William Lloyd Garrison and the Abolitionists
The Quakers’ commitment to nonviolence was a well-known, though rather marginal, feature of the U.S. cultural scene in the early 19th century. Anabaptist groups were also well-established as historic peace churches, though they were smaller and less widely recognized. During the 1820s, a number of factors converged to create, for the first time, a nonviolent movement for social change that was not based in the historic peace churches. Those factors came together around the issue that would soon tear the nation apart: the movement to abolish slavery. Abolitionism was the spark for the first broad-based nonviolence movement in U.S. history. The leader of that movement, and the greatest figure in U.S. nonviolence in the 19th century, was William Lloyd Garrison (1805 – 1879).
What was the situation in which Garrison and the Abolitionists emerged? In many ways, it was a crisis of authority. During colonial times, the social elites of each colony had expected, and usually received, deference from their "inferiors." The political rulers had come largely from the social elites. The churches were supported by those elites. And, in most cases, the churches had been officially sanctioned by the political structures of the states. Social, political, and religious authority had been tightly interwoven in the same small group of elite leaders.
The first two decades of the new nation’s life saw a slow but steady erosion of that compact authority structure. In the years after 1815, its last vestiges seemed to be rapidly disappearing. The last states that still had official state churches gave up those links. There was a rising movement to extend the vote to more white men (though certainly not to women or people of color). That movement would soon be symbolized by Andrew Jackson, who won the popular vote for president in 1824 and took office after winning the electoral vote in 1828. In economic life, more and more people were gaining wealth by their own efforts rather than by inheriting it. So it was harder and harder to tell who were the old, established, "better" families.
This crisis of authority hit hardest in Massachusetts. That state had the strongest tradition of a clearly defined elite wielding political and social control. It also had the strongest tradition of an official state-sponsored church supported by that elite group. Because Massachusetts combined religious, political, and social authority so tightly, it felt most intensely the rising challenges to that traditional structure. It epitomized most intensely the cultural change that the whole nation was experiencing and the confusion that it caused for many people. Naturally, it also saw the sharpest responses to that change and confusion.
THE ERA OF MORAL REFORM
One of the most important responses was a wave of moral reform movements, centered in New England and especially in Massachusetts. By the 1820s, devout Christians throughout the nation were following the lead of that state's reformers. Some focused on using the political system to regulate individual behavior, by prohibiting alcoholic drink, banning gambling, and imposing stricter laws on sexual behavior. Others bent their energy to improving social institutions like schools, prisons, and mental hospitals, so that they could reform wayward individuals. Some looked at the whole world and worked for peace among nations. All agreed, though, that the way to make people more moral¾ which meant, to the reformers, more obedient to God's will¾ was to work for political and social change. Conversely, however, they also agreed that the way to bring political and social change was to make people adopt an inward spirit of morality.
The reformers saw themselves primarily as agents of God trying to overcome the power of sin. Because they focused on sin acted out in antisocial behavior, they also interpreted all social problems as religious problems. They did not see misbehavior as a result of social, political, or economic structures and processes. Those processes were merely the ways in which the misbehavior caused by sin was manifest. So they set out to change society by religiously converting individuals. From this perspective, issues of individual and group behavior were interchangeable. They applied the same moral rules to groups and institutions as to individuals. All had to make the same fundamental choice between God and sin.
The reformers drew on several religious and cultural traditions. Many were descendants of Puritans, who had come to the New World to create a perfect society, where each individual worked out his or her own relationship with God, while all agreed to be ruled by God's law. Some were also influenced by the Quaker tradition of reforming society by improving the individual conscience. Yet all had lived through the second Great Awakening, when a highly evangelical millennialism swept the nation. Evangelical religion called on every individual to have an intense religious experience that generated voluntary efforts to improve both self and society. Millennialism was the belief that humans should strive to bring about the millennium¾ to create a society perfectly ordered under God's will. Churches became, more than anything else, voluntary groups to promote evangelical religion, support reform, and thereby bring the Kingdom of God on earth.
The reform movements also betrayed secular influences. The increasingly popular romantic movement stressed a universal feeling of sympathy and love. Even more important was Enlightenment rationalism, which was an old movement that was firmly established by the 1820s. It was a strong basis for the Jacksonian trend toward political and social equality, which bred suspicion of all forms of authority. Although the Christian reformers were influenced by rationalism, they were not always champions of democracy. Many feared that democracy would make "the people" the source of truth. Then truth would constantly change as "the people" changed, and there would always be conflicting truths, which would create social chaos. The reformers were sure that there was an absolute, unchanging truth determined by God himself. For them, God's truth was the only firm basis for social order.
The ultimate goal of the reform movements was to eradicate sin by making society conform to the will and truth of God (as it was understood by the reformers, of course). When they spoke of God, they imagined a loving but stern father in Heaven, far transcending all of His creation, demanding perfect obedience from all His creatures; an ultimate and all-powerful moral ruler who gives the moral rules needed to create a perfect social order. Drawing on the Enlightenment, the reformers taught that God's rules are rational. God has given people the freedom to choose either to obey or disobey His rules. Any rational, enlightened person will choose obedience.
But under the influences of the second Great Awakening, they taught that people are usually quite irrational. All are sinners and need something more than educated minds to make the right choice. They need a direct relationship with God, which was the goal of the many Christian revivals then taking place. Since all the reformers were Christians, and they lived among people who were virtually all Christians, they usually assumed that Christianity defined the only legitimate ways to relate to God. For most of them, being Christian was virtually synonymous with being religious.
So the Enlightenment and the second Great Awakening combined to persuade the reformers that all people could and would choose to obey God perfectly. As more and more people were led to perfection, the whole society would come under the rule of God and therefore become more orderly. The United States would gradually move toward the perfect order of the millennium. The task they took upon themselves was to turn this ideal into reality.
The moral reform movements that emerged after 1815 were perhaps the most energetic response to the nation's crisis of authority. Although they assumed the freedom of every individual to make moral choices, their teachings implied that true freedom comes from rejecting every human authority and submitting only to the authority of God. Unfettered human freedom would create not only individual sin but social chaos, they argued. Freedom and social order are perfectly compatible, if both are defined as obedience to God. So they adopted an ambiguous attitude toward social and political institutions. On the one hand, they were saying that those institutions compel obedience and therefore limit our freedom; real freedom means escaping from their control. On the other hand, they were saying that social and political institutions should be thoroughly reformed. They should be the agencies by which the whole society is brought to true freedom, which means rule by God, the only true authority.
For the history of nonviolence and for the history of the United States, the most important of all these reform movements was the movement to abolish slavery. The Abolitionists were certainly moved by sympathy for the slaves' plight. But their overriding motive was to answer the question of authority. Though some might take slavery to be a political question, the Abolitionists addressed it in religious terms. For them, political analysis and true theology were inseparable. Politics and religion were simply two ways of talking about the same reality. Slavery was wrong and had to be abolished, they insisted, because no human being can be lord of another. The only permissible lord of any person is the divine Lord. All of the Abolitionists' words and ideas were based on this foundation.
The most famous of the Abolitionists was the great writer, journalist, and orator William Lloyd Garrison. From the late 1820s to the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, in an unending stream of articles and speeches, Garrison articulated the creed by which he and his followers lived. Their views on specific issues changed somewhat as time went on, in response to changing historical circumstances. But the underlying foundation of beliefs, articulated most famously by Garrison, remained constant. God is the only legitimate ruler, he declared, and all human life should be a direct response to God. In the founding statement of his famous Abolitionist journal, The Liberator (1837), he wrote that it would promote "universal emancipation…from the dominion of man, from the thraldom of self, from the government of brute force, from the bondage of sin—and bringing [people] under the dominion of God, the control of an inward spirit, the government of the law of love, and into the obedience and liberty of Christ." One of Garrison's most influential colleagues, Henry C. Wright, stated the ruling principle even more clearly: "God, and God alone, has a right of dominion over man; and he has never delegated this right to another.…Men, women or children never should be subjected, in any kind or degree, to the will of man.…A desire to hold dominion over man is rebellion against God."
Human institutions violate this principle, Garrison argued, because they create hierarchies. They set privileged individuals between the ordinary person and God. So the ordinary person is compelled to respond not to the laws of God, but to orders given by some other, more powerful human. The only way to be free of all humanly made rules is to abolish all human government. Moreover, institutions and hierarchies always create boundaries that divide people from each other and prevent universal love. Some divisions and diversity in humanity are good and necessary. "But whenever they are made the boundaries of [i.e., whenever they limit] human disinterestedness, friendship, sympathy, honor, patriotism, and love, they are as execrable and destructive as, otherwise, they are beautiful and preservative." For Garrison there was only one basic boundary that had always to be maintained: the boundary between virtuous faith, which comes from obeying God, and sinful disobedience.
Garrison did not shrink from the logical conclusion to this line of thinking. No group of persons should ever govern or make rules for others. Anarchy is the only way to be free of all humanly made rules and thus the only legitimate political mode for true Christians. Yet this need not lead to social disorder if, once all human rules are swept away, God becomes the ruler of all. In fact, according to Garrison, that is the only path to true order. Once people are committed to obeying God's will, they free themselves from the control of human institutions and their rules. The only control comes from their own free conscience, which ascertains God's will and freely chooses to obey it. That choice allows them to control their own sinful impulses and thus to act in a socially orderly way.
Good Christians rule themselves perfectly. They follow the injunction of the Sermon on the Mount literally; they are perfect as their Father in heaven is perfect. They have perfect freedom to change their behavior, root out all sin, and act with perfect love, as Christ did. So they can be perfectly just and kind in all relationships. A society of true Christians will spontaneously cooperate with each other to create the perfect social order of the millennium. Their society will therefore be anarchic yet perfectly orderly and peaceful.
Was this a realistic vision? Many reformers did not think so. They still accepted the doctrine of original sin, which teaches that sin can be controlled but never fully eliminated in any person. So they spoke only of making things better by increasing self-control, not making things perfect. Garrison rejected this view. He feared that if people believed sin was inevitable, they would make compromises with sin. He argued that if human beings cannot be perfect, then inevitably they must sin. If sin is inevitable, it is no one’s fault and no one is responsible for their sins. Then efforts at moral reform, including the abolition of slavery, are not only useless but unjustified. So Garrison demanded an uncompromising, absolute moral virtue. He was convinced that his vision and his demand were realistic.
His perfectionism went hand in hand with his absolutism. If perfection is always possible, there is never any reason to compromise on issues of moral truth, nor to delay doing perfect good until tomorrow. Perfect morality can come as suddenly as the spiritual perfection of a conversion experience in a revival. Moreover, he believed that the ideal of perfection would motivate people to confess their sins and "put on the whole armor of God, that we may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil." Conversely, he contended, the argument that perfection is impossible all too often becomes an excuse for passive acceptance of the evil status quo.
Beyond these logical arguments, Garrison also appealed to his own experience: "I have sacrificed all my national, complexional and local prejudices upon the altar of Christian love, and, breaking down the narrow boundaries of a selfish patriotism, inscribed upon my banner this motto: My country is the world; my countrymen are all mankind." He assumed that if he could do this, so could everyone else. All had to make the same choice between submitting to God as ruler and submitting to some other ruler. So the differences among various groups were ultimately irrelevant. Since all groups, like all individuals, could choose moral perfection, all could learn to cooperate with each other to bring the Kingdom of God on earth.
Of course Garrison recognized that few people were following his example. Most were still "slaves to their own lusts," not to the will of God. It was not a theme he spoke of at length. But the battle between submission to God and selfish desire underlay much of his thought and language. Indeed some interpreters have suggested that the most vigorous moral reformers feared their own desires and therefore labeled them sinful. Most reformers recorded some kind of personal religious crisis, which was quite common and socially encouraged in their day. The crisis was typically understood as a battle between the inner forces of God and the Devil. One way to resolve that crisis was to feel a divine calling to work for immediate and total abolition of slavery.
Perhaps these so-called "immediatist" Abolitionists were so uncompromising because they were trying to prove to themselves that they had sided with God, that they could be perfectly self-controlled. They seemed to be very concerned about personal sin. Even after joining the movement they generally continued to be extremely self-observant and self-critical. Perhaps only by demanding immediate perfection could they feel morally fit and worthy to be on the side of God, not the devil. If so, then immediatism was a sign of their particularly strong tendency to see sin in themselves, and therefore in social institutions as well.
Whatever the psychological facts, it is clear that Garrison and the immediatists always focused on issues of social concern. And they always interpreted social and psychological, as well as political, issues in the language of religion. They always linked individual sin to the sin evident in all social institutions. The freedom they expected to gain was, above all, freedom from sin. They were trying to conquer sin in themselves by detaching themselves totally from sinful institutions. As they conquered their own sin in this way, they expected to conquer sin in the world.
Yet it may be that they were seeking another kind of freedom, too. Some historians point out that the reform movements generally appealed to people uncertain about maintaining their social status in the emerging market economy. They tended to support the new pattern, in which all white people were theoretically free to sell their labor to the highest bidder in the open market. Their ideal of self-improvement included the social and economic mobility that was supposed to be available to the self-made individual. Few doubted that individual economic efforts would somehow combine to create social harmony¾ as long as all maintained strict obedience to God's moral laws. But many of them may have been uncertain about their own ability to succeed economically, or to maintain their sense of self-worth if they did not succeed. Perhaps some took up Abolitionism so fervently to free themselves from doubts about their self-worth and their value to society.
Whatever their underlying socioeconomic motives, they always interpreted these issues in the language of religion. By combining individual religiosity with social processes, Garrison and his followers were following the precedent of the Bible, which they revered as the highest written source of truth. Like the biblical writers, they viewed history as a religious drama, a contest between the godly and the ungodly. They were sure that God was guiding his own people toward the ultimate goal of history, a perfect society. Since they were sure that they were among God's people, they saw themselves as agents of God’s plan. And, like so many Christians in the U.S., they were sure that their own nation was leading the world toward millennial fulfillment: "Our responsibility is awful, our ability to do good to the whole world unequalled, our influence commanding and prevalent." So they represented themselves as the truest American patriots. In this sense, they were trying to redefine the meaning of American identity (though they never made that an explicit goal of their efforts). Garrison praised his followers as the most exemplary Americans: "It is by the victorious power of such examples as they have set…that the dominion under the whole heaven is ultimately to be transferred from human authority…to Him who is King of kings and Lord of lords."
For Garrison and the movement he led, one evil, towering above all others, blocked the path to God's Kingdom in the United States: the enslavement of African-Americans. The abolition of slavery was their great passion, the issue that gave concrete meaning and urgency to all of their general principles. Their attack on slavery combined the Quakers' outraged conscience with the emotional intensity of evangelical millennialism. But it was not just the slaveowners who were guilty, according to the Abolitionists. All U.S. whites were guilty because they tolerated the evil in their midst. Moreover, nearly all whites were guilty of another sin inherent in slavery: racism. Racism is a sin, Abolitionists said, because it places humans in a hierarchy of separate categories, denying the fact of universal brotherhood. The Abolitionists intended to promote a Christian moral revival that would end racism as well as slavery. The immediatists among them were a radical fringe group, not least because they were willing to include blacks as equals in U.S. society¾ though they wanted blacks to merit inclusion by "improving" themselves, which meant adopting the cultural values of upright white New Englanders.
For Garrison and the immediatists, slavery was the test case that would decide the future of the United States. The choice was apocalyptic. They believed that ending slavery would solve all the nation's problems, including the problem of authority. If slavery could be ended, so could all the institutions blocking the path to the millennium. On the other hand, if slavery continued, it was bound to end in a total slave revolt that would destroy the entire society. So they warned their fellow citizens that they must either repent or be destroyed. This sense of urgency reinforced the message of their perfectionism: abolition must be total and immediate.
People who became Abolitionists were generally extremists. They believed in an absolute truth that must be rigidly followed. They were not likely to be compromisers. Moreover, since they refused to accord any human being authority over another, they had to allow maximum freedom for the individual conscience: no individual would or should allow another to say how the Bible or true religion should be interpreted. Therefore (like the Anabaptists) their movement was often split by internal disagreements. Some male Abolitionists believed that women should have an equal role in the movement. They pointed to the tremendous contribution made to their movement by women like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Sojourner Truth, and sisters Angeline and Sarah Grimke. Other men refused to accept such a radical threat to the patriarchal culture. Some Abolitionists were convinced that the only practical way to end slavery was through a slow, gradual program. Others were immediatists, insisting that something as evil as slavery had to be abolished immediately. Because they were the most rigid and extreme in their views, the immediatists were perhaps most likely to fight rather than compromise with each other.
One of the issues they split on most divisively was how to fight. Some of them were willing to countenance physical violence in extreme situations. Some rejected violence only because it would alienate potential recruits for their cause. Others, though, rejected violence completely and on principle. They created the first non-Quaker movement for nonviolent social change. They were certainly influenced by the Quakers. Some among them were, in fact, members of a Friends Meeting. But the nonviolent Abolitionist movement as a whole was something separate from the Society of Friends.
Garrison and his followers viewed slavery as the paradigm of all violence. The source of all violence is desire to rule over others, they argued. That desire leads to coercion, which means violating the rights of another human being. This is a sin, because those rights are God-given. More fundamentally, though, coercion is a sin because any effort to rule over another is an attempt to play God and "usurp the prerogative of Jehovah." Slavery is the epitome of all coercion, they claimed, because it requires humans to play God, to rule over other humans and treat them as objects. "The moment a man claims a right to control the will of a fellow being by physical force, he is at heart a slaveholder," said Henry C. Wright. "All slaveholders do this. They are then hardened invaders of God’s prerogative." Under the rule of God, every individual is entitled to be, and must be treated as, a free moral agent. Slavery clearly denies this freedom.
The link between slavery and all forms of coercion means that slavery is intrinsically linked to all other societal institutions. Every effort to usurp God's authority leads to more social disorder; thus it poses a danger to every member of society. When people depend on violence rather than trusting in God, they reinforce the habit of depending on violence and therefore perpetuate the cycle of violence, which perpetuates slavery. On the other hand, if slavery could be ended then every form of coercion could be ended, and the millennium would soon arrive.
If the goal was to end all forms of coercion, it was obvious that Abolitionists themselves should be the first to renounce coercion. This soon became a central plank in Garrison's moral and social platform. He emphasized that there is no way to achieve a good end by bad means, especially if the goal is moral purity. Since the "wickedness of man" is most evident in coercive deeds, physical violence and coercion can never end that wickedness. It can be overcome only by spiritual weapons: moral suasion and the power of faith and love. That means following the biblical injunction not to resist evil. Because nonresistors accept God as the only ruler, they reject all human efforts at coercion. Their nonresistance shows that they refuse to give others any power over them, neither the power to command nor the power to provoke retaliation: "Non-resistance makes man self-governed. The kingdom of God is within them." In other words, they no longer live by the rules of conventional society, where people behave in an orderly way because they are following commands given by other people. Rather, they control their own impulses only because they are following God's commands, given through the voice of conscience.
Nor are they constrained by the fear of human punishments. Garrison read the Bible to mean that even if one is threatened, one should not defend oneself, but rather trust in God to provide safety, "giving ourselves no anxiety as to what may befall us, and resolving, in the strength of the Lord God, calmly and meekly to abide the issue [i.e., accept the outcome]." If God is in charge of everything, then He and He alone must be allowed to determine how things turn out. Nonresistors fear only God, "Him who says—‘Vengeance is MINE— I will repay."
With no fear or revenge in their hearts, they can love and forgive their enemies. If their love is not returned, and they suffer at the hands of their enemies, they will not use violence "even if their enemies are determined to nail them to the cross with Jesus." Indeed, "they rejoice, inasmuch as they are partakers of Christ’s sufferings." By imitating the purifying sufferings of Christ, they can more easily overcome sin: "If we suffer with him, we know that we shall reign with him." Unfortunately, Garrison had more than one chance to put his creed to the test, when he was attacked by angry anti-Abolition mobs. He saw these attacks as chances to help redeem nation through his own sacrificial efforts. So he did not resist. (He was usually hustled away to safety by his supporters).
Garrison sometimes used rational and humanistic arguments to support nonresistance. He offered historical examples to show that nonresistance could succeed and even keep people safer. He claimed that everyone could understand his very practical message: slavery must be enforced by violence, and violence always creates more violence. Eventually, slavery would provoke the violence of a slave rebellion. That would be God's way of punishing a slaveholding and slavery-tolerating nation. He explained the mob attacks on himself and other Abolitionists as a symbol of the apocalyptic judgment awaiting the whole nation. He also used these attacks as evidence that violence was simply not a practical way to get abolition. He hoped that this pragmatic approach would appeal to common people; he wanted his movement to be anti-elitist. As his career progressed, he relied increasingly on rational arguments. He drew heavily on the Enlightenment faith in progress through reason. By 1845, he was saying that reason, as well as the life of Christ, was a more certain source of truth than the literal meaning of the Bible; nonresistance was simply "true in the nature of things."
But reason never provided Garrison's main arguments for nonresistance. He doubted that rational moral persuasion would ever be decisive. The crux of the issue was always faith and sin, the acceptance or rejection of God as the sole authority. The fact that Garrison always used the term nonresistance, not nonviolence, shows that his central concern was not the violence itself, but authority. Anyone who resists others and tries to coerce them is clearly trying to exercise human authority, and thus refusing God's authority. Anyone who accepts God as the sole authority must renounce all resistance to others and all efforts to coerce them.
Not all Abolitionists agreed on the necessary link between their cause and nonresistance. As they were attacked more often and grew more frustrated, some were willing to resort to violence. The most famous of these was an Illinois newspaper publisher, Elijah Lovejoy. He was fired on by a mob, eventually shot back, and died in the battle. This incident split the Abolitionist movement. Many accepted and even endorsed his action. Among them were members of the American Peace Society, who were dedicated to the elimination of all war. They argued that individual violence in self-defense is a different matter, and therefore acceptable. Others, including Garrison, lamented his death but condemned his use of violence. Garrison suggested that Lovejoy had provoked his fate: "It was not until he forsook this [nonviolent] course, and resorted to carnal weapons…that he became a victim to his mistaken sense of duty."
To oppose what he saw as the immoral compromise of the American Peace Society, Garrison formed the New England Nonresistance Society (1838). The NENS, composed of immediatist Abolitionists, brought the same absolutism to the question of violence. It rejected both war and individual violence for the same reasons. It made nonresistance a symbol of the total transformation of society that it hoped to instigate. As Garrison was forced to defend nonresistance even among Abolitionists, he placed increasing stress on it. In his rhetoric it became central to the Abolitionist idea and the basis of all other reforms. (At the same time, though, he still wanted to stay allied with Abolitionists who would use violence. So he usually spoke of nonresistance as if it were a reform separate from the abolition of slavery, in order to minimize his conflicts with other Abolitionists.)
Although he called himself a nonresistant, Garrison was not at all passive. He was tireless and bitter in opposing slavery, and he urged his followers to use all their energy to do the same. The question was how to fight this righteous battle without any violence. Here he found himself in something of a quandary. He wanted to live a perfectly pure moral life. He viewed his society as steeped in sin. And, like all reformers, he assumed that sin begins within individual hearts, not in the structure of social institutions. The logical thing might be to withdraw from society completely.
But he could not withdraw. Because he focused on sin as it was manifest in social problems, he needed to work for social change and find social solutions. He could not be one of the "come-outers" of his day, who came entirely out of society, like the Anabaptists. Nor could he be a sectarian, like the Quakers. He had to engage with society. And he had to organize an Abolitionist movement if he was to succeed in ending slavery. Ultimately, he was organizing people to conquer sin in the world, as well as in themselves, and thereby to bring the millennium. This required new institutions, as his formation of the NENS showed. In theory, then, he had to reject all institutions, yet in practice he had to accept them and work with them.
GOVERNMENT AND POLITICS
This dilemma was most evident in Garrison’s views about government and politics. This issue has received more attention than any other from historians and scholars of Abolitionism. It is no wonder that they offer quite different assessments, because Garrison and all the Abolitionists held very complex and sometimes changing opinions. They all saw clearly the problem raised by Anabaptist and Quaker thinkers: Can a Christian ever be involved in government processes at all? Many Abolitionists, generally seen by historians as conservatives, answered "Yes." They recognized that politics often involves compromise. They were willing to make compromises because they believed that original sin still made moral perfection impossible; gradual improvement was the best to hope for. They feared that Garrisonian perfectionism, aiming to bring the Kingdom of God on earth, would distract people from the political campaign to abolish slavery. To win that campaign, they planned to use the ordinary processes of electoral politics, either by gaining control of one of the existing parties or by founding a new party dedicated to Abolitionism.
Garrison’s very different answer was clearly stated in the NENS Declaration of Sentiments: "We cannot acknowledge allegiance to any human government …We are bound by the laws of a kingdom which is not of this world." Garrison was convinced that government must always be hierarchical, use coercive force, and therefore be unjust. Moreover, politics always involves compromise, which means being imperfect and doing some evil. No nations or power elites "are guided by the example of Christ, in the treatment of enemies: therefore they cannot be agreeable to the will of God," he declared flatly. Governments "are all anti-Christ."
His own government certainly appeared no different to him. The United States was "a fruitless attempt at self-government, totally distinct from the government of God in Jesus Christ." Because the U.S. was affronting and attacking not only human rights, but the will of God, Garrison warned, the nation was preparing its own downfall. By 1844, he had decided that the Constitution was sinful and should not be obeyed, even though this meant the dissolution of the Union. He called for the overthrow of the U.S. government because he was a patriot and believed in America’s divinely appointed mission. The millennium was destined to begin here, but the sinful government was blocking its coming. His goal remained the Kingdom of God, where there is no sin because "laws are not written upon parchment, but upon the hearts of its subjects."
Yet at times Garrison said that he was not totally opposed to government. He rejected the popular description of his movement as the "no government men." He did want government, he insisted¾ government by God, carried out through His righteous agents on earth. Always plagued with charges of being an anarchist, he insisted that he did not want to destroy social order but to promote a higher order. He argued that human government, as presently constituted, actually promotes anarchy because it is based on domination and violence. The dominated will always use violence in return to resist domination, so no harmonious order can ever be attained. The nonresistants have the only real antidote to anarchy.
In fact, the Garrisonians themselves feared the specter of anarchy. Therefore, they accepted the need for human government, at least in the present. Like the Anabaptists, they argued that government is a temporary necessity, to punish evil and thereby keep order, until all people learn to obey God alone. In that sense, government is God’s punishment when "people turn the grace of God into lasciviousness, or make their liberty an occasion for anarchy." Until the perfection of the millennium is attained, government is preferable to anarchy. Garrison hoped that people would increasingly reject the authority of government in order to become perfect. But he advised those who were not yet perfect to obey the government and its laws.
He also insisted that he and his followers would "obey all the requirements of government, except such as we deem contrary to the commands of the gospel; and in no wise resist the operation of law, except by meekly submitting to the penalty of disobedience." Their submission to human law would allay public fear of these radicals and show that "it is impossible for us to be disorderly." Sometimes, he took an even more indulgent view of government. He could call it a preparation for the voluntary moral institutions of the millennial future. He could even say, on occasion, that the spiritually perfected should obey the government because God had created it.
Overall, though, Garrison's writings leave no doubt that human government is a poor substitute for the only truly legitimate government, one run by true Christians in strict obedience to God's rules: "It is better that men should be sober than drunken, and more desirable that they should have even an arbitrary government than that they should live in a state of anarchy. But, to be in a sober condition is not spiritual redemption; neither is any government of man’s device to be compared with the government of Christ." Since he was convinced that the governments of his day had nothing to do with redemption, he urged people to have nothing to do with them. They should not hold office, nor even vote, to make it clear that no one in government office truly represented them. (He never took definite positions on several other practical issues, such as whether people should pay taxes, register for the draft, or testify in courts.)
How, then, should the Abolitionists work for their goal of ending slavery, which would obviously require new laws and government enforcement? And how should they get governments to cease fighting wars and using violence? They would transform the moral and spiritual conscience of the individual. This had to be done outside the political party structure, Garrison argued. The parties were steeped in sin; they tried to replace individual free will with unthinking party loyalty. No party would have any reason to change its platform unless the moral convictions of the public had changed first. It was only logical, then, to work outside the party structure.
Therefore, instead of party platforms, Garrisonians used independent magazines, speeches, and sermons: "We expect to prevail through the foolishness of preaching. From the press, we shall promulgate our sentiments as widely as practicable.…We shall employ lecturers, circulate tracts and publications, form societies and petition our state and national governments." In other words, they planned to use all of the traditional techniques of political lobbies and pressure groups to persuade governments to do the right thing. Yet Garrison did not consider this to be participating in the process of government. He would do his best to change the minds of government officials, but he would not himself be an official. He would do his best to persuade voters to agree with him, but he would not himself cast a vote.
Some historians see Garrison trying to walk a fine but logically consistent line at the very edge of the political process, both inside and outside at the same time. He wanted to remain outside of society’s values and language but sufficiently inside to use those values and language to change society. Maybe he thought that the millennium was coming so soon that the specific problems of political theory and practice were irrelevant. Maybe his "no government" slogan was only a way of symbolizing the ideal of perfection and criticizing the status quo, not meant to be taken literally as a plan for action. Garrison's many words on the subject make it difficult to come to any firm conclusion. Some historians suggest that he could never quite decide whether all governments are intrinsically sinful and irredeemable, or whether it was just the particular governments he lived under that were run by sinners and therefore should be reformed.
The conservatives of Garrison’s day charged that he was caught in a fatal contradiction. He rejected government because of its inherent sinfulness. Did he not admit, then, that the world was steeped in sin? If so, didn’t his rejection of all human authority encourage everyone to reject the laws, the only thing that held sin in check? Perhaps Garrison himself was stymied by this problem. He saw his own society as immersed in sin, so he had to say that government and law were a necessary solution. But they were a solution to a temporary problem, if, as he believed, U.S. society was traveling the path to millennial perfection. In that case, government and law were a barrier in the path; in the long run, they were more the problem than the solution. This was a dilemma that Garrison never fully resolved.
Government was not the only issue on which he was ambiguous. He warned of the danger of control by powerful elites, but he also warned that democracy would become control by the mob. He was a religious enthusiast promoting a spiritual revival, but he was clearly influenced by the Enlightenment's rational humanism. Therefore he based his message on both the text of the Bible and the dictates of human reason. He called for a moral reform that depended on individual conversions, but he also campaigned to change basic social structures. He wanted society to make progress through reason, but he also wanted faith that God would soon bring the perfection of the millennium. He wanted to be both separated from and engaged in the historical process of social change.
On most of these issues Garrison tried to find a delicate balance, but often he seems to have ended up confused, or even contradictory. That was not necessarily a weakness in his efforts. He was a journalist, publicist, orator, and organizer, not a philosopher or theologian. He was willing to use whatever arguments worked to promote a particular cause at a particular time. And he was never ambiguous about the cause, nor about its moral righteousness.
Among Garrison's followers and associates, Adin Ballou (1803 – 1890) stands out as the most systematic thinker of the nonviolent Abolitionist movement. His writings analyzed the ideas and practices of nonviolence more philosophically than any other writer of the 19th century (which may explain why they were not nearly as widely read as Garrison's). Ballou’s argument for nonviolence began with a simple point: everyone must choose either to practice or abstain from violence. "They who will not be obedient to the law of love, shall bow down under the law of physical force." Among those who practice violence, the more violent will always rule over the others; hierarchy is inevitable. Therefore, "if men will not be governed by God, it is their doom to be enslaved by one another." Yet the enslaved will always resist violently. In the way of violence, there can be no end to the violence, nor can there be any real freedom.
If enough people choose to be governed by God, Ballou contended, their efforts will produce the perfect peace of the Kingdom of God on earth. No miraculous divine intervention is needed. Nonresistants are already practicing the virtues of the Kingdom. They have the millennium within them: "Let us have the spirit of the millennium, and do the works of the millennium. Then the millennium will have already come." He asked, "Ought not each true Christian’s heart be a germ of the millennium? Is not the Kingdom of heaven ‘within’ and ‘among’ men?" (Years later the great Russian writer Leo Tolstoy, after reading Ballou’s works, would title his most famous book on nonviolence, The Kingdom of God Is Within You.) Ballou reasoned that, if the millennium has to begin within each individual, each person in the present should act as if the era of perfect peace and nonviolence were already here. The means of reaching the millennium can not contradict the end to be attained.
There is no hope of reaching the millennium, Ballou insisted, as long as the existing system of government prevails in the United States. Violence is woven into the most basic fabric of government. The Constitution requires preparation for war. The government uses violence to enforce the laws. To participate in government in order to reform it hypocritical, because it means participating in a violent system while professing nonviolence.
Ballou took the "no government" philosophy to its logical extreme by founding a utopian community, separated from society, where people could live out their ideals. At his community, Hopedale, he taught that violence is a learned habit, not a necessary part of human nature. He warned his followers not to assume that something can't exist, simply because they had never seen it before. Should Africans deny that ice exists, he asked, just because they have never seen it? Is it any more logical to deny that moral perfection is possible, just because we have never seen it? Using arguments like these, Ballou was the first to show that nonviolence could be supported on purely rational grounds, with no religious basis. However his own commitment was always staunchly rooted in Christianity.
Of course, Ballou recognized that the elimination of all violence would be a long, slow process. That was why he founded Hopedale. He wanted a community where moral purity could flourish. As soon as life was in any way touched by the existing political and social institutions, it would be tainted by their immorality. So he and his followers withdrew, following the logic of the Anabaptists and the historic peace churches. And, like the Anabaptists, they looked to the past and the future. They aimed to recreate the original model of all Christian nonviolence: the early Christian community of New Testament times. At the same time, they saw their community prefiguring the perfectly peaceful society of the millennium.
Yet Ballou was realistic enough to realize that no community in the present could really attain that perfection. A certain amount of social control was necessary even among the best of people. So he offered the members of Hopedale only as much freedom "as is conducive to the general good." Leaders of the community would offer the others "Christian nurture," enforcing rules to guide them gradually toward perfection. There were even moral police, "official servants," who would use "noninjurious force" to persuade misbehaving residents to follow the rules.
The differing emphases of Garrison and Ballou reflect the complexity and diversity of the nonresistant Abolitionists. They failed to achieve harmony, in part, because their ideals appealed to such uncompromising personalities. But there was also a political motive involved. They were consciously trying to avoid making hard choices that might split their movement. One lesson they never learned, yet perhaps taught later generations, is that avoiding hard choices only perpetuates internal tensions that may eventually split the movement even more. The Abolitionist movement was certainly weakened by the schisms that broke out, most notably over violence and over women's rights. The latter issue was perhaps the most damaging of all to the movement's unity.
These schisms weakened Abolitionism in the 1840s, when many factors began converging to move the nation toward a violent resolution of the slavery question. It is useless to speculate whether a strong, united Abolitionist movement might have headed off the Civil War. But it is true that as Abolitionism weakened, from both internal and external stresses, the idea of a nonviolent end to slavery began to slip away. The numbers of staunchly nonresistant Abolitionists began to dwindle. Still, the movement remained a visible, if weakening, presence on the national scene, until war broke out in 1861. Then the movement suffered its greatest defection. William Lloyd Garrison himself, the nation's greatest advocate of nonviolence, declared his support for the Union war effort. With the guns of war raging, he declared, it was time for the voice of nonresistance to be silent, since it could no longer be heard anyway. Most of his followers followed him once more (though some, like Adin Ballou, stuck to their nonresistant commitment).
Why did such uncompromising people finally compromise? When war broke out, it seemed to most of them that violence had become the only way to end slavery. Abolitionism had been their great passion before they committed to strict nonviolence. Now they felt they had to choose between ending slavery and remaining nonviolent. Most made ending slavery their highest priority. Some had committed to nonviolence only because they were persuaded by historical examples that it could achieve their goals. With war raging, that seemed obviously untrue, so they were easily persuaded to endorse violence.
Others acted out of principle¾ the principle of apocalyptic holy war. They had always seen their Abolitionist efforts as an apocalyptic battle of virtue against sin. They were generally comfortable with the language of holy war. That language was very common on all sides in the Civil War, which further encouraged the Abolitionists to use it too. Since holy warriors see themselves fighting in the service of an absolutely good goal, they tend to permit any means that will help them achieve that goal. For a long time, Garrison and his nonresistants had strictly limited their means. But once war broke out, many could not resist the pressure to allow any violent means that would achieve what they viewed as the final victory of good over evil. Moreover, the nonresistant Abolitionists had never considered the possibility of a limited war, so they had never thought about norms to govern violence in war. Those who decided to permit violence did it, as they did everything else, to the extreme. So they had no basis on which to criticize the unbridled violence of the Civil War. Instead, they accepted the war as God’s judgment on a sinful nation.
Perhaps many Abolitionists felt relief when they abandoned their commitment to nonviolence. No doubt they had been frustrated by their lack of success. They were always a socially marginal group. By participating in the war effort, they could end their alienation and feel part of a righteous national community, whose truth was marching on. At times, perhaps out of frustration, Garrison had predicted that God would eventually have to coerce the sinners to end slavery. Now he and others like him could easily believe that the Union armies were doing God's work.
Was Garrison's movement therefore a failure? Although it failed to transform U.S. society as it hoped, it still left an important mark. Some nonresistants stuck to their commitment during and after the Civil War. This remnant continued to keep the ideals alive. The writings of Garrison and Ballou spread around the world, eventually inspiring Tolstoy and Gandhi.
Most importantly, perhaps, nonresistant Abolitionism served as a sort of laboratory for experimenting with modern nonviolent social change. It was the first movement in U.S. history that combined principled nonviolence with a primary commitment to improving society by resisting a specific social injustice. Perhaps inevitably, it was the first movement to encounter all of the basic problems that later nonviolent movements for social change would encounter. The Garrisonians could never achieve consensus on all of these problems. But in their debates they discovered virtually all the possibilities of nonviolent theory and practice that their later heirs would explore. If they could not agree on the answers to the questions that arose, at least they showed later generations what the essential questions were. And perhaps their failure to find consensus was more honest to the complexities of nonviolence than easy answers reached by compromise. Rather than simplifying the issues, they persisted in what Gandhi would later call experimenting with truth. In that sense, their movement can be counted a success.
Notes to Chapter 3: William Lloyd Garrison and the Abolitionists