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The Moral Minority

ALL ON FIRE: William Lloyd Garrison and the Abolition of Slavery;\o7 By Henry Mayer\f7 ;\o7 (St. Martin's Press: 708 pp., $32.50)\f7

November 22, 1998|BENJAMIN SCHWARZ | Benjamin Schwarz is a contributing writer to Book Review and a correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly

An extremist movement inspired by evangelical Christianity has identified a long-held and constitutionally guaranteed practice as a vile sin that corrupts all who countenance it. The movement has launched an uncompromising assault on this sin, demanding that it cease immediately, so that a sweeping Christian regeneration of American life can be engendered, which will in turn make the world, in the words of one of the movement's founders, "a fit place for the imminent return of Christ." Even though no more than 5% of the electorate would support legislative action against the practice that so exercises this movement, members of its most radical wing, a group that calls itself "the genuine disciples of Christ," intolerantly characterize their opponents--who, after all, make up the other 95%--not as mistaken but as nothing less than willfully godless conspirators. No individual who violates their inner sense of righteousness is immune to the wrath of these ultra-extremists. No institution that stands in the way of deliverance from their definition of evil is sacrosanct (to them, the federal government and even the mainline churches are polluted beyond redemption). The "genuine disciples" are convinced that they alone know the true road to righteousness and, if it wasn't anachronistic, they would no doubt subscribe to Barry Goldwater's alarming assertion that "extremism in the pursuit of liberty is no vice, and moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue."

No, this isn't a fanatical effort by the Christian right. The sin, of course, was slavery; the movement was abolitionism; the ultra-extremist wing was formed by William Lloyd Garrison and his followers.

Garrison, who from 1831 to 1865 edited the abolitionist newspaper the Liberator, was, if not necessarily the most influential abolitionist, certainly the best-known and most hated. He exercised no direct political influence; his fame rested entirely on his activities as a publicist and agitator. But in proselytizing the evangelical-inspired doctrine of "immediatism," which characterized slavery as a sin and hence demanded that slaveholders at once stop sinning and emancipate their slaves (the doctrine echoed revivalism's call for "immediate repentance" and "immediate abstinence"), Garrison, along with Theodore Dwight Weld, Lewis Tappan, James G. Birney and Elizur Wright Jr., revolutionized abolitionist thought and rhetoric in the United States.

Before the advent of immediatism, antislavery thinking was mired in realism. "Antislavery" meant "colonization," which called for gradually emancipating slaves and then colonizing them in Africa or elsewhere--an idea embraced by virtually every major political figure from the Revolution to the Civil War, including Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, John Marshall, Andrew Jackson, Henry Clay, Daniel Webster and Abraham Lincoln. Because colonizationists gave full consideration to prevailing economic, political and social realities, they regarded the freeing of the slaves to be an insoluble problem that would have to wait to be resolved by the greater wisdom of future generations. Therefore, "gradual" emancipation in fact meant at best glacial emancipation.

More important, whenever emancipation might be accomplished, colonizationists were convinced that it had to be accompanied by deportation. To be sure, many colonizationists favored this policy because they were personally repelled by the idea of admitting blacks to what was commonly called "the body of the people." But for others, the motivation to expatriate African Americans sprang not so much from a low view of blacks as from a low view of whites. Madison, for instance, was certain that a healthy society demanded the "compleat incorporation" of blacks. But he could not see how such an ideal could be achieved, since very solid evidence had persuaded him that the "objections to a thorough incorporation of the two people are, with most of the whites, insuperable." So Madison and many other colonizationists, anticipating the racial problems that would prevail for a century after emancipation--and that in important ways remain today--concluded that if slaves were freed and not deported, the divided society that would result would never be at peace with itself. Such colonizationists as Madison, Clay and Lincoln were forced to think deeply and deliberately, as politicians rarely do, about the far future of their country. They knew the enormous financial and moral cost of the course they proposed, but they could see no alternative. At the root of their pessimism was a conviction that society did not have the power to change itself radically, even if its course were morally wrong. As a prominent colonizationist asked in despair, "is [prejudice] any less obstinate because it is criminal?"

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