Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. VIVIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 18351860
The Garrisonian Point of View
By Oliver Johnson (18091889)
[Born in Peacham, Vt., 1809. Died in Brooklyn, N. Y., 1889. Garrison and his Times. 1880.]
THERE can be no doubt that in the sixteen years immediately preceding the Rebellion, the Garrisonian movement did much to prepare the Northern people for the crisis through which they were called to pass. It taught them the folly of that superstitious reverence for the Constitution which was so long a main dependence of the Slave Power. It made further compromise impossible, and nerved the arm of the North to do and dare in the cause of liberty. If the moral influence that stood behind the Republican party in that trying hour, and which was very largely represented by the Garrisonian movement, had been withdrawn, who knows into what new depth of humiliation the North might have been dragged? If Abraham Lincoln, in the hope of thereby averting a civil war, could execute the infamous Fugitive Slave law, what might not have been expected of smaller men, if they had not felt the influence of that moral power, which, independent of any party influence, was working in the hearts of their constituents? We needed in that awful hour all the strength which a whole generation of MORAL AGITATION had developed. No whit of it could have been safely sparedleast of all that which came from the faithful founder and leader of the movement.
The madness of the Rebellion changed all the conditions of the problem, and worked out the deliverance of the North as well as of the slaves by a process which no one had contemplated. But if the South had submitted to the election of Lincoln, and gone on demanding her pound of flesh under the Constitution, the Garrisonian movement would have brought victory by another process. It was simply impossible that the North could much longer endure the domination of the Slave Power. She must have found a way to annul the covenant with death, and overthrow the agreement with hell. All the signs pointed to that result. It was not in vain that the true character of the American Union, as affected by what John Quincy Adams called the deadly venom of slavery, had been faithfully depicted for sixteen successive years by men whom no bribes could seduce and no terrors frighten from the field.
When Abraham Lincoln accepted the task of suppressing the Rebellion, and the whole North rose up to sustain him, Mr. Garrison saw at once that the days of slavery were numbered; that the restoration of the Union under the old conditions was impossible; that the slaveholders themselves had discarded their main defence. There was no longer any need of inculcating the duty of disunion at the North. He at once removed from The Liberator, as an anachronism, his motto of No Union with Slaveholders, and set himself to work to develop that public opinion for which President Lincoln so long waited, and which at last made it safe for him to decree the emancipation of the slaves. To those who questioned his consistency in taking this course, he said, substantially: as Benedick, when he said he would die a bachelor, did not think he would live till he were married, so he (Mr. Garrison), when he pledged himself to fight while life lasted against the covenant with death and the agreement with hell, did not think that he should live to see death and hell secede from the Union. As they had done so, however, he thought his consistency might be safely left to take care of itself. As one who accepted the principle of non-resistance as taught and exemplified by Jesus, he could not himself bear arms even in the cause of liberty and humanity; but he felt it right to judge the people of the North by their own standard, and to tell them that, as they believed in war, they would be poltroons if they did not fight. Upon this point, also, he was willing to leave his consistency without defence. His own conscience was clear. He had tried to persuade the people to abolish slavery by peaceful means, warning them the while that, if they should refuse to do so, the judgments of God might come upon them in a war from which there would be no escape. The day of retribution had come, and the Northern people were shut up to the necessity of either sacrificing their own liberty or fighting for the freedom of the slave.
After the war was over, and when the work of reconstruction was before the country, did any one not an apologist for slavery dream of restoring the Union under the Constitution as it then stood? Did not every loyal citizen see clearly that the instrument must be so amended that death and hell could never again find protection in it? In the amendments which were then adopted, and by which slavery was forever debarred from the soil of the Republic, Mr. Garrisons doctrine of disunion was completely vindicated. The Constitution under which we are now living is not that which he publicly burned on a certain Fourth of July in Framingham; nor is the Union which he sought to dissolve any longer in existence. The Union of to-day is a Union redeemed, regenerated, and disenthralled by the Genius of Universal Emancipation.