Historical Series: How The Divide Between Abolitionists in The 1840s and 1850s Show The Roots of The Radical Left We See Today

David B Morris
6 min readMay 13, 2024

Introduction: The Greatest Link Between Today’s Left and The Abolitionist Movement

William Lloyd Garrison.

On occasion I have referred to in my writings about the leftist publication The Nation a magazine that for over a hundred fifty years has been founded on the ideal of progressive ideology. For much of the 20th century The Nation believed in liberalism ideals and in favor of the New Deal, but it frequently used that message with a critic of all who crossed its path, initially being in favor of unions but then criticizing them for being complicit in World War I. During the Cold War it argued in favor of détente with Stalin and attacked the Catholic Church. As the century ended, sued the Department of Defense for restricting free speech in press pools. In the new century it twice endorsed Bernie Sanders.

By this point in its history it has moved so far to the left that its current editor is now the founder of Jacobin, the American Marxist magazine. This explains its recent decision to increasingly attack even Sanders for refusing to go along with its own agenda.

Those who read The Nation (and at this point its readership is less than 100,000 subscribers) no doubt take pride in the fact that it was founded not long after the Civil War as a successor to William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator the most prominent publication supporting abolition. They might not be as happy about that if they knew more about that then Garrison’s only press releases.

With all the writing that there has been about our nation being founded on slavery, it is worth discussing the abolitionists themselves. I initially knew very little about them, despite knowing a great deal about antebellum America and much of nineteenth century politics in the years leading up to the Civil War. I assumed that they were never a large number, most scattered throughout the North with the largest collection in New England where there was no slavery and the greatest concentration of free black. This is all true. What I didn’t know is that even among the abolitionists there was a great division — a division that one can draw a pretty straight line between then and the leftists of today, particularly those led by Garrison himself.

Many of the major abolitionists were quakers and several of the prominent ones were female. Many of them, such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, are among the most prominent figures in the movement for women’s suffrage and women’s rights. Elizabeth’s husband, Henry became estranged from what would be known as the Garrisonians, particularly when it came to the question of political participation.

The Garrisonians looked at the Constitution much the way so many of today’s African Americans and leftists do — as a pro-slavery document because of the compromise embedded in it that allowed slavery to continue. Their absolutism was so extreme that they had no interest in advancing the government, not only by taking part in politics but even voting. The American Anti-Slavery society, which was formed in 1833, split six years later. Stanton would become part of a faction to form what would become known as the Liberty Party, a party that would campaign to elect candidates to fight for abolition. Garrison’s segment believed in immediate and uncompensated emancipation of the slaves.

Garrison deserves credit, it is worth noting , for being one of the earliest major supporters of women’s suffrage and many of his articles put his life in danger. But Garrison was also inflexible to compromise. In 1855, he split with Frederick Douglass when Douglass converted to the idea that the Constitution could be anti-slavery. To a man who had publicly burned a copy of the Constitution the year before, this was a betrayal. Garrison also was a virulent anti-Semite who called the Ancient Jews an ‘exclusivist people whose feet ran to evil” and suggested the Jewish diaspora “was the result of their own egotism self-complacency.” He also showed a moral opposition to taking office multiple times.

The behavior of Garrison and many of his followers shows that, even on what was the most explosive issue of all time, there were some who had no wiggle room for it. Even those who wrote the 1619 Project were not as extreme as Garrison and some of his followers who believed the government so stained in sin that even participating in it was beneath them. Garrison and many abolitionists saw slavery as a moral issue, pure and simple. That it was also an economic and political one was not one that he and his sect considered one that should be considered. That they thought they could simply convince the government to agree with them because it was a moral argument and refused to compromise on it shows a link to so much of the politics that we see on the left today.

The abolitionists, it is worth remembering, were located entirely in the North and in an era before even railroads had no real connection to the South. It doesn’t mean that their views were wrong or that they were not brave to take them — many of these abolitionists risks their freedom and lives for participation on the Underground Railroad. But it is telling that men like Garrison’s view of immediate and uncompensated emancipation was not only a non-starter in the South but one that many in the North would have great problems with making practical. Even in the North abolitionists were frequently viewed as a nuisance unattached to the reality of politics. That Douglass, a former slave was more willing to compromise than Garrison, is a telling sign of how some on the left truly think they know about reality more than those affected by the crisis they are arguing.

There’s also the fact that in the leadup to the Compromise of 1850 many in New England would turn on Daniel Webster, one of their great heroes for nearly half a century because he chose to advocate for peace over freedom. That the alternative might very well be the dissolution of the Union did nothing to quell their hatred and shows the difference between an elected politician and one who chooses to argue from afar.

This series will deal not with the foundation of the Republican party but rather the ten years prior to that. It will look instead at those abolitionists who spent the period from 1840 to 1852 trying to form a political party that would express their views in Congress. It will show their attempts to give a voice to the most controversial subject in our nation’s history and how they were fought with every step of the way not only by the fluctuating two-party system and the early years of representative democracy in elections but also the conflict within their own ranks, by those who wanted slavery ended but had no desire to vote for even a political party with that as its mission statement.

It is hard not to look at this conflict and not see so many of the parallels between the most extreme abolitionists and the radical left today: those who look at America and the world through a purely moral lens and refuse to allow for compromise. In the case of slavery the stakes were infinitely higher for all concerns of all races and genders and solutions had to be found. But it’s telling that even when a political solution might have been the only one, abolitionists like Garrison thought that government wasn’t the solution, government was the problem. And we will see in some examples just what they were willing to do to solve them.

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David B Morris

After years of laboring for love in my blog on TV, I have decided to expand my horizons by blogging about my great love to a new and hopefully wider field.