unpredictable and transformative experience of democratic struggle itself. By constructing a popular base morally and materially hostile to the Slave Power, the Republican Party had concentrated the “Anti-Slavery sentiment of the North,” as Frederick Douglass put it, into a single unit whose ultimate purpose, however hazy its horizon, was to “DESTROY SLAVERY.” It was this fusion of antislavery energy and mass politics, more than any other development in nineteenth-century history, that marked the course of slavery’s destruction in the United States. This was not tragedy or irony or paradox; it was simply democratic revolution.