1840-1860. Abolitionism & Antistate Movements. - "Some Issues" by François GARDYN

GARRISON, William Lloyd (1805-1879). Major American AbolitionnisteWRIGHT, Henry C.THOREAU, Henry David (1817-1862)PROUDHON, Pierre-Joseph (1809-1865)GREENE, BeriahBROWN, John (1800-1859)PHILLIPS, Wendell (1811-1884)DOUGLASS, Frederick (1818-1895)SPOONER, Lysander (1808-1887)WASHINGTON, GeorgeSociety. Abolitionism (of slavery)ANDREWS, Stephen Pearl (1812-1886)

Many abolitionists considered slavery as a moral order rather than an economic system. Their anarchist ideas were characterised by more than the mere participation of "a few identifiable anarchists in the Anti-Slavery movement". As Lewis Perry’s Radical Abolitionism [1] argues, "certain of the most basic ideas honored throughout abolitionism turned out in experience to have anarchistic implications [2]. Later on in his analysis, Perry rightly remarks that "slavery and anarchy – in the good and unbiased sense of the word – are antithetical concepts" which also "means that they may be closely linked" as far as abolitionism is concerned [3]. At the end of his book, he concludes that anti-slavery led to anarchism...

The relation between the two movements was very close and those who shared anarchistic beliefs, although they would rarely, if ever, call themselves anarchists, were bound to condemn slavery. But the reverse equation was also often true and abolitionists often turned to anarchism.

If the Declaration of Independence ignored African Americans, the Constitution of the United States accepted it through its determination of Congressional representation by the number of free persons residing in each state "plus three-fifths of all other Persons". Thus, the acceptance of unfree persons officially became an accepted circumstance, even if slavery was not established by positive law in any state. The paradox of the Declaration of Independence and the ambiguity and implicitness of the Constitution were matters highly debated by abolitionists throughout the anti-slavery movement, so much so that the Constitution came to be utterly condemned and criticism of the government was expressed. William Lloyd Garrison – one of the most radical abolitionists – called for secession from the U.S. government:

"It was as necessary for friends of peace," he contended, "to use the motto ’No union with warriors or war-makers,’ since the United States constitution sanctioned war, as it was for friends of the slaves to withdraw from a constitutional government which protected slavery [4].

Similarly, Garrison called the Constitution "a covenant with death and an agreement with hell," and went as far as to burn a copy of it at a celebration on July 4, 1854, saying: "so perish all compromises with tyranny!" [5]

Although there was some disagreements among them, most abolitionists shared Garrison’s view of the Constitution and of government, and appealed to disunionism. Henry C. Wright, who is alleged to have been the most anarchistic of anti-slavery radicals, also expected Northerners to secede individually and wished for the dissolution of the U.S. Government. Criticism of the U.S. government was all the more striking with the adoption of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, which provided for severe penalties for refusal to aid in the return of escaped slaves. That law was the result of Southern discontent about Northerners helping slaves to flee and hide themselves. This was the action of individuals who were connected to the "underground railroad" – an active abolitionist network of stations located at points a day’s journey apart to which fugitive slaves were brought, received, concealed and forwarded, thus led toward freedom in the North. The Fugitive Slave Law, which forbade this doing, aroused a storm of protest among abolitionists who referred to it as the "Man-Stealing Law" supported by the U.S. government. Besides, the law also gave birth to abuses from white people who used it to kidnap Africans on the ground that they had escaped. As a consequence, the abolitionist anti-governmental policy became stronger than ever, so that all radical abolitionists were "ready to damn the government as a villain for its [direct and indirect] support of slavery in the South [6]. Some abolitionists even called for violent struggles. Lysander Spooner – a famous anarchist who, like many others, shared anti-slavery values – advocated the formation of Leagues of Freedom to descend upon the South,– whereas Frederick Douglass, the celebrated Black abolitionist, called for resistance to the "kidnappers" who sought to reclaim fugitive slaves. In his paper he wrote: "the only way to make the Fugitive Slave Law a dead letter, is to make half a dozen or mor dead kidnappers" [7]

Abolitionism also had anarchistic tendencies insofar as it desired the alteration of an entire social, political, moral and economic order. Indeed, if the peculiar institution was abolished, the face of the Southern society was to be completely changed.

Radical abolitionism, particularly in the case of Garrison, was antipolitical. First, it was committed to the non-voting principle to avoid any involvement in the governmental acceptance and support of the southern condition of servicture. Secondly, in 1840, the American Anti-Slavery Society split into two organisations, the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society (antipolitical) and the Liberty Party. Lewis’ simple explanation for the opposition between Garrisonism and political action was that "he [Garrison] was an anarchist [8]. As a result, the Garrisonians shunned politics and continued anti-slavery agitation through public speeches, newspapers, books and pamphlets.

We should not think, however, that the Liberty Party, which had sought a political solution to the problem of bondage, was less anarchistic than the Garrisonians. Indeed, they insisted on the government of God and wanted an anti-slavery party that would be uncompromising and uncoercive. Thus, American abolitionism, through its anti-governmental, anti-institutional and antipolitical tendencies, clearly had an anarchistic spirit.

As noted earlier, the link between abolitionists and anarchists was also true the other way round: anarchists – or those who were defined as such – shared abolitionist ideas. The French Proudhon, for instance, who was the first to call himself an anarchist, gave the following statement on the subject of slavery:

"If I were asked to answer the following question: What is slavery?... I should answer in one word, It is murder [quoted in Perry, p. 24?]].

Two well known American anarchists, Lysander Spooner and Stephen Pearl Andrews, also shared anti-slavery beliefs and eventually took part in the abolitionist battle. L. Spooner, when dealing with anti-slavery, took the same stance as most radical abolitionists and "invariably traced the ills of this world to the machinations of governments [9].

Lysander Spooner, American abolitionist and anarchist

Henry David Thoreau also shared the same opinion, saying that "institutions were usually wrong... and natural reactionaries [10].

One of the main arguments against bondage was the interference of intermediaries, the slaveholders, between God and man as far as authority was concerned. Indeed, when a man presumed to claim that he owned another person, he competed with God for control and government over humankind. Thus, abolitionists considered the condition of servitude as a violation of divine government, and they denounced human government. This theme and argument was recurrent in the abolitionist movement. Wright, for instance, expressed himself as follows:

"Man is not content to rule over the animal creation. He would get the dominion over man. He tries all arts to obtain this end. I regard all Human Governments as usurpations of God’s power over Man [11]."

In a like manner, Garrison wished for "the emancipation of our whole race from the dominion of man... [to] the dominion of God [12]. His followers, the Garrisonians, shared the same belief in the only true government, that of God.

Beriah Green, who was one of the leaders of the political abolitionist party, took up again a declaration of the Bible stating that "God is the only potentate" to assert his opinion that no individual or association, organisation – state or government – had a right to claim control and power over individuals. This is one of the reasons why many radical abolitionists turned against politics as such, government, and institutions, thus pointing toward anarchistic directions. Government domination, as that of the slaveholder, was perceived as an interference between the slave and God, and as a challenge to His sovereignty.

Finally, abolitionism was linked to anarchism in the radical means they used to achieve their ends. Here, one should turn to the famous abolitionist John Brown. Hoping to recruit runaway slaves to their standard, Brown and twenty of his followers, black and white, attempted to seize a governmental arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, in 1859. Lacking a definite plan of campaign, however, Brown’s foray was doomed. He was punished and executed.

Although the general philosophy of the abolitionists was pacifism, most of the leaders supported the use of arms by John Brown. Wendell Phillips’ speech at Brown’s funeral deserves a long quotation:

"Has a slave a right to resist his master? I will not argue that question to a people hoarse with shouting ever since July 4, 1776, that all men are created equal, that the right to liberty is inalienable, and that resistance to tyrants is obedience to God!... But John Brown violated the law. Yes.... George Washington, had he been caught before 1783, would have died on the gibet, for breaking the laws of his sovereign... Yes, you say, but these men broke bad laws. Just so. It is honorable then to break bad laws, and such lawbreaking history loves and God blesses! [13]."

Abolitionists were anarchists in so far as they shared "a view of

In The Anarchist Moment, John Clark gives his definition of anarchism which appears to suit the doctrine of abolitionism appropriately:

1. "A view of an ideal, non-coercive, non-authoritarian society". The abolitionists’ ideal for the bondsmen was a free peasantry with no interference from the white planters.

2. "A criticism of an existing society and its institutions, based on this anti-authoritarian ideal." The abolitionists indeed denounced the institution of slavery as well as the whole social order wich lived on it.

3. "A view of human nature that justifies the hope for significant progress toward the ideal." The abolitionists considered the African as a rational human being who deserved the same rights and opportunities as every human being.

4. "A strategy for change". Abolitionist propaganda, through the written and the spoken word, and what the anarchists would call, in the case of John Brown, "the propaganda of the deed", were all diverse stategies to achieve their end [14].

When the Civil War ended, abolitionists seem to have chosen a different route, as it were, especially as regards their concern toward government. They still remained quite close in their fight against "wage slavery" and in their search for universal equity.

[1Radical Abolitionism: Anarchy and the Government of God in Antislavery Thought. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1984.



[4p. 161.

[5Joanne GRANT, Black Protest. New York: Fawcett Premier, 1983, p. 64.

[6Stephen L. NEWMAN, Liberalism at Wit’s End: The Libertarian Revolt against the Modern State. Ithaca, N.Y. : Cornell University Press, 1984, p. 23.

[7Grant, p. 66.

[8Perry, p. 167.

[9Newman, p. 68.

[10David DELEON, The American as Anarchist: Reflections on Indigenous Radicalism, Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974, p. 21.

[11quoted in Perry, p. 52.

[12Perry, p. 90-91.

[13Grant, p. 64-65.

[14John P. Clark, The Anarchist Moment, p. 26: DeLeon, p. 8.